Until I moved to the Harrisburg metro area in 2016, I had only attended concerts by globally celebrated symphony orchestras from big cities: Boston and Chicago.
So, when I attended my first Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra concert in 2017, I had modest expectations.
Like many first-time HSO concertgoers, my bar was set far too low. From my perspective as a classical aficionado, music Director Stuart Malina has performed miracles, transforming a regional orchestra into a first-class institution that also happens to play in a spectacular venue (the Forum).
“The Boston Symphony is the Boston Symphony, but we’re not that far below in terms of what we put out there,” said Malina, who jokingly calls the HSO “one of Harrisburg’s best-known secrets.” “I wish more people had a sense of how special it is to have this orchestra here.”
This coming season will mark Malina’s 20th year at the helm and the orchestra’s 90th anniversary. And it’s clear this season will be like none before.
“It’s an extra special year, and I really do feel like I have put together an extra special season,” he said. “Every concert really is a big event, and there are a lot of special things we don’t normally do.”
The Masterworks series kicks off with a bang on Oct. 5 and 6, with what the maestro calls “Malina Madness.” He will perform Mozart’s celebrated 26th Piano Concerto at the keyboard while simultaneously conducting the orchestra. He’ll close the show with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” one of the most beloved pieces in the symphonic repertoire.
But what sets this concert apart is the fact that Malina will have the rare experience of conducting a 16-minute “Suite for Orchestra” written by his son, Zev. Besides being an accomplished pianist, this Central Dauphin High School senior has twice won the National Young Composers Challenge.
“For me, that will probably be the highlight of the season,” said the proud father. “The idea that I get to conduct my son’s music is—I can’t even say it’s a dream come true because it’s something I never even dreamed. It’s overwhelming.”
Zev composed the three-movement piece between the ages of 15 and 17. He submitted the second and third movements for the Young Composers Challenge, and both won the award for that year. He wrote the first movement specifically to complete the suite for the HSO.
“In all honesty, I got the ideas for all three movements actually just by sitting at a piano and messing around until something stuck,” said Zev.
The heroic first movement, “Maiden Voyage,” will be followed by a slower, impressionistic second movement, “Dreamscape.” Zev said that the fast third movement, “Ballet for Fighter Jets,” was influenced by Shostakovich and other Russian composers.
Stuart describes the work as “a wonderful piece of music that is thoroughly accessible.”
Malina said it’s “the peak of insanity” to follow the heightened emotional experience of conducting his son’s piece by playing and conducting the Mozart concerto. He wonders if he’ll fall apart during the applause and not be able to come out for the concerto.
Concerts in November and January present long-time favorites such as Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” A film will accompany the latter work, with imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA interplanetary probes.
Malina particularly looks forward to the Feb. 8 and 9 performances of the great American folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” written by George and Ira Gershwin, along with DuBose Heyward.
“This is something that we’ve talked about doing for a while, but it’s a very big project, a very expensive project,” said Malina, who added that the HSO can afford to perform this massive production because of money raised through its “Let the Music Grow” campaign a few years ago.
The three-hour performance will include an all-star cast and chorus. Malina said that the highlighted vocalists, Laquita Mitchell and Gordon Hawkins, “have performed ‘Porgy and Bess’ all over the world at the greatest opera houses.”
A March 14 and 15 concert will include works by Béla Bartók, the modern composer Kevin Puts and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, followed, the next month, by a special Beethoven birthday bash. These concerts, on April 18 and 19, will feature the great master’s Violin Concerto and his 6th Symphony, known as the “Pastoral” due to its inspiration from nature.
HSO concertmaster Peter Sirotin will perform the concerto’s solo violin parts.
“It’s incredibly difficult in ways that are not obvious to a listener because it doesn’t include technical elements found in Paganini or Sibelius,” said Sirotin, who also directs Market Square Concerts with his wife, Ya-Ting Chang. “But it requires a very disciplined approach to execution and interpretation.”
Sirotin added that he can’t specify the number of hours he’ll practice before his performances, but it’s a piece for which he has prepared his entire life.
“What I love about the piece on a personal level is its spirit of optimism, celebration of life and humanity,” he said.
The Masterworks series closes on May 16 and 17 with performances of Johannes Brahms, the contemporary Maryland composer Jonathan Leshnoff and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Malina is equally excited by the Pops Concert series, which adds an additional pair of concerts this season for a total of five. The opening and closing shows will serve as tributes to the great American artists Aretha Franklin and John Williams. Two others spotlight the critically acclaimed vocalists Michael Cavanaugh and Lisa Vroman.
Malina is particularly eager for the Jan. 25 and 26 performances of “South Pacific,” the great Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Broadway extravaganza. Like the HSO, this musical is experiencing its 90th anniversary. And Malina said that, like “Porgy and Bess,” it’s a huge production that can only be staged after sufficient funds have been raised.
“We will do the entire show, with an entire New York cast, and with casting from Broadway veterans,” Malina said. “It will be a great show.”
He hopes that these performances will draw big audiences.
“Each person exponentially increases the energy of the concert,” he said.
For more information about the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, visit www.harrisburgsymphony.org.