Program Notes: Eric Whitacre and the Minnesota Orchestra

Program Notes: Eric Whitacre and the Minnesota Orchestra

Eric Whitacre
Born: January 2, 1970, Reno, Nevada; now living in London

Lux Aurumque

Eric Whitacre—composer, conductor, innovator, broadcaster and public speaker—is an individual with global appeal and one of the most frequently performed living composers.

His career in music had its tentative beginnings in a high school marching band, from which he was expelled. His real musical training took place first at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, then at the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with John Corigliano and David Diamond. His catalogue focuses on choral music and compositions for wind ensemble.

a global phenomenon

Whitacre has been much in the news lately for, among other things, his Virtual Choirs, which began as an experiment in social media and immediately became hugely successful. Each successive Virtual Choir (VC) basically doubled in size. The first, or VC1, in 2009 involved 185 singers, while in 2013 VC4, Fly to Paradise, involved 5,903 singers and 8,400 videos, according to Whitacre’s website. The site also states that “These singers use webcams, smartphones, tablets and video cameras to record themselves in bedrooms, bathrooms and basements across the world, creating a truly global choir that this year includes 101 countries.” The four Virtual choirs have registered more than 15 million views.

Last year, Whitacre made his iTunes Festival debut. His award-winning musical, Paradise Lost, is scheduled for London’s West End next season. Whitacre’s appearances as conductor at this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts were preceded last year by a week-long residency at Orchestra Hall. This year we hear three of his compositions, all first performances, two of them versions of earlier works.

In these concerts we hear the world premiere of Whitacre’s full-orchestra version of Lux Aurumque, which in its original form, for a cappella choir, served as the content for VC1; subsequent arrangements have been for male choir, for wind orchestra and for string orchestra. The text consists of a short poem in English by Edward Program Notes Esch, which Whitacre asked Charles Anthony Silvestri to translate into Latin for him. It was the poem’s “genuine, elegant simplicity,” says the composer, that so impressed him, and he worked on the music until its harmonies “shimmered and glowed.” The words of the original English text are simply “Light, warm and heavy as pure gold, and angels sing softly to the new-born babe.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba and strings

Jonathan Newman

Jonathan Newman
Born: July 28, 1972, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; now living in Portland, Oregon

Blow It Up, Start Again

Jonathan Newman earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University and the Juilliard School, respectively, studying composition at the former with Richard Cornell and Charles Fussell and at the latter with John Corigliano and David Del Tredici. He is a founding member of the composer consortium BCM International, which consists of four stylistically diverse composers dedicated to enriching the repertory with exciting works not limited by traditional approaches.

Newman’s website defines his music as being “rich with rhythmic drive and intricate sophistication” and notes that he often incorporates styles of pop, blues, jazz, folk and funk into otherwise classical models” to create “broadly colored musical works.” Not surprisingly, many of his works bear enigmatic, playful or quirky titles like These Inflected Tentacles for chamber quartet, Vivid Geography for women’s chorus and chamber orchestra, and Stereo Action, commissioned by a consortium of percussion ensembles. Many of his works are scored for wind ensemble, including My Hands Are a City, As the scent of spring rain..., Chunk, Moon by Night and The Rivers of Bowery.

Blow It Up, Start Again is a five-minute rabble-rousing piece commissioned by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and first performed by that group, conducted by its music director Allen Tinkham, in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on May 13, 2012. The Chicago Tribune described it as “riotously funky.” As for the title, Newman writes that “if the system isn’t working anymore, then do what Guy Fawkes tried and go anarchist: Blow it all up, and start again.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, whip, brake drum, gatling cabasa, timbales, triangle, cymbals, tom-tom, snare drum, bass drum, wood blocks, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, harp, piano and strings

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarryton, New York

Quiet City

In 1939, Aaron Copland was asked by his friend Harold Clurman to provide some incidental music for a new play by Irwin Shaw called Quiet City. The play was presented only twice and then withdrawn. Friends urged the composer to salvage the musical score in some form, which he did during the summer of 1940. The original instrumentation for trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and piano was changed to string orchestra, English horn and trumpet, and it was in this form that it was first heard in New York’s Town Hall on January 28, 1941, with the Saidenberg Little Symphony conducted by Daniel Saidenberg.

