Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Program Notes, October 2011

by Jeffrey Johnson

Throughout 2011-2012 we celebrate Maestro Gustav Meier’s 40 years as our Music Director. We open our season with a near reprise of the very first program that conductor Gustav Meier performed with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in 1971.

For this concert, three of the four pieces are identical. The 1971 program also included a newly composed work. Because Maestro Meier is known for his commitment to high-quality new music, this program will also feature a recently composed work; a symphony by Robert Sirota called “212.”

This program is organized in sonic symmetry—a single movement work followed by a symphony, then after intermission a symphony followed by a single movement work. It is a design built without the use of chorus, without soloists, and without a concerto.

The Debussy Prelude and the Tchaikovsky Fantasie-Overture on Romeo & Juliet launched their young and still unknown composers into international acclaim. The symphonies at the center of the program feature composers who were well known within the musical community at the time the works were written. Both symphonies contemplate memory. The Schumann Symphony No. 4 is saturated with self-memory. It is the testament of a composer who was beginning to drown in a complex inner-state. “212” is a work that contemplates the memory of a place (Manhattan), and of a person who made that place come alive.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
(Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

World Premiere: December 22, 1894 in Paris
Most Recent Performance by GBS: April 25, 1998

This “faune” was no fawn. The mythological faune that inspired this work was a forest spirit, a human head with goat horns—all goat from the waist down to the feet. The faune inhabits a poem written by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) from which the work derives its title.

The poem is a monolog spoken directly by the faune to himself. It speaks in a language of hazy symbols, and there is never a plot without the presence of contradiction.

This faune was a musician. Like Pan, he cut reeds from a marsh to play upon the pipes. The poem describes how the Faune’s breath passed through the instrument to produce music that became part of nature itself: “Le visible et serein souffle artificiel / De l’inspiration, qui regagne le ciel (the visible and serene artificial breath / which regains the sky.)” This imagery helps explain the distinctive sound world of Debussy’s orchestration.

Debussy loved this poem. He transformed its musical qualities into one of the most iconic openings ever written—a single flute playing an elusive chromatic tune “doux et expressif (quietly and espressively),” while outlining a tritone; the most dissonant, yet symmetrical, interval.

Listen as four settings of this opening tune are played by the flute, each shaded differently. The fluid, almost improvisational quality of the music comes from notation that is detailed and complex. The challenge for any orchestra is to make its elusiveness sound effortless.

A richly contoured transition lasting several minutes escalates the intensity of expression, and then subsides as the music locks into D-flat major. A lyrical tune unfolds in winds, then full strings, and finally on solo violin.

Four new settings of the opening tune follow to close the work. We find our home in E major during the third statement of the theme (which is marked by the first use of antique cymbals). We are greeted there by the solo violin; an old friend.

Debussy began writing this Prelude in 1892 at the age of thirty, and put the finishing touches on it two years later. It was music that made him famous.

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphony No. 4

World Premiere: December 6, 1841, in Leipzig.
Revised version March 3, 1853, in Dusseldorf
Most Recent Performance by GBS: January 25, 1997

From 1830 to 1843 Robert Schumann wrote music with an almost single-minded approach to timbre. His first 23 published works were all for solo piano and they occupied him occupied him until the onset of his marriage to the internationally successful pianist Clara Wieck in 1840. During the first year of his marriage, often called the “Liederjahr (song-year)” he completed 168 songs in 365 days.

1841 was a year of symphonies. Having somehow completed his “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” during the Liederjahr, Schumann turned to the symphonic form by writing his first symphony (nicknamed the “Spring Symphony”), and then writing the first version of the symphony that would become known as his fourth.

On a Saturday evening, May 29, 1841, Schumann noted in his personal diary that he had received inspiration in a sudden flash and was ready to write this symphony. He completed the work in 103 days, finishing in early September. Parts were copied and the work was premiered in December. But Schumann delayed publication of the work for ten years and gave it a complete overhaul before publishing it as op. 120. In the interim the second and third symphonies had been published, so op. 120 became known as the Symphony No. 4.

The most significant changes involved a thickening of textures. Schumann sought a burdened sound. The music also explored the premise that any particular musical idea need not reside in only one movement, but that ideas could resurface in unexpected locations throughout the symphony. It is this technique that gives the work its sense of remembering; of exploring thoughts whose significance changes with new contexts.

All four movements of this symphony are directly connected. But in spite of the lack of breaks between movements, the symphony has the prototypical symphonic shape, where an expansive opening movement gives way to a slow movement, a dance, and then a finale.

Remember the music you hear in the introduction to the opening movement, it will reappear in the central section of the slow movement beneath arabesques played by the solo violin. It will also appear again, twice, in the third movement where it acts as a trio.

