`Sea Symphony,' inspired by Whitman, is concert focus

April 26, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "Sea Symphony" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Britain's foremost symphonist of the 20th century, revolves around two of England's great loves.

The first theme of this large-scale work - to be performed tomorrow and Saturday by the Annapolis Symphony under the baton of Leslie B. Dunner - is the English love affair with all things nautical.

Such an infatuation is hardly unexpected for an island nation whose ships and sailors played such a role in assembling the empire on which the sun never set.

The second affinity, expressed whenever a large orchestra, two soloists and full mixed chorus come together to perform "A Sea Symphony," is for the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose "Leaves of Grass" had a profound impact on English sensibilities when published in Britain in the late 1860s.

Vaughan Williams was not the only British composer to be inspired by the songful pantheism of the American poet.

Settings of Whitman texts crafted by British composers include Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's "Elegiac Ode"; Gustav Holst's "Dirge for Two Veterans," an achingly sad commentary on World War I; and Frederick Delius' "Sea Drift," one of our most exquisite orchestral song cycles.

Vaughan Williams seizes on Whitman's "Song for all Seas, all ships" for his opening fanfare, and culminates the work with an ode to exploration that envisions a voyage at sea as a life's journey. ("O my brave Soul! O farther, farther sail!")

In between come moments of rapt introspection from the solo baritone ("On the Beach at Night, alone"), and a heaving Scherzo aptly titled "The Waves."

"I can't say I grew up listening to this piece," says Dunner. "It's new to me. But when we were looking for something to do for our 40th anniversary season, it struck me that the `Sea Symphony' would be a great way to celebrate Annapolis' intimate connection with the water. And we had such success performing with the Heritage Chorale last year, we thought we'd ask them to join us again."

Joining Dunner and the Washington-based choir will be soprano Linda Hohenfeld and baritone Steven Rainbolt.

This weekend's concerts also will feature the world premiere of "Dialogues" by Stephen Paulus, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's composer-in-residence this season, who has composed the work in honor of the 40th anniversary season.

"Dialogues" is of special interest to local listeners because it incorporates musical material crafted by local music students who were coached by Paulus in sessions that were part of his residency.

Also attending the performances will be contemporary composer, Sheila Silver, whose "Three Preludes for Orchestra" will be having its Annapolis premiere. With movements entitled "Dawn," "Wind Over Water," and "The Mountain," Silver's "Preludes" would seem consistent with the "inspired by nature" theme set by the symphony.

The concerts begin at 8 p.m. at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

Tickets: 410-263-0907.

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