Behind the Music: Geoffrey Hill

This week we asked our Principal Second Violin Geoffrey Hill to give us an inside look into his listening habits. What he shared with us is both expected and surprising–who knew that Queen and Baroque violin solos belonged in the same playlist?

Listen along to hear what informs Geoffrey’s playing!

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Hi everyone! This playlist is a cross-section of my day-to-day listening habits, and includes my favorite styles, artists, and genres.

Since it’s concert week, I’ve been listening to works by our featured composers: Elgar, Britten, and Debussy, though you’ll notice that there’s slight twist to the Debussy recordings I’ve been listening to!

Moving along, Jean Sibelius is my favorite composer, and his sixth symphony is a criminally underplayed work which I’m taking this opportunity to share with you all.

There’s a Miserere Mei by Allegri, and a Baroque violin solo because I’m always trying to remind myself of the roots of our musical world hundreds of years in the past.

Billy Joel was a staple on the stereo as I was growing up, and in coming back to his songs as an older person, I find a lot of meaning and creativity in works like Allentown.

Up next is Queen, because I really need to remember to go see the new movie about them!

There’s also a work by Marc Mellits, one of my favorite composers of contemporary classical music, of which I am a huge proponent.

Lastly, there’s Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a work which I consider to be one of the crown jewels of all of Western music.

Be warned, these are pieces I simply won’t shut up about if you get me talking about them, so be careful next time you talk to me!

The Sea Program Notes

Benjamin Britten / November 22, 1913 – December 4, 1976
Four Sea Interludes
Purchase this piece from Amazon and partial proceeds will benefit the Boise Phil.

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the gripping tale of a proud self-sufficient fisherman on the rugged East Suffolk Coast of England during the 18th Century. When Grimes tragically loses a young apprentice to an accident at sea, the townsfolk hold him responsible even though a formal inquest has held him blameless. When a second apprentice dies, the townsfolk decide to take justice into their own hands. Before they can find him, however, Grimes has taken his boat out to sea, never to be seen again.

In Peter Grimes, the sea is a metaphor for life; and the friction between Grimes and the townsfolk represents the eternal battle between the rights of the individual against the demands and sanctions of the individual’s community.

The orchestra and Britten’s instrumental music tell Grimes’s story as vividly as do the singers. Between each scene, Britten composed brilliant linking orchestral interludes that not only fill the dark space on stage, but also advance the story, recapping the drama that just occurred and then foreshadowing the action to come. Every measure of these interludes no matter how beautiful contains a grim sense of foreboding.

However, do not mistake Britten’s music for tone painting. His purpose was not simply to describe the physical setting for his story, but to express the depths of the human emotions aroused by this conflict.

Britten assembled four of his orchestral episodes in tonight’s standalone concert piece, Four Sea Interludes. The first is Dawn; followed by Sunday Morning and the sound of church bells; Moonlight, which is hardly restful; and finally Storm, which captures the essence of this tragedy. For a brief moment, sunlight seems to part the clouds only to be mercilessly battered by the storm’s final onslaught.

Claude Debussy / August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918
La Mer
Purchase this piece from Amazon and partial proceeds will benefit the Boise Phil.

Frequently called the “Father of Modern Music,” Claude Debussy uprooted Western tradition at the end of the 19th Century and produced in a unique style one of the most striking and original bodies of work ever created by a single composer. He was a musical revolutionary who refused to be bound by the conventional 18th and 19th Century musical rhetoric.

Debussy believed that the symphony as a form was dead, saying, “It seems to me that the proof of the futility of the symphony has been established since Beethoven. Schumann and Mendelssohn did no more than respectfully repeat the same forms, but with less power.” In fact, Debussy was not all that fond of Beethoven, accusing him of “tricking his audience with unexpected shifts of rhythm and tonality, and of battering his listeners with self-referential themes and motifs.” He abhorred Richard Wagner’s bombast. About Wagner’s fabled Teutonic operatic Ring Cycle, Debussy said, “Can you imagine spreading one drama over four evenings? My God, how unbearable these people in skins and helmets are by the fourth night!” Wagner saw his own music as a glorious sunrise on a new era, but Debussy saw Wagner’s music as a receding sunset on a burned-out age.

Using Eastern well as Western sonorities, Debussy wrote music that is unpretentious, luminescent, and refined. He hints, he does not declare; he suggests, he does not depict. Color, mood, and atmosphere take precedence over line and structure. He writes of the mysteries and vaporous romances of nature, not as the eye mirrors them, but as nature’s wonders are mysteriously transmitted to our emotions. As one observer said, “Debussy was the poet of mists and fountains, clouds and rain, of dusk and glints of sunlight through the leaves. He was moonstruck and seastruck, a lost soul under a vast sky illuminated by distant stars. His music begins where poets run out of words, where painters run out of paint.”

