Wednesday, October 25, 2023

FVSO November 11, 2023 FULL Program Notes

FVSO November 11, 2023 FULL Program Notes

Notes written by Erik Leveille and Kevin Sütterlin

Festive Overture: William Grant Still (1895-1978)

William Grant Still, who became known as ‘the Dean of African American composers,’ was born in Mississippi, raised by his mother and grandmother in Little Rock, and initially pursued a degree in medicine at Wilberforce College in Ohio before embarking on a career in music. His training and early professional experiences were eclectic; he studied first at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, spent time in New York City as both an arranger for bandleader Paul Whiteman and blues master W.C. Handy as well as an oboist in Broadway pit orchestras. Still returned to formal studies at the New England Conservatory where he was mentored by the traditionalist George Whitefield Chadwick and the avant-garde sensation Edgard Varèse.

Still went on to a career distinguished by multiple firsts. He was the first African American to have both a symphony and an opera premiered by professional American orchestras, and in 1936 he took to the podium as a guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The Festive Overture was completed in December of 1944, and was written for a composition contest. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was celebrating its 50th anniversary by inviting composers across the country to submit celebratory concert overtures for consideration by their panel of judges, which consisted of Cincinnati’s music director Eugene Goossens (himself a composer), renowned conductor Pierre Monteux, and composer, writer, and critic Deems Taylor. Still’s charming, optimistic work won unanimously, earning him the CSO’s Jubilee Prize and a $1000 war bond, and was premiered the following month.

A fanfare of brass and percussion ushers in the amiable principal theme in which the violins lope and glide unhurriedly over the bar lines. Playful muted trumpets and interjections from the glockenspiel and tambourine add color and contrast. A new theme, begun in the lower strings, is more songful and yearning, and features a lyrical solo for violin. Still follows classical sonata form by developing both themes in a terse development, and the delightful recapitulation gives a star turn to the xylophone before reaching its affirmative, brassy conclusion.

These Worlds in Us
Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980)

“ occurred to me that, as we grow older, we accumulate worlds of intense memory within us, and that grief is often not far from joy. I like the idea that music can reflect painful and blissful sentiments in a single note or gesture.”

With that kernel of thought, composer Missy Mazzoli—one of the most acclaimed and performed composers of her generation, particularly in the world of opera—created These Worlds in Us, her first work for orchestra, which won the ASCAP Young Composers Award and Yale University’s Woods Chandler Prize. It was premiere by the Yale Philharmonia in March 2006.

The work was inspired by the poem “The Lost Pilot” by James Tate, and by her father, who was a soldier in the Vietnam War. An excerpt from the poem that resonates with Missy Mazzoli especially in the creation of this work follows:

My head cocked towards the sky,

I cannot get off the ground,

and you, passing over again,

fast, perfect and unwilling

to tell me that you are doing

well, or that it was a mistake

that placed you in that world,

and me in this; or that misfortune

placed these worlds in us.

Even in this early work, Mazzoli’s wide-ranging musical experiences and influences – from classical training to punk and electronica and Balinese gamelan music – find voice in unique orchestral colors as diverse as a melancholy yet lovely melody in the violins (the anchor of the work) which continually dissolves into long, keening glissandos (slides, produced by continuously sliding a finger up or down on a single string), as if the tune itself is disintegrating; vibraphone reverberations blending with the reedy sighs of melodicas, and underneath all, a percussive pulse that at times consciously invokes military cadences yet above all conveys a sense of subtle restless urgency.

A Lincoln Portrait
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Aaron Copland is so revered as the quintessential voice of traditional American classical music—the heartland and prairie translated into those wide-spaced, open harmonies, and infectiously folky-yet-spiky rhythms—that it’s easy to forget how unlikely a figure he was to assume that role. A star pupil of the legendary Parisian teacher of composition Nadia Boulanger in the ‘20s, Copland was the son of Jewish immigrants, a gay man, and after returning to the United States in the 1930s and witnessing the plight of his fellow Americans during the Great Depression, a person of considerable socialist political leanings (he supported the American Communist Party’s presidential candidate in 1936). Copland’s political sympathies, in fact, informed his change of musical language to one that included the harmonies, rhythms, and melodic style of the Americas.

Copland is so ensconced in our national cultural firmament that it is easy to forget his worldview ran him afoul of Wisconsin’s own notorious red-baiting senator, Joseph McCarthy. The work featured on tonight’s program was to be performed at the 1953 inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, until a congressman from Illinois recalled Copland’s political leanings. The performance was canceled, and Copland found himself hauled not once, but twice in front of McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in May of that year. Copland skillfully parried the questioning but continued to be hounded for another two years by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, until it was finally decided there was insufficient evidence with which to charge him.

