Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 01, 2018

November 10, 2018 Program Notes

Born Rohrau, Austria, 31 March 1732; died Vienna, 31 May 1809.
Trumpet Concerto in Eb major.
Composed in 1796; first performance on record was 28 March 1800, Vienna Burgtheater, with soloist Anton Weidinger. The concerto calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, plus timpani, strings and solo trumpet; it lasts about 15 minutes. 

PREVIOUS SSO PERFORMANCE: 5 October 1996, Robert Sullivan, trumpet; Guy Victor Bordo conducting, Kohler Memorial Theatre.

Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto is a creation of his mature years, just after he had completed the twelve “London” symphonies (his last) and just as he was beginning his great series of masses and oratorios. It was written for Anton Weidinger, the Vienna Court Trumpeter, who had invented a trumpet with keys, allowing it to play all the notes of the chromatic scale. The “natural” trumpet used up to that time was limited in the notes it could play, especially in its lower register. Not surprisingly, Haydn put the new instrument’s capabilities on display via some chromatic passages.

The keyed trumpet never achieved popularity, at least partly because it had a less brilliant sound than the natural trumpet. Rather, it was the invention of the piston-valved trumpet, two decades later, that would eventually revolutionize the role of the trumpet in orchestras and other ensembles. But Haydn’s Concerto, well suited to the modern instrument, is still a concert favorite.

Haydn’s opening Allegro allows the trumpet to sound both martial and genial, with touches of the brilliance associated with baroque trumpet concertos. For the customary cadenza, which Weidinger would have improvised, tonight’s soloist uses one written in Haydn’s style by a 20th-Century Viennese, Anton Wobisch, longtime trumpeter of the Vienna Philharmonic,.

The middle Andante movement, with its flowing 6/8 rhythm, is a sort of Austrian pastoral that brings out the trumpet’s lyrical possibilities. (It is in the key of Ab, which would have been impossible for a natural trumpet when the other movements were in the key of Eb.) As for the Allegro finale, it is brisk but not headlong, providing fanfares and virtuoso flourishes for the soloist in the course of its irresistible flow.  


Born Sontsovka, Russian Empire (now Sontsivka, Ukraine), 27 April 1891; died Moscow, 5 March 1953.
Symphony No. 7, Op. 131.
Composed in 1952 and premiered by the All-Union Radio Orchestra, Samuil Samosud conducting, at the Trade Union Hall of Columns, Moscow, 11 October 1952. 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, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, wood blocks, xylophone, glockenspiel, piano, harp and strings. Performance time is about 33 minutes.

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7.

Prokoviev’s Seventh Symphony was his last major completed work. In many ways its style harks back to his great ballets Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Cinderella (1944), and even back to his “Classical” Symphony of 1917, rather than to the anguished and densely complex Symphony No. 6 (1947). Critics and biographers have long sought for autobiographical messages hidden within the musical pages, such as reminiscences of youth and forebodings of death. Or they have sought to “explain” the Seventh in connection with the political repression of the Soviet Union, where every work of art had to be approved by an envious or paranoid bureaucratic board. Was Prokofiev either kowtowing to them by writing a “harmless” piece or somehow mocking them in the manner of fellow composer Dmitri Shostakovich? 

But all too few commentators have taken the work as they would a symphony of Sibelius or even Brahms: as an emotionally rich and technically brilliant piece of music, with a power and strangeness that can be felt without the need for biographical explication.

I. Moderato. The first movement is in “classic” sonata form though in Prokofiev’s distinctive style. The opening theme could be called brooding or melancholy with a decidedly Russian flavor, leading to a fragment of a Russian folk song, “The Birch Tree” (also used in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony). After a restless transition we hear the second main theme: one of those soaring melodies only Prokofiev could create, as in his ballets and violin concertos. This theme is followed by a very steady rhythmic pattern, reinforced by the percussion, almost like a clock ticking. Following a development of the themes the opening section returns and the movement ends quietly.