Thus, although he vehemently rejected the characterization of his music as impressionistic, he became known — understandably — as an Impressionist composer.

Debussy became enchanted by the many faces of the sea while spending time as a boy on both the South Coast of France and Normandy, where he experienced the fearsome power of an Atlantic Storm. Years later, he wrote that the “sea is endless and beautiful, the aspect of nature that puts you in your place. I love the sea and have listened to it passionately. He who feels what he sees will find nothing more beautiful than the book of Nature.”

La Mer is Debussy’s rich tone painting of his memories of the sea. It derives its essence from kaleidoscopic tone color, cross rhythms, and chords and melodies, which dissolve rather than resolve in the conventional symphonic manner. It is an exercise in sheer sonority that does not progress towards a prescribed tonal goal. Time in Debussy’s musical world is not linear, it is existential. He said, “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” So, disengage your usual expectations and do as he says: just absorb his shimmering, surging, rolling, comforting, glittering, inviting, and mesmerizing poetry.

La Mer has three sections. First, we hear From Dawn to Noon on the Sea. Next is Play of the Waves; and the final is Dialogue of the Wind and Sea. This is all you need to know to savor this wonderful piece, but if you wish more preparation, you might look at Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which Debussy chose to adorn the score’s title page, or at J. M. W. Turner’s Sunset. Both are available on YouTube. (What isn’t?)

Edward Elgar / June 2, 1857 – February 23, 1934
Enigma Variations
Purchase this piece from Amazon and partial proceeds will benefit the Boise Phil.

As a young lad, Edward Elgar had a dream that someday he might become a world famous composer, so famous, as he told a friend, that a person all the way across the England Channel might be able to contact him simply by writing “Elgar, England” on a postcard, and he would be so well known that the postal service would know to whom and where to deliver it.

Because Elgar’s father was aware of the daily pecuniary indignities of being a composer, and because he wanted better for his son, he sent Edward off to London at the age of 15 to become a lawyer. Happily for us, Edward disliked the law and returned home after one year, determined to pursue his musical dreams.

His musical break came when he was hired to be the music director of a small orchestra. But, the job was quite unusual. The doctors in the local mental health hospital, the “lunatic asylum” as it was called, believed that music was helpful in treating people suffering from mental illness, so the doctor had assembled a small orchestra made up of attendants who worked in the asylum to play for the patients. This was not a much-coveted gig, but it gave Edward the opportunity to hone his skills as a composer, a conductor, and a music director. He kept the job for five years. Edward’s dream of becoming a famous composer turned into reality one evening in early 1898 when he was experimenting on the piano with an idea for a theme. His wife, Caroline Alice, asked him what it was, and he said, “Oh nothing, but something might be made of it.” It was the main theme of the Variations. Then, he began to invent music about his friends. He would play something and turn to his wife and ask her, “Who’s that like?” and she would guess. And so it went until he came up with music for 12 of his friends, with one section for his wife, and the final Variation for himself.

On October 24, 1898, he wrote this letter to his friend and publisher August Jaeger: “Since I’ve been back [from a visit to London] I have sketched a set of Variations for orchestra on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labeled ‘em with the nicknames of my particular friends — you are Nimrod. I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the variation him (or her) self and have written what I think they wd. have written — if they were asses enough to compose.”

This set of a theme and 14 variations is dedicated to “My Friends Pictured Within.” It is a heartfelt, loving musical portrait gallery of Elgar’s close friends.

The theme itself became known as the Enigma because it was written as counterpoint to a well-known theme, but Elgar refused to tell anyone what the mystery theme was. All he said in a letter was, “The Enigma I will not explain — its dark saying must be left unguessed.”

The secret went with him to his grave; and to this day, dyed-in-the-wool Elgarians continue the quest to find the answer, with no success.

Without realizing it, Elgar had pulled off a master marketing coup. Because he identified each variation not with the name of the person to which it belonged, but only that person’s initials, the Enigma Variations became a wonderful series of mysteries within a larger puzzle, all packaged in superb music. Its first public performance set off a mad rush to break the code.

The first variation following the theme is, C.A.E., Caroline Alice Elgar, Elgar’s beloved and devoted wife. Elgar said he wished it to be “romantic and delicate,” a tribute to the woman who “was my inspiration who devoted her whole life to my happiness.” The music is warm, contented, and passionate.

