Tag Archive: Program Notes

  1. Program Notes — BRAHMS OBSESSIONS

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    Scott Foglesong Program Note Writer

    Saad Haddad (b. 1992)

    Mishwar (World Premiere, 2024)

    Saad Haddad, the California Symphony’s current Resident Composer, is acclaimed for his distinctive blend of Western art music and Middle Eastern idioms. Haddad has drawn Mishwar (Arabic مشوار(, meaning “A Trip,” out of his own memories. He tells us that:

    Saad Haddad, photo by Matt Dine

    “Throughout my childhood, my family and I made frequent trips up the coast of California, from the San Fernando Valley up to the Bay Area. Awaiting us there was the paternal, Jordanian side of my rambunctious, extended family, who we always looked forward to seeing again. Near the five-hour mark of each trip, like clockwork, a waft of garlic would whisk itself into our car, signaling both the impending arrival to our final destination, San Jose, and the start of what my two younger brothers and I would infamously call “the Arabic game.” 

    “Once we made our way through Gilroy, my dad, on cue, liked to see who retained the most out of the Arabic language among the three of us, who were all born in the U.S.: “What color is that car?”; “Who can count to 20?”; “How do you say ‘sky’?”; and so on. None of us were quite good at this game, though the moments when one of us would remember a word or phrase would always bring joy for my dad.’”

    Mishwar is a commission by the California Symphony, and receives its world premiere performance in these concerts. Haddad describes it as “a conversation, albeit quite a loud one, between both my identities: a coastal American trained in Western classical music, and the son of Jordanian and Lebanese immigrants attempting to retain the culture they themselves grew up in.”

    Clara Schumann (1819–1896)

    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 7 (1836)

    Clara and Robert Schumann, 1850

    It’s true enough that Friedrich Wieck merits a place amongst music history’s villains, but it’s also true enough that, from his point of view, he was really, really trying to do the right thing. 

    That right thing was protecting his precious daughter Clara from a suitor who qualified as every father’s dreaded Boyfriend from Hell. Robert Schumann was actually one of Friedrich’s piano students, but as of the 1830s he was nobody’s idea of good husband material. He had practically no career prospects. He was a lousy pianist. He drank way too much. His mental stability was a matter of concern. And that aforesaid precious daughter Clara Wieck? She was most immeasurably gifted with the Right Stuff, by her early teens already an admired pianist with a marked flair for composition. And Friedrich Wieck had made her that way. 

    Papa’s howls of protest and legalistic skulduggery notwithstanding, Clara married Robert the minute she reached the age of consent. She made her choices, became one of history’s supreme pianists, and focused on Robert’s compositions rather than her own. What we have—and it isn’t much—of Clara Schumann’s music is worth exploring and hearing again and again.

    Her Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 7 would be impressive enough had it been merely the work of a 16-year old. But Clara actually wrote what became the Finale when she was 13. Undoubtedly the concerto’s most delectable part is the slow movement, a Romanze that spins out a long-lined melody in the solo piano that’s eventually joined by a cello in an ingratiating duet. But the whole is a pleasure, from its well-ordered first movement to its dynamic and extroverted finale. 

    Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

    Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 (1876)

    “I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how disheartening it is for us to hear such a great giant marching behind,” griped Johannes Brahms to conductor Hermann Levi. Brahms wasn’t the only composer active in the mid-nineteenth century suffering from a severe case of Beethoven Envy. The newly founded municipal orchestras were doing their best to satisfy a deep public yen for the Beethoven symphonies—up to then largely inaccessible to most music lovers—and in their zeal had brought about an unfortunate side effect: the symphony had been effectively killed off as a living genre. Before 1850 both Schumann and Mendelssohn had contributed superb specimens to the repertory, but as of the 1860s those few new symphonies in the pipeline were dutiful graduation exercises or starchy prestige items, sleepwalking retreads all.

