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Program Notes – Dec. 5, 2010

Overture to the Oratorio “St. Paul”, op. 36

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn, born Jewish, took the name Bartholdy when he converted to Christianity. Many of his works reflect his immersion into his new religion, including a symphony – subtitled “Reformation” – and two massive oratorios on sacred subjects: Elijah and St. Paul (which he titled simply Paulus). Although St. Paul was a great success and was extremely popular in its own day, it is seldom performed today in its entirety. However, some selections are occasionally performed as stand-alone pieces, including several choruses and its simple but distinctive overture, which demonstrates his perfect command of the musical language of the German Romantic era in which it was composed.

Concerto for Two Choirs, no. 2, HWV 333

Georg Friederich Händel (1685 – 1759)
arr. Earlin Lutz

One of Händel’s more unique modes of composition is a concerto intended for groups of instruments, or “instrumental choirs.” At that time the word “concerto” was probably closer to our modern word “concert” … a set of works intended to be played together by the same group of instrumentalists, rather than a virtuosic showpiece for a single soloist. He composed three such works, each featuring two separate groups of winds, along with a string orchestra. The winds sometimes contrast against each other, and sometimes play together as a group. Although they could be separated to different locations on-stage, they can also be integrated into a single orchestra. Today’s concert utilizes four individual works from the original six in this particular “concert.” It is worth noting that Händel was not above using one of his favorite composers – himself – as inspiration for a new work. The allegro features passages from the Water Music Suite, and the melody of the last movement (a tempo giusto) is virtually identical to the chorus “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates” from Messiah.

When these works were written, several modern instruments had not yet been invented (in particular the valved trumpets and French horns) so Händel was forced to assign to them notes that are far outside their best range. If our current instruments were available, Händel would almost certainly have assigned the same notes for different combinations of players, just for the sake of acoustical coloration. Fortunately, there is a long-standing tradition of arranging Händel’s original works to fit the instruments of the time. His most famous compositions, Messiah and the Water Music Suite are generally performed in versions prepared by modern composers. It is fitting that our principal horn, Earlin Lutz, has done the same thing. His version of this work utilizes each instrument in its natural range, and expands the color palette to match a modern orchestra. Nevertheless, the final product retains the music invented by the great English master, but in a modern setting.

Winter from “The Four Seasons”

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

Antonio Vivaldi was nicknamed “The Red Priest”, for his distinctive hair coloration. Although he took priestly vows in his early years, he was really a musician, rather than a cleric. Early on he was excused from most of his official religious duties, because of his poor health. However, he never renounced his priestly vows and spent much of the early part of his life in service of the poor. Nevertheless, his musical genius could not be denied and he soon evolved into one of the greatest composers of his day. In fact, he was probably far more valuable to his religious order because of his fame as a musician (he was also an accomplished violinist) which was inevitably linked to the Church.

Possibly his most famous “single” work was actually an early set of four separate concerti for violin, which are often performed together and have became known as The Four Seasons. It was first published as part of a set of twelve violin concerti, op. 8, even though these particular four concerti had been written several years before. Vivaldi himself gave the four individual pieces (each of which was three movements long) its own unique title, one for each season of the year. It was natural that they would be eventually grouped together as if they were a single work. The Four Seasons is now his most frequently-performed composition. Today’s work, Winter, is probably the most virtuosic, and its energetic outer movements evoke the blustery weather we associate with the bleakest season (although Vivaldi probably never experienced its rigors in the mild climate of Venice.)

How Lovely are the Messengers from the Oratorio “St. Paul”, op. 36

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)

Part Two of Paulus begins with the story of St. Paul and St. Barnabas and their missionary journeys, in which they converted those who would follow them into the early stages of Christianity. This chorus refers to them as the Messengers, who bring the Word to be heard. It may be the best-known chorus from the oratorio, and probably its most stirring.

Three Traditional Carols for Orchestra

arr. Arthur Harris

We all grew up singing Christmas Carols in the holiday season, so much so that the melodies are engrained in our minds. Everyone knows these songs, and usually in their standard harmonization and the most simple, uncomplicated musical organization. It is refreshing when a composer takes a fresh look at traditional carols and transforms them into imaginative presentations, appropriate for a purely orchestral setting. Arthur Harris has put his musical imagination to work and created for us a new sound-realm to show off three well known standard carols as only an orchestra can do.

The Many Moods of Christmas, Suite no. 3

Robert Shaw and Robert Russel Bennett

Christmas carols are meant to be sung, and it is a distinct pleasure when two musicians like Shaw and Bennett bring their talents to the songs we already know. Robert Shaw is one of the most accomplished vocal musicians of our time, and Robert Russell Bennett has arranged some of our greatest musicals into purely orchestral versions that are frequently performed by “pops” orchestras. When they collaborate on a subject as popular as Christmas holiday music, the result is bound to be significant. Their suites titled The Many Moods of Christmas have become more or less the standard versions for combined choral/orchestral presentations of some of our best-loved carols. The four carols presented here are familiar to all audiences, but the imaginative instrumentation (solo guitar and solo viola, in addition to the full symphony orchestra) and complex choral singing lift them far above mundane holiday music.

Selections from “Messiah”

Georg Friederich Händel (1685 – 1759)

Georg Friederich Händel epitomizes the Baroque period of music in England. His masterwork oratorio Messiah may be the most frequently played piece of classical music in the English-speaking world. Although he was born and trained in Germany before emigrating to England, he is considered the unequalled pinnacle of English musical composers until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, almost two hundred years after his birth. MessiahAnd the Glory of the Lord. Both reveal the elegant careful craftsmanship associated with the Baroque period, although they pale in comparison to its most-familiar chorus: Hallelujah!

Almost certainly, the Hallelujah Chorus is the most frequently-sung choral selection in all of classical music – it would not be too much of a stretch to speculate that almost all of the audience today has sung it at one time or another in their life, often in Christmas sing-along concerts. Interestingly, even though it is a holiday staple, the Hallelujah Chorus is part of the Easter section of Messiah, not the Christmas section. Yet it is performed so frequently at Christmas that its joyous sound is now bound up inextricably with the celebration of Christ’s birth. There can be no more fitting conclusion to our Christmas concert than this glorious vocal and orchestral triumph.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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