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Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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October 01, 2012

October 2012 Program Notes

TOMAS SVOBODA

Born Paris, 6 December, 1939.

Overture of the Season, Op. 89

Commissioned by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, the Overture of the Season was premiered by that group on 7 October, 1978, under the baton of Lawrence Leighton Smith. The work calls for piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, suspended cymbal, tubular bells, and strings. Duration is about 8 minutes.

Though born in Paris, young Tomas Svoboda spent the war years in Boston, until his parents returned with him to their native Czechoslovakia in 1946. At 13 he was the youngest student at the Prague Conservatory; at 16 his Symphony No. 1 (Of Nature), Op. 20, was performed by a Prague orchestra under the distinguished conductor Vaclav Smetacek. Among the admirers of his music was Bohuslav Martinu, probably the greatest Czech composer of that time. In 1964 Svoboda and his parents fled the Soviet-dominated regime for the U.S., where he got a degree from the University of Southern California and settled into a music professorship at Portland State University. He continues to live in Portland and compose, with a String Quartet No. 12 recently premiered and a clarinet concerto planned for 2013.

Overture for the Season was written at a time when a number of composers, including Terry Riley and Philip Glass (and a bit later, John Adams and Michael Torke), were writing music that was emphatically tonal, bright and energetic, kaleidoscopic and hypnotic in its repeated musical phrases. Svoboda’s piece indeed begins and ends this way, though some of the musical phrases also have a Slavic flavor, suggesting Martinu or Leos Janacek, if not the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  The quieter middle part of the overture--whose “season” is not specified, though it may be worth noting that the work was premiered in October--features a solo clarinet and restless pizzicati for the strings. After an exciting buildup to a passage for the brass alone and another quiet moment for strings, the opening music returns, in considerably varied form, leading to a joyful close. 

LEONARD BERNSTEIN

Born Lawrence, Massachusetts, 25 August, 1918; died New York, 14 October, 1990.

Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”

Based on music from the 1957 musical drama, Symphonic Dances was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Lucas Foss on 13 Feburary, 1961.  The 21-minute work calls for piccolo,2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, piano, celesta, a large percussion ensemble that includes timpani, smaller pitched drums, snare drums, bass drum, timbales, tom-toms, bongos and conga drums, jazz drums, suspended and finger cymbals, tambourine, gourds, maracas, cowbells, woodblock, triangle, tam-tam, police whistle, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel and chime; plus  strings. The SSO played the Symphonic Dancespreviously on 8 February, 1997, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Following the huge success of West Side Story on Broadway in 1957, musical organizations of all kinds clamored for arrangements of the score. In creating a symphonic piece, Leonard Bernstein collaborated with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, who had already helped orchestrate the original musical and were now working on the film version. Rather than the usual sort of suite in discrete sections, they came up with a set of dance numbers seamlessly woven together. Symphonic Danceswas premiered by the New York Philharmonic as part of a “Valentine Concert” for its chief conductor, with Lucas Foss at the podium, though Bernstein led the orchestra in its first recording. The score of Symphonic Dances is dedicated to Ramin, who with Kostal won an Oscar for their scoring of the film, which opened in October 1961.

In a sense, West Side Story was always “symphonic” in that much of the music is based on motifs, even specific intervals, that are subtly integrated into each of the musical numbers. Thus the sections of Symphonic Dances are as tightly connected to each other as the movements of many a symphony or sections of a tone poem. Bernstein’s assistant Jack Gottlieb contributed a “Note” to the printed score that offers a storyline, rather like a ballet scenario, that provides dramatic unity as well.

The Prologue, as in the original stage work, portrays the rivalry between the two New York street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Somewhere (“There’s a place for us”) is a “visionary” sequence that imagines the gangs “united in friendship,” and in the Scherzo they dream of escaping their tenement homes for open air and space. Mambo takes them back to reality again at the high-school dance, while the gentle Cha-cha (to the tune of “Maria”) accompanies the Romeo-and-Juliet star-crossed lovers’ first encounter at the dance, followed by Meeting Scene (again featuring “Maria”). During Cool, with its jazz fugue, “the Jets practice controlling their hostility,” but to no avail, since the next dance sequence is Rumble, portraying the fatal gang fight--which precedes “Cool” in the musical, but now is the Rite-of-Spring-like violent climax. The tender Finale, using “I Have a Love” and ”Somewhere,” brings the piece to a close.

HECTOR BERLIOZ

Born 11 December 1803 near Grenoble, France; died Paris 8 March 1869.

Harold in Italy, Symphony in Four Movements with Solo Viola

Written in 1834, Harold in Italy was premiered 23 November of that year at the Paris Conservatoire with Narcisse Girard conducting and Chrétien Urhan as viola soloist.  The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 2tambourines, harp, and strings. Performance time is about 43 minutes.

