Logo

Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   November 12, 2016 Pr...
October 31, 2016

November 12, 2016 Program Notes

GUSTAV HOLST
Born 21 September 1874, Cheltenham, England; died 25 May 1934, London.
“Jupiter,” from The Planets, Op. 32.
Composed in late 1914 as part of The Planets, which was orchestrated in 1917 and premiered in a private performance at the Queen’s Hall, London, Adrian Boult conducting, 29 September 1918; first complete public hearing was 15 November, 1920, with the London Symphony Orchestra led by Albert Coates. “Jupiter” calls for a large orchestra of  2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor and bass tubas, timpani (two players), bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings. The SSO played “Jupiter” at the gala inaugural concert of the Weill Center, 13 October 2001, Guy Victor Bordo conducting. Duration 8 minutes.

The Planets has been an audience favorite since its first performances nearly a century ago. Holst meant his suite to portray the astrological character of each planet, rather than astronomical features or even the mythic personalities of the ancient Roman gods after whom the planets were named; still, some astronomical associations are probably inevitable for modern audiences, especially since the “Mars” and “Neptune” movements have long been quoted or imitated in science-fiction movie soundtracks.

“Jupiter,” the fourth and most “jovial” of the seven movements, is subtitled “The Bringer of Jollity.” As stated by the astrological guide Holst consulted, “Those born under its influence are cheery and hopeful in disposition, and possess a noble and generous spirit.”

The music, boldly energetic from the start, features a syncopated first theme that reshapes itself into something like a circus march. A passage in a fast 3/4 time follows, climaxing with a brass fanfare. After the music quiets down, a more stately theme is heard—no doubt the “noble and generous” part of the sign of Jupiter. This quintessentially English tune was later combined with a pre-existing poem to create the patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

The boisterous opening music returns, though the hymn tune will make a brief but grand re-appearance before the joyful close.

 

SAMUEL BARBER
Born 9 March 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania; died 23 January 1981, New York, NY.
Adagio for Strings
Arranged from the middle movement of his 1936 String Quartet, Op. 11, and premiered via radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini conducting, 5 November 1938. The SSO played the Adagio for Strings most recently 4 October 1997, Guy Victor Bordo conducting. Performance time about 8 minutes.

Soon after completing his String Quartet the 26-year-old Samuel Barber saw the potential of its slow movement as a piece for string orchestra. He sent his score, along with one for an Essay for Orchestra, to Arturo Toscanini. The legendary maestro sent them back without comment, but eventually let Barber know that he had memorized the scores and intended to conduct both with his own NBC radio orchestra.

One of the best-known pieces of American music, the Adagio for Strings has often been played on solemn occasions and has been used in several films, most famously in the Vietnam War drama Platoon. The music is extremely direct in its emotional appeal yet complex in its harmonic design. The main theme, growing out of a single sustained note, flows almost like a Gregorian chant; it is first played by the violins, later the violas and then the cellos. After a searing climax the music subsides with just a fragment of the theme heard once more.

 

EDWARD ELGAR
Born 2 June 1857, Lower Broadheath near Worcester, England; died 23 February 1934, Worcester.
Enigma Variations, Op. 36
Composed 1898-99 and premiered 19 June 1899, with Hans Richter conducting an orchestra at St. James’ Hall, London. The score calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, organ and the usual strings. The SSO’s most recent performance was May 10, 2008, Andrews Sill conducting.  Duration about 30 minutes.

In 1899 Edward Elgar was an only moderately successful, not-so-young composer when his Variations on an Original Theme, subtitled Enigma, became a huge success after its London premiere and was soon being played around Europe, led by such major conductors as Gustav Mahler. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere in 1902, and five years later programmed it again with Elgar himself conducting. Elgar’s later works—two symphonies, the Violin and Cello Concertos, the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, the Pomp and Circumstances marches—solidified his fame, but the Enigma Variations remains his most popular extended work.

Elgar often told the story of how he was improvising at the piano on 21 October 1898 when his wife exclaimed, “Edward, that’s a good tune. What is that?” He replied, “Nothing—but something might be made of it.” He started improvising variations on the tune as various friends might have re-imagined it, and thus the larger piece was born. When it was published he added the Enigma subtitle, dedicated the Variations to “my friends pictured within,” and gave each variation either the initials or a nickname of the friend portrayed. In 1929 he made more explicit identifications in notes for a player-piano edition.

