Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 14, 2009

November 14, 2009 Program Notes


Born Mühlhausen, Bohemia (now Nelahozeves, Czech Republic), 8 Sept. 1841. Died Prague, 1 May 1904.


Composed in the summer of 1889 and first performed on February 2, 1890 in Prague, with Dvorak conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. The work lasts approximately 36 minutes.

Among our most profound experiences is when we realize that two things we once thought to be mutually exclusive, like freedom and restraint, parents and teenagers, life and death, yin and yang, are in fact essential to each other, and dependent on each other. Coming to that realization requires the maturity to see past the obvious differences to the subtle, but vastly more meaningful interrelationships. 

By the time Antonin Dvorak began work on his Eighth Symphony, he had reached the maturity to combine strikingly opporsite principles in his compositions in such a way that we sense their interrelatedness more than their disparity. So this symphony, while one of his most complex, is nevertheless built on a number of simple folk-like melodies which are heard throughout. It combines bright optimism and a certain dark sense of melancholy.

The symphony is in G major and its first movement is marked allegro con brio, and yet it begins with a slow, dark cello melody in minor. A bright, carefree flute motif, sometimes referred to as a "bird call" leads the transition to a quicker, more vigorous main section of the movement. A good part of the first movement's intrigue depends on Dvorak's ability to find the musical fabric to bring the darkness expressed by the opening cello line and the bright vigor of the music which follows into a unified musical whole.

The second movement is marked adagio, but while the first, ostensibly quick movement contains some strikingly slow music, this ostensibly slow movement often seems to move forward at a quicker pace than one might expect. It is plaintive, yet energetic, and it also plays on the ambiguity of major and minor, in this case the predominant C minor and a brighter C major.

The third movement also plays on the tension of opposites. It is a "scherzo," which means "joke," and typically signifies a light-hearted, even ironic movement, but Dvorak's begins with a sweeping, waltz-like melody that is more an expression of longing than of irony. Yet the mood of the movement pivots at the trio, and ends in a lighter tone, without entirely shedding its wistful undertone.

The finale spans the distance between brass fanfare to simply folk melody, and while recalling the sentiments of the first movement, from the simply naïveté of the restated flute motif to the deep melancholy of the earlier cello melody. So in the course of his Eighth Symphony Dvorak reconciles opposite musical devices in such a way as to express the intriguing complexity of human emotions. In the hands of a less mature composer it could have seemed like a hodge-podge. But Dvorak not only masters the difficulties of compositional technique; he makes us feel we can reconcile the divisions in the human soul. 


Born Salzburg, 27 January, 1756. Died Vienna, 5 December, 1791.


Composed in 1778 in Mannheim, using material from his Oboe Concerto in C Major, originally composed in Salzburg in 1777. The score calls for solo flute, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings. The work lasts approximately 16 minutes.

The stories of Mozart's genius are legend. He was playing the clavichord at the age of three, composing at five, and performing at six with his sister for the courts of Europe. He composed his first opera at the age of twelve, and was appointed concertmaster for the Archbishop of Salzburg at sixteen. Long before he reached adulthood Mozart had firmly established his reputation as one of the most brilliant virtuosos in Europe.

Despite Mozart's father's best efforts to exploit his son's virtuosity to further both their careers, Wolfgang did not make virtuosity a fundamental principle of his compositions, as did many of the Romantic composers of the next century. Such was the sensibility of the man and his classical age that the individual should remain in symbiotic balance with the society at large. To be sure, Mozart's music expressed his uncommon genius, but it did so within the constraints of common classical conventions. In the later romantic style, virtousity would become a prime directive. In Mozart's music, we hear his genius not primarily in its virtuosity per se, not in the way his music transcends the conventions of his time, but rather more subtly in the charm and elegance with which he fulfills those conventions.

