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At Howard County Concert Orchestra’s ‘Three Bs’ concert, expect the unexpected

Edward Chi, a River Hill High School senior and a performer with the National Philharmonic Summer String Institute, will play with the Howard County Concert Orchestra on Jan. 19.
Edward Chi, a River Hill High School senior and a performer with the National Philharmonic Summer String Institute, will play with the Howard County Concert Orchestra on Jan. 19. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

A classical music reference to “the three Bs” means that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are being invoked, but the Howard County Concert Orchestra has something else in mind for a program titled “The Three Bs: Birds, Butterflies and Boeuf — A New Year’s Celebration.”

This unusual title will be musically explained in the concert on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m. at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ellicott City.

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Selecting innovative repertory for this annual New Year’s-themed concert is something that the orchestra’s music director, Ron Mutchnik, clearly enjoys. In this case, Mutchnik explained that he was open to suggestions from his own musicians.

“Some of our wind players noted that it’s usually been an all-strings program, and it would be nice to display colorful playing for wind instruments,” Mutchnik said of the first "B" in the program title. The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, who produced lushly romantic music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is most often represented on concert programs by “The Pines of Rome,” but Mutchnik instead will be performing a Respighi composition that deserves to be better known, “The Birds.”

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“Respighi took themes from Baroque composers and refashioned the music in modern orchestrations to suit his more modern audience,” Mutchnik said. “This is his delightful tribute to Baroque music.”

The wind players and others in the orchestra emulate the sounds made by a cuckoo, a nightingale and other birds. So, “The Birds” promises to bring a light and whimsical tone to the program.

As for the second "B" in the program, it’s a reference to a 1958 violin concerto titled “Butterfly Lovers.” Its composers, He Zhanhau and Chen Gang, thematically derived the piece from an ancient legend that Mutchnik likened to a “Romeo and Juliet” “story of star-crossed lovers who found their freedom to be together.”

In terms of the Chinese classical music tradition, the violin is technically used in a way that evokes a stringed instrument known as the erhu.

Although “Butterfly Lovers” reaches far back in Chinese culture for its material, the featured violin soloist is a young Howard County high school student. Edward Chi, a senior at River Hill High School, has musical credentials including five years with the National Philharmonic Summer String Institute.

The performance of the 25-minute “Butterfly Lovers” will be visually accompanied by video footage that Mutchnik shot during a trip he made to China last year. Mutchnik noted that the “beautiful pastoral scenes” in the video will complement the lyrical, folk-inspired sound of “Butterfly Lovers.”

The third "B" in the program is represented by French composer Darius Milhaud’s music for the 1920 ballet “Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Bull on the Roof).”

“Along with the birds and the butterflies, this different kind of three Bs concert has a bull on the roof,” Mutchnik said, laughing. “This is music that was written for an absurdist ballet, and that music has a Brazilian quality to it.”

In short, the culturally diverse upcoming concert seems to incorporate everything but Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

The Howard County Concert Orchestra performs on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m. at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3604 Chatham Road in Ellicott City. Tickets are $25, $12 for students, and free for children. Call 443-803-6547 or go to hococo.org.

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