TEXARKANA, Texas — The Texarkana Symphony Orchestra aims to delight a Perot Theatre audience with its "Enchanted Tales" on Saturday, Feb. 22.
And such enchantments include an instrument not normally associated with an orchestra: the electric guitar.
Philip Mann conducts with guest artist D.J. Sparr performing his contemporary piece "Violet Bond: Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra." Also on tap for selections are Felix Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave" concert overture to "The Hebrides," which pairs with the Sparr work for the first half.
After an intermission, the TSO presents Anatoly Lyadov's "Enchanted Lake, op. 62" and Igor Stravinsky's famous "The Firebird," a concert suite for orchestra.
"I'm extremely excited about this program," Mann said. "It started with a vision to create a classical program that was varied and had all kinds of evocative sounds and storytelling, that would be a perfect first experience for somebody to have to hear an orchestra or to experience classical music."
All four selections were chosen to provide a different experience, he said, via a narrative or the depictions of colors and scenes in music. "In a way that is very easy to quickly fall in love with," Mann said, describing Sparr as the first person in history to appear as an electric guitar playing soloist on a Grammy Award-winning classical album.
"There's a certain gravitas with that, but he is just a captivating, engaging performer," the conductor said of this virtuoso. The idea is that people will know more about the rock and pop music world from which Sparr hails.
"And that would be a window, an entry, for people to hear it combined with an orchestra," Mann said, noting "Violet Bond" has a personal connection for the composer. It's also a combination of musical traditions that don't compete with each other, he says.
Mann, who has commissioned work from Sparr in the past ("he has always knocked them out of the park") describes the composer and guitarist as one of the most sought-after of young American composers, one who's worked with top orchestras in the U.S.
"He is especially adroit at bridging divides and creating connections between people of different musical traditions," Mann said. "I'm looking forward to working with him and making similar new connections in Texarkana."
Of "The Firebird," Mann said it will sound familiar to virtually everyone. "That is one of the most spectacular, uplifting, exhilarating culminations of a piece in the entire Western repertoire. The end of 'Firebird' is unforgettable," he said. It's the kind of piece the audience will forever remember seeing live.
The connection with the other pieces is that these works emphasize the ability of orchestras "to create extraordinary colors" and tell stories. He refers to the Mendelssohn piece as one of his favorite openers, pure magic with a great scope of energy in the work.
"It spans this huge emotional range for the listener and the musician," Mann said, noting that in "Enchanted Lake" Lyadov paints a picture of a "magical, enchanting body of water" that inspires us to create a story with our imaginations. It's a work of Russian impressionism, as he describes it.
Sparr has been praised by the likes of Gramophone, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and he served in recent years as Young American-Composer-in-Residence at the California Symphony and Composer-in-Residence at the Richmond Symphony.
"The main thing I try to do in bringing the electric guitar to orchestra is I think some people would think that it would be an aggressive instrument, but I actually try to focus on the actual beauty of the electric guitar," Sparr said. "I focus really intently on it blending well with the non-electric instruments. Of course it needs to stick out in terms of a solo instrument."
He works hard with the sound engineers and his own equipment to ensure the guitar blends with the "soundscape" and adds to it.
The broom belonging to his great-grandmother, Violet Bond herself, served as his first imaginary guitar when young D.J. would stand before the TV set watching "Hee Haw" episodes. She gave him a real ukulele for his fourth birthday. She also played hymns for him. Hence, the composition he'll share in Texarkana holds special meaning for him.
"She was the person with whom I would visit and she would babysit me," Sparr recalls of those "Hee Haw" days. He waited a long time to write a piece with her name on it.
"For people that likes Holst's 'The Planets,' or maybe the minimalist music of Philip Glass, I sort of imagine that Philip Glass and Holst went to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet and their assignment was to write me a piece I could play for my great-grandmother," Sparr said of the composition itself. "That's kind of the image in my mind."
Audiences respond well to the way he combines the electric guitar with classical music. "It's quite often that people will come up to me afterwards and say, 'I thought that was going to be so different but it was so beautiful and I loved it,'" Sparr said.
The TSO plans for Sparr to work with local students while he's here. Also, maestro Mann presents a concert preview at 6:40 p.m. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m.
(Tickets: $47, $36, $28. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit TexarkanaSymphony.org or call the Perot Theatre Box Office at 903-792-4992.)