Hear Our Voices: Program notes for Saturday, May 4, Oak Ridge Chorus concert (7:30 p.m., First Baptist Church)
By Mike Cates
The ancient Greeks used a chorus of voices as an important character in their comedies and tragedies. The medieval Church Fathers used groups of monks to chant the traditional Latin of the Mass. Tens of thousands of modern people scream at the tops of their lungs at rock concerts and football games. We are creatures of the pack; we work and play together; and together we have built cities, roads, parks, orchestras, and – today, more than ever before – choruses. The human voice can articulate words, convey emotions, and couple the world of flesh to that of the spirit like no other musical instrument. Beethoven, in the creation of his titanic masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony, as he approached the climax of the work, put these words on the Baritone’s lips: “O Freunde, nicht diese Toene! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere! [O friends! Not these sounds! But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!] Thus, the human voice became part of the symphonic template, and grand choral sounds joined with the orchestra to produce a musical treasure that continues, year after year, to be opened anew.
In this final concert of the ORCMA year, we hear the human voice in many guises and are reminded once more of the wealth of vocal music that is part of the soul of our culture, brought to us by fellow travelers in this East Tennessee pack of humanity.
Charles Faulkner Bryan (1911-1955) Singin’ Billy (Choral selections), Charlottown
Bryan was a Tennessean who taught at both Peabody College in Nashville and Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. In his relatively short life he wrote more than 100 works and was our area’s first major composer of art music. We heard his Bell Witch cantata earlier in the season. Today we hear choral selections from his opera Singin’ Billy and Charlottown. Singin’ Billy is a folk opera, completed in 1952; this work uses tunes and styles of music from our Appalachian Mountains. Charlottown arises from the same roots.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Four Gipsy Songs, Opus 103
Usually Brahms is not thought of as a lighthearted character. His greatest works are very serious in content and relatively complex in musical design. But the master had another side to his nature. As a young man he played piano in the brothels and other seedy establishments in Hamburg, later took an eye-opening tour of gypsy country in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and worked actively with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi. He never lost the gypsy soul he acquired and it has marked his music. (In the finale of his Double Concerto, to be heard in the opening concert of ORCMA’s next season, you will hear more of this rhythmic influence.) These cheerful songs, whose words come from Hungarian folksong texts, give a happy glimpse of this less-celebrated side of the third of the “Three Bs.”
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) To Music
What better selection to include in the concert than a song celebrating music, brought into being by one of music’s greatest song writers. Schubert’s gift of melody has rarely been approached by any of the other greatest names in music. And no more wonderful tune for such a celebration has ever been created. To Music (An die Musik) is pure Schubert, and its words seem to summarize the composer’s all-too-brief life:
Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!
Paul Simon (b. 1942) and Art Garfunkel (b. 1942) Scarborough Fair/Canticle (1966)
Close friends from childhood, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel grew up in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. They met in 1953 in elementary school, and both appeared in the school play that year, Alice in Wonderland, with Paul as the White Rabbit, and Art as the Cheshire Cat. The duo began writing their own songs in 1955. They rose to international fame in 1964 with The Sound of Silence. Simon and Garfunkel are well known for their harmonies and were among the most popular musical groups of the 1960s. Scarborough Fair is a traditional ballad from Yorkshire in Great Britain. Simon learned the song in London in 1965. Garfunkel then set it in counterpoint with Canticle, a reworking of Simon’s 1963 Song, The Side of a Hill. The result of their joint effort has become a part of the musical inheritance of many in the audience, and perhaps their children and grandchildren.
Linda Spevacek (b. 1945), arranger, Shenandoah
With over 700 published compositions and arrangements, Linda Spevacek has also produced seven choral collections, five piano books, and six vocal collections. She lives in Arizona and works out of her home. Spevacek is a sought-after musical judge and workshop clinician. Shenandoah is a traditional American folksong, dating at least to the early 19th century. There are many sets of lyrics for the song, but modern arrangements of the tune have generally used the lyrics that most people now are familiar with. These words speak of a man leaving the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to seek his fortune “across the wide Missouri.” The song is also associated with escaped slaves, who crossed the rivers to cover their scent from pursuers. Another suggestion was that Shenandoah was a sea chantey (work song for sailors), possibly by French-Canadian voyagers. Whatever its provenance, Shenandoah is a song of unusual beauty, arranged wonderfully for chorus.
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) Sure on This Shining Night
Lauridsen is a native of the state of Washington and has been a professor of composition at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California for more than 40 years. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 for his “radiant choral works combining musical power, beauty and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide.” Sure on This Shining Night is taken from the composer’s choral cycle called Nocturnes, and like Samuel Barber’s art song, is set to the words of Knoxville poet James Agee (1909-1955). Once again we hear that words, when set to music, take on a transcendence that moves us to a higher realm.
