By MIKE CHAIKEN
The sounds of the silver screen will fill the hall of the Belding Theater at the Bushnell starting next Thursday when The Hartford Symphony Orchestra presents “Sigal Plays Carmen Fantasie” as part of its Masterworks Series.
Sigal is HSO concertmaster and principal violinist Leonid Sigal. And “Carmen Fantasie” is a composition Franz Waxman wrote for a segment in the 1946 film, “Humoresque.”
Press materials for concert explain, “The film starred John Garfield as an aspiring violinist who gets involved with a wealthy patroness, portrayed by Joan Crawford in one of her most memorable roles; Oscar Levant provided the comic relief. The violinist on the soundtrack was the 26-year-old Isaac Stern. The following year Waxman revised the “Fantasie” as a virtuoso concert piece for Jascha Heifetz.”
The Observer caught up with Sigal via email to discuss the upcoming performance.
Observer: When one thinks of soundtrack music these days, you don’t typically think of orchestral scores that will be highlighted in a concert… unless it’s a pops performance presenting something like the theme song from “Star Wars” or an instrumental version of a pop hit from a hit film. How does “Carmen Fantasie” differ from the typical, 2015 impression of a cinematic score? And is this piece typical of the time period for cinematic scores? How so?
Sigal: Many of the today’s great orchestral film scores by John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone and others, are increasingly finding their way into symphony orchestra “classical” programs and frequently recorded and performed by most celebrated classical “rock stars” like Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma. Beautifully written, colorful, lushly orchestrated and highly programmatic and, at times, impressionistic, the music takes its inspiration from the great masters of the past, while amazingly fresh and original.
One of the most prolific Hollywood composers, as well as author of number of important concert works, Franz Waxman, has a very special place among those who have created and enriched this tradition.
In contrast with today’s efforts to reinvent and re-invigorate classical art form by bringing more of the elements of popular culture into a concert hall, Waxman’s time was, in fact, the golden age of classical music as a huge part of popular culture, with Hollywood paying countless tributes to Mozart, Brahms, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and… Bizet with this brilliant “Carmen Fantasy.”
O: How did you discover this particular piece and Waxman?
S: The work came into my life with the vinyl of the legendary Jascha Heifetz performance. In fact, it was one of my earliest childhood experiences listening to a classical music recording introduced by my father. Interestingly, the other work on that vinyl disc was “Chausson’s Poeme” — which is also paired, purely coincidentally, with the Carmen Fantasy on our upcoming Masterworks program.
O: What other pieces by Waxman might audiences recognize without realizing?
S: In the same film “Humoresque,” the Tristan Fantasy (based on the “Love Death” scene from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”). Rarely, if ever, performed as a concert work, it’s scored for violin, piano, and large orchestra. I believe aside from the original soundtrack, the only other recent recording is by Chloe Hanslip with Leonard Slatkin and the Royal Philharmonic.
Some other Waxman’s scores listeners may recognize include “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Anne of the Indies,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “A Place in the Sun”—the last two are the Academy Award winning scores— to name just a few.
O: Devoid of the actual film, and as a fan of classical music, what do you like about the piece as a composition? What do you like about the piece as a performer?
S: As the genre of a virtuosic instrumental fantasy or paraphrase on the themes by other composers was extremely popular at the time, there are several tributes to Bizet’s “Carmen,” rightfully one of the greatest and most popular operas ever written. The most famous and frequently performed and recorded by violinists, and a competitor to Waxman’s, is by Pablo Sarasate. Personally, I prefer the work by Franz Waxman for its wholesome structure. Rather than just compiling the beloved themes from the opera into a successive suite-like set —as is the case with the Sarasate— Waxman creates a continuous flow of much of the same themes beautifully transitioned and interconnected. More than just a showpiece for violin, it is a brilliant symphonic rhapsody that deserves to be the centerpiece of a major classical program— such as our January Masterworks concerts.
O: The original performance has a definite pedigree with, from what I read, Jascha Heifitz as the violinist originally tapped to play the composition, and who was subsequently replaced by a young Isaac Stern. How is that kind of history helpful for you as violinist and how can it prove to be a hazard? How do you try to make the performance as your own?
S: This kind of history attached to the piece is as immensely helpful and enriching for the in-depth preparation process, as it is interesting and entertaining. It does give you a bit of perspective into the atmosphere and mindset of creators and performers. It is also simply a great fun. I am so excited and honored to play my ever so humble part in building the performance history for this great piece.
“Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series: Sigal Plays ‘Carmen Fantasie’” takes the stage of the Belding Theater at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford from Thursday, Jan. 15 to Sunday, Jan. 18. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Ticket prices run from $32.50 to $67.50. Student tickets are $10. On Saturday, Jan. 17, $25 tickets are available for patrons age 40 and under.
To buy tickets or for more information, contact HSO ticket services at (860) 987-5900 or visit www.hartfordsymphony.org.