Courtesy of our bass player Matt Heller
The CPO’s Italian Festival has a little something for everyone: film lovers, opera buffs, Vivaldi addicts… But the concert I’m most looking forward to is Saturday’s performance of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy. Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals – each is amazing in its own right, and they each happen to be incredible party pieces.
What’s a party piece? Well, my personal definition is a flashy, colourful piece that shows off the entire orchestra – usually a rather large orchestra. These aren’t all the greatest works ever written, necessarily – but they are each colossally fun to play. I’m fully anticipating (and welcoming!) disagreement and alternate suggestions, from CPO audience members as well as colleagues. Bring them on, and leave a reply!
What follows is my own, highly subjective list of the Top 10 Symphonic Party Pieces of all time:
10. Scheherezade (Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov) – The famous storyteller’s death-defying heroics are depicted with concertmaster solos, in each of the four movements, but the rest of the orchestra gets plenty of action as well: an angry sultan, wild storms at sea, love themes, and a festival in Baghdad. It also happens to be one of my favourite pieces based on a literary source, The Arabian Nights.
9. Concerto for Orchestra (Béla Bartók) – Plenty of concertos showcase a single soloist, but Bela Bartok gave the whole orchestra the spotlight – including a brilliant series of duos in the second movement, “Giuoco delle coppie” (Game of Pairs). Too bad there aren’t usually enough floral bouquets for everyone.
8. Symphonie fantastique (Hector Berlioz) – Beethoven gave us the Choral Symphony, but Berlioz introduced the supersized model – add an extra movement, a programmatic commentary, and an off-stage oboe and extra tuba for good measure, and tie it all together with a haunting idée fixe theme.
7. Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Benjamin Britten) – I could take or leave the rather pedantic narration, but the music itself is irresistible. And wrapping it all up with a fugue featuring each instrumental section: pure genius.
6. Enigma Variations (Edward Elgar) – Another set of variations by a British composer – the most famous is Nimrod – but every one is a gem, showing unmistakably Elgar’s affection and regard for every instrument and musician in the orchestra.
5. Daphnis and Chloë (Maurice Ravel) – Bolero may be Ravel’s biggest crowd-pleaser, but but Daphnis takes the prize among musicians. Don’t let the brilliant woodwind writing distract you from all that’s going on in the brass, percussion, and strings.
4. Petrouchka (Igor Stravinsky) – Not only does it take place at a carnival, but it includes a contrabassoon solo – practically the definition of symphonic party piece. Watch the New York Philharmonic’s performance as part of A Dancer’s Dream to see an orchestra that can truly party.
3. Pictures at an Exhibition (Modest Mussourgsky) – Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov each get an assist on this one – Rimsky edited the original piano part, while Ravel orchestrated it. The result is one of the most beloved, colourful symphonic scores, closing with the majestic Gate of Kiev.
2. Ein Heldenleben (Richard Strauss) – It’s a famous example of composer megalomania – Strauss himself was the hero, and his opera singer wife inspired the needling concertmaster solos – but it’s also a pure joy to perform. No other composer whips the orchestra into a frenzy quite like Strauss.
1. Pines of Rome (Ottorino Respighi) – The whole Roman Trilogy won’t quite fit, so I just picked my favourite. Pines has everything: soaring melodies, off-stage trumpets, deathly catacombs, and a purely bombastic march. Viva l’Italia!