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The ASO's season openers aim for the epic

It's flair and ice.

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VIOLINIST: Jennifer Frautschi joins the ASO for its season opener, tackling a so-called "icy summit" of the violin repertoire on a 1722 Stradivarius.
  • VIOLINIST: Jennifer Frautschi joins the ASO for its season opener, tackling a so-called "icy summit" of the violin repertoire on a 1722 Stradivarius.

International violin virtuosa Jennifer Frautschi will join the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, in the ASO's first performance of the 2017-18 Masterworks season, "Go Brahms," at the Robinson Performance Hall in downtown Little Rock.

The performance will open with Adam Schoenberg's "Go," for string quartet. ASO Conductor Philip Mann, who conducted "Go" in its world premiere last year with the New West Symphony in Los Angeles, said the work "has a sense of humor to it. The beginning of the piece starts off with the sound of revving engines in the strings — it's unmistakable, almost like a perfect depiction of it from a 1980s video game." A cheer erupted at the end of the piece, Mann said. "My sense was that I wanted to work with Adam again, I wanted to share his music with Arkansans, including other works of his. Most importantly, I thought that the piece was of a quality that it really needed to be heard by more people." So, Schoenberg was selected as this year's ASO composer-in-residence. "His music has this elan to it, it's unabashedly joyous and cheerful," Mann explained.

Next, Frautschi will perform Jean Sibelius' only "Violin Concerto" on her 1722 ex-Cadiz Stradivarius, which she's had on loan from a private foundation for the past 15 years. "Actually getting the violin and getting to play on it has been one of the most gratifying aspects of my entire musical career," she said. "I'm grateful on a daily basis that I get to play this particular instrument. Words can't express the depth of my gratitude I feel for having such a warm and wonderful instrument, full of possibilities."

The Sibelius is a demanding work that musicologist James M. Keller calls a towering "icy summit" of the violin repertoire. Frautschi said. "The orchestral writing is so symphonic that I do feel like I'm part of this incredibly large, large, large massive structure, you know, soundscape. ... It's such an epic piece, and it's so powerful and paints such a coloristic scene. The music is so evocative that it never gets old."

Mann also expressed his enthusiasm for the performance. "When choosing a collaborator for that piece, you want somebody that will be a kindred spirit musically, but also have this incredible range and virtuosity to tackle the specific demands of that piece." Mann, a violinist himself, cited it as one of his favorite works. "It's a work that we haven't done together also," he said, "so that will be a pleasure to do Sibelius for the first time."

Johannes Brahms' "Symphony No. 1" closes the first Masterworks concert and completes the ASO's recent cycle of the composer's symphonies. "It's a titanic work that carries enormous gravitas, and you can sense in the work the immense effort that went into the score over a protracted period," Mann said of the work. He thought carefully about the order in which the ASO played the Brahms symphonies, naming this finale as "one of the most glorious, transcendent moments in Western symphonic literature. ... There's this deep struggle that seems to connect with us on a very visceral level."

Frautschi will also join members of the ASO in the opening concert for the River Rhapsodies Chamber Music series at the Clinton Presidential Center Tuesday, Oct. 3. That concert also opens with an Adam Schoenberg composition, "Winter Music." Schoenberg has written that the piece is "my idea of life on a single planet in one of the 170 billion galaxies located millions of light-years away from the Earth. That is, a fantasy world somehow paralleling my first winter in Los Angeles: magically warm, fairy-tale like, whimsical, light, airy and full of love."

Valerie Coleman's arrangement of the gospel song "Steal Away" is the second selection on the program. Oboist Beth Wheeler, who helped select the ensemble's repertoire, said the work was inspired by the death of dancer Gregory Hines. In her notes on the composition, Coleman has written that "The groove between bassoon and horn gives the imagery of Mr. Hines casually walking off the stage in a reminiscent way." Wheeler added that Coleman's ensemble felt that "the gospel song form should not be limited to vocal music."

Frautschi then takes the stage for the final movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Partita in D minor" for solo violin. The chaconne is instantly recognizable, and widely considered one of the greatest compositions for violin. "No matter how many times I play it, each time I play it is like a religious experience. It is a very large scale structure: You can't just walk out on stage and wing it, and just decide I'm going to play it how I feel it. It's not that kind of a piece because it's so intricately constructed that there is a lot of forethought that has to go into it," Frautschi said. "I want the audience to experience this incredible harmonic journey."

Finally, five members of the ASO's string section will join Frautschi on stage for the Tchaikovsky sextet, "Souvenir de Florence." "It's a big piece — big both in terms of its scope and also because it's six players ... the sonorities he's able to create out of those six instruments [are] quite powerful," Frautschi said. "The priorities are: one, having the fun of exchanging ideas on stage with five colleagues. Two, in that particular piece, the goal is always: 'What do I want to communicate to the audience? What do I want them to hear, to feel?' " In that piece, Frautschi said, "it's really bringing out the beauty of the melodies, and also really feeling the balletic aspects of it. It's impossible to play without imagining a full Russian ballet on stage."

Together, these seven compositions deal with the themes of space and structure, bodies in movement and triumph over struggle, which sounds like a laudable start to the ASO's first full season in a renovated Robinson Performance Hall.

Tickets are available at arkansassymphony.org and by calling 666-1761.

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