Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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April 27, 2015

May 9, 2015 Program Notes

Born Brooklyn, NY, 14 November 1900; died Peekskill, NY, 2 December 1990.
A Lincoln Portrait
Written in 1942, A Lincoln Portrait was premiered 14 May of that year by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Andre Kostelanetz conducting and William Adams narrating. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, xylophone, sleigh bells, celesta, harp and strings. Performance time is about 14 minutes. Previous SSO performances of A Lincoln Portrait have featured narrators Herbert V. Kohler Jr. (2 December 1989, with Manuel Prestamo conducting the combined SSO/ Manitowoc Symphony) and Charles Krebs (16 June 2007, Andrews Sill conducting).

Aaron Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait over the course of three months, responding to a commission from conductor Andre Kostelanetz that followed in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing of December 7, 1941. Kostelanetz invited Jerome Kern and Virgil Thompson as well to write pieces based on texts by eloquent Americans; they chose Mark Twain and Fiorello LaGuardia respectively, while Copland, after initially considering Walt Whitman, chose Lincoln. What was planned as an occasional piece, expressing patriotism at a time of great national trial, soon became a classic of American music.

The piece is arresting from its first notes, a solemn dotted-rhythm melody played misterioso in unison by solo flute and muted trumpet, eventually taken up by other players and then the full orchestra. The theme is noble and solemn, with a hint of a funeral march, but sweet and pure in its original statement and monumental as the whole orchestra joins in. A solo clarinet introduces a second theme, marked “with simple expression,” based on the American folksong “Springfield Mountain,” though played at half the speed of traditional versions. According to Copland, in this opening section he “wanted to suggest something of the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s personality” and with the second theme “something of his gentleness and simplicity of spirit.”

Abruptly the music plunges into a joyful fast-paced section with the oboe introducing a new tune that includes a phrase from Stephen Foster’s 1850 song “Camptown Races.” This section feels like a portrait of youthful energy; Copland wrote that it “sketches in the background” of Lincoln’s times, noting that “Camptown Races” was adapted as a campaign song for Lincoln in 1860. This music becomes increasingly raucous, and at its climax the “Springfield Mountain” theme is thrillingly heard in canon (one statement overlapping another) as the rest of the orchestra continues the festivities.

Only now, as the orchestra quiets down, does the speaker enter, with a set of Lincoln quotations that Copland found in a biography by the British Lord Charnwood. Most of the passages, though vivid in language, are not famous texts but taken from letters and lesser-known speeches—except for the final quotation, from the Gettysburg Address. Copland introduces each quotation with words of his own devising, in the poetic yet simple style established by Carl Sandburg’s biography of the president. In the published score Copland cautions the speaker that “The words are sufficiently dramatic in themselves; they need no added ‘emotion’ in order to put them across to an audience. They are meant to be read simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.”

The music from the opening section is heard throughout the speaker’s performance: discreet during the spoken passages and heroically grand elsewhere, most of all after the stirring final words of the Gettysburg Address.

Born Rochester, NY, 9 July 1915; died Brighton, NY, 13 June 2005.
This Sacred Ground
Composed in 1963 and premiered 17 November of that year by the Buffalo Philharmonic with Lukas Foss conducting. The work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, slapstick, tam-tam, tubular bells, harp, strings, baritone solo, chorus, and children’s chorus. Its length is about 16 minutes.

Having a speaker recite the final words of the Gettysburg Address is one thing; setting the entire speech to music that will sound naturally flowing instead of “prosaic” is another. That accomplishment was more than met by David Diamond, responding to an invitation by Austrian conductor Joseph Krips to write such a piece for the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Diamond had studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and at Eastman School in his native Rochester, as well as with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He had already written eight symphonies, championed by Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein among others, by the time of the commission in 1962. He composed This Sacred Ground for large forces, including baritone solo and children’s chorus as well as full chorus and orchestra. In the event, Lukas Foss, the new director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, gave the first performance, while Krips, newly appointed to the San Francisco Symphony, gave the West Coast premiere.

The work begins quietly with the cellos playing a solemn theme “nobly and expressively.” As the rest of the orchestra gradually joins them Diamond calls for “intensity” and “fervor” in the score. The men of the chorus enter with a new melody, to the words “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….” The verse is repeated with the women’s voices joining in, yet more fervently and triumphantly.

The sharp sound of the slapstick signals a violent agitation in the orchestra, and soon the chorus sings, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war….” When the violence subsides, a haunting trumpet solo, as if mourning the fallen on the battlefield, leads to the baritone solo, beginning with “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” The children’s chorus echoes these words as the baritone continues with “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

After a brief orchestral interlude, the chorus rejoins quietly with “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us….” The final portion of the piece begins even more quietly, with the words: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”; increasing in intensity with the final passage of the address: “that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom….” A powerful brass chorale leads us to a reiteration of “Fourscore and seven years ago,” now with the children’s chorus joining in. And at the final climax we hear once again Lincoln’s stirring conclusion: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Born Brooklyn, NY, 26 September 1898; died Los Angeles, 11 July 1937.
Porgy and Bess: Concert Version, arr. Robert Russell Bennett
The opera Porgy and Bess, libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, 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, with a cast including Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, John W. Bubbles and Ruth Elzy; the production opened at the Alvin Theatre, New York, 10 days later. Robert Russell Bennett’s “Concert Version” was premiered 26 June 1956 at the Yale Bowl with Theresa Green, Laurence Winters and the New Haven Symphony led by Harry Berman. The work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, African drums, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tom-tom, woodblock, sandpaper, tubular bells, glockenspiel, banjo, piano and strings. Performance time about 40 minutes. The SSO played the Bennett Concert Version, without the choral sections, 27 March 1993, under the direction of Guy Victor Bordo with Rochelle Ellis, soprano, and Philip Kraus, baritone.

