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New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

May 2019 Program Notes

Epic Journeys

Zosha Di Castri: Lineage

In Lineage, I was interested in exploring the idea of what is passed down. As a kid, I loved listening to my grandparents tell stories about “the-old-country” or of life in the village or on the farm. These tales were at once so real through their repetition, and yet at the same time were so foreign and removed from my own personal experience. Thinking of this, I hoped to create a piece in which certain elements are kept constant while others are continually altered, adopted, or are added on, creating an ever-evolving narrative.

In preparing for this piece, I also spent much time reflecting upon what it means to “return” – to keep coming back to something (or someone) that serves as a grounding force. I was interested in the idea of a landmark or point of origin, which remains steadfast, yet also evolves subtly over time. The constant nature of this rootedness is what allows us to orient ourselves; it serves as a bearing when navigating the many branches of unchartered possibility. It is also the measuring stick by which we gauge how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to travel.

At the heart of the piece is a distant microtonal chorale played by the winds: two stark melodic lines form a closely-knit counterpoint, which sets up an intimate, almost haunting, atmosphere. Out of this sparseness, the orchestra disappears downward, forming an almost silent descent into the abyss from which several new textures and timbres are then born: a homorhythmic string passage characterized by a registral expansion and contraction, a whirring ostinato that brilliantly spins forth splitting into various streams, a more densely layered folk-inspired section, and finally an energetically charged cathartic release. This trajectory, however, is interspersed with reoccurrences of the initial chorale, which act as signposts throughout the work.

The resulting music is a combination of change and consistency, a re-imagining of places and traditions I’ve known only second-hand, the sound of a fictitious culture one dreams up to keep the memories of another generation alive.

– Program notes courtesy of Zosha Di Castri

Samuel Barber: Piano Concerto

In 1959, music publisher G. Schirmer commissioned a work from their most popular composer, Samuel Barber, to commemorate the firm’s 100th anniversary. One indication of Barber’s stature at this time is the decision to premiere his Schirmer commission in September 1962, during the inaugural week of performances at the newly opened Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

Although Barber was himself a gifted pianist, he did not complete his first piano concerto until the age of 50 (he had attempted one during his student days at the Curtis Institute). Nonetheless, Barber’s familiarity and comfort with the range and dynamic qualities of the piano allowed him to approach the genre with assurance. Barber was also much inspired by 26-year-old pianist John Browning. “To have an artist who can change the way Browning can with his musicianship and technical equipment is just wonderful,” Barber wrote. Barber tailored the concerto to suit Browning’s strengths, particularly the pianist’s facility with interpreting a wide variety of styles. Indeed, Barber was so confident of Browning’s abilities that he gave the pianist barely two weeks to learn and memorize the music before its opening performance. Browning later recalled that he worked an average of 15 hours a day during those two weeks.

The aptly titled Allegro appassionato overflows with passion and drama. Soloist and orchestra trade musical ideas, each embellishing and transforming the material throughout. Towards the end of the movement, the piano returns to the opening theme with a headlong crash of octaves.

Barber’s Elegy for Flute and Piano, an early composition, undergirds the Canzone. A solo flute, echoed by the piano and supported by delicate strings underneath, creates a sense of otherworldly calm.

The agitated Allegro molto features an ostinato (repeated pattern) bass figure in the piano. This ostinato is maintained almost nonstop throughout the movement, yielding for two slow sections (one for clarinet solo, the other for three flutes, muted trombones and harp), then returns for a frenzied conclusion.

Both the Piano Concerto and Browning’s playing were enthusiastically received. Critics hailed Browning as “one of the more expert technicians around” who had “stormed the work, surmounted the peaks and proved himself to be a virtuoso with a fine sense of line.” The concerto itself was described as “the birth of an American classic,” and one reviewer praised Barber’s musical integrity: “[Barber] has not been afraid to be himself in the midst of the whirlpool of musical currents surrounding him. The concerto is of this century but also of the mainstream of traditional music.” In 1963, Barber’s Piano Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

Sergei Rachmaninoff had great regard for the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Eugene Ormandy. As a pianist, he had performed with them on several occasions, and as a composer, he appreciated the full rich sound Ormandy and his musicians produced. Sometime during the 1930s, Rachmaninoff remarked that he always had the unique sound of this ensemble in his head while he was composing orchestral music: “[I would] rather perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra than any other of the world.” When Rachmaninoff began working on the Symphonic Dances, he wrote with Ormandy and the orchestra in mind. Several of Rachmaninoff’s other orchestral works, including the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Piano Concerto No. 4, were also either written for or first performed by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Symphonic Dances turned out to be Rachmaninoff’s final composition. Although not as well known as the piano concertos or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff himself and many others regard the Symphonic Dances as his greatest orchestral work. “I don’t know how it happened,” the composer remarked. “It must have been my last spark.”

Nervous pulsing violins open the Allegro, over which the winds mutter a descending minor triad (three-note chord). The strings set a quickstep tempo, while the opening triad becomes both the melodic and harmonic foundation of the movement as it is repeated, reversed and otherwise developed. The introspective middle section features the first substantial melody, sounded by a distinctively melancholy alto saxophone. The final section of the movement returns to the agitated quickstep and fluttering triad.

Muted trumpets and pizzicato strings open the Andante con moto with a lopsided stuttering waltz, followed by a subdued violin solo. This main theme has none of the Viennese lightness of a Strauss waltz; its haunting, ghostly quality borders on the macabre suggestive of Sibelius’ Valse triste or Ravel’s eerie La valse. Rachmaninoff’s waltz is periodically interrupted by sinister blasts from the brasses.

In the Lento assai: Allegro vivace, Rachmaninoff borrows the melody of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) from the requiem mass. Rachmaninoff had used this iconic melody many times before, most notably in Isle of the Dead and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In the Symphonic Dances, the distinctive descending line has even more suggestive power; we can hear it as Rachmaninoff’s final statement about the end of his compositional career. This movement is the most sweeping and symphonic of the three and uses the full force of the orchestra’s array of sounds, moods and colors. In addition to the Dies irae, Rachmaninoff also incorporates other melodies from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, including the song “Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi,” describing Christ’s resurrection, from Rachmaninoff’s choral masterpiece All-Night Vigil.

On the final page of the Symphonic Dances manuscript, Rachmaninoff wrote, “I thank Thee, Lord!”

– © 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

NOTE: The program notes attributed to Elizabeth Schwartz are published here by the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and music historian based in Portland, OR. She has been a program annotator for more than 20 years, and her clients include the Oregon Symphony, the Spokane Symphony, and Chamber Music Northwest, among others. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).