Concert Program Notes
The following are concert program notes for Festival Orchestra concerts of Sunday, March 3 and Tuesday, March 5, 2024.
RHAPSODY IN BLUE
SUNDAY, MARCH 3, 2024
PROGRAM NOTES BY FRAN ROSENTHAL
MY HOMELAND, Op. 63
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
What can be more appropriate than opening Arizona Musicfest Festival Orchestra Week with music that celebrates composers’ love of their homelands? Many attending this first concert will remember the performances of two Dvořák’s symphonies in recent years that are filled with Czechoslovakian folk melodies and dance rhythms. Today’s Dvořák work specifically embraces two themes that were born to depict patriotism. Dvořák was asked to compose incidental music for a play that concerned the beginnings of Czech theatre. The patriotic music Dvořák composed was to be heard at the end of each act and to be derived from a song, “Where Is My Homeland?“. The song is now the National Anthem of the Czech Republic.
The piece we hear is a classic overture in sonata form. There is an introductory dramatic passage (note the woodwinds in the opening measures) that quickly hints at the “My Homeland” theme to come. But before we can hear that entire melodic second theme, a rhythmic folk song provides the first theme. The second melodic theme, that is heard in snippets throughout the overture, concludes the work with an impressive march-like version of the material. Enjoy the many instrumental timbres that pronounce Dvořák’s stirring final tribute to friends and Homeland!
LE TOMBEAU DE COUPERIN
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Le Tombeau De Couperin is Ravel’s homage to several friends who died in World War I. The use of the word, tombeau, in early French, often meant homage or memorial rather than the word tomb itself. In 1917 Ravel composed this work for piano using the 18th Century suite form. He wished to illustrate his sensibility to French music of the past. In 1919, the composer transcribed the music for orchestra. By using the form of an 18th century suite, the music, according to Ravel, was more a salute to French music than to Couperin himself. Ravel chose four out of the six dances in his original piano suite to orchestrate.
Most of you know Ravel from his amazing work, Bolero. What is it that you remember about this piece? Is it the constant repetition of a of theme? Most likely, yes. In the Tombeau it is the orchestral color that you most likely will notice as Ravel‘s most intriguing skill. What is instrumental color? It is an instrument’s particular range and sound differentiated from any other instrument’s tone. The word for musical color is timbre.
As the Prélude begins the first color you will notice is that of the solo oboe playing an unsettled theme. Woodwinds alternate with the orchestra playing amusing passages. Listen for harmonically dissonant modern expressions in all the sections. They sound so comfortable in this old traditional dance form setting. The first dance is a bouncy Italian, Forlane. Ravel combines the rhythmic pulse of the 18th Century merry material with obvious “in your face” harmonic adventures. Instrumental color abounds as the full orchestra offers up its many timbres together. Next up is a Minuet; somewhat true to the mood of an 18th Century courtly dance. There is sad, melancholy music in this gracious chapter of the work. The Finale is a short Rigaudon; a brash punctuation mark of jagged allegro (It.fast) material; skittish and brilliant. It is a marvelous parade of sound that has just passed by.
What a challenging, sparkling, orchestral work!
UNITED WE PLAY
Marcus Roberts (b. 1963)
United We Play, for jazz ensemble and composed by Marcus Roberts, was commissioned by the American Symphony Orchestra in 2020. Of this work, Roberts wrote:
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the current state of the world and the current state of our country. We seem to be surrounded by pain and conflict and mistrust, but we are here today to show you in our own way how music can help us overcome. As musicians, we have had to learn to depend on and trust one another in order to create something greater together than any of us could have created alone. Through music, we can learn to work together, because every time we truly listen to someone else’s voice, we become stronger—better musicians and better people. United We Play is about bringing jazz and classical music together as a symbol of the need to bring our entire country together.”
In 2022, the Memphis Symphony commissioned composer Michael Gandolfi to orchestrate United We Play for full orchestra and the Marcus Roberts Trio; which is the version performed on our AZMF Festival Orchestra concert.
