The Virtuoso Orchestra Program Notes

 John Adams    / February 15, 1947

The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra

                    

The improbability of anti-communist President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic initiative in 1972 to establish a relationship with Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Red China caused opera Director Peter Sellars to suggest to John Adams in 1985 that they write an opera about it.  At first, they were not sure whether Nixon’s trip to China should be portrayed satirically as “a ridiculously cynical election ploy” or an historical breakthrough.  In the end, they decided to tell the story as heroic, to be entitled Nixon in China.

 

The Chairman Dances – by the way, “dances” is verb, not a noun – came about as a byproduct of Adams’s work on the opera.  As Adams explained, it is “an out-take of Act III of Nixon in China.  Neither an excerpt nor a fantasy on themes from, it was in fact a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera.  At the time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece.  So The Chairman Dances began as a ‘foxtrot’ for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled ‘Madame Mao,’ firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress.”

 

In 1999, Adams wrote an essay about The Chairman Dances and how it relates to Nixon in China:  “In the surreal final scene of the opera, Madame Mao interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, ‘to come down, old man, and dance.’  The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress.  Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts.  A scenario by Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, somewhat altered from the final one in Nixon in China, is as follows:  ‘Chiang Ch’ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet. She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters.  After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up the hip.  She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself.  Mao is becoming excited.  He steps down from his portrait on the wall, and they begin to foxtrot together.  They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone….”

 

So fire up your special effects imagination and watch slinky Madame Mao, previously a B-movie Queen in China, as she dances a foxtrot with the ruthless founder of the People’s Republic of China and the toxic Cultural Revolution.

 

Béla Bartók    / March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945

Concerto for Orchestra

 

By the early years of the 20th Century, however, Romanticism had run its course, burned out.  Thus, composers began to search for new musical styles, sounds, and vocabulary suitable for their Age.  As Bartók put it, “The excesses of the Romantics began to be unbearable, but where to turn?”

 

Born in Hungary in 1881, Bartók was schooled as a child in the prevailing musical aesthetics, but in 1905 he discovered the extraordinary treasure trove of unique and exciting folk music in his own country.  This folk music was technically complex, challenging, rugged, exciting, and suffused with an unmatched vitality.  Bartók called its expressive power “amazing,” devoid of sentimentality and superfluous ornamentation.  Realizing he had found an inspirational musical motherlode, Bartók acquired an early Edison voice recorder and enthusiastically set out on an eight-year journey to record and to learn as much about it as he could, becoming the world’s foremost ethnomusicologist.  As a composer, he proceeded to assimilate the unique essence of Hungarian folk music and to transmute it into universal material for the concert stage.  Stylistically and sonically, his resulting music has little in common with any previous style of composing.

 

As Bartók pursued this path, however, he ran headlong into fascism and the Nazis, political philosophies he detested.  After he watched what Hitler did to Austria in 1938, he feared Hungary would be next, and in 1940, he fled to New York City.  In a letter to a friend, he described the Nazis as “a system of robbery and murder.”

 

Hungarian folk music and the effect of being uprooted from his home at the age of 59 color much of Bartók’s 1944 Concerto for Orchestra.  Because it is so deliciously different from the music of previous centuries, we must listen to it with different ears.  His athletic angular melodies are not Tchaikovsky’s, and his harmonies are not Rachmaninoff’s.  Bartók does not write in sentences or paragraphs, but in atmospheric canvases and soundscapes, which express the rugged and vital rhythmic and melodic qualities he found in the backcountry of his homeland.  It sounds different because it is, and wonderfully so.

 

Bartók wrote a program note for the premiere of this piece in Boston.  He said, “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-affirmation of the finale.  The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is derived from its tendency to treat the single instruments in a soloistic manner.”  To perform it right takes an orchestra of all-stars.

 

The first of the five movements begins with unmistakable longing, the forlorn song of a man dispossessed of his roots.  The flutes, with melodies and rhythms distilled from Hungarian folk music, do their best to call him back from despair, only to be met with intense anguished cries.

