Music Guild Presents Great War 100th Anniversary Commemoration

Dwayne S. Milburn conducts the Chamber Orchestra
Photo courtesy of Thomas Neenan

By PABLO CORÁ | Contributing Writer

St. Matthew’s Music Guild presented the second concert in its 2018-19 season on Friday, Nov. 9, at St. Matthew’s Church.

Billed as a “Hundredth Anniversary Commemoration of the End of the Great War” (the Armistice was signed Nov. 11, 1918), the concert had been in doubt during the day because of road closures and evacuations resulting from the fires in Calabasas and Malibu.

Nevertheless, a large audience came out to hear the Chamber Orchestra at St. Matthew’s led by its new Music Director and Conductor Dwayne S. Milburn and violinist Annelle Gregory.

Aaron Copland found himself in Paris shortly after the end of WWI. He studied with the renowned Nadia Boulanger, one of the most formidable women composers and pedagogues of her time, who taught not only Copland, but scores of accomplished American and European composers.

Drawn to emulate modernist contemporaries such as Stravinsky and Poulenc, Copland developed an acerbic, biting style that found favor among fellow composers and academics but few members of the general public.

In response to the Great Depression and the ideals of the American Communist Party, Copland turned in the late ’30s to a “populist” musical style more accessible to the masses. Works such as “El Salon Mexico,” “Rodeo,” “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring” were the result, and cemented Copland’s reputation as the “dean of American composers.”

“Letter from Home” was commissioned as a patriotic work in 1944 by band leader Paul Whiteman for a national radio broadcast. Its style is very much the language of “Appalachian Spring” and is intended to evoke the feelings of a soldier abroad reading a letter from home.

While the orchestra played Copland’s music, Palisades resident Alison Rockwell read three letters from WWI: one by a young bride to her husband who had just left for basic training; another from a Marine Corps private to his family after a fierce battle in France and a third from a wounded foot soldier to his father announcing that he is shortly to return home because of his injuries. At times Rockwell’s narration was covered by the orchestra, but the letters were beautifully read and created an emotionally moving context for the music.

Maurice Ravel enlisted in the French armed forces during WWI and spent time as a truck and ambulance driver on the front. On more than one occasion, he narrowly escaped death while driving into enemy fire attempting to rescue wounded soldiers. The experience left him ill and traumatized, a condition that was made worse by the death of his beloved mother in 1917.

Near the end of the war, he wrote a series of piano works and dedicated each to the memory of personal friends who were killed in the conflict. Several years after the piano version’s premiere in 1919, Ravel orchestrated four of the movements.

The work’s title, “Le tombeau de Couperin,” references the tradition of French honorary pieces (tombeau) and the composer François Couperin, whose ornate harpsichord works served as inspiration for Ravel.

The stars of the performance on Friday were the members of the wind section, particularly Principal Oboe Phil Feather and Principal Flute Nancy Marfisi. Their light touch and tuneful dance-like playing reminded one of ballet dancers gracefully performing pirouettes in 18th century French costumes.

Music Guild President Tom Neenan, in his pre-concert lecture, noted how emigre composers who fled Europe in the years between the two world wars ended up in Pacific Palisades and its environs. These included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who came to Hollywood and became one of the most successful film composers of the so-called Golden Era.

Writing in a lush, late-romantic style, Korngold, along with long-time Palisades resident Alfred Newman, more or less established the language of the classic Hollywood film score. During his career, Korngold wrote 16 film scores and won two Oscars.

The Violin Concerto, composed in 1945, was made famous by Jascha Heifetz. It not only sounds a lot like film music but in fact borrows several melodies from Korngold’s most famous scores, including “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Violinist Gregory, a native of San Diego, is quickly becoming recognized as one of the leading young violinists of her generation. Her diminutive stature and calm composure on stage suggest nothing of the power of her sound or virtuosic technique.

Rather than flailing about like so many soloists we see these days, she stands relatively still–almost as if in a trance. But the richness of her sound was obvious Friday night from the first moments she put bow to string.

The work is relatively brief (only about 25 minutes) but packed with the beautiful soaring melodies Korngold composed for the swashbuckling films of the 1930s starring Errol Flynn. The large orchestra–more than musicians by my count, including four horns–created a stirring and resonant sound in the church’s vibrant acoustic.

The lively acoustics may have led to occasional imperfections in coordination between the orchestra and Gregory, but they quickly righted themselves and the ensemble drove to a confident and powerful conclusion, followed by an enthusiastic standing ovation from those in attendance.