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Program Notes – Symphony Pro Musica

November 5 and 6, 2016

An American Quartet

Following the success of the second part of our family concert last year, in which we played Americana, we now present a quartet of American works—two classics and two less well-known pieces. All but one of our composers have familiar names (especially to SPM patrons). John Williams might even be the best known composer of all time! The others are Gershwin, Bernstein, and Fine. Incidentally, each of these composers has or had some connection with Boston (all will be revealed below).


Leonard Bernstein — Overture to Candide

Lenny, as he was affectionately known, was born in Lawrence, MA (Aug 25th, 1918), and attended Boston Latin School and Harvard where he studied with Walter Piston. His musical education continued, less formally, when he met and befriended Aaron Copland (18 years his senior) who was to become a major influence for Bernstein as a composer. Another big influence was Dimitri Mitropoulos who became his mentor in conducting, the role for which he is perhaps best known. Between 1951 and 1956 he was a visiting music professor at Brandeis, where Irving Fine was the chair (see below). He died in 1990.

As a conductor, particularly of the New York Philharmonic, he was renowned throughout the world, especially as an interpreter—and champion—of Mahler. And, as a teacher, his name lives on, especially for the series of 53 television broadcasts for young people. Yet, in addition to all this work, Bernstein was a prodigious composer—of ballet, opera (including Candide), symphonies, musicals (including West Side Story), choral music (for example the Chichester Psalms), and many other genres.

His most popular opera Candide opened on Broadway in 1956. It wasn’t a huge success at first, although it has now enjoyed many successful revivals. Yet, the overture has become one of the staples of the concert repertoire. It is imbued with a terrific sense of fun and is full of wonderful melody. Because it can show off the very best of an orchestra, it is often played at breakneck speed. Bernstein himself liked to take it at a more modest pace.

John Williams — Trumpet Concerto (1996)


John Williams (b. Feb 8th 1932) scarcely needs any introduction to his millions (billions?) of fans around the world. But details of his early life, and his New England roots, are perhaps not so well known. His mother was from Boston (there’s the first connection) and his father was from Bangor, Maine where his grandfather ran a department store (Aaron Copland’s father also ran a department store—in Brooklyn).  John was born in 1932 in New York, later moving to Hollywood with his family in 1948. He began his formal musical education at UCLA in 1950 where he studied with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In 1952, he was drafted into the US Air Force where he conducted and arranged music for the band. In 1955, he was able to resume his education, this time at the Julliard school in NY, studying with Rosina Lhévinne. On the side, he was playing gigs as a jazz pianist which led to his returning to California to work as a session musician, which in turn ultimately led to his enormous success with composing movie scores. Later, of course (second connection), he came to Boston as the conductor of the Boston Pops (1980), succeeding Arthur Fiedler. Although his tenure in Boston ended in 1993, he continues to have a close association with Boston, conducting at both Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.


In addition to his work with movies, Williams’ work includes a large oeuvre of concert pieces, both orchestral works and concertos. In this way, he has been kind to the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, alto sax, trumpet, tuba, harp, violin (twice), viola—plus a duo concertante for violin and viola—and cello (twice). Sadly, there is (currently) no concerto for his own brass instrument, the trombone (see below).


His own notes for the trumpet concerto are reproduced here:


As a youngster growing up in the 1940s, I was not unaware of the enormous influence that the brass players of the great swing bands had on the young people of our country. Beginning with Louis Armstrong, whose contribution inspired generations of trumpeters, these artists extended the expressive capabilities of their instruments and can certainly be credited with developing a school of brass playing, the influence of which can still be felt in nearly every musical ensemble that employs brass.

In my teen years, I too wanted to join in the fun. My fathers agreed that if I continued with piano studies, I could have a trombone; and he arranged for me to take lessons. I also taught myself to play little on the trumpet, but I was never very comfortable switching mouthpiece size, so my brass playing-always amateur level to be sure-was pretty much restricted to the trombone.


Given this background and after writing so much brass music for films and for ceremonial pieces, you can imagine my pleasure when the Cleveland Orchestra asked me to write concerto for their newly appointed principal trumpeter, Michael Sachs. Not only did this commission offer me the opportunity to compose a concerto for an instrument I truly love, but also promised the privilege of having the piece performed by one of the world´s greatest orchestras and featuring one of the world´s most elegant trumpeters.


The premier performances were brilliantly conducted by the orchestra´s music director Christoph von Dohnanyi in October 1996 with Michael Sachs as soloist. Mr Sachs has also very successfully performed the version for trumpet and piano.


