CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In the late 1930s, the American composer Samuel Barber created a work for string quartet with a slow, hauntingly beautiful second movement. That section of the composition proved to be so powerful that Barber soon arranged that movement as a complete work for an expanded string orchestra. The piece, “Adagio for Strings,” is arguably the most popular work by an American composer. It also often bears the title, “the saddest music in the world.”
In 2010, Clarksville’s Gateway Chamber Orchestra performed the piece to much acclaim for the local community. At 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, the ensemble will present Aaron Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” – a masterwork known as an “Adagio for Strings for a new century” – during its “Heavenly Strings” concert at the Austin Peay State University Mabry Concert Hall.
“He (Kernis) had a similar phenomena as Barber with this piece,” Dr. Gregory Wolynec, conductor of the GCO and APSU professor of music, said. “Kernis wrote a string quartet that had a beautiful, slow movement, and he was commissioned to arrange it for a string orchestra. He did this in 1990. So, 50 years after Barber he is creating a new work in a similar way.”
“Musica Celestis” differs from “Adagio for Strings,” Wolynec said, in that the Kernis piece isn’t as melancholy as “the saddest music in the world.”
“It is profoundly beautiful, absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “It’s beautiful in a very different way from Barber. It’s still slow, still sustained and still makes incredible use of the range of sounds and colors available from a string section. But it’s more atmospheric and more uplifting.”
Kernis, like Barber, is also an American composer, making him a perfect fit for the GCO’s unique style of programming. For every concert, the orchestra includes a piece by an American composer, an established masterwork and a “forgotten gem” that, according to Wolynec, “history may have missed that we think deserves to be championed.”
The piece the orchestra plans to champion during the Feb. 11 “Heavenly Strings” concert will be German composer Carl Reinecke’s “Cello Concerto, Op. 82.” Cellist Michael Samis, a member of the GCO and the Nashville Symphony, rediscovered the work about a year ago. He contacted Wolynec about performing the difficult piece, and the two men spent the next six months tracking down music from Germany.
“We’ve not been able to find any evidence that the piece has ever been performed in the United States,” Wolynec said. “This might be the American premier of this work. It has beautiful melodies that are handled in a masterful way by the composer.”
The Feb. 11 concert will conclude with renowned Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s masterwork “Symphony No. 103 in E flat.” The work surprised audiences in London when it premiered in 1790 because it opens with the booming sound of drums. The work is often nicknamed “The Drum Roll.”
“The first movement is very dramatic, and the second movements in Haydn’s symphonies tend to be based on popular folk tunes of the time,” Wolynec said. “I think no word better describes his music than elegant.”
The “Heavenly Strings” concert is part of the orchestra’s 2012-13 season. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and active duty military, $40 for a family of four and free to APSU students with a valid I.D. Tickets are available on the orchestra’s website, gatewaychamberorchestra.com.