Symphony Notes for Chautauqua Week Three

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The Cowboys Overture
John Williams

John Towner Williams was born in New York City on Feb. 8, 1932. This gifted American composer, arranger, pianist and conductor has emerged as the leading composer of film scores, although his wide range of talent has not limited him only to this genre. His principal venues of study were the Juilliard School of Music and UCLA. His work as a studio pianist eventually led him to the world of television and cinema. Williams also served as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993. He is best known, however, for his excellent film scores: “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” among others.

The wildly popular success of many films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the magnificent and effective music provided by John Williams. This classically trained musician has an unusual knack of using the best techniques of late-19th and early-20th century romanticism to capture in memorable tones the essential drama and romance of the films for which they were written. Williams uses leitmotiv techniques as found in Wagner’s Ring cycle operas to give his characters strong musical profiles.

His score to the 1972 Western adventure film, “The Cowboys,” follows in the footsteps of Aaron Copland’s ballet scores for “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo,” as well as Elmer Bernstein’s memorable music for “The Magnificent Seven.” The plot of the movie revolves around a cattle rancher, Wil Andersen (John Wayne) who is forced to press 11 young schoolboys into service to man a cattle drive. By the end of the film, the schoolboys have matured into real cowboys, as they take revenge on the man who kills Andersen.

Fiddling (2015)
Teddy Abrams

Teddy Abrams was born on May 6, 1987, in Berkeley, California, and raised in San Francisco. His website lists him as “American Conductor/Composer/Pianist/Clarinetist.” He currently serves as music director of the Louisville and Britt Festival Orchestras and also serves as resident conductor of the MAV Symphony Orchestra in Budapest, which he first conducted in 2011. Abrams studied conducting with Michael Tilson Thomas, Otto-Werner Mueller and Ford Lallerstedt at the Curtis Institute of Music, and with David Zinman at the Aspen Music Festival; he was the youngest conducting student ever accepted at both institutions. Abrams is also an award-winning composer and a passionate educator — he has taught at numerous schools throughout the United States. His 2009 Education Concerts with the New World Symphony (featuring the world premiere of one of Abrams’ own orchestral works) were webcast to hundreds of schools throughout South Florida. Abrams also founded the Sixth Floor Project, a multi-facet chamber music experiment that started during his study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. His “Fiddling” for String Orchestra was composed in 2015.

Tonight’s concert by the CSO will see Abrams in two of his capacities — conductor and composer. His “Fiddling” provides a fine segue from the John Williams score for “The Cowboys”  that precedes it. Clearly influenced by bluegrass-style music making, the short and lively number is bound to set the Amphitheater audience clapping and stomping their feet. The work, in turn, segues nicely into the Concerto No. 1 for Bass and Orchestra by Edgar Meyer, which shares a place on this CSO program filled with Americana.

Concerto No. 1 for Double Bass and Orchestra
Edgar Meyer

Bassist and composer Edgar Meyer was born Nov. 24, 1960, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His extraordinary talent as a soloist, composer and collaborator has brought him together with a vast array of musical artists, including Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Sam Bush, James Taylor, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Guy Clark and the trio Nickel Creek. His earliest studies on the bass were with his father, Edgar Meyer Sr., starting when he was 5 years old. In 2000, he won the Avery Fisher Prize and in 2002 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. Meyer’s collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor on the widely acclaimed “Appalachia Waltz” brought him a wider audience and greater acclaim than one usually associates with a virtuoso on his instrument. Meyer is adjunct associate professor of double bass at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, as well as at the Curtis Institute of Music. He is also an artist-faculty member of the Aspen Music Festival and School. Meyer is the author of three concertos for his instrument. The Concerto No. 1 in D Major was composed in 1993.

The following program notes were written by John Henken for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

“Most of the music I’ve become interested in is hybrid in its origins,” Meyer said. “Classical music, of course, is unbelievably hybrid. Jazz is an obvious amalgam. Bluegrass comes from 18th-century Scottish and Irish folk music that made contact with the blues. By exploring music, you’re exploring everything.”

Meyer’s Bass Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1993 (he has since written another solo concerto and a Double Concerto for Cello and Bass) at the instigation of Peter Lloyd, principal bass of the Minnesota Orchestra, the ensemble with which Meyer played the premiere, conducted by Edo de Waart.

The opening solo lick, a bluesy upward swagger with an emphatic punctuation, sets the stylistically protean tone for the piece. The orchestra suggests something more ominous, eventually luring the soloist up into chill and glossy heights. The sense of barely stilled worry ends with the understated return of the opening lick.

The middle movement is in the three-part song form typical of classical concertos. In the first section, the bass soars lyrically over a pizzicato accompaniment, sounding like a thoroughly acculturated Satie gymnopédie, although Meyer says that he picked up the idea from Haydn’s C-major Violin Concerto. The contrasting central section is agitated and driven, bustling urgently before slipping back into a state of lyric grace, this time with oboe joining the bass in tandem lines.

The finale explodes with fiddling fury, given only more energy by its rooted weight in the bass register, though that too slips its moorings and spins off into instrumental thin air.

“I got the idea for this type of tune and the way of playing it from hearing Sam Bush play the violin and mandolin,” the composer says. (Bush was a partner in several projects with Meyer, going back to the 1980s and the newgrass band Strength in Numbers.)

