DOWNEY – The Downey Symphony Orchestra will be performing a momentous, historic concert this coming Saturday evening at the Civic Theatre. It will be noteworthy, not only because of a program uniquely designed for the occasion, but more significantly, thanks to its role in a singular celebration of the City of Downey’s 60th anniversary.
And while these statements may seem self-serving coming from the pen of one of the two composers to be represented in the program, they are merely intended as an introduction to a perspective I’d like to share – as a contributing composer who’s also a Downey resident – on why this program is so special.
Its very title, “The Stars Align,” points not only to the positive, fortuitous influences that have brought Downey throughout its history to the present day, but more specifically – and more poetically – to the impact of the early U.S. space industry on that very history.
The primary offering of the concert will be British composer Gustav Holst’s iconic and ground-breaking multi-movement work, appropriately titled, “The Planets.”
“The Planets” – completed exactly 100 years ago, in 1916 – is a classic example of what’s broadly described as “program” music, or music with “programmatic” content. These terms describe music that is written to take on extra-musical significance related to stories, images, or sentiments which the music endeavors to evoke or describe.
While its seven movements, each one named for one of the planets in Earth’s solar system, specifically correspond to their eponymous Greco-Roman gods, the visceral, energetic, dramatic music that Holst has created for each movement perfectly depicts the human characteristics attributed to each of these imaginary, yet somehow profoundly real, divine personalities. Here are their titles:
I Mars, the Bringer of War
II Venus, the Bringer of Peace
III Mercury, the Winged Messenger
IV Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
V Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
VI Uranus, the Magician
VII Neptune, the Mystic
Likewise, the 3-movement composition I have written – titled “Downey Celebration Suite” – is meant to portray images of Downey, its character, and its natural and cultural history. The first movement is called “Sanguine Scherzo.” It features a lilting, cheerful theme, as suggested by the astrologically optimistic title of the entire program.
The second movement – “Sunrise Serenade” – is intended to conjure up the experience of daybreak as it would have arisen over the orange groves and open fields of mostly rural Downey in the 1950’s and ’60’s. (It also sneakily references another ‘planet,’ beyond the seven invoked by Holst.)
One last – almost hidden – programmatic element of this second movement is that its melody is based on the lyrical rhythm suggested by spelling aloud the letters of the city: “D-O-dou-ble-u-N-E-Y.”
The third movement finally breaks from the alliterative titles of the first two movements in order to celebrate the advent of a new cultural influence in Downey, and that is the growth of a flourishing Latino community. This closing movement is entitled “Salsa Caliente.”
It begins with a high-energy opening motif utilizing Latin hand percussion, which transitions into a mariachi trumpet duet as a second theme. That melody ultimately combines with the opening theme for an upbeat, celebratory conclusion.
Conductor Sharon Lavery designed the program beginning with the Holst, which at about 50 minutes in length, can be seen as the concert’s main course. The shorter opening suite, which she graciously commissioned to this writer, serves as an appetizer to that world-famous entrée (hopefully a tasty one).
Even beyond its unique two-work, intermission-free program, this upcoming concert is significant to the history of Downey in that the Downey Symphony Orchestra is almost as old as the City itself. According to the American Federation of Musicians’ online listing, of 35 affiliated symphony orchestras in the region, the Downey Symphony Orchestra ranks as tied for ninth oldest, including such iconic orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Further, in order to help fund the large orchestra called for by the Holst, the DSO was the beneficiary of a grant from the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts.
It’s an honor for me as a resident to participate in this musical celebration of Downey’s history, and I hope as many of the Patriot’s readers as possible will make time to attend the concert this Saturday at the Downey Civic Theatre at 8 p.m., preceded by a pre-concert lecture-discussion at 7:15.