In Copland’s words, Shaw’s Quiet City was “a realistic fantasy concerning the night-thoughts of many different kinds of people in a great city. It called for music evocative of the nostalgia and inner distress of a society profoundly aware of its own insecurity. The author’s mouthpiece was a young trumpet player called David Mellnikoff, whose trumpet playing helped to arouse the conscience of his fellow-players and of the audience.” Years later, Copland was to write another orchestral work on the same theme, but on a grander scale, Music for a Great City (1964). Though both works were conceived with New York in mind, the music is evocative of any large city.

Instrumentation: English horn, trumpet and strings

Steven Bryant

Steven Bryant
Born: May 28, 1972, Little Rock, Arkansas; now living in Durham, North Carolina

Ecstatic Waters

Steven Bryant composes for orchestra, band, chamber ensembles and electronic media, but it is music for wind ensemble that forms the core of his catalogue. Bryant is a three-time winner of the National Band Association’s William D. Revelli Composition Award: in 2007 for Radiant Joy, in 2008 for Suite Dreams and in 2010 for Ecstatic Waters in its original form, for wind ensemble and electronics.

Ecstatic Waters was first performed on October 23, 2008, by the Bowling Green State University Wind Ensemble, Bruce Moss conducting. At these concerts we hear the world premiere of Bryant’s arrangement of the work for orchestra and electronics. Here are his own comments:

Ecstatic Waters is music of dialectical tension—a juxtaposition of contradictory or opposing musical and extra-musical elements and an attempt to resolve them. The five connected movements hint at a narrative that touches upon naiveté, divination, fanaticism, post-human possibilities, anarchy, order and the Jungian collective unconscious.

“The overall title, as well as ‘Ceremony of Innocence’ and ‘Spiritus Mundi,’ are taken from poetry of Yeats (“News for the Delphic Oracle” and “The Second Coming”), and his personal, idiosyncratic mythology and symbolism of spiraling chaos and looming apocalypse figured prominently in the genesis of the work. Yet in a nod to the piece’s structural reality—as a hybrid of electronics and living players—Ecstatic Waters also references the confrontation of unruly humanity with the order of the machine, as well as the potential of a post-human synthesis, in ways inspired by Kurzweil.”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, crotales, tam-tam, tom-tom, china cymbal, suspended cymbal, thunder sheet, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, chimes, celesta, electronics and strings

Godzilla Eats Las Vegas artwork from the UNLV Wind Orchestra 1997 recording
Godzilla on a Las Vegas rampage: artwork from the UNLV Wind Orchestra’s 1997 recording of Whitacre’s Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.

Eric Whitacre Godzilla Eats Las Vegas!

Godzilla has been the subject of dozens of films, most recently “reboots” in 1998 and 2014. But the original version of Eric Whitacre’s Godzilla Eats Las Vegas! preceded both of these recent monster hits. It was commissioned by the University of Nevada Las Vegas and received its premiere on November 28, 1996.

Don’t take Whitacre’s take on Godzilla seriously. The composer has written: “It took me seven years to get my bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. By the time I graduated I was ready to eat Las Vegas.” As he was leaving, he was asked to write another piece, and thought “it would be a blast to do something completely ridiculous. The players are called upon to scream in terror, dress like Elvises (Elvi), and play in about thirty different styles from mambo to cheesy lounge music. The audience follows a ‘script’ that I wrote simulating a campy, over the top Godzilla movie (is there any other kind?).

“I wrote the bulk of the piece while in my first year at Juilliard, and no kidding, I used to act out the script every morning devouring animal crackers, wreaking havoc all over the breakfast table. The ‘script’ was originally twice as long, and had an entire subplot devoted to a young scientist and his love interest. As I started to finish the piece, however, it didn’t seem that funny and that story (along with an extended Elvis tribute) ended up on the cutting room floor.

The very first notes of Godzilla Eats Las Vegas! alert the listener that this is going to be no ordinary “classical” composition. A manic scream from the full orchestra is distinctly unnerving. But before there’s time to adjust one’s ears to this raucous outburst we’re plunged into 1940s big band music. Or is it? A moment later we’re into “lost in space” music, then a bit of dance music (the mambo, maybe?), lost in space again (was that a snippet of “Mars” from Holst’s Planets?)...a snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto...whistles, screams, applause.

