“Ecos armonicos,” the latest musical composition by music professor Craig Russell, will premiere with several of his other works at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles Sunday, an event so exciting that Mickey and Goofy may even make the trip from Anaheim to see the show.
The San Luis Obispo Symphony will perform, and the show will also feature guest performances by guitarist Jose Maria Gallardo del Ray, violinist Kathleen Lenski and French hornist Richard Todd.
Russell, who earned his doctorate in historical musicology from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is considered an expert in early 19th century cathedral music and baroque guitar music. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Ecos armonicos,” a piece which explores the rich history of California’s missions with a single violin leading the listener though a musical reenactment of what life was like 200 years ago.
Lenski, who will perform the piece, expressed her enthusiasm for the composition by emphasizing how it allowed her to tell a story while still capitalizing on her creativity as an artist.
“I find the whole subject matter of what Russell’s piece addresses to be interesting in itself, as these are old melodies from the days of the Spanish missions, some of which were played every day,” Lenski said.
“The meditative aspects of the piece allow me to play very freely. We even had a practice premiere at the San Luis Obispo Mission, and the crowd loved the performance so much that they covered the stage with roses, sending us all home with a big bouquet. The energy of the crowd was just remarkable,” she added.
All the guest artists, who have extended relationships with Russell that go back many years, are renowned for their expertise at their respective instruments as well as their prominence in the classical music community.
Gallardo del Ray, who Russell met while living in Spain more than 20 years ago, will open the concert with Russell’s piece “Concierto Romantico,” a work that is based on classical structures that includes homages to artists such as Beethoven and Bach.
Todd will continue the concert with “Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra,” a piece that explores various musical styles across a variety of movements.
While Lenski will perform “Ecos armonicos” as a solo violinist, the San Luis Obispo Symphony will join the other two artists in performing the first two pieces.
And though the guest artists are excited to take the work of a good friend to a new venue, members of the symphony are equally excited to be performing such highly regarded work in a venue the symphony has yet to see.
“I’m very proud to be working with Craig on these pieces, and the folks in L.A. should like them very much,” agreed Mike Nowak, a violist and the music director for the symphony.
“We’re encouraging students to come on down, as this whole program of music will be great to see and perform. It’s really an interesting palette of sound.”
For Russell, whose compositions have been performed in such famous venues as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Sydney Opera House, being able to have his work performed by his best friends in places like the Disney Concert Hall is a dream come true.
“This is really beyond my wildest dreams for what I’d hoped to do upon getting a job,” he said. “I’d just hoped that I’d be able to make music and pay the rent; I never thought that I’d get to meet these people, and now I get to make music with them and have them perform it.
“I find that working toward a wonderful concert is like working toward a sporting experience, in that everyone works together and combines their efforts to do something great.”
Russell’s enthusiasm for his profession has lead to critical acclaim for his works in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the American Record Guide, the New Times and the Eugene Register Guard. But it’s not just his musical compositions that reflect his expertise and enthusiasm for various musical styles, but also his teaching methods that he’s been practicing at Cal Poly for more than 25 years.
“He’s just an awesome teacher who loves what he does, and there’s never a dull moment in class,” said Alex Davis, an animal science senior who’s in Russell’s Music and Society class this quarter. “He’s always talking about how he can’t believe he gets paid for what he does, and that he’d pay to do what he does. It really makes you want to pay attention and hear what he’s talking about in class.”
The concert will feature a variety of eclectic musical ensembles, ranging from “Dizzy Bird” – a homage to Dizzy Gillespie and Bird Parker, the founders of bebop – to “Tito Machito” – a salsa tune honoring Tito Puente.
To be sure, concertgoers who attend the performance will be treated to a veritable cornucopia of musical styles and an enlightening experience at the same time.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall itself is a renowned venue within the classical music community and serves as home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Located in the heart of the downtown Los Angeles arts district, the Disney Concert Hall features distinctive architecture and some of the best harmonics in the business, which only serves to add to the excitement of the performers for Sunday’s show.
“It’s one of the great halls in the world with (its) very resonant sound,” Lenski said. “Everything’s made of wood, and there’s a lot of rounded curves, so there’s not a lot of material to suck up the sound.”
“It’s a great venue for the symphony’s first performance in Los Angeles,” Nowak added. “I’d put this venue on par with the more famous places Russell’s work has been performed, and I know symphony members are looking forward to it.”
Russell explained that while he was looking forward to having his compositions performed in such a premier venue, he was most looking forward to seeing his friends and doing what he loves most.
“This concert really is a magnification of the wonderful experiences that best friends have had together, friends who love each other and love to make music together,” Russell said. “I find it to be a celebration of the best part of the human spirit – an emotional gratification within a reliance on one another.”