Variation No. II is Hew David Stewart-Powell, an enthusiastic piano player. Elgar humorously travesties his friend’s characteristic warm-up run over the keys before beginning to play.

Variation No. III is a portrait of Richard Baxter Townshend, a friend with a high voice who by some irony was cast in an amateur play as a gruff old man.

Variation No. IV is W. Meath Baker, Townshend’s brother-in-law. In this piece, we see a bigger-than-life, genial energetic character who in leaving the room accidentally slams the door.

Variation No. V deals with R. P. Arnold. Elgar successfully conveys his pleasant, scholarly character.

Variation No. VI, “Ysobel,” is Isabel Fitton. She was tall, ardent, witty and a viola player. In this variation, we hear difficult viola string crossing exercises turned into pleasing music.

Variation No. VII, “Troyte,” is A. Troyte Griffith — nicknamed “The Ninepin” for his affinity for bowling, or “skittles” as it was then called. Listen to Troyte knock over the pins and then make a hash out of trying to play the piano.

Variation No. VIII is a portrait of Winifred Norbury, a secretary of the local Philharmonic Society. Her distinctive laughter is captured in arching little arpeggio figures.

Variation No. IX, “Nimrod,” is understandably the most famous of the variations, and it is dedicated to, rather than depicts, August Jaeger, who using the travails of Beethoven as an example, talked Elgar out of quitting music during his dreary commission period. “Jaeger” means “hunter” in German, and in the Bible, Nimrod was the hunter. It is this elegant, moving, and noble variation that makes this composition the masterpiece that it is.

Variation No. X, “Dorabella,” is Miss Dora Penny. The title was Elgar’s nickname for Dora and comes from the character Dorabella in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti. The music captures Dorabella’s light and elegant solo dancing, and a slight engaging stammer or hesitation in her manner of speaking.

Variation No. XI is the most successfully illustrative of all the variations. It is a musical depiction of Dr. George Robertson Sinclair’s bulldog Dan falling into the River Wye. In bar 1, Dan falls into the river. In bars 2 and 3, he paddles upstream to a landing place, and in bar 5, he lets out a rejoicing bark. Elgar and Sinclair witnessed this event, and Sinclair said to Elgar, “Set that to music.” Elgar did, this is it, and wrote Dan’s name on the original score.

Variation No. XII is Basil G. Nevinson, a wonderful cellist portrayed here in all his talented majesty.

Variation No. XIII, * * * “Romanza,” is a puzzle within the mystery. For many years, no name or initials were publicly connected with this variation. The subject of it was clearly a lady friend for whom Elgar had extremely personal and intimate feelings, but Elgar remained mum notwithstanding many attempts to unseal his lips. Whoever it was, an ocean liner was involved. Just listen to the throbbing of its great engines — or could that sound be Elgar’s pounding and passionate heart?

Variation No. XIV, “E.D.U.” is Elgar himself. “Edoo” was his wife’s nickname for her husband. This bold and vigorous finale was written in his “I’ll show ‘em mood” and sums up the entire piece with a flourish.

Elgar’s days of struggle were over. The public, the critics, and the Crown showered him with praise. He soon became Sir Edward Elgar, a personal friend of Richard Strauss, and one hundred years later, we continue to enjoy his resilient and glorious contributions to classical music.

Bernstein at 100 Program Notes

Leonard Bernstein    / August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990

Overture to Candide

Chichester Psalms

Leonard Bernstein excelled at everything.  He was a brilliant conductor, composer, pianist, writer, lecturer, and teacher.  He was the first native-born conductor to become the music director of a major American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic between 1958-69.

 

Candide

Unfortunately, Lenny, as his friends called him, and famed playwright Lillian Hellman fell victim to McCarthyism in the 1950s and found themselves blacklisted.  In response, Hellman decided to fight back with a biting play supported by incidental music. However, Bernstein convinced her to collaborate with him on a satirical comic opera which, deploying humor as their weapon, would skewer their enemies and expose the error of their ways.  They used the 18th Century French philosopher and writer Voltaire’s satirical polemics as a model, specifically Voltaire’s Candide which attacked groupthink and blind optimism as the enemy of the Enlightenment.  Bernstein believed that their modern version of Candide would become the “Great American Opera,” or “comic operetta,” as he later called it.  Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, mostly because it was too sophisticated and “overly intellectual.”  Hellman’s biting humor went over the heads of her audience. Candide closed on Broadway after just two months.

