“Cold Mountain” began as a National Book Award winning novel that was turned into an Oscar-winning movie and then an opera and suite by one of the leading female composers in contemporary classical music.
The 1997 novel by Charles Frazier tells the story of a wounded Civil War soldier who travels against great odds across the countryside to reunite with his one true love. The novel was turned into a popular movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.
Inspired by the dramatic passion of Frazier’s novel, composer Jennifer Higdon wrote a critically acclaimed opera, which she subsequently adapted into a musical suite highlighting the intense emotional landscapes of love, war and passion as the soldier embarks on a difficult spiritual odyssey to Cold Mountain.
Higdon’s “Cold Mountain Suite” will open the Salina Symphony’s season finale concert, “Passion,” a celebration of powerful female voices in classical music. The concert will begin at 4 p.m. May 7 at the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, 151 S. Santa Fe.
Higdon is one of the most acclaimed composers in contemporary classical music. She received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her “Violin Concerto,” a 2010 Grammy award for her “Percussion Concerto,” a 2018 Grammy for her “Viola Concerto” and a 2020 Grammy for her “Harp Concerto.”
Yaniv Segal, conductor and music director of the Salina Symphony, said Higdon shouldn’t be defined as a female composer but as a great classical composer whatever her gender.
“Jennifer is one of the leading composers of her generation,” he said. “She has a real gift. She creates very beautiful melodies, but ones that take unexpected turns. She’s a brilliant orchestrator that makes an orchestra shimmer.”
In addition to Higdon’s suite, the Salina Symphony will perform selections from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and “Meditation from Thais” by Jules Massenet.
“Through these pieces, you get to know these powerful women who have powerful stories, who have made their mark on history,” Segal said.
Salina Symphony concertmaster and violinist Denise Blehm will be the featured soloist for the season finale. A Salina native, Blehm has been a member of the Salina Symphony for more than 25 years and concertmaster for the last 20 seasons.
Blehm will be performing violin solos during “Meditation from Thais” and “Scheherazade.”
Massenet’s “Meditation from Thais” is taken from the instrumental entr’acte between the first and second acts of the French composer’s opera, “Thais,” and has been a showcase for violinists throughout its history.
“The melody is a well-known violin solo,” Segal said. “A beautiful piece that will feature Denise on violin.”
While thinking of other powerful women in music to include in the concert, Segal turned to perhaps the two most famous female characters in opera: Carmen and Scheherazade.
The character of Carmen is one of the most memorable women in opera with her contempt for social conventions, overt sexual behavior and violent death, all set to timeless music by Bizet, which was adapted in 1880 into two arrangements of orchestral suites by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud using music from the opera.
The Symphony will perform Suite No. 1, which opens with the Act I prelude and moves into an instrumental interlude showcasing Spanish idioms, rhythms and evocative melodies.
“It’s a great portrayal of an empowered woman who felt free to do what she wanted to do and ends up being murdered by her jealous lover,” Segal said.
According to legend, Scheherazade’s stories were invented to prevent her execution at the hands of her brutal husband. These stories were spun over 1,001 nights and were a blend of poems, folk songs and fairy tales. She eventually had her death sentence commuted because the power of her stories captured the imagination of all who listened to them.
Rimsky-Korsakov capitalized on the fame of this immortal story when he featured the legendary storyteller and her tales in a musical composition that included a solo violin that opens the first two movements.
“The character of Scheherazade is represented by the violin, which is a huge solo for our concertmaster,” he said.
Blehm said “Scheherazade” is an incredible piece for a violinist.
“The violin is the voice of Scheherazade, and you can feel the tension mounting in it,” she said. “But it also has an incredible solo for Dena Berquist, our principal cellist, and also for the flute and clarinet.”
Blehm said she has been grateful for Segal’s encouragement and guidance while rehearsing the piece.
“He’s an exceptional musician and conductor and knows how to get the most out of his musicians, but he does it in such a kind manner,” she said. “He’s also a violinist, so it’s been a treat to learn from him.”
Reflecting on his first season as Salina Symphony music director and conductor, Segal said he has been “really pleased with the positive reception and interest in arts and culture I’ve found in (Salina).”
“As I put together diverse and adventurous programs, I feel I have the support of the community, the orchestra and the (Symphony) board,” he said. “I’m pleased how the orchestra is starting to understand the things I’m asking for and are continuing to grow.”
As he plans his second season, Segal realizes he has a first year of great expectations to live up to.
“There’s not enough time to present all the things I’d love to do here,” he said. “But I can promise that next year will be very exciting, with incredible soloists.”
Tickets for the Salina Symphony’s “Passion” concert are $29 and $39 for adults or $19 for students aged 5 to college senior. Tickets may be purchased at the Stiefel Theatre box office, by calling 785-827-1998 or online at www.salinasymphony.org.
Segal will host a pre-concert talk at 3 p.m. in the Stiefel Theatre’s Watson Room. Those attending are asked to enter through the main theatre doors, which open at 2:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Salina Symphony executive director Adrienne Allen at 823-8309 or visit www.salinasymphony.org.