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Classical Series

2015 - 2016

Jazz, habanera and dance-inspired rhythms combine in a delicious musical stew for our season finale. The “compelling and elegant” Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez performs Gershwin’s concerto, with its exotic melancholy and emotional wallop. Ibéria and Rapsodie both arise from impressions and memories of Spain by passionate, imaginative Frenchmen.
 
“Gabriela is incredible: she is enormously talented; she is simply a genius.”
 –Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director, LA Philharmonic


Performances sponsored by Alan and Susan Seidenfeld
Gabriela Martinez underwritten by Faye Smith

Supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts


May 2016 Program Notes by Steven Ledbetter
 
LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (ballet music) for Orchestra
 
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918, and died in New York on December 2, 1990. He composed On the Town in 1944. The show opened in Boston on December 13, 1944; its New York opening at the Adelphi Theater took place on December 28. The three dance episodes call for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), two clarinets (first doubling E-flat clarinet, second doubling bass clarinet), two horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, timpani and percussion (snare drum, bass drum, drum set, suspended cymbal, triangle, wood block, xylophone), piano, and strings. Duration is about 11 minutes.
 
At the beginning of 1944, the twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein was a new celebrity, having shortly before made a dramatic stand-in for an ailing Bruno Walter to conduct a concert of the New York Philharmonic that was broadcast nationwide. By the end of that year he was known as a singularly successful composer of unusually wide range. In January his Jeremiah Symphony was premiered in Pittsburgh; the ballet Fancy Free opened in New York in April, and by the end of the year his first Broadway show, On the Town, opened—sparking the careers of a series of brilliant newcomers to the theater: Bernstein himself, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the words and music, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

The plot of On the Town came from the scenario already developed for Fancy Free, a light‑hearted romp tracing the experiences of some sailors on leave for twenty‑four hours in wartime Manhattan. Gabey, Chip and Ozzie each sets out with his own plan to enjoy a first visit to New York and to get a girl. But ultimately it is Gabey who determines the course of the story: he falls in love at first sight with the photo of a girl on a subway poster, “Miss Turnstiles,” and he enlists the aid of his friends in locating her.

The songs capture equally the bustle and energy of New York and the loneliness of a stranger in the big city. And, unlike most Broadway composers who turn the composition of the “ballet music” entirely over to an assistant, Bernstein himself composed brilliantly conceived, elaborate dance numbers.

In On the Town the hectic pace is wonderfully captured in the first of the three “dance episodes,” depicting “The Great Lover” searching for that perfect girl. One of Bernstein’s most beautiful and poignant melodies, “Lonely Town,” underlies the pas de deux. The lively depiction of Times Square that ends the three dance episodes was also the finale of the show’s first act (and it briefly quotes the most famous song in the show, “New York, New York,” where “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.” In this concert version, the dance episodes are dedicated to the three women who played the principal roles in the original show: Sono Osato, Betty Comden and Nancy Walker.
 
 
George Gershwin
Concerto in F major for Piano and Orchestra
 
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, and died in Beverly Hills, California on July 11, 1937. He composed his concerto in the summer of 1925 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic and played the solo part himself at the premiere under the direction of Walter Damrosch on December 3. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani plus three percussionists, and strings. Duration is about 31 minutes.
 
Had Gershwin lived even a normal lifespan, rather than being cut off in his prime by a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight, who knows what musical marvels might have come from an extended life of brilliant musicianship and imagination? But that is the kind of second-guessing we offer for other musical geniuses whose lives were far too short—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bizet, none of whom reached the age of forty. And as with them, we also celebrate Gershwin’s far-too-brief life because, in spite of its brevity, his creativity left an astonishing wealth of riches. He remains unique among American composers.

After all, Gershwin did something that no other composer has managed to do so easily and so well: he spanned the two cultures of classical and popular music in America, crossing a chasm that had begun to open up in the middle of the 19th century, when composers had to choose whether they wanted to be popular (and, with luck, get rich) or to be taken seriously as artists (though that probably meant starving in self-respect). They might address an audience in the hundreds in the concert halls, or they might reach millions via the popular theater, sheet music, and later through recordings, radio, and television.
Before Gershwin, only two composers—John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert—had a considerable degree of success in more than one musical arena, but the world has persisted in linking them especially to the march and the operetta. And since Gershwin showed the way, other composers, like Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, and André Previn sought success in different areas. They were talented creators who have left much wonderful music. But none of them, before or since, created a full body of music that is so consistently welcomed from Broadway to the Met, from “Your Hit Parade” to Carnegie Hall.

