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Forte: Heroes from olden times for our times

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The Yakima Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform at the Capitol Theatre, May 12, 2018.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Composers have often looked to the past for inspiration, whether by borrowing melodies and harmonic progressions from their musical heroes or by weaving contemporary elements into characteristic textures and musical forms of an earlier era to create something new, yet familiar.

This weekend’s program by the Yakima Symphony Orchestra includes both, drawing its title from a work by Edvard Grieg that does the latter: “From Holberg’s Time: A Suite in Olden Style.”

Grieg could easily have been included in February’s “National Heroes” program by the YSO. As the most famous and beloved composer of his home country of Norway, he drew international attention in the latter half of the 19th century through his efforts to incorporate elements of Norwegian folk music into his work.

However, the “Holberg Suite,” as it is commonly known, has an entirely different starting point: the 200th birthday celebration for Ludvig Holberg, the Norwegian playwright and philosopher born in Grieg’s hometown of Bergen.

To pay tribute to this cultural hero of Norway’s past, Grieg used a common musical vehicle for composers of Holberg’s time: the French Baroque dance suite. While the musical language is very much 19th century Romantic, the form and character of each movement reflect the practice and sensibilities of such Holberg contemporaries as Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.

A very different tribute to the past opens Saturday evening’s program. Twentieth century composer and musicologist Remo Giazotto was a scholar and biographer of Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni, most of whose unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. Giazotto claimed to have recovered a fragment of one of these manuscripts, which he subsequently completed and published as “Adagio in G minor for Strings and Organ on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni.”

It subsequently became a pop-culture staple, and it has been incorporated into pop songs, films, television shows and commercials from the early 1960s to the present. This may have led to Giazotto’s later decision to deny that the Albinoni fragment ever existed (he never produced it in public) and to claim sole authorship of the work.

The program concludes with Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass, for which the orchestra will be joined by the Yakima Symphony Chorus. Originally titled “Missa in Angustiis” (“Mass for Troubled Times”), it became associated with a hero of Haydn’s own time, British Admiral Horatio Nelson, in the years following its 1798 premiere, which took place shortly after Nelson’s annihilation of the French navy in the Battle of the Nile. This victory stranded Napoleon’s army in Egypt and at least temporarily saved the rest of Europe from his military and colonial aspirations.

Influenced greatly by the oratorios of Handel, which Haydn absorbed during his time in London in the early 1790s, the Mass is a dramatic tour de force for chorus and vocal soloists, conveying the angst and turmoil of the time as well as the jubilation from which its association with Nelson’s victory sprang.

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.

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