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Program Notes – Nov. 7, 2009

Savannah River Holiday

Ron Nelson (b. 1929) 

Ron Nelson was described by the eminent conductor Leonard Slatkin as “ … the quintessential American composer. He has the ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease. The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.” He was one of many composers who studied with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music during the mid-twentieth century, earning all three degrees (leading to the Doctor of Musical Arts in composition, in 1957). While still at Eastman he was awarded a Fulbright grant, allowing him to spend a year at the Paris Conservatory, which broadened his perspectives. Immediately after completing his studies he was appointed to the faculty at Brown University, where he remained until he retired – achieving the rare distinction of spending his entire career at a single institution. He has composed for a wide variety of media, including orchestra, opera, film, choral and chamber music, although he might be best known for his compositions for band and wind ensemble.

Savannah River Holiday is one of his earliest published works, originally composed for orchestra (and later transcribed for band) while he was still an undergraduate student at Eastman. It was inspired by Erskine Caldwell’s short story Savannah River Payday, (one of the famous author’s first published stories), which combines Caldwell’s deep interest in the earthy, down-home character of the American Southland of the early twentieth century with his own wry sense of humor. The original story depicts the exploits of two young men, who range from violent to thoughtful and compassionate, in a way that has been described as “quixotic.” The notes distributed with Nelson’s later version for band indicate that Payday was part of the original working title, but that it was changed to Holiday to avoid possible difficulties with the copyright on the title of Caldwell’s story.

Although the music makes no attempt to portray the narrative of the story, it captures the mood perfectly. It alternates between boisterous energy and quiet contemplation, whose underlying tension reflects the serious side of the original story. Most listeners can easily relate to the new title, for the work goes back and forth between frenzied festivity and quiet repose – perhaps a perfect representation of the ideal vacation, for many of us.

Piano Concerto in a-minor, op. 16

Edvard Grieg (1843 – 1907)

If Edvard Grieg is not the greatest Norwegian composer, he is certainly the most famous. But for most audiences his fame rests on only a handful of works. The incidental music he composed for Ibsen’s drama Peer Gynt, in its concert form as the Peer Gynt Suite, and his Norwegian Dances (especially Norwegian Dance no. 2) are familiar to all, even those who swear they know nothing about classical music. His Symphonic Dances are also played occasionally. However, without doubt, his best known composition is the spectacular Piano Concerto. It is acclaimed as his masterwork, and is one of the most popular piano concerti among concert audiences.

Grieg came from a musically oriented family, although none were professional musicians. His mother was an accomplished pianist, who was in great demand to give concerts in their native city of Bergen, but she did not tour professionally. His father was the British consul in Bergen, and a fine amateur musician. His parents recognized Edvard’s talent and blossoming love for music, but did not force a musical career upon him. He eventually left Norway to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, primarily as a performer (he at first wanted to be a pianist, like his mother). His keyboard skills were excellent, and throughout his life he performed publicly. But, even as a young student, he found himself drawn to composing. At Leipzig, he met several budding composers, most notably the young Frederick Delius, who became a life-long friend.

As a composer he at first admired Mozart, but later fell in love with the German Romanticism of Robert Schumann, and this is reflected in his earliest compositions. However, his favorite composer might have been Chopin. Grieg’s many beautiful and delicate works for solo piano have led some to dub him “the Chopin of the North.” Like his idol, he felt compelled to write a full scale Piano Concerto. Unlike Chopin, he had developed a command of the techniques of orchestral composition to balance his familiarity with the piano. The combination led to a work of true genius.

Grieg’s composed his concerto as a very young man. At the tender age of twenty-five he took his wife and daughter to a secluded country cottage for an extended vacation. There, away from the distractions of his daily routines, he found both the inspiration and the time to transcribe and polish the work. The fruits of that summer would become his greatest composition. Its first performance next year in Copenhagen was a rousing success, and immediately marked him as one of Europe’s brightest rising stars.

The work is in the traditional three movements (fast, slow, fast) with the slow middle movement leading directly into the lively finale without pause. However, the contents and structure of those three movements were unlike any concerto that had been written in this form. The soloist begins with a series of brilliant crashing chords that range from the highest octaves to the keyboard’s lowest depths, then sweep back up in a wave, setting the stage for the orchestra to present the first theme. This first movement could stand alone, as a monument to the energy of the north country of his native Norway. Its organic unity traces back to the main theme, which reappears throughout the movement in a series of transformations and fragments. (This theme has even been used as the basis for popular music, such as the famous sixties tune Asia Minor, one of the few pop pieces from that era to make it to the top of the charts without the benefit of a teenage idol singing it!) Both the solo part and the balancing orchestral passages – which are too substantial and dramatic to be simply called and accompaniment – repeatedly call upon this theme. Yet it is so powerful that it never seems overused or stretched beyond its ability to excite.