 

The second movement, entitled Presentation of the Pairs, called “jesting” by the composer, is a brilliant journey into the exquisite land of new and unconventional instrumental colors.  First up are the bassoons playing a jaunty tune in exotic harmonic intervals of a minor 6th, follow by two oboes in minor 3rds, clarinets in minor 7ths, flutes in perfect 5ths, and muted trumpets in major 2nds.  The harmonic intervals we are accustomed to in earlier music are nowhere to be found.  You don’t need to know what they are called, just soak them in.  Noah might not recognize them, but they certainly add iridescence to our musical Ark.  After the pairs show their colors, an elegant brass chorale intervenes to set the stage for the return of the pairs in new intriguing sonic garb.

 

Movement three carries the title Elegy.  This is Bartók’s dark “death-song,” his heartfelt lament for a world plunged by madmen into cataclysmic war.

 

Movement four has a strange title:  Intermezzo Interrotto, or interrupted intermezzo.  It begins with a carefree folk-like theme followed by a warm melody led by the violas.  All of a sudden the clarinet interrupts the flow and turns the movement into a grotesque march, greeted by unmistakable razberries from the trombones, and accentuated by angry percussion and hysterical instrumental laughter.  Just as unexpectedly, the music reverts to the violas’ opulent theme, and the movement proceeds, only to be “interrupted” again by circus music and cacophony.  Undaunted the violas return, and the movement proceeds to its conclusion.  Okay, what was that all about?  Bartók’s son tells us the music is a mocking parody of the march in Shostakovich’s popular Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, a symphony Bartók believed was overdone and ripe for a musical cartoon.  Amazing!  Now you know “the surprising rest of the story.”

 

Bartók’s finale is energetic, bursting with vitality, and optimistic.  Do better times lie ahead?  Unfortunately not, Bartók wrote this piece while he was dying of leukemia.  His friend, the legendary conductor, Serge Koussevitzky presented him with a commission to compose it, not being sure he would last long enough to do so.  The money for the commission was intended to cover Bartók’s mounting medical expenses.  With the creative juices flowing again, however, Bartók miraculously rose to the occasion with this magnum opus.  Sadly, he died nine months later.  Thus, this work gave its composer a new lease on life, at least long enough to leave us a great gift.

Viennese Masters Program Notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / January 27, 1756 – December 5, 1791
Overture to The Magic Flute

Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791 as a hopeful commercial venture, not on commission from an aristocratic source, which was his normal source of patronage income.  He was in ill-health, in debt, and in desperate need of money, and he intended this work to entice and excite the paying public.

Set in ancient Egypt, the opera’s storyline is laced with improbable fantasy and populated with magical and unusual characters.  Think the Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.  Many believe it was a cleverly veiled allegory involving Freemasonry and secret fraternal Masonic rites and themes promoting a belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind.

Mozart reportedly wrote the opera’s overture shortly before the premiere – in one day!  After a puzzling opening featuring three mysterious chords – three being an important symbolic number to the Masons – the music is off to the races.  It is clever, witty, compelling, action-packed, and optimistic – everything he was not when he wrote it.  All of a sudden the music halts in the presence of declamatory chords.  Then the fun begins as Mozart has a musical ball developing and playing with the material presented in the first half.  In six minutes, he pulls out all the stops and gives us in capsule form the epitome of the high classical style at which no one was his equal.

Mozart conducted the premiere of the opera on September 20, 1791.  He died sixty-five days later and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.  An improbable and a sad end for a great genius.

How great a genius was he?  When someone from Prague wrote Haydn in 1787 asking him to write a comic opera, this was Haydn’s reply:  “If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent, how extraordinarily sensitive!  For this is how I understand them, how I feel them — why then the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers…  Forgive me if I lose my head, but I love this man so dearly.”  Don’t we all.

Franz Peter Schubert / January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major

Pick up any music book with a title such as “The 50 Greatest Composers” and you will find Franz Schubert comfortably ensconced in the Top 10, with giants like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.  You might be surprised to learn, however, that during his short lifetime, he lived in relative obscurity, virtually unknown and unheralded outside his intellectual circle of middle-class adoring friends in Vienna.  Not one of his symphonies was ever performed while he was alive.  When he died, his music disappeared, and he did not begin to get the recognition until 40 years after he was buried.

Three reasons explain these bizarre circumstances.  First, Schubert is the only composer on the list who was neither a virtuosic performer nor a successful conductor.  He never ventured far from his hometown.  Second, he was barely 5 feet tall and corpulent enough to be nicknamed “Tubby.”  He was shy and timid, never mustering the courage to introduce himself to his contemporary hero, Beethoven.  Third, he died at just 31 after suffering a debilitating illness.

