Handel’s Messiah

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton

Traditionally performed at Christmas time, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is arguably one of the most performed and celebrated works of the orchestral repertoire. Not quite a full-staged opera, this oratorio features soloists, four-part chorus, and an orchestra of paired trumpets, two oboes, first and second violins, viola, basso continuo, and timpani.

Finished in 1741, Messiah is in three parts and depicts the life of Jesus. Part I is the birth and miracle of Jesus, Part II is the Passion and Jesus’ death (famously ending with the Hallelujah Chorus), and Part III is Jesus glorified in Heaven. All three parts are made up of scenes which consist of solo arias, recitatives, instrumental movements, and choruses.

This work contains many famous arias and choruses that can stand on their own as important works of the classical canon, but probably none are as notable as the end of the Second Part, the Hallelujah Chorus. And with that chorus comes many traditions: sing-along performances, its affiliation with the holiday season, and its use in television and popular culture. One of the most well-known practices—and one with a rather curious origin—is the audience standing upon hearing the Hallelujah Chorus. It is said that at the work’s London premiere in 1743, the King of England, George II, was present, and when he heard the Hallelujah Chorus he rose to his feet in excitement. According to the custom of the time, if the king stood, so did you. The audience rose to their feet to join their king. Though this is thought to be the origin of the tradition, there is very little evidence as to why the king stood up or to even prove he was at the performance. There are even rumors that the king stood to make his way to the bathroom, and all his subjects just followed suit. Whatever the origin of the tradition is, it has held up over hundreds of years and added to the tradition of Handel’s Messiah.

George Frederick Bristow’s Symphony No. 4, Arcadian

Notes by TŌN oboist JJ Silvey

Subverting European Eminence
“How are Americans to win their way in composition unless their compositions are played?” This retort to critic Richard Storrs Willis by William Henry Fry, one of the earliest known American symphonists, would precipitate a public argument between the two men about the virtues of American versus European orchestral music, played out on the pages of a Boston circular. In his zeal to indict the American predilection for European music, Fry publicly praised the composition skills of George Frederick Bristow—then concertmaster of the Philharmonic Society of New York—and challenged the lack of esteem Bristow’s output was accorded by his own orchestra. The media circus, galvanizing Bristow’s resentment for the vogue of American institutions disregarding American music, led to his resignation from the Philharmonic Society. Like Fry, Bristow believed fervently in the cause of subverting European eminence in the American musical sphere.

An Undercurrent of Transcendentalism
Composed in 1872, Bristow’s Arcadian Symphony is perhaps his most fully realized effort at synthesizing the European musical conventions of the day with a uniquely American melodic poignancy. In listening to the piece, one readily detects the influence of German luminaries. Despite the music’s structural familiarity, there is a palpable undercurrent of transcendentalism. The symphony is grand in scale, much of the material having been borrowed from The Pioneer, Bristow’s cantata depicting the lives of westward-bound settlers.

The Music
The first movement begins with an affecting viola solo. The movement is comparable in length to the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, and the similarities between the two works don’t end there. Frequent use of hemiola, tutti chordal hits, and carefully paced textural contrasts all point to a clear Beethovenian influence. A tranquil horn solo opens the second movement, soon giving way to a low brass iteration in which Bristow quotes a theme by Thomas Tallis. This prayerful moment evokes noble simplicity, lending local color to a movement otherwise marked by sophisticated lyrical development and lush chromaticism. The third movement alternates a scherzando woodwind theme with bombastic chromatic interjections, both of which are interrupted before long by a steadying brass melody. After this reprieve, the scherzando theme increases in volume and intensity, bolstered by greater orchestral forces and the deployment of more complex counterpoint. The fourth movement is richly varied in texture and character. The exuberant opening undergoes cleverly executed mood shifts, lending the movement tremendous interest and dynamism.

Scott Wheeler’s Birds of America: Violin Concerto No. 2

Notes by the composer

The birds in my violin concerto Birds of America are not depicted literally, and it isn’t important for a listener to identify them, but quite a few birds make appearances in the work. The first movement includes a hawk, a whippoorwill, loons, and a mourning dove. The second movement, which features prominent solos for celeste and flute, draws on my music for the ballet Nightingale, developed with choreographer Melissa Barak. The finale is a dance, or a series of dances, perhaps set in an aviary.