 

However, the operetta’s action was full of fun, frolic, and the fast-paced adventures of the naïve Candide and his beloved but equally clueless Cunégonde.  Bernstein’s music succeeded in capturing the crackling nature of the action. The music also combines lovely lyrical tender moments between the characters with the quicksilver nature of the plot.

 

Candide’s effervescent Overture easily survived the demise of the “operetta” and continues to be a favorite concert opener of many music directors.  The New York Philharmonic played it without a conductor at Bernstein’s memorial service in 1990, a practice that continues.  Watch Lenny conduct Candide’s Overture on a YouTube in his later years.  You will never see a conductor have so much fun.  About his Candide he said, “There is more of me in that piece than anything else I’ve done.”

 

Chichester Psalms

In early December 1963, Leonard Bernstein received a letter from the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, requesting a piece for the Cathedral’s 1965 music festival: “The Chichester Organist and Choirmaster, John Birch, and I, are very anxious to have written some piece of music which the combined choirs could sing at the Festival to be held in Chichester in August, 1965, and we wondered if you would be willing to write something for us. I do realize how enormously busy you are, but if you could manage to do this we should be tremendously honoured and grateful. The sort of thing that we had in mind was perhaps, say, a setting of the Psalm 2, or some part of it, either unaccompanied or accompanied by orchestra or organ, or both. I only mention this to give you some idea as to what was in our minds.  Many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.”

 

Bernstein obliged the Very Reverend with a masterpiece.  It combines Jewish biblical psalms – or verses – with Christian choral tradition, using secular melodies and rhythms to deliver messages from ancient sacred texts.  In essence, the piece is a plea for communion and for peace in a world where peace was in short supply.

 

Each of the three movements presents two psalms in Hebrew, one in its entirety complemented and supported by parts of another.  The music begins with a dramatic cymbal crash followed immediately by an exhortation from Psalm 108: “Awake, psaltery, and harp.  I will rouse the dawn!” (A “psaltery is a book of psalms which were originally accompanied by the harp.) Bernstein is saying, “Pay attention!  Listen up! This message is important!” Psalm 108 follows, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” presented as a jubilant scherzo-like dance. Bernstein confessed that the music at this point is “leftover” material from West Side Story.

 

The second movement juxtaposes Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” with Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the people imagine a vain thing?”  The shepherd-psalmist David sings Psalm 23, supported by sopranos. (Do we owe peace to our children if not ourselves?)

 

Movement three combines Psalm 131, “Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty,” with Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”  The piece ends with a quiet acapella chorale giving thanks for peace and unity. The orchestra gently agrees. If only.

 

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky    /  May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor

What tragic irony that the torment of a gifted but vulnerable young man is responsible for giving us so much enjoyment.  Circumstances beyond his control dealt Tchaikovsky a very difficult hand, causing him to live most of his life in fear and on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

 

As a child, Tchaikovsky was so emotionally fragile that his governess described him as a “porcelain child.”  At the tender age of 10, his disintegrating family sent him 800 miles from his home to attend the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Moscow where, in a strict boarding school, he trained against his character to become a clerk in the Russian Ministry of Justice.  While separated from his beloved mother, she died, a crushing blow from which he never recovered. He became neurotically self-absorbed, misanthropic, and a hypochondriac — all exacerbated by his fear of being discovered as gay in a society that regarded such to be criminal.  As an example of his tenuous hold on sanity, while conducting in his later years, he kept time with a baton in his right hand while holding his chin with his left for fear that his head would fall off.

 

His salvation, of course, was his unmatched ability to write captivating music which flowered from his inexhaustible capacity to write compelling melodies, many of which are the most memorable ever to flow from the pen of a composer.  His melodies however, are not warm and fuzzy, but introspective, haunting, and sometimes as emotional as an anguished cry from an upstairs window on a stormy night. Also, he has no peer when it comes to dance rhythms. Can anyone top Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker?

 

In preparation for his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky penned some private notes about what would become the essence of his composition’s dramatic but unspoken program: “Introduction.  Complete resignation before Fate, or which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.” These private words indicate that he had become determined to accept – indeed to embrace – who he was instead of desperately trying to become something he was not.

 

As the music begins, we immediately hear the despondency from which he begins his transition.  The darkly hollow e-minor opening is his “Fate motto.” He borrowed it from Mikael Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, in particular Glinka’s music that accompanies the words “turn not to sorrow,” and sorrowful it is.  As the Fate motto ends, a determined march takes over. His journey to acceptance has begun. The Fate motto reappears repeatedly throughout the piece, eventually moving from the original minor key presentation in the dark woodwinds to a glorious triumph in a major key confidently delivered by the brass and the strings.  The triumph is glorious.

