That is, if you want to call it a symphony.
Duckles, who performs in San Luis Obispo on Saturday as part of the symphony’s Classics in the Cohan concert series, isn’t sure what to call the piece — and that’s part of what he likes about it.
“When I first played it, about 20 years ago, I didn‘t understand it very well,” Duckles said with a laugh. “Why all the pauses? Why the rhapsodic orchestrations?
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“I see now that the piece’s vacillations are essential to its fascination,” the Los Angeles-based musician explained. “It’s in four movements, so it moves like a symphony, but it’s a tone poem, with a narrative and a main character. It’s also a sort of concerto for viola and orchestra, but not what you’d call a ‘showpiece.’
“Its texture shows up the best qualities of the viola, that dark, warm sound.”
The rest of Saturday’s program features Ernest Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano” and Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances.”
According to Duckles, Berlioz wrote “Harold in Italy” for famed violinist and violist Niccolò Paganini, who rejected the piece “because the viola doesn’t play continuously.”
“There are whole sections where I just stand there,” Duckles said. “But Berlioz wasn’t trying to write a virtuoso piece, really. He was creating a portrait of a human being in a situation.”
Born in December 1803, Berlioz had become disillusioned with the world by the 1830s, Duckles said. The composer won a scholarship to Italy, where he spent a year roaming the countryside, listening to music and communing with nature.
“I hear images when I play this piece, definitely,” he said. “In the second movement, I see the pilgrims in their march. I have the feeling I’m in a countryside.
Duckles said Berlioz was partly inspired by the British Romantic poets, who thought of Italy as a kind of Eden, the pastoral source of renewal and innocence. The title “Harold in Italy” refers to “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by English poet Lord Bryon.
“But the experiences are much more Berlioz’s own,” Duckles said. “It’s a musical memoir of sorts.”
Duckles noted that the piece has special significance for San Luis Obispo Symphony music director Michael Nowak, who’s a violist himself.
“The orchestra presented him with a score to ‘Harold’ in Italy for his 30-year anniversary” as conductor, Duckles said. “He was thrilled to get it — and then he called me and asked if I’d be willing to come up again and give it a try.
“I love playing in San Luis Obispo,” said Duckles.
The violist last performed with the San Luis Obispo Symphony two seasons ago, playing Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Quixote” with cellist Zuill Bailey.
“He was Don Quixote on cello, and I was Sancho Panza on viola,” quipped Duckles, describing Bailey as “a classical rock star.”
8 p.m. Saturday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$20 to $80
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org