Weston Center/Jackson Auditorium
Sunday, September 16, 2018
Guest Conductor: Akiko Fujimoto
Guest Artist: Jeffrey Biegel, piano
Rossini: Overture to the Barber of Seville
Zwilich: Peanuts® Gallery
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Today's program, opening the forty-first season of the Mid-Texas Symphony, has a familiar structure: Overture, Concerto, and Symphony. It's as though it has always been this way. Would it surprise you to know that 75 or 100 years ago, this might have looked pretty spare, even square? If we look back even further, say 1808, we find Beethoven scheduling the premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 4, and another new work, the Choral Fantasy, all on one marathon concert. No one today would imagine such a program. Instead, a well-balanced program today might open with a Rossini Overture, move on to a Beethoven Concerto, and close, after intermission, with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and that is about what we find on this afternoon's program. Don't see Beethoven on your program? Have patience and you will.
Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to Barber of Seville
Gioacchino Rossini had a knack for catchy tunes and his most popular opera, The Barber of Seville, is filled with them, start to finish. Rossini was also known for the rapidity with which he wrote music. Was in procrastination that explains his normal working time of weeks, rather than the months or even years most composers require for a full blown opera? In dressing down a critic who pointed out errors in his composition, Rossini quickly retorted that since he was normally allowed but six weeks to write an opera, and that he required the first month for his leisure, how could he possibly write the opera in a scant two weeks with time left over to detect “little faults of grammar in the accompaniments?”
Rossini knew that with Barber he had a masterpiece on his hands, despite a disastrous opening performance. Apparently, the lead tenor couldn't get his guitar in tune, another singer suffered a nosebleed in mid-song and, to make matters worse, a cat wandered across the stage in mid-performance. Thankfully, the second performance went much better, making Rossini a sensation across Europe. This success did not go unnoticed by Ludwig van Beethoven. When Rossini paid Beethoven a visit, he was greeted with “Ah, Rossini, you the composer of the Barber of Seville. My congratulations.” As Rossini left, Beethoven rose and showed him to the door, shouting after him: “Write more Barbers.”
The Overture to The Barber of Seville is a joy, though it has no umbilical relationship to the opera. Rossini rushed through the composition of the two act opera in three weeks, start to finish. But as opening night approached, there was still no overture. Rossini resorted to one of his tried and true tricks by pulling a previously written overture from a trunk of music, one which had already been recycled once. He retitled it Overture to The Barber of Seville. Such was the success of Barber that this proved the end of the line for Rossini's twice recycled overture. Even Rossini hadn't the audacity to ever attach it to another work.
Ellen Taafe Zwilich: Peanuts® Gallery
Much has been made of late about the lack of music by female composers on concert programs. A survey done by the Baltimore Symphony a few years ago concluded that during the 2014-15 season of the top 21 American orchestras, female composers accounted for only 1.8% of the music performed. There are sure to be similarly alarming numbers regarding women conductors. Today's program by the Mid-Texas Symphony is exceptional that we have a woman conducting music by one of America's most successful female composers. Congratulations to the Mid-Texas Symphony for pushing back against the otherwise abysmal trends.
Ellen Taafe Zwilich began her musical studies in 1960 as a violinist at Florida State University. Her abilities as a violinist took her to New York City where she played with the American Symphony Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski. As her interests turned to composition, she became the first woman to earn the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts, in composition, from Juilliard.
In 1990, Zwilich received recognition from an unlikely source. Says Zwilich: “To my surprise and amazement, I found myself in a Peanuts® cartoon.” Zwilich continues: “Peppermint Patty and Marcie are at a concert, and Marcie says that the next piece is a flute concerto by Ellen Zwilich, who just happens to be a woman. In the final frame, Peppemint Patty, standing on her chair, calls out, 'GOOD GOING ELLEN!' Imagine how I felt when I saw this.”
As a result of the surprise cameo in Peanuts®, Zwilich became friends with Peanuts® creator Charles M. Schulz. The result was Peanuts® Gallery, a collaboration with the cartoonist. Peanuts® Gallery consists of five musical portraits of characters from the cartoon strip and a final march, led by Peppermint Patty and Marcie. And how could there be a musical Peanuts® Gallery without the famous pianist and intellectual, Schroeder, playing a Beethoven Fantasy? Today's soloist, pianist Jeffrey Biegel, has recorded Peanuts® Gallery with the Florida State University Orchestra for the Naxos label.
