Program Notes: Season Opening

Program Notes: Season Opening

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Full program notes:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna

Overture to The Magic Flute

For The Magic Flute—among the most delightful stage works of all time, balancing fantastical, comical and somber elements as the musical love story unfolds—Mozart received a commission from Emanuel Schikaneder, the shrewd and unscrupulous actor-manager of Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden. Like Mozart, he was a Freemason, which may have been what induced Mozart to accept. The composer conducted the first performance on September 30, 1791, at Schikaneder’s theater, and it was a triumph. In following month it was presented two dozen times, and during the next two years there were more than 200 performances. It is a cruel twist of fate that Mozart’s early death prevented him from finally reaping some financial rewards from this most successful work.

Alternating throughout the overture we hear the contrast between the solemnity and reverence of the opening (those three widely-spaced chords for the full orchestra represent the brotherhood of the priests) and the bright, exuberant, cheerful world of common ordinary people.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland
Born: November 24, 1900, Brooklyn
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

Letter from Home

Letter from Home was just one of many works for dance band that Paul Whiteman commissioned and performed in 1944 on a radio show called Music out of the Blue. Many of America’s brand-name composers contributed to the show, ranging from Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers to Ferde Grofé and Igor Stravinsky. The list would have been even longer had the show not been cancelled the following year, when the Blue Network became ABC.

Like much still-beloved music of that era, Letter from Home evokes images of gentle nostalgia and reflection; but also, later in the work, we encounter energy and tension that suggest the pain of war and a soldier longing to be back home with his family.

Copland’s original scoring of Letter from Home was for flute, oboe, saxophones, horn, trumpets, trombones and tuba, plus guitar, piano, harp, percussion and strings. In this form the work was first heard on October 7, 1944. In 1947 Copland arranged it for full orchestra, and in 1962 for chamber orchestra. A bit of trivia: the pay was a very generous $1,000 for a five-to six-minute piece.

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber
Born: March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died: January 23, 1981, New York

Adagio for Strings

Few 20th-century compositions can claim the popularity of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is infused with an air of mysticism, a sense of vast space and something of a religious aura. For many listeners, it expresses the tranquility in grief inherent in its use as a threnody, or hymn of mourning. Its single, sinuous theme moves in mostly step-wise motion in even notes, much in the manner of Gregorian chant. Adding to its faintly archaic air is the use of a medieval church mode, the Phrygian mode, in somewhat adapted form. Following the exalted glow of the climax, which occurs at just about the two-thirds point, the music returns to the grave tone in which it began, the melodic threads fragmenting into ever smaller segments as the sound recedes into darkness and silence.

The Adagio didn’t begin as an independent piece: Barber wrote it in 1936 as the central movement of his String Quartet, Opus 11, while spending the summer in the picturesque little town of St. Wolfgang in the Austrian Tyrol. Two years after the quartet’s premiere (performed by the Pro Arte String Quartet at the American Academy’s Villa Aurelia), Barber was back in the U.S., and Arturo Toscanini asked him to arrange the Adagio movement for string orchestra. The composer added double basses and divided the second violins and cellos, making a total of seven parts, in which form Toscanini conducted it in an NBC broadcast on November 5, 1938.

Jerry Bock

Jerry Bock
Born: November 23, 1928, New Haven, Connecticut
Died: November 3, 2010, Mount Kisco, New York

“When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello!,
arr. Eric Stern/orch. Larry Hochman

"New York’s favorite mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was a peppery, pugnacious reformer whose exuberant personality readily lent itself to depiction on the musical stage.” So declares Stanley Green in his book Broadway Musicals. But Fiorello! deals with LaGuardia’s life before he became mayor (three terms, 1934-1945). This song is heard early in the musical’s second act: LaGuardia is making his first bid for mayor in 1929, and Thea, whom he has recently married, sings of her love for him. Fiorello! opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 23, 1959, ran for a very respectable 795 performances and became the third musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama (there have been only five more since then).