Mozart's instrumental concertos preserve the same sort of classical symbiosis in the relationship of his solo instruments with the orchestra as a whole. This is not to say that his solo lines lack virtuosity. On the contrary, the flute part of his Second Flute Concerto, for example, sparkles with brilliant passages of scales and arpeggios that require great skill, but even the most dazzling passages remain in playful, balanced conversation with the orchestra at large. (Later, the romantic orchestra would often provide a more generic backdrop, allowing the soloist to scale the heights of virtuosity.)

We feel Mozart's classical symbiosis of soloist and orchestra very clearly at the beginning of his Flute Concerto in D Major. The orchestra establishes the musical themes and sets the mood, and when teh soloist enters with a sparklin scale passage, it is practically the same scale that the strings had just stated a couple measures earlier. When the solo flute steps forward in front of the orchestral sound, it takes up the scale motif handed off from the orchestra, and rather than staying in the forefront, it immediately steps back again, hodling a long, expressive note while allowing the orchestra to restate the theme of the opening, before the solo flute finally continues with its melodic line. It is a delightful partnership. Several bars later the flute catapults through a series of dazzling arpeggios, but even this display of virtuosity supports the orchestra, which at that moment is stating the main musical idea. Throughout the concerto, the flute and the orchestra play together in this way with a natural intimacy that is in itself virtuosic.


Born West Chester, PA, 9 March 1910. Died New York, 23 January 1981.


Composed in 1931 and first performed on August 30, 1933 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Alexander Smallens conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, bells, celesta, harp and strings. The work lasts approximately 8 minutes.

The function of a musical form often plays a major role in our sense of its meaning. So it is with the "overture." When we speak of an "overture" in the language of social affairs, we mean an initial gesture to open some form of interaction or negotiation. The same is true of a musical overture. In the early days of this genre, for example, a very popular form was the so-called "French overture," a stately piece using dotted rhythms, derived from the formal processional into the king's court, where matters of state were argues and settled. Baroque composers, especially, liked to lend this sense of gravitas to the opening of their oratorios, dance suites, and operas. (Händel's Messiah, for example, opens with a French Overture.) As the opera became increasingly popular, the overture became especially associated with the stage. The overture served to focus our attention and gave us a sense of the profundity of the drama that was about to unfold.

In the course of the three hundred years between the Baroque Age and Samuel Barber's Twentieth Century, the overture would evolve from a formal statement of gravitas into a deeply personal insight into the tensions and emotions of the characters we were about to meet on stage. The opening measures of Wagner's overture to Tristan and Isolde, for example, express a wave of the unfulfilled longing, an expression of the passion which will drive those ill-fated lovers to their doom. We have come a considerable distance from the French Overture.

Soon overtures were played alone as concert pieces, borrowed from their operas. Typically, an overture might open a symphony concert of varied numbers, like ours this evening, because of the overture's character of preparing us for an impending event. Some overtures and incidental music were written not for operas, but for spoken plays. Beethoven wrote his Egmont overture and incidental music for a performance of that play by Wolfgang Goethe. Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal presents us with a curious variant of the function of the overture. A student of composition at the time, Barber wrote his overture with a specific play in mind, but without any intention of performing the music with the play. He gives us the sense of the function of an overture without the actual function.

Perhaps that is ironically appropriate to the play at hand, or rather, not at hand. Richard Brinsley Shirdan's 1777 satire, The School for Scandal, is a comedic masterpiece that pokes fun of the social conventions of the time, and the pretentions of the elite. Two of the plays leading characters are called Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite.

Barber's music expresses the same ironic charm as his literary inspiration, but otherwise makes no explicit reference to the play other than its title. That in itself seems delightfully ironic. But Barber wrote his "overture" at the beginning of a Twentieth Century that, like his Eighteenth Century inspiration, was challenging not only the social conventions of the time, but also its musical conventions. Thus we hear in the Overture to The School for Scandal the innovations that were leading us beyond the musical form and harmony of the Nineteenth Century. 

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