October 7, 2018, 4pm
Performing Arts Center, Canyon High School, New Braunfels
Guest Conductor: Silas Nathaniel Huff
Guest Artist: Megan Pachecano, soprano
Smetana: The Moldau
Ravel: Scheherazade, Voice & Orchestra
Strauss: Blue Danube
Debussy: La Mer
With the exception of Ravel's Shéhérazade, we will spend most of the afternoon on the water, in one way or another. Taken as a whole, today's program presents us with a bit of a travelogue, riding the rivers Moldau and Danube through the countrysides of Central Europe, depositing us on a salt water sea. Ravel's three songs will take us to exotic places, perhaps with incense perfuming the air. Passports ready? Let's allow the music to do what it does best as it sweeps us away from the humdrum to places faraway, familiar or not, to stormy seas, to braying horns of Bohemian hunters, to Oriental seduction.
Bedřich Smetana: Vltava, or The Moldau
Over the centuries, many composers have recognized the similarities of water and music. They are both illusory; they move, sometimes in a rush, other times in no hurry; and both water and music speak through sound. Franz Schubert certainly recognized this. Listen to his song for voice and horn, “Auf dem Strom” (On the Water), but pay close attention to the piano, for there we find the ripples in the water. Likewise, be attentive to the opening flutes in Bedrich Smetana's The Moldau. It's not so much a melody as an impression, a musical reflection of a spring bubbling forth, then following the laws of gravity, searching, searching for the next step down,for the way to the sea. Along the way, Smetana's Moldau carries us on a river voyage which rivals any of Mark Twain's famous volumes about life on the Mississippi. In Smetana's case, we float the river Moldau.
The Moldau, or Vltava in Czech, is the second of six tone poems composed by Smetana between 1874 and 1879. The set is known as Ma Vlast, or “My Homeland,” an appropriate topic for the composer often referred to as the Father of Czech music. The River Moldau begins, geographically, as two springs run together to form a brook, then a stream and, finally, a river which empties into the Elbe River. Smetana's music is an outpouring of the composer's love for his homeland, giving us glimpses of sights and sounds along the way.
The inspiration for The Moldau came from an outing into the countryside near the western edge of Bohemia, near its border with Germany. Smetana's friend, Mořic Anger, was there when Smetana first heard the sounds of the two streams coming together to form the river. According to Anger, Smetana “heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams. He sat down and stayed there, motionless in a trance.” From the spare beginnings of the bubbling water, the famous Moldau theme emerges, surging into a full current which carries the listener through brief, panoramic episodes. We encounter hunters, with horns braying, as the river propels us through grasslands and lowlands. A distant wedding invites us to dance a polka with the merrymakers as night falls and we see water sprites dancing on the river's ripples and waves. By the time we arrive at the Moldau's confluence with the Elbe, the river will have carried us through Prague, past castles and fortresses, and given us several heart-stopping moments through the St. John Rapids which overwhelm any of the modern day thrills of Schlitterbahn.
Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade
At first glance at today's program, we might be forgiven should we anticipate Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Oriental fantasy Scheherazade. But on closer examination, we see that the composer is Maurice Ravel and that the storytelling here is by a vocalist, usually a soprano, rather than by a solo violin as is the case with Rimsky's masterpiece. But let's not assume this means there is no relationship between Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Ravel's Shéhérazade, and yes, there are two different spellings.
In 1898, Ravel wrote a Shéhérazade Overture, only tenuously related (if at all) to the song cycle we will hear this afternoon. The Overture, Ravel's first orchestral work, was much influenced by the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, whom Ravel admired. The Shéhérazade Overture failed and was never heard of again during Ravel's lifetime. Undaunted, four years later Ravel unveiled a new work, titled Shéhérazade, which found lasting success during Ravel's lifetime and beyond. This work, a cycle of three songs, has a direct link to Rimsky's Scheherazade through a set of free-verse poems written by Tristan Klingsor which were inspired by Scheherazade, the music, and the Arabian Nights stories which had inspired Rimsky's work. It turns out that both Klingsor and Ravel were big fans of Rimsky-Korsakov and, of course, Ravel's curiosity about orchestration (the art of writing for instrumental ensembles) made him even more of an admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky would later, quite literally, write the book about orchestration.