Whitacre has written: “The idea that this piece is being played all over the world in such serious concert venues is the single funniest thing I have ever heard. It has been played on the steps of the Capitol by the United States Marine Band, by the Scottish National Wind Symphony (they play in kilts, so help me God), and I have a video of a Japanese audience visibly confused and shaken by the whole experience. Can you imagine? I’m laughing my head off even as I write this!”

Instrumentation: mixed choir with orchestra comprising flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, drum set, bongos, bamboo sticks, cymbals, finger cymbals, suspended cymbal, cowbell, ratchet, tam-tam, tambourine, timbales, tubular bells, triangles, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, bag of glass, marching whistle, mark tree, harp, piano and strings

Godzilla Eats Las Vegas! by Eric Whitacre Stage Directions

ACT ONE

(FADE UP) It is a bright and sunny day as the sequined curtain rises on tinseltown, and the excitement of a new day filled with the possibility of the Big Payoff is practically palpable. The band kicks off the show in high gear, and all is well as we suddenly hear:

(CUT TO DESERT) A lone shakuhachi flute ushers in the arrival of something really VERY bad.

(CUT BACK TO BAND) A relaxed rhumba. Showgirls blissfully jiggle.

(CUT TO MILITARY COMMAND CENTER – stock footage) Morse code signals confirm the approaching doom.

(CUT BACK TO BAND) The players finish off their third set and head for the bar; outside we hear:

(SLOW ZOOM) Oh no, oh no, oh no, it’s:

(CLOSE UP) Godzilla! Glorious Godzilla!

(VARIOUS QUICK CUTS – stock footage) Godzilla destroys cars, screaming tourists, etc.

(CUT BACK TO BAND) The band, quasi Greek Chorus, calls for Godzilla to Mambo.

(GODZILLA, FULL FRAME) Godzilla mambos, casually crushing hysterical Vegans without missing a step.

(EXTREME CLOSE UP) A tiny terrier barking bravely, then:

(CUT BACK TO GODZILLA) Demolishing everything in his path... not even the doggie escapes!

(WIDE PAN) As Godzilla heads down the strip, searching relentlessly for:

(CLOSE-UP – stock footage) Frank Sinatra. (Stomped!)

(CLOSE-UP – stock footage) Wayne Newton. (Stamped!)

(CLOSE-UP – stock footage) Liberace. (Stepped upon!)

(VARIOUS CUTS) The Village Gods destroyed, Godzilla continues his carnage until the City of Sin is leveled!

ACT TWO

(FADE UP) A fearless army of Elvises (Elvi) appear in the distance, formation marching through the littered streets.

(VARIOUS CLOSE-UPS) The Elvi attack, using bombers, missiles, etc.

(EXTREME CLOSE-UP) One wicked laugh from Godzilla and the Elvi scatter like mice!

(QUICK CUT – stock footage) The Sphinx sits outside the Luxor, looking seductive in a Mae West sort of way.

(CLOSE-UP) Godzilla takes one look and his eyes pop out of his head.

(QUICK CUTS) The Sphinx (Sphinxtress?) seduces the Reptile, who instantly falls in love and begins to...

(WIDE SHOT) ...tango with her.

(SPLIT SCREEN) As they dance, the Elvi slowly regroup and head for the:

(QUICK CUT – stock footage) Pirate ships at Treasure Island.

(ACTION SEQUENCE; MONTAGE) The Elvi approach the dancing monster and launch a ferocious volley of cannonballs directly at him.

(QUICK CLOSE-UPS) The cannonballs find their mark, and Godzilla:

(WIDE SHOT) Falls to the ground, annihilated. The Elvi are triumphant!

(CROSSFADE) The lounge is open again, and the city of Las Vegas toasts the victory. The scene climaxes with:

(VARIOUS CUTS – stock footage) People happy, tearful, etc. Stock footage, stock music.

(SLOW FADE OUT AND FADE UP) A dark, ominous, and very familiar sound...

(SLOW ZOOM) Godzilla lives! Godzilla lives! Complete terror (possible sequel?).

(WIDE SHOT) The Show is over. The End.

