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Program Notes for Virginia Symphony Orchestra Classics #03 - Gershwin/American Classics - November 2013 By Laurie Shulman ©2013 First North American Serial Rights Only American classical music, like the United States itself, is comparatively young. After all, the European western musical tradition extends back a thousand years to Gregorian chant. Renaissance polyphony, the Baroque invention of opera and cantata, and the rise of the classical symphony and concerto all preceded our Declaration of Independence. Beginning with Dvořák’s New World Symphony and ‘American’ String Quartet, indigenous American music influenced European masters, instead of the influence flowing in the other direction. Eventually spirituals, minstrel music, and especially early jazz had a significant impact on composers on both sides of the Atlantic. Our nation’s music began to assert some individuality in the 19th century, then came into its own in the 20th century. This weekend we celebrate music by four 20th-century American masters, each with his own distinctive voice. Samuel Barber represents the strongest link to the European tradition, with a concert overture and a modern-day descendant of the tone poem. Conductor Benjamin Rous opens with Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal, which was the composer’s graduation piece from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and his first orchestral composition. It takes its title from a comic masterpiece by the Irish-born playwright Robert Brinsley Sheridan. Barber’s overture was not intended as incidental music, but rather as an evocation of the play’s satirical spirit. From its shimmering opening chords, this piece surges with energy, wit, and splendid orchestral color. Barber’s growing mastery of the orchestra is apparent in the Second Essay for Orchestra, a 1942 work that closes the first half of this program. Barber was well-read, welleducated, and well-traveled. His adoption of the unusual term “essay” for three of his orchestral works offers insight into his thinking and his literary taste: he enjoyed reading the great 18thcentury essayists Michel de Montaigne and Alexander Pope well as contemporary authors such as Aldous Huxley and E.B. White. The Second Essay is a well organized ternary structure comprising an introduction, a fugue, and a chorale. Keeping company with Barber on the first half are two short works by Charles Ives, an American original who both embraced and bucked tradition. Though he was the son of a bandmaster and played the organ and piano himself, Ives went into the insurance business. He became quite wealthy and pursued composition as a dilettante. His music confounded listeners because of his wild experiments. These included polytonality, unorthodox scales and harmonies, chord clusters, and distribution of performing forces throughout an auditorium rather than on a stage. The two Ives works we hear are representative of his adventuresome thinking. Country Band March (ca.1902-03) is an affectionate send-up of the amateur bands Ives heard his father conduct. A mish-mosh of Civil War anthems, popular tunes, and a Sousa march, it delivers four minutes of raucous, good-natured chaos with intentional wrong notes and false entrances. The Unanswered Question shows Ives in a more serious, contemplative mood. He also attended revival meetings as a boy and had a thorough grounding in mysticism and the writings of New England’s transcendentalist authors. Ives composed it as one of two Contemplations, probably in 1906. It consists of layers of sound that appear to be unrelated: serene strings, a quartet of flutes, and a lone trumpet placed either in the balcony or at the rear of the auditorium. The spatial separation of the instrumental forces underscores the universal mystery that Ives is pondering. The incongruous dialogue intensifies as the woodwinds attempt to answer the question, with increasing agitation. Following intermission, we turn to two Americans who bridged the gap between popular and classical more than anyone: Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. Both of them wrote successfully for Broadway, film, opera, and the concert hall – although Bernstein had extensive formal classical training, while Gershwin started in Tin Pan Alley. Ultimately Bernstein had the more global and diverse career; however, he lived into his seventies, whereas Gershwin’s life was cut short by a brain tumor at 38. Mr. Rous opens the second half with Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (1944) a musical with origins in the ballet score Fancy Free. Bernstein’s original score, for the brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins, dealt with three sailors on leave in wartime Manhattan. The musical On the Town added lyrics and expanded the music to full-fledged Broadway length. Bernstein’s fusion of jazz, dance numbers, popular song style, and symphonic color is quite brilliant. Clearly he learned from Stravinsky, Copland, Gershwin, and others, but in the final analysis these three episodes are pure Bernstein. And just try to resist tapping your feet to “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town”! The program concludes with George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major, featuring guest pianist Micah McLaurin. Gershwin is best known for Rhapsody in Blue, but many of his other compositions have become American classics: An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess, Cuban Overture, and plenty of immortal songs: “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm” – the list is long. The German conductor Walter Damrosch heard the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 and immediately arranged for the New