Mixing it up with variations

Most people have heard a band or musician play a cover of a beloved song that makes us feel as if we are hearing it for the first time. Small changes can show give songs new life and meaning. A song whose details are changed but which still retains its original base is called a variation, and this will be the focus of the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra’s May 13 Concert, “Variations on a Theme.”

Variation is “one of the earliest forms in music,” according to Maestro Gerardo Edelstein, WSO conductor. The core of the song remains the same, but musicians will make changes or additions to give the piece a different feel. Another form of variation involves riffing on a theme.

“A lot of composers write variations on a given theme,” Edelstein said, citing Mozart and Bach as examples.

“Jazz music is a lot about theme and variation,” because players improvise “on a specific harmonic structure,” he added.

The concert, which is the last for the WSO season, will feature four pieces, with two featuring the Williamsport Youth Symphony Orchestra and one featuring guest soloist and Williamsport native Jeff Thayer, a violinist and concertmaster for the San Diego Symphony.

Thayer’s father, Fred Thayer, is a former choral director at Lycoming College; his mother, Pat Thayer, was instrumental in ensuring education for young violinists in the Williamsport area. Thayer begin violin lessons with his mother at age 3 and studied at the Conservatori Superior in Cordoba, Spain, at 14. He has performed as guest soloist for more than 12 orchestras and in a number of festivals. He is concertmaster and a faculty member of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.

“It’s very special to be going back home to perform with the symphony,” Thayer said in an email interview. “I have had some sort of connection to the Williamsport Symphony since I was a young boy, at first through my mother performing as both an oboist and as a violinist, and then as a member of the violin section for part of my time in high school. I’m honored to be going back to be the soloist again.”

Thayer will perform Bela Bartok’s “Violin Concerto No. 2.”

“It’s considered one of the most important violin concertos of the century,” Edelstein said.

The piece was written in 1938 and mixes traditional and Avant-garde styles.

“Bartok uses lots of melodies in the Hungarian folk style,” Edelstein said. The mixture of these with the pieces that feel modern make the piece a variation.

Thayer said the song also contains variation in its form.

“Bartok’s second violin (concerto) is deceptive in its theme and variation context. (Bartok’s) friend, Zoltan Szekely, for whom it was written, asked him to write a standard three-movement concerto. Bartok, however, wanting to write the concerto in theme and variation format, satisfied both Szekely as well as his own ambitions by combining both ideas. The second movement is in fact a theme with six variations, and the third movement is all variations of the same material that he used in the first movement. Not only is this solution very clever, but it makes this exciting and colorful concerto even more brilliant when these layers of complexity are revealed and understood,” Thayer said.

The audience will get another taste of variations from the works of Aaron Copland; two of Copland’s songs will be performed by the WSO together with the Williamsport Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO).

“The students will sit with the orchestra, spread throughout the orchestra,” Edelstein. The two songs to be performed are “Variations on a Shaker Melody,” from “Appalachian Spring,” and “Hoe-Down,” from “Rodeo.”

“The music is very appealing. It’s based on folk songs,” Edelstein said.

The sole work following the concert intermission contains the most defined variations. “Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (‘Enigma’), Op. 36” by Edward Elgar is divided into numbered movements, with each movement written for a person the composer knew. Edelstein said Elgar wanted to portray his loved ones through music and chose 14 people, starting with his wife and ending with himself.

“Every variation represents a friend or somebody he knew very well, and he wanted to portray them in music,” Edelstein said. Originally the movements each were paired with initials, so listeners didn’t know who they referred to. The mystery deepened when Elgar revealed that all the people represented in the piece have one thing in common, but he kept mum on the common denominator.

“Because he took the mystery to his grave, nobody is able to unscramble the puzzle,” Edelstein said. “We’ll probably never find out (what everyone has in common).”

To experience “Variations on a Theme,” call the Community Arts Center at 570-326-2424 or visit www.caclive.com.