Peristyle raises the winter bar with Classics V concerts


As an antidote to this winter's cold, snow, wind, and darkness, the Toledo Symphony is planning a blazing hot time in the old Peristyle during its Classics V concerts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

For starters, there's Carmina Burana, German composer Carl Orff's excitingly complex and compelling 1937 work for large chorus, soloists, and larger orchestra.

Then, there is the American premiere of a very new work by rising-star Turkish composer Fazil Say: His violin concerto, 1001 Nights in a Harem, promises plenty of musical heat and the added sizzle of Turkish-influenced sounds and textures.

That both composers have been embroiled in the politics of their homelands may add some interesting back-story. But first, the music.

Carmina Burana was written in the oratorio style, like Handel's Messiah, for example. But unlike Messiah, which is based on Biblical texts, Carmina's verses, written by 11th century Benedictine monks, worship life on earth, extol hedonism, and honor the vagaries of Fate.

Even though it is sung in a version of Latin, the songs connect emotionally thanks to Orff's powerful musical settings.

James Meena will conduct the expanded orchestra and choruses from Bowling Green State University and the Ottawa Hills Children's Chorus. Soloists will be soprano Kathryn Lewek, tenor Joshua Stewart, and baritone Philip Cutlip.

Orff never wrote another work with the timeless appeal of Carmina Burana.

That it was premiered during the rise of the Third Reich, and embraced by Adolph Hitler's party at a time when other composers were being forced to escape Germany has infused it with a controversial heritage.

Author Michael Kater, who wrote three scholarly books studying the effects of politics on German music, says in his volume, Composers of the Nazi Era: "One and all -- musicians and singers, composers and conductors, all of whom had to make a living as artists in the Third Reich -- emerged in May 1945 severely tainted, with their professional ethos violated and their music often compromised."

Orff, a native of Munich and a wounded veteran of World War I, is said to have been part-Jewish, but suppressed that during the inflammatory 1930s and 40s.

While a few conductors will not touch Orff's work today -- much like others who have resisted conducting music by the more overt Nazi sympathizer Richard Wagner -- most artistic directors program Carmina because of public demand and because of its power and beauty.

Music and musicians often become embroiled in the politics of their time, whether by choice or by chance. It is not unusual today to witness star performers and composers supporting causes and speaking out on current and controversial issues.

Such is the case of composer Say, 43, whose compositions and performances have launched a soaring international reputation, but whose use of social media has landed him in serious trouble in his homeland.

Since age 14, Say has created an astonishing array of major pieces, including three symphonies, oratorios, concertos for violin, piano, trumpet, flute, and other instruments, and dozens of songs, chamber works, and solo pieces.

He has played with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, and others, and has served as a cultural ambassador from Turkey to the European Union.

Yet he is under indictment in his homeland, where his case is due for a hearing on Feb. 18.

His trouble started with Twitter posts and comments criticizing radical Islamists. Turkey's ruling AK party brought him up on charges last June. Although Turkey's minister in charge of EU relations has suggested a dismissal, Say faces a possible maximum sentence of 18 months in prison.

Still, it's not as if the composer's music needs any extra heat to excite musicians and audiences.

"Fairly savage," is the way Merwin Siu, who will perform the work with the Toledo Symphony, describes the music. "It's a piece that's immediately accessible. It's not difficult to understand."

Known for his expressive stage presence, Siu, principal second violin, views his performance as story-telling. "The title does not evoke a stand-and-play approach. It's a physical piece, very dramatic," he said.

The work inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights opens in a mythical harem and depicts colorful personalities and sensual dances through four movements.

Siu explained that there will be no pause as one movement leads to the next. Instead, a cadenza -- an elaborate musical flight of fancy by solo violin -- will punctuate the transitions between each section.

"It's an honor to be the first person in the U.S. to play this," Siu said, adding that "it's a responsibility to be first."

The program will open with a work by Rossini, Overture to The Siege of Corinth, the first work by the Italian composer to be presented in the Paris Opera.

Tickets are $22-$52 at 419-246-8000 or The concerts will be at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.

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