Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
(b. New York City, 1938)
Composed in 1981.
Premiered on July 10, 1981 in Boston, conducted by John Williams.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds plus piccolo, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings. Duration: approximately 8 minutes.
John Corigliano, one of today's most prominent and frequently performed American composers, was born in New York City on February 16, 1938, and raised in a family rich in musical talent — his father, John, Sr., was for many years the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and his mother was an accomplished pianist and teacher. He first studied piano with his mother, and later took up the clarinet and was briefly a pupil of Stanley Drucker, longtime principal clarinetist of the Philharmonic, for whom he was to write a superb concerto in 1977. Though he early evidenced considerable musical talent, Corigliano's interest in becoming a composer was not ignited until he discovered a recording of Copland's Billy the Kid during his years at a Brooklyn high school. (His earlier ambition had been to become a cartoonist.) His father's performance of the Walton Violin Concerto added further to his fascination with contemporary music, as did frequent attendance at rehearsals and concerts of the Philharmonic.
From 1955 to 1960, Corigliano studied at Columbia University with Otto Luening, who did much to encourage his student's talent for creative work, and at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini. After graduating with honors from Columbia, Corigliano worked for three years as a programmer and writer for New York radio station WQXR; from 1961 to 1963, he was music director of station WBAI, also in New York. He served as associate producer at CBS for the New York Philharmonic's televised Young People's Concerts from 1961 to 1972, producer for Columbia Masterworks recordings in 1972-1973, and music director of the Corfu Music Festival in 1973-1974. He served as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1987 to 1990, and is Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College of the City University of New York, which has established a composition scholarship in his name; he has also been on faculty of the Juilliard School of Music since 1991.
Corigliano's works have been recognized with many prestigious awards. His First Symphony, inspired by friends he lost to AIDS, was unanimously hailed at its 1990 premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and received the Grawemeyer Award and two Grammy Awards (for Best Contemporary Composition and Best Orchestral Performance of the Year) in 1991. Following the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance of the work in March 1993, the BSO presented Corigliano the Horblit Award for a Distinguished Composition by an American composer. In April 2001, his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra received the Pulitzer Prize in Music; in March 2002, the National Arts Club in New York City honored him with their Gold Medal. Corigliano's 1980 score for Ken Russell's film Altered States was nominated for an Academy Award, and his second film score, for Hugh Hudson's 1985 motion picture Revolution, received the Anthony Asquith Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film Music from the British Film Institute. In 2000, he won an Academy Award for his score for François Girard's film The Red Violin. The "grand opera buffa" The Ghosts of Versailles, based on the third book of Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered with outstanding success by that company in New York on December 19, 1991. Ghosts subsequently was broadcast nationwide on PBS, and received the 1992 Composition of the Year Award from the first International Classical Music Awards. Also in 1992, Musical America named John Corigliano that publication's first "Composer of the Year." Corigliano's many other distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the 2009 Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Composition" for the orchestral song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan in the recording by soprano Hila Plitmann, the Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor JoAnn Falletta.
In interviews with Philip Ramey, the composer has spoken of his artistic philosophy and creative style:
"I care deeply about communicating with my audiences. For quite a while now, too many composers have seemed not much interested in communication, particularly with big audiences, and this has tended to give modern music a bad name.... There is just no reason why a composer shouldn't be able to reach large audiences in a worthwhile way, even if he uses advanced techniques. Beethoven and Wagner, among others, managed to do it. If a piece is put together with care for detail and, at the same time, with attention to the overall shape, and if the composer takes note that most listeners will not hear most of his technical procedures but will be able to follow that shape, then there is a good chance the music will communicate. This is the sort of thing I've concentrated on.... I wish to be understood, and I think it is the job of every composer to reach out to his audience with all the means at his disposal. Communication should always be a primary goal.