    Brahms invokes the sounds of the alpine horn or alphorn throughout the final movement of Symphony No. 1

    Even prior to his 1862 arrival in Vienna Brahms had been just about everybody’s prime candidate for the Prince Charming who would administer an awakening kiss to the slumbering symphonic beauty. But Brahms was a reluctant hero, to say the least. He wasn’t convinced that he had the requisite orchestral skill, and he was terrified lest his symphony might fail and make things even worse. He had begun one extended composition as a potential first symphony but re-purposed it as his first piano concerto—which was received with hisses at one of its early performances.

    But he persevered. On July 1, 1862 his soul mate and muse Clara Schumann wrote to mutual friend Joseph Joachim: “Johannes sent me the other day—imagine the surprise!—the first movement of a symphony … the movement is full of wonderful beauties, and the themes are treated with a mastery which is becoming more and more characteristic of him.” But that was about it for a good while, until 1868 when Brahms sent Clara an ‘Alpine horn’ theme that was to become the glorious C-major sunburst that dispels the clouds in the First Symphony’s finale.

    Then—no word. The symphony acquired a grandiloquent introduction and two relatively slender inner movements. But it remained maddeningly, frustratingly incomplete. The obstacle was the finale, which had to provide a worthy counterbalance to the magnificence of the first movement. Brahms wasn’t about to attempt the high-wire act of introducing a grand new symphony unless he was certain he had that elusive concluding movement.

    It took until 1876, but he got there. The full gestation of Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 required 22 years. But it was worth it, and then some. Magnificent and game-changing, it made abundantly clear that the symphonic genre was by no means a dead letter, and in so doing opened the floodgates for a second golden age of the symphonic tradition—Dvořák, Mahler, Bruckner, Elgar. And Brahms himself: his Symphony No. 2 in D Major followed a year later.

    Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.

    The 23-24 TRAILBLAZERS Season concludes with BRAHMS OBSESSIONS, on Saturday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 5 at 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $45 to $90 and $20 for students 25 and under, and include a free 30-minute pre-concert talk starting one hour before the performance. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. 

  2. Program Notes — MOZART SERENADES

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    Scott Foglesong Program Note Writer

    Richard Strauss (1864–1949)

    Serenade in E-flat Major, Op. 7 (1881)

    Richard Strauss may have been a mere puppy when he wrote his Serenade for wind ensemble, but he was a frisky puppy indeed, already the author of a handful of compositions including a string quartet, a piano sonata, and even an unpublished symphony. He was raised in an intensely musical home, thanks to his father’s position as principal horn of the Munich Court Orchestra. Papa Strauss held deeply conservative musical beliefs. He worshipped Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven as archangels and condemned Richard Wagner as hellspawn. It was inevitable that at least some of that ingrained classicism would percolate down to his spectacularly gifted son.

    Thus when the 17-year-old Richard wrote his Serenade for wind instruments in 1881, he instinctively channeled the spirits of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Weber into a single-movement work that eschews Wagnerian excess while offering modern listeners the occasional (very faint) hint of the Richard Strauss to come. Which isn’t to say that it sounds anythinglike Der Rosenkavalier, Don Juan, or Also sprach Zarathustra, because it doesn’t. That Richard Strauss hadn’t been invented yet. Taken simply on its own as a worthy addition to the woodwind repertory, the Strauss Serenade is a delightful concoction of expert craftsmanship, superb instrumental writing, and that irresistibly endearing demeanor that is the special provenance of the very young.

    Lou Harrison (1917–2003)

    Concerto for Violin with Five Percussionists (1959–1940)

    No, that’s not a misprint. It really is dated 1959–1940.

    Years ago I attended a symposium with Lou Harrison in which he described Beethoven as a “northwest Asian composer.” Eyebrows went up all around the room. Harrison explained himself by suggesting that we consult a map. Consider Asia—a giant landmass covering a sizeable portion of the globe, then consider Europe—a peninsula sticking out from the northwest edge of that giant landmass. Thus Beethoven as a northwest Asian composer, right along with Bach and Mozart and Haydn and, well, every European. To be sure, Harrison’s impish sense of humor was making itself felt. Nevertheless, he had a point.

