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Columbia Orchestra digs into musical influences

When the Columbia Orchestra performs on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m., in Jim Rouse Theatre, keep your ears open for the different musical influences in each of the three compositions on the program.

The influence of Czech folk music can be heard in Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, jazz percolates within Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, and African-American spirituals are the musical underpinning of James Lee III's "Chuphshah! Harriet Tubman's Drive to Canaan."

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"It's fascinating how there's a certain kind of element for each of the three pieces," observed Columbia Orchestra music director Jason Love. "Digging into those influences was a fun discovery for me. Each of the pieces reflects a particular culture and time."

Czech composer Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88 had its premiere in Prague in 1889. This pastoral-themed symphony has moments where bird songs and a thunderstorm are evoked. It also reflects the influence of the folk songs that meant a lot to the composer.

French composer Ravel's Piano Concerto in G had its premiere in Paris in 1932. Although it certainly fits within the Romanticism for which this composer is known, it also has elements of American jazz.

On a biographical note, Ravel was preparing for an American tour at the time he composed it; and he also was thinking about George Gershwin's fusion of jazz and classical music in "Rhapsody in Blue."

Discussing the Ravel concerto, Love remarked that "the syncopation of jazz opened up a more rhythmic language for the composer and resulted in an exuberant piece."

The piano soloist is Rachel Franklin. This British-born, Maryland-based pianist has taught at the Peabody Institute. Besides having extensive performance credentials, she is popular as a speaker and has appeared in that capacity at the Library of Congress, Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and Smithsonian Associate program.

"Rachel is such a perfect match for this piece, because she trained as a classical pianist but also loves to play jazz," Love said.

The third piece in the upcoming program is by a Maryland composer and takes as its subject a former slave from the Eastern Shore who was a heroic figure in the Underground Railroad.

Born in Michigan in 1975, James Lee III is a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. This composer's "Chuphshah! Harriet Tubman's Drive to Canaan" had its Baltimore premiere in 2011.

"Chuphshah" is the Biblical Hebrew word for freedom, and specifically freedom from slavery. For slaves, "Canaan" was a word used to describe the free states of the North and also Canada.

In selecting this piece, Love noted that it's thematically a good choice for black history month and added that "Harriet Tubman hopefully will appear on our currency at some point."

The musical style of Lee's piece directly reflects spirituals including "Go Down Moses" and "No More Auction Block For Me;" and other music from 19th-century America, including "Battle Hymn of the Republic," can be heard as well.

The overall sound of Lee's piece, Love said, "is dramatic and cinematic in a Charles Ives sort of way."

Just as the 20th-century American composer Charles Ives drew on folkloric traditions, Lee has a strong awareness of the music history underscoring his own composition. Indeed, it quite literally served as his spiritual inspiration.

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Columbia Orchestra performs on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m., in Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. Tickets are $28 and $22, $24 and $18 for seniors, $12 and $10 for students. There is a free pre-concert discussion with composer James Lee III and Howard Community College music teacher Bill Scanlan Murphy at 6:30 p.m. Call 410-465-8777 or go to www.columbiaorchestra.org

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