The Concerto in F would never have been written but for the success of Rhapsody in Blue in February 1924. Even though that work was loose-limbed in its architecture (as befits a rhapsody), it demonstrated Gershwin’s ability to write a piece much larger than a popular song. When the New York Philharmonic offered a commission for a genuine full‑scale piano concerto, he accepted. With the apparently brash confidence that was characteristic of him, Gershwin signed the contract for the concerto on April 17, 1925; it stipulated that the piece had to be presented in time for a performance the following December 3, a deadline that might have daunted many a more-experienced composer.

Soon afterward he left for London to supervise a performance of the show Tip-Toes, taking with him Cecil Forsythe’s Orchestration, which he studied diligently, determined to understand how to write for full orchestra—and to complete the concerto himself. Though he sketched a few themes in England, it was only on his return to New York that he worked on it consistently, completing the first movement on August 27 and the draft of the full work in early October. Work on the orchestration took him to November 10, only three weeks before the premiere.

The premiere attracted mixed reviews, as was often the case with Gershwin’s concert music. From the beginning there were those who called it a “jazz concerto”—and those who used the term probably intended to tar the piece with that label. But Gershwin insisted that to label the work as jazz was not correct: “I have attempted to utilize certain jazz rhythms worked out along more or less symphonic lines.” Some critics insisted that writing music of this type did not come naturally to Gershwin, and that the strain showed. One of the most negative comments came from Prokofiev, who—possibly in jealousy—complained that the concerto was only “32-bar choruses ineptly bridged together.”

Possibly Prokofiev was referring to the development of the first movement, which is the simplest part of the piece in traditional classical terms. But even there, Gershwin’s key choices are effective and unhackneyed. And there is much else going on, Gershwin creates a series of diverse themes (an opening wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston motive cited by almost everyone, and a dotted-rhythm arpeggiated figure). In Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin showed his mastery of melodic development. Here he shows his ability to work with two and more melodies simultaneously in a more elaborate and interactive development—precisely the kind of technique that marks a “real” composer.

The slow movement recalls in its long opening melody the sheer melodic grace of Rhapsody in Blue. The movement is in a simple rondo form ABACA, but throughout Gershwin unfolds melodies of warm humanity and anticipates elements to come. This is the movement that took him the longest time to complete and the one that even the most dubious critics at the premier managed to praise.

The finale breaks forth with lively spirit of a rondo, though it is one with a rather complex layout. Many of the themes are derived and further develop from the earlier movement, simultaneously unifying the overall work and bringing on a virtuosic close.
 
 
CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Ibéria for Orchestra [No. 2 from Images]
 
Achille‑Claude Debussy was born at St. Germaine‑en‑Laye, Department of Seine‑et‑Oise, France on August 22, 1862 and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He composed Ibéria in the years 1906‑08, completing the score on December 25 of the latter year. Gabriel Pierné conducted the orchestra of the Concerts Colonne in the premiere, which took place in Paris on February 20, 1910. Ibéria is scored for three flutes (third doubling second piccolo), piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, castanets, xylophone, celesta, cymbals, chimes, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.
 
After completing his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which is all hints and subtleties, pastel shades and mists, Debussy was eager to move into a different mode, to compose livelier, more outgoing music. The years following Pelléas were busy, seeing the composition of La Mer, the Danse sacre and Danse profane, the two books of Images for piano, and the triptych entitled Images for orchestra, of which Ibéria—itself a triptych—is the second panel. These were the years in which Debussy began to become voguish; Pierre Lalo noted in 1906, “The Debussyist religion has replaced the Wagnerian religion.” His popular success, however, was short‑lived. Debussy’s constant search for new paths, though enormously fruitful to his fellow composers, outstripped the willingness of his audiences to follow much beyond La Mer and Ibéria, so that, just as his health was beginning to decline with the first signs of the cancer that was eventually to prove fatal, he was also starting to lose the audience that had so recently discovered him.

The orchestral Images started in Debussy’s mind as a set of works for two pianos, obviously intended as a counterpart to the Images for piano. In September 1905 he wrote to his publisher Durand, “I am now going to complete as quickly as possible the Images for two pianos.” This alone would not identify the works in question, but on July 9, 1906, he wrote, “I hope to have finished Ibéria next week and the two other pieces in the course of the month.” This can only refer to the piano version of Ibéria, since the orchestral score was still more than two years from completion.