    That point being that Westerners tend to suffer from cultural myopia and rarely see beyond their own self-determined borders. That short-sightedness extends to composers, among whom only a few have ventured beyond the confines of the Western musical tradition. In ‘Madame Butterfly’ Giacomo Puccini dabbled in Japonisme, followed by Chinoiserie in ‘Turandot’; Claude Debussy evoked an Indonesian gamelan (percussion ensemble) in ‘Pagodes’; Benjamin Britten went so far as to incorporate a quasi-gamelan in both ‘Prince of the Pagodas’ and, most memorably, ‘Death in Venice’. Lou Harrison outdid them all by expanding his gaze to include the techniques, idioms, and even tuning systems of Asian music. He was an American composer in that he was born in Portland, Oregon and spent his happiest adult years in Aptos, California near Santa Cruz. But when all is said and done, Lou Harrison was a citizen of the world.

    Harrison completed his Concerto for Violin with Five Percussionists in 1959, after a long period of transformation that began around 1940 as he extricated himself from aggressive modernist idioms such as serialism while recovering from devastating bouts of depression. (Thus his dating of the piece as looking back from 1959 to 1940.) Harrison’s fascination with Indonesian music began with that recovery and continued nonstop for the rest of his career.

    The Violin Concerto is not written for an actual gamelan per se, but its array of percussion instruments—including flowerpots, plumbers’ pipes, temple blocks, and spring coils along with standard orchestral percussion—elicits a distinctly Asian association. Even if the concerto can be brightly rhythmic at times, overall its textures are transparent and its moods delicate, the violin’s lyrical nature standing in sharp relief to the orchestra’s pointillistic sonic tapestry.

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

    Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361(370a) “Gran partita”

    It is said that sometimes sweet water can be drawn from a foul well. Case in point: Mozart’s glorious late works written for his good buddy Anton Stadler, a pioneering clarinet virtuoso with a nasty case of arrested development and a singular lack of everyday morals. Mozart clearly valued Stadler beyond mere appreciation of his superb playing. He was quite fond of him personally, even if nobody else could stand the guy. Notschibinitschibi, Mozart nicknamed him—a whimsical concoction of slang words for ‘doofus’ and ‘pauper,’ something along the lines of ‘Dumbitybumbity.’ Stadler repaid Mozart by stealing from him, and after Mozart’s death, he either lost or pawned the autograph manuscript of the Clarinet Concerto. Some friend, that Dumbitybumbity.

    To the roster of sublime masterpieces that Mozart wrote with Stadler’s playing in mind—it includes the Clarinet Quintet K. 581, Clarinet Concerto K. 622, the Clarinet Trio K. 498 and the Masonic Funeral Music K. 477—we can add Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361(370a). Somebody—we don’t know who—christened it as the “Gran partita” in the autograph score. It has been known as such ever since.

    In choosing to write a Serenade for Stadler rather than, say, a concerto, Mozart was reflecting his origins in Salzburg, where orchestral hodgepodges, a.k.a. serenades, made up of dances, marches, and symphonic movements, were all the rage. For this, the last of his three wind serenades written in Vienna, Mozart happily experimented with orchestral color, making particular use of both the clarinet and the basset horn, Stadler’s instruments of choice. Four pairs of winds—oboes, B-flat clarinets, basset-horns in F, and bassoons—are joined by four horns (in F and B-flat) and an underlying string bass. Amidst the Serenade’s mixed bag of seven movements we find variations, two minuets, a “Romanze,” and perhaps most memorably, a third movement Adagio of breathtaking lyricism.

    Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.

    The 23-24 TRAILBLAZERS Season continues with MOZART SERENADES, on Saturday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 17 at 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $45 to $90 and $20 for students 25 and under, and include a free 30-minute pre-concert talk starting one hour before the performance. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. 