The hearing of Ravel's Shéhérazade will begin to erase any thought that it's in any way an imitation of Rimsky's much heralded work. Rimsky's Scheherazade is like a cinematographer's vision of Persia while Ravel's is much more detailed. The critic Caroline Rae describes Ravel's music as moving “from rich voluptuousness and gentle lyricism to languid sensuousness.” In the opening song, Asie, the storyteller longs to escape her Western life to be recast into a fantasy of Asian enticements.
The final two songs of Shéhérazade continue to reveal Ravel's sensitivity to orchestral color, ranging from full blown climax (though never as Rimsky would have done it) to the transparency of fine silk. The flute enchants the young slave (narrator) in the second song, “each note . . . like a mysterious kiss.” The flute returns to prominence in the final song, “The indifferent one,” as a second voice to the singer. The possibility of love is present “but no, you pass by, and from my door I watch you depart.” Once again, the observations of the critic, Caroline Rae, seem appropriate, especially considering we have Debussy's La Mer awaiting us in the second half of today's program. Wrote Rae, the oscillating string motifs in the accompaniment are reminiscent of Debussy's Nocturnes, not the first time Ravel and Debussy have been seen as children of the same mother.
Johann Strauss II: “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”
Who doesn't know this most popular waltz by the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II? But how does this waltz rise to the top of what is already a frothy layer of cream? Why Blue Danube and not, for example, the Emperor Waltz, or Treasure Waltz? They are all finely crafted and serve perfectly the need for music which allows us to dance. Surely there's something to do with Vienna's love of “their” Danube, not only Blue, but also Beautiful. And let's not forget that this waltz's name is not merely Blue Danube, but “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” keeping with this afternoon's theme of being not simply by the water, but being ON the water, in this case in three-quarter time.
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Impressionism is a common expression originally coined to describe a style of painting concerned with depicting a visual impression of the moment. The early usage of the word was intended to be critical, even snide, as though the paintings were nothing more than an impression, or sketch. The French painters who were described under that umbrella did not like the term, but it stuck.
Twenty years later, in the transition from late 19th to early 20th century, Debussy was similarly offended to hear his music described as impressionist. His exception was not so much with the term impressionism as applied to the visual arts, but rather that his music was being heard as an aural reflection of the impressionists' paintings. He believed his music, if it had to be described at all, was more a reaction to literature than to painting.
Leonard Bernstein said of Debussy's music that it tells no facts, it is not a realistic description, but instead it's all color and movement and suggestion. Bernstein might just as well have been talking about one of the seaside canvases of Eugene Boudin.
Debussy's friend, Paul Verlaine, described Debussy's music this way: “Music before everything else . . . the asymmetrical rather than the symmetrical, the odd rather than the even.” This, in a nutshell, is La Mer, a large symphonic work written by Debussy between 1903 and 1905. Debussy was careful to describe La Mer as three sketches, rather than movements. He never wrote a symphony, and he didn't intend La Mer to be misconstrued as a concession to the conventional. There's no need to listen for the polite symmetry of a Mozart symphony in La Mer, because it's not there.
La Mer's three movements – um – sketches, are denoted with descriptive titles. “From dawn to noon on the sea” is followed by “Play of the Waves” and, finally, “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” Debussy likely would have discouraged any further description, preferring that each listener take from La Mer their own experience. Gabriel Faure was coy when asked if he liked what he heard in “From dawn to noon on the sea”? “Indeed,” he replied smartly, “especially the little bit at thirteen minutes to twelve.