York Symphony Society to commission a solo concerto from Gershwin. His instinctive flair for jazz courses through this concerto. Although on one level it conforms to the traditional three movements arranged fast-slow-fast, Gershwin was thinking more along the lines of rhythm, blues, and more rhythm. His incorporation of the Charleston contributes to the piece’s wonderful sense of time and place. With the Concerto in F, Walter Damrosch observed, Gershwin “made a lady out of jazz.” More extended notes by Laurie Shulman are available at www.virginiasymphony.org ======================================================= Overture to The School for Scandal Samuel Barber Born 9 March, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania Died 23 January, 1981 in New York City Approximate duration 8 minutes Barber is best known for the emotional and popular Adagio for Strings, which is actually an arrangement of the slow movement to his string quartet. He has had a far greater impact on American music, however, writing two important operas (including the Pulitzer Prize winning Vanessa, 1958) and a large quantity of vocal music. Barber was a brilliant young talent who proved his mastery of the orchestra early. In fact, the overture that opens this program was composed when he was barely 22, as a graduation exercise from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The Overture to The School for Scandal was also his first composition to be performed by a major American orchestra: it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on 30 August, 1933. The School for Scandal is a satire by Robert Brinsley Sheridan, an 18th-century Irish playwright. Barber was among the most literate of composers, and a number of his instrumental works reflect his interest in literature. In addition to this overture, his Opus 7 (1935) is Music for a Scene from Shelley; and there are three Essays for Orchestra. Most of Barber's music is conservative. This Overture is zesty and animated, with the kind of orchestral brilliance that characterizes Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide. The music has three principal ideas, two of which are rhythmically vibrant. The middle one is a lovely oboe solo; this is the melody that most of us will remember when we leave this auditorium. All told, the overture makes an impression of American verve and energy successfully combined with European romanticism and tradition. The score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp, celesta, and strings. Country Band March Charles Ives Born 20 October 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut Died 19 May 1954 in New York City Approximate duration 4 minutes One of America's first great composers, Charles Ives bucked society and its conventions from his earliest years. Although he exhibited considerable musical talent as a boy, he eventually pursued a career in insurance. He was a dilettante composer, thus economics played virtually no factor in his musical activities. That choice was probably a wise one, for Ives's unorthodox and daring music found little understanding and less success among contemporary audiences. Ives lived into his late 70s, but he ceased composing after about 1930. Ives’s father George was a trumpeter and bandmaster. Young Charlie grew up in rural southwest Connecticut, surrounded by music. He heard dozens of amateur bands in rehearsal and concert, and attended outdoor religious festivals called camp meetings with his family. He also worked as a church organist from age 14, thereby thoroughly absorbing the Protestant hymn repertoire. These diverse sources all found their way into his music. After his graduation from Yale in 1898, Ives worked as a church organist for four years. In 1902 he relinquished the church position in order to devote more time to composition. Those four years from 1902 to 1906 (when he founded his insurance firm) were a period of experimentation, during which he composed both the works on this weekend’s program. Country Band March satirizes the pickup volunteer bands Ives heard as a boy. Ives knew from experience that these rural ensembles didn’t always play with total accuracy; the important thing was that everyone was having a good time. Thus we hear intentional ‘wrong’ entrances with faulty rhythms, multiple tunes in the wrong key, even a saxophone adding two beats after the rest of the orchestra has stopped. The material is a mélange of college songs, band pieces, minstrel tunes, and excerpts from theatre revues. Virtually everyone will recognize something in this march; astute listeners will hear quotations from the Civil War anthems “Marching through Georgia” by Henry Clay Work and “Battle Cry of Freedom” by George Frederick Root, as well as Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de cold, cold ground” and John Philip Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march. Ives superimposes the tunes with comic intent; the effect is raucous and a little unhinged, as if all the players were either beginners or a bit tipsy – or both. Ives borrowed from Country Band March in three subsequent works: the ‘Putnam’s Camp’ movement of Three Places in New England, the ‘Hawthorne’ movement of his Concord Sonata for piano, and the second movement of his Symphony No.4. The score calls for a theater-size orchestra comprising one flute (doubling piccolo), one clarinet, one cornet, two trombones, saxophone, trap set, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, piano, and strings without violas. The Unanswered Question Charles Ives Have you ever attended a dinner party where several conversations were going on at once but no one seems to be listening to anyone else? The scenario for The Unanswered Question is analogous. Charles Ives’s musical dialogue