What Elgar meant by the subtitle remains an enigma. In later years he hinted that there was another, very well-known tune lurking behind his original theme or playable in counterpoint against it, but no one has come up with a tune that has convinced most musicologists. (Contenders include “Auld Lang Syne,” “Rule, Britannia!” and a passage in Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony.)

It must be added, as Elgar himself stressed, that Opus 36 makes perfect musical and dramatic sense without the listener thinking about either the enigma or the people behind each variation. Elgar was very free in his variation techniques, with the original tune sometimes displayed very clearly, sometimes merely hinted at. But each is a brilliant contrast to the next.

The theme opens the piece in a minor key: the first six bars, stated by the strings, are serious in mood, perhaps suggesting loneliness or yearning. (The first bar has the same trochaic rhythm as the words “Edward Elgar.”) The next four bars, each with a rising phrase in a major key, give a more hopeful or sunny perspective; then the opening section returns in slightly different form.

Variation I (C.A.E.) Same tempo. The first variation portrays Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. Elgar said it was really a “prolongation of the theme” with “romantic and delicate additions,” and indeed the variation has a gentle and intimate quality. The music briefly surges to an almost overwhelmingly passionate climax before subsiding to a conclusion in which the major-key middle section is reprised.

II (H.D.S-P.) Allegro.This scurrying variation alludes to the piano-playing of a friend, though the music takes us to a more shadowy, mysterious realm than Elgar’s note on it suggests.

III. (R.B.T.) Allegretto. Affectionate and playful, this variation recalls an Oxford professor known for riding his bicycle around town and playing “an old man in amateur theatricals.”

IV. (W.M.B.) Allegro di molto. This variation, the briefest of the set, pictures a friend rushing around frantically (like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, though Elgar did not make this comparison). The variation ends with him running out a door that slams behind him.

V. (R.P.A.) Moderato. The opening portion, with only strings and bassoons, sounds ponderous, almost lumbering, but is contrasted with more dancelike music in the upper woodwinds. Elgar remarked of this friend that “his serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks.”

VI. (Ysobel) Andantino. Isabel Fitton was an amateur violist and a pupil as well as friend of Elgar. The opening bars feature violas playing a tricky leap across their strings, and the rest of the movement is perfectly graceful.

VII. (Troyte) Presto. This exuberant variation features drums, rushing strings and bold trombones. Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect friend whom Elgar imagines trying and failing to play the piano.

VIII. (W.N.) Allegretto. This variation is intended to portray the 18th-Century house of Winifred Norbury and her sister, rather than the friend herself. The rural loveliness and charm of the place are conveyed in the most vivid and delicate way by string and woodwind solos.

IX. (Nimrod) Adagio.In the Book of Genesis, Nimrod was a “mighty hunter,” and Augustus Jaeger (whose last name in German means “hunter”) was Elgar’s publisher and best friend. For his piano reduction of this variation Elgar used the instruction nobilmente—“nobly”—a term that applies perfectly to this and indeed much of Elgar’s greatest music. The movement is famous on its own, and considered as “English” as Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is “American”; like Barber’s Adagio for Strings (to name another iconic American work),  it is often played on solemn occasions.

X. (Dorabella). Intermezzo. Allegretto.Dora Penny, nicknamed “Dorabella” after the character in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte,is the subject of this variation, which has little connection to the original theme (hence perhaps the subtitle “Intermezzo”). It’s meant to have “a dancelike lightness,” according to the composer, and playfully hints at the subject’s slight stutter via the woodwinds’ repeated notes.

XI. (G.R.S.) Allegro di molto. Though George Sinclair was organist at Hereford Cathedral, Elgar wrote that the variation “has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals or, except remotely, with G.R.S.” Rather, the first few bars portray “his great bulldog Dan falling down the steep bank into the river Wye (bar 1); his paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said, ‘Set that to music.’ I did; here it is.”

XII. (B.G.N.) Andante. Basil Nevinson was a cellist who often made music with Elgar—hence the prominent cello solo in this portrait of “a serious and devoted friend.”