  3. Program Notes — FRESH INSPIRATIONS

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    Scott Foglesong Program Note Writer

    Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

    Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9 (1844)

    Fiodor Bronnykov, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Hector Berlioz never met an applecart he didn’t want to upset, or an envelope he didn’t want to stretch. It was simply not in his nature to kowtow to prevailing fashion or to acquiesce to the dictates of the proletariat. Nor was he just some obnoxious agitator, all talk and no action. He meant it, and he lived it, and he wrote it.

    He had his share of failures, many engendered by the exceptional difficulties that he imposed on the performers. Such was the case with his 1838 Cinerama/Imax operatic spectacle Benvenuto Cellini; it flummoxed the august Paris Opera and went so poorly that Berlioz described the premiere as being “dragged to execution.”

    Never one to admit defeat, Berlioz rummaged through the ill-fated score and extracted material to form the Roman Carnival Overture, which succeeded marvelously at its 1844 premiere. Berlioz made it a regular part of his conducting repertoire and to this day the Overture remains one of his most popular and often-performed works. That’s with good reason: the piece is a delight from beginning to end, from its boisterously festive opening to its all-stops-out finale.

    Viet Cuong (b. 1990)

    Stargazer (2023)

    World Premiere

    Something to know about Viet Cuong’s new Stargazer, for piano and orchestra, is its deft blending of two musical techniques, one old and one new. First up, the old: ground bass, developed by long-ago instrumentalists for improvising dance music. Here’s how it works. A player on a bass instrument constantly repeats a pattern of notes, while melody-line instrumentalists play whatever they like, as long as it jibes with that bass pattern. It’s like jazz ensembles in which players take turn improvising their own fantasies on a tune, except in the ground bassit’s the bass line that remains the same while the ‘tune’ can be just about anything.

    California Symphony’s Young American Composer-in-Residence,
    Viet Cuong

    Some ground basses were named for the dances they accompanied, giving rise to the alternate terms passacaglia and chaconne. Nor was the idea restricted to improvisation; written-out passacaglias and chaconnes abound, including masterpieces by Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach, Brahms, Shostakovich, and Britten, among others.

    Now, for the new: tape delay, familiar from Beatles’ albumssuch as Revolver, in which notes are simultaneously recorded and then played back after a brief delay; as the process continues the notes and their delays pile up, creating an ever-thickening texture. Nowadays digital technology makes such effects effortless, but back in the day they involved actual loops of tape running through a dedicated machine. And what we can do with studio artifice, we can do with live musicians in concert.

    Which brings us back to Stargazer. An underlying cyclic bass line provides the basic structure, while everything above unfolds and develops, incorporating a layering similar to that created by tape delay.

    About the name Stargazer: “I like the idea that the pianist is the Stargazer, with the piano as your telescope,” remarked Cuong during a conversation with pianist Sarah Cahill. “You’re looking out and hearing the orchestra twinkle around you and they’re taking the sounds from you. Each one of the notes echoes itself, so it snowballs and creates this very lustrous texture.”

    William Walton (1902–1983)

    Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Minor (1935)

    Photo of Sir William Walton;
    Bassano Ltd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    The story goes that William Walton was visiting Lucerne, Switzerland when Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes was being performed there. He passed by a music shop that featured a large photograph of Britten in its window. Walton walked into the store, spoke politely to the proprietor, then reached into the display window, grabbed the photograph, and plopped it face down on a chair. Walton left just as politely as he had entered.

    Before World War II, Walton had been the Bright Young Thing of British music. Now he was being replaced by his younger colleague. Thus the sour grapes. But Walton needn’t have worried. His place in British music was secure, and Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Minor of 1935 played a critical part in making that so. It’s easily amongst the very finest of British symphonies, and that’s quite a distinction given the competition.

    British music had undergone a renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The symphonies of Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams were internationally recognized, with Arnold Bax dominant amongst domestic symphonists. In 1932, when Sir Hamilton Harty asked Walton to write a symphony, Walton was known primarily for three spectacular early works, the quirky Façade: An Entertainment, the opulent cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, and a landmark Viola Concerto. A truly worthwhile symphony was going to be a heavy lift, so he took his time about it all. As of 1934 he had completed the first three movements. Then he hit a brick wall in his search for an appropriately optimistic ending. “I’ve burnt about three finales,” he wrote to a friend, “and it is only comparatively lately that I’ve managed to get going on what I hope is the last attempt.”

