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Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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January 25, 2019

February 9, 2019 Program Notes

IGOR STRAVINSKY
Born Lomonosov, Russia, 17 June 1882; died New York, 6 April 1971.
Greeting Prelude.
Composed in 1955 and first performed by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, 4 April of that year. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, piano and strings. Duration: less than 1 minute.

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Greeting Prelude.

Stravinsky wrote his Greeting Prelude to salute the renowned French conductor Pierre Monteux upon the latter’s 80th birthday. Monteux had led the premieres of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and The Rite of Spring more than 40 years previously and was a favorite guest conductor of the Boston Symphony, which premiered the Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky used the tune “Happy Birthday to You,” thinking it was an American folk song. Wittily fragmenting the melody and transforming the rhythm, he created a glittering cubist collage of the familiar song.  

The SSO, formed in 2018, salutes its own history by performing this work in honor of the 100th birthday of the first concert of its first season, 20 February 1919.

 

ANTONIN DVORAK
Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.
Symphony No. 8, in G major, Op. 88.
Composed in 1889 and first performed 2 February 1890 in Prague with the composer leading the Orchestra of the National Theatre. Originally labeled “Symphony No. 4,” but preceded by four early unpublished symphonies as well as three published ones. Scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. Performance time is about 37 minutes. 

PREVIOUS SSO PERFORMANCE: 15 May 1993, Guy Victor Bordo conducting, Kohler Memorial Theatre.

Dvorak took only a few months to write his Eighth Symphony while residing at his Bohemian country house. It was a great success upon its first performance in Prague, and again in London, where Dvorak was astounded by the vigorous applause after each movement. During his American sojourn he led an augmented Chicago Symphony Orchestra (114 players!) at a Bohemian Day celebration at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, again to great acclaim.

Various critics have called the Eighth Symphony “cheerful and optimistic,” “cheery and lyrical,” “bucolic and idyllic” (always in paired adjectives, it seems), and certainly it has moments of joy and a fondness for both Bohemian folksong (though no real ones are actually quoted) and intimations of birdcalls and other sounds of nature. But the first two movements each have powerful dark passages, the waltz-scherzo can seem melancholy and agitated, and the finale has deeply heartfelt moments.

Though its four movements fit the typical pattern of the Austro-German symphony from Haydn to Brahms (fast/slow/scherzo in ¾ time/fast), Dvorak is very free in his structuring of each movement. The first movement breaks many of the rules of sonata form; the slow movement turns in surprising directions; and the finale, often labeled “theme-and-variations,” is highly irregular. Yet there is a powerful sense of organic flow and unity in each movement, and a startling abundance of great tunes that draw the listener in.

1. Allegro con brio. Though designated “in G major” and the tempo “fast with exuberance” the symphony opens in G minor with a somber theme played by the cellos. But without an actual change in tempo the movement begins to bristle with excitement, shifts to the major, and offers us a joyful tune for the flute, like a birdcall. Several more themes follow in quick succession, including a warm-hearted one for violas and cellos and a propulsive one for flutes and clarinets. The opening cello theme will return twice more, the third time played by trumpets in a stormy passage, while the flute theme will be taken up with plenty of brio by the full orchestra and later more plaintively by the English horn.

 2. Adagio. Another somber theme for strings alone opens the movement, followed by an unusual dialogue between flutes and clarinets. Woodwinds and horns take up the strings’ theme. Then in a remarkable passage flute and oboe offer a soaring theme against a pattern of a simple descending scale in the violins. A solo violin then takes over the winds’ theme while woodwinds play the descending scale. But along with these delicate passages the movement will have tremendous bursts of both joy and anguish before ebbing away.

3. Allegretto grazioso. The Eighth Symphony’s scherzo takes the form of a haunting waltz, with its sweeping first strain accompanied by restless flutterings in the woodwinds, and its more dramatic second strain marked by a chromatic downward motion. The middle section (the trio) is genial and folk-like; this music will return at the end of the movement, in 2/4 time, for a boisterous conclusion.

4. Allegro ma non troppo. The finale opens with a trumpet fanfare, taking us to a theme for cellos that seems to echo the fanfare though at a slower tempo and in a more serious or stately mood. Following the cello theme (in two parts, both repeated), a faster, wilder version of it is played by the full orchestra. A solo flute plays a variation on the theme, followed by the same fast, wild response. A new variation, like stomping peasant dance, is heard. The music builds to a thrilling climax, the fanfare reappears, and the calmer cello theme is heard once again. It is taken up by the clarinet, then the oboe, then violins, trailing off quietly until a sudden final outburst of the fast, wild version of the theme, leading to one of Dvorak’s most rousing conclusions.

 

THOMAS MASSELLA
Born 1 August 1952, Pittsburgh, PA.
Smooth Ride for Fast Orchestra.
Composed in 2008, on a commission from the Mt. Lebanon (PA) High School Orchestra. Robert Vogel conductor. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, vibraphone, cymbals, suspended cymbal, Mark tree chimes and strings. Performance time is just over 4 minutes.

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Smooth Ride for Fast Orchestra.

Thomas Massella, who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Hartt School of Music and the North Carolina School of the Arts, remains active in the community of Mt. Lebanon, a “streetcar suburb” of Pittsburgh. In 2008 he accepted a commission from Mt. Lebanon High School, of which he is a graduate, to write a short work for the school orchestra.