One day this past spring, as Gil Shaham and I were planning this concerto, we took a walk in Central Park with his wife, the violinist Adele Anthony. We passed what I later learned was a downy woodpecker, which Adele filmed on her phone. That chance encounter inspired me to start the third movement of Birds of America with taps on the body of the violin, bow taps (col legno) in the violas, and a few high peeps roughly transcribed from woodpecker calls.

Some of the birds in this concerto are taken from earlier music rather than from nature, and are not specifically American birds. There are brief references to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the opening of The Birds by Respighi, Schumann’s Bird as Prophet, and a novelty tune called The Hot Canary, famously played by the jazz violinist Joe South. As with the bird calls, the listener need not identify these cameo appearances from other music. Gil Shaham directed me to some of these references, and he advised me on many details of the violin part. Our conversations led us to consider questions of concerto writing from Mozart to Mendelssohn to Prokofiev and beyond. We agreed that the violin is essentially a singing voice.

Birds of America: Violin Concerto #2 is in three movements, marked Quietly Soaring, Adagietto, and Allegro vivo. The work was commissioned by Bard College for The Orchestra Now and its music director, Leon Botstein. It is dedicated to Gil Shaham.

Julia Perry’s Stabat Mater

Notes by TŌN violinist Yi-Ting Kuo

The Composer
Julia Perry was an African-American composer born in 1924 in Lexington, Kentucky. Upon graduating from Akron High School, she attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, studying voice, piano, and composition. After that, she continued to pursue her musical training at The Juilliard School, and also spent summers at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. She also received two Guggenheim fellowships to study with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Nadia Boulanger in France. In 1959, she returned to the United States to teach at Florida A&M University, and later on became a faculty member at Atlanta University. In 1970 she suffered from her first stroke, which paralyzed her right side, and she began teaching herself to compose with her left hand while being in and out from the hospital. She died in 1979 at the age of 55.

The Music
Stabat Mater was her first major composition, and she wrote this piece while studying at Juilliard and with Luigi Dallapiccola at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. The piece, which appeared in 1951, was dedicated to her mother, and it has been widely performed in Europe and the United States. It was written for a contralto voice and string orchestra based on a Latin poem by Jacopone da Todi (the score includes an English translation by the composer), and it is a story related to Jesus, Mary, and the spectator.

José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango

Notes by TŌN cellist Jordan Gunn

The Composer
One of the happiest pieces we’ve programmed at The Orchestra Now since I arrived in 2020 has got to be Huapango by the great composer José Pablo Moncayo. Moncayo was born, lived, and studied in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. His music was heavily influenced by that heritage and his teacher, the well-known composer Carlos Chávez. Much of Moncayo’s legacy includes not only his compositions, but also his accomplishments as a conductor, having been appointed the role of director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico at age 37. His most famous composition, Huapango, is a bright and fun piece with traditional Mexican rhythms and soaring melodies played especially in the brass.

The Music
This piece is unique in the classical repertoire, notably because of the desire to dance to it. Classical music can sometimes create the feeling that you must sit and be silent during concerts, but Huapango invokes the opposite feeling. This music is about joy and pride, a characteristic not present in most 20th century compositions. The reason we in The Orchestra Now are musicians is to help people feel something when they come to concerts. It is important to me to showcase not only the injustices and sadness around the world, but also the light and joy.

In Moncayo’s Words
In a letter to one of his students, Moncayo recalled: “Blas Galindo [a fellow composer and colleague] and I went to Alvarado, one of the places where folkloric music is preserved in its most pure form; we were collecting melodies, rhythms, and instrumentations for several days. The transcription of it was very difficult because the huapangueros never sang the same melody twice in the same way. When I came back, I showed the collected material to Candelario Huízar, who gave me a piece of advice that I will always be grateful for: ‘Introduce the material first in the same way you heard it and develop it later according to your own ideas.’ And I did it, and the result is almost satisfactory for me.”

Manuel de Falla’s The Three- Cornered Hat

Notes by TŌN percussionist Luis Herrera Albertazzi

The Composer
Manuel de Falla is one of the most distinguished Spanish composers of the 20th century. His music can be described as a combination of poetry and asceticism that represents the spirit of Spain at its purest. Falla started his musical career taking piano lessons from his mother, and then continued to study composition with Felipe Pedrell, who he used as an inspiration, as he loved the way Pedrell combined church music, folk music, and Spanish native opera, also known as zarzuela. Later in his musical life Falla moved to Paris, where he was influenced by the composing and orchestrating style of Debussy, Dukas, and Ravel. He then returned to Madrid where he wrote his composition El Corregidor y la Molinera (The Governor and the Miller’s Wife), which was later rescored for a ballet called El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat).