"I don't think of style as the basic unifying factor in music like many composers do today. I feel very strongly that a composer has a right to do anything that he feels is appropriate, and that stylistic consistency is not what makes a piece impressive.... I admire the way Stravinsky and Copland approached composition, for they produced music that is often stylistically different from piece to piece but is nonetheless always recognizably their own. Of course, you have to have a pretty strong musical personality to get away with that. I also appreciate the more recent idea of mixing different styles in one piece, of using style as a technique that, like orchestration, provides the composer with a wider expressive palette."
Corigliano wrote of his Promenade Overture, "The premise of this work took root years ago when I was caught off guard by Haydn's delightful 'Farewell' Symphony. This Haydn work is often used to end a concert because during the last movement the players gradually exit, leaving two violins to finish the Symphony on a bare stage. Since overtures usually begin concerts, a reverse of this procedure — the entrance of an orchestra while playing — became both an interesting idea and a compositional challenge.
"Offstage brass announce the start of the Promenade Overture, with the trumpets playing the last five measures of the 'Farewell' Symphony — backwards. This forms a fanfare announcing the promenade of the performers, which starts with the piccolo, concludes with the tuba, and contains a variety of motives which eventually form a lyrical melody that is built to a climax by the full orchestra."
Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 16
(b. Bergen, Norway, 1843; died there, 1907)
Composed in 1868.
Premiered on April 3, 1869 in Copenhagen, conducted by Holger Simon Paulli with Edmund Neuport as soloist.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 30 minutes.
Grieg completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1863. Rather than heading directly home to Norway, however, he settled in Copenhagen to study privately with Niels Gade, at that time Denmark's most prominent musician and generally regarded as the founder of the modern Scandinavian school of composition. During his three years in that lovely city, Grieg met Rikard Nordraak, another young composer from Norway who was filled with the glowing ambition of establishing a distinctive musical identity for his homeland. His enthusiasm kindled Grieg's nationalistic interests, and together they established the Euterpe Society to help promote Scandinavian music. Grieg's concern with folk music grew stronger during the following years, especially when he was left to carry on the Euterpe project alone after Nordraak's premature death in 1866 at the age of 23. Also during this Danish sojourn, Grieg met Nina Hagerup, a fine singer and his cousin. More than familial affection passed between the two, however, and they soon found themselves in love. Nina's mother disapproved of the match ("He is nothing. He has nothing. And he makes music no one wants to hear," was the maternal judgment), and plans for a wedding were postponed.
Back in Norway, Grieg's creative work was concentrated on the large forms advocated by his Leipzig teachers and by Gade. By 1867, he had produced the Piano Sonata, Op. 7, the first two violin and piano sonatas, a symphony (long unpublished and made available only as recently as 1981), and the concert overture In Autumn. He also carried on his work to promote native music, and he gave an unprecedented concert exclusively of Norwegian compositions in 1866. Its excellent success brought him a notoriety that lifted him to the front rank of Scandinavian musicians: he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society in Christiania (Oslo), had a full schedule of pupils, and was popular as a piano recital artist. As a result of his success, he was able to retrieve his fiancée, Nina, from Copenhagen, and the couple were married in June 1867. The daughter born the following spring was yet another mark of Grieg's increasingly happy life.
Grieg arranged to have the summer of 1868 free of duties, and he and Nina returned to Denmark for an extended vacation. They deposited the baby with grandparents in Copenhagen, and then went off to a secluded retreat at Sölleröd. It was there that Grieg wrote his Piano Concerto. He thoroughly enjoyed that summer. He slept late, took long walks, ate well, and tipped a glass in the evenings with friends at the local inn. The sylvan setting also spurred his creative energies, and he composed freely for several hours each afternoon. When the couple returned to Norway in the fall, the Concerto was largely completed. He tinkered with the work throughout the winter, and had it ready for its premiere the following April. The piece was well received, but his joy over this success was tempered by the death of his thirteen-month-old daughter only a few weeks later.
