Classical Folk: Seaman to lead CSO through variety of cultural styles, atmospheres


Christopher Seaman

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Christopher Seaman was music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 13 years but has never been to Chautauqua — until tonight.

Seaman will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

“I know that (Chautauquans) are a wonderfully appreciative audience, a cultured audience and an audience with a lot of musical background,” he said. “I’m delighted to visit. I do think that it’s going to be marvelous.”

Seaman just concluded his tenure as the RPO’s longest-serving music director and was honored with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. More than 40 of his fans will ride a bus from Rochester to Chautauqua to see their favorite conductor.

Tonight’s program was devised to contain a variety of different styles and atmospheres, Seaman said.

The concert opens with Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.” Seaman said he has an affinity for the piece because Berlioz was a redhead, and so is he.

“He always did the unexpected,” Seaman said. “He broke all the rules, and yet, was incredibly, musically effective. He had a wonderful sense of drama and color.”

That rebellious originality, as Seaman dubbed it, comes through in the first few seconds of the piece, which starts out as a wild carnival and stops abruptly. With a few trills in the wind section, the piece continues with a solo for the English horn.

Following Berlioz’s overture is another piece by a French composer, Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50. Seaman described Fauré as a man with true grit — a military hero who sparked the resignations of several professors when he was appointed as director of the Paris Conservatoire.

A pavane is an ancient dance, typically composed in memoriam. Fauré’s “Pavane” was written with parts for a chorus, too, but is seldom performed with one, because of its “stupid” lyrics, Seaman said.

“Fauré was obviously sending it up, but like a lot of great composers, what actually comes out exceeded his intentions,” he said. “What we actually have is not just a little send-up, a little parody, a little bit of satire, but the most beautiful, simple, touching dance in 4-time, in the style of a pavane.”

After the pavane, the CSO will perform “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The piece is part of six symphonic poems titled “My Fatherland” and is named for a river in the Czech Republic.

“The Moldau” traces the career of the river, beginning as a small stream and broadening as it goes through different scenes, including a village wedding and a moonlit landscape, and past the ghosts of an ancient army.

The piece builds as the river goes through Prague, where Seaman conducts regularly.

“When I am in Prague, I always go over the Charles Bridge and look at the river,” he said. “The melody of the piece comes into my mind, and I get a big lump in my throat.”

Once the river runs its course, the program continues with British composer Edward Elgar’s “Chanson de matin,” or “Morning Song,” which Seaman called a “delicious little piece,” full of genuine, if dated, sentiment that gives it a nostalgic air. Elgar is famous for his large, important works, but his smaller salon pieces are charming, Seaman said.

The song is followed by another British composition, “Fantasia on Greensleeves” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The piece is based on the well-known tune “Green-sleeves,” which is sometimes rumored as being written by King Henry VIII, but because of its modal scale, its origin is probably a folk song, Seaman said.

He said the piece is beautifully set, simple and touching.

Tonight’s program concludes with the “Firebird” suite by Igor Stravinsky. Seaman called the suite a brilliant orchestral showpiece. The suite is part of Stravinsky’s larger ballet of the same name and is based on a classic Russian tale of good and evil.

Though Stravinsky’s music was experimental, he never stopped sounding Russian, Seaman said, because of his link with traditional Russian folk songs and the modes and rhythms they use.

“Firebird” is popular because of its fantastic colors and great story, Seaman said, but it’s also very organic in the way its sections are linked together and is filled with intellectual unity.

“It hits to the brain as well as the heart,” Seaman said.

The British-born conductor reflected on his career in the United States, where he has held positions as music director of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Naples, Fla., and conductor-in-residence of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in addition to his long tenure at the RPO.

“America has been very good to me, and I really am very grateful,” he said. “And it’s still being very good to me, I might add!”

In addition to his regular appearances as guest conductor at orchestras around the world, Seaman also is working on a book about conducting.

“The book is for people who go to concerts, do not have college training and would love to know more about what a conductor does,” he said.

Seaman will conduct with the CSO again on Thursday with guest violinist Joan Kwuon.