This anecdote sheds light on the origin of A Lincoln Portrait. In 1942, conductor Andre Kostelanetz commissioned Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Jerome Kern to all write patriotic works as America plunged into World War II. Copland originally wanted to set his work to the words of that great chronicler and poet of the Civil War, Walt Whitman, but when Kostelanetz suggested a political figure, he settled on the other great wordsmith of the era, the sixteenth president of the United States. Viewed in the light of Copland’s beliefs in a society that focused on the well-being of ‘the common man,’ A Lincoln Portrait is not only a clarion call against the fascism that engulfed Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, but a summons for this nation to live up to its highest ideals.

As to the piece itself, Copland’s own admirably direct and succinct notes for a performance by the Boston Symphony are perhaps the most appropriate: "The first sketches were made in February, and the portrait finished on 16 April 1942. I worked with musical materials of my own with the exception of two songs of the period: the famous 'Camptown Races' which, when used by Lincoln supporters during his Presidential campaign of 1860, was sung to the words, 'We're bound to work all night, bound to work all day. I'll bet my money on the Lincoln hoss…,' and a ballad that was first published in 1840 under the title 'The Pesky Sarpent,' but it is better known today as 'Springfield Mountain.' In neither case is the treatment a literal one. The tunes are used freely in the manner of my use of cowboy songs in Billy the Kid. The composition is roughly divided into three main sections. In the opening section I wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln's personality. Also, near the end of that section, something of his gentleness and simplicity of spirit. The quick middle section briefly sketches in the background of the times he lived. This merges into the concluding section where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself."

Symphony #3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica”, Op. 55
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

“I am far from satisfied with my past works: from today on I shall take a new way.”

Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny recounted these words of his mentor to his close friend, violinist and mandolinist Václav Krumpholz in 1802. That was a year of crisis and transformation for Beethoven; while he had completed his sunny and good-humored Second Symphony, his ever-worsening hearing drove him to the brink of despair, and he even contemplated suicide. In his famed “Heiligenstadt Testament” written to his brothers Karl and Johann in October of that year, Beethoven poured out his grief and desolation that he, THE composer and piano virtuoso of the moment, the one who was seen in Vienna as the sole worthy heir to the aged Haydn and the deceased Mozart, dreaded human interaction because he couldn’t hear a shepherd singing and piping in the distance, and could scarcely follow along in a spirited discussion, lest his dread and secret malady be revealed, to his shame and humiliation. Beethoven confesses that were it not for his art, he would have ended his life. He emerged from this emotional abyss scarred but determined not to relinquish his life until he had expressed the entirety of his creative impulse.

Beethoven began work on his third symphony shortly after he emerged from this trial by fire. He was a fervent adherent to the French Republican ideals of “Liberté, Fraternité, Égalite,” and the embodiment of those principals in the dawn of the 19th century on the Continent was the military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven no doubt liked to see himself as a peer of Bonaparte—a man of the future who would transform society. Beethoven called his new symphony “Buonaparte,” but when the great man (predictably) declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven flew into a rage and scratched out Bonaparte’s name with such fury that one can see the holes in the paper in the surviving manuscript. His new dedication was penned “to the memory of a great man.”

The autobiographical and socio-political aspects of this landmark work, however, tend to overshadow the true revolutionary character of the “Eroica,” which is the music itself. Critics and audience members who attended its premiere in April 1805 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna were left startled, perplexed, and vexed. The most sympathetic critics acknowledged the sheer audacious genius of what they had just heard, but fretted that Herr Beethoven was hopelessly overtaxing the ears and attention spans of his listeners. No wonder—the “Eroica” is twice the length of most symphonies at the time (one wag in the gallery seats at the premiere catcalled, “I’ll pay another Kreuzer if only the thing will stop”), thematically and contrapuntally dense, dissonant, and brash in affect.

Beethoven ushers in his ‘new way’ from the opening two measures; whereas his first and second symphonies opened with Haydnesque slow introductions, this work launches into action with two bracing E-flat major chords before introducing the most unlikely of heroic themes—the cellos introduce a pleasant but somewhat prosaic tune that is really nothing more than the outlining of an E-flat major arpeggio (three or more notes all belonging to the same harmony being played one after the other) while the upper strings tap out a Classical-era accompaniment … until the fifth measure. The cellos drop to a ‘wrong’ C#-sharp, and the first violins respond with an insistent, syncopated rhythm on G. That moment, which is both harmonically and rhythmically dissonant, opens the wormhole by which Beethoven expands the proportions of the first movement of a symphony beyond the scope of anything previously conceived. The titanic development section features a new melody in the distant key of E minor, rhythmic distortions that nearly fracture the sense of the triple meter in which the movement is written, and most famously, the horns recapitulating the primary theme two measures early (you are welcome to imagine the whole orchestra’s subsequent fortissimo chastisement of their ‘wayward’ colleagues as No! NO! NOW!!!). The recapitulation resolves the C#-sharp tension by presenting the theme in the enharmonic (same sounding) key of D-flat, and the concluding coda is really a new development section, but the concluding measures end in confident affirmation.

