Program Notes | American Classics
Sunday, February 18, 2024 / 4:00 pm
Born 1994, Westwood, NJ
Vitality (2022) was written for the Aspen Conducting Academy 2022 orchestral readings and was inspired by a quote by Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
Graham begins in celebration of discovery and hope (the what), then reflects upon the process (the how), and closes with a warning (the why). The piece loosely follows this structure, musically exploring the prickly and potent glimmers of one’s life force alongside the uncertainty of self-expression and vulnerability.
Vitality was written in memory of my friend and fellow horn player Marina Krol Hodge (1994–2022) and my father-in-law Steve Williams (1958–2022), both of whom left this world too soon but were the very embodiment of unique expression. Their bright spirits are present in the horn soli that appear throughout the work. Thank you to the Aspen Music Festival and School for breathing life into Vitality.
—Program Note by Gala Flagello
Born 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died 1981, Mount Kisco, New York
Violin Concerto, op.14
Samuel Barber began composing his Violin Concerto during the summer of 1939 while living in a small village in Switzerland. He moved to Paris later that summer and then, as war broke out, returned to the United States, where he completed the concerto. That completion, however, brought problems.
The concerto had been commissioned by the wealthy American businessman Samuel Fels, who intended it for the use of a young violinist he was promoting. Fels was dissatisfied with the last movement and asked for changes; Barber refused. This awkward situation was resolved when the violinist renounced his right to the first performance, and Barber was free to find a new soloist. Albert Spalding gave the premiere on February 7, 1941, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Eighty years after its composition, Barber’s Violin Concerto has become the most popular violin concerto by an American composer. The source of this popularity is no mystery: The work shows off Barber’s considerable melodic gift, particularly over the first two movements, while the finale is a breathless virtuoso piece. The concerto has some unusual features, particularly in its scoring. Barber writes for Mozart’s orchestra (pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings) as well as two unusual instruments: a “military” drum, used only in the finale, and a piano, used here as a chordal instrument. The choice of piano can seem a curious one, and Barber’s decision to arpeggiate its chords gives the instrument a continuo-like plangency, an unusual sound in the concerto’s generally romantic sonority.
While the opening movement is marked Allegro, its pace feels somewhat restrained, so that the concerto seems to open with two slow movements, followed by a fast finale. The opening movement is notable for its continuous lyricism. Solo violin has the long opening melody, and the triplet that recurs during this theme will figure importantly throughout the development. The coda recalls the two main themes, and the movement concludes quietly on the triplet rhythms that have shaped so much of it.
The Andante is very much in the manner of the opening movement. Over muted strings, solo oboe sings the long main theme; the violin’s entrance is delayed, and Barber marks its appearance senza affretare: “without hurrying.” The music rises to an expansive, soaring climax before the quiet close.
The finale–Presto in moto perpetuo–brings a sharp change of character. Gone is the lyricism of the first two movements, and in its place comes a gritty, acerbic quality. Except for two brief interludes, the soloist is playing constantly, and the part is full of blistering triplets, awkward string-crossings, and endless accidentals. The effect is of a hard-driving perpetual motion. In the coda, the pulse of triplets suddenly gives way to racing sixteenths, and Barber’s Violin Concerto concludes as the soloist rips upward to the very top of the violin’s range.
―Program Note by Eric Bromberger
Born 1918, Lawrence, MA
Died 1990, New York City
During the 1964-65 season, Leonard Bernstein took a much-needed sabbatical from his duties as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, and he devoted much of that year to composition. He had received a commission from the Dean of the Cathedral of Chichester, the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, for a piece to be performed at a music festival during the summer of 1965 that would feature the combined choruses of the Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury Cathedrals. The work was to be for chorus and orchestra, and the commission specified three trumpets, three trombones, two harps, percussion, and strings. This combination suggests music that is festive, dramatic, and lyric, and Chichester Psalms fits that description perfectly.
Bernstein chose to set three complete psalms and parts of others, and the score is full of the trademarks of his music: unabashedly romantic melodies, jazzy and bouncy rhythms, the sound of varied percussion, and brilliant writing for brass. The text is in Hebrew. Bernstein completed the Psalms in the spring of 1965 and led the premiere with the New York Philharmonic on July 15; the first performance in Chichester followed on July 31. Half a century after its premiere, this work remains one of Bernstein’s most frequently performed scores.