LaGuardia, incidentally, was known for his love of music, and he enjoyed conducting. He helped found the High School of Music & Art in 1936, later renamed the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

Harold Arlen

Harold Arlen
Born: February 15, 1905, Buffalo, New York
Died: April 23, 1986, New York City

“I Had Myself a True Love,” from St. Louis Woman,
orch. Larry Hochman

The story of St. Louis Woman is set in St. Louis in 1898. Lila is the previous mistress of the abusive Bigelow Brown, proprietor of the local bar. Her song of reminiscence, “I Had Myself a True Love,” has become a classic, sung by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Barbara Cook and Dinah Shore, among many others.

The musical, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on March 30, 1946, was based on the novel God Sends Sunday by Arna Bontemps. The production was beset with problems and ran for just 113 performances, despite the fact that St. Louis Woman was considered by many to have the best score Arlen created with lyricist Johnny Mercer.

Frederick Loewe

Frederick Loewe
Born: June 10, 1901, Berlin
Died: February 14, 1988, Palm Springs, California

“I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady,
orch. Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang

My Fair Lady has been called the perfect musical, a claim that is certainly backed up by statistics. Following its opening at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1956, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews as leads, it ran for 2,717 performances—nearly nine years, making it the longest running musical in Broadway history to that time. It went through three New York revivals, two West End revivals (following its initial run there of five and a half years), a seven-year tour, and a hugely successful film version (1964). The show won scores of awards, including a Tony for Best Musical.

The story of My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which a phoneticist, Henry Higgins, attempts—successfully—to make a lowly flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a high society lady through his speech lessons. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which Eliza sings in a moment of exuberance over her successful lessons, is but one of several unforgettable numbers in My Fair Lady, including “The Rain in Spain,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “Why Can’t the English?”

Jerry Bock

Jacques Offenbach
Born: June 20, 1819, Deutz, Germany, near Cologne
Died: October 5, 1880, Paris

Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld

Jacques (Jakob) Offenbach was born a German but lived most of his life as a Parisian. This “Mozart of the ChampsÉlysées” will forever be intertwined with the City of Light in the minds of millions of people whose spirits lift and whose blood courses faster in their veins when La belle Hélène, La Vie parisienne, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and especially Orphée aux enfers—Orpheus in the Underworld—are presented. Of Offenbach’s 90 or so stage works, Orphée (1858) was his first full-length work to become a resounding success.

In this parody of Greek gods and their foibles, Orpheus is actually glad that his wife Eurydice has succumbed to a snakebite and gone to the Underworld—he is tired of her! Public Opinion, however, demands that he attempt to rescue her anyway, so he goes through the motions of visiting the abode of the gods and imploring Pluto to give her back to him. The brief overture establishes the operetta’s tone of mirth, frivolity and hilarity.

Jerry Bock

Ottorino Respighi
Born: July 9, 1879, Bologna
Died: April 18, 1936, Rome

Selections from The Fountains of Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, is steeped in history, studded with monuments and statues, richly endowed with great art and architecture—and thus a natural fit for a musician of Respighi’s antiquarian inclinations. The composer wondered aloud why no one “had ever thought of making the fountains of Rome sing, for, after all, they are the very voice of the city.” And as Respighi stated in the introduction to the score, his purpose in The Fountains of Rome was to express what four of Rome’s fountains suggested to him “at the hour in which the character of each is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most suggestive to the observer.”

Of the work’s four connected sections, we hear two in this concert, those focusing on the Triton and the Trevi fountains. Here is what Repighi wrote about the sights and sounds they evoked:

“A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the whole orchestra introduces the second part, the Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.

“Next there appears a solemn theme borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at midday. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwind to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot, drawn by sea horses, and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.”

The first performance of The Fountains of Rome was given, appropriately enough, in Rome on March 11, 1917, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the Augusteo Orchestra. It was Respighi’s first big success as an orchestral composer, and it is still regarded as one of his finest works.

Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini
Born: April 16, 1924, Little Italy, Cleveland, Ohio
Died: April 23, 1986, New York City

“Moon River,” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s,
orch. Lee Musiker

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) starred Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a small-town girl from Tulip, Texas, who goes to New York City and becomes a high society girl. The iconic film of comedy and romance was based loosely on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella of the same name. It won Academy Awards for Mancini’s Best Original Score and for Best Original Song, “Moon River,” composed to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Its popularity has never faded: in 2004, the American Film Institute selected “Moon River” as the fourth most memorable song in Hollywood history.