Massella describes his style as “tonal music with extended harmonic language.” The vigorous pace of Smooth Ride for Fast Orchestra combined with the tonality may suggest kinship with some of the music of such fellow composers as Michael Torke and John Adams; indeed, Massella’s title playfully echoes Adams’ 1986 Short Ride in a Fast  Machine. According to the composer, “Smooth Ride” refers to “the underlying 16th note rhythmic pattern, a rhythmic road (if you will) that the orchestra rolls over, traveling through different instruments of the orchestra.”

The tempo is marked “Energetically with constant motion forward.” Riding upon that smooth road is a recurring melody, while occasional bumps—moments of silence and rhythmic shifts—serve to emphasize the steady flow of the rest.

 

IGOR STRAVINSKY
Four Norwegian Moods.
Begun in 1942 as a possible film score but arranged as a suite; premiered 13 January 1944, Cambridge MA, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Stravinsky conducting. The score calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. Performance time is 8½ minutes.  

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Four Norwegian Moods.

In 1942 Stravinsky was invited to compose music for a patriotic war film, Commandos Strike at Dawn, about the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation. His wife had found a second-hand copy of a book of ten Norwegian folk tunes, some arranged by Edvard Grieg, and Stravinsky used this material for his proposed score. However, negotiations fell through, so the composer created a concert suite based on his arrangements. In a program note for the premiere he stressed that by “Moods” he didn’t mean impressionistic or sentimental sketches but simply “modes” or styles, with the folksongs used “only as a rhythmic and melodic basis.”

That premiere was part of an all-Stravinsky program, performed on the Harvard University campus by the Boston Symphony: Four Norwegian Moods was preceded by the Symphony in C and followed by the Circus Polka (also a premiere), the Pulcinella  Suite and Jeu de Cartes, plus his own arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner.

With their quirky humor and crisp rhythms Stravinsky’s Norwegian Moods are delightfully brisk and “cool,” in the composer’s neoclassical style. The Entrada is an “entrance march”: it features the horns, with interludes of bustling woodwinds. The slower-paced Song opens and closes with a lovely English horn solo, with oboe-bassoon and flute duets in between. The Wedding Dance is extremely boisterous in its main theme, with a charmingly off-kilter (drunken?) waltz in between. The finale, Cortège, is more moderately paced, with a faster middle section, and shows off each instrumental group. A cortège is a procession or parade, often for a funeral but surely not in this case with such genial and playful music.

 

GEORGE GERSHWIN, arr. ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT
Born 26 September 1898, Brooklyn; died 11 July 1937, Los Angeles.
A Symphonic Picture of “Porgy and Bess”
The opera Porgy and Bess was composed 1934-35 and received its first public performance at the Colonial Theatre, Boston, 30 September 1935, under the musical direction of Alexander Smallens. Bennett’s Symphonic Picture was written in 1942 and premiered 5 February 1943, Pittsburgh, Fritz Reiner leading the Pittsburgh Symphony. The work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, woodblock, triangle, glockenspiel, tubular bells, steel bells, banjo, 2 harps and strings. Performance time 24 minutes.  

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Bennett’s A Symphonic Picture of “Porgy and Bess.”
Previous SSO performances of music from Porgy and Bess include Hans Spialek’s “Orchestral Selections” (1988, Manuel Prestamo KMT; 1995, Guy Victor Bordo, Blue Line Ice Skating Center) and Bennett’s 40-minute “Concert Version” with soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1993, Bordo [sans chorus], KMT; 2015, Kevin McMahon, Weill Center).

 Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess has had a complicated and often troubled performance history, beginning with its 1935 premiere on Broadway. At the same time, many of its arias/songs almost instantly became among the most treasured works of American music.

Robert Russell Bennett, a composer in his own right and a friend of Gershwin, was also a leading orchestrator for Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals: not only for Gershwin’s shows of the 1920s and ‘30s but for Kern’s Showboat, Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Porter’s Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate, Rodgers’ Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, Loewe’s My Fair Lady and Camelot, and much more. In 1942, after a revival of Porgy and Bess on Broadway that converted it from an opera to a musical with spoken dialogue, the conductor Fritz Reiner asked Bennett to create a concert suite.

Reiner was very specific in his demands in regard to choice of music, instrumentation, transitional passages and even length: the suite should be 24 minutes long, to fit the six 78 rpm sides of a planned recording with his Pittsburgh Symphony. Reluctant at first, Bennett eventually agreed, creating a medley he called A Symphonic Picture of “Porgy and Bess.“ Bennett was very faithful to Gershwin’s operatic score, though he added two harps and removed Gershwin’s orchestral piano part at Reiner’s request. The Symphonic Picture is continuous music, with bridge passages linking the main sections.

Most concert versions of Porgy and Bess open with the bustling music of Catfish Row followed by “Summertime”—but Bennett and Reiner chose a different approach. We first hear tranquil church bells from a scene in Act 2, followed by the street calls of the Strawberry Woman (trumpet) and Crab Man (alto saxophone), and after more chiming bells the opening of Act 3, mourning those lost in a hurricane. Only then do we get the bustle of the opera’s opening pages and the enchanting “Summertime,” played first by the violins, then the oboe. It’s followed by Porgy’s song “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” with its prominent banjo solo. For dramatic contrast the hurricane music now erupts.

Next we hear the celebrated duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” followed by the hyper-energetic picnic music (“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”). The two songs of the Mephistophelean character Sportin’ Life are heard back to back: ”There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The Symphonic Picture concludes with the opera’s finale, as Porgy goes off in search of Bess: “Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way.”

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