Classical music aficionados aren’t accustomed to laughing during symphonic concerts, but this weekend at the Orpheum Theater and in Covington, laughter is factored into the program when the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra leads off its next three performances with Peter Schickele’s “Unbegun Symphony.”
Under the nom de plume of P.D.Q. Bach, Schickele, a classically trained bassoonist and composer, is best known for his parodies of classical music, often improvising everyday objects into makeshift musical instruments.
In many of his compositions he combines classical works with recognizable popular tunes in humorous — often deliberately dissonant — arrangements guaranteed to tickle audience funny bones.
In addition to snippets of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach and other classical composers, the score for “Unbegun Symphony” also includes strains of such familiar melodies as “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Camptown Races,” “You are My Sunshine,” “Anchors Aweigh” and the “Can-Can” dance number from Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.”
Schickele will not be in the house for the performances, but the LPO will be performing his piece and two others under the baton of guest conductor Courtney Lewis.
The other two works are Prokofiev’s “Sinfonia Concertanate for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, featuring guest soloist Julian Steckel on cello, and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.”
The Beethoven symphony, though not as widely recognizable as his 5th or 9th symphonies, is considered by many musical authorities to be the best of his nine symphonic works on a technical level.
Stretching over 40 minutes in its four movements, Beethoven’s 7th starts out with a very lively, sustained tempo. It then morphs into a slower, melodic, string-infused pace in the second movement that many Beethoven fans laud on YouTube as one of the most beautiful movements of any classical work ever composed.
The lively, triple-meter scherzo third movement picks up the pace again, leading into the fourth and final movement at an allegro con brio (lively with vigor) tempo that is heavy on horns, woodwinds and timpani.
The work was composed by Beethoven in 1812, the same year that is designated in his famous overture. The “7th Symphony” premiered in December 1813 in Vienna at a benefit concert for soldiers wounded in the Napoleonic War.
At the premiere, which he personally conducted, Beethoven was said to have considered it one of his best works.
The three-movement, 40-minute Prokofiev piece had its roots in a cello concerto the composer wrote in the late 1930s. It evolved into a full orchestral work in the early 1950s featuring Mstislav Rostropovich on cello at the premiere.
Largely because of its rapid, demanding fingering requirements and other technical challenges, the piece was thought to be nearly unplayable for many years. In recent years, however, many of the world’s top cellists have mastered it and added it to their repertoires, Steckel among them.
“This is a huge piece and one of the biggest challenges of the cello repertoire,” said Steckel who is making his New Orleans performing debut. “I’ve had it under my fingers many times, but even if you’ve played it as many times as I have, it’s still kind of a Mount Everest."
“I remember back when I was a student studying it with my teacher in Vienna,” Steckel said. “He insisted that I practice this piece a lot. He said you have to memorize it because in each and every line there is a big difficulty. So there’s really no time to rest. But when you survive it, it’s very rewarding,” Steckel noted with a laugh.
There will be a preconcert talk one hour prior to the New Orleans and Covington performances.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Courtney Lewis is replacing the previously announced guest conductor, Markus Huber, for the performances in New Orleans and Covington.
LPO performs Beethoven’s 7th Symphony
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at the Orpheum Theater, 129 Roosevelt Way, New Orleans; and Friday at First Baptist Church of Covington, 16333 LA-1085, Covington
TICKETS: $20-$140 New Orleans, $20-$55 Covington
INFO: (504) 523-6530. lpomusic.com