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PSO adds a musical twist to storybook classics

| Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It was a shocker -- a courageous new piece, ambitious in scope and with a fresh approach to musical language. And "Final Alice" by David Del Tredici actually had good tunes to hum on the way home.

"I was at the premiere on Oct. 7, 1976. I didn't know much about David at the time," conductor Leonard Slatkin says. "I knew he was a serial composer changing his direction. Then, I heard 'Final Alice,' 55 minutes. I fell in love with it. For the first time in my musical concert-going experience, I saw an audience just explode after a new piece."

Slatkin will conduct the Pittsburgh premiere of Del Tredici's "Final Alice" with soprano Hila Plitmann and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on a program called "Twisted Storybook Favorites" on Friday and Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" will begin the concerts, with David Conrad as narrator using a new text by Peter Leo.

Del Tredici set scenes from the final two chapters of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," including her trial, interspersed with four arias. He used the Acrostic Song from "Through the Looking Glass" that spells out the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell, and additional texts from "The Annotated Alice" by Martin Gardner and illustrator John Tenniel.

When Slatkin looked at the score soon after the premiere by Barbara Hendricks, George Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he saw it had been performed with a substantial cut, about 10 minutes of music. The composer made the cut at the request of Solti, who told him that he believed a new orchestral piece shouldn't be more than 45 minutes in duration. The cut also was made on the 1980 Decca recording by the performers who gave the premiere.

Slatkin gave the premiere of the uncut score with the St. Louis Symphony. He commissioned Del Tredici to write another Alice piece, "In Memory of a Summer Day," which won the composer the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and Slatkin recorded.

Classical composition still was in the throes of formal academic structures in the '70s, Slatkin says.

"Then, he came with this giant piece with big tunes, fugues and virtuosic writing. I went nuts. This was the orchestral equivalent of (George) Rochberg's Third String Quartet -- a shock."

Del Tredici began writing "Final Alice," on Jan. 1, 1974 and completed the orchestration on Dec. 31, 1975. As he worked, he began to worry about how it would be received. The musical language he was developing was apostasy for a leading atonal composer.

"It's hard to remember how exciting atonality was unless you were there and a composer," Del Tredici says. "The standard voice of healthy American music was Copland and Barber. Then, a green fog started to filter over from Europe, from Schoenberg, and it was thrilling."

Del Tredici's "Syzygy," written in 1965 for soprano and chamber ensemble was widely recognized as a masterpiece and recorded more than once. He calls it his "atonal Alice."

"I went with my instinct and finished 'Final Alice' with a lot of fear and trembling," he recalls. "When it became such a success, I was stunned. I was worried about being laughed out of the hall."

After "Final Alice," a unique mix of tonality and atonality, Del Tredici decided he could write all in tonality. He did so in "Memory of a Summer Day" and has since.

Additional Information:

'Twisted Storybook Favorites'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Hila Plitmann, soprano

When: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $20-$88

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or website

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