Friday, November 21, 2008

Program Notes: December 6

The second concert of the VSO's Masterworks series at the Flynn Center in Burlington serves up some American fare and one of the most famous pieces commissioned for one of America's greatest orchestras. Anthony Princiotti conducts this concert featuring Music of Our Time. Tickets are available through the Flynn Center's FlynnTix box office. Read on for program notes.

Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Although he never received a traditional musical education as a youngster, at the age of 21 Copland became the first American student accepted to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1924, he wrote a series of jazz-influenced works in an attempt to Americanize his European training, and then developed what has been termed an “austere” style too radical for many people’s taste. In the mid-30s Copland had an epiphany about the direction his music would take. He wrote later: “I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer. The old ‘special’ public of the modern-music concerts had fallen away, and the conventional concert public continued apathetic or indifferent to anything but the established classics. It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum…. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms. As I see it, music that is born complex is not inherently better or worse than music that is born simple.” It was typical of Copland, basically a positive spirit, to find a solution to a problem rather than stew. “Agony I don’t connect with,” he once said. “Not even alienation.”

Rodeo was written after the success of Copland’s first great western ballet, Billy the Kid. Initially the composer was reluctant to tap into the same subject matter again, but choreographer Agnes de Mille won him over to the lighthearted story of what she called “The Taming of the Shrew—cowboy style.” (He may also have been swayed by having recently become impressed with Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, set on the ranchos of the pampas.) Originally written for string orchestra, Rodeo was later modified for full symphony orchestra, and given its premiere in 1942 at the Metropolitan Opera House by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with de Mille herself dancing the lead role. The performance was a huge success: de Mille took 22 curtain calls, and the ballet was repeated 79 times during the ensuing season. In 1943, Copland excerpted the four selections that are a staple of the concert repertoire today. Rodeo (originally called The Courting at Burnt Ranch) is unique in the extent to which it incorporates many traditional American folk tunes practically intact within the score.

The weekend rodeo in the American Southwest as described by Copland’s marvelous music is a tradition where cowhands show off their skills, and may find themselves competing in a mating game as well. Buckaroo Holiday opens with a fanfare and segues into a quiet Cowgirl theme and then a rhythmic motif that evokes the trotting of horses. The tunes are based on the cowboy song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by Trade” and the railroad song, “Sis Joe.” The plot unfolds as the loner Cowgirl seeks the attention of the Champion Roper, who unfortunately is preoccupied with the more feminine Rancher’s Daughter. The Corral Nocturne portrays the lovelorn musings of the Cowgirl at sundown as she “runs through the empty corrals intoxicated with space, her feet thudding in the stillness.” In the Saturday Night Waltz, the musicians seem to tune up and then the cowboys and their girls pair off as the oboe begins a variant of the cowboy song, “Goodbye, Old Paint.” The Cowgirl is alone until the Champion Roper approaches her, having lost to the Head Wrangler in winning the affections of the Rancher’s Daughter—and registering the fact that the Cowgirl has come in a beautiful dress. Hoe-Down (which begins with the well-known fiddle tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and also features elements of the Scottish dance, “McLeod’s Reel”) builds to a climax, slows as (surprise!) the Cowgirl and the Wrangler share a kiss, and (happy ending!) concludes with a final fanfare.

Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture
George Gershwin, 1898-1937

Porgy and Bess is an opera, first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward. It is based on Heyward’s novel and play, Porgy, which he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. All three works deal with African-American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real-life Cabbage Row) in Charleston, S. Carolina, in the 1920s.

Originally conceived by Gershwin as an “American folk opera,” Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in the fall of 1935 with an entire cast of classically-trained African-American singers—a daring and visionary choice at that time. It tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer. Gershwin considered it to be his finest work, but although it ran for 124 performances on Broadway, it was not a commercial success until long after his death. From the outset, it has been controversial, and many have condemned it as racist. Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they had concerns that their characters might play into the stereotype that African Americans live in poverty, take drugs, and solve their problems with their fists. Harold Cruse, the social critic and educator, called it “the most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.” Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the 1950s film version, and so it was offered to Sidney Poitier, who reputedly regretted his choice ever after. Over time, the work gained acceptance from the opera community, and thanks to Ira Gershwin’s edict that only blacks to allowed to play the lead roles in U.S. productions, Porgy and Bess launched many a prominent career.

