Robert Olson opens his final season as music director of the Longmont Symphony

Olson and the LSO offer Russian masterworks, “War and Peace” for 2015–16

By Peter Alexander

Robert Olson

Robert Olson

Last night (Oct. 1) Robert Olson announced to the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) that the current season will be his last as the orchestra’s music director.

He had already discussed his decision to retire with the symphony board, but waited until he spoke to the orchestra before making the news public. In a written communication, Olson commented, “I will likely ‘bookend’ the 2016-17 season [i.e, conduct the opening and closing concerts] because that will be the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. The board and orchestra will work together to decide on my successor.”

Olson has been conductor of the LSO for 33 years.

The news came as the LSO was preparing to launch the 2015–16 season on Saturday evening (7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 in Longmont’s Vance Brand Civic Auditorium) with a concert titled “Those Amazing Russians.”

That title is actually one of two headings that Olson selected for the coming year. The 2015–16 season brochure carries that as its title, but as Olson explains, “There are actually two themes throughout the season. One is ‘War and Peace,’ and the other on most of the concerts is highlighting one of the great masterworks by a Russian composer.”

The Russian theme brings attention to some of the abundance of great music that has come to the concert hall from Russia. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony will be featured on the season-opening concert Saturday; later concerts will feature Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Overture to Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

On the other hand, the “War and Peace” theme comes from the LSO’s biennial collaboration with the Longmont Chorale, which will take place on the second concert of the fall, Saturday, Nov. 14. “They specifically requested the [Vaughan Williams] Dona Nobis Pacem,” Olson says. “That’s a very anti-war statement, so I got thinking, what would I put with it?”

Prokofiev on the cover of Time magazine, Nov. 19, 1945

Prokofiev on the cover of Time magazine, Nov. 19, 1945

He settled on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, which was premiered in Moscow in January, 1945. The Second World War was coming to a close, and the performance was a great occasion for Russian musicians and audiences who had returned to a recently re-opened city. Just as Prokofiev was set to conduct the premiere, the sounds of artillery could be heard, celebrating the success of the Russian army.

“I thought, oh, that would be cool!” Olson says.

That pairing—a composition calling for peace and a composition written during war—became the germ of the larger theme. Works later in the season expand that theme to include emotional and inner struggles as well as overt warfare, with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 (“AIDS” Symphony) and Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. In fact, Olson says, for the opening concert on Saturday “there’s so much internal strife with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth that I could easily have said that was Part I” of the theme. “That didn’t occur to me until it was too late.”

Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky

“As most people know, this is the most intimate of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies,” Olson continues. “He bares his soul trying to reconcile so much pain in his life. Tchaikovsky is the quintessential suffering ‘artiste’ of the Romantic era, so we have a piece that is very dark in a lot of ways.

“The third movement ends with one of the great, glorious marches that Tchaikovsky was so good at writing, (followed by) maybe the most important movement, one that opens with great anguish and ends with peaceful resolution. He does bring a sense of comfort at the very end, (with) that beautiful major theme that’s just played over and over again.”

Sharing the program with the Tchaikovsky symphony will be two works for solo double bass and orchestra performed by CU music faculty member Paul Erhard: Divertimento for bass and orchestra by Nino Rota, and Arioso for bass and orchestra by retired CU professor Luis Gonzalez. The Arioso was written for Erhard in 1992 as a work for bass and piano, and first premiered by Erhard and Gonzalez at an international double bass event in Hungary. The Longmont performance will be the premiere of a new version for bass and orchestra.

Double bassist Paul Erhard

Double bassist Paul Erhard

Gonzalez’s score reflects the composer’s Argentine heritage in the use of the tango. “There is a tango rhythm that pervades the entire work,” Erhard explains. “Something I find interesting is that the tango originated on the river between Argentina and Uruguay. As I play it with that in mind, I can hear South American birds. They’ve got their different songs, and they don’t all necessarily line up.

“I’m very excited to hear the orchestra part, because I haven’t heard it yet. From the score there’ll be these sounds of birds, if one uses one’s imagination that way. Luis never talked to me about this, but that’s what I’m hearing in it.”

Gonzalez and Erhard performed together often as a piano-bass duo, both before and after the Arioso was written. As a result, Erhard says, “Gonzalez has a very special sense of the double bass. He knew my playing, he knows a lot of wonderful bass players, so the piece is based on things that he heard the bass do, and new things that the bass could do.”

Nino Rota, the composer of the Divertimento that Erhard will play, is known to many as the composer of film music for Federico Fellini (8 ½, La Strada, Juliet of the Spirits), Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), among others. Rota has also written a great deal of concert music, including concertos, chamber music and choral works.

Although the Divertimento is not widely performed, Erhard believes it is the best solo work for bass and orchestra that he knows. He has recently introduced the work to other bass players, who he says quickly added it to their repertoire.

# # # # #

Those Amazing Russians
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Robert Olson, conductor
Paul Erhard, double bass

Nino Rota: Divertimento for bass and orchestra
Luis Gonzalez: Arioso for bass and orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”)

War and Peace, Part I
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont

Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Robert Olson, conductor
Longmont Chorale, Kara Guggenmos, soprano, and Steven Taylor, baritone
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

Tickets for these and other concerts by the LSO may be purchased here.

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