Sure on this shining night
Of star-made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder,
Wandr’ing far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
Program notes for last Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra concert of 2012-13 season
Featured artist: Sabrina Laney Warren, soprano soloist
7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 27, 2013, Oak Ridge High School, Oak Ridge Turnpike at North Tulane Avenue
Tribute to Tennessee
by Mike Cates
Tennessee is many things. Its very name speaks of the native peoples who lived on these hills and in these valleys before the coming of European and African groups who would thereafter mold the culture that developed here. It is a land of verdant beauty, full of living creatures, blessed by Mother Nature as few other places on our planet have been. And Tennessee is a land of music, a cultural crossroads of traditional songs and hymns, country and pop music, jazz, and art music. All flourish here, for this land easily provides life. In this final symphony concert of the season, we pay tribute to Tennessee, and hear the music of a Native Daughter of our state, along with music inspired by one of Tennessee’s great writers. And the final work of the season will be the most famous symphony from Scandinavia’s greatest composer. This work, while not literally Tennessean in source or inspiration, is one of music’s most memorable expressions of nature, from the heart of a man who spent most of his life in a country setting, in a cottage on a lakeside, a life very much in our traditional spirit.
Rachel DeVore Fogarty (b. 1980) Spoon River(selections)
A native of Kingston, Tennessee, Rachel DeVore Fogarty is an award-winning composer, who has written for many instrumental arrangements. She is especially interested in vocal music, and she has won a number of international and American composition competitions. She studied at Belmont University and lives in Nashville with her husband Kevin Fogarty, who is a musical theater composer, and (as she puts it on her website) “Haydn, a manically depressed gray housecat.”
Ms Fogarty, whose father works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was kind enough to send a description of her work for this concert. It is a great treasure to have the composer’s words to go with her music, which are as follows.
While Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology was required reading at some point during my education growing up, I can’t recall exactly when I was first acquainted with it. The poetry collection is an intriguing series of epitaphs relating the triumphs and tragedies of small-town America. Each character relates a different perspective on life and living, a compendium of personalities interacting and relating to each other and the world around them over generations. I spent two years writing and revising this work, carefully picking each text and creating the music to convey what I saw as their message. I set ten of these poems for each voice part (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass).
Tonight we will hear six of them, specifically adapted for soprano Sabrina Laney Warren. They are performed in the order found in Masters' original manuscript. I wrote them with the intention of creating an opera ballet, in which each of the characters would be portrayed by singers while their lives would be seen in dance. I decided that a concert work was a bit more practical.
In the first piece, Emily Sparks portrays the love of a teacher for her student and seeks to remind one student in particular of the importance of her lessons. It starts with anticipation, created through tremolos in the strings, and gradually builds in emotion and intensity as Emily tries to convince her student of the great potential he has to be used by God despite his sin wrecked life. If only he will embrace Christ and the gospel, related to him by Emily, he will become the man he was created to be.
In Hare Drummer, the poem speaks to the happiness of childhood by a life that was ended too soon. I have created a lyrical melody propelled by continuous motion throughout the orchestra in order to portray the flow of thought from a child. I wanted to write a haunting melody that would be bittersweet and yet joyous.
Flossie Cabanis is a character chasing after a dream with the promise of help from a friend, but falls short and loses herself in the process. Using pizzicato strings with the woodwinds, I wanted to convey a plodding, melancholy emotion as Flossie describes how her dream began. As she vividly illustrates how her dream and love for a young actor “enthralled her soul,” the orchestra builds in intensity, creating a sense of the elation she felt as she leaves Spoon River to chase the desires of her heart. However, as the harmony changes, Flossie takes stock of the pain found in failure and the loss of her hope.
Julia Miller is one of the darkest poems in the work. It portrays the power of regret and the devastating consequences found in unchecked bitterness. The piece shows her desperation through the driving rhythms, propelling the motion of the piece forward in anguish and despair. As Julia is overcome with sorrow, she takes her own life. In order to bring the audience into her grief, the mood and tempo of the piece change by augmenting the harmonic rhythm and gradually thinning the orchestration to single chords and vocal recitative.
Dora Williams has a story that is tied to Emily Sparks through the character of Reuben Pantier. Unrequited love leads to a glamorous life of scandal and wealth that ends tragically in murder. I deliberately set this text in sections to reflect the way Dora tells her story, using various dance rhythms as she describes her life and explains her exotic existence first in New York and then in Europe.
Lucinda Matlock is, I think, my favorite piece of the entire set. Lucinda shows the beauty of a life lived to its fullest, despite suffering and hardship. To communicate this musically, the piece keeps a steady, repeating melodic motif that represents Lucinda’s strong and even journey through life. The rhythmic motive winds down as she relates and reflects on her suffering, but then quickly resumes as she mentions the day to day tasks of her life, culminating in the echoes of her joy by “shouting to the wooded hills” and “singing to the green valleys.”
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1948)
Samuel Barber, born to a well-off Pennsylvania family, was raised in a cultural atmosphere and knew as a child that he wanted to be a composer. When he was nine he wrote to his mother: “Dear Mother: I have written this to tell you my worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlet [sic]. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I'm sure.” And indeed he was, becoming one of the leading American composers of the 20th century. Many of his works are in the standard repertory of symphonies and string ensembles around the world.