The story of how Schubert’s genius came to light after his death would make a perfect Masterpiece Theater special.  Legend had it that somewhere in Austria lay a hidden treasure trove of his lost works, and the hunt was on.

Who discovered many of them?  Two enterprising Englishmen: Arthur Gilbert — soon to be of Gilbert and Sullivan — and George Grove — who wrote Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Excited by the unexpected find in 1865 by Robert Schumann of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Gilbert and Grove located in the hands of a Viennese doctor a pile of Schubert’s forgotten works, including the parts to his Fifth Symphony.

Grove tells the story.  He asked the doctor, “Might I go into the cupboard and look for myself?  Certainly—if I had no objection to being smothered with dust.  In I went.  After some search, during which my companion kept the doctor engaged in conversation, I found, at the bottom of the cupboard, and in its furthest corner, a bundle of music books two feet high, carefully tied round, and black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half a century.  What we now know is that this diminutive giant left behind 634 German art songs called Lieder (147 of them along with his Third Symphony written in just one year), 9 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 21 piano sonatas, 7 masses, and 10 operas — not to mention a mountain of other works.  He said of himself, “I was born to compose,” and he often slept with his glasses on so as not to lose any time so doing when he awakened.

What we will hear tonight is quintessential Schubert.  To quote an adoring scholar, “Schubert wrote only for his own delight, and that delight shines in every page.  His music has a youthful kind of innocence about it, which does not depend on sophistication or passion.  His greatest gift was melody, lyrical melody.”  Written at the age of 19, this delightful classical four-movement symphony is fresh, light, and tuneful, an homage to late Mozart and early Beethoven.  Right out of the box, Schubert’s tuneful first theme is the kind that stays with you long after the concert.

Schubert carried a torch during Beethoven’s funeral procession.  At his wish, he was buried in Vienna close to Beethoven’s grave.  His tombstone reads, “Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but much fairer hopes.  Franz Schubert lies here.”

Ludwig van Beethoven / December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827
Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

Vienna at the close of the Eighteenth Century was a cosmopolitan crossroads and the unrivaled center of music in the Western World, the home of Mozart and Haydn. As a brash twenty-two year old, Beethoven moved in 1792 to Vienna from Bonn, Germany to be part of the action. He was not yet a polished composer – far from it – but his dramatic piano style soon became the talk of the town. In particular, his astonishing ability to improvise on a musical idea stunned everyone who heard him play. His talent for generating striking new material from a simple theme would later become a hallmark of his mature compositional style.

Early on, Beethoven began to try his hand at challenging orchestral forms. Naturally, he tackled the piano concerto, writing a total of five. The first three were in the style of Mozart: balanced, refined, graceful, and lyrical – each consistent with the mode then in vogue. He wrote them for himself as a performing virtuoso. By the time he wrote his fourth piano concerto in 1805, however, he was no longer a Mozart clone. His bold dramatic style reflects a sea change in his method. Gone completely is the polite classical restraint that characterized the style of his predecessors. Beethoven as we now know him had arrived.

What caused the change? Two things: his reaction to the crisis caused by his progressive loss of hearing, and his fanatical adoption of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

“To be, or not to be,” that was the Shakespearian question forced upon Beethoven at a young age by his loss of hearing. For Beethoven’s answer, listen to any of his heroic music. He embraced the battle. He said, “I will take fate by the throat. It shall not overcome me. How beautiful it is to be alive!” His music is life affirming, exploding with energy and joy. His unflinching resolve to live his life by design, not by default, marks every one of his compositions. No other music ever written is more inspirational.

Moreover, he adopted and lived the Enlightenment ideal that the individual counts, not just the state or the church. Beethoven was nobody’s “subject,” he was a pugnacious freestanding “citizen,” and he boldly let everybody know it. Consequently, he wrote powerful music not just to entertain the royals or the aristocrats, but as dramatic oratory to express his innermost emotions and reflections on the human condition. The Third Symphony, the Eroica, written in 1804 marks the beginning of the Romantic Era in music. “Music,” he said, “is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.”