Frank Loesser

Frank Loesser
Born: June 29, 1910, New York City
Died: July 26, 1969, New York City

“I Can’t Stop Talking about Him,” from Let’s Dance,
orch. Don Sebesky

Let’s Dance is a musical romantic comedy film released by MGM in 1950. (It is not to be confused with a more recent, popular Bollywood film of the same title released in 2009.) In the selection we hear tonight, “I Can’t Stop Talking about Him,” Kitty Mc- Neil (Betty Hutton) tells us in great detail the reasons why she can’t stop talking about her lover, Donald Elwood (Fred Astaire). In doing so she gives new meaning to the term “chatterbox”! The composer was the American songwriter and lyricist Frank Loesser, whose many notable credits include the Broadway hits Guys and Dolls (1950) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961).

Jule Styne

Jule Styne
Born: December 13, 1905, London
Died: September 20, 1994, New York City

“Make Someone Happy,” from Do Re Mi,
arr. Andy Einhorn/orch. Bruce Coughlin

The plot of Do Re Mi revolves around a con man who decides to go “straight” by going into the juke-box business. In the course of the plot, the singer Tilda meets a record producer, John Henry Wheeler, and they fall in love. Shortly into Act II, Tilda sings “Make Someone Happy.”

Do Re Mi opened on Broadway’s St. James Theatre the day after Christmas, 1960, and ran for 400 performances. The music is by the British-born Jule Styne, whose Broadway successes include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Funny Girl and the Tony-winning Hallelujah, Baby!

Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers
Born: June 28, 1902, Queens, New York City
Died: December 30, 1979, New York City

“Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” from The Sound of Music,
orch. Robert Russell Bennett; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Rodgers and Hammerstein!—three words that proclaim one of the most phenomenal partnerships in the history of the arts, a partnership so strong and enduring that it is almost impossible to think of one member without the other, much like Gilbert and Sullivan or Lerner and Loewe.

Composer Richard Rodgers and librettist-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) wrote nine musicals together, beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943 and ending with The Sound of Music 20 years later. For the latter, the location was Austria on the eve of the Second World War. In the story, as the Nazis are overrunning the country, the Trapp family makes a daring night escape over the mountains, first to Switzerland and eventually to America.

The Broadway show played for 1,443 performances after opening at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 16, 1959. But it was the film (1965) that really made The Sound of Music internationally famous, breaking box office records to become the highest grossing musical film in motion picture history for many years. People went to see it so many times that, in some cities, ticket sales exceeded the local population.

As the Trapp family escapes into Switzerland, the music swells with “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”—the same music the Mother Abbess sings to Maria earlier in the film, when the young novice is struggling to decide whether or not to marry Georg von Trapp. The words might well serve as a metaphor for the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein, who in their final, hugely successful show together, proved that they too had climbed every mountain.

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith
Born: November 16, 1895, Hanau, near Frankfurt
Died: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt

March, from Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Hindemith, along with so many others, learned that his music was “degenerate” and banned from performance in Germany. He eventually found artistic haven in America, where he took up a professorship at Yale University, remaining until 1953. His best known work from this period remains the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, written in 1943 and first performed by the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzi´nski on January 20, 1944.

In this brilliant work, Hindemith did truly “metamorphose” Weber’s themes—as is pointed out in the rather cumbersome, but explicit, title. Harmonic alterations, rhythmic displacements and orchestral clothing are all called into service as Hindemith stamps his unmistakably personal stylistic fingerprints on Weber’s themes. The mood of playfulness and good, clean musical fun is eloquently expressed in Edward Downes’ description of the music, which, purely by a fortuitous accident, also relates to the music of Respighi we heard earlier on this program: “With all the unquenchable exuberance of a frisky Triton, trumpeting and splashing about in a fountain by Lorenzo Bernini, Hindemith pours forth a flood of joyous sound.”

The work’s fourth and final movement, March, introduces a more somber tone: it is based on a funeral march theme from Weber’s piano duet, Opus 60, No. 7. Hindemith dresses it up first with eerie, ghostly effects and colors, and then transforms it into something nobly tragic. The mood suddenly changes as the horns announce a joyous new theme against skittering woodwinds. The death theme momentarily clouds the picture again, but Hindemith concludes his Symphonic Metamorphoses with a spectacular display of orchestral brilliance based on the horn quartet motif.

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.