    He got it at last, and the completed symphony was a sensation at its premiere in November 1935. The first recording followed a month later, and since then the symphony has amassed a sizeable discography, including a splendid 1953 outing with Sir William Walton Himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

    The Walton First follows a time-honored trajectory from darkness to light established by Beethoven in his fifth symphony and Brahms in his first. The symphony progresses from turbulent drama in its first movement, through a biting second movement scherzo—it’s marked con malizia, or ‘with malice’—then into an impassioned and melancholic slow movement before launching into that triumphant finale that caused Walton so much headache.

    Walton was not destined to be a prolific symphonist like Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, or Malcolm Arnold. Like his predecessor Edward Elgar, he would write only two symphonies, a grand-slam First at the peak of his career and a less well-received Second in his later years. Elgar’s second symphony eventually acquired the recognition it deserves, and, happily, so has Walton’s. But the Walton First remains unique amongst British symphonies, a forceful evocation of elemental passion, raw ferocity, heartfelt sorrow, and finally unbridled jubilance.

    Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.

    FRESH INSPIRATIONS, featuring pianist Sarah Cahill in Viet Cuong’s World Premiere of Stargazer, takes place Saturday, May 20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 21 at 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $49 to $79 and $20 for students 25 and under, and include a free 30-minute pre-concert talk starting one hour before the performance. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. 

  4. Program Notes — MAHLER’S INNER CIRCLE

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    Scott Foglesong Program Note Writer

    Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942)

    Lustspiel Overture (1891)

    He was the little quiet guy amidst a bunch of big loud personalities. His brother-in-law was Arnold Schoenberg. He fell in love with Alma Schindler, who rejected him—too short, too homely, she said—and married Gustav Mahler instead. One of his early boosters was Johannes Brahms. Among his students we find Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Among his conducting assistants we find Erich Kleiber and George Szell. All artists of lasting renown. But Alexander Zemlinsky? Posterity mostly forgot about him.

    Alexander Zemlinsky

    Zemlinsky sustained a reasonably successful career, mostly as a conductor, until the Nazi menace compelled him and his wife to flee to America, where he died in a New York City suburb. His music languished in obscurity until it began to resurface in the wake of the Mahler revival that began in the 1960s. The restoration hasn’t been easy. Zemlinsky wasn’t one to blow his own horn and displayed a cavalier attitude towards preserving his own works.

    What has emerged is a late Romantic composer who wrote solidly crafted works of striking emotional intensity. Among his early efforts we find the Lustspiel Overture of 1891, a bit of incidental music for a comic play (lustspiel) that one theater-goer dissed as “egregious rubbish.” The failed play bounced around a bit but soon vanished, taking Zemlinsky’s overture down with it. Now, after a century spent in the Bardo of forgotten music, the Lustspiel Overture—lighthearted, fleet, and charming—has returned to the repertory.

    Alma Mahler (1879–1964)

    Five Songs (1910)

    Alma Schindler was not one to marry some rising young businessman and settle down as a contented Viennese hausfrau. The daughter of a celebrated landscape painter, her lovers included Gustav Klimt, Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, and Franz Werfel. Klimt and Kokoschka painted her. Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel married her.

    The self-identified ‘muse’ of writers, composers, and artists, Alma Mahler—she’s usually identified by her first married name—had a solid compositional gift that reveals itself in the songs that she wrote in the years prior to her marriage to Gustav Mahler, who discouraged her from composing. But Mahler eventually backed off that stance once he learned that a deeply frustrated Alma was having an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius, and went so far as to assist her in editing and publishing five of her songs in 1910. We’ll never know if this newfound support might have resulted in further and/or more ambitious works from Alma, since Mahler died of an infected heart valve a year later.

