February 22-23 Classical Concert

Program Notes by J. Michael Allsen

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939) 

Celebration for Orchestra 

Celebration for Orchestra was written in 1984, and was first performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, John Nelson, conductor, on October 12, 1984. Duration 8:00. 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich first attracted wide critical attention in the mid 1970s with chamber works like her String Quartet 1974. Among her many awards and honors is the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Music (she was the first woman to receive this prize). One critic has described her challenging music as “a happy combination of purely technical excellence and a distinct power of communication.” Zwilich composed Celebration for Orchestra for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, for their inaugural performance in a new concert hall, the Circle Theatre, and the score is dedicated to the orchestra’s conductor, John Nelson. She provides the following comments: 

“In writing this work, I was motivated by three complimentary goals. First, I wanted to celebrate a joyous and historical occasion with all its inspiring symbolism of beginning and renewal. The celebratory image that persistently came to me was the ringing of bells, so I allowed the work to issue from this image. Sometimes there is a very clear musical image of ringing bells, as in the beginning in the trumpets, strings, and percussion. Often, however, the association is more abstract, as in the theme, which first appears in the cellos, violas, and bassoon, which seems to issue from the striking of great, low-sounding bells and rises to conclude with a high, bell-like figure. The bell image persists in other ways as well, from the harmonies which build from simple to complex through the overlapping of sonorities, to phrases and instrumentation that approximate the amorphous ending of a bell sound. Of course, whatever the impetus of a musical work, once it is underway, a purely musical development begins to occur, and this is true of Celebration for Orchestra. My second goal was to write a kind of ‘toccata’ or test-piece for the Circle Theatre. Like an 18th-century organ toccata, Celebration for Orchestra offers a wide variety of sounds… I thought of Celebration for Orchestra as an introduction of the hall to the orchestra, and vice versa! Finally, I wanted to celebrate the orchestra itself, which is after all the centerpiece of the occasion. Thus Celebration for Orchestra is like a mini-concerto for orchestra, featuring some of the outstanding soloists in the ensemble, highlighting the various sections, and calling for the highest degree of virtuosity in the entire ensemble.”

Salvador Brotons (b. 1959)

Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.146

This work was composed in 2018. Bass clarinetist David Gould played the premiere of the first movement (with piano accompaniment) in July 2018, at the International Clarinet Association Conference held in Ostende, Belgium. Brotons completed the two remaining movements of the concerto in September 2018. This is the world premiere of the complete concerto. Duration 19:00.

The bass clarinet has been part of orchestras and wind bands for nearly 200 years. Many composers, beginning with Giacomo Meyerbeer, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, have used its distinctive sound as part of their compositions, both as an anchor for the woodwind choir and as a solo voice. While it frequently appeared as a solo line in orchestral and band scores, it was not really until the 1950s that the bass clarinet began to emerge as a solo instrument in its own right and contemporary composers began to write works specifically for it. There are still a relatively small number of concertos for the instrument and the Bass Clarinet Concerto by Maestro Brotons is an important addition to that repertoire. He provides the following comments on the piece:

“When David Gould, a fabulous New York clarinet player, approached me with a commission to compose a new piece for bass clarinet and piano, I was very happy. I have written a good number of sonatas and pieces for various instruments, but I don’t know why I’ve never composed anything for bass clarinet. It is such an expressive instrument, with a wide tessitura, technical possibilities and immense dynamic range, that it is surprising that it still lacks a substantial concert literature. Thus, I have written this sonata/concerto for bass clarinet and piano/orchestra with great enthusiasm. As I have already done with other solo instruments, the fact that the piece can be played either as a sonata (with piano accompaniment) or as a concerto (with orchestra) was planned from the very beginning—I have tried to compose an idiomatically-written piece for the piano that was also designed to be orchestrated.