RHAPSODY IN BLUE
George Gershwin (1896-1937)
And now for the Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (1898-1937): what can we possibly add to the hundreds of commentaries written about a work that captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, beginning with its premiere in 1924? Immediately recognizable, it has jazzy rhythms, a sweeping theme, syncopated orchestration, and lots of piano pyrotechnics! What more can we add??? How about adding a Jazz Trio to the Orchestra’s performance?? The added texture of a 21st century take on Gershwin’s jewel, Rhapsody, by the Marcus Trio alone and the delicious melding of the Trio with the orchestra’s score? The Trio brings a sensational new twist to the bluesy piece. I believe that Gershwin would have loved the additional joyous free-wheeling rhythmic pulse of the combined groups. Go home and listen to the original work and compare it to today’s exciting Rhapsody in Blue. Perhaps you will find this newer version of the Rhapsody to be “bluer” and more “rhapsodic”?! than Gershwin’s original score.
Now a few facts about Gershwin and the birth of this piece.
#1. After accepting a commission to write a “jazz concerto” for band leader, Paul Whiteman, Gershwin promptly forgot about it. He was reminded by his brother, Ira, a mere month before the concert was to take place. As if that deadline were not enough, Gershwin knew influential composers of the time would be on hand. Whiteman had entitled the concert “An Experiment in Modern Music”, intending to settle the question, “What is American music?”
#2. Gershwin was able to write his entry in time using, he said, “the thematic material (that) was already in my mind”. It was Ferde Grofé (of Grand Canyon Suite fame) who stepped in one week before the premiere and orchestrated the work.
#3. Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman had mastered a two-octave glissando, a rapidly-played, smooth scale that produces a ‘smear’ of sound. Gershwin loved it and insisted that Gorman perform the opening measure that way at the concert.
#4. You have probably heard that Gershwin, who soloed at the premiere, improvised much of the piano part that night. Quite possible!
There can be no doubt that the Rhapsody is as American as apple pie. Gershwin himself described the work as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, of our metropolitan madness.”
A final fact: present at this historic Whitman concert were Sergei Rachmaninoff, John Philip Sousa, and Jascha Heifetz, plus Igor Stravinsky and Maestro Arturo Toscanini. Now that’s one impressive audience listening to “all that jazz!”
SUPERMAN, SCHUMANN & STRAUSS
TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2024
PROGRAM NOTES BY FRAN ROSENTHAL
John Williams (b. 1992)
When you read the name John Williams just now I bet you thought of his epic film tracks…How many of Williams’ film scores can you name? Just for the fun of it, here is a ranked list of his 12 best scores. You will undoubtedly wonder why a few of your favorites are not in the top dozen. (Go to Google for whole list) Star Wars: A New Hope, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Catch Me If You Can, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, SUPERMAN; THE MOVIE, JFK, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, Jurassic Park…the list goes on and on with 100 film scores, five Oscars and 53 nominations and some over more than 70 years. Have you heard the soundtrack for William’s newest film Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny? Question; how could the list not mention Home Alone, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and the numerous Harry Potter and Star Wars that are part of this amazing composer’s life’s work?
The Superman March or Superman Main Theme that opens Tuesday’s concert is certainly one of William’s most well-known film scores. The Fanfare and “Love Theme” and the high stepping March are the themes that are played during the opening and closing credits and in various spots in the movie. His lush orchestral texture is a trademark of his style. In this short introductory Superman March the “Love Theme” is a direct quote of a passage of Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Death and Transfiguration. You should note much more Strauss is yet to come in this concert.
I add here that Williams has composed some glorious classical works. In particular a Cello Concerto, and concertos for oboe, flute, tuba, viola, violin, trumpet, and clarinet. His orchestra works include a symphony and some more fanfares and celebratory pieces for the Olympic Games. A favorite of mine is Fanfare for Fenway.
At almost ninety-two, Williams has hinted that he will cease composing move scores; I wonder if he could refuse another Home Alone, ET, orSuperman.
CELLO CONCERTO in A minor, Op 129
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann wrote his Cello Concerto just after he and Clara moved to Düsseldorf in 1850. He was to be the music director of the Symphony. Unfortunately, he was not a fine conductor and he did not keep the job very long. He completed the draft of this Concerto the week he first led the orchestra. He brought the work to several publishers and on the third try he found one willing to take it on. The years that followed found the composer sinking into madness, often unable to correct the score’s proofs. The premiere of the Concerto didn’t happen until 1860 four years after Schumann’s death. It was performed very rarely up until it was embraced by several famed 20th Century cellists, particularly Casals, Piatigorsky, and Jacqueline du Pré.
