Friday, February 28, 2020

A MUSICAL ADVENTURE TO THE CORNERS OF THE EARTH

McAllen Performing Arts Center

801 Convention Center Blvd.

8:00 p.m.

PROGRAM NOTES

Antonín Dvořák

Born September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, Czechoslovakia: Died May 1, 1904, Prague

Scherzo Capriccioso, Opus 66

 

            Dvořák was strongly nationalistic and deeply devoted to the artistic traditions of Bohemia, which he wanted to reflect in his own compositions to bring the culture he loved to concert halls across Europe. After being discovered by Johannes Brahms at a competition in 1878, Dvořák was faced with increasing pressure from his publisher and fellow musicians to adopt an integrated musical style that would mask his nationalistic leanings and make his music more profitable in the international market. The land of Bohemia and its ongoing struggle for independence from its Austrian rulers was a hotly debated political topic, and many felt that Dvořák’s ardent support of his homeland created too strong of a political statement. Though music critic Eduard Hanslick beseeched the public to try to separate art from politics when hearing Dvořák’s pieces, it seems they could not, resulting in difficulties selling his sheet music and securing performances of his works. Dvořák understood the business problems he created by his refusal to tone down his nationalistic traits but wrestled internally with the moral consequences to himself should he choose to allow his nationality to be obscured.  Around 1883, he decided to acquiesce to his publisher’s suggestions and composed a series of works where his nationalistic elements were subdued. It had been Dvořák’s habit to write the Czech phrase “Bohu díky” (“Thanks be to God”) at the end of each completed score, but on many works from 1883, the sentiment is conspicuously missing; it is not found on the score of the Scherzo Capriccioso, which hails from April and May of that year. Ultimately, Dvořák could not maintain this stylistic restraint and, following the Scherzo Capriccioso, approached composition of his Seventh Symphony in 1884 with a renewed nationalist fervor. When one listens to the Scherzo Capriccioso, it is immediately clear that it was impossible for Dvořák to veil his Bohemian heritage. Though the title is intentionally ambiguous as to its nationality, the music’s joyful and carefree nature brings to mind the pastoral beauty of the Bohemian landscape and Dvořák’s passionate affection for his home.

            The Scherzo Capriccioso premiered in May of 1883 and quickly became one of Dvořák’s most popular works. The piece opens with a rousing horn call interspersed with a graceful waltz theme first heard in the strings. Judicious use of special instruments like the piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and harp keep the orchestrational color light throughout the continuous spinning of the waltz theme. The trio section opens with a woodwind serenade dominated by a lyrical melody in the English horn followed by another waltz passage in the strings, the music carries on through a short cadenza section and, in the excitement, loses any trace of affectation to take on the free, earthly joy of a peasant dance.

Alexander Arutunian

Born September 23, 1920, Yerevan: Died March 28, 2012, Yerevan

Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major

 

            Though he was trained as a pianist, the Armenian composer Alexander Arutunian is best known in America for his many pieces for wind and brass instruments. Of these, the composer clearly had a special affinity for the trumpet and said in interviews that he had been fond of the instrument since childhood. Beyond the well-known Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major, Arutunian composed quite a few other works including the Concerto Scherzo and the Theme and Variations, both for trumpet and orchestra, the Rhapsody for trumpet and winds, and several solo pieces for trumpet and piano. Arutunian started work on the Trumpet Concerto in 1943, not long after his graduation from the Komitas Conservatory in his hometown of Yerevan. It was written as a gift for his close friend, Zolak Vartasarian, the principal trumpet player of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, but Vartasarian was killed in World War II before the concerto was completed. After Vartasarian’s death, Arutunian naturally did not feel much motivation to work on the concerto anymore and set it aside mostly unfinished. He returned to the piece in 1950 at the request of trumpet player Aykaz Messiayan who gave the premiere performance. The concerto found a strong supporter in Timofei Dokschitzer, principal trumpetist of the Bol’shoy Theater Orchestra and an important soloist in Russia. Dokschitzer brought the concerto to America on a concert tour and performed it in numerous cities where it gained an immediate following among American trumpet players. In 1977, Dokschitzer composed a cadenza for the concerto that is often heard in performances today.

            Arutunian’s compositional style is deeply rooted in his Armenian heritage. Though Armenia was under Soviet rule for much of Arutunian’s life, his music retains the melodic traits and rhythmic vitality of the songs of the Armenian folk minstrels who would wander the country while improvising tunes on the topic of love. Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto, enriched by the rhapsodic rhythms and sentimental melodies of Armenian folk song, captivated trumpet players around the world because it was so different from the fanfares and chorale tunes that characterized most music for brass instruments. In this work, the performer is able to break the stereotype of the trumpet being overly forceful to show the expressive side of the instrument through subtle phrasing and expressive gestures.

Jerome Moross

Born August 1, 1913, New York, died July 25, 1983, Miami

Suite from The Big Country

 

            Jerome Moross spent the early part of his career writing music for the theater and working as an assistant to George Gershwin, for whom he was a rehearsal conductor and pianist. Gershwin's untimely death in 1937 cut their fruitful collaboration short, and Moross ultimately made his way to Hollywood where he discovered that his experience with Broadway music was the antithesis of what producers were seeking for film scores. Moross quickly adapted to these new musical demands, assuming a compositional style similar to Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite that was highly evocative of the American West. By 1948, Moross was writing original scores for American films such as The Proud Rebel and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His finest achievement was the score for The Big Country, which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1958 and is still considered one of the finest scores ever written for the Western film genre. It is impossible not to imagine cowboys on horseback while listening to this work that so perfectly captures the essence of the Old West. Moross said that the main theme came to him while walking around the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico: a short hike that inspired a perfect musical interpretation of the landscape of the American West.

 

John Williams

Born February 28, 1932, Long Island

“Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark

 

            In the course of his career, the celebrated composer John Williams has written some of the most memorable film scores in cinematic history; Star Wars, Jaws, Schindler's List, Indiana Jones, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial are only a few representatives of his prolific output. Williams has been the recipient of numerous awards for his film music, including the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, BAFTA Award, and Grammy Award. In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981, both Williams and the director Steven Spielberg wanted to make an homage to the classical adventure film genre of the 1930s and 1940s, looking to old B-movies as their model for the images and the music. Their approach was direct and straightforward with clear-cut distinctions between good and evil, love and hate, and other traditional dichotomies of the adventure genre. This nostalgia for simpler times can also be found in the music, which is uncomplicated and instantly appealing. Williams’ score draws from the musical traditions of the late-Romantic era and the Golden Age of Hollywood, providing the listener with captivating melodies that carry overwhelming emotional appeal. He makes prominent use of leitmotif, a technique associated with the operas of Richard Wagner where important characters and concepts are represented by distinct musical ideas. The famous Raiders March represents the film’s hero, Indiana Jones, but Williams also composed unique music for the Ark of the Covenant, the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the beautiful Marion Ravenwood, and the Nazi villains. When asked about the Raiders March, Williams said that he wanted to embody the daring Indiana Jones in “a heroic theme that swells when things are going well for our hero: the kind of music that makes the audience want to cheer.” He originally composed two different versions of the theme and presented them to Spielberg to see which the director preferred, but Spielberg loved them both and instructed Williams to combine them, resulting in this much-loved musical portrait.

 

-       Program notes by Heike Hoffer

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