unfolds among three disparate groups: string orchestra, solo trumpet, and a quartet of flutes. The strings establish a serene mood, moving slowly and deliberately, unruffled by interruptions. Trumpet asks the enigmatic question – seven times total, seeking a reply. The flutes comment, starting out timid, then increasingly agitated and dissonant with each response. Clearly their attempts to answer are unsatisfactory. At the end, trumpet asks once again, but now there is no answer other than the strings, who have ignored the debate altogether. The Unanswered Question is one of two Contemplations that Ives drafted, probably in 1906, as companion pieces of opposite character; the other developed into Central Park in the Dark. Ives’s original title for this one was “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter, or The Unanswered Perennial Question.” He also referred to the piece as ‘A Cosmic Sometime Landscape’ and a ‘cosmic drama.’ This work was bold and revolutionary in its conception, with layers of seemingly unrelated sound. Ives’s music is a bit like a mobile – three groups suspended in midair, not really interacting, except that they do interact. Ives was interested in the spatial effects of instruments placed either offstage or in the auditorium. He considered using two conductors. When he revised The Unanswered Question in the 1930s, Ives added detailed performance instructions. He referred to the string music as ‘the Silences of the Druids – who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” Their timeless, static music, which opens and closes the work, suggests eternity and the unanswerable mysteries of the universe. The score calls for four flutes, one trumpet and strings. Many conductors substitute an oboe and a clarinet for two of the flutes, for additional woodwind color. Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17 Samuel Barber The essay is a flexible literary term with origins in the Renaissance. It can be a critical discussion, as in John Dryden's "Essay of Dramatic Poesy" (1668) or a philosophical treatise, as John Locke's "An Essay Concernng Human Understanding," (1690), which posits the empirical origin of ideas. Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man" (1734) is his best known poem, and the great French moralist Michel de Montaigne's two volumes of Essais (1580 and 1588) ramble across various topics affecting humans and human nature. Closer to our own time, Ralph Waldo Emerson published two series of essays in 1841 and 1844, touching on history, love, manners, politics and nature. We read brief essays almost daily on the editorial page of our newspapers, and virtually all of us penned a few essays in English classes. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature defines an essay as: An analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view. By adopting this title for three of his musical compositions, the American composer Samuel Barber seems to have indicated something about his principles of organization. His Essays for orchestra (1937, 1942, and 1978) are tightly woven, with each successive musical idea growing organically out of one that preceded it. If we think of a symphony as a dissertation, a musical essay is more concise, offering a range of ideas -- themes, rhythmic patterns, moods, orchestral textures -- in less time. The analogy is not at all far-fetched. Barber was a highly literate composer whose interest in the written word ranged from ancient Greek drama to poets of his own age. He was an avid and intellectual reader who enjoyed the writings of 18th-century essayists as well as contemporary authors such as Aldous Huxley and E.B. White. The powerful presence of literature in many of his other compositions is consistent with his adaptation of the essay form for music. Barber composed his Second Essay in 1942 at the request of Bruno Walter, who wanted a new work for the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. His first sketches date back several years, however, and are contemporary with those for the Violin Concerto (1939). In fact, those who know Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal (1933) may recognize similarities of style and even some melodic resemblances to themes in the Second Essay. America had just gone to war at the time Barber worked on this piece. He was keenly aware that he could be called up for military service at any time. Years later, he said of the Second Essay, "Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in war-time." The piece divides into three principal sections. It opens with a wistful series of woodwind solos marked Andante, un poco mosso: first flute, then bass clarinet, English horn, and oboe. Gradually the balance of the orchestra joins their dialogue, and Barber awards a richly lyrical second theme to the violas. As the texture thickens, the tension rises. Barber's handling of the orchestra is masterful, with wide leaps, unexpected accents and irregular rhythms taking full advantage of the coloristic potential in his large orchestra. The second section, Molto allegro ed energico is a fugue in 12/8 whose, chirping, chatterboxy subject is clearly derived from the Second Essay's opening theme. Virtually every instrument in the orchestra, including trumpets and timpani, has a solo opportunity. The final section, a chorale marked Piu tranquillo, ma sempre muovendo, provides a noble and dignified close to the Second Essay. The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings. Three Dance Episodes from On the Town Leonard Bernstein Born 25 August, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts Died 14 October, 1990 in New York City Approximate duration 11 minutes For those of us who grew up on the familiar tunes of West Side Story, it