In reaction to early criticisms that Porgy and Bess was nothing more than a hybrid, an “aggrandized musical show” with too many songs (rather than arias), Gershwin wrote a rebuttal in The New York Times: “I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs. In Porgy and Bess I realized I was writing an opera for the theater, and without songs, it could neither be of the theater nor entertaining from my viewpoint. If I am successful, it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger.”

The music itself reflects Gershwin’s New York jazz roots, but also draws on southern black traditions. The composer used as models each type of folk song that he knew about: jubilees, praying songs, street cries, works songs, and spirituals. Many biographers have noted allusions to Jewish music as well.

In 1942, Robert Russell Bennett arranged a medley (rather than a suite) for orchestra called Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, which is often heard today in the concert hall. It is based on Gershwin’s original scoring, though for a slightly different instrumentation. Well-known songs include “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “Summertime.” “Summertime” is the most popular cover song in popular music, with more than 17,500 different versions recorded. An international group of collectors of recordings of “Summertime” (The Summertime Connection) has more than 11,900 different recordings in its archives!

Concerto for Orchestra
Bela Bartók (1881-1945)

Early in 1943, Bela Bartók lay ill with leukemia at Doctor's Hospital in New York City. He received a surprise visit from Serge Koussevitzky, who offered the great Hungarian composer a commission for a work in memory of the conductor's late wife. To the amazement of all his doctors, Bartók's health improved along with his spirits and he was soon able to leave the hospital. Concentrating on the piece at an idyllic retreat in North Carolina, he completed the Concerto for Orchestra in just under two months.

There is no need to resist the temptation to read an autobiographical progression from dark introspection to optimism into the piece: in Bartók's own words, "...through working on this concerto, I discovered the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure."

The Concerto for Orchestra is essentially a five-movement symphony. Its name reflects its connection to the baroque concerto grosso, a form which contrasted a featured group of solo instruments with the full orchestra. Since its first performance in Boston in 1944, the work has become a showpiece for orchestral virtuosity.

The composer writes: "The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement through the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life assertion of the finale."

The first movement (Introduzione), which is more or less in regular sonata form, draws most of its thematic material from the introduction, with its characteristically Hungarian melodic intervals of a perfect fourth. The development contains strident and virtuosic fugal episodes for the brass. The second movement (Giuoco delle coppie) is a chain of short sections in which pairs of instruments (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets) consecutively play a jocular tune at varying intervals. A kind of trio--a short chorale for brass and side drum--is followed by an elaborated recapitulation. The ravishing third movement (Elegia), based in the main on themes from the introduction to the first movement, includes mysterious, liquid passages for clarinet, flute, and harp.

The fourth movement (Intermezzo interrotto) has been interpreted variously. It begins with a playful melody in the oboe and a hauntingly lovely theme played by the violas and then the English horn. Suddenly this music is rudely interrupted by a new tune and shrill, disrespectful "laughs" from various parts of the orchestra. Some interpreters say the mocking laughter is from the interrupters themselves, gleefully rejoicing at their desecration of something beautiful. Others say the mockery is of the new tune, which Hungarian music scholars attribute to a "pseudo-Hungarian" composer/dilettante. Bartók's son Peter asserts that his father was poking fun at a theme he found ludicrous from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. Musicologists have recently learned that Shostakovich himself was parodying a Viennese cabaret song in an attempt to
portray the horror of the German invasion. All in all, quite a fascinating exegesis!

The fifth movement (Finale) begins with an introductory phrase from the horns which yields to a long perpetuum mobile section. Expansions of the fugal treatment heard in the first movement are accompanied by the rushing string figures of the perpetuum mobile. A climax in trumpets and trombones is formally rounded off by the initial horn phrase, brought back as a coda.