Chichester Psalms is also one of Bernstein’s most tightly focused scores. Despite the wide range of expression in this music―from the dramatic beginning to the peaceful close―the entire score is built on a simple five-note motif that recurs in various guises throughout the work: in the surging rhythms and smashing conclusion of the first movement, in the introduction to the third, and at many other points.
The music explodes to life on a biting dissonance as the chorus sounds the “Awake” from Psalm 108, and this movement embodies the spirit of the opening line of Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord of all ye lands.” Built on a tricky 7/4 meter, the music bounces along energetically, full of the affirmation of that psalm. The second movement originally featured a boy alto, who sang the complete Psalm 23. The atmosphere of acceptance that marks this text and music is ripped apart by an eruption from the chorus: “Why do the nations rage?” But the voice of the boy completes the 23rd Psalm on a note of faith. The final movement opens with an intense introduction for strings, which are then joined by the chorus in a peaceful setting of Psalm 131. This leads to the closing section on verses from Psalm 133, sung by the acapella choir. The piece concludes on a note of affirmation and peace, a vision of the unity of all humankind, and as choir and strings hold the long final Amen, high above them the solo trumpet sings the five-note motif one final time.
―Program Note by Eric Bromberger
Born 1900, Brooklyn
Died 1990, North Tarrytown, NY
“Four Dance Episodes” from Rodeo
In 1942, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo commissioned a ballet from Agnes de Mille. The young American dancer drew up a detailed scenario set on a ranch in the West, and she knew the composer she wanted—but Aaron Copland was uninterested. He had just experienced success with a “cowboy” ballet (Billy the Kid in 1938) and did not want to repeat himself. But as de Mille talked, Copland saw new possibilities in her scenario, and he accepted the commission. Copland wrote the music between May and September 1942, barely getting it done in time for the premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1942. The evening was a phenomenal success: de Mille was called back for 22 curtain calls that night, and the ballet was performed 79 times during the 1942-43 season.
In Rodeo, set on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest on a Saturday afternoon and evening, none of the characters has a name–each is a type. The principal figure is the Cowgirl (the part originally danced by de Mille), a tomboy anxious to attract male attention. She tries to compete for the affections of the Head Wrangler and the Roper through her cowboy skills, but the men ignore her in favor of the city girls, who arrive wearing pretty dresses. Disconsolate (and furious), the Cowgirl storms off and returns to the Saturday night dance in a beautiful dress. Only at this point does she attract the men, who now flock to her.
However grating such a story may be to present-day feminist sensibilities, the ballet is effective on stage, particularly for the vitality of Copland’s dances. As he did with Billy the Kid, Copland turned to folk music for most of the Rodeo material, adapting cowboy songs, fiddle tunes, railroad songs, and even a Scottish dance tune. The suite of four dance movements he drew from Rodeo early in 1943 has become one of his most popular symphonic scores, and in fact the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo constitute almost the entire ballet: Copland cut only about five minutes of music from it when he arranged this suite.
Longest of the movements, Buckaroo Holiday explodes to life; this is the ballet’s opening, and after the initial energy the music subsides as the curtain comes up on strolling couples. Copland based this movement on the cowboy song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by Trade” and the railroad song “Sis Joe.” The dance outlines much of the opening action of the ballet: the Cowgirl’s awkward attempt to mount her horse, the brilliant entrance of the cowboys, the sudden stop at the moment of the Cowgirl’s humiliation. Copland rounds it all off with a thunderous reprise of the cowboy music.
Corral Nocturne depicts the lonely musings of the Cowgirl as the sun sets. This movement, much of it set in 5/4, contains no folk material. The concluding two movements come from the dance on the evening of the rodeo. Saturday Night Waltz opens with the sound of open strings as the players tune up; then the dances begin as solo oboe sings a variant of the cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint.”
Copland based Hoe-Down on two principal themes: the fiddle-tune “Bonyparte” and a variant of the old Scottish dance “McLeod’s Reel.” This movement brings the climax and conclusion of the ballet: The square dance is interrupted by the appearance of the Cowgirl in her dress, the men compete for her, and the tempo gradually slows to the quiet chord that marks the moment when the Head Wrangler kisses the Cowgirl. Instantly, the music explodes, powering ahead on a shaft of frantic energy that drives Rodeo to its close on three great stamping chords.
—Program Note by Eric Bromberger