Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Music with Market Square Concerts

Summertime, they say, is a time to relax – prop your feet up and read those “sinful pleasures” at the beach you felt you couldn’t get away with during the rest of the year, soak up the sun or take in some new block-buster movie and generally recharge your batteries so you can deal with autumn and especially winter.

Or it can be a time to devote yourself to things that you maybe didn’t have time to focus on during the more “serious” time of year, to getting caught up on some projects, maybe allowing yourself some intellectual and spiritual stimulation that often gets sidetracked with the daily press of reality.

Classical music concerts during the summer usually take on a similar polarity or tone – I think I’d rather call it bi-tonal than bi-polar, however. You can go to concerts of lighter fare just to enjoy yourself, or you can go to concerts that offer some great music which cannot only inspire you and lift your soul beyond the everyday but which, in more relaxed surroundings, might yield new insights for the music or the world around you.

One of the better known summer music festivals on the East Coast, Gretna Music, now into its third decade, doesn’t begin until August this year, but this week another, somewhat newer tradition is Market Square Concerts’ series of three programs called “SummerMusic.” There will be the usual “indoor” concert Wednesday night at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg to begin, with two more programs during the weekend at the Glen Allen Mill (see photo, above) on the Yellow Breeches (which, for those of you who don’t know it, is an idyllic spot on one of the most beautiful streams in the mid-state).

While many summer concerts are celebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the birth of a composer who practically invented the Pops Concert – Leroy Anderson – Beethoven will be the featured composer for many summer programs, including SummerMusic 2008. Undoubtedly Beethoven will be a better draw than, say, the 100th Birthday Celebration of Elliott Carter whose impending centennial birthday takes place this December with some of his newest works – though this week is “Elliott Carter Week” at Tanglewood (you can read a blog by a cellist who’s playing several of those concerts). Not that Elliott Carter would be a big draw in Central Pennsylvania and I’m not sure what insights you might achieve hearing his music outdoors, necessarily, though I’m reminded how the great open spaces of the Arizona desert inspired some of the scope of Carter’s then-evolving style when he was writing his 1st Quartet there around 1950.

But it’s Beethoven this week along the Yellow Breeches – even if his late quartets probably made demands on his audience comparable to those Carter’s music makes on listeners today. (Is it possible I’ll have to wait until 2150 to hear a summer music concert here called “Carter & Beyond” with those quaint old quartets by Elliott Carter?)

The Fry Street String Quartet returns for three programs that will also feature Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony as pianist. He’ll join them for the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann on Wednesday night, a Haydn Piano Trio on Saturday and one of the great Mozart violin sonatas on Sunday afternoon.

Malina will also accompany soprano Ilana Davidson – she had sung with the orchestra before in the Mozart Requiem in January 2006 as well as several of the Gilbert & Sullivan performances – for an array of songs “from the Baroque to the Present.”

The quartet plays four Beethoven quartets – two of the “early” set, completed by the time he was 30, one of the “middle” quartets and on Sunday one of the greatest of the “late” quartets, the C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, one of the most personal of Beethoven’s works and while one of the more demanding to approach, one of the most rewarding.

The historic mill, for those who might not have been there recently, is now “air-conditioned.” By placing several window units around the perimeter and keeping things closed up, they can actually create a pool of cool air by letting them run before each concert and trying to keep the door closed until the performance. It is a charming space and the grounds around the mill with the stream in the background might bring you closer to those summers Beethoven spent in the rural suburbs of Vienna when he most enjoyed composing, probably around the same time this mill was in operation. I don’t recall when this specific one was built, but there were mills along the Yellow Breeches in the 1760s, just a decade before Beethoven was born.

And the weather forecast looks promising, too – far better than this past weekend’s heat-wave: highs will be only in the mid-80s! Great for a picnic!

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So far this summer, I’ve been to two orchestra concerts – well, one and a half. One of the problems with summer concerts that take place outdoors is the weather. You can schedule concerts a year in advance but even until the day of the concert have no idea what the weather will be like until (and even after) you get there.

I had a chance to hear the Harrisburg Symphony concert with conductor Stuart Malina at Negley Park in Lemoyne, overlooking the Harrisburg skyline (except from where we were seated). Even with the threat of passing showers all day, the concert went ahead outside but once the chance turned into the reality of a shower, the orchestra had to pack up during the intermission (or half-time break). Too bad, but even half a concert was more fun than none. I saw few people I recognized but lots of people spread out across the park on lawn chairs and blankets enjoying music from Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and Bizet’s Carmen to selections from “Phantom of the Opera,” during which, coincidentally, fireworks following the Senators’ game on City Island went off. Too bad they couldn’t coordinate that with the up-coming 1812 Overture, but at least the Senators got their fireworks in - we didn’t get to the 1812 in before the rain. One of the delights was hearing the orchestra’s principal percussionist Chris Rose – who gave such an amazing performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto in March – play two small rags for xylophone and orchestra.

The 4th of July weekend did not have the greatest weather for outdoor events, despite otherwise enjoyable cooler temperatures and pleasant breezes. The other HSO concerts that week were moved indoors or lucked out with the passing shower lottery.

Not so lucky was the “lawn concert” the West Shore Symphony, conducted by Timothy Dixon, had scheduled for the Fredricksen Library in Camp Hill on the 7th. As luck would have it, the rain-date turned out to be a marvelous day and so the crowd that gathered there on the 14th had a chance to enjoy a light-hearted program of show tunes and Leroy Anderson favorites. It’s the Centennial Anniversary of Leroy Anderson’s birth and the man who gave us “Sleigh Ride” and “Bugler’s Holiday” is being celebrated across the land. With music from “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” it was easy to kick back and tap your feet. Even the one symphonic excerpt on the program – the finale of Dvorak’s 8th Symphony – was light enough not to outweigh the mood.

At concerts like this, I enjoy people-watching as much as I enjoy music-listening, with a crowd near me that included residents from a nearby senior living center and free-range toddlers who usually managed to thrive just beyond their parents’ energy levels. Some of the kids may remember the experience more than the concert itself, but its always gratifying to see a boy being held up by his dad to see over the crowd start waving his arms in time to the music, or to see a little girl who, off in her own fantasy world, creates a little dance out of who knows what might be firing her imagination, all the result of hearing live music.

The audience for Market Square’s SummerMusic will probably not be quite so wide ranging in age nor are toddlers racing around the mill likely to be as welcome (there are times and places and then there are times and places). But the music is great and timeless - and capable of withstanding the micro-inconvenience of summer weather or the bugs to bring you closer to the universe-at-large.

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