The melodious slow movement opens with a tender passage for muted strings, closed by a solo French horn. The piano takes up the atmosphere, but with a new melody, which it develops extensively. The structure of this idyllic movement is a dialogue between piano and orchestra, featuring many instrumental solos of quiet beauty. Eventually, the opening string melody returns in the piano, but with a feeling of nobility added to the tenderness. The movement closes with the same melancholy horn solo.

The finale enters immediately without much pause, transforming the mood from tenderness to restless energy. Both the piano and the orchestra put on a fiery display: the soloist with his virtuosity, and the orchestra through sheer dramatic power. The writing has all the brilliance of a Scandinavian summer sun. Suddenly, the excitement gives way to a wistful solo flute, recalling the mood of the slow movement. The piano takes this melody and develops from it “a bit of springtime” right in the midst of the summer heat. The remainder of the movement features sprightly dances alternating between soloist and orchestra, until the “springtime” melody sweeps out majestically in the full orchestra to prepare for a dramatic closing.

Symphony no. 3

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Aaron Copland is generally considered the Dean of American Composers. A son of immigrant parents, he started playing the piano at age seven – imitating his older sister – and began making up tunes on the keyboard. He actually began notating these at age twelve, writing down the notes without any formal training. While attending Boys’ High in Brooklyn, he studied keyboard formally with professional teachers. His father’s successful department store provided him the means to pursue music wherever he wanted, and he chose not to study in a traditional American university setting, but went to Europe instead. Eventually he made his way to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger (who was instrumental in the development of many major composers). Here he became familiar with the early music being created by a new wave of twentieth century composers, becoming fascinated with the new pathways being opened up by modernists such as Stravinsky.

His music evolved through a number of styles throughout his career. One of his idealistic musical goals was to help create an American musical idiom, to rival that of Western Europe. He wanted to be “as American as Mussorgsky was Russian.” The accessible ease of his early ballet suites (Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid) and orchestral works such as El Salon Mexico established a unique sound that was distinctly his own, which became identified as unmistakably “American.” He extensively incorporated American folk songs, used story lines based upon ‘down-home Americana’ and exploited common American musical idioms such as jazz.

The Third Symphony was his most expansive composition, and is arguably the greatest symphony ever written by an American composer. Its inspiration isn’t clear, but it fits perfectly into the compositional approach he had developed by the time of its composition. He is famous for the statement that “I don’t compose music, I only assemble it.” He referred to his technique of developing ideas and fragments, and ‘playing with them’ until they made sense. He would write down a theme and mold it into something more than its original form, transforming the theme and its fragments into a unity that was much more than the sum of its parts. Most of his compositions were assembled from their themes as a piano-score, with no thought of orchestration until the end. If this work follows that model, the germ of its inspiration was clearly a small work that preceded it by a few years: the Fanfare for the Common Man .

The Fanfare was originally commissioned as one of a series of ten fanfares by ten American composers to give patriotic support to the Allied cause early in World War II. It was the only one of these to achieve any musical permanence, and even at the time it wasn’t a “spectacular success.” (In its original form it was used later as the theme music for the classic television news documentary program “You Are There” and will be recognized by anyone who experienced that era directly.)

The melody of the Fanfare opens the final movement, but not in its original form. A haunting solo flute presents the theme, which sounds as if it comes from another world. Immediately afterward the famous percussion/brass sound of the original version takes over (although not presented identically), and then it becomes the starting point for an energetic development. Until this movement, the germinal theme of the work had never appeared directly, but almost all of the thematic fragments from the first three movements seem to relate to it.

A listener who has never heard the complete symphony will find its musical materials and themes familiar from the beginning, without even knowing why. When the Fanfare finally enters at the end, it is hard not to think “Ah, that’s what was coming”! The symphony ends with a triumphal climax, in which the initial opening theme (not the fanfare) returns and the relationship to the fanfare theme becomes obvious. It might have been an “intellectual game” that led Copland from his germ of inspiration (done on a minor commission for the war effort a few years earlier), but it led to a work of transcendant power.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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