Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra

Program Notes Featuring Composers: Dvořák and Gershwin

Concert Date: Saturday, October 8, 2016; 7:30 pm

SBCO Lobero Performance Series

Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)

The 2016-17 season opens with two works expressing distinctly “American” sounds. Jeannette Meyers Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 to create a “national musical spirit,” much like she found while studying at the Paris Conservatoire. By the 1890s, Antonín Dvořák had earned his reputation as a Czech nationalist composer, incorporating folksong and dances into his music to create ethnic flavor. In 1892, the Conservatory lured Dvořák to New York in the hopes that, as their director, he could do the same for America. Dvořák sought non-European styles of music on the continent, focusing on Native American and African-American traditions. He proclaimed, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. …These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” Despite his earnest enthusiasm, Dvořák’s understanding of American music traditions filtered through Czech ears, leading him to misguidedly proclaim that African-American and Native American music were “practically identical.” In 1893, when the New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write a symphony based on the sounds of America, he incorporated his impressions into his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, titled “From the New World.”

The symphony begins with a mournful Adagio: the low strings’ drooping line is punctuated by horns, then echoed by the woodwinds. Hints of the main theme rumble through the low strings and brass, churning up the orchestra then bringing it to a dramatic halt. The horns launch the Allegro molto by asserting the theme, based on a leaping, syncopated gesture. This gesture gallops through the oboes and the strings before returning to the horns, then subsides into gentle swells. The oboe and flute introduce a new melody, a nimble dance meant to evoke Native American sounds. The orchestra absorbs and transforms it with their variety of timbres. A solo flute presents a third theme, based on the rhythm of the first theme but of a completely different character, hovering over suspended string chords. The development section begins with variations on this third melody, which tempestuously collides with the opening theme. The storm clears, leaving the main theme for the recapitulation, after which the dramatic coda ends with stern chords.

For the second movement, Dvořák drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha. Though sparked by Native American culture, the affecting melody was later adapted by Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher into the faux-spiritual, “Goin’ Home.” The Largo begins with winds and brass in a solemn chorale with otherworldly chords, fading away to leave a cushion of muted strings. An English horn presents the poignant melody, after which the woodwinds echo the opening chorale. The strings take up the tune, continuing it until the English horn returns to bring the melody to its climax. From here, the mood shifts as the flute and oboe become tragic characters over anxious string tremolos. The oboes and clarinets sing a plaintive melody over plodding pizzicato bass before the violins return with the tragic theme. Suddenly, the woodwinds introduce a sprightly, pastoral dance that swells into a grand restatement of the main theme from the first movement. This theme gently fades away, leaving only a string trio. The brass chorale returns, then the movement concludes with an optimistic sweep across the orchestra punctuated by a low, soft chord.

The Molto vivace was inspired by the dances at Hiawatha’s wedding, but one can also hear the influence of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This scherzo is stern; the tune is intended to evoke “Indian”-ness with its choppy phrases and downward leaps. It begins in the woodwinds then swirls through the violins before the whole orchestra takes it up. The theme’s last fragment becomes the accompaniment of the next section, which features a flowing duet between flute and oboe. This section strongly resembles Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, suggesting folk elements from his native land, before a grand reprise of the theme from the first movement. The contrasting middle portion of the movement likewise evokes the Old World with a bucolic dance. The finale, Allegro con fuoco, begins with a dramatic half-step growl in the strings that expands rapidly before exploding into the finale theme from the trumpets and horns. The movement continues frenetically until evaporating into a lyrical clarinet solo over shimmering strings. Frequent interjections from the cellos steer the movement to a triumphant fanfare. From here, Dvořák breaks the themes down to their components. The brass provide a reminder of the first movement’s theme, then the violas go to work repeating a three-note fragment as the woodwinds reminisce about the second movement. Together they work diligently, modulating upwards until the finale theme reasserts its territory. The themes from the first and fourth movements collide, followed by a mournful union of the second and third movements. Once again, the finale theme and opening gesture unite for one final statement, followed by a mad dash to the end.

Dvořák’s final symphony was an attempt by a European composer to take a classical genre and infuse it with American elements; the other work on tonight’s program inverts this process with an American composer taking his own jazz-based idiom and shaping it into an Old World genre. In 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue showed the world that he could produce more than Tin Pan Alley ditties. Among those in the audience at the premiere was Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. He was so impressed that he commissioned Gershwin to write a piano concerto for the following year. Gershwin explained, “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I wanted to show that there was plenty more where that had come from.” Gershwin studied books on classical form, counterpoint, and orchestration. He was particularly keen to orchestrate the concerto by himself, unlike the Rhapsody, which had been orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. In December 1925, he premiered his Concerto in F in Carnegie Hall.

The Allegro begins with timpani strokes and blaring chords befitting a Broadway show. The horns and strings establish the syncopated Charleston dance rhythm, and the orchestra evokes bustling city life. When the piano enters, however, its rhythm is syncopated but slow, ruminating on a single pitch then leaping around it. It slinks along as other instruments slip in to form countermelodies. Then a flurry of notes from the piano, and the orchestra kicks up its heels in a new theme based on the Charleston rhythm. Gershwin maintains a traditional distinction between the soloist and the ensemble; nevertheless, the musical language is unmistakably jazz, particularly in the piano’s dazzling virtuosity. The contemplative second theme returns for a grandiose climax, followed by a reprise of the opening fanfare to keep the energy high to the very end.

The Andante exhibits a blues influence, with a mournful horn introduction followed by an ambling solo from a felt-muted trumpet over a choir of clarinets. When the piano enters, the tempo picks up as the strings percussively mark the beat. A solo violin has an uplifting cadenza-like passage, but the piano gets the true cadenza. This movement allows Gershwin to show his newly-developed orchestration skills, exploring textures and colors with various combinations of instruments, such as flute with string quartet, or piano over cello chorus. The movement ends with a duet between the piano and flute, capped off by the woodwinds.

Gershwin calls the Allegro agitato finale “an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.” It follows directly from the second movement with an abrupt chord and frantic scrambling, then a hammering theme from the piano. The main theme, with its repeated pitches and wide leaps, is less about melody than rhythm. New themes emerge—some playful, some coolly cosmopolitan—but they constantly interrupt each other. A cymbal crash heralds a momentous return of the piano melody from the first movement, and the timpani fanfare reappears to announce the final chords.