II. Allegretto. The scherzo of this symphony is a waltz, or rather a sequence of waltz tunes, dazzlingly orchestrated and fantastic in its shifting pulse. The movement evokes the waltzes of Cinderella but with a more symphonic complexity, as fragments of melody leap from one instrument to the next.

III. Andante espressivo. The slow movement opens with an expressive, long-arched melody passed from strings to woodwinds and back. The music’s combination of elegance and tenderness recalls once again Prokofiev’s ballet music. The middle section has a more pronounced rhythmic pulse, and when the opening melody returns, the brass play a larger role, lyrical yet solemn.

IV. Vivace. The finale has characteristics of a rondo, with a lively main theme returning several times. This theme recalls Haydn finales in its dash and simplicity (compare the Haydnesque features of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony), with an added flavor of a French galop. The other episodes, including a strutting march at one point, are playful, even mocking, with an acid tang that harks back to much earlier Prokofiev scores like The Love For Three Oranges (1919). But the last contrasting episode is a great surprise: a return of the soaring theme of the first movement, with new instrumental colors. The “ticking” theme also returns, and after a second statement of the sweeping melody the music slows and gently fades with some mournful fanfares. Here we might indeed wonder if the composer is portraying an ebbing away of life.

Prokofiev’s original intention was to end the symphony here, but at the request of the conductor of the first performance, he added a brief return of the rondo theme, thus rounding off the symphony not only more cheerfully but more “classically,” in the manner of Haydn rather than, say, Shostakovich. Evidently Prokofiev was hoping to please the judges of that year’s Stalin Prize (his family badly needed the money) but the work still did not win. He told his friend the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich that he considered the original ending the “real” one, but the published score includes both alternatives, and conductors have favored one or the other ever since. Tonight’s performance offers the more “classical” option.


Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.
The Golden Spinning Wheel.
Composed in 1896; a public rehearsal was given in the Prague Conservatory, 3 June of that year, but the official premiere was 26 October in London, Hans Richter leading a British orchestra.  The work is scored for 2 flutes (1st doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, harp and strings. Performance time is about 22 minutes.  


After the triumphs of his “New World” Symphony (1893) and Cello Concerto (1895) Antonin Dvorak turned to shorter orchestral forms with explicitly Czech subject matter. In quick succession he wrote four symphonic poems, all based on ballads by Karl Jaromir Erben that were derived from Bohemian folk or fairy tales. The Golden Spinning Wheel was the third of these. (The others were The Noonday Witch, The Water Goblin and The Wood Dove.)

Erben was a folklorist as renowned in Bohemia as the Brothers Grimm were in Germany. His book of ballads, titled Bouquet (or Posy), became a Czech classic soon after its publication in 1853. (He also transcribed folk music, like Bartok and Kodaly in Hungary a half-century later.) “The Golden Spinning Wheel” tells a gruesome tale, albeit with a happy ending.

A king riding through the forest stops at a cottage seeking a cup of water. Seeing Dornička, a beautiful maiden at her spinning wheel, he falls in love and proposes marriage, returning the next day to make a formal request to her stepmother. The wicked crone claims to love Dornička so much that she would rather send her own daughter off to be queen, but the king will not be swayed. The next day the stepmother and her daughter set off with Dornička to bring her to the royal castle but murder her in the forest, removing her feet, hands and eyes and saving them. Since the daughter looks just like Dornička, the king is fooled, and has a seven-day wedding celebration before being called off to war. Meanwhile, a wise old man of the forest finds Dornička’s remains and sends a boy off to the castle with an offer of a pure-gold spinning wheel at a bargain price: two feet. The wicked mother and daughter gladly make the payment, and later trade the hands and eyes for golden accessories, the distaff and spindle. The old man brings Dornička back to life, using magic waters to reattach her parts, and when the king returns from war, the spinning wheel sings the story of the murder to him. He finds Dornička in the forest and the two are joyfully united.