    Alma Mahler

    Alma’s marriage to Walter Gropius lasted from 1915 to 1920, to poet and novelist Franz Werfel from 1929 until his death in 1945. By then she was living in Los Angeles; in 1946 she resettled in New York City, where she remained for the rest of her life.

    Alma Mahler’s Five Songs display a superb sensitivity to their late-Romantic, erotically-tinged poems, evocative, fragrant, and atmospheric—all the more enhanced in orchestrations by renowned conducting teacher Jorma Panula. Nota bene: among the poets in her settings we find Richard Dehmel, who was put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy in the late 1890s.

    Vienna, Austria

    Hans Rott (1858–1884)

    Symphony No. 1 in E Major (1878–80)

    He was the rarest of hothouse flowers, an explosive early bloom of startling beauty in the fertile soil of late-Romantic Vienna. But it couldn’t last. Swift decay, then madness, then tuberculosis. He died in a mental hospital just a month shy of his 26th birthday. His music died with him. Now, a rebirth.

    Hans Rott was the illegitimate son of a middle-aged Viennese comic and a teenaged actress. Although his parents eventually married, both had passed on by the time he was 18. It was hardly surprising that he grew up markedly insecure and often desperate for money. Nevertheless he matured into a physically imposing young man who was warmly admired by his fellow students at the Vienna Conservatory, a group that included future composers Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler.

    Rott could count on his organ teacher Anton Bruckner as a fervent supporter and Viennese alpha male Johannes Brahms as a fervent detractor. He was a successful enough student but career advancement proved elusive. He raised too many hackles. He was prone to that sniffy disdain so common in the very young. “How many musicians are there, and how few artists!” he proclaimed. But if he was a bit of an adolescent windbag, at least he was a gifted one. In 1900 Gustav Mahler reminisced about his former classmate: “It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His genius soars to such heights even in his first symphony, written at the age of twenty.” That aforesaid Symphony No. 1 in E Major had to wait until 1989 for its first performance. It has since acquired numerous admirers, and not just because of its tragic backstory. Rott’s one and only symphony anticipates Mahler, channels Bruckner, and stands as a poignant remembrance of lost promise.

    How much Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, and even Richard Strauss one hears in the Rott First Symphony naturally depends on one’s familiarity with those composers. That Rott’s as-yet unformed style would echo influences such as Bruckner is to be expected, emulation being part and parcel of a young composer’s development. Less expected are the foreshadowings of Mahler and Richard Strauss, whose music was yet to be. “It must have been considered totally crazy at the time” writes conductor Jakub Hrůša, “but proved indeed to be one of the ways forward.” In short, Hans Rott played a part, however brief, in the scheme of things—a part that is just now coming to be acknowledged.

    Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.

    MAHLER’S INNER CIRCLE, with contralto Sara Couden, takes place Saturday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 26 at 4 p.m. at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets are $49 to $79 and $20 for students 25 and under, and include a free 30-minute pre-concert talk starting one hour before the performance. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 p.m. 

  5. Program Notes — FOUR SEASONS

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    Scott Foglesong Program Note Writer

    George Walker (1922–2018)

    Lyric for Strings (1946)

    “One finds something … that provides the genesis to motivate the direction in which you want to go.” That’s George Walker speaking in 1987, encapsulating the wisdom of a career that embodied American music at its most aspirational and accomplished.

    Lyric for Strings provides an ideal entry point for newcomers to Walker’s music. Starting out as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 and dedicated to his recently-deceased grandmother Malvina King, it threads any number of needles adroitly and convincingly—it’s sparse but not austere, mournful but not mawkish, taut but not terse.

    Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

    The Four Seasons, Op. 8 Nos. 1–4 (published 1725)

    The Venetians called him Il Prieto Rosso, The Red Priest. Antonio Vivaldi really did have bright red hair and he really was a priest, albeit not a particularly good one; what biographical information has come down to us points more to bon vivant than to dedicated cleric. Whatever ambiguity attends Vivaldi’s personal life and character, there can be no doubt about his place in music history—although that place was a long time coming. It was The Four Seasons, the first four of a collection of string concertos from 1725, that brought about Vivaldi’s 20th-century revival, catapulting him from obscurity to his current eminence amongst the titans of the Baroque.