You would be correct to expect the galloping theme that opens that exposition of the first movement to return in a recapitulation, but it does not. Instead Schumann explores the dramatic potentials of lyrical melodies set against restlessness music, and ends the movement without a complete resolution of his materials. There are many other tricks, and many other connections, listen for places where things seem strangely familiar. This is a symphony of déjà vu.

Robert Sirota  (October 13, 1949)
212: Symphony No. 1

World Premiere: January 2008, Manhattan School of Music
This is the first performance of the work by the GBS

Internationally recognized composer Robert Sirota was born in New York City and has been the President of Manhattan School of Music since 2005. His portfolio includes six other works for orchestra including In the Fullness of Time, for organ and orchestra, which has been played with increasing frequency, and three concertos. He has written numerous works for chorus and symphonic band, three short operas, a full-length music theatre piece, and a varied assortment of chamber works.

“212” is the classic telephone area code for Manhattan. The numbers were assigned in 1947. Manhattan was intentionally given preferential treatment—it was the quickest possible number for an area code that could be dialed using the old rotary phones. The influx of cell-phones made 917 and even 646 resident on the island.

There is no sense of 917 or 646 in this “212,” which evokes images of classic Manhattan and was dedicated by the composer to the memory of his father who was, according to Sirota, “a truly great New Yorker.”

Sirota’s work opens with a movement called “Approaches” that invokes the massive skyscrapers encountered when approaching the island from almost any of its bridges. The raw intensity of the opening focuses into an ethereal “shimmering” central section where distilled solos pass from solo trumpet, to clarinet, and finally to solo violin before the passage begins to retrace its steps, finding once again the intensity of the opening.

“The end of the first movement,” wrote Sirota, “is interrupted by a subway train (specifically, the Number 2 express rumbling through the 59th Street station) which dissolves, without pause, into the second movement, “Do Not Hold Doors.”

Sirota based the musical scoring of the second movement on an unexpected feature of this common piece of subway advice. “I liked the fact that its four words contain, consecutively, two, three, four, and five letters, wrote Sirota. “The primary theme, introduced by a quartet of saxophones, is a syncopated four-chord tune in which the chords consist, respectively, of two, three, four, and five notes.” The second movement may begin in the subway, but there is a jazz club right above it; and we are going in!

The third movement is an invocation of Ground Zero. Sirota crafted this music from the central movement of his string quartet called “Triptych,” which was originally composed in 2002.

The finale, called “O Manhattan” is set around a big tune played for the first time by offstage horns. “This finale is a hymn to our Manhattan,” wrote Sirota, “more precious and hopeful than ever.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  (1840–1893)
Overture-Fantasy on Romeo and Juliet

World Premiere: March 16, 1870, in Moscow.
Final Version: May 1, 1886, in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Most Recent Performance by GBS: November 4, 2006

In the spring of 1868 the twenty-eight year old Tchaikovsky met, and developed a collegial relationship with, the composer Mily Balakirev who was conductor of the Russian Musical Society Orchestra in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev suggested the idea of writing a work for the RMS based on Romeo and Juliet and even brainstormed various structural strategies with Tchaikovsky.

The work was completed, dedicated to Balakirev, and premiered in the spring of 1870. Because of the particular way in which this music encoded a dramatic arc into classical sonata form, it needed two cycles of revision before it found its final form in 1886. As a result of this extended genesis the work never received an opus number.

Prior to reaching its final form in 1886 the work was slow to catch fire with the public, but since then it has become of the most frequently performed of all Tchaikovsky’s works. It is famous for the unforgettable sweep of its love music, a passage that maintains its impressivenss in spite of being used in advertisements, cartoons, and parodies since the advent of modern media.

This love music is set against fighting music that represents the clash of families and outbreak of violence in the original play. But it was the introduction and coda that encase this conflict that gave Tchaikovsky the most trouble. He needed a way to set the atmosphere for this story, and an effective way to comment on the significance of the action after it had taken place.

The solution for the introduction centered on two parallel panels of music, the second echoed a half-step lower than the first. The music has a narrative quality that feels confessional, quietly singing to us, and focusing our attention and preparing for an imaginary rise of the curtain.

The coda is recognizable in the pulsing of the timpani as the cellos unfold a minor-key version of music that sounds like a hymn. Soon the strings voice a transformation of the love theme with the harp strumming in the background in a texture that suggests a heavenly context. Perhaps Tchaikovsky meant to suggest that the love of Romeo and Juliet transcended mortality and survived in an eternal plane of reality.

A loud roll on the timpani and several short fanfare articulations from the orchestra shake us from this dream world back into the present.

For additional information,
contact the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

1 comment:

  1. I love music, as much as you! thanks for wonderful post!


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