December 9, 2018, 4pm
Jackson Auditorium / Weston Center, Seguin
Guest Conductor: Stan Mauldin
Anderson: A Christmas festival
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite No. 1:
Waltz of the Flowers....Trepak
Jessel, arr. Gould/McAlister: Parade of the Wooden Soldiers
Randol Bass: Twas the Night before Christmas
Holst: Dargason from St Paul’s Suite
Finnegan: Sing a long
Anderson: Sleigh Ride
MTS Children’ Chorus of New Braunfels
It's that time of year again, and the Mid-Texas Symphony's traditional holiday concert promises not to disappoint. If you have somehow managed to shut out the constant grocery and department store barrage of chestnuts on open fires, sleigh rides together, dancing flowers, and the instruction to have yourself a merry little Christmas, all of it beginning sometime in October, this afternoon's music will seem a breath of fresh air. But the great thing about this annual gathering at Jackson Auditorium is that the wonderful music is rescued by a tradition of a community coming together, young and old, people of all faiths, listening, smiling, and appreciative of an opportunity to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the at times stressful season. And one other thing! Today's music isn't coming out of a can. It's live and genuine and it really is A Christmas Festival!
Leroy Anderson: A Christmas Festival
For my money, there's not a better 10 minutes of familiar music for the season, rolled into a constant stream of music, than Leroy Anderson's A Christmas Festival. It was written in 1950 for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. In the 1960s, Dick Bertel of WTIC Radio asked Mr. Anderson about the intention behind A Christmas Festival.
"Well, I was trying to write a Christmas festival. You see, there are all types of things that have been written for various occasions and in this particular case I was working at the time for the Boston Pops, I was the arranger and orchestrator for them for years, and they wanted to record a special concert number, using Christmas songs, carols and other Christmas music, for records, so they asked, Arthur Fiedler asked me to do a concert overture, and this is how it came about. I selected the ones that were the most popular and best known, and then I took them and tried to give instrumental treatment to them; in other words, it's not a medley, that isn't what we wanted to do here, certainly what I didn't want to do. I rather took the themes and built you might say a concert overture, around the Christmas songs. They're not just carols because in this we end with 'Jingle Bells,' that is, of course, a secular song, it's not a carol, but it's associated so much with the gaiety and spirit of Christmas that you certainly couldn't leave it out."
Leroy Anderson is known as an accomplished composer of light classical music, but if you believe this implies the diminutive, you would be wrong. It's doubtful many of us could have kept up with Anderson in terms of intellect and musical skill. The same fellow who wrote “The Syncopated Clock,” a silly bit of pop, was a translator and interpreter for the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII. He became fluent in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. His musical credentials were just as impressive, considering he earned both a Bachelor of Arts, and Master of Arts degree at Harvard, then went on to study composition with Walter Piston and George Enescu. Composer John Williams declared Leroy Anderson “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.” Later on this afternoon's program you will hear another Anderson favorite, Sleigh Ride.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Is there any greater magic than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker? Go ahead. Let's acknowledge the groans of those who are sure that this “old warhorse” of classical music should be put out to pasture. But now let's allow the music a fresh take. Yes, this may be the umpteenth time you've heard this music, or played it if you are one of the musicians onstage. But a good wager to make would be that there's somebody - no let's enrichen the pot and bet there are quite a few - hearing this music for the very first time. One of the great experiences for the musicians in the pit, playing what might be their 15th or 20th performance of The Nutcracker for this holiday season, is to peek out into the audience to view the wonder on the faces of all the children. It's magic! Now look in a mirror and you're likely to see that same wonder on your own face. It's OK for us all to become children again.
tLeon Jessel: The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers
The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers dates back to 1897, but even had Google existed back then a search for parade of the wooden soldiers would have yielded nothing. You see, the music by the German composer Leon Jessel was first published for solo piano as 'Die Parade der Zinnsoldaten,' or The Parade of the Tin Soldiers. The title was changed in 1911 to fit within a ballet by Nikita Balieff. His entertaining choreography might today amuse any with vivid imaginations. It referred to a legend regarding Tsar Paul I in which the absent minded Tsar, reviewing a parade of wooden soldiers on the parade grounds, forgets to command the soldiers to halt. Thus, obedient soldiers all, they continue marching all the way to Siberia before the Tsar remembers to order a counter-march which brings the soldiers back to the parade grounds, surely by now quite exhausted.