An avid reader Barber kept an eye out for texts to be set to music. In 1947 he came across Knoxville: Summer of 1915, James Agee's (1909-1955) description of his childhood. The composer wrote, “We both had back yards where our families used to lie in the long summer evenings. We each had an aunt who was a musician. I remember well my parents sitting on the porch, talking quietly as they rocked.” Barber and Agee were born within a year of each other and the resonances in their lives were palpable. Barber said, “Agee’s poem was vivid and moved me deeply … I think I must have composed Knoxville within a few days.”
The composition was a commission from the well known soprano Eleanor Steber (1914-1990), so it was written for lyric soprano and orchestra. It has become one of the most performed masterworks of this type and thereby has put the name of Knoxville, Tennessee, on the musical map of the world. Agee's text is written in prose, but the imagery is poetic. And, because of the importance of the words, Barber crafted the vocal part to follow the rhythms of American speech. He scored the orchestra lightly enough to allow words to be heard, and through the instruments established a small-town atmosphere, giving description contrived to take the listener into the setting.
After the introduction, there is a lyrical melody fitting of childhood, the theme that is remembered as the signature of the whole work. Indeed, it is Agee as a child who is the narrator. This tune is repeated again in the middle and near the end of the composition. After the first statement, listen as the orchestra portrays a passing trolley, with woodwinds and violins imitating its clanging bell. After the refrain melody's second appearance, we are introduced to the other members of the narrator's family. Then, beginning with the words "By some chance, here they are all on this earth," the music suddenly rises in strength and passion. When he was writing Knoxville, Barber’s father and his aunt were in the last stages of their lives. Both died within a few months of the score's completion. Listen for this very adult expression of the awareness of mortality that makes this passage so moving, leading to “May God bless my people." And there is a final poignant moment after the last return of the child’s melody, when the narrator expresses her realization that her family, loving as they are, can never truly understand her. She sings, “But will not ever tell me who I am.”
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Symphony No. 2 (Opus 43)
Johan (Jean) Julius Christian Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna, a small town about 60 miles north of Helsinki, Finland. He wrote his first composition, a short work for violin and cello, when he was 10 years old. Thus began a musical life that rose to the pinnacle of achievement in the early decades of the 20th century, followed by decades of quiet retirement, and death in very old age. As a young man, Sibelius was a member of a group in Helsinki called “The Symposium.” This circle of intellectuals (apparently of a “Bohemian” character) proudly held forth Finnish and Swedish “solidarity” against Eastern influences, primarily, of course, Russian. They debated the problems of the age (and all ages), namely, political freedom, the individual versus the mass, the place of the artist in society, and the like. From this very romantic time in his life, Sibelius wrote his first two symphonies in 1899 and 1901 respectively. They are certainly the most “Romantic” of his seven symphonies, and along with his Symphony No. 5, the most commonly performed.
The Second Symphony finds Sibelius at the zenith of his vigor and musical passion, and like all his works, is deeply immersed in the natural world of lakes, forests, cold, and extended daylight and darkness of his homeland. As you will sense from the beginning, measures of music, there is no voice like his. Part of this uniqueness comes from his culture and time, certainly, and part from his remarkable musical ideas. Symphony No. 2, seems to follow the traditional formula (established by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) of allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale, but with notable internal differences. Sibelius, instead of introducing melodies in full exposition, then taking them apart and working with them in the development section, does essentially the opposite. He introduces fragments of melodies in the exposition, building them into organic structures in the development section, then dissolves the thematic material back into those primary fragments once again. In a sense, he follows the path of nature and life itself, birth, growth, and death, turning his music into a kind of living organism.
The first movement is marked allegretto, and begins with pulsating strings. Listen for the fragmentary introductions of motifs, none of which seem to claim the right as most important. These fragments are “assembled” throughout the entire movement. The second movement, andante ma rubato, begins with rumbling kettledrums and string pizzicatos, leading to a melody in the bassoons. Tension builds and peace is temporarily restored in an andante sotenuto, with further agitation before a kind of reverie is reached. The third movement, a Scherzo marked vivacissimo, presents various instrumental combinations with melodic fragments. In the central trio of this movement, listen for the oboe repeating the same note nine times before the line shapes into a lyrical theme. There follows a kind of repeat of the opening section, then the trio again, and then some other material begins to creep into the score, evolving it without pause into the finale, marked allegretto moderato. The principal theme is heroic, one of the grandest in all symphonic literature and the guiding force of the movement-- indeed one could say the entire symphony. There are two other subsidiary themes that form, but the triumphant principal theme represents the ultimate coming together of all these wonderful ideas into a victorious conclusion that makes us all proud to be part of the human race.
Program notes for fourth ORCMA concert of 2012-13 season featuring the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Featured artist: Stephen Seifert, mountain dulcimerist
7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 9, 2013, Oak Ridge High School, Oak Ridge Turnpike at North Tulane Avenue
Spring in the Mountains
By Mike Cates
Lo! where the rosy-bosom'd Hours,
Fair Venus' train appear,
Disclose the long-expecting flowers,
And wake the purple year!