The Ballet
The original story is the perfect Spanish folk story: a corrupt governor, the humble and honest miller, and his beautiful wife, whom the governor tries to seduce using his power and status. Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian ballet impresario, requested Falla to expand his composition to a ballet after seeing one of its performances. Choreographed by Leonid Massine (who also danced the role of the miller), with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso, and conducted by Ernest Ansermet, this ballet was set for success. It is about 40 minutes long, performed by a full orchestra, a mezzo-soprano, and, on occasion, dancers. Given its success, Falla derived two orchestral suites to be performed on different concert stages around the world. The first dance we hear is a fandango, performed by the miller’s wife. The neighbors’ dance, second in the ballet, is a seguidilla. The dance of the miller’s wife becomes a flamenco farruca, which is a very intense dance in 4/4 time, that leads to the final dance, a jota, which is a rhythm where the time signature’s feel fluctuates between 3/4 and 6/8.

Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea)

Notes by TŌN harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman

New Ideologies
The turn of the 20th century was a profound and transformative era in the development of Western European Classical music. In the age of “-isms,” composers were looking for new ways to advance the development of classical music away from the Romantic Era and into a new future. Composers like Igor Stravinsky sought inspiration from Classical and Baroque form with Neoclassicism, while composers like Arnold Schoenberg sought inspiration from our deep and suppressed subconscious to develop Expressionism. With some of these new ideologies being regional, one such school that developed in France was Impressionism. Impressionism strives to express an experience rather than to achieve a perfectly accurate representation. One such parallel in the visual art world was Claude Monet and his Water Lilies series, which through distorted shapes and colors gave the viewer an impressionistic landscape as opposed to a highly realistic creation.

The Music
While Monet was painting his iconic works, French composer Claude Debussy was composing his impressionist work La Mer. Translating to “The Sea,” the three-movement work seeks to capture the essence of contrasting seascapes. The first movement, “From Dawn to Midday on the Sea,” begins in a mysterious manner but increases in intensity, eliciting a feeling of radiant ambience near the end of the movement. The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” suggests the motion of rocking back and forth through the use of musical conversation between various instruments; and the third, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” evokes imagery of powerful forces interacting. While the titles are visually suggestive, there is no definitive program to the music. Rather, the music suggests three different musical scenes that are up to the listener to interpret. Debussy does not try to reach a goal, climax, or a particular key. His music merely exists.

Hear Your Own Story
In addition to his exceptional harp writing, I personally enjoy this work because Debussy presents sounds that allow me, the listener, to hear my own story. He gives me a canvas, and I get to visualize my own painting.

Messiaen’s Le tombeau resplendissant (The Resplendent Tomb)

Notes by TŌN timpanist Keith Hammer III

Youth’s Departure, or Maternal Mourning
Grief. Rage. Despair. Sadness. These are the driving emotions that plagued the mind of Olivier Messiaen when composing Le Tombeau Resplendissant. He composed this symphonic poem in 1923, three years after completing his work Offrandes oubliées. In his preface to the work, he described his emotional state regarding him departing his youthful days, saying “My youth is dead: I am its executioner.” One could say that in this work he is purely mourning the loss of his youth, but he had also witnessed the death of his mother from consumption only four years prior. It is quite possible that his grief over his mother’s passing in such a horrid manner still lived on in him when composing this work.

The Resplendent Tomb
This work is in a four part form, in a fast-slow-fast-slow progression. In both of the fast portions, we witness the lashings of his rage and fury at his youth leaving him. The use of flourishes in the winds and strings are emblematic of his anger surging through his psyche, with the timpani and grand caisse strikes at the end of the sections displaying the finality of youth’s exit. In the second and fourth sections, Messiaen dispenses with the lashings and replaces them with more melancholic melodies, showing a temporary appeasement of his anger in the first slow part, then in the second slow part a glimmer of hope that he has accepted the death of his youth.

