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Program Notes – Feb. 13, 2011

The History of the Orchestra 

Today’s performance presents selected moments that illustrate the development of classical music. It begins with the era when music was just starting to move from individual performers to ensembles. No longer were songs and melodies simply passed down from musician to musician. Now composers began to coordinate multiple players, all doing different things at the same time. Just as serious music progressed from simplicity to large and complex forms, our program progresses through the various elements of musical sounds. Each individual choir is featured (first the brass, then the strings, then the addition of woodwinds) until all the various groups come together to show off the full-blown glory of a modern symphony orchestra.

Sonata Pian e Forte for Brass Choir

Giovanni Gabrielli (c. 1554/1557 – 1612)
arr. Earlin Lutz

Giovanni Gabrieli was one of the most important musicians of his time, at the transition from the Renaissance era to the Baroque. Little is known of his early life. Even his place and date of birth are uncertain. As a young man he travelled from Venice to Munich to study with Orlando de Lassus, possibly the most famous established composer of the era, who greatly influenced his eventual musical style. When he returned to Venice, he was appointed organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s Basilica, and organist at the Grand School of Music of San Rocco. At that time Venice was a renowned center of music, and Gabrielli held a top position at two of its greatest institutions. It is small wonder that he quickly became one of the leading figures in the musical revolution that was just beginning to take place.

The St. Mark’s Basilica was a unique acoustical environment, widely known for the purity and clarity of its resonant sound. Any note, either loud or soft, can be clearly heard throughout the cathedral. Gabrieli understood the acoustics, and wrote many pieces specifically designed to show them off. When played on modern brass instruments (which are far superior to those that Gabrieli could use) his pieces display a compelling sonority.

Today’s performance uses an arrangement by our own Principal French Hornist, Earlin Lutz. His adaptation not only emphasizes Gabrieli’s use of contrasting dynamic effects, but also shows off the distinct sounds of the different types of brass instruments. As you listen, imagine what it would be like if the sound of these modern instruments echoed through the magnificence of his original site.

String Quintet in E-major, op. 11: Minuet

Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805)

Boccherini was a contemporary of both Mozart and Haydn, but his music is often quite different from theirs. He was a virtuoso cellist, and often featured the cello in his chamber music. As a rising young composer he spent a few years in Madrid, where his patron was the King’s younger brother. His works were generally well received and often performed in the King’s Court. However, his patron considered himself to be musically knowledgeable and once, after a rehearsal he had attended, criticized the instrumentation of a section of a new piece. Boccherini took offense and not only didn’t change the section, but doubled the number of players for the performance. He was fired immediately, and returned to Italy.

This minuet is probably his most famous single piece. It is frequently played as a short “filler” in classical music programming on the radio, and has been used in many other settings (for example it is featured as background music in the movie The Ladykillers). Ironically, it is usually performed not by the string quintet for which it was written, but as arranged for a full string orchestra. Given his doubling of the string parts that once resulted in his being fired, one has to believe that he would approve of this expansion!

Symphony No. 9 in d-minor, op. 125: Molto Allegro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

By now, almost all concert audiences must have some awareness of Mozart’s life. His talent was acknowledged in his own time, though he was not the most-respected and adored of the great German musicians of the era (that would be Joseph Haydn). However, his esteem has grown through the centuries and he is now considered one of the greatest of the musical giants. A child prodigy, he became one of the finest pianists of his age, but he also played several other instruments passably. As a composer of operas he was an accomplished showman, with a true sense for what pleased the public. Had he been born in the twentieth century he might have written Phantom of the Opera before Andrew Lloyd Webber had the chance!

Much of his music was for popular entertainment, and much more was done on commission just to put bread on the table. However, when writing many of his works he knew he was composing for posterity – to cement his place in musical history. In these works he concentrated on creating art for its own sake, not just for entertainment. This symphony (his-next-to-last) falls into this category. It was written at the peak of his skills, and for many people it essentially defines the sound of traditional “classical” music. Of the works being performed today it is the first to employ all sections, though not yet with quite the full instrumentation of the modern orchestra.

Symphony No. 4: Scherzo

Peter Illich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Tchaikovsky is probably the most important Russian composer before the twentieth century, and certainly the most famous. His personal life was often tortured and difficult, and this carried over to his mature compositions, many of which are often intense and emotional. His Fourth Symphony was written just after he had reached the peak of his powers. It was in the middle of a large succession of works that were highly successful with the public, both in his own time and carrying through until today. Most of this symphony fits into his “dramatic” style. However, this movement is the exception.

Usually a scherzo is a bit wild and frantic. In this symphony, Tchaikovsky departs from this tradition. It features a delicate sound that begins with pizzicato strings, followed by graceful and agile passages in the woodwinds. Even the brass play mostly short staccato notes, imitating the plucked strings, rather than their usual powerful and dramatic sound. This delightful movement features each of the three instrumental choirs in separate sections of the work, and shows off virtuosity more than making emotional exclamations.

Overdrive (world premiere)

Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980)

Classical music is not “dead”, and it continues to develop today. Young composers, like the Australian-born Melissa Dunphy, continue to explore the boundaries of musical expression. A graduate of West Chester University, she will soon earn her Doctorate in musical composition from the University of Pennsylvania. Her music is much acclaimed, and has been performed in many different settings, such as The Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. Her first work for full orchestra, Jack and the Beanstalk, was premiered by the Immaculata Symphony Orchestra last year and was later performed by the Kennett Symphony.

By the composer’s own description, Overdrive was specifically intended to reflect the frantic pace of modern life. Just as we are forced to rush from one activity to the next (multi-tasking and texting or twittering all the time, of course) the music speeds along almost in a frenzy. The musical language is very approachable, with melodies that are easy to hear and harmonies that don’t jar the ear – unlike the directions taken by some contemporary composers. The musical sounds shift from moment to moment, but it is easy to hear that they are all tied together by a common thread. Shortly before the end there is a brief respite (maybe a metaphor for a mid-day nap?). If so, the alarm goes off and the frantic pace resumes, accelerating to the end. Perhaps Ms. Dunphy will turn into the next Boccherini or Mozart. Who knows? If so, our musicians will have given the premiere of her first two works for full orchestra.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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