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New Bedford Symphony Orchestra

September 2017 Program Notes

Bernstein’s Inspiration

Derek Bermel: Dust Dances

Dust Dances is based on the African gyil music prevalent in northwestern Ghana, southern Burkina Faso, and northeastern Ivory Coast. The gyil is a 14– to 18–key instrument resembling a Western marimba. Tuned slabs of carved mahogany wood are bound with animal hide to a sturdy wooden frame. Each key has its own gourd resonator; crushed and flattened spiders’ webs are seared with rubber over holes carved in the gourd, creating a buzzing membrane as the keys are struck.

In Dust Dances, Derek Bermel translates into orchestral idioms a typical session of two gyil players and a drummer, as they string together recreational and funeral songs. More than either African or American music, the piece is a bi-continental hybrid that joins the rhythmic complexity of West African music with the harmonic structure of American concert music.

Keeping true to gyil music, which is always in the same key, the entirety of Dust Dances is in D and employs a pentatonic scale, the tuning the gyil approximates. Several of the gyil’s notes fall between the pitches of the Western chromatic scale, and two gyils may differ widely in pitches. To produce the “in-between” notes, Bermel at times calls for two clashing pentatonic modes to be played in different octaves.

Polyrhythms, fluidly employed by African musicians, are also implied in Dust Dances. Its predominant 3/2 meter allows for a flexible beat that suggests other pulses, such as 12/8. Dance beats often surface, revealing roots in African music’s preeminent societal practice. Dust Dances is in four main sections. An introduction of the main theme, a funeral song entitled “Saayir Kyena Dakpol” (“My Father’s House is Empty”), ends with a trumpet cutting across the beat in a feeling of metered four. Variations then begin on “Dondome Nye Ka Wulle” (“I am the Greatest [Gyil Player]”) with bassoons playing a swaggering bass line under the oboes’ angular melody. The echo or hocket effect created by the trumpet and piano near the end of the section is an imitation of a difficult gyil technique in which one player mirrors the other’s melodic improvisations an eighth note behind. A “recital” follows, during which the names of ancestors and of Bermel’s gyil teachers, Baaru and Na-Ile, and of the composer himself are called. Musical gestures in this interlude carry the meaning of spoken words or phrases. The third section features the funeral praise song “Kukur Gandaa Bie, Kuora Gandaa Bie.” Here the trombone soloist plays a melody containing quarter tones that are closer to the true pitches of the gyil. In the final section, clarinets jump into the playful “Luba Pog Nung Wa Da Bin Kobo” (“The Lobi Woman Bought Feces for One Penny [at the Market, Thinking It Was Food]”). Songs from the previous sections return and are combined as Dust Dances drives toward its rousing conclusion on a praise to Baaru’s full name, “Togo Ngmen Baaru issele.”
~ Mic Holwin (Reprinted with permission from Derek Bermel.)

Leonard Bernstein: Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium

Who but Leonard Bernstein could successfully fuse his musical style with a set of ancient Greek Platonic dialogues? And, in so doing, create what acclaimed violinist James Ehnes calls “one of the most engaging and unusual works in the entire violin repertoire”?

Ehnes believes Bernstein’s life experiences were central to the creation of the Serenade, which Bernstein began writing on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation in the autumn of 1953: “Perhaps more than any of his other works, the Serenade captures the many fascinating and enigmatic facets of Bernstein’s personality—Bernstein the thinker, the intellectual, and the poet, but also Bernstein the life of the party.” Bernstein’s traditional Harvard education, juxtaposed with his affinity for jazz, his deep humanitarian beliefs, and his irrepressible joie de vivre, combine in the Serenade’s eclectic blend of erudition, humor, and buoyant high spirits. Dedicated “to the beloved memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky,” Bernstein premiered the Serenade with Isaac Stern and the Israel Philharmonic at the Teatro Fenice in Venice, Italy, on September 12, 1954.

The discourses in Plato’s Symposium are Plato’s re-creations of speeches given by Socrates and several friends at an Athenian banquet. As the men feasted and drank, they expounded on various aspects of love. Bernstein noted that the Serenade “resulted from a re-reading of Plato’s charming dialogue,” but also maintained “there was no literal program for this Serenade.” Nonetheless, Bernstein provided a detailed description of each of the Serenade’s five movements. Bernstein clearly found inspiration in this Classic intellectual foundation, but listeners need not be familiar with the Platonic dialogues to enjoy the Serenade. An extended violin concerto, each of the Serenade’s five movements is named for a speaker or pair of speakers. The music unfolds like a well-crafted line of reasoning, as each orator presents his particular point of view.