Grappling with Grief
In the first slow section the oboe, clarinet, and flute introduce and pass along a new theme. Though lyrical and melancholic, it is wrought with dissonance. Combined with the undulating harmony and high-register tremolo in the strings, we see the efforts of Messiaen to finally begin to accept his fate, all while his anger and fear loom not too far away, ready to strike again. In the final section, the timbre changes as Messiaen uses only strings. He also uses harmonics in the strings to create a very airy atmosphere, one in which the raging emotions from the third section disappear and give way to the violas and cellos reciting a melody in unison. Still maintaining a dissonant characteristic compared to the one in the first slow section, this melody differs in atmosphere. The harmonics and stable, E-major harmony can be seen as Messiaen finally moving on through the mourning process, releasing his anger and fear, accepting that his youth was bound to depart at some point.

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Cheryl Fries

The Mysterious Bruckner
Anton Bruckner’s compositions and legacy have remained a constant fascination and mystery. Bruckner has garnered a rather bizarre reputational legacy, accumulating several different personas: death obsessed, anti-social, a drunk, and a country bumpkin. It seems nearly impossible to determine exactly who Bruckner the person was, but it is clear that his colossal symphonies continue to intrigue musicians.

Obsessive Tendencies
Bruckner deeply admired the music of Richard Wagner; it has been said Bruckner’s symphonies are the symphonies Wagner never wrote. While composers like Strauss and Mahler were leading the helm of German modernism, Bruckner strongly upheld and expounded upon the musical conservatism of Wagner. Despite his humble beginnings, Bruckner was an intellectual and as such was deeply insecure and self-critical of his works, which contributed to the constant revision of his symphonies. Bruckner had a lot of obsessive tendencies when composing. One characteristic feature of his nine symphonies is the length and size, which Johannes Brahms offhandedly described as “symphonic boa constrictors.” Bruckner also had a fascination with counting, which ensured that his symphonies were masterfully crafted down to every last note and rhythm.

The Music
The most characteristic feature of the 5th Symphony is the contrapuntal style, which is first highlighted in the opening chorale of the first movement. The overall structure of this movement is an elongated sonata form that slowly builds, beginning softly and ending triumphantly, introducing themes in blocks of contrasting music. The second movement serves as a theme and variations, with the opening theme being introduced by the solo oboe at the start of the movement. The last variation uses the opening theme, but weaves underneath a contrapuntal moving line in the strings alongside a chorale in the brass that echoes the beginning of the symphony. The third movement alternates between two contrasting styles. It begins with a faster, menacing theme in a minor key and then eventually transitions into a sweeter, more pastoral theme. Throughout the movement, the dueling themes fight for the spotlight at times blending and weaving into one another. The finale begins with reminiscent themes from the earlier movements, the opening chorale, second movement oboe solo, and themes from the scherzo. Near the end of the movement Bruckner’s mastery of counterpoint is featured in an extensive double fugue.

R. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Notes by TŌN oboist Jasper Igusa

The Merry Prankster
Richard Strauss depicts the pranks and misadventures of the German peasant folk hero Till Eulenspiegel in his tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). The title character, an infamous trickster always portrayed as the protagonist, precedes Strauss’ work by hundreds of years. His origins are murky, but Till’s first recorded appearance was in a German chapbook in 1515, published by an unknown author who signed their writings only with an “N.” The trickster archetype of Till Eulenspiegel has been adapted since then, including a notable novel written in 1867 that characterizes him as a heroic Flemish prankster during the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands.

The Music
Strauss’ rendition sticks closer to Till’s origin story. His work opens with what has been described as the musical equivalent to a “Once upon a time” prologue. The piece, and the story it tells, begins in earnest with the first of two themes that represents Till Eulenspiegel himself, played by the French Horn. The orchestra takes over this theme and concludes this section with two repeated notes. Then the second theme arrives, played by an unaccompanied E-flat clarinet. Although some scholars have suggested a detailed sequence of events that Strauss has depicted, from a horse ride to a marketplace to a run-in with the Teutonic clergy, Strauss was not in the business of assigning a detailed story. One is in a much better position to appreciate Strauss’ work if the bulk of the “story” is left for their own imagination and interpretation. That is, save for the graphic ending of the work.

A New Ending
In the original publication, Till dies of the plague in 1350; the infamous “Black Death.” In Strauss’ work, however, Till meets his end at the gallows, sentenced to death for blasphemy. The tutti brass section represents the strong arm of the law while the E-flat clarinet interjects in vain with its theme. The clarinet belts out what sounds like a death scream as the drop begins, and pizzicato strings conclude his death scene. Immediately following, the “Once upon a time” material returns, affirming that the character of Till Eulenspiegel lives on, even though Strauss’ rendition has come to a close.