 

The second movement is a love song featuring one of his great melodies sung here by the French horn.  The third movement is a captivating waltz; and the finale is pure celebration.

 

But is he whistling in the dark?  Is he celebrating from the prow of the Titanic on its way to doom?  Is his victory short lived? For an answer to these questions, listen to the end of his Sixth Symphony.  Six days after its premier he was dead, possibly by his own hand.

Boise Phil 2018-19 Season Playlist

Jamey Lamar is a classical recording engineer and producer who also hosts a radio show for the Boise Phil on KBSU. You can hear him go into depth about our music before each of our classical concerts at Pre-Concert with the Phil.

Jamey recently compiled a playlist of all of the music the Boise Phil will perform this season. He chose each of the recordings with purpose to create the best listening experience possible.

Listen along to hear what our season has in store for you!

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This playlist includes the following pieces:
John Williams, London Symphony Orchestra: Star Wars: A New Hope (Original Picture Soundtrack)

Camille Saint-Saens, Vadyn Kholodenko & The Norwegian Radio Orchestra: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor

Johannes Brahms, Berliner Philharmoniker: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic: Overture to Candide

Leonard Bernstein, Wiener Jeunesse-Chor, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra: Chichester Psalms

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Wiener Philharmoniker: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor

Benjamin Britten, London Symphony Orchestra: Four Sea Interludes (from Peter Grimes)

Claude Debussy, Orchestre National De France: La Mer

Edward Elgar, Sir Colin Davis: Enigma Variations

Sergei Prokofiev, Chamber Orchestra of Europe: Symphony No. 1 in D Major (Classical Symphony)

Felix Mendelssohn, The Norwegian Radio Orchestra: Violin Concerto in E Minor

Jean Sibelius, Boston Symphony Orchestra: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Minor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Overture to The Magic Flute

Franz Schubert, David Zinman: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major

Ludwig van Beethoven, Mahler Chamber Orchestra: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in E-flat Major (Emperor)

John Adams: The Chairman Dances

Bela Bartok, Berliner Philharmoniker: Concerto for Orchestra

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Boston Symphony Orchestra: Variations on a Rococo Theme

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Andre Previn: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor

George Gershwin, Alexander String Quartet: Lullaby for a String Quartet

Derek Bermel, Alarm Will Sound: 3 Rivers

Darius Milhaud, Orchestre National de LilleLa Creation du monde

 

Don’t miss our season opener of Brahms 1 and piano soloist Jon Nakamatsu on Sept 7 & 8! Season packages and single tickets available now.

Behind the Music: A Playlist by Music Director Eric Garcia

This summer we asked our Music Director Eric Garcia to give us an inside look into his listening habits. When you’re the artistic directional force behind an orchestra, listening time is precious and sound waves are chosen carefully. But, between the score study and rehearsals, Music Director Garcia lent us his short list of listening.

Listen along while you get to know our Music Director!

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The playlist includes the following albums:
Bach: St Matthew’s Passion – Harnoncourt/Concentus Musicus Wien
Schubert: 21 Lieder – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music For Airports
Johnny Dodds: New Orleans Jazz
Bjork: Vespertine
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Carlos Kleiber

What kind of music, besides orchestral music, do you enjoy listening to in your free time?

I enjoy all kinds of music! Everything from classic rock to contemporary artists like Bjork and Radiohead. But of course, all music “classical” and “contemporary” is my true passion.

Tell us about your playlist and why you chose to share these songs with us.

This is my current short list, and It’s quite varied. Also, I enjoy listening to podcasts as much as music. Two of these podcasts are BBC’s “In Our Time” and The Bowery Boys: New York City History.

During which part of your day would you listen to a playlist like this?

I usually only have time to listen to music or podcasts when I’m driving. Not enough time!

If you could only listen to the music of one composer or songwriter for the rest of your life, who would you listen to?

Mozart.

Do you and your fiancée, Sarah, share the same taste in music?

Definitely. Apart from classical, one style we certainly agree on is ‘80s pop.

What other kinds of media do you enjoy listening to/watching in your spare time?

I’m a news junkie, so that takes up what little television time I have. With any extra time I enjoy watching comedies – like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Portlandia.

What kinds of activities would we find you doing when you’re not conducting or studying scores?

Reading, watching classic Hollywood and foreign films, and my favorite activity – taking my dogs Eddie & Hazel to the park.

See our Music Director lead the Boise Phil in the season opener of Brahms 1 featuring pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Subscriptions and single tickets available now.