The tritone, a musical interval Bernstein made famous in the song “Maria,” from West Side Story, opens the first movement (Phaedrus-Pausanias), and reappears again in the closing notes of the final movement (Socrates-Alcibiades). The tritone, a forbidden interval known as “the devil in music” during the medieval and Renaissance periods because it was dissonant and hard to sing, here embodies love’s endless fascination. In the second movement, named for the playwright Aristophanes, the solo violin’s playfulness and lyricism contrast with robust countermelodies from the orchestra. The percussion section, particularly the xylophone, emphasizes the humor of the brief third movement scherzo. Bernstein describes the lyrical fourth movement adagio (Agathon) as follows: “Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.” Socrates himself speaks in the final movement, which opens slowly, weightily, and calls attention to Socrates’ exalted standing among the other speakers. Alcibiades, a drunken interloper, suddenly interrupts Socrates’ measured opinions. The percussion and strings present a dynamic, somewhat incoherent but nonetheless amusing discourse, in keeping with Alcibiades’ inebriated state. Of this movement, Bernstein wrote, “If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner-party.”
~ ©2017 Elizabeth Schwartz

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D

Like many composers, Gustav Mahler was both drawn to and wary of the notion of program music. He wrestled with the idea of linking his musical ideas with nonmusical inspirations, fearing that his first symphony would not be as well received as a piece of “absolute” music. At the same time, the attraction of an underlying narrative as a unifying structure held great appeal for Mahler.

The argument for the Symphony No. 1 as program music is strengthened by the fact that much of its musical material was borrowed from other sources. In the first two movements, Mahler used melodies from two of his Songs of a Wayfarer as the basis for elaborate thematic development. In the third movement, he set the folk song Brother Martin, better known as Frère Jacques, in a somber minor key. In the final movement, Mahler wanders further afield, choosing material from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and Wagner’s Parsifal. “Composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks,” wrote Mahler to a friend. Finally, despite Mahler’s ambivalence about associating his music with a specific program, he did provide one to music critic Ludwig Karpath (something he later regretted). The symphony’s overall narrative describes, in Mahler’s words, “a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battles and defeat at the hands of Fate.”

During the 1880s, as Mahler worked on the Symphony No. 1, he made his living as an opera conductor in various regional theatres. Mahler’s demanding performance schedule left him neither time nor energy to compose his own music during the concert season. During his summer vacations, free from theatrical engagements, Mahler devoted himself to composition. Mahler’s use of previously composed music may have also been a practical choice dictated by his limited composing time.

At the premiere, in Budapest on November 20, 1889, audiences were disturbed by the third movement, with its ghostly reworking of a children’s folksong in the tempo of a funeral march. Mahler indicated this music was full of “biting irony,” in which “all the coarseness, the mirth and the banality of the world are heard in the sound of a Bohemian village band, together with the hero’s terrible cries of pain.” The loutish parody of the band, complete with oom-pahs, mingles with music taken from another of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs, Die zwei blauen Augen (Your Two Blue Eyes), which resembles a melody from Jewish liturgy.

In the finale, according to Mahler’s narrative, “the hero is exposed to the most fearful combats and to all the sorrows of the world. He and his triumphant motifs are hit on the head again and again by Destiny… Only when he has triumphed over death, and when all the glorious memories of youth have returned with themes from the first movement, does he get the upper hand, and there is a great victorious chorale!” Destiny intervenes with pounding brasses and timpani, full of Sturm und Drang, but a triumphant brass choir hints at the hero’s ultimate victory, even as he continues to struggle with the forces bent on his destruction. Finally the chorale bursts forth (some listeners have discerned traces of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in it) and concludes the symphony, with the horns standing to play their final triumphant notes.

“It’s the most spontaneous and daringly composed of my works,” said Mahler of his first symphony. “Naively, I imagined that it … would have … immediate appeal … How great was my surprise and disappointment when it turned out quite differently. In Budapest, where I first performed it, my friends avoided me afterwards … I went about like a leper and an outlaw.” Both critics and audiences reacted negatively, with one critic deriding it as a parody of a symphony. The influential Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick was equally harsh: “The new symphony is the kind of music which for me is not music.” Subsequent performances, even after Mahler made substantial revisions, provoked equally strong reactions. More than ten years after the premiere, another critic described the audience’s reaction: “There were startled faces all around and some hissing was heard.” Today, the Symphony No. 1 is Mahler’s most popular and most frequently performed work.
~ ©2017 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 Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and Portland Piano International. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).