Dvorak’s music follows Erben’s ballad very closely, sometimes even matching the rhythm of certain lines. Commentators disagree about exactly what moments in the music portray verses of the ballad, but the first-time listener can easily note some basic correspondences. The brisk martial theme, including hunting horns, heard at the beginning and several times later suggests the king on horseback. Following three knocks, the door opens to reveal the beautiful Dornička, portrayed by ravishing melodies on clarinets, English horn and violin. Much of this music—the king’s ride, the knocks, the maiden and stirrings of love—is heard again as the king returns the next day, but now with ominous hints of the stepmother’s plot.

A somber transition (cellos and basses) leads to a tension-filled triple-beat section as the stepmother and her daughter murder Dornička. The next section features pageantry at court, a spritely wedding dance, then sad reminiscences of the slain Dornička. The old man of the forest is portrayed by the lower brass, and after each solemn chorale we hear the false queen (flute) and stepmother (her triple-time theme) accepting each offer. After a fourth trombone passage Dornička is brought back to life (solo violin and English horn). The king returns from battle in triumph and expresses his joy at seeing his wife (an “off” version of the love theme played by full orchestra). But now the spinning wheel tells its tale. The king gallops off to the forest, and the music becomes radiant, tender and ecstatic in turn as he finds Dornička alive and they celebrate their true marriage in one of Dvorak’s most festive conclusions.


Born 26 September 1898, Brooklyn; died 11 July 1937, Los Angeles.
An American in Paris.
Composed in 1928 and first performed 13 December of that year at Carnegie Hall, Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 saxophones (alto, tenor, baritone), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, tom-toms, wood block, 4 taxi horns, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta and strings. Performance time about 19 minutes.

FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE: 2 October 1988, Manuel Prestamo conducting, Kohler Memorial Theatre.

MOST RECENT SSO PERFORMANCE: 11 November 2006, Andrews Sill conducting, Weill Center.

 George Gershwin came up with what he called a “walking theme” during a visit to Paris in 1926: it’s the tune that opens An American in Paris and has become the musical representation of all brisk and breezy strolls through the vibrant streets of Paris or New York. On a later trip to Paris Gershwin used the tune in what he variously called a “tone poem” and a “rhapsodic ballet” that he was writing for conductor Walter Damrosch as a follow-up to his previous symphonic work, the Piano Concerto in F.

Though a few snobbish critics were condescending upon its premiere, An American in Paris has always been a great favorite of audiences and performers. It was recorded by Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony, and accompanied an extended ballet sequence in the Oscar-winning film An American in Paris. It is dazzling in its sheer profusion of memorable themes—often played in counterpoint with one another—and brilliant in its orchestration, with standout passages for (among others) solo trumpet, bass clarinet, tuba, English horn, violin and a trio of saxophones, not to mention four taxi horns Gershwin bought in Paris automotive shops.

For its premiere Gershwin’s friend and fellow composer Deems Taylor wrote a detailed but very tongue-in-cheek “program” for the work, based on his conversations with Gershwin. Taylor identifies three “walking themes” for the American “swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June.” Besides the confident stride of the first bars, the second walking theme is a jaunty outburst from the clarinets, and the more strutting third is played by the trombones and violins. A snatch of an actual Parisian music-hall tune is heard near the beginning. Apparently our stroller stops for an occasional drink, as implied by passages with a slower pace and woozier sound. A solo violin cadenza may represent a Parisienne with “the most charming broken English” making an “unhallowed” suggestion to our stroller, according to Taylor, who also notes that a musical “bridge passage” must indicate crossing the Seine!

Despite the spectacle of the city, our stroller feels homesick, leading to the “blues” middle section of An American in Paris, featuring the unforgettable trumpet melody at the very heart of this tone poem. Later, a much more strident tune for trumpet announces the sudden appearance of an American friend. As the two strut off, the sights and sounds of Paris overtake them in a “riotous finale,” despite a lingering moment of the blues at the very end.

Of course, the listener hardly needs a program to enjoy the sheer musical invention and rich interweaving of themes in one of the enduringly great works of American music.

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