Randol Bass: The Night Before Christmas
There may be musicians onstage this afternoon, perhaps some in the audience, who know the composer and arranger Randol Bass. He's Texan through and through, originally from Ft. Worth but raised in Midland. He's a chorister and pianist whose first memories of performing for an audience might have come with the Midland-Odessa Symphony. Randol earned his Bachelors Degree in 1976 from the University of Texas at Austin where he also served as an arranger for the famed Longhorn Band. He would feel right at home today with the Mid-Texas Symphony Children’s Chorus, for he has always worked actively in his community with non-professional musicians, sharing his understanding and appreciation for the musical arts.
Mr. Bass is much sought after as both an arranger and a composer of original music. His work can be found on recordings by the Boston Pops, with Keith Lockhart, and the National Symphony of London and Tallis Chamber Choir. He is especially well known for his arrangements of music for the Christmas season and for his inspiring “Gloria,” recorded on the Boston Pops' Holiday Pops release back in 1999.
How long have we all been reciting “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house . . .”? It's as much a part of the season as Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, and The Nutcracker. Children hush what they're doing and listen, wide-eyed, as their mother or father, maybe grandmother, read them the poem from a well-thumbed book.
Clement Clarke Moore gets all the credit for the Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” but it was more likely written by an Englishman, Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (Don't allow this to spoil your holiday, for some truths cannot be dismissed as myth – Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus – but I digress!) Randol Bass wrote today's setting of “The Night Before Christmas” in 1988, fulfilling a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra. The first performance took place at the orchestra's annual holiday concert that same year, under the baton of Robert Page. If you enjoy what you hear this afternoon, the work was included on the Kodanja Christmas album “A Feast of Carols,” with the composer conducting the National Symphony of London.
From Poor Robin's Almanac, 1715:
Now Christmas comes, 'tis fit that we
Should feast and sing and merry be,
Keep open house, let fiddlers play;
A fig for cold, sing care away!
And may they who thereat repine,
On brown bread and on small beer dine.
Nothing warms the heart like a serenade of carolers on a cold winter's night. Even better, hot buttered rum shared as crowds gather round to sing the most popular of carols. Please join in for the traditional sing-a-long and Leroy Anderson's iconic sign of the season, Sleigh Ride. Exactly how does a trumpet player learn to whinny like a horse?
Happy Holidays all!
February 17, 2019, 4pm
Performing Arts Center, Canyon High School, New Braunfels
Guest Conductor: Diane Wittry
Guest Artist: Timothy Chooi, violin
Featuring Local Violin Students
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1
Wittry: After the Rain
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)
Searching for a proper way to frame today's program by the Mid-Texas Symphony began with the ubiquitous Google search, in this case: virtuoso instrumentalist composers. The enter key on the keyboard, much like the lever on a casino slot machine, spun out its suggestions in a fraction of a moment. Landing at the top was a definition of virtuoso (individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in playing a musical instrument . . .) followed by a list of “Notable virtuosi.” Anyone who made that list, beginning with Antonio Vivaldi, Paganini, and J.S. Bach, would have been welcome to line up behind Meredith Willson's “76 Trombones . . . they were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuo-sos . . .” The list of Notable virtuosi could go on to include Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, and many others, all examples of the virtuoso instrumentalist turned composer. The names you don't see on the list are Richard Wagner, Max Bruch, and Igor Stravinsky.
Although there is no specific line in the course of musical history where the professional composer succeeded the professional instrumentalist, it is hard to ignore. By no means is this a slight of the professional composer. If anything we might be amazed that composers who were never professional instrumentalists should emerge to write such foundation works as Wagner's overtures and preludes, Max Bruch's lavish works for solo violin with orchestra, and the extraordinarily complex ballets of Stravinsky. Yes, it is fair and proper to regard these composers as virtuosi in their own right.
Richard Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger
Richard Wagner was never destined to be a virtuoso pianist, though his first published work was a “Piano Sonata.” Nor did he study violin, or trumpet, or any of the instruments of the orchestra. His earliest interest was in the theater, a love he inherited from his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer. His earliest musical studies, an aborted attempt to play the piano, jumped the tracks when he saw Carl Maria von Weber conduct Der Freischutz. Young Richard became focused upon writing musical drama. The die was cast.