One thing that helped Grieg through those dark times was an encouraging letter he received from Franz Liszt. Writing of the Violin Sonata, Op. 8, Liszt praised Grieg as a "strong, creative, inventive, and well-disciplined talent which has only to follow its natural bent to reach even higher levels." Liszt proffered an invitation for the young Norwegian to visit him. Grieg, with the help of a government grant that had been facilitated by Liszt's praise, left with Nina to meet Liszt in Rome in the fall of 1869. He wrote long, vivid letters to his parents describing the journey, the Eternal City, and especially the great Liszt, who amazed Grieg by sight-reading the difficult new Concerto. "Not content with just playing," Grieg reported, "he, at the same time, converses and makes comments, addressing a bright comment now to one, now to another of the assembled guests, nodding significantly to the right or left, particularly when something pleases him. In the Adagio, and still more in the Finale, he reached a climax, both as to his playing and the praise he had to bestow.... In conclusion, he handed me the manuscript, and said in a particularly cordial tone: 'Keep steadily on; I tell you, you have the capability, and — do not let them intimidate you.' " A proud moment, indeed, for the 26-year-old composer. Liszt had some words of technical advice about the Concerto that Grieg acted upon, but it was this closing admonition that stayed with him throughout his life.
Grieg's Piano Concerto closed the youthful period of his life that was devoted to large-scale compositions. In 1869, a year after the Concerto was written, he discovered Aeldre og nyere fjeldmelodier, Lindemann's collection of Norwegian folk tunes. Grieg turned his attention thereafter to the idealization of the folk song in miniature musical works, producing only three compositions of sonata length during his remaining forty years. The Concerto exhibits some of the folk-influenced characteristics that mark Grieg's later works, but it is also firmly entrenched in the German Romantic tradition of Schumann's Piano Concerto.
The first movement opens with a bold summons by the soloist. The main theme is given by the woodwinds and taken over almost immediately by the piano. A flashing transition, filled with skipping rhythms, leads to the second theme, a tender cello melody wrapped in the warm harmonies of the trombones. An episodic development section, launched by the full orchestra playing the movement's opening motive, is largely based on the main theme in dialogue. The recapitulation returns the earlier themes, after which the piano displays a tightly woven cadenza. The stern introductory measures are recalled to close the movement.
Hans von Bülow called Grieg "the Chopin of the North," and that appellation is nowhere more justified than in the nocturnal second movement. A song filled with sentiment and nostalgia is played by the strings and rounded off by touching phrases in the solo horn. The soloist weaves elaborate musical filigree above the simple accompaniment before the lovely song returns in an enriched setting. The finale follows almost without pause. Themes constructed in the rhythms of a popular Norwegian dance, the halling, dominate the outer sections of the movement. The movement's central portion presents a wonderful melodic inspiration, introduced by the solo flute, that derives from the dreamy atmosphere of the preceding movement. The dance rhythms return and gather increasing momentum. A grandiloquent restatement by the full orchestra of the theme of the movement's central section brings this evergreen work to a stirring close.
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano and Eight Cellos
(b. Rio de Janeiro, 1887; d. there, 1959)
Composed in 1938 and 1945.
Aria premiered on March 25, 1939 in Rio de Janeiro conducted by the composer with soprano Ruth Valadares Correa. Villa-Lobos conducted the full work for the first time in Paris on October 10, 1947, with Hilda Ohlin as soloist.
Duration: approximately 12 minutes.
Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil's greatest composer, had little formal training. He learned the cello from his father and earned a living as a young man playing with popular bands, from which he derived much of his musical background. From his earliest years, Villa-Lobos was enthralled with the indigenous songs and dances of his native land, and he made several trips into the Brazilian interior to study the native music and ceremonies. Beginning with his earliest works, around 1910, his music shows the influence of the melodies, rhythms and sonorities that he discovered. He began to compose prolifically, and, though often ridiculed for his daring new style by other Brazilian musicians, he attracted the attention of the pianist Artur Rubinstein, who helped him receive a Brazilian government grant in 1923 that enabled him to spend several years in Paris, where his international reputation was established. Upon his permanent return to Rio de Janeiro in 1930, Villa-Lobos became an important figure in public musical education, urging the cultivation of Brazilian songs and dances in the schools. He made his first visit to the United States in 1944, and spent the remaining years of his life traveling in America and Europe to conduct and promote his own works and those of other Brazilian composers. Villa-Lobos summarized his creative philosophy in an interview with New York Times critic Olin Downes by saying that he did not think of music as "culture, or education, or even as a device for quieting the nerves, but as something more potent, mystical and profound in its effect. Music has the power to communicate, to heal, to ennoble, when it is made part of man's life and consciousness."
