Saturday, November 02, 2013

Humboldt Symphony: Conductor's Notes

The following are comments edited from an interview with Paul Cummings.

Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky 

 This suite is a compilation of music from the ballet, so that orchestras can perform it in concert rather than mounting the full ballet. The suite has multiple movements—we’re doing the last two: “Berceuse” translates as “lullaby,” although in the next movement the baby gets violently awakened. There are massive chords in the brass and the full orchestra at the close of the finale, in which the dynamic marking is ffff—which is a pretty strong indication that Stravinsky wants it loud.

 Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok 

 Bartok is known as a collector and curator of folk music from his homeland in Eastern Europe. Much of the music he renders here in orchestral settings was familiar to him as a child. It’s nice to have the opportunity to play settings of this folk music that he brought to light. We’re doing several movements of this seven movement piece. Each movement is short—one or two minutes—and written for string orchestra and a small number of wind instruments. The first movements are sparsely orchestrated—strings with clarinets, or in the third movement, strings with clarinets and piccolo—very unusual combination. As the movements progress, he gradually adds more wind instruments, but the strings are the constant.

 They’re all dances so it’s fun music, lively and usually with quick tempos. Harmonically they reflect Bartok’s tendency to use modal scales in his melodic material, but his harmonic writing is tonal. There’s a simple harmonic structure—nothing like the music that sophisticated listeners might associate with Bartok, in pieces like “The Miraculous Mandarin” or his Concerto for Orchestra. This has nothing of the complexity of those, or even his string quartets. These are simple folk tunes that he set for small orchestra—especially good for our group since we have a fairly small number of strings, and this gives us a chance to highlight our more advanced wind players.

 John Henry by Aaron Copland 

 This composition from 1940 is also based on a folk song—an American folk melody that he set for full orchestra, though not the maximum-size orchestra that he used for his major works. It’s a reduced wind complement, like the Bartok folk dances. It’s a short, well-crafted piece with transparent harmonies, very characteristic of Copland. It’s based on the story of John Henry, a freed slave who works on the railroad and challenges a piece of machinery--a steam-powered hammer—to a contest. This machinery was going to replace men like John Henry who hammered in the railroad spikes, so it’s man against machine. In Copland’s piece we hear the sound of an anvil, the hammer driving spikes, sounds of trains and so on. It’s very ingenuous how Copland incorporates these industrial sounds into his score.

 Blue Tango by Leroy Anderson

 This is a short, Latin style "pops" piece that features the entire orchestra. It's the type of thing often heard at Boston Pops Orchestra concerts.

 Overture: Iphigenia in Aulis by Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Revised by Richard Wagner

 Gluck is a classical era composer, living a little earlier than Mozart. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn knew about Gluck—he was quite famous in his day as a composer. His music is very similar to the elder sons of J.S. Bach-- C.P.E. Bach, Johann Christian Bach—sometimes called rococo, which bridges the Baroque and Classical eras. It has a very homophonic texture in which the melody is always distinctly set on top of the texture, and everything else is accompaniment. Basically there are two layers of music—you can always hear a distinct melody even if it’s played on a lower instrument—it may not sit on top in pitch but is much more prominent. The melody is always in the foreground and the harmonic material in the background, much like Mozart and Haydn. It’s therefore a very characteristic piece of Classical era music.

 Gluck was known as an opera composer above all things—he’s a salient figure in music history because of his innovations in the field of opera. H was one first composers to say that we need music and singing that serves the dramatic action rather than serving the singers who desire to be recognized.

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