If I were looking to define Romantic Music, you may be assured this work would be a grand example of the genre. Why? I wish I could let you hear my reasoning rather than explain it in words. I start by citing it is essentially a rhapsodic work that has song as its basis. By song I mean lyricism permeates the thematic materials from the first cello passage. The emotional, passionate phrases that follow build to an orchestral crescendo and highly emotional conversations between the soloist and the ensemble. There is no cadenza in the First Movement rather a solo melody that fading away leads directly to the Second Movement.
The Second Movement is one of the glories of emotional romantic musical literature. I ask you to simply listen and unwrap your own appreciation of it. There are times for a great deal of analysis (still to come for the last work on today’s program) but now is not that time. Only one comment, listen to the heightened texture of two solo cellos … an orchestra cello joins the solo artist. The song is there for you to embrace.
While the first movements were joined by a line just evaporating into a new section, the Third Movement is introduced by a flute and clarinet that recall the first passage of the cello in the First Movement. The cello narrates an amazing short story and accelerates towards the Finale. This section is a dance, energetic, but not overly joyous. All this leads to a cadenza that is not a technically demanding display, rather it is a somewhat melancholy drama for the orchestra and the final melodic thoughts of the cello. The cello has one more memory of the main melodic material to pronounce and the impassioned romantic concerto comes to an end.
ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
For those of you reading these notes before the concert that do not know the work or the composer, I say I have a surprise for you. You do know the piece! You can even hum the opening passage! Shall I spoil you by revealing the source of your knowledge? I suppose I must as it may lure you to the concert. Here is a hint; what does the name, Kubrick mean to you?
Ah, many of you now remember something about the fanfare that the brass plays and a momentous painting of a sunrise in a movie. OK, what is the amazing huge hit movie that begins with a borrowed theme by Richard Strauss? By now you all know it is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I have often felt that I should simply write the composer’s name, and the title of the work that is about to be played and let your ears discover the music. But it does not work that way as you, the audience, wish a little information about that music and the composer. I know full well that the information does give you background insights into a piece and “thus writes Fran.” When writing notes for a piece that has a story as its inspiration, I must give you listening hints…or must I? This particular tone poem—or program music—is so emotional, so charged with dynamics that change constantly, moods and tempos that emphatically rush by or slowly whisper solo phrases, that following a strict story line takes away from absorbing the sheer beauty of the myriad instrumental timbres performing this vast canvas of colors.
Yet, having said all that, I must tell you this work is based on a novel by the philosopher, writer, amateur musician, Friedrich Nietzsche, concerning the titular character who journeys and meets with many individuals and talks about values and aesthetics, The book seems to ramble as it offers so many parables concerning risk, failure, joy, grief, and very importantly the growth of scientific knowledge vis a vis artistic and religious tenets. Nietzsche, through a prophet, Zarathustra, expounds about the ideal person, one who has amazing powers. He calls this ideal person, Ubermensch…literally, “overman”…. Superman. The theme of the novel reflects the widespread questioning of life’s values and the will to affirm creativity and courage and pursue superpowers, in the fourth quarter of the 19th Century. Strauss composed the tone poem in 1896 and its first performance was conducted by the composer in Frankfurt.
If you wish to know the titles of the many chapters of the two part work, simply go to Google and type in Analysis of the book. For your knowledge, Strauss composed his in four blocks of music. His score does name those sections.
Finally…about the music at hand. You have read the philosophy behind the novel. Essentially Strauss tells the story, not describing each action but by giving his musical appreciation of Nietsche’s philosophical novel. Strauss wrote that his discovering sounds that seemed appropriate to describe the thoughts and conversations of Zarathustra was his challenge. He chose the pure key of C major (the key has no black notes…i.e, no sharps or flats) to represent the natural world…the perfect fifths (C-G) rise pure and fundamental as the trumpets lead into the grand, over the top fanfare. The organ, woodwinds, and double basses sound a low C while a powerful low drum roll punctuates the sound. Now the keys of B minor and major first describe humanity, but they give way to woodwind passages. Soon a prolonged section of infectious waltz music is front and center; Johann meet Richard! Gracious solo violin phrases invite us to dance. We get the sweeping grace of a Viennese ballroom dance and then almost a peasant version of the dance. The solo voice reappears clear and melodic and symbolizes; can you guess? Ubermensch…Yes, indeed, Strauss portrays Superman …. apes become humans and humans evolve into the all-powerful ideal of Superman. Strauss wrote a few days after the debut performance, “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of Superman.”
Now that you are saturated with commentary about the inspiration and the meaning of the piece, prepare to sit back and revel in the lustrous compelling music that is Thus Spoke Zarathustra.