Sunday, December 15, 2013

Humboldt Symphony Concert Notes

Notes edited from interviews with conductor Paul Cummings:

Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms

 This is one of the great overtures in the symphonic repertoire—a definite masterwork by one of our greatest German composers of the 19th century.

 Brahms was a recluse if not a hermit, and he eschewed any sort of ceremony. He did not enjoy attention, much less any sort of pomp and circumstance. But when the University of Breslau gave him an honorary doctorate, he very reluctantly accepted it. He wasn’t any sort of orator, so instead of making a speech, he composed a piece for the occasion to express his thanks.

 The title, which Brahms hated, came from his music publisher. The publisher thought it was a catchy title but it also reflected the content, since Brahms quotes a handful of pre-existing tunes that students sang, into the overture, which gave the overture academic and festive qualities. I’ll point out the student tunes before we play the entire piece—we’ll perform extracts for the audience.

 Right after Brahms wrote this piece, he wrote The Tragic Overture. These are the only two full symphonic overtures he wrote in his life. This a great piece of music and quite difficult to play. It’s perhaps the hardest piece the Humboldt Symphony has played in the last 5 years or so. But it’s also very rewarding music to play and to hear.

 Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok 

 Last time we performed four movements of this piece. This time we’re doing all seven. They’re all short—one or two minutes. What’s interesting about hearing the whole piece is that as the movements progress, Bartok gradually adds more wind instruments to what begins as mostly a string orchestra piece. It’s a good opportunity to highlight our more advanced wind players.

 Bartok was a collector and curator of folk music from Eastern Europe. Much of the music he renders in orchestral settings was familiar to him as a child. They’re all dances so it’s fun music, lively and usually with quick tempos. They have nothing of the complexity of Bartok’s more familiar works. These are simple folk tunes he set for small orchestra.

 Appalachian Spring Suite by Aaron Copland 

 Appalachian Spring was a ballet written for Martha Graham. It was originally written for 13 instruments—a chamber orchestra. Later Copland expanded it for full orchestra, and that’s how it is usually done. However, we’re doing portions of the suite for the original 13 instruments. It’s a concert version for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano.

 Written in 1943 and first performed in 1944, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. The action of the ballet involves a pioneer celebration in springtime around a newly-built farmhouse in Pennsylvania in the early part of the 19th century.

 We’re excited about doing this piece—it’s a great work, very challenging, and even to do just a portion of it is an ambitious undertaking. We also feature two faculty players: Cindy Moyer plays violin, and Karen Davy plays viola.

 The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

 This is the concert version of Tchaikovsky’s music to the well-known ballet. This is a wonderful orchestration that uses instruments such as the celeste, glockenspiel and piccolo to wonderful effect. It’s one of the best examples of program music because almost everyone who hears the piece associates it with images from the ballet—the magical qualities of toys coming alive after dark and taking on a life of their own.

 It appeals to the imagination not only of children who are always stirred by the images of the toys, but also of adults who can picture what’s happening in the ballet as they listen to the music—in the dance of the flowers, for instance.

 I’ve played this piece but this is my first time conducting it, so it’s exciting. The students are familiar with it, so it’s fun to play something you’ve heard your entire life, even if only on the p.a. system in Toys R Us.

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