The Attic warbler pours her throat,
Responsive to the cuckoo's note,
The untaught harmony of spring:
While whisp'ring pleasure as they fly,
Cool zephyrs thro' the clear blue sky
Their gather'd fragrance fling.
Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Charles Faulkner Bryan (1911-1955) The Bell Witch (1947)
Charles Faulkner Bryan was a Tennessee native son, born in McMinnville, and one who spent much of his career teaching within his home state. In 1946 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and studied with Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) at Yale University, during which time he composed The Bell Witch. Dr. Carolyn Livingston, a professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, Tennessee Tech graduate, and author of an important biography of Bryan, tells us about his compositions: “Recognized as Tennessee’s first composer of art music, Charles Faulkner Bryan blazed many trails. He was the first Tennessee composer to have a work performed by a large symphony orchestra, the first Tennessee musician to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the first composer anywhere to write a symphony based on white spirituals. Further, he reached a large audience with works performed at Carnegie Hall and on national radio. Although he died in 1955 at the tragically early age of forty-three, he left a rich legacy.”
The Bell Witch is a secular folk cantata, premiered in 1947 by Robert Shaw (1916-1999) at Carnegie Hall, and based on a 19th century legend of a witch who haunted the Bell family as they moved from Tennessee to North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. The composer also wrote the cantata’s text. Beginning at the 5th measure, we find where the musical story is set: “In North Carolina there did dwell a family by the name of John Bell.” The music carries a distinctively sad mood, and, in keeping with the mountain folk music he used as a model, Bryan uses varying modes in the music (beginning, for example, in the Aeolian mode). For the most part, the work is “through-composed,” meaning that the music is rather continuous, and non-repetitive. Carolyn Livingston summed up the work in this way: “Bryan’s treatment of the legend is entirely true to the story’s nature. Like the best novels of the supernatural, his music effectively invites listeners to enter a world in which such a horrible story might possibly be true.”
Conni Ellisor (b. ~1959) Blackberry Winter
Conni Ellisor is a marvelous example of a very successful 21st century professional musician. She is a composer, arranger, and performer (violin) who lives in Nashville and seems at home with many forms of music. She’s written for many combinations of instruments and in various styles. (She also wrote a piece called The Bell Witch, based on the same legend, but in the form of a ballet commissioned by the Nashville Ballet.) One of her best known compositions is Blackberry Winter, a concerto for dulcimer and strings. And we are fortunate to have her own words to describe the piece.
“When first asked if I would be interested in writing a concerto for dulcimer and strings, I happily agreed because the challenge of juxtaposing and blending musical styles and idioms has always been of interest to me. In this case the peculiar beauty and eccentricities of the mountain dulcimer, with its diatonic tuning and drone strings, and the rich heritage of the classical concerto with string orchestra seemed particularly compelling.
"[Upon hearing the dulcimer tune Blackberry Blossom] one of many handed down in the Appalachian folk tradition, I could hear immediately how the harmonies underneath could be shifted and changed and that it was a perfect melody to adapt to the ‘classical’ tradition I wanted to bring to the concerto. The title reminded me of a book that had a profound influence on me years earlier [Blackberry Winter, autobiography of Margaret Mead (1901-1978)] [The commission grant] was secured on a spring morning a few months earlier, when a late frost had come without warning, coating all new buds with a thin coat of ice – a blackberry winter. And so the piece was named.
"I felt compelled to work within the folk idiom, utilizing folk and folk-like melodies that are true to the nature and heritage of the dulcimer, yet I wanted the piece to have the basic infrastructure of the classical concerto. So I borrowed from a number of idioms: the Baroque tradition of introducing a theme slowly before moving into an allegro tempo (first movement), a rough interpretation of sonata-allegro form (first and third movements), and the time-tested use of theme and variation (second movement).”
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Symphony No. 5 (1816)
Franz Peter Schubert lived a short life (less than 32 years), was poor most of it, and was only highly regarded during his lifetime by a few close friends. [Nor was he able to marry the love of his life, Teresa Grob (1798-1875), because of the harsh Austrian marriage law of 1815, which required the ability to show the means to support a family.] Yet now Schubert is universally considered among the greatest composers of the 19th century, with numerous works – especially in his last few years – that rank at the pinnacle of musical creativity. Had he lived into his fifties, like Beethoven, we could have expected other symphonic masterpieces from his pen similar to, and perhaps surpassing, his great C-Major Symphony No. 9, the only “grand symphony” he completed. Indeed, the history of the symphony would likely have been written very differently except for his tragic early death.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 was written in 1816, when the composer was not yet 19 and already writing music at an astonishing rate, perhaps unmatched by any other famous composer. During 1815, for example, he composed more than 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra. Symphony No. 5 was scored similarly to Mozart’s symphonies, and of course influenced by Mozart’s compositional style. The work is not conceived on a grand scale, with no trumpets, clarinets, or timpani in the scoring, and was typical of a time when Schubert’s symphonic output could be expected to be performed by only amateur orchestras (if at all). It is a truly beguiling work created in the spirit of chamber music, and is dominated throughout by Schubert’s incomparable gift of melody. Those melodies mold and energize the whole score. The mood is light, and the sense hearers and performers get is the amazing naturalness of music, almost as if – in the spirit of Michelangelo – it was simply the uncovering of a musical image that was intrinsically there.
