Missoula’s String Orchestra of the Rockies has plenty of experience playing pieces that feature uncommon instruments — the basset horn, lute or harpsichord.
But it’s rarer for the baroque orchestra to play contemporary pieces featuring such instruments, as they do in their upcoming concert “Montana Seasons.”
Greek-American composer Christopher Theofanidis’ 2007 piece “Muse” is second on the bill and it is written for strings and harpsichord.
“Which is a really wild combination for contemporary music,” Artistic Director Maria Larionoff said. “It’s really edgy.”
The piece eschews traditional Italian tempo markings such as “allegro” and “adagio” for modern English descriptors like “brilliant, fiery" for the first movement and “willfull, deliberate” for the third movement.
This helps make Theofanidis’ music accessible for a wide range of audiences, Larionoff said, as does the music, which uses energetic rhythms and some jazzy notes to bring people into the first movement.
“It really races along,” said Larionoff, who plays violin in the orchestra. “We’re all really sweaty trying to get it up to speed.”
The second movement (“with a light touch, ornate”), is more minimalistic and meditative, with heavy focus on the harpsichord, played by Aneta Panusz.
“Muse” takes inspiration from Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, using similar instrumentation: three violins, three violas, three cellos, a contrabass and a harpsichord.
Add to that the six additional violists and violinists from Hellgate High school and University of Montana student players that will accompany the String Orchestra, and it starts getting a bit crowded.
“There’s going to be a lot of people on stage,” Larionoff said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
The SOR is proud of its educational outreach component, Larionoff said, and likes especially to give students the experience of participating in a community orchestra with no conductor.
That means the musicians work collaboratively on which pieces to play and how to play them, working things out democratically during practice instead of following their conductor’s instructions.
Sometimes students can be shy during those conversations, Larionoff said, or they jump at the chance to help decide the direction of the piece. Either way, it’s a valuable learning experience, one that Larionoff remembers well from her student days.
“It really opened my eyes and ears to ‘this is the life I’m getting into,’” she said.
Larionoff and UM Music professor Margaret Baldridge are the featured violin soloists on another Bach concerto that leads off the concert: his Concerto in D minor for two violins.
Two versions of Vivaldi’s “Winter” movement from the famous “Four Seasons” concerto close out the concert: Vivaldi’s own and a reinterpretation by Argentinian composer Astor Piazolla.
“Winter” includes a cello solo and some interesting percussive sounds from the other string instruments, Larionoff said. Piazolla’s version, true to his roots in tango music, has some Latin flair.
“It has little quotes from Vivaldi, but it’s very Spanish-sounding and jazzy,” Larionoff said.