An ancient, seven-note melody appropriate to the Halloween holiday will be repeated throughout next weekend's concerts by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
The "Dies Irae" chant, with its mood of ominous foreboding, recurs in each of the three pieces on the program —"Red Cape Tango" by Michael Daugherty; "Totentanz" by Liszt and "Symphonie Fantastique" by Berlioz.
Daniel Hege, the symphony's new music director, will conduct the program. American virtuoso Adam Golka, 23, will be the guest pianist featured on the Liszt.
"Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") was written in the 1200s. For centuries, its words were sung in the Latin Mass as Gregorian chant; its stanzas describe Judgment Day, when death descends, fear spreads and the righteous gain salvation.
"It has a churchy, old, medieval quality to it," Hege said. "It has an inherent frightening quality to it. There is something very dark, ominous, and menacing about it."
Because of its associations, classical composers have inserted the "Dies Irae" melody into compositions to signify death or the supernatural. Its use as a tool uniting the pieces on the Wichita Symphony concert is perfect for Halloween weekend — and illustrates one way in which Hege organizes his classical music programs.
"I always think that thematic programming that link certain musical works intrinsically through the music itself are interesting and satisfying to the listener," Hege said. "The 'Dies Irae' theme is one that people can recognize; they will hear it in completely different guises."
"Totentanz" by Liszt is a theme and variations on "Dies Irae" for piano and orchestra. About 12 minutes long, "Totentanz" is not a piano concerto per se. "The piece is a fantastic and imaginative essay on 'Dies Irae,' " Golka explained. "The theme is pretty much present in almost every second of the piece.
"It's sort of a struggle between the sacred and the profane. The 'Dies Irae' theme immediately is announced by the brass, while the piano and the timpani start the harsh harmonies, sort of Halloween-appropriate, macabre music. Then the 'Dies Irae' theme weaves between this very impetuous, diabolic virtuosity and also a more sacred, softer, heavenly music."
"Red Cape Tango" is originally from Daugherty's "Metropolis Symphony," which is based on the adventures of Superman. In "Red Cape Tango," the "Dies Irae" represents Superman's nemesis Doomsday. Also present in the piece, Hege explains, are musical alliterations of "boff!" "pow!" and "smash!," words from the panels of a comic book that signify a fight.
"He uses the 'Dies Irae' theme but he puts it with a tango," Hege said. "Which is kind of comical in a dark, funny kind of way — the tango, which is very amorous, but paired with the 'Dies Irae' death chant."
Finally, in Berlioz's programmatic "Symphonie Fantastique," the "Dies Irae" is used in the "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath" section to illustrate a dance with grotesque witches and diabolical monsters. Ed Ehinger, director of Opera Kansas, will narrate the story of the symphony from the stage.
Three pieces wring a lot of mileage from a single line of old Gregorian chant. Hege and the Wichita Symphony will illustrate how musical material can be recast and recycled while still retaining its original character, in the case of "Dies Irae," a dark, unsettling one.
If you go
wichita symphony orchestra
What: Classics concert featuring music by Daugherty, Liszt and Berlioz, Adam Golka, piano; Daniel Hege, conductor
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Oct. 31
How much: Tickets $20-$44. Information, www.wso.org or 316-267-7658.