Culver City Observer -

Take A Break: Entertaining Santa Monica Symphony Celebration


February 2, 2017

Smart And Spicy

"I try to have fun," he told me, when I asked about the cowboy hat and the train whistles.

I'd watched Guido Lamell, Music Director/ Conductor of the Santa Monica Symphony, wearing a Stetson while conducting Rodeo. I'd laughed as he blew a train whistle for comic effect during a concert. I'd been amused while he advised his audience, referring to a specific musical piece on the program, "If you have to leave to relieve yourself, do it during this piece; you won't miss much."

If you think classical music's for elitist snobs, this is the orchestra for you.

Every year this orchestra honors Martin Luther King Day with a special concert. This year, the centerpiece was Appalachian Spring, by Aaron Copland.

I asked Guido how he chose the music for the concert.

"I tried very hard to make it relevant to this holiday. And to Martin Luther King's own pursuits, and the time frame in which he lived. It happens to be difficult; it's hard to find things that are relative to the black experience, because generally speaking, the black experience hasn't been much involved in classical music. There's not much in the symphonic realm; you can only play Porgy and Bess so many times."

How does Appalachian Spring relate to that? "Copland lived during the same time that Martin Luther King lived, so they shared this planet at the same time. And it's American.

"I stay away from Beethoven and Mozart, and things like that, because I see no connection at all. I don't know Martin Luther King's daily schedule, but I figure he may have gone to a performance of Martha Graham doing Appalachian Spring. It's very possible.

"There's a famous black composer who goes back to the time of Mozart. He was called 'the black Mozart.' His name was William Grant Still. Even though he's one of the world's most famous black composers, he's from 200 years ago. It's such a different time frame that I find less of a connection there than with a white composer today who's drawing from contemporary American idioms and incorporating jazz elements and tunes that may have originated in the South of the U.S. I think that's much more interesting. These American harmonies and dance rhythms, square dances, are things that African-Americans may have participated in.

"Specifically for this program, I did find one piece by one of our most highly-regarded contemporary composers, and that's the first piece on the program: Adolphus Hailstork's Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed. He wrote it upon the death of Martin Luther King. So what could be more appropriate than that? Music from a black composer, about Martin Luther King, drawing on his interpretation of the life work, fulfillment, and tribulations; it's all in there."

Did you ever think about who chooses the music at concerts, or how these choices get made? I was impressed with the pains Lamell took to create a program matched to the occasion. He's played with the L.A. Philharmonic for 38 years; one presupposes a tactile familiarity with the entire classical repertoire.

Back to the cowboy hat he wore, then waved wild-spirited in the air during an earlier concert. Why does he act this way onstage?

"I try to connect with people; I try to break down the barriers between the traditional classic music world and the audience. So I make it, in a way, informal. I try to make it as connecting, and as relevant, and as much of a shared experience as I can."

Charming, that's how I find his playfulness while conducting.

So, Carole, how was the Annual MLK concert?

It was fun!

The opener by Adolphus Hailstork was so contemporary, the program had a link to a YouTube video. Guido told the audience that he couldn't find the actual music; he was told the music was sadly gone. "I was brokenhearted, because this was the main piece on our program." He asked everywhere, finally finding a friend who'd bought the composer's whole collection. "He saved our concert."

Written on the score itself: "A great man is being buried."

The music was mighty; conjuring a picture of a funeral in great mourning. With church bells it sounded authentic; it became richer and fuller as the harp joined, then played alone. It was majestic.

Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, was pretty and lyrical, and impressionist in places. Annelle Gregory was the soloist; she absolutely looked the part. Her dress, the color of champagne, sparkled as if it were itself talking; she's young, and lovely, and a great violinist. Remember the name. Her face looked rhapsodic as she played; she later told the audience, "I fell in love with Barber; it's playing in perpetual motion."

After the mournful first piece, it was a relief as the Barber slowly became delightful. It was intriguing, with bite; it deserved the standing ovation.

I love the Shaker theme that centers Appalachian Spring. "A piece of our American Soul" was how they introduced it.

So soothing, and so lovely, it was the orchestra drawing a picture of scenes from American life. You hear the hoedown themes and you know it's American; Guido was right. The orchestra played it soft, then strong, then soft again; the oboe, and trumpets, were superb.

"We Shall Overcome" was a gift to us all in the end; Guido invited the audience to sing. "Let's stand up just for fun, and let's pick it up - this is a happy occasion," he said.

Guido mixed it up; it was jazzy, remarkable playing, as much a highlight as the music in the concert. Everyone stood and sang, and you could see real smiles on the faces of the musicians.

Let's just say many in the audience were in tears. Me too. Can you imagine how extraordinary it was to share the moment with hundreds of people, all singing, teary-eyed, together? Everyone left feeling the true spirit of the day.

Carole Bell is a writer interested in everything.

You can write to her at:


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