It took a while for Wagner to find his way, but he finally found his first success in Dresden when the opera house there agreed to present Rienzi. This gave the composer his much needed foothold and a foundation from which to build. It was still a long climb to the fame (and notoriety) of the monumental Ring cycle. At one point, Wagner was convinced he would never complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. He interrupted its composition to write the tragic love story, Tristan and Isolde, and his only mature comedy, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
In a sense, Die Meistersinger closes the circle begun with Wagner's earliest ambition to write for the stage. Die Meistersinger was the only of Wagner's mature operas based on an entirely original story, written by the composer himself. We hear in the “Prelude to Die Meistersinger” a well developed presentation of many of the principal themes within the opera itself. We also hear a great deal of counterpoint, musical voices moving independently of each other, sometimes two, three, or even four independent voice at once. This is said to have been Wagner's answer to commentary from his critics who accused him of inability to write proper counterpoint. At its most complex, there are five independent instrumental lines in counterpoint within the Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
Max Bruch: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1
As a youngster, Max Bruch showed an interest in writing little pieces of music. His parents noticed, then encouraged and supported their son as he took his earliest serious studies in music. Like Wagner and many others who would follow, Bruch was not a professional instrumentalist first. Rather, his first lessons were in music theory, the foundation for becoming a professional composer.
It surprises many upon hearing Max Bruch's several works for solo string instruments and orchestra, that Bruch didn't play the violin, nor did he play cello, yet counted among his most successful compositions are Kol Nidrei, for cello and orchestra, and two notable works for violin and orchestra, the Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, tentatively begun in 1857 when Bruch was still in his teens, and the later Scottish Fantasy, of 1880.
Bruch completed his first version of the First Violin Concerto in 1866. The concerto was well received but left Bruch unsatisfied. Almost immediately he began to revise the score. He decided to solicit the opinion of Joseph Joachim, the preeminent violin virtuoso of the day. After looking at the now once revised version of the concerto, Joachim declared it “very violinistic.” But then Joachim went on to make suggestions of how the work might be improved. Changes were made in both the solo violin part and the orchestral accompaniment before the definitive version was unveiled in January of 1868. Bruch later sent his publisher an accounting of the intermediate versions, writing:
“Between 1864 and 1868 I rewrote my concerto at least a half dozen times, and conferred with x number of violinists before it took the final form in which it is universally famous and played everywhere.”
What we will hear this afternoon is not that drastic, but it should still prove the purity of Mozart's musical structure. We take a first movement from his First Flute Concerto, follow that with the middle movement of the Clarinet Concerto, and wrap it up with the finale to the Bassoon Concerto. After all, each of these works is made up of a fast movement, a slow movement, and then another fast movement. From a bit more technical view, the first movements are all in a sonata-allegro form, and the second movements are each marked either andante or adagio, both a variation of slow. The three movements also have similarities for they are each in rondo form, which describes a structured mixture of a principal theme with various other contrasting themes mixed together in a more or less formulaic manner.
Diane Wittry: After The Rain
Composer Diane Wittry, also the guest conductor of this afternoon's concert, shares with Max Bruch and Richard Wagner a resume which lists her as a conductor who also writes music. Her credentials are ample and her studies of conducting wide ranging. She graduated Summa cum Laude from The University of Southern California in 1983 and earned a Master of Music in conducting from USC two years later, in 1985. In 2001 and 2002, Ms. Wittry received advanced studies in conducting at The Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
After The Rain written by Wittry in 2012, is one of a number of her works published by the Theodore Presser Company. Certainly listeners to this afternoon's performance of After The Rain will relate to Ms. Wittry's description of the work:
“The inspiration for my piece 'after the rain' came from sitting outside after a rain storm when the rain drops were still wet on the trees. In those quiet moments, one can hear the gentle drop of the water as it hit a trash can lid or some other surface. Occasionally the wind blows and the droplets splatter creating interesting rhythms. The birds call back and forth answering each other, and the cicadas echo softly with their high pitched drone. As we sit enjoying nature, our mind wanders peacefully. As the droplets drip quietly around us, the sun slowly comes out from behind the clouds, and we feel that all is right with the world.”
Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
Igor Stravinsky is yet another composer whose principal instrument is not the piano, or violin, or trombone, but rather the orchestra. Like Wagner, Bruch, and Wittry, Stravinsky both wrote music and conducted. The exception is that Stravinsky the conductor is best known as an interpreter of his own music. He may have at times conducted concerts which included music by other composers, but his reputation on record is a quite thorough accounting of his own music.