Scotland and Italy, especially their more craggy remote regions, were among the most fascinating of lands to many a Romantic artist of the early-to-middle 19th Century.  Filled with wild terrains and wilder outlaws, known for legendary heroes and appalling villains, these rugged settings were portrayed with equal enthusiasm by writers, painters and composers. Felix Mendelssohn wrote both a “Scottish” and an “Italian” symphony, and Hector Berlioz combined the two realms by imagining a brooding Scot wandering through the most picturesque of Italian landscapes in his Harold in Italy symphony.

Berlioz’ project originated in a request from the reigning king of violin virtuosos, Niccolò Paganini, for a viola concerto to show off the Stradivarius viola he had recently bought. Berlioz’ ambitious first idea was to write a symphony for viola, chorus and orchestra to be called The Last Moments of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots being another favorite of Romantic writers and opera composers). When Paganini saw a draft of the score of the first movement, he realized that Berlioz had not at all written a virtuoso display piece for him—the viola was only one character in the musical drama. Paganini withdrew from the project though still paying the commission (and years later he sent a large check to Berlioz as a token of admiration for his music in general). In the end, the extensively revised symphony with viola obbligato would be premiered with the solo part given to Chrétien Urhan, the esteemed principal violist of the Paris Opera orchestra and also a violinist, organist and composer himself. Berlioz was less satisfied by the conductor, and determined to lead all future performances himself.

In composing the piece that became Harold Berlioz dropped the Mary Stuart scenario and the chorus, but kept a Scottish flavor in two respects. First, he imagined the solo viola to be Childe Harold, the tormented autobiographical hero of the Scottish Lord Byron’s hugely popular travelogue-narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. More precisely, in the composer’s own words, this Harold is “a melancholy dreamer in the manner of” Byron’s character. The symphony in fact portrays Berlioz’ own memories—supplemented by his feverish imagination—of his roamings through the Italian countryside. “Harold” is “Hector.”

Second, he borrowed musical themes from his own discarded Rob Roy overture, written the year before. This musical portrait of Sir Walter Scott’s rebel hero featured an exceedingly lovely and melancholy English horn solo that now became Harold’s theme, reappearing in each of the movements. A second theme from Rob Roy, more robust but equally Scotland-tinged, was used in the fast section of Harold’s first movement. (Incidentally, the supposedly destroyed score of the overture was discovered and published long after the composer’s death.)

The score provides titles for each of the movements:

1. Harold in the Mountains: scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy. 

Following a darkly brooding fugal opening, woodwinds state a minor-key version of the Harold theme. A flourish introduces the solo viola, offering the theme in major key, with a bardic harp accompaniment. Eventually the Allegro part of the movement begins, conveying the wild joy of Berlioz’ extensive wanderings through the Italian countryside in 1831-32, with hunting rifle and guitar. (As a recipient of thePrix de Rome Berlioz was granted free housing at the French Academy in Rome, to compose at leisure, but he found that city culturally stifling and preferred to escape to rural settings.)

2. March of the Pilgrims, singing the evening prayer. 

Berlioz creates a haunting atmosphere as he portrays a line of pilgrims approaching through the countryside at twilight, murmuring prayers as church bells softly chime in a different key. The viola introduces Harold’s theme, perhaps hinting that our wanderer is self-absorbed as the pilgrims pass by, but later the viola blends into the scene, playing delicate arpeggios against a gentle religious chant intoned by alternating winds and strings. Coincidentally, Mendelssohn, who spent time with Berlioz in Rome, used a religious procession as the basis for the second movement of his “Italian” Symphony, written the year before Harold.

3. Serenade of an Abruzzi mountaineer to his mistress. 

In the brisk opening Berlioz captures the sound of pifferari—wandering bands of folk musicians featuring the piffaro, an oboe-like instrument, with a bagpipe-drone accompaniment. A slower section offers the serenade itself, first heard on English horn. The solo viola enters with Harold’s theme interweaving with the serenade music. Eventually the sprightly music returns, and the movement ends quietly with an ingenious combination of the pifferari rhythm against the slow Harold theme, now on flute, with the mountaineer’s serenade played by the viola.

4. Orgy of the Brigands; memories of preceding scenes. 

After the initial outburst of the bandits’ main theme we are treated to reminiscences of the previous movements, in the manner of the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which Berlioz had recently heard. First we hear the brooding opening of the symphony; then the pilgrims’ march; then a bit of the serenade; next the Allegro of the first movement, and finally Harold’s theme. In each “memory” the viola/Harold takes the lead, except for his own theme, offered haltingly by the clarinets; and each memory is interrupted by the brigands, until their music takes over for the rest of the movement. This wild finale has the exhilarating forward drive, the startling off-kilter rhythms, the almost surreal imagination that are all so distinctive of Berlioz. Harold seems completely absorbed in the frenzy (the solo viola is not heard), except that for a brief moment near the end, in the distance—i.e., offstage—a quartet of strings plays the pilgrim’s march and the viola responds (yearningly perhaps?) before the brigands’ music returns for the dazzling last bars.

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