The symphony begins with a four-bar introduction that leads into an unforgettable theme. The composer uses the introductory material to put the movement together, adding cohesion to the flow of the music. The second (andante con moto) movement is graceful like Mozart and lyrical like (naturally) Schubert. In the minuet third movement there is a kind of serious beginning, but the composer doesn’t let it go long, choosing instead to put in more of his wonderful melodies. The finale (allegro moderato) seems to add in a touch of Haydn’s playfulness, but again sweetened by melody. It is music you simply cannot fail to enjoy. Happily, it has been around for nearly 200 years, with no end in sight.
Program notes for third ORCMA concert of 2012-13 season featuring the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra
Featured artist: Malcolm Matthews, organist
(7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21, 2013, First United Methodist Church, North Tulane Avenue
Warming the Night
By Mike Cates
For hundreds of generations, since our ancestors migrated away from the continuous warmth of our tropical African genesis, winter has been a time to hunker down, to keep the fires burning, to sit and wonder at the mysteries of the darkness, to tell stories, to huddle together, and to make music. Expressing ourselves in ways that go beyond words has seemed more and more important as we have evolved to unwrap more and more of Mother Nature’s gifts to us, always finding further packages with their own intricate challenges. In that spirit, smile at your neighbor and let your night be warmed.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) Incidental music to Orfeo
Claudio Monteverdi was one of the greatest European musicians of his era, a time of ruling families and stratified classes, a time well before the explosion of technology that has transformed Europe and the rest of the world altogether. Orfeo, Monteverdi’s opera subtitled “a fable in music” was one of the first musical dramas written since the Greeks had set the ancient standard two millennia earlier. It remains the earliest work of its genre still being performed in musical venues on occasion. The music is simple, perhaps even primitive to our ears, but it was brand new and exciting for those early audiences, and still has a special appeal. It was composed to be performed for the private audience of a wealthy patron in Mantua, Italy (well before Italy was a nation). Its tale of Orpheus and his beloved Euridice is from Greek mythology, common to operas of the era. As you listen to the sounds envisioned four centuries ago, think of yourselves transported into the time of myth and the realm of the gods.
Elliot Carter (1908-2010) Elegy
Between the age of 90 and 100, Elliot Carter published more than 40 works. After his centennial he published 14 more! Surely he is the grand old music master of our time, or any other, and a serious force to be reckoned with when assessing the nature and value of American music. Much of his composition late in life was multi-layered, complex, and demanding for performers and listeners alike. Earlier in his career – which indeed covered most of the 20th century – his sound was more recognizable and shared attributes in common with his contemporaries Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Roy Harris (1898-1979), and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).
Carter’s Elegy was written originally in 1939 for cello and piano, arranged later for string quartet, and in 1952 for string orchestra. It is a brief, pensive work that features weaving interplay of instruments, creating a distinctive elegiac mood. The main theme can be distinguished from Carter’s use of raised fourths. It builds to a climax and fades to a quiet, introspective ending. In following the Monteverdi work, Elegy effectively carries us through 400 years of human creativity and plants us securely in a time unimagined by our musical fathers and mothers.
George Gershwin (1898-1937) Lullaby for Strings
During his tragically short life, George Gershwin wrote some of America’s most recognizable, memorable music. He was truly our nation’s first internationally famous composer. His work was strongly influenced by American culture, especially the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and blues. Gershwin’s Lullaby for Strings was written in 1919 when he was a student, and the same year his first Broadway musical La La Lucille was produced. The piece was used to fashion an aria for his one-act opera Blue Monday in 1922 -- which was a complete flop (one performance) – and lay in obscurity in his archives until transcribed by Larry Adler (1914-2001) for harmonica and string quartet in 1963. It was not heard in its original string quartet version until 1967. Use of a string orchestra seems to have become the optimized expression of the composition.
Lullaby for Strings has two interesting themes that light up the work. You can hear undercurrents of harmonies and counterpoint that illustrate the special character of Gershwin’s music of all types. This work continues its life today and also had a great early impact. Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), a famous bandleader of the time, was taken by the young composer’s talent, so he commissioned him to write a new piece, which turned out to be Rhapsody in Blue.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings
Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born into a well-off family – his father ran a chemical company – and was taught piano by his mother. He remained a mostly self-taught musician although he took lessons from Charles Koechin (1867-1950) for a few years in the early 1920s. He is known for his quirky, sometimes irreverent style, and he achieved success in a wide variety of compositional types. In 1938 he wrote Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. He said this about the work: "This is not the happy-go-lucky Poulenc who wrote the Concerto for Two Pianos, but a Poulenc en route to the cloister -- a 15th century Poulenc if you like."
