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Photo courtesy of Monica Ong

Rogue Valley Symphony showcases Christopher Theofanidis

A-list composer Christopher Theofanidis' new music will be paired with masterworks by Beethoven and Mozart when Rogue Valley Symphony, conducted by maestro Martin Majkut, presents its series of concerts this weekend in the Rogue Valley.

The symphony will perform the Oregon premiere of Theofanidis' "Dreamtime Ancestors," new music commissioned by a consortium of orchestras sponsored by New Music for America.

Theofanidis, born in 1967 in Texas, is a professor of composition at Yale University's School of Music. He holds a bachelor's in music from University of Houston, a master's from Eastman School of Music and a doctorate from Yale. His music is performed by orchestras and philharmonics that number in the dozens.

"This is a new work, just out this past fall," he says during a telephone conversation from his home in Connecticut. "There are about 58 orchestras that are performing the piece during the coming season. I'm traveling to about 10 of the performances, including the Rogue Valley Symphony's concerts."

The RVS concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, in the Music Recital Hall on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, in the Performing Arts Center, 830 N.E. Ninth St., Grants Pass. Tickets for the Ashland show are $36, $42, $48 or $55; $31, $36, $42 or $48 for the Medford show; and $22, $30 or $37 for the Grants Pass show. Students receive 50 percent discounts on tickets for all shows. Tickets can be purchased online at rvsymphony.org or by calling 541-708-6400. Tickets for the Medford show also can be purchased online at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

International performing artist and violinist Elena Urioste will join the symphony for Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Urioste, Theofanidis and Majkut will offer audience discussions one hour before each concert.

" 'Dreamtime Ancestors' is a tone poem for orchestra inspired by Australian aboriginal creation myths," Theofanidis says. "The idea is that we're constantly in direct connection with our past and future ancestors. That state of 'dreamtime' is usually connected to the land in some way. Our ancestors made the land, left remnants of their existence. That's why we feel particularly connected to a place.

"I've spent some time in Western Australia, and the creation stories have always appealed to me. Each culture has its own ideas about creation, they're all colorful and have common ideas. This one struck me as particularly fanciful and a good springboard for a tone poem."

Theofanidis' tone poem calls the dream state an "all at once time," where there's no past, future or present. He will read the tone poem before each performance of "Dreamtime Ancestors."

"Starting a piece of music is important," he says. "Particularly new pieces when they are programmed to begin a concert. Audiences are right off the street, and they have to suddenly focus. Reciting the opening poem sets the tone and will help audiences enter the space and thinking of the piece."

There are three movements in Theofanidis' "Dreamtime." The first is called "Songlines." These are the things our ancestors have left on Earth, such as rivers and mountain ranges. The second movement is called "Rainbow Serpent." The rainbow serpent is a mythical character common to all aboriginal tribes in Australia. As the serpent slithered around the Earth, it left a rainbow in its wake. Its light represents the source of the sun, Theofanidis says.

"In that movement, the orchestra's strings leave that rainbow in their wake, leave a halo in a way. After the melody is presented, audiences will hear a lingering sound in the air. The last movement is called 'Each Stone Speaks a Poem,' he adds. 'It's a bit more earthy sounding, and a strong contrast to the first two pieces, which are more romantic and lyrical. The third movement concludes 'Dreamtime Ancestors' with fast and exciting music."

Theofanidis utilizes all instruments of the symphony in his new piece, though the second movement strongly features the string section.

"One of the things I like about classical music is the time frame," he says. "My piece is 20 minutes long. It gives audiences a chance to explore the corners of the world in different ways. Secondly, it's a complete blast to work with an orchestra. When you have anywhere from 60 to 90 players making music together, you can paint with so many fantastic colors and possibilities.

"I grew up on classical music, and love many of the composers for different reasons. One would be remiss to not mention Bach and Beethoven for all of the great expression and nobility they brought into the art form. And Tchaikovsky for his brilliant sense of melody. I also teach Stravinsky quite a bit. He looms large in my way of thinking for his brilliance of sound and his electric, arrhythmic ideas. Ravel is another that I love."

Lou Harrison, John Adams, British composer Judith Weir and Hungarian composer György Ligeti top Theofanidis' list of favorite contemporary composers.

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