BOCA RATON PHILHARMONIC SYMPHONIA
March 25, 2007
The Roberts Theater at St. Andrew’s School
Alastair Willis, Conductor
Luciano Magnanini, Bassoon
Czech Suite, Op.39
I. Preludium (Pastorale): Allegro moderato
II. Polka: Allegretto grazioso
III. Sousedska (Minuetto): Allegro guisto
IV. Romance (Romanza): Andante con moto
V. Finale (Furiant): Presto
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Symphony No.4 in A Major, Op.90 (Italian)
I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante con moto
III. Con moto moderato
IV. Saltarello: Presto
By Lawrence Budmen
Czech Suite, Op.39
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Antonin Dvorak was probably the greatest Czech nationalist composer – at least in the symphonic sphere. (Smetana and Janacek hold some claim to that accolade in the creation of opera and music theater.) After years as an orchestral violist and church organist, Dvorak came to the attention of Brahms in the late 1870’s. Greatly impressed with Dvorak’s early symphonies, Brahms convinced his publisher Simrock to publish the young composer’s Moravian Duets. The success of that initial publication was followed by the first set of Slavonic Dances and the more ambitious Slavonic Rhapsodies (both from 1878.)
In 1879 Dvorak set out to create a five movement work of a distinctively Czech character. The resulting Czech Suite is cast in the form of an instrumental serenade. (The score has much in common with the composer’s two earlier serenades – for strings (1875) and for winds, cello, and double bass (1878) – two of Dvorak’s most beloved works.) Three of the Czech Suite’s five movements are Czech dances.
The suite is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, timpani, and strings. It was given a well received premiere on May 16, 1897 in Prague by the Czech Theater Orchestra under Adolf Cech. Less well known today than the Slavonic Dances, the Czech Suite is equally filled with gorgeous melodies and felicitous orchestration.
To accompaniment of cellos and bassoon, the violins introduce the broadly songful melody of the Preludium. The main theme of the Polka is one of Dvorak’s most sensuous, melancholy Czech creations. A lively trio provides contrast. Wind instruments introduce the stately Menuetto. Dvorak observed that the “clarinets and bassoons make their entrance just as they do in Bohemia.” (He was referring to the village bands of his youth in Nelahazeves.) The flute and English horn are prominently featured in the gentle Romance. The suite concludes with an invigorating Furiant, a Czech dance form that Dvorak made his own. Dvorak scholar Otakar Sourek found this movement “one of [the composer’s] most characteristic and effective.” The Furiant begins in D minor and journeys to a D Major conclusion with trumpet and timpani added for a celebratory coda.
From 1892 to 1895 Dvorak was director of the National Conservatory in New York City. During his American sojourn, Dvorak composed two of his most enduring scores – the Symphony No.9 (From the New World) and the American Quartet and began work on his Cello Concerto. He also trained and inspired a diverse group of talented American creative artists including Amy Beach and Henry Burleigh. (Beach’s Gaelic Symphony was contemporaneous with Dvorak’s New World. The Czech composer admired Beach’s score.) Dvorak’s belief that African-American, Native American, and indigenous folk music would form the basis of serious composition in the New World would bear fruit through the work of several generations of American composers. In their different ways Edward Macdowell, George Whitefield Chadwick, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and John Adams would bring life to Dvorak’s vision of a uniquely American compositional voice.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1939- )
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was born in Miami, Florida. She received her Masters degree in Music Composition from Florida State University and her Doctorate from New York’s Julliard School where she studied with Elliot Carter and Roger Sessions.
One of the most honored American composers; Zwilich received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1983 for her First Symphony. She was the first woman to receive that award. (Her First Symphony was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra under Gunther Schuller and, later, recorded by the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by John Nelson.) Zwilich has also received the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize, the Alfred I. Dupont Award, Musical America’s Composer of the Year Award for 1999, and the Miami Performing Arts Center’s Artists Award. In 1995 she became the first recipient of the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Zwilich has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. She holds the Francis Eppes Distinguished Professorship at Florida State University.
Zwilich’s prolific output includes four symphonies, chamber works, the ballet Tanzpiel, the orchestral score Symbolon (which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta on a tour of Russia in St. Petersburg – the first major American symphonic work to received its first performance by an U.S. orchestra outside the country), a series of concertos for violinist Jamie Laredo, cellist Sharon Robinson, and pianist Joseph Kalichstein, and a series of wind and brass concertos. Her Peanuts Gallery was commissioned for the Family Concert series at Carnegie Hall and has received numerous subsequent performances and was recently the subject of a PBS special.
For its centennial season (1995-1996) the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra commissioned a series of concertos to spotlight first chair members of the ensemble. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was commissioned to write a bassoon concerto. She dedicated the work to the Pittsburgh orchestra’s Principal bassoon Nancy Goeres, conductor Lorin Maazel (at the time Music Director in Pittsburgh), and the orchestra. The dedicatees premiered the score on May 13, 1993. Three years later the same forces recorded the work for New World Records. The Bassoon Concerto has received 27 series of performances by major American orchestras, university and community orchestras, and ensembles as far away as Australia and the Canary Islands.