The concerto, which has a religious tone, was written after Poulenc began what he called a time of “new dimensions and greater depth.” The composer consulted with Maurice Duruflé (1901-1986), soloist in the early performances, and studied the organ literature of history’s greatest master of the instrument, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1950). In structure, the work is a continuous movement that could be called a fantasia, in that it is willing to take “flights of fancy” in its structure, not sticking with formal tradition. It starts with a dense chord in the organ, and goes into dotted rhythms, a duet with organ and timpani, lush string harmonies, low rumbles to powerful hall-filling organ outbursts, and lots of percussive exclamations. Built-up tension is released in the allegro section where strings and organ move in and out of dominance. The andante section features an organ solo responded to lyrically by the strings. There follows somber moods, marching pulses, thickening harmonies, and more tension. There is another allegro passage, a return of the organ introduction, a beautiful viola solo with plucked string accompaniment, then a dramatic ending with a final chord from the organ. You will be altogether charmed, impressed, and deeply touched by this masterpiece.
Second ORCMA concert of 2012-13 season featuring the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
John Becker, WBIR news anchor, will narrate "The Greatest Generation" by Greg Danner, composer from Cookeville, Tennessee.
(3 p.m., Sunday, November 11, 2012, Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville College, Maryville, Tennessee)
By Mike Cates
When the Constitution of the United States of America was established in the waning years of the 18th century, history saw its first secular democracy come into existence. The U.S.A. was born as a nation where Church and State were separate and where the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal was codified into law. There have been many bumps and potholes in the path democracy has taken since those days; yet we can take pride as Americans that we created a model that has been used as a guide (or perceived as a threat) for many other nations over the more than two centuries that have passed. We can justly celebrate our role in history, yet at the same time we soberly recognize that democracy must be reborn anew for each generation. So, come now, let us lift up voices and instruments in celebration of our heritage!
Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) [lyrics] John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) [melody] The Star Spangled Banner
Our national anthem began life as a poem by a Revolutionary War–era lawyer, 35-year-old Francis Scott Key, who in 1814 watched – from aboard a British vessel – the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, overlooking the harbor of Baltimore. The British failed to dislodge the Americans, and the poorly conceived War of 1812 ended with the new nation still intact and its mother nation wearied from attempting such foolishness among folk with stubbornness equal to that of their own, and thousands of miles from home. Key called his poem Defence of Fort McHenry, and soon after its creation it was set to the tune of a popular song written by John Stafford Smith for a London men’s club called the Anacreonic Society. How interesting that in those days things British were popular within the American culture, because indeed Smith’s tune (To Anacreon in Heaven) was well known.
Despite its British roots and octave and a half vocal range, The Star Spangled Banner with Key’s words began to be used officially by the U.S. Navy in 1889, was adopted for use in the Executive Department by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and finally, by act of Congress, became our nation’s official anthem on March 3, 1931. And it has served us well. Remember to stand with hand over your heart when you hear it played.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) Frostiana (1965)
Randall Thompson spent most of his life in New England which, arguably, since the time of William Billings (1746-1800), has been the most important center of American art music. Thompson went to Harvard, beginning in 1916, tried out for but was rejected by the glee club, then got very interested in choral music, eventually being mentored by the glee club’s conductor, Archibald Davidson (1883-1961). He earned his doctorate in music from the University of Rochester in 1933. His works include chamber and orchestral music, but he is known primarily as a composer of choral music. But we owe him credit, too, for being a music education reformer. In 1935 he organized a survey sent to many university choral music programs, the results of which revolutionized training in choral singing. If you have been fortunate enough to hear wonderful college choirs in performance, some of that wonder owes its origins to the work of Randall Thompson.
Frostiana is Thompson’s choral setting of seven poems by Robert Frost (1874-1963), originally with piano accompaniment, and later with chamber orchestra. This was a commissioned piece to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city of Amherst, Massachusetts (1959). Robert Frost had lived in Amherst for a number of years. The poet was at the premier performance and, despite his reluctance to allow his poetry to be set to music, seemed very impressed by Thompson’s interpretation, standing and saying, after the conclusion, “Sing it again!”
The seven poems, which take a nostalgic look at New England country life, are musically structured in a kind of symmetry, with the first and last movements for full chorus, second and sixth for men, third and fifth for women, and the central fourth movement a kind of dialog between the sexes. Listen for tone painting. For example, you can hear treading steps in The Road Not Taken, birds chirping in Come In, snow falling in Stopping By Woods, and a sense of starlight in the soprano line of Choose Something Like a Star. Notice, too, that the composer played particular attention to having the words understandable, writing in a style (homophonic) in which a melody line is dominant. Now, lean back and transport yourselves to rural New England at a time when your parents and grandparents were growing up.
John Williams (b. 1932) Hymn to the Fallen (from the movie Saving Private Ryan)
John Williams is among the most financially successful musicians in history. His film scores are firmly locked into American (and international) culture. His music undoubtedly has been heard by more people than the music of Beethoven, Mozart, or any other famous composer of the past. Analogously to opera, movie music transforms images and dialog into an altogether transcendent experience, where the whole is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. The movie Saving Private Ryan (1998) was a huge success, and its musical score is equally famous. Hymn to the Fallen is a moving tribute to those many who have been killed or wounded in the line of battle. The choral sound uses no words; words could never say what is needed at such moments.