As published, the orchestral Images consists of three pieces: Gigues, Ibéria, and Rondes de printemps. The order, however, is purely arbitrary, not reflecting the order of composition. Ibéria, which came first, is further subdivided into three sections, reflecting aspects of Debussy’s imaginative picture of Spain. Like Bizet, whose Carmen so richly evokes the Spanish scene, Debussy knew Spain only by way of literature and art, though he did study the collections of Spanish folk music assembled by Felipe Pedrell. Still, he did not quote any actual folk tunes in his “Spanish” score, but rather recreated the imagined “feel” of a day in Spain. So successful was he in this respect that Ibéria is widely regarded as the finest “Spanish” music ever written, even by native Spanish composers like Manuel de Falla, who found here the way to treat their own cultural heritage in music. Debussy did, in fact, spend one lone afternoon in Spain, crossing the border just long enough to watch a bullfight at San Sebastian. Falla, in a 1920 article about Debussy’s contribution to Spanish music, hypothesized:
 
He remembered, however, the light in the bull‑ring, particularly the violent contrast between the one half of the ring flooded with sunlight and the other half deep in shade. The Matin d’un jour de fête (Morning of a day of festa) from Ibéria is perhaps an evocation of this afternoon spent just over the French frontier. But this was not the Spain that was really his own. His dreams led him farther afield and he became spellbound by an imaginary Andalusia. We have evidence of this in Par les Rues et par les chemins (By the streets and by the paths) and Parfums de la nuit (Perfumes of the night) from Ibéria.
 
Debussy plays with the full orchestra in all its richness and variety, suggesting Spain in the characteristic melodic and rhythmic turns, in actual Spanish instruments (such as the castanets heard already in the opening measures), or imitations thereof (such as the violins‑turned-guitar in the last movement, where the players are specifically told to place the instruments under the arm in traditional guitar position while they pluck the strings). The first movement is built of a series of brief ideas that weave in and out like fragments of songs half‑heard while passing from street to street. The central nocturne is sultry and laden with suppressed passion. But Debussy avoids a cheap erotic climax. Instead he links the movement directly to the final “festa,” in a transition from night to day of which he was particularly proud (Debussy to his friend Andre Caplet after rehearsals were underway for the premiere: “You cannot imagine how naturally the transition from Les Parfums de la nuit to Le Matin d’un jour de fête is achieved. It sounds like music which has not been written down! And the whole rising feeling, the awakening of people and of nature. There is a watermelon vendor and children whistling—I see them all clearly.”). The last movement is replete with splashes of one thing and another—the composer called them “realities”—thrown out in a display of seemingly incoherent energy, brilliantly lighted throughout by the masterful treatment of the orchestra.

We can defer once more to Manuel de Falla, to whom Ibéria was a guide and textbook, perhaps the most satisfying piece of “Spanish” music hitherto composed:
 
A sort of Sevillana, the generating theme of the work, suggests village songs heard in the bright scintillating light; the intoxicating magic of the Andalusian nights, the light-hearted holiday crowds dancing to the chords struck on guitars and bandurrias—all these musical effects whirl in the air while the crowds, as we imagine them, approach or recede. Everything is constantly alive and extremely expressive.
 
 
MAURICE RAVEL
Rapsodie espagnole for Orchestra
 
Joseph Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure near Saint‑Jean‑de‑Luz, Basses-Pyrénées, in the Basque region of France just a short distance from the Spanish border, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris on December 28, 1937. He composed the Rapsodie espagnole in 1907, dedicating it “à mon cher maître Charles de Bériot”; the work was first heard at the Colonne Concerts, Theatre du Châtelet, Paris, on March 15, 1908, under the direction of Edouard Colonne. It is scored for two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and sarrusophone (here taken by contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets, tam‑tam, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 16 minutes.

It has been remarked that the best Spanish music composed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was written by French or Russian composers. Ravel, at least, had a Basque mother, and his birthplace was in the Pyrénées only a few miles from the Spanish border.

Rapsodie espagnole is a collection of four movements, the first of which, Prélude à la nuit, is largely color and atmosphere, with the soft ostinato descent of the four-note theme—F, E, D, C-sharp—projected in duple rhythms against the triple meter. This night music is controlled and spare in its lushness. The spirit of the dance breaks in with the Malagueña, based on a dance style from Malaga; its characteristic rhythm has been employed by many composers to suggest Spain. A reference to the descending four-note theme of the Prelude reappears as a unifying element at the end of the section. The Habanera, too, is a dance with a characteristic rhythm that marks it at once as Spanish (as Bizet had already recognized in Carmen). It has been suggested that this movement goes back to a song sung to Ravel in childhood by his mother, which would explain his continuing fondness for it, even to the point of his picking up an old piano work for orchestral treatment. The last movement, Feria, depicts a festival with a variety of tunes all in popular styles, castanets for local color, and a brilliant climax with materials piled up in sonorous confusion.
 
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)
 

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