Monday, September 20, 2010

Program notes: Made in Vermont Music Festival Statewide Tour

The 2010 Made in Vermont Music Festival Statewide Tour (it's a mouthful, huh?) hits the road this Thursday, September 23. Check out the complete schedule in the right sidebar. Visit the VSO website to see information about tickets. The tour features a smaller orchestral force than other presentations during the year, making for an intimate concert experience at some of the smaller venues in smaller communities around the state. Click the following Keep reading! link to read the program notes for the concert.

Harp Concerto in Bb, Op. 4 No. 6
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

An English (naturalized) composer of German birth, Handel’s stature as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, in both vocal and instrumental music, has always been recognized. He was a cosmopolitan and eclectic artist, drawing impartially on German, Italian, French, and English traditions. On February 19, 1736, King’s Theater in London played host to a remarkable gala musicale. Four of Handel’s full-scale concert pieces were heard that evening for the first time: his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, his Alexander’s Feast Concerto Grosso, his Organ Concerto in g minor, and--something quite remarkable for its time--a concerto for harp and orchestra. The harp concerto was later published as a work for organ and orchestra, and indeed it is most often heard today performed on the organ. But its pared-down orchestration, muted violins, and pizzicato bass parts are clear signs that it was originally conceived for the quieter and gentler solo instrument.

The piece is in three movements, following the then-emerging practice of fast-slow-fast as in modern concertos. Another indication that the concerto was not written for organ is that the harp part, while certainly soloistic, is less virtuosic than the flashy, flamboyant writing Handel created when he composed with himself as the performer in mind. The opening movement, Andante allegro, is transparent in texture, with a main theme built from seven broken-up, individual gestures. The Larghetto offers a more integrated melody, as the harp muses improvisatorially over repeated dotted figures in the accompaniment. The concluding Allegro moderato, with its bouncing 3/8 meter, is wholly dance like.

Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1949)

Vocalise is the last of Rachmaninoff’s Fourteen Songs, which were published in 1912. Originally written for voice (either soprano or tenor) with piano accompaniment, it is most often heard with soprano. As with many classical vocal pieces, it has been transposed into a variety of keys, allowing performers to choose a vocal range more suited to their natural voice. The vocal version contains no words, but is sung using any one vowel of the singer’s choosing. Vocalise’s extreme popularity has also resulted in arrangements for nearly any instrumental combination you can think of, including one for orchestra which was done by the composer himself. Some particularly intriguing forces include: piano trio, jazz ensemble, 24 cellos (the London Cello Orchestra), tuba and piano, solo accordion, and theremin. Today we will hear a version for string orchestra and French horn.

Concerto for Flute in d minor
C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. The most famous and most prolific of the Bach sons, he held positions of great influence in Berlin and Hamburg, and was widely esteemed as a keyboard player and theorist as well as a composer.

There is some debate about whether C.P.E. was responsible for the solo flute version of this piece, but the work itself has been authenticated as a harpsichord concerto which he definitely did compose. Certainly he had an affinity for the flute, as he was in the employ of Frederick the Great (a monarch whose quite good if not completely professional flute playing was his way of resting from the prosecution of unprecedented social reforms and international warfare) for nearly 30 years.

Thematic material in the first movement is introduced by the orchestra: a driving principal theme and a lighter melody suited to ornamentation. The solo flute enters with more grace than drama, and then proceeds to develop both themes in a highly ornamented style. This virtuosic writing for the solo instrument sends it through a rapid and unusual chain of keys: E, F, Bb, d minor, E again, and a minor.

The second movement, Un poco andante, in marked contrast to the more agitated slow movements written by Bach later in his career, flows smoothly and elegantly. A hint of the composer’s future boldness is seen as more dramatic solo passages emerge from the charming song-like character as the movement progresses.

The last movement is a workout for the soloist! The flute hurtles down two and a half octaves in a single short flight, then rapidly ascends several long scales. The sheer delirium of the writing exceeds anything the composer’s father attempted, presaging the storm and stress of Haydn’s symphonies and even some of the wildness of the early Romantics. The intense Allegro di molto brings the work to a thrilling conclusion.

It Is Time [World Premiere Commission]
Don Jamison (1956- )

The title of my piece is from a short poem called “Autumn Day” by the 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Here are the opening lines:

Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow now on the sundials
and let the wind loose on the fields.

As the cold winds of fall begin to blow, the afterglow of summer is still in the air. Maybe it’s a melancholy time, as the surging, burgeoning growth of summer begins to die back--but it also can be a time of alertness and renewal. For me, it is sometimes the beginning of an energetic part of the year that can last almost until spring, if I can keep the summer sun burning on in my heart and mind.

The music looks back at what summer brought, then forward with resolve toward the cold times that are coming. It begins with alternating waves of sound from the strings and winds which unfold the harmonies and bits of melody that will be explored. The flute introduces a melody made of a few simple motifs that then move through the orchestra for the next few minutes, changing and growing as they go, without much looking back. It’s a rendering of nature’s transformations that happen all around us through the summer. Then the music circles in place for a moment on a major chord that turns minor, and out of this the horns announce a theme that is related to what we’ve heard so far, but which is more determined and extended. It’s a kind of lopsided dance in a simple AAB form. Three variations follow: the first features the flute and a solo violin; the second features the oboes; the third brings back the horns, now in their high and powerful register, and the piece ends in an upward sweep.

I’m grateful to the VSO for the chance to write this piece, and I hope you enjoy it!

--Don Jamison

Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

After a trip to Vienna with his father during the winter of 1773-74, the eighteen year-old Mozart returned to Salzburg and, in a burst of new year creativity, wrote this piece almost at one sitting. One of the most striking works of its period, the Symphony No. 29 shows some traces of Viennese influence in its four-movement form, and in the increased seriousness that modifies Mozart’s early Italianate charm. There may also have been some influence from one of Mozart’s neighbors, Michael Haydn. Although overshadowed by his brother Joseph, “ the other Haydn” was quite a respectable composer who wrote a symphony in A Major that appears to have been Mozart’s model in creating his twenty-ninth symphony. Mozart seemed to prize this work, for in 1782 he scheduled it again on one of his distinguished concerts in Vienna.

I. Allegro moderato. First violins immediately state the first theme, an ingenious idea that consists of a descending octave and tightly-knit repeated half-steps. This latter part of the theme is seen as an early example of the chromatic expression that Mozart developed more fully in his adult life. A graceful second theme, again presented by the first violins, provides a foil to the first idea. Concise development leads to the restatement of the themes and the close of the movement.

II. Andante. Muted strings reveal both themes of this sonata form movement; generally the expression of the Andante is that of an operatic serenade. At the end, the winds take over for a few measures while the strings remove their mutes in preparation for the movement’s solid closing measures.

III. Menuetto. Filled with the spirit of 18-century Vienna, this minuet and trio transcend the polite Salzburg traditions and begin to suggest the grandeur of later symphonic expression.

IV. Allegro con spirito. The finale brims with vital scale passages and bustling strings. A certain opera buffa quality emerges as this sonata form movement flies to its closing coda.