The genesis of Porgy and Bess arguably begins not with the 1925 publication of DuBose Heyward’s short novel Porgy but with the post-WWI fascination, on the part of writers and critics both black and white, with portrayals of the “real lives” of “poor black folk.” Writers’ goals varied: everything from ethnographic documentation to the mythologizing of so-called “primitive” people. In any case, when George Gershwin read Porgy, the story of a disabled beggar living in a Charleston tenement complex called Catfish Row and his love for the disreputable Bess, he contacted Heyward with the idea of making an opera of it.

Gershwin was, however, in no hurry to work on this project, having plenty of commissions for Broadway shows, along with touring as a pianist and composing An American in Paris. Meanwhile, Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, turned Porgy into a hugely successful play with an all-black cast that ran for over a year on Broadway. When Al Jolson proposed turning the play into a musical to be written by the creators of 1927’s Showboat, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and starring himself in blackface, Gershwin didn’t object, knowing his opera would be something completely different. But that project came to nothing.

Finally, by early 1934 Gershwin was working in earnest on the project, with Bizet’s Carmen and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov as ambitious models (the former for its handling of local color and fiery passions, the latter for its overwhelming choruses). Heyward condensed his play and wrote the lyrics for most of the songs, while Gershwin’s brother and frequent collaborator, Ira, came onboard to polish some of Heyward’s lyrics and write others. The collaboration worked splendidly, with Heyward writing poetry that George set to music and Ira more often setting words to music that George had already composed. According to copyright records, Heyward wrote “Summertime” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” Ira wrote “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat…,” and both worked on “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

The history of Porgy and Bess as a theatre piece is long and complex: a Boston tryout that resulted in 40 minutes being cut from the 3½-hour show; a Broadway premiere that received wild ovations from its audience but mixed reviews from the critics; a curtailment of the run due to insufficient box office; a Broadway revival, several years after Gershwin’s untimely death, that was a huge hit but turned the opera into more of a musical by cutting many passages in favor of spoken dialogue; a film version in 1959 whose merits are still debated; triumphant revivals of the original opera beginning in the 1970s; and a controversial reworking for a recent Broadway outing. Porgy and Bess still provokes heated debates in regard to negative stereotyping of African Americans (craps-shooting, drug addiction, murder) and its white authors’ renditions of Southern black dialect. Yet many of its songs have been considered American classics from the very first; the complete opera on the stage can be an overwhelming experience; and the dramatic roles have provided opportunity and fame for a great number of African American performers.

In the concert hall Porgy and Bess has had a less turbulent history, with countless performances of both orchestral suites and vocal highlights. Robert Russell Bennett, who worked with Gershwin on a number of his scores (not to mention doing orchestrations for Showboat, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, and most Rodgers-and-Hammerstein shows beginning with Oklahoma!), was invited by Fritz Reiner to devise the popular Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture in 1942. And in 1956 he created Porgy and Bess: Concert Version, which selects 40 minutes of highlights from the opera for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra.

As Bennett scholar George J. Ferencz (UW-Whitewater) points out, very few changes in Gershwin’s own orchestration were made: hardly much more than adding a 4th horn and subtracting saxophones. Some adjustments were made in the choral parts as well; and the finale, sung by Porgy in the opera, is assigned to both singers instead of just the baritone and chorus. Bennett allows many of the numbers to come to a close, leaving opportunity for applause, rather than weaving them into one other as in his orchestral suite. By having the soloists each represent a number of different characters, Bennett manages to display quite a few of the show’s musical riches in a relatively short timespan.

The rousing opening segues quickly into the most quietly rapturous song of the opera (or in all of American music), “Summertime,” sung by the young mother Clara. Her husband, Jake, counters her lullaby with “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” (”Listen to yo daddy warn you, ‘fore you start a-traveling”). After the brutal Crown kills a man during the craps shoot that follows, the chorus sings “Gone, Gone, Gone” and (when they collect money in a saucer for Robbins’ funeral) “Overflow.” “My Man’s Gone Now” is sung by Serena, the wife of the murdered man. Bess, Crown’s girlfriend who has turned to Porgy for shelter, begins a spiritual, “The Promised Lan’” (“The train is at the station”), joined by the chorus.

In the next act, Porgy with banjo accompaniment sings of his happy-though-penniless life (“I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”), and joins Bess in the opera’s great love duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” The chorus, getting ready for a picnic on Kittiwah Island, sings “Oh I Can’t Sit Down.” In the next scene, on the island, they continue with “I Ain’t Got No Shame” (“doin’ what I like to do”), and are scandalously entertained by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

After the orchestra plays a brief passage from the beginning of Act III as characters mourn those killed in a hurricane (“Clara, Clara”), baritone and chorus join in “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” Sportin’ Life’s brazen invitation to Bess, who is distraught over the arrest of Porgy in connection with the death of Crown. When Porgy returns to Catfish Row to find Bess gone, we hear the opera’s finale, whose music is joyful though the dramatic situation is poignant as Porgy resolves to follow after Bess: “Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way,” with soprano joining baritone and chorus for a rousing conclusion to the Concert Version.

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