XIII. (***) Romanza. Moderato. The friend here has been identified as Lady Mary Lygon, pictured as being on a sea journey. The opening section, with clarinet solo, is light and graceful; then the clarinet plays a phrase from Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, while a snare drum quietly suggests “the distant throb of the engines of a liner.” But such a description hardly even hints at the powerfully haunting mood of this passage, conveying desolation and, at the end, perhaps resignation.

XIV. (E.D.U.) Finale. Allegro. “Edu” was Alice’s nickname for Elgar (after the French “Eduard”). This “bold and vigorous” finale with the theme in a major key is meant to portray Elgar himself, confident in his future as a composer. The C.A.E./Alice and Nimrod/Jaeger variations reappear in the finale to underline these friends’ centrality to Elgar’s life. Jaeger thought the finale in its original draft was too short, and persuaded the composer to expand it, with organ added to the orchestral colors for extra grandeur.

GARTH NEUSTADTER
Born 4 May 1986.
Portrait of John Muir, suite for symphony orchestra and narrator
Adapted from the soundtrack for the PBS American Masters documentary John Muir in the New World, broadcast 18 April 2011; the suite’s first concert performance was 18 April 2016, with the composer conducting the Manitowoc Symphony Orchestra and Wayne Wildman narrating. The score calls for pairs of flutes (2nd doubling alto flute), oboes (2nd doubling English horn), clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones; tuba, timpani, snare drum, suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, tambourine, harp, strings, and narrator. Duration about 15 minutes.

A graduate of Manitowoc Lutheran High School, Garth Neustadter studied violin and voice at Lawrence University and composition at the Yale School of Music. In 2007 he won the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition, and in 2011 received a Primetime Emmy for his score for the PBS documentary John Muir in the New World. He recorded a soundtrack CD, and from the music created a shorter work with narrator, Portrait of John Muir.

The narration follows the arc of the documentary, telling the story of the Scotland-born, Wisconsin-raised, California-dwelling naturalist who was instrumental in the development of the U.S. National Park system. The composer has written that the suite’s “harmonic language celebrates the Americana traditions of our past,” with “a distinct gravity toward such composers as Aaron Copland” and hints of the early jazz and folk music that Muir himself might have heard.

JOHN WILLIAMS
Born 8 February 1932, Long Island, New York.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Suite for Orchestra: “March of the Resistance,” “Scherzo for X-Wings,” “The Jedi Steps and Finale.”
The suite was derived from the soundtrack of the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The score calls for  piccolo,  2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet (doubling Eb contrabass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum,  2 snare drums, tuned drums, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, tam-tam, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, chimes, piano, celesta, and strings. Duration about 14 minutes.

At the age of 83 John Williams continued in his distinguished career as film composer by scoring J.J. Abrams’ 2015 expansion of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens. The new film required both musical continuity with the earlier six films scored by Williams and new motifs for a younger generation of characters and entities like the tyrannical First Order and the heroic Resistance.

The “March of the Resistance” conveys the grim determination of the rebel forces. It’s heard when the X-Wing pilot Poe helps to rescue Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca from First Order capture, and later back in the rebel camp.

“Scherzo for X-Wings” accompanies the Resistance’s aerial attack upon the First Order’s Starkiller Base, near the end of the film. Strains of the familiar Star Wars/Jedi Warrior theme are interspersed through the battle music.

“The Jedi Steps and Finale”: In the last scene of the film the orphaned scavenger-turned-warrior Rey seeks the vanished Luke Skywalker on an island of a watery planet. The music follows her climb up an ancient staircase, and as she approaches Luke and offers him his “lost” light saber, a solo horn plays the Force motif as we first heard it—early in the original Star Wars, when the young Luke looked at the twin suns of Tatooine and felt something beyond his adolescent farm life calling to him.

Next we hear the music for the final credits of The Force Awakens, starting with the Star Wars theme. This segues into Rey’s motif, one of the most important of the film: above a repeated rhythmic figure we hear a noble melody which tells us, in Williams’ words, “She’s a fighter, she’s infused with the Force, and [the theme] needed to be something that was strong but thoughtful.” Next is the baneful theme of Kylo Ren, and then the agitated music for the scene of Rey and Finn being chased through a marketplace by First Order agents. The March of the Resistance is reprised, and to conclude this musical sampling of the film, the Force motif is—very significantly—intertwined with Rey’s. 

Share this on: