Symphony Orchestra prepares music for tour of Spain

By Josette Keelor

Saturday the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra will perform one of British composer Edward Elgar’s most famous but strangest works.

In its second concert of the 2013-14 season, the orchestra will continue its effort of raising funds to send the entire orchestra to Spain next March. Later in the season, students will perform music from jazz classics, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and “Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights,” which they’ll also perform in Spain.

Jan Wagner, professor of music at the conservatory in Winchester and artistic director of the symphony orchestra, said his goal in promoting the tour is to offer students “a life-changing experience.”

“It’s a big deal for the students. … A lot of them have never been outside of the United States,” he said.

This will be the orchestra’s first international tour as a large group — the first of many if Wagner has his way.

“Ideally it would be every other year,” he said. “This is the first one, and we have to get through this one successfully.”

This weekend’s concert will begin with pieces by Johannes Brahms and P.I. Tchaikovsky, but the main performance will be Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme,” what Wagner called an enigma.

No one really knows what inspired the theme, he said. Traditionally composers have used the melodies or themes of others before them to construct variations of music, but Elgar apparently didn’t. The best anyone can guess, it’s a unique theme, Wagner said, but that’s not why it’s remarkable.

In “Variations,” Elgar describes the traits of friends and acquaintances, giving it a personality as unique as those it recalls.

“There’s something very specific about each person,” Wagner said. “And that’s a very unusual touch.”

His music alludes to the Baroque era, which began around 1600, and provides variations for cello, which will be performed by guest cellist Andres Diaz, a native of Chile who now lives in Dallas. Diaz holds The Koerner Chair in cello at The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, he won first prize in the 1986 Naumburg International Cello Competition and earned the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and a 1998 grant from the Susan W. Rose Fund for Music. He now performs with the Diaz String Trio.

He has performed with the American Symphony at Carnegie Hall and the National Symphony Orchestra.

The symphony orchestra will perform with the conservatory’s wind ensemble at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 as part of its Pulitzer Prize Composer Series with Kevin Puts.

At 8 p.m. Feb. 15 and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 16, 2014, the conservatory choirs will combine to perform “Carmina Burana” with the orchestra.

Then at 3 p.m. on Feb. 23, the orchestra will join the jazz ensemble to perform with singer, pianist and arranger Eric Felten on Frank Sinatra-style jazz, Wagner said. Proceeds will benefit the tour of Spain.

And at 8 p.m. on March 5, the day before the symphony orchestra leaves for its tour of Spain, a fundraiser will include the students’ repertoire that they’ll play in the Spanish cities of Zaragoza, Castellon, Murcia and Granada. They also plan to tour Madrid.

At their March performance, they’ll play “Scheherazade,” based on the “Arabian Nights” story, which Wagner called “a very brilliant work.”

During Wagner’s 12 years at the school so far, the orchestra has grown to become a full time symphony orchestra of about 75 students. He said a tour to the magnitude of the one they’re planning will give students the experience of performing in large venues, like the 1,200-1,900-seat concert halls they’ll visit in Spain.

The orchestra combines a mix of undergrad and graduate students studying fields like music performance, music education or music therapy, and Wagner said it’s important for them to experience what the world has to offer musicians.

Most countries have a long history with music, so it makes sense to go where the music was born, he said. They’ll also get to interact informal situations with students in the cities they visit; students in Spain are expected to attend the conservatory’s concerts there too.

All musical performances by the symphony orchestra this season will be in the Armstrong Concert Hall at Shenandoah University in Winchester. For more information, call 540-665-4589 or visit www.conservatoryperforms.org.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com