To help celebrate its 80th season, the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra decided to reflect on where the symphony had been and also where it wanted to go.
Lawrence Loh, who conducts the WVSO’s season opener Saturday night at the Clay Center, said when the symphony began programming for this year, “We looked back on our first season and the music that still speaks to us as listeners.”
During Saturday night’s performance, the symphony will perform “Overture to Zampa,” a piece from Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold’s opera comique, “Zampa.”
It was the very first piece the WVSO performed during its first show November 14, 1939.
For the time, it was very popular, but Loh said, “It’s just not as often done, these days.”
It’s his first time programming the piece, though the conductor said he’s thought about it for years.
“I have friends who are huge fans of it and have been trying to get me to program it,” Loh said.
There’s a lot to like about it. The overture has lots of solos for the symphony and a bold sound.
“It’s upbeat and has a great finish,” he said.
The “Overture to Zampa” is also a peek into the tastes of the first half of the 20th century.
Loh said when you looked through the old programs, there were a lot of familiar names and titles like Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Schubert’s unfinished symphony — staples that have been favorites for classical audiences for generations.
But the way those concerts were structured 70 or 80 years ago was very different than how concerts are planned today.
“There were a lot of little pieces,” he said. “It was more in-line with casual classics — sort of a parade of greatest hits.”
Modern symphonic concerts like to make statements and bring out the big guns.
Saturday night’s performance will be no exception. Among the works performed will be Rachmaninov’s Concerto for Piano no. 3 in D minor, a devilishly difficult piece, introduced to non-classical audiences through the 1996 film, “Shine.”
In the film, based on the life of pianist David Helfgott, the difficulty of the concerto, was the tipping point for the pianist’s descent into mental illness.
“We’re hoping that doesn’t happen with Orion,” the conductor joked.
In all seriousness, guest artist Orion Weiss should manage it fine, Loh said.
“It’s a piece he does a lot.”
That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Not counting trills, Loh said Rachmaninov’s Concerto for Piano no. 3 in D minor, contains 29,656 notes, which are played in about 39 minutes.
“That’s absolutely crazy,” he said. “That’s insanely dense and terrifying difficult.”
Aside from the technical skill required to play the piece, it’s physically demanding.
“The human body just isn’t made to do that kind of thing,” Loh said.
The symphony will also have its hands full, too, he added and will also perform Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B-flat major.
“It’s just an incredible piece of music,” he said.
The rest of the season will be a mix of old chestnuts and new music, including work by modern composers, among them compositions by women.
“In January, we’ll have the West Virginia premier of Polina Nazaykinskaya’s ‘Winter Bells,’” Loh said. “I’ve programmed that several times and played it with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It’s such a great piece and I’m excited to share it.”