Consider the following equation: 33 years addicted to film music + 9 years of higher education = I never knew Nino Rota composed for the concert hall. And as such, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard a note of Rota’s concert music until I was sent a recent Chandos release of his first and second symphonies.
Rota’s concert career has effectively been ignored in the U.S., no doubt due to his popularity as a film composer. I was never exposed to his concert music in college and I’m not aware of it being programmed regularly by ensembles in this country.
Don’t go looking for the circus elements of the Fellini scores or the intense Italian flavor of the GODFATHER trilogy in Rota’s concert works. In fact, I defy you to find Rota as film composer in these two pieces. Whether or not you find that a selling point will rely on your musical interests outside of film scores.
Rota wrote the two symphonies in the standard four-movement model. They were composed in the late 1930s while he was in his late 20s. The first performance of the Symphony No. 1 in G major was given in 1940 by the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia, while the Symphony No. 2 in F major had to wait until 1975 for its premiere (following closely on the heels of Rota’s Oscar win for THE GODFATHER, PART II.)
Rota was a classically trained musician and worked with the legendary conductor Fritz Reiner while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. On weekends, he would travel to New York and spend time at the apartment of Arturo Toscanini, hobnobbing with the likes of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and especially Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Rota’s first symphony (1935-39) belies the influence of Vaughan Williams (and Debussy’s La Mer) in its harmonies and string writing. Rota’s Italian heritage is rarely on display in the pieces, but can be found in the Second Symphony’s (1937-39) programmatic title—Tarantina – Anni di Pellegrinaggio—and the lively tarantella of the second movement, which also contains a semi-concealed quote from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Rota scored both symphonies for the traditional complement of instruments, though the Second calls for a slightly smaller orchestra.
Marzio Conti elicits vibrant playing from the Filarmonica ‘900 del Teatro Regio di Torino and the Chandos engineers have given the performances a warm yet vibrant audio palette. If you listen on headphones, you may be subjected to some occasional woodwind key clacking and page turns, but the noises of live performance are minimal.
In these two symphonies, you won’t be subjected to any musical sturm und drang. You’re more likely to find what Michele Rene Mannucci terms Rota’s “evocation of the joyous, sun-drenched life” he enjoyed in southern Italy.
These two symphonies probably won’t qualify as undiscovered masterpieces, yet the program offers an enjoyable hour of music. While this disc will most likely appeal only to Rota completists, I look forward to exploring more of Rota’s concert works in the future.