    We begin in the Spring, a scene of unruffled sunny contentment, lightly moistened by a brief spring shower. In the second movement, sleepy shepherds snooze under the trees while insects buzz and dogs bark; in the third we join a happy dance, complete with bass drones representing bagpipes.

    The Summer heat sets in and a lazy torpor ensues. Nevertheless the violin soloist is called upon for an array of imitations—cuckoos, turtledoves, breezes and rushing winds—in passages that often anticipate the free-form sound effects of a later age. The Adagio slow movement hints at a change in the weather, which duly arrives in the third-movement Presto: a summer storm depicted in all its facets, flashes of lighting, booms of thunder, and streaky splashes of warm rain.

    Autumn is the time of harvest; the crops come in and celebratory dancing ensues. Sleep follows in a second movement that ranks amongst Vivaldi’s most harmonically complex inspirations, but soon enough exhortations from the violin-turned-bugle summon us to the hunt, accompanied by yapping dogs and galloping horses.

    Finally, Winter: ice, snow, freezing cold, but silvery chill beauty nonetheless. A warm and cozy fireside awaits us in the second movement, while outside the blasts of winter winds have the last word in a sonorous finale.

    Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

    Starburst  (2012)

    Jessie Montgomery

    Think of a modern musician’s career, not as a straight line, but as an ever-expanding sphere. Possibilities, potentialities, and commitments arise and are in turn embraced and explored as need be. Think of flexibility, of imagination, of curiosity, of boldness.

    Then think of Jessie Montgomery, violinist, teacher, and composer with an expansive vision across multiple disciplines and deep commitment to social justice. Consider her recent album Strum: Music for Strings, which writer Thomas May describes as demonstrating “her work as both composer and performer; her fluent command of classical language, of the vernacular idioms of African American spirituals and folk music, and of the intersectional potential of the string quartet; and her engagement with social justice.”

    Montgomery tells about the work: “This brief one-movement work for string orchestra is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst, ‘the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly,’ lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble that premiered the work, the Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind.”

    Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

    String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” arr. Gustav Mahler (1824/1896)

    When Franz Schubert was busy composing—which was most of the time—he could be exasperatingly distant, even to his closest friends. In 1824 the painter Moritz von Schwind noted with wry amusement that “if you go to see him during the day, he says, ‘Hello, how are you?—Good’ and goes on writing.” Schubert’s focused industry made him prolific, with well over a thousand works to show for the mere eighteen years of his career. It has also frustrated his biographers, who must attempt détente with an artist who dwelled largely in the privacy of his own mind. Schubert’s opinions, his beliefs, his love life, his sexual orientation, even the exact cause of his early death remain unsettled, all subject to heated debate, and all very much in the eye of the beholder. If an aura of mystery is an essential component of our ideal of the Romantic artist, then Schubert—appealing, ambiguous, and ultimately enigmatic—embodies that ideal to perfection, and his “Death and the Maiden” string quartet bears profound witness to that embodiment.

    Marianne Stokes Death and the Maiden

    Dramatic, volatile, emotionally supercharged, painted throughout in twilight hues shot with lightning flashes, the D Minor Quartet takes its nickname from Schubert’s song Death and the Maiden, featured in the second movement as a theme subjected to variations. Those expecting the prettified Schubert of such sentimental biographies as Blossom Time are in for a big surprise: this is a Gothic Schubert, conjuror of stormy scenarios, haunted moonlit nights, and anxious forebodings. In 1898 Gustav Mahler began, but eventually abandoned, a project to transcribe the quartet for string orchestra. Fortunately, he got far enough along for later arrangers to finish the job, providing posterity with a late Romantic ‘take’ on an early Romantic masterpiece.

    Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.

    The California Symphony’s FOUR SEASONS featuring Alexi Kenney takes place Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 PM and Sunday, Nov. 7 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Tickets are