Tonight, Houston Symphony Associate Conductor Robert Franz will lead our orchestra in a fascinating East Meets West program at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Recently, I got to ask Maestro Franz a few questions about his inspiration for this unique and interesting concert.
Calvin Dotsey: For our third ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights concert this year, you have come up with an especially interesting program that explores connections between Western and Asian musical traditions. What inspired you to create this program?
Robert Franz: The program started with the idea of Debussy’s symphonic masterpiece, La Mer. Each piece has in common a connection with nature and an exploration between Western Symphonic Music and Eastern folk music and sounds. The “story” of this concert is really one of multiple civilizations inspiring each other. Two works on the program are by Chinese composers, and the work by Griffes and Debussy are great examples of Impressionistic Music. Much like its painting counterpart, this music revels in the exploration of timbres.
CD: The first piece on this program is Dance of the Yao People by Liu and Mao, a piece that may not be familiar to our regular classical audience. Could you tell us a little about this piece?
RF: This work is a folk song that comes from the southwest portion of China. The work itself may not be well known, but the sound is quintessentially Chinese.
CD: Next on the program is a well-known orchestral favorite, Smetana’s Vltava (a.k.a. The Moldau). What inspired you to include this piece on this program?
RF: This piece was included for two reasons. First of all, like the Debussy, this piece was inspired by nature. You can practically hear the river bubbling along. Also, the work is created to programmatically describe the sights and sounds you might hear on your voyage down this noble river.
CD: The next piece is also less often programmed: Griffes’ The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. What can you tell us about this piece and why you chose to include it?
RF: This work is very programmatic. Like The Moldau, this work takes you on a journey down a sacred river in China, ending up at Xanadu, the summer home of Kubla Kahn. This work is extraordinarily atmospheric. It is perfect for an outdoor venue like the one we are in this evening.
CD: We also have a special guest soloist for this concert, pipa player Changlu Wu. The pipa is not an instrument usually found in the orchestra. How would you describe the pipa to someone who has never seen or heard one before?
RF: The pipa looks like a “Chinese lute.” It typically has four strings, and has a wonderfully evocative sound. Changlu Wu is an incredible musician, and the moment I heard her play I wanted to do a concerto with her.
CD: Changlu Wu will perform another piece not often programmed on our Miller concerts: Qilian Rhapsody for Pipa and Orchestra by Han. What is a Qilian Rhapsody? How is it like a Rhapsody in Blue or one on a theme by Paganini?
RF: Qilian is a mountain range in China, and this piece uses folk music from that area of the country. A rhapsody typically is a work that organically moves from one section to another. This work does that with great ease and finesse.
CD: Last on the program is a staple of the repertoire, Debussy’s La Mer. What makes this piece a good fit for this program?
RF: Debussy wrote this piece during a period in late nineteenth century Paris when all things Asian were in vogue. This suited Debussy perfectly as he was attracted to the use of the pentatonic scale and a style of composing that focuses on the timbres of the various instruments. This piece is evocative of the movement of the waves and the power of the ocean. Debussy was inspired by the Atlantic Ocean, and I’m sure there will be moments when you will feel like you are sitting at the ocean with him!
This East Meets West concert is part of our FREE ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights series at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Don’t miss it tonight, June 26 at 8:30 pm! Learn more here.