The Fantasia is written following a modified sonata form free of tonal connotations. The first idea starts directly with a rhythmic decisive theme. Some virtuosic passage-work follows as a transition to a more relaxed second idea presented by the bass clarinet, and then repeated by the orchestra under some accompanying decoration by the soloist. A development section continuously fragments and manipulates this material, eventually reaching a more exciting rhythmic climax. A short coda ends the piece—is based mainly on the rhythmic pattern presented at the end of the development section combined with the head of the first idea.

The Cantilena is an expressive, short lyrical movement in an A-B-A form. The soloist introduces the main theme directly over a harmonious and delicate accompaniment. The B part is just a transitional passage to bring back the melodic theme, now in the orchestra while the bass clarinet embellishes it with new countermelodies.

The Dionisiaca, as its title suggests, is a fast movement full of irregular meters and rhythmic patterns. Very unstable and demoniac, it has two main themes: the first is virtuosic and the second somewhat more singable. A coda based on previous material ends the piece brilliantly.”

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), Op.30

Strauss composed the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in 1896, completing the score on August 24 and leading the premiere performance in Frankfurt on November 27, 1896. Duration 33:00.

While working on his opera Guntram in 1892, Strauss read Nietzsche’s “prose-poem” Also sprach Zarathustra for the first time. Guntram eventually came to reflect many of Nietzsche’s philosophical views. In Zarathustra (1883-85), his most widely-known work, Nietzsche uses the ancient Persian mystic Zoroaster (Zarathustra) as his protagonist. Through the story of this prophet, Nietzsche introduced his concept of the superman, a person driven by what Nietzsche called the “will to power” to rise above the “weak herd” of humanity. After the premiere of Guntram in 1894, Strauss began seriously to consider the composition of a tone poem based upon Also sprach Zarathustra. The score is prefaced by a lengthy excerpt from the opening of Nietzsche’s poem—in which Zarathustra, after ten years as a hermit, rises to greet the dawn and resolves to descend from his mountain retreat and spread his wisdom among the people below. Strauss’ program for the work is not a narrative and literal depiction of Zarathustra’s journey, but a more abstract interpretation of ideas from Nietzsche. 

The opening is a powerful rendering of the sunrise of Nietzsche’s prologue—thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s use of this passage in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is perhaps the best-known 22 measures of Strauss’ music. This passage not only provides a powerful opening statement, but it also sets up the conflict between nature, light and wisdom (C Major) and the struggle of humankind that continues throughout the work (represented by the key of B). After the dawn has rumbled to a close, Strauss uses chapter-headings from Nietzsche’s book to outline the form of his tone poem. 

In Of the Dwellers of the Unseen World, Nietzsche depicts the religious faith of the masses as a barrier to evolution toward the superman, represented by Strauss as a brief Gregorian chant reference giving way to more lush music. Of the Great Longing superimposes the opening sunrise or “nature” theme and the chant, representing their conflict, eventually leading to the more turbulent Of Joys and Passions. There is a sudden dark shadow at the end of this passage, which subsides into the more somber section titled The Song of the Grave. Here, Zarathustra laments and celebrates the death of his youth—Strauss creates a dark and misty texture of strings and woodwinds. A clear turning point in this work comes when Strauss quietly begins a fugue titled Of Science in the basses. This scientific fugue gives way to an intense scherzo titled The Convalescent—a reference to the cathartic point in Nietzsche’s narrative when Zarathustra recovers from a long illness of the soul to emerge as a prophet. This comes to a peak with a massive brass outburst—the opening “nature” motive. In the Dance Song, Zarathustra comes upon a group of young women dancing and joins in their revelry. This begins as a slightly incongruous Viennese waltz for solo violin but builds gradually into an impassioned statement for the full orchestra.

The final orchestral climax comes in the Song of the Night-Wanderer. Here is Strauss’ most direct depiction of the action in Nietzche’s poem: of a scene where Zarathustra, surrounded by his disciples suddenly, at the stroke of midnight, intones words of warning and promise between the striking of the bells.

After the tolling of midnight, Strauss closes his Also sprach Zarathustra with a brief and mysterious coda.

©2020 by J. Michael Allsen

Article Source: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra