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Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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October 01, 2011

October 2011 Program Notes

RICHARD STRAUSS

Born Munich, Germany, 11 June, 1864; died Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 8 September, 1949.

Also Sprach Zarathustra: Introduction: Sunrise

The complete work composed in 1896 and premiered in Frankfurt under the composer’s baton. The “Sunrise” section calls for piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, organ and strings. This fanfare, which lasts approximately 1-1/2 minutes, has been performed by the SSO on 13 October 2001 (with Guy Victor Bordo) and 7 October 2006 (with Andrews Sill).

Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is a half-hour tone poem based on the provocative book of the same title (published 1885) by Friedrich Nietzsche, who expresses his own philosophy via a fictionalized portrayal of the Persian religious figure known as Zoroaster, aka Zarathustra. Nietzsche’s book begins with his philosopher-hero welcoming a sunrise. Strauss’ primal representation of light arising from darkness begins with a low C sustained by string basses, contrabassoon, bass drum and organ, until unison trumpets offer a simple fanfare (the notes C-G-C’ ). The orchestra replies with a dramatic pair of chords; the kettledrum then leads the trumpets to further statements of C-G-C’ and ultimately the orchestra to its glorious climax.

Once familiar only to Strauss fans, the fanfare became one of the best-known passages in classical music after Stanley Kubrick used it in his 1967 science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it accompanies the opening eclipse and later the transformations of an ape-man and an astronaut into new species. The SSO used it to celebrate the opening of the Stefanie H. Weill Center in 2001 and the fifth year in 2006. Tonight marks the orchestra’s tenth anniversary of performances in the Weill Center. 

MICHAEL TORKE

Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 22 September, 1961.

Javelin

Composed 1994 and premiered 8 September of that year with the Atlanta Symphony, Yoel Levi conducting. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, suspended cymbal, vibraphone, claves, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, woodblock, harp and strings. Duration is 9 minutes.

Michael Torke became famous in the mid-1980s for his orchestral “color music”: Ecstatic Orange, Bright Blue Music, Green. Critics compared these pieces to works loosely grouped as “minimalist”: music by such composers as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams with hypnotically repeating rhythmic patterns and a strong tonal base. Javelin has a kinship to Torke’s color pieces in its musical style, compactness and overall energy.

Javelin was commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games, for a premiere with the Atlanta Symphony. In an interview Torke stated that he began composition after he came up with the name itself, which pleased him by the very shape of the capital J as well as by its signifying the slender spear used in an Olympic event—and evoking memories of his father’s 1970s AMC Javelin.

Overall, Javelin has the joyfulness and high excitement (along with some gentler moments) appropriate to a piece intended as both a rousing concert-opener and a celebration of the Olympics. The opening cascades of woodwind notes, echoed throughout the piece, may suggest a water sport or fountains as much as a javelin. These soon lead to the statement of a heroic tune that will be developed in the course of the piece and repeated at its climax. A secondary theme is heard first on the Eb clarinet and other high winds, and reprised by the violins near the end of the piece, after which the jubilant heroic tune brings us quickly to the close.

WALLINGFORD RIEGGER

Born Albany, Georgia, 29 April, 1885; died New York, NY, 2 April, 1961.

Dance Rhythms

Composed 1954 and premiered 4 March 1955 in Albany, Georgia, by the visiting Cincinnati Symphony, Thor Johnson conducting and the composer present. The 8-minute work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones, plus tympani, snare drum, cymbal, bass drum, marimba, glockenspiel, harp and strings.

Though born in Georgia, where his father had a lumber mill, Wallingford Riegger spent most of his youth in his family’s home town of Indianapolis, and attended the Institute of Musical Art, later renamed the Julliard School, in New York. He taught cello and music theory at various American universities, and was noted in his lifetime for the music he wrote for Martha Graham and other modern-dance choreographers, and for his prize-winning Symphony No. 3, which used his own homespun version of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system.

Dance Rhythms is at once quirky, elegant and playful, not only in its rhythmic patterns but in its orchestration. The rhythms are breezily irregular, more suited to the modern-dance stage than the ballroom floor, but the piece always seems on the verge of settling into some popular pattern, perhaps with a Latin flavor. Indeed, some passages seem to presage certain dance moments in Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story.

Following the opening or main section, with its passages for solo percussion and a “big” statement for full orchestra, a middle section marked “Trio” features the solo harp in its first bars and continues in an oddly graceful fashion. A transitional passage takes us back to a reprise of the opening section.

FRANZ LISZT

Born Doborjan, Hungary, 22 October, 1811; died Beyreuth, Germany, 31 July, 1886.

Totentanz: Paraphrase on “Dies Irae” for Piano and Orchestra

Composed 1849, revised 1853 and 1859; the final version was premiered in The Hague in 1865, Hans von Bülow as pianist; the score is dedicated to him. In addition to the solo piano the score calls for piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, and strings.

For the grotesque ”Witches’ Sabbath” finale of his Symphonie Fantastique Hector Berlioz used the medieval plainchant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), from the Mass for the Dead, as a prominent musical theme. Franz Liszt not only attended the premiere of Berlioz’ symphony but transcribed it for piano and played it in public. By 1838 he was thinking about using the Dies Irae melody himself, though it was not until 1859 that he completed his final version of a piece for piano and orchestra. By this time, he had been retired for more than a decade from the life a touring piano virtuoso, by all accounts the greatest of his era; the first performance of Totentanz went to Hans von Bülow, a famed pianist and conductor himself as well as Liszt’s son-in-law. (Von Bülow conducted the world premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner [his wife Cosima’s lover] the same year he premiered Totentanz at the keyboard.)

The last of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra, Totentanz is in a number of respects the most forward-looking, not least in the percussive style of the piano’s entry: listeners might be reminded of piano music of Bela Bartok—who played Liszt’s piece as a concert performer—written almost 70 years later. As might be expected in what is essentially a phantasmagorical set of variations on the medieval “death” theme, the harmonies and details of orchestration are often startlingly original.

The very first bars of the piece hammer out the theme, followed by a swirling cadenza for the piano punctuated by orchestral lightning-flashes. After new statements of the theme first by the orchestra and then by the soloist, the bassoons and violas initiate the first variation with a kind of skipping rhythm. Next the piano introduces the moodier Variation II, and a sudden lurch into a violently fast tempo takes us into the very brief third variation. A quiet, contemplative section for piano alone (IV) leads via a solo clarinet passage to the fugal Variation V. After another piano cadenza the orchestra, with forceful emphasis by the horns, states a new version of the chant that casts a different spell with its upward-moving melodic line. This new tune is subjected to a half-dozen variations of its own, each more fantastical than the one before, until the soloist restates the original theme and the orchestra joins in for the thunderous conclusion.

ANTONIN DVORAK

Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 Septembr 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.

Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60

Composed 1880 and first performed by the Prague Philharmonic, under Adolf Čech, 25 March, 1881. The work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

Though the Symphony in D major was Dvořák’s sixth to be composed, and is so numbered nowadays, it was his first to be published and was known for some years as “No. 1.” (His fifth became “No. 3” and the earlier works were not published during his lifetime.) Dvořák had been invited by Hans Richter, one of Austria’s most celebrated conductors, to compose a new symphony for him and the Vienna Philharmonic, and though Richter was delighted when Dvořák played the work for him on the piano, some members of the Vienna Philharmonic evidently balked, and the premiere was given to a Czech orchestra and conductor. Later Richter, to whom the work is dedicated, did conduct it, but with the London Philharmonic.

Many listeners have heard strong echoes of Beethoven (e.g., the Egmont Overture and the Ninth Symphony) and of Brahms (especially the Second Symphony, in the same key of D major, premiered by Richter in 1877) in Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony. But at the same time the work is rich in Dvořák’ distinctive style, steeped in the flavor of Czech folk music, most explicitly in the Scherzo, subtitled Furiant, a Bohemian dance.

The Sixth begins with the utmost simplicity, as a rising pair of notes soon blossoms into one of Dvořák’s most lovely melodies. After a grand restatement of the theme, a set of four ascending notes, heard first among the woodwinds, provides more material for development and leads to two more enchanting themes, one introduced by the horns and the other by the oboe. All these themes are interwoven in one of the most dramatically complex symphonic movements Dvořák had written to date.

The slow movement opens with various woodwinds playing in turn a three-note phrase that becomes the beginning of a melody heard on violins. This Adagio movement, mostly in a lyrical vein but sometimes powerfully intense, essentially consists of returns of the central melody, evolving and richly intertwined with other melodic strands: a sort of musical trellis with woodwind and horn solos interweaving like vines.

The Furiant Scherzo is breathtakingly energetic with its alternating rhythms of two and three beats, though the Trio section is gentle and especially memorable for its lyrical piccolo solos. As for the Allegro con spirito Finale, it is on a grand scale and in sonata form, like the first movement, with moments of both geniality and dramatic tension, playfulness and stern declamation , ultimately building up to a rousing conclusion.

 

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