Celtic modality, blues engines, suggestions of John Adams in the scoring and strenuous virtuosity all combine in this movement, also in a three-part form, with a free-floating middle and cadenza.

Symphony No. 3
Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov. 14, 1900, and died in North Tarrytown, New York, on Dec. 2, 1990. Copland, more than any composer in the 20th century, gave classical music a distinctly “American” voice.

In his notes written for the premiere of his Symphony No. 3, Copland stated his concern that he had previously been “pigeon-holed” as a composer of symphonic jazz, a folklorist, and as a “purveyor of Americana.” That artistic self-consciousness explains, at least in part, why he chose to fulfill a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation with a “traditional” four-movement symphony. He named his Symphony No. 2 (1932-33) a “Short Symphony,” as it lasts only 15 minutes. Copland was a great admirer of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich. That meant the composition of a true full-length symphony was not an undertaking that he took lightly. Copland was also aware that Serge Koussevitzky, who was slated to conduct the premiere of the work, had a strong preference for compositions written in the “grand manner.” The Third Symphony was dedicated “to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitzky,” the late wife of the conductor. Coincidentally, the English composer Benjamin Britten’s great opera, Peter Grimes, was the result of a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation also was dedicated to her memory.

The work’s first performance took place in Boston’s Symphony Hall on Oct. 18, 1946, and was declared the winner of the New York Music Critics Circle Prize as the best orchestral composition by an American composer for that season. As chronicled by Alex Ross in his fine book, The Rest is Noise, the work’s approbation by the public was tainted by a vitriolic and politically motivated attack on it by the critic/composer Virgil Thomson. Thomson was very much opposed to the New Deal and Henry Wallace, and found in Copland’s Third Symphony too much sympathy with populism in the mode of the Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

The composer wrote his own descriptive notes for the Third Symphony:

Molto moderato: The opening movement, which is broad and expressive in character, opens and closes in the key of E Major. (Formally it bears no relation to the sonata-allegro with which symphonies usually begin.) The themes — three in number — are plainly stated: the first is in the strings, at the very start without introduction; the second in related mood in violas and oboes; the third, of a bolder nature, in the trombones and horns. The general form is that of an arch, in which the central portion is more animated, and the final section an extended coda, presenting a broadened version of the opening material. Both first and third themes are referred to again in later movements of the Symphony.

Allegro molto: The form of this movement stays closer to normal symphonic procedure. It is the usual scherzo, with first part, trio and return. A brass introduction leads to the main theme, which is stated three times in part one: at first in horns and violas with continuation in clarinets, then in unison strings and finally in augmentation in the lower brass. The three statements of the theme are separated by the usual episodes. After the climax is reached, the trio follows with pause. Solo woodwinds sing the new trio melody in lyrical and canonical style. The strings take it up, and add a new section of their own. The recapitulation of part one is not literal. The principal theme of the scherzo returns in a somewhat disguised form in the solo piano, leading through previous episodic material to a full restatement in the tutti orchestra. That is climaxed by a return to the lyrical trio theme, this time sung in canon and in fortissimo by the entire orchestra.

Andantino quasi allegretto: The third movement is freest of all in formal structure. Although it is built up sectionally, the various sections are intended to emerge one from the other in continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a closely knit series of variations. The opening section, however, plays no role other than that of introducing the main body of the movement.

High up in the unaccompanied first violins is heard a rhythmically transformed version of the third (trombone) theme of the first movement of the symphony. It is briefly developed in contrapuntal style, and comes to a full close, once again in the key of E major. A new and more tonal theme is introduced in the solo flute. This is the melody that supplies the thematic substance for the sectional metamorphoses that follow: at first with quiet singing nostalgia; then faster and heavier — almost dance-like; then more child-like and naïve, and finally vigorous and forthright. Imperceptibly, the whole movement drifts off into the higher regions of the strings, out of which floats the single line of the beginning, sung by a solo violin and piccolo, accompanied this time by harps and celesta. The third movement calls for no brass, with the exception of a single horn and trumpet.

Molto deliberato (Fanfare)—Allegro risoluto: The final movement follows without pause. It is the longest movement of the symphony, and closest in structure to the customary sonata-allegro form. The opening fanfare is based on “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which I composed in 1942 at the invitation of Eugene Goossens for a series of wartime fanfares introduced under his direction by the Cincinnati Symphony. In the present version, it is first played pianissimo by flutes and clarinets, and then suddenly given out by brass and percussion. The fanfare serves as preparation for the main body of the movement which follows. The components of the usual form are there: a first theme in animated 16th-note motion; a second theme — broader and more song-like in character; a full-blown development and a refashioned return to the earlier material of the movement, leading to a peroration. One curious feature of the movement consists in the fact that the second theme is to be found embedded in the development section instead of being in its customary place. The development, as such, concerns itself with the fanfare and the first theme fragments. A shrill tutti chord, with flutter-tongued brass and piccolos, brings the development to a close. What follows is not a recapitulation in the ordinary sense. Instead, a delicate interweaving of the first theme in the higher solo woodwinds is combined with a quiet version of the fanfare in the two bassoons. Combined with that, the opening theme of the first movement of the symphony is quoted, first in the violins, and later in the solo trombone. Near the end, a full-voiced chanting of the second song-like theme is heard in horns and trombones. The symphony concludes on a massive restatement of the opening phrase with which the entire work began.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

David Levy

The author David Levy