The set of nine Bachianas Brasileiras holds a special place in Villa-Lobos' enormous output of more than 2000 works. These compositions, which Arthur Cohn called "less a musical form than a type of creative principle," combine the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of Brazilian music with the texture and style of Bach. Of this genre, original with him, Villa-Lobos wrote, "This is a special kind of musical composition, based on an intimate knowledge of the great works of Bach and also on the composer's affinity with the harmonic, contrapuntal and melodic atmosphere of the folklore of Brazil. The composer considers Bach a universal and rich folklore source, deeply rooted in the folk music of every country in the world. Thus Bach is a mediator among all races." The Bachianas Brasileiras were written for various ensembles: three for orchestra, one for an ensemble of eight cellos, one (No. 5, perhaps the most frequently heard of the set) for cellos and soprano, one for solo piano, one for piano and orchestra, one for flute and bassoon, and one for string orchestra or unaccompanied chorus. These works date from 1930 to 1945, during the years after Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil from Paris, where he was deeply influenced by the music of Milhaud and the neo-classicism of Stravinsky. The resultant blend of French clarity, Bachian counterpoint and Brazilian ethos made for an art distinctly and recognizably that of Villa-Lobos. Of this music, Irving Schwerké wrote, "He is a creator of ambiances, of spiritual vistas. Intellectually and emotionally he is alive to the world. In his nature, the qualities of savage races and of exquisitely civilized people meet, and this union is the determining course of a rare sensibility."
The Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is scored for the unusual combination of soprano voice and eight cellos. The opening movement, Aria (Cantilena), was composed in 1938 and premiered on March 25, 1939 in Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos noted that the Brazilian usage of the word "aria" is as a general designation for "a kind of lyrical song" — his model in the outer sections of the piece, sung without words, may well have been the famous Air from Bach's Third Orchestral Suite. The middle portion of the Aria, in the style of a Brazilian folksong, is a setting of a poem by Ruth V. Corrêa evoking the beauties of sunset and evening. According to the composer, the second movement, Dansa (subtitled Martelo, "Hammered"), from 1945, "represents a persistent and characteristic rhythm much like the strange melodies of the Brazilian hinterland known as emboladas. The melody suggests the birds of Brazil." Its text, a verse by Manuel Bandeira, expresses the ancient theme of the wild bird as the messenger of love.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
(b. Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918; d. New York City, 1990)
Composed in 1957.
Broadway opening on September 26, 1957, conducted by Max Goberman; the Symphonic Dances were premiered in concert on February 13, 1961 in New York, conducted by Lukas Foss.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta and strings.
Duration: approximately 21 minutes.
Leonard Bernstein, a native of Boston, had a productive fascination with New York City for much of his career. Beside being linked with that city's major orchestra for many years as conductor and music director, Bernstein was inspired by the great metropolis in several of his original stage compositions — the ballet Fancy Free (1944), the musicals On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1952), the score for Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront (1954) and the epochal West Side Story. The idea for West Side Story was suggested to Bernstein as early as 1949 by the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who envisioned a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. Bernstein was fascinated with the idea, but he could not find time to work on the project until the middle 1950s, beginning composition as soon as he had finished the brilliant score for the operetta/musical Candide. Stephen Sondheim, in his Broadway debut, supplied the lyrics, Arthur Laurents wrote the book and Robbins staged the show, which was finally completed in 1957. After try-outs in Washington and Philadelphia, West Side Story was unveiled on Broadway on September 26th and ran for almost two years. After a ten-month road tour, it returned to New York and closed on April 27, 1960 after a total of 732 Broadway performances. It was made into a film in 1961 that swept ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and has since entered into the pantheon of the American theater as one of the greatest musicals ever created.