Whether the influences mentioned above can be felt at any level of this piece, I cannot say, but I nevertheless hope that interested students and professionals might find a fraction of the pleasure that I have found in writing this concerto and having it performed by these wonderful artists.


Irving Fine: Toccata Concertante (1947)


Irving Fine was born (3rd Dec 1914) and died (23 Aug 1962) in Boston. Like Bernstein, three years his junior, he too attended Harvard, working with Piston, and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and at Radcliffe College. He was a protégé of Serge Koussevitsky and served as pianist for the BSO. Later he taught at Harvard and then at Brandeis. He was a close associate of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland (these three, with three other less well-known composers were sometimes known as the “Boston Six”). He was also well-acquainted with, and much influenced by, Igor Stravinsky. Indeed he was sometimes labeled as being of the American Stravinsky School. Fine died quite young and so we are left to wonder what other works he might have produced.


The Toccata Concertante is a relatively early work (1947) from before his serialism period and somewhat reminiscent of the Rite of Spring. It was premiered at Symphony Hall in 1948 with the BSO. Here are Fine’s own program notes:


The word toccata is commonly used to describe improvisatory display pieces for keyboard instruments. It has also been used in connection with concerted music of a fanfare-like character. It is in this latter sense that I have used the term. In writing this piece, I was aware of a certain affinity with the energetic music of the Baroque concertos. Hence the qualifying adjective, concertante. Moreover, this adjective seemed particularly appropriate because of the soloistic nature of much of the orchestration, especially in the second theme-group and the closing sections of the exposition and recapitulation.


The piece is roughly in sonata form. There is a short, fanfare-like introduction containing two motives that generate most of the subsequent thematic material. The following exposition contains a first section that makes prominent use of an ostinato and is rather indeterminate in tonality. A transitional theme, announced by the trumpet and continued by the flute and bassoon, is abruptly terminated and followed by a second theme-group more lyrical in character. In this section the thematic material is chiefly entrusted to solo wind instruments supported by string accompaniment. The whole of the exposition is concluded by additional woodwind dialogue and scattered references to some of the preceding material.


There are several episodes in the development, one of the most prominent being a fugato announced by the clarinets and based on the opening ostinato. There is no break between the development and recapitulation, the return of the first material commencing at the climax of the development. The second and closing sections of the exposition are recapitulated in the main tonality without significant changes except for a few in instrumentation and texture. The whole piece is rounded off by an extended coda.


George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess


Three of our most beloved American composers—Copland, Bernstein and Gershwin—had quite similar backgrounds. They were first or second generation Jewish Americans with parents or grandparents who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe (Russia/Ukraine/Lithuania). Gershwin, the eldest by two years, was born in Brooklyn September, 26th 1898. With his brother Ira, George made a career for himself which was more involved with the theater than the others, whose musical talents were more, shall we say, “classical.” Gershwin’s musical education was much more “on the job.”  There’s no Harvard or Julliard in his CV. That is perhaps why when, in the mid 20s he found, after moving to Paris, that Nadia Boulanger refused to teach him. Ravel, too, turned him down, but his reason was most complimentary: “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?” Nevertheless, the fruit of that sojourn, “An American in Paris,” became one of his most enduring concert pieces.


Like Fine, Gershwin also died young (even younger in fact). In 1937 he began to suffer from blinding headaches. Without the medical imagery that we have today, the condition went undiagnosed, for about six months, until—too late—it was realized that he had a malignant brain tumor.


Gershwin read Porgy, by DuBose Hayward, in 1926 and immediately began to plan an opera based on the story. He didn’t start in earnest, however, until 1934. The collaboration—with Hayward and Ira writing the book—was successful and the “folk opera” Porgy and Bess opened in—wait for it—Boston on September 30th, 1935. While the music of the opera was instantly loved, the rather dark, and somewhat controversial, story of Catfish Row was not quite sufficiently balanced by Porgy’s undying love for Bess. After 124 performances on Broadway, the show closed. There have been many revivals but the opera still suffers a little from the fact that the story reminds us not only of the iniquities suffered by black people in the South of the twenties but of present day injustices which seem all too similar.


Although Gershwin wrote his own suite from the opera called “Catfish Row,” the music that we play is an arrangement by his good friend and associate Robert Russell Bennett written in 1942: Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. It was commissioned by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and was intended to be just under 24 minutes in length, so as to fit three 78s (four minutes per side). It begins with a scene from Catfish Row, the requiem from Act 3, and the opening of Act 1. Then follows two of the show’s greatest “hits”: Summertime and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.” Then comes the storm music, “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” the Picnic Party (“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”) and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” It finishes up with “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the Finale (“Oh Lawd I’m On My Way”).

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