Stravinsky's earliest music reveals his roots in the rich musical world of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who first took notice of the young Stravinsky in 1902. He took Igor under his wing, taught him composition and, more importantly, orchestration (recall that Rimsky literally wrote the book about the craft of writing for the instruments of the orchestra). Stravinsky grew as a composer through his relationship with Rimsky, who promoted the music of his young protégé
Stravinsky was noticed by the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who immediately recognized the new talent. In 1909. Diaghilev tested Stravinsky by commissioning some arrangements of music by other composers; but the breakthrough commission from Diaghilev which led to the Firebird Ballet might never have come if not for the undisciplined work habits of Anatole Liadov, from whom Diaghilev had commissioned the composition of a major ballet score. When Diaghilev checked Liadov's progress and found he had yet to write a single note on the page, the commission was rescinded and reissued to Stravinsky. The rest, as they say, is history, for this became Stravinsky's big breakthrough.
During rehearsals of The Firebird, Diaghilev famously pointed out Stravinsky to one of his dancers, saying: “Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Stravinsky's Firebird is more akin to Rimsky than the later notorious ballets, especially The Rite of Spring. Still, it is not without its outbursts. Maurice Ravel noted that the Parisian audience craved a taste of the avant-garde and The Firebird provided exactly that.
March 31, 2019, 4pm
Jackson Auditorium / Weston Center, Seguin
Guest Conductor: Teresa Cheung
Guest Artist: Spencer Myer, piano
Rossini: Overture to La Cenerentola
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58
Elgar: Enigma Variations
A little over 6 months ago the 41st Season of the Mid-Texas Symphony began with a program similar in structure to this afternoon's: an overture, a concerto, and then a large symphonic work, often a symphony, but today a set of variations on a mysterious theme, so mysterious as to be called an enigma. Today's program gets at the heart of the traditional symphony concert. Only it's different this year as the Mid-Texas Symphony finds its way into its fifth decade, and the first in over two decades without Maestro David Mairs at the helm.
About a year ago, the orchestra and the public said its farewell to David. Thus, today's concert is under the direction of the fourth of the candidates for the post of Music Director of the Mid-Texas Symphony. As today's program stands as a symbol of one of classical music's long standing traditions, overture, concerto, symphony, it also is evidence of change, of the transition from one Music Director to another. Thanks to Akiko Fujimoto, Diane Wittry, and Silas Nathaniel Huff for their invaluable contributions to this 41st Season, and welcome to Teresa Cheung for bringing her talent to the mid-Texas institution which is the Mid-Texas Symphony.
Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to La Cenerentola
Rossini was nothing if not quick on his feet, at least as far as mental agility goes, for the affable composer was much too fond of good food and better wine to have ever lined up at the starting line for a 10K. Said Rossini: “I know of no more admirable occupation than eating, that is, really eating. Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart.” On another occasion, after receiving a gift of fine grapes from Baron Rothschild, Rossini wrote back to Rothschild: “Splendid though your grapes certainly are, I don't take my wine in pills.”
Perhaps the reason Rossini composed with such rapidity was to get back to the kitchen that much sooner. However, Rossini's contemporary, Gaetano Donizetti, another composer noted for wasting no time in writing an opera, remarked that he thought all the stories about Rossini writing the Barber of Seville in three weeks time were true, not so much because he chose to write with such efficiency, or wanted to get back to eating, but because “he has always been such a lazy fellow.”
Lazy, or not, there was genius to Rossini's method, for he turned out success after success (along with almost equal numbers of failures) over a span of 20 years. The totals are astounding. Forty operas in 20 years, with most of the great ones coming between 1813 and 1829. After such a flurry, he retired at 40 a wealthy man.
La Cenerentola, a musical telling of the story of Cinderella, followed on the heels of the success of Barber of Seville and, like Barber, was said to have been written over a three week period. Also like Barber of Seville, Rossini saved time by recycling a previously written overture. One wonders if Rossini had a trunk of manuscripts marked as “OVERTURES for All Occasions.” The genius of this method can be seen by glancing at the numerous recorded collections of Rossini Overtures. Many of them have immense popularity and appeal, though the operas they supposedly prefaced have long since disappeared from the Mets and Covent Gardens of the world.