Morton Gould (1913-1996) American Salute
Another in the Mozart line of child prodigies, Morton Gould published his first composition when he was six years old. He was a gifted pianist and prolific composer. He composed more than a thousand works during his lifetime, including movie and ballet, scores, Broadway musicals, and orchestral and band works. Among many honors he received was a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. His music is considered distinctly “American” in its feel and spirit.
In American Salute Gould builds the work entirely from one melodic line, a well-known song, often sung in time of war. The tune has been traced to an Irish anti-war song called Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye. It was transformed into a spirited celebration of fighting men through the years by the words penned by the Irish-American bandleader Patrick Gilmore (1829-1892), who called his song, published in 1863, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Gilmore wrote the song for his sister, who was hoping for the safe return of her husband from the Civil War. Listen to the wonderful things Morton Gould does with this toe-tapping tune.
Greg Danner (b. 1958) The Greatest Generation
Greg Danner, a Missouri native, is a Professor of Music at Tennessee Tech. He studied at Southeast Missouri State, the Eastman School of Music, and Washington University, where he earned a Ph.D. degree. He is thought of primarily as a band music composer and advocates strongly for the importance of American wind ensembles in classical music. The following is extracted from the notes written by Maestro Dan Alcott for the premier performance of The Greatest Generation.
"Americans of the 1930s and ’40s – many the sons and daughters of recent immigrants – were no strangers to economic ruin. If they had not personally suffered it by the time of the Depression, their parents almost certainly had – in the slums of Russia’s cities, the agriculturally deprived countryside of Ireland, the industrial serfdoms of England. The stories of how you “make do” were as familiar as the books of the Old Testament.
"And when Franklin Roosevelt declared that 'day of infamy' in 1941, Americans rose to the occasion with pluck, determination, and something resembling the 'national pep' George Gershwin (1898-1937) attributed to the American persona. Composer Greg Danner’s father, Fred Lee Danner, served as a gunner’s mate onboard the destroyer USS Cowell during World War II and was highly decorated. Danner grew up with stories of heroism in a time of war and stoicism on the home front, as families waited for word of their loved ones in combat. While television began bringing us moving images of the European and Pacific theaters, some of the most poignant descriptions of life during World War II are captured in the letters between husbands and wives, siblings and friends, parents and children. Some of these letters informed mothers that their sons have died. They chronicled the pain of separation between lovers. They made jokes about how you couldn’t find a decent pair of stockings any longer, and they tried to give comfort where none was truly possible.
"The phrase 'the greatest generation' is one of utmost respect for the Americans who grew up during the Depression and went on to serve in World War II or build and sustain a support system for the troops here at home. Journalist Tom Brokaw (b. 1940) coined the phrase first in his news broadcasts and later, in 1998, in his book of the same name. Danner, like a historian or journalist, tells his story of the greatest generation using primary material – the letters of the people with the most at stake – in this case, the soldiers and families of World War II. The setting begins during the Depression, a time of 'lost opportunities for many Americans.' The work is informed by both the writers of the letters themselves and the descendents of those writers, who unanimously embraced the composer’s intent of setting their families’ stories to music. Commissioned for concert band by the American School Band Directors Association and premiered at its 57th annual convention, The Greatest Generation won the 2010 Composers’ Guild Grand Prize. The Bryan Symphony Orchestra commissioned, in collaboration with the Oak Ridge Symphony, an orchestrated version of The Greatest Generation as part of our 50th anniversary celebration. Its narration quotes four letters written by a soldier trying to console his parents, a soldier whose daughter was born while he was overseas, a soldier who survived D-Day, and an infantry soldier interviewed years later, who tried to put the experience of his generation into perspective for those of us who follow."
Robert Lowden (1920-1998) Armed Forces Salute
A native of New Jersey, Robert Lowden was a prolific arranger and composer. Interestingly, he also was in the advertising business and wrote more than 400 commercial jingles. He is most well known to orchestras and bands for arrangements of show tunes and popular songs. During World War II he played in the U. S. Army Band.
The concluding work of the concert is his lively arrangement of a medley of the official songs of the various branches of the United States armed forces: Army [The Caisson Song, words and music by Edmond L. Gruber, 1908]; Coast Guard [Semper Paratus (Always Ready), Frances F. van Boskerck, 1938], Marines [The Marines’ Hymn, music by Jacques Offenbach, 1859, words by Henry C. Davis, 1929], Air Force [The U. S. Air Force, words and music by Robert Crawford, 1951], and Navy [Anchors Aweigh, music by Charles A. Zimmerman, words by George D. Lottman, Alfred Hart Miles, and Royal Lovell, 1907]. All these tunes are familiar and stir pride in our hearts. Nearly every American has either served in or been close to someone (or many) who served in the military. Listening to these tunes is another reminder that freedom is always a work in progress, and that sacrifice has been demanded, generation after generation, to keep that freedom secure.