West Side Story was one of the first musicals to explore a serious subject with wide social implications. More than just the story of the tragic lives of ordinary people in a small, grubby section of New York, it was concerned with urban violence, juvenile delinquency, clan hatred and young love. The show was criticized as harshly realistic by some who advocated an entirely escapist function for the musical, depicting things that were not appropriately shown on the Broadway stage. Most, however, recognized that it expanded the scope of the musical through references both to classical literature (Romeo and Juliet) and to the pressing problems of modern society. Brooks Atkinson, the distinguished critic of The New York Times, noted in his book Broadway that West Side Story was "a harsh ballad of the city, taut, nervous and flaring, the melodies choked apprehensively, the rhythms wild, swift and deadly." Much of the show's electric atmosphere was generated by its brilliant dance sequences, for which Jerome Robbins won the 1957-1958 Tony Award for choreography. "The dance movements not only epitomize the tensions, the brutality, bravado, and venomous hatred of the gang warriors but also had sufficient variety in themselves to hold audiences spellbound," wrote Abe Laufe in Broadway's Greatest Musicals. In 1961, Bernstein chose a sequence of dance music from West Side Story to assemble as a concert work, and Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal executed the orchestration of these "Symphonic Dances" under the direction of the composer. Bernstein said that he called these excerpts "symphonic" not because they were arranged for full orchestra but because many of them grew, like a classical symphony, from a few basic themes transformed into a variety of moods to fit the play's action and emotions. West Side Story, like a very few other musicals — Show Boat, Oklahoma, Pal Joey, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, Rent — provides more than just an evening's pleasant diversion. It is a work that gave a new vision and direction to the American musical theater.
In the story, Riff, leader of the Jets, an "American" street gang, determines to challenge Bernardo, head of the rival Sharks, a group of young Puerto Ricans, to a rumble. Riff asks Tony, his best friend and a co-founder of the Jets, to help. Tony has been growing away from the gang, and he senses better things in his future, but agrees. The Jets and the Sharks meet that night at a dance in the gym, where Tony falls in love at first sight with Maria, Bernardo's sister, recently arrived from Puerto Rico. Later that night, Tony meets Maria on the fire escape of her apartment. The next day, Tony visits Maria at the bridal shop where she works, and they enact a touching wedding ceremony. Tony promises Maria he will try to stop the rumble, but he is unsuccessful and becomes involved in the fighting. He kills Bernardo. Maria learns that Tony has slain her brother. Tony comes to her apartment, but she cannot send him away, and they long for a place free from prejudice. Tony leaves, and hides in Doc's drugstore. Maria convinces Anita, Bernardo's girl, of her love for Tony, and Anita agrees to tell Tony that the Sharks intend to hunt him down. She is so fiercely taunted by the Jets at the drugstore, however, that she spitefully tells Tony that Maria has been killed. Tony numbly wanders the streets, and meets Maria. At the moment they embrace, he is shot dead. The Jets and the Sharks appear from the shadows, drawn together by the tragedy. They carry off the body of Tony, followed by Maria.
The following summary, outlining the stage action that occurs during the Symphonic Dances, appears in the orchestral score:
"Prologue (Allegro moderato) — The growing rivalry between two teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.
"Somewhere (Adagio) — In a visionary dance sequence, the two gangs are united in friendship.
"Scherzo (Vivace leggiero) — In the same dream, they break through the city walls, and suddenly find themselves in a world of space, air and sun.
"Mambo (Presto) — Reality again; competitive dance between the gangs.
"Cha-cha (Andantino con grazia) — the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, see each other for the first time and dance together [Maria].
"Meeting scene (Meno mosso) — Music accompanies their first spoken words.
"Cool, Fugue (Allegretto) — An elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets practice controlling their hostility.
"Rumble (Molto allegro) — Climactic gang battle during which the two gang leaders are killed.
"Finale (Adagio) — As Tony dies in Maria's arms, love music developing into a procession, which recalls, in tragic reality, the vision of Somewhere."
©2014 Dr. Richard E. Rodda