'Fourth Chickasaw Variations' is symphonic tribute to Memphis

MSO debuts composer's interpretation of city history

Michael Gandolfi’s symphony reflects both Memphis’ dark history and its determination to move toward a new hope.

Michael Gandolfi’s symphony reflects both Memphis’ dark history and its determination to move toward a new hope.

Memphis has been memorialized in music numerous times, mentioned in song titles alone at least 100 times.

This weekend, another Memphis-themed tune will premiere at the Memphis Symphony Orchestras Masterworks concerts. The work is titled “Fourth Chickasaw Variations,” which is just another way of saying Memphis.

Early river explorers counted four bluffs along the Mississippi from what is now Lauderdale County (the first bluff) to below the mouth of the Wolf River in Memphis.

This composition — unlike, say, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Memphis Yodel” — is getting the full orchestral treatment thanks to a commission by longtime symphony supporters Paul and Linnea Bert to honor the MSO’s 60th year.

The composer, Michael Gandolfi, is well regarded for his innovation and humanity in turning out lyrical and savvy music.

In an interview this week, he said the Berts wanted a work “that addresses issues of Memphis and yet would have universal appeal.”

Gandolfi pondered and eventually decided that doing variations was the only way to bring together the multiple facets of Memphis. And the tune he chose as his source material was the spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” famously performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington rally in 1963 before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The composer goes through 10 variations before revealing the source music. “I was interested in connecting these variations to events in the history of Memphis,” he said. One variation is “an elegiac, lyrical cello melody composed as a reflection of the Sultana disaster,” he said, referring to the sinking of the paddle-wheeler in 1865 that remains the worst maritime disaster in American history.

But the dark and haunting aspects of Memphis history are balanced with the city’s determination. The variation after the Sultana work “moves toward new hope ... a beautiful new section that puts opposing sentiments side by side.”

The complexity of Memphis runs throughout the work, from Chickasaw bluff origins to a musical tribute (“I couldn’t resist Memphis’ great rock and roll history,” Gandolfi said). Even the spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked” has many interpretations. “That added an important dimension to the piece,” he said. “There are many variations because whoever sings it adds their own personality. This piece does just that in the way it twists and turns.”

The weekend’s concerts will be led by MSO maestro Mei-Ann Chen. Guest soloist Anthony McGill of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra will be featured in Bolcom’s Clarinet Concerto. The orchestra will also perform Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, an upbeat work with a certain well-known lullaby melody.

‘Fourth Chickasaw Variations’

Memphis Symphony Orchestra performs commissioned work by Michael Gandolfi, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Tickets $15-$79 (students $5). Also 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Germantown Performing Arts Center, 1801 Exeter. Tickets: $45. Go to memphissymphony.org, or call 901-537-2525.

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