In the end, Barber and Briselli agreed to disagree. A financial settlement was agreed upon, allowing the concerto to remain in the hands of Barber. Barber promptly offered the first performance to Albert Spalding, who immediately accepted the opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history. Barber, who might have fumed at the initial rejection of his music, in the end made light of the situation by subtitling the concerto “concerto del sapone,” or a “soap concerto,” this a reference to Fels Naptha soap and also the soap opera melodrama which surrounded the genesis of this important title in the substantial output of Samuel Barber.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Whether Beethoven was first and foremost a great pianist, or whether he was all along a composer, might be a legitimate debate had it not been for his decline into deafness beginning in his late 20s. In 1811, Beethoven knew he had to step back from any activity which required acuity of hearing. He ceased conducting and performing in public, focusing his attention on the writing of music.
Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine much of Beethoven's music for piano having the authority it possesses had he not at one time had the hearing required for mastery of the piano as his principal instrument. We hear this in the sequence of the five piano concerti. Even the earliest, which is actually the one published as No. 2, shows a composer confident in his originality. This is no longer Haydn's musical universe, but Beethoven's.
By the time of the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concerti, Beethoven was no longer reliant on his hearing to know that what he was writing was challenging but also possible. He forcefully pressed the world of music from the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn to the future musical period we know as the Romantic. In a sense, Beethoven owned the Romantic period, earning him the title of The Titan.
The Piano Concerto No. 4, completed in the autumn of 1806, broke new ground. In the older world of Mozart it was conventional to begin a concerto with a longish orchestral introduction. The Fourth Concerto begins with a passage for solo piano, surely startling both the musicians and the public. Listeners might also have been startled by a certain famous motif from the Fifth Symphony which cross pollinates the concerto. Listen for the familiar four note theme of the Fifth, but in an understatement of the “V for Victory” motto everyone can recognize from the symphony.
Some regard this the most lyrical of the five Beethoven piano concerti. Hearing the fluidity of the work, especially under the hands of a sensitive player, it is tempting to declare this the simplest of the concerti. But many pianists attest that this is the most difficult of Beethoven's concerti, aside from the Fifth, which came along three years later. It would be easy to attribute these increasingly steep demands made on the soloist as evidence that the relentless decline of Beethoven's hearing affected the accessibility of his music. Nothing could be further from truth. This was simply Beethoven pushing the envelope, not content to hover in place.
Other evidence of Beethoven the composer asserting himself is his instruction for the cadenza in the final movement of the Fourth Concerto. Beethoven asked the soloist to keep it short, knowing all too well the tendency of the virtuoso instrumentalist to run on with lengthy displays and improvisations. This was Beethoven the composer reining in those who might otherwise overwhelm the music. Beethoven knew this from his own experience. By all reports he was in his younger years as capable as anyone when it came to cascading scales and rugged arpeggios, but he preferred that the intentions of the composer, or the music itself, guide the soloist.
Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36
Edward Elgar, already a proven symphonist when he wrote the so-called Enigma Variations, provided the following program note for a performance in 1911, a full 12 years after the work's premiere in 1899:
“This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer's friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.”
Of course, Elgar's reluctance to say with any directness what is meant by the term “enigma” has only served to fuel multiple quests, sometimes even in the form of elaborate public contests, to solve the riddle. Elgar could never resist dropping further clues, such as his description of the original theme which opens the work: "it expressed when written (in 1898) my sense of the loneliness of the artist . . . and to me, it still embodies that sense."
Ponder the enigma if you must, but also consider Elgar's own advise that we listen to the Enigma Variations as just a “piece of music,” and accept it for its beauty, virtuosity and drama. This is certainly not to suggest that we stifle the tears which so often flow during the Ninth Variation, known as “Nimrod.” However, if you are a seeker of the “enigma” also seeking other mysteries in Elgar's music, know that the opening bars of Nimrod were suggested by a famous theme from one of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Do you hear it, through all the weeping? It's the theme from the second movement of Beethoven's Pathetique.