First concert of 2012-13 season by the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra, with Josh Davis as piano soloist
(7:30 p.m., Saturday, October 13, 2012, Oak Ridge High School Performing Arts Center)
New World Talent,
Old World Masterpieces
By Mike Cates
Tonight’s concert features what is arguably the most famous orchestral composition in the literature, paired with a remarkable piano concerto that is a favorite of many and a great pride of 20th-century composition. These Old World masterpieces exist for us only as stacks of printed scores until created again by the talent of living artists, such as the Tennesseans who grace us on the concert stage tonight. Once more we will be reminded of the unspoken contract between composer and artist. Each reaches greatness only with the greatness of the other. And we in the audience are perhaps the most blessed of all.
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No. 5 (Opus 67, 1808)
If any musical work written down from the mind of man could be said to be “perfect,” Beethoven’s great Symphony No. 5 is a likely candidate for that title. Compact, emotionally fine-tuned, powerful, and awe-inspiring, the “Fifth Symphony” rests at the top of classical music’s Hit Parade and is unlikely to be supplanted anytime soon. It is the second of his “Romantic” symphonies, coming a few years after Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), which shattered the bonds of classicism and opened the floodgates of musical creativity in 19th-century Europe.
The work opens with one of the most famous motifs in Western music. And what an astounding creation was produced from just four notes! So much has been written about this symphony, so many analyses of the details of its construction have been provided, so many accolades of so many kinds have been given, that choosing anything further to say in the technical sense seems redundant and, in a certain way, irreverent. Let me simply say that Beethoven worked a long time on his Fifth Symphony (from 1804 to 1808), and that it was finally premiered on Dec. 22, 1808, as a part of a famous (disastrously long, terribly cold, and poorly performed) all-Beethoven concert. When the symphony was finally given a “proper” performance, a year and a half later, E. T. A. Hoffmann in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, wrote, “Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing – a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.” I believe he liked it.
Symphony No. 5 is divided into four movements. The last two are played without pause. Trombones are introduced into symphonic literature in the opening chords of the finale. To my mind, no more wonderful debut could have been accorded any orchestral instrument. Martin Bookspan (b. 1926), musicologist and well-known commentator on music, described this masterpiece very appropriately, when he wrote: “In its triumphant struggle to ultimate victory, its absolute logic at once massive and compact, its confident swagger and heroism, this symphony has served as a clarion call to victory over tyranny through the years.”
One of Beethoven’s most outspoken antagonists in the early 19th century was a certain Professor Lesueur of the Paris Conservatory. When he was finally persuaded by young Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), one of his students, to listen to the Beethoven Fifth, the French professor was overcome. “Oh, let me out!” he cried. “I must have air. It is unbelievable! Marvelous! It has so upset and bewildered me that when I wanted to put on my hat, I could not find my head!” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has been spinning heads for more than 200 years now, and will certainly do so as long as we dwellers on this lovely blue planet continue to respond to artistic beauty and imagination.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 3 (Opus 30, 1909)
Rachmaninoff was a great pianist of his day and a composer that some considered a throwback to 19th-century Romanticism. No less a great composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was also pegged as a throwback to Classicism when his mature works featured lyricism and simplicity of expression. But both men seemed to have presaged the wisdom of Duke Ellington (1899-1974), who famously said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
Rachmaninoff practiced his new concerto on the boat, traveling to America for a concert tour in the fall of 1909, and his method of practice was a “silent piano,” a dummy keyboard that was full-sized for finger exercise. This was eight years before the Russian Revolution, and the young composer would likely never have guessed he would someday become an American, and indeed would die in the New World. (In fact, Knoxville, Tennessee, was the locale of his last public performance, which was in 1943, the year when he died.)
Popular culture, abetted by the movie Shine, has dubbed the “Rach Three” the most difficult of piano concertos, but Rachmaninoff himself claimed it was “more comfortable” to play than his similarly famous Piano Concerto No. 2. And today many pianists play this work in concert. It is clearly technically challenging and requires endurance from the soloists during its approximately 40 minutes of performance; but its wonder is perhaps less in its difficulty than in its musical expression, which covers the full range, including high drama, wit, and lyricism.
Illustrative of this diversity of expression, the work begins simply with a line that is heard over and over, in many expressions of itself. This very Russian chant-like motive is later given to horns and violas while the soloist becomes the sparkling accompaniment. We hear the second theme introduced and, after the improvisation-rich development, comes the soloist’s cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote two for the piece; the first – usually the one performed – is longer and flashier. The composer actually preferred the second, which is shorter and more understated.
The second movement is melancholy, with ebbing and flowing of passion, accented with a light dancing central section. The finale opens with the sound of Russian church bells. Again there are two themes, and the usual development section is, in a sense, replaced by a long series of highly difficult keyboard fantasies. The closing begins with a dramatic march, with building tension and power both by soloist and orchestra. This grand work ends triumphantly, and has now been captivating audiences for more than a hundred years.