The following Adagio is marked “Marcia funebre”; contemporaries of Beethoven’s, François-Joseph Gossec and Luigi Cherubini had written similar movements inspired by the French Revolution, but Beethoven was the first one to include such a movement as part of a formal symphony. Over double basses imitating a military drum cadence, the strings intone a solemn lament in Beethoven’s “fate” key of C minor which is subsequently taken up by the oboe. Brief attempts towards consolation are interrupted by anguished and vehement cries. True relief is afforded in a contrasting section in C major which is alternatively comforting and ceremonially heroic. The return of the funeral march is interrupted by a massive, striving fugue (a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the parts), and the conclusion of the movement is truly extraordinary. The march theme itself is broken up into fragments and interrupted by gasping pauses, as if the music itself is dying.

The third movement is only the second time that Beethoven marks “Scherzo” (joke) instead of “Minuetto,” the old courtly dance that had been a mainstay of Baroque dance suites and featured regularly in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries (the first time being his Symphony No. 2). Beethoven labeled the third movement of his symphony as a minuet, although he already changed the character from stately to frenetic and fleet-footed. As with the rest of the “Eroica,” here he expands a dance form into proportions previously unimagined. The movement begins almost inaudibly, with the strings introducing something of a pianissimo Morse code between two alternating notes. Out of this emerges a melody in the oboe, first piping persistently on one note, then running down a scale, then lilting to its end. This odd tune is presented again before suddenly roaring from pianissimo to fortissimo (in one measure!) in the entire orchestra, modified with hemiolas (Beethoven shifts the sense of the meter from ONE-two-three to one-TWO-three). The Classical Menuetto was always contrasted with a Trio section, and Beethoven adheres to that structure, but here, the Trio is heralded by a trio of noble hunting horns (the first Beethoven symphony that uses more than two horns), which are complemented with cantering strings and meanderings in the woodwinds. The return of the scherzo is interrupted by Beethoven mischievously breaking into duple meter for four measures, and a final coda ends in fortissimo triumph.

The character of the final movement of a symphony changed as the form evolved; at first, it was barely an afterthought—a light frippery after the more substantive movements that proceeded it. By the time Mozart penned his final three symphonies, the finale had accrued significantly more weight, with the last movement of his Symphony No. 41 concluding in a blaze of glory with the most complex counterpoint that had ever been written for a symphony orchestra at that time. For his symphony written in a ‘new way’, Beethoven turned to the theme and variation form, one that would serve him well for the rest of his artistic life.

In 1801, he had written a simple contradance that he featured in the Finale of his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus. He liked that tune well enough to use it for a set of piano variations and it became the clay out of which Beethoven shaped the apotheosis of his new symphony. It had the added benefit of an association with a kind of self-sacrificing heroism- Prometheus, after all, was the demigod in Greek mythology who took pity on the plight of humanity and stole fire from heaven to warm and light the way for his fellow creatures. Quite a contrast from the self-declared hero of the Revolution who revealed himself to be just another self-aggrandizing tyrant.

Beethoven adds his own rough, brusque humor into the mix—a rumbustious, querulous introduction leads to a pregnant pause, and that much ado turns out to be about … not much. Pizzicato (plucked) strings introduce a comically bare skeleton of a theme, that then engages in a back-and-forth echoing with the woodwinds before being punctuated by three crisp notes in the winds, brass, and timpani. In the third variation, we finally realize the big joke – the theme is in fact just the bass line for the melody which we now hear, and from there, Beethoven unleashes his formidable skills with an extended fugato section and then to a gloriously swaggering march in the Hungarian style, a trick he no doubt learned from his former mentor Haydn. Another tremendous climax is reached, but then Beethoven casts aside all joking and bravura. In the next set of variations marked Poco Andante, the contradance theme is imbued with poignancy, tenderness, and pathos. In his Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven laments to his brothers that he is heartbroken that they and others perceive him to be angry and misanthropic, and that despite his demeanor he wished nothing more than to do good, and these measures convey this yearning and aspiration perfectly. The final coda erupts in Beethovenian joy – horns triumphantly call and whoop over a veritable beehive of exuberant tremolos (the rapid repetition of a musical tone to produce a trembling, wavering sound) in the strings, and a series of resonant chords that echo the opening of the symphony brings this symphony’s questing spirit to its emphatic conclusion.