(FADE TO BLACK)

Eric Whitacre Deep Field

Since time immemorial, man has looked upon the heavens with a sense of awe, wonder, imagination and mystery. It was inevitable that interpretations of outer space would find their way into artistic endeavors, including our music. Thus we find works such as Hindemith’s Harmony of the Universe Symphony, Karl- Birger Blomdahl’s space-travel opera Aniara, Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres, Alex Pauk’s Cosmos, André Jolivet’s Cosmologie and Gunther Schuller’s Journey to the Stars. The signs of the Zodiac have inspired a symphony by Malipiero, a symphonic poem by Richard Rodney Bennett, a trio by William Mathias, and a choral work by Jean Absil. Individual constellations have been the subject of music by Tōru Takemitsu (Cassiopeia, Orion and Pleiades), R. Murray Schafer (Scorpius), Giacinto Scelsi (Capricorn) and Claude Vivier (Orion). But Eric Whitacre goes far, far beyond any of these in his Deep Field.

Deep Field, a completely new work being premiered in these concerts, was inspired by the “deep field” image of the Hubble telescope. When the telescope was finally successfully launched, in 1993, astronomers pointed it at an infinitesimally tiny area of the sky (1/24-millionth of the sky field), where no earth-bound telescope had registered anything at all.

National Geographic subscribers may recall that the April 2015 issue offered a sample of the spectacularly beautiful images the Hubble telescope has produced. They glitter, they sparkle, they glow, they shimmer, they vibrate, they swirl, and they deeply humble the spirit of a mere mortal. Small wonder, then, that a composer like Eric Whitacre was inspired to transmute this experience in sound and to invite all to share it with him in a communal act of humanity. “It brings me to my knees, it’s so beautiful,” remarks the composer.

He explains how Deep Field works: “Musically objects come into focus, then go out of focus in a grand, majestic way. As the work nears its end, everyone in the audience, using pre-downloaded apps, will start their phones at the same time to my downbeat, creating a kind of shimmering, ambient music. Each phone will hold a different object (galaxy), slowly rotating. Holding up the phones, together we will recreate the spectacle of that image in real time.”

The Deep Field mobile app should be downloaded before the performance from the App Store or Google Play.

Deep Field videos, blog posts, and more »

Instrumentation: mixed choir with orchestra comprising 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, electronics (on stage and apps off stage) and strings Special thanks to the Dunard Fund for its generous support of Deep Field.

Stephen Paulus photo by Sharolyn Hagen

Stephen Paulus
Born: August 24, 1949, Summit, New Jersey
Died: October 19, 2014, Arden Hills, Minnesota

Pilgrim’s Hymn, from The Three Hermits, for a cappella chorus

The tragic death at age 65 of Stephen Paulus, from complications following a stroke, has left a gaping hole in the musical life of America and in the Twin Cities especially. Paulus enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the Minnesota Orchestra. He wrote his first major orchestral work, the Concerto for Orchestra, for the Orchestra in 1982. He and Libby Larsen shared the position of the Orchestra’s first Composer in Residence here from 1983 to 1987. Over the years, he wrote numerous additional works for the Minnesota Orchestra, including Concerto for Two Trumpets (2003), Symphony in Three Movements (1986), the Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne (2005), and TimePiece, with his son Greg Paulus as co-composer. His catalogue of more than 400 compositions comprises 55 orchestral works, including commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Dallas Symphony and many others.

The three-minute Pilgrims’ Hymn, for eight-part mixed choir, is one of Paulus’ most cherished and most frequently performed works. It comes from the final scene of his one-act opera The Three Hermits, which was commissioned and premiered by House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Here, too, the words were by Michael Dennis Browne.

Pilgrims’ Hymn has been performed by thousands of choirs around the world, including at the funerals of two U.S. presidents, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It is music of comfort and repose, written in a thoroughly tonal idiom, yet subtly inflected with poignant dissonance.

On the morning Stephen Paulus died, it was being sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a performance heard many more times on YouTube.

Pilgrims’ Hymn, by Stephen Paulus

Even before we call on Your name
To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer; Unceasing love,
O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.

Glory to the father, and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.

Even with the darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.

Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages, Amen.

-Michael Dennis Browne

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.