The composer has written about the concerto and its creation: “In recent years I have composed a number of concertos for orchestral instruments. For me this has been a source of great pleasure and inspiration. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of writing a concerto for an instrument I do not play is the challenge of discovering and exploring the nature of the instrument, and trying to internalize its spirit, so that I feel that my concerto issues from the ‘soul’ of the instrument itself. Particularly in the case of the bassoon (whose solo literature is limited, and whose orchestral use overemphasizes the ‘comical’ or grotesque qualities that are possible on the bassoon), I felt a mission to portray the instrument as it possibly can be, not only as it is usually characterized.
“To my delight I have found that the bassoon is a remarkable solo instrument with a wide range of expressive power. An artist-virtuoso can perform just about anything on the bassoon, from fluid, vocal, singing lines to wildly virtuosic fast passages. Perhaps more than any other instrument, the bassoon is able to suggest a single line breaking into multiple voices, even at breakneck speed. My concerto calls on all of these abilities, plus the ability to respond to the orchestra (the bassoon even has a significant relationship to the percussion). But above all, I have tried to write more than an instrumental exercise, but through the bassoon to make a highly personal musical statement.
“The first movement, mostly slow in tempo, grows out of the lyric, singing, and dramatic qualities of the bassoon, with a brisk allegro between the slow sections. The second movement is mostly very fast, interrupted by a virtuoso cadenza that begins by recalling the slow music of the first movement.”
As a former orchestral musician, Zwilich viewed the concerto as “an intimate relationship with an old friend.” (The composer was a violinist in the American Symphony Orchestra under the legendary Leopold Stokowski.) She notes that the bassoon is often “mortar between the bricks’ in the orchestral fabric. Zwilich notes that she was determined that every note (on the bassoon as a solo instrument) would be heard. She describes the concerto as a “challenge technically and musically that presents the bassoon as a real solo instrument with a rich persona.”
Symphony No.4 in A Major, Op.90 (Italian)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
As a child protégé and youthful creative genius, Felix Mendelssohn was second only to Mozart. Having already composed 12 string symphonies in his teens, Mendelssohn created a bona fide masterpiece at age 17 – the Overture to A Midsummer Nights Dream. The high spirits, genius for melodic creation, and instrumental mastery of that score would become hallmarks of Mendelssohn’s creative output. Too often Mendelssohn has been considered a lightweight composer. In fact, his scores are remarkable for their formal mastery and craftsmanship.(Mendelssohn also was an active symphonic conductor. His exhumations – particularly with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – of forgotten scores by Bach and Schubert as well as premieres of Schumann’s orchestral works would make music history.)
In 1830 at age 21, Mendelssohn embarked on a tour of Italy. Like many artists he was elated and inspired by the sunny shores, colorful street life, and ecstatic sunsets and evenings of that Mediterranean country. He began work on a symphony that would capture those impressions in 1830 and 1831 in Rome and Naples but would not complete the work until 1833. Mendelssohn had been commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London to write an orchestral work. On May 13, 1833 the composer conducted the premiere of the Italian Symphony in London. Despite the work’s initial success, the composer was not satisfied with the piece. Mendelssohn continually revised the symphony until 1837. The score does not exist in an authorized version. Over the nearly two centuries since the score’s initial performance, conductors have reached a consensus on a performing edition based on the composer’s revisions and sketches. (Occasionally a conductor will perform a different version. Recently John Elliot Gardiner recorded the original 1833 score.)
The initial Allegro vivace commences without an introduction. A brightly vigorous theme immediately bursts forth from the strings. The clarinets offer an elegantly sculpted, contrasting theme. Just when the exposition seems to be coming to a close, Mendelssohn daringly offers a third, march-like motif which is then given fugal treatment by the strings. The movement then proceeds to development and recapitulation sections in sonata form.
A solemn cast pervades the theme of the Andante con moto. Mendelssohn wrote of being greatly impressed by a procession of Cardinals and pilgrims in Rome during Holy Week. The movement’s principal theme has often been referred to as a pilgrims’ march. The clarinets offer a contrasting subject. Soft pizzicatos on lower strings conclude this second movement.
A graceful theme introduces the Con moto moderato (third movement). Horns and bassoons mark the trio section. Part of that horn dominated subject returns at the movement’s conclusion.
The final Saltarello (Presto) is a wild Italian dance. The lively principal theme in the winds is followed by a brief, more formal subject in the strings. During the themes’ development, a new motif takes center stage – very much in the vein of a Neapolitan tarantella. The finale’s energy and momentum continue right up to the full ensemble’s decisive final chords.
While the Italian Symphony’s high spirits are unmistakable, this masterpiece is deeply imbued with the romantic aura of the 19th century. Its melodic and instrumental richness remain astounding.