Beethoven’s belief in the importance of the individual and the artist as a hero explains the dramatic opening of this concerto, indeed every note of it. Before Beethoven, piano concertos always began with the orchestra spelling out the main themes in the first movement. Then, and only then, the soloist would politely enter with the same themes. What? The group dominates and controls the individual, the artist? Beethoven would have none of that. So in this concerto, the orchestra – the group – gets one short chord and Beethoven – the hero – grabs the bit in his teeth and takes over with a dazzling display of virtuosity. The orchestra tries twice again, but each time Beethoven shuts them down until he decides they can proceed with the main themes. Then, after he has established that he is the boss, the collaboration begins – and magnificent it is. The result is a virile showpiece of creative exuberance and flair. Yes, the Emperor it is!

Mendelssohn + More Program Notes

Sergei Prokofiev / April 23, 1891 – March 4, 1953
Classical Symphony in D-Major

Musicologists credit Franz Joseph Haydn with the crystallization in the late Eighteenth Century of the musical form we call the symphony: a four movement instrumental work constructed around a standard architectural framework. The first movement is a fast episode featuring two distinct themes and their musical development. A contrasting second movement follows in a slower tempo, sometimes in the form of a theme and variations. The third movement, a dance, markedly alters the pulse of the piece; and the rapid and upbeat finale, called a rondo, headlines one musical thought surrounded by dissimilar but complementary interludes.

The symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven represent art for art’s sake, not personal statements of the artist such as predominated in the following Romantic Period when composers wrote notes with the blood of their bleeding hearts and tortured souls. The unifying musical hallmarks of the Eighteenth Century symphony as composed by Haydn and Mozart are clarity, discipline, self-control, balance, restraint, logic, and a focus on beauty, melody, and harmony. The form may have been standard, but it gave unlimited latitude to composers boldly creatively, and imaginatively to pursue their muses.

Nowadays, we call the symphonic package “classical,” but if Haydn had been asked how he felt about writing “classical music,” he would not have understood your terminology. The term “classical music” did not develop until the 19th Century when musicologists were looking back at Haydn’s, Mozart’s, and early Beethoven’s music in an effort to put it into a category. What the musicologists recognized was that characteristics of the music they were measuring displayed the same characteristics as the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for which the accepted label was “classical.” Hence, they affixed the understood term “classical” to the music they were studying.

The point of this background is to illuminate what Sergei Prokofiev meant in 1921 when he called his first symphony “classical”: It is a witty and an affectionate homage to Haydn. He recounts the story in his memoirs: “I spent the summer of 1917 alone in the country near Petrograd all alone. Until this time I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that thematic material composed away from the piano was often better. . . . I had been playing with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano, thinking that such a piece would have more natural and transparent colors.”

So that is how the project for a symphony in the style of Haydn came about. It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time. This was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style. And when I saw that my idea was beginning to pan out I called it the Classical Symphony. I called it that in the first place because it was simpler, and secondly, for the fun of it, to ‘tease the geese,’ and in the secret hope that I would prove to be right if the symphony really did turn out to be a piece of classical music.”

Take particular note of two of Prokofiev’s gestures to the past. The first is his use of the “Mannheim Rocket” to open the piece, a bold effervescent chord rising rapidly in the air. The Mannheim Orchestra pioneered this engaging effect as well as the use of clarinets. In 1778, Mozart called the Mannheim Orchestra “undeniably the best in Germany.” The second is Prokofiev’s use of Gavotte, an 18th Century dance of French peasant origin, for the dance movement instead of a traditional minuet. A Gavotte has four beats to the bar instead of the Minuet’s three, and is considerably weightier.

In Prokofiev’s later years, he penned these insightful observations: “Can the true artist stand aloof from life and confine his art within the narrow bounds of subjective emotion? Or should he be where he is needed most, where his words, his music, his chisel can help the people live a better, finer life? In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor, or the painter, is in duty bound to serve man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art may consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future. Such, as I see it, is the immutable goal of art.”

 

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy / February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847
Violin Concerto in E Minor

Felix Mendelssohn is a rarity among famous composers. He was not afflicted by progressive hearing loss (Beethoven); he did not lapse into insanity (Robert Schumann); he was not exploited by his father (Mozart); he did not tremble at the thought of persecution (Tchaikovsky); he did not die of alcoholism (Mussorgsky); and he did not live in fear of death (Mahler). No, Felix was the well-educated and cultured handsome son of one of the wealthiest bankers in Europe, Abraham Mendelssohn, who counted the Czar of Russia as one of his clients. Name an advantage, and Felix had it — including the kind of musical talent that caused his contemporaries to compare him to Mozart.

