Feature Article – Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra – James Sommerville

James Sommerville is an accomplished French horn player and conductor, currently holding the Principal Horn position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was the Music Director for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra for seven seasons, as well as fulfilling many guest conducting and performing positions. He returns to Hamilton on April 19 to conduct From the New World, a program featuring the works of Bohemian composers, each inspired by folk music. We spoke with James about the program and his return to Hamilton.

Hamilton is excited to have you back! It’s obvious that you left an impact on the city during your time here. What’s it like for you to return to Hamilton for this performance?
JS: I’m thrilled! There’s so much there that I’ve missed. Favourite restaurants and taverns, like Bread Bar, The Ship, and Pheasant Plucker; running on the Bruce Trail (I don’t see many deer in downtown Boston!), the great acoustics of the hall. But mostly it’s the people there that I’m looking forward to reconnecting with. The HPO has so many amazingly talented, warm, interesting players, and the audiences, patrons and staff are so terrific!

Can you speak to each of the pieces in the program and explain why you chose them?
JS: HPO patrons and fans might not know that putting together programs for the season is a pretty complex puzzle. The most important voice in the discussion is the Music Director’s: She has a plan and a vision for the whole year, and indeed for a few years into the future. And of course there are the wishes of the soloists who appear with us, considerations of length, difficulty – for musicians as well as the audience – size of orchestra, the creative input of the players and management… there are many things to balance! So, my voice in the programming decision is only one of many. That said, I love all of these pieces, and I’ll tell you why.

The surface connection between all these pieces is that their composers were all natives of Eastern Europe – countries that are now Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, though in their lifetimes they were mostly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is a very strong folk music tradition in all of these countries, and it is an important, really central characteristic of their musical voices. Bartok and Ligeti in particular were avid collectors and transcribers of the folk music of Hungary and Transylvania, and that ingredient is very obvious in the pieces we are performing. Dvořák also drew heavily on older, oral traditions, although in his case it was more as source of inspiration than of literal melodies and harmonies. He lived for several years in the U.S. and was inspired by the music of First Nations peoples and African-American spirituals; he felt deeply that their struggles were reflected in their art. The Symphony From the New World (or as it was known when it was premiered in New York in 1893, the “American Symphony”) reflects those profound emotions, although he does not use any actual pre-existing folk tunes. The Ligeti “Romanian Concerto” does use genuine folk songs – some collected in the field, on wax cylinders, by Bartók himself, who was a hero and model for the young Ligeti.

Sometimes, when listening to an unfamiliar piece, the audience can miss specially placed ideas or even jokes that the composer included. What are your favourite moments like this in the upcoming program that the audience can listen for?
JS: To me what is most interesting, in all of these pieces, is how the composer takes folk song-inspired melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and transforms them to serve his own artistic purpose. So, Dvořák uses the folk music of his homeland, and of American traditions, as a jumping-off point to compose his own very beautiful melodies, The best example is the English horn solo that opens the slow movement, which was later adapted to be the song Going Home – Ironically many people believe it to be an old spiritual, when it was actually ‘reverse-engineered’ by Dvořák to sound like one. Bartók, a few decades later, also digests folk tunes of Hungary, but is more drawn to their amazing rhythmic energy, which is on full display in the Third Piano Concerto. And Ligeti, a few years later still, in a sense does both of these things: His music is tremendously vivacious and energetic rhythmically, but also extremely virtuosic and melodic. And although his later works were much more challenging to audiences’ ears (A well-known example is the Choral work “Lux Aeterna” which appears in Kubrick’s ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’), the Romanian Concerto is immediately accessible.

Join James Sommerville and the Hamilton Philharmonic at 7:30pm on April 19 for a special weeknight performance of From the New World. Conrad Tao joins on piano. Tickets are available online or by calling 905-526-7756.

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