is difficult to imagine a world in which Leonard Bernstein is not a household name. In the early 1940s, however, he was not yet world famous. Bernstein enjoyed a reputation as a talented young pianist and composer whose interests were leaning more and more toward conducting. Still, his career showed tremendous promise: at age 25 he was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and the exciting young choreographer Jerome Robbins had asked him to collaborate on a wartime ballet entitled Fancy Free. The ballet's plot concerns three sailors on shore leave in pursuit of the perfect girl -- in this case, most likely, the first available attractive female. Bernstein's sophisticated, jazzy dance score was a big success at its 1944 premiere. Oliver Smith, the set designer, recognized its potential for the more commercial venue of Broadway. Bernstein worked with Smith, George Abbott, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to develop the ballet into a full-fledged musical called On the Town that opened in December 1944 and ran for nearly 500 performances. Purely escape theatre, the upbeat, fun show was a natural for a nation weary of war and hungry for lighthearted diversion. On the Town's music is more sophisticated than most other contemporary musicals. As John Briggs has written: Bernstein's lively, unself-consciously jazzy score was attuned to the rhythm and tempo of the times. . . . The man who could employ jazz idioms for abstract musical purposes could also use the devices of symphonic rhetoric to make a theatrical point. Nowhere is this gift more evident than in the three dance episodes from On the Town, where Bernstein's instrumental gift has free rein. The city's vibrant pulse courses through this music, bringing to life its diversity and humanity through three vignettes: The Great Lover, Lonely Town: Pas de Deux, and Times Square, 1944. The last of the three was the finale of the musical's first act. The score calls for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), two clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet; one doubling bass clarinet), two horns, three trumpets, three trombones; alto saxophone, timpani, suspended cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, traps, wood block and xylophone; piano and strings. Piano Concerto in F George Gershwin Born 26 September, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York Died 11 July, 1937 in Beverly Hills, California Approximate duration 31 minutes When Paul Whiteman’s band premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, the 26-year-old composer became an overnight sensation. Gershwin was already well known on Tin Pan Alley and on Broadway. The Rhapsody expanded his musical empire to the concert hall, and increased Gershwin’s fame and popularity. The German conductor Walter Damrosch heard the premiere and was very impressed. He was shrewd and farsighted, perceiving that Gershwin had something to offer to the classical, long-hair world: a powerful draw at the box office. Damrosch had conducted the New York Symphony Society since 1903. He approached its president, Harry Harkness Flagler, about commissioning Gershwin to compose an orchestral work, convincing Flagler that the timing was right to take full advantage of Gershwin’s surging popularity. Gershwin accepted the commission, despite the fact that he lacked any experience writing for symphony orchestra. He decided to cast himself as piano soloist, as he had in the Rhapsody. He signed a contract with the New York Symphony in April 1925, agreeing to deliver the score and parts one week before rehearsals started in December, and to perform seven concerts with Damrosch’s orchestra. In his first sketches, the work bore the title “New York Concerto,” but Gershwin had changed to the more sedate “Concerto in F” by mid-July. The music was shaping up to be anything but sedate. Gershwin’s basic layout conformed with a traditional concerto: three movements in the order fast, slow, and faster. The atmosphere, however, was not at all traditional. Gershwin’s initial thoughts ran along the lines of : Part one, rhythm. Part two, blues. Part three, more rhythm. With his instinctive flair for jazz and his thorough understanding of popular culture, he caught the energy and optimism of the era, incorporating Charleston dance rhythms and the blues of muted trumpet. He finished composing by September, and worked on the orchestration — a more difficult task for him — throughout October and into November. The score is dated November 10, 1925. The premiere took place on December 3, 1925 at New York’s venerable Carnegie Hall. The week before the first performance, Gershwin published an article about his new concerto in the New York Herald - New York Tribune on November 25, 1925. He described it thus: The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments, and with a Charleston motif introduced by horns, clarinets, and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano. The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout. Walter Damrosch liked to say that Gershwin had `made a lady out of jazz’ with this work. With its syncopated rhythms and sensual melodies colored by blue notes, the concerto has clear links to jazz. Gershwin bristled when it was labeled a “jazz concerto,” however. He was proud of his orchestration, a newly-acquired skill for him, and of the links he made among the three movements. The Concerto has remained an audience favorite for three quarters of a century. With one foot in the classical camp and the other in the jazz halls of Harlem, this Gershwin masterpiece is unique in the literature. Gershwin scored his Piano Concerto for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion battery, solo piano, and strings.