Mendelssohn was a virtuoso pianist and organist as well as an excellent conductor — the first to use a baton — who revived the long forgotten works of J.S. Bach. He excelled at writing, dancing, gymnastics, and painting. And, as you might guess, he wrote music for the love of the art, not to scratch out a living.

Although Mendelssohn knew how to play the violin, he was no virtuoso. Accordingly, when he decided in 1838 to try his hand at a concerto, he turned to a close friend for technical assistance: Fernand David, one of the best violinists of the Nineteenth Century. Mendelssohn came up with the virtuosic music, but David helped him ensure that it was playable. The result was an evolutionary masterpiece that combines the restraint of classical form with the elegance of the French tradition and the technical fireworks introduced by Paganini. David remarked about the work that “There is plenty of music for the violin and orchestra, but there has been only one big, truly great concerto, Beethoven’s, and now there will be two!” History has validated David’s opinion.

Mendelssohn’s concerto is pure music. It neither tells a story nor paints a picture. But in its own skin it has everything in prodigious measure: soul, song, passion, joy, and jaw-dropping technique. No wonder that one musicologist proclaimed that it expresses the “charm of eternal youth.”

 

Jean Sibelius / December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major

At 5 years old, young Janne Sibelius delighted in crawling around and under the piano whenever it was played. Soon, he began to study the instrument with his Aunt Julia, and before long, he assembled his own small “orchestra of friends” which he conducted from the piano. The other instruments in the band besides the piano? Harmonica, ocarina, triangle, and chimes — hardly anything for the ages.

At 14, Janne began violin lessons with the local military bandmaster. “The violin took me by storm,” he later recalled, “and for the next 10 years it was my dearest wish, my greatest ambition to become a great virtuoso.” Frequently he would perch on a boulder overlooking a lake near his home. There, with only the water and trees to hear him, he would play his violin in peaceful communion with nature. He poured heart, soul, sweat, and tears into his dream, but he failed to achieve it. He had started too late and with inferior instruction. Finally, he came face to face with the reality that he just did not have the “chops,” neither the hand coordination nor the extroverted assured temperament required of a star performer.

For a time, we almost lost to law school the young man who would grow to become Jean Sibelius, the beloved artist. Why law school? As he explained, “What else could I do? I had to do something!”

Fortunately, as he came to despise school, his gift for music got the better of him, and he started down the path to becoming Finland’s greatest composer.

Sibelius wrote music as a nationalist, drawing his inspiration from the Finnish landscape and mythology. His style fills us with a sense of primal grandeur, evoking landscapes of immense dusky forests, rugged mountain terrain, shining lakes, stormy seas, rolling thunder, and glistening Northern Lights.

Sibelius wrote his three-movement Fifth Symphony on commission from the Finnish Government to commemorate his 50th birthday. From the very first bars, we know we are at the top of the world. We hear the vast expansiveness of his beloved land, the cold pristine wind as it sweeps down from the North, and we sense Sibelius’s spiritual awe for Finland’s unspoiled nature. His work from start to finish is a personal and heartfelt tone painting of an unspoiled corner of our planet.

The second movement is a cheerful set of variations of a theme featuring the flute, the woodwinds, and strings played pizzicato.

The third and final movement opens with the sound of wind and thunder. The timpani then announce the horns which intone a magnificent swaying triple-time motif, said to have been inspired by the sound of swan-calls Sibelius once heard as he witnessed a flock of the graceful aviators taking to the air. He described the event in his diary, calling it “One of the greatest impressions of my life. God, how beautiful. They circled over me for a long time and disappeared into the solar haze like a silver ribbon.”

Next, he treats us to one of his distant arctic melodies played first by flutes and then by the strings. When the swan motif returns, it literally soars, parting the clouds on their way to the sun. Glorious!

Sibelius ends with an original idea that relies on silence to create the effect. It’s quite a statement from a master.

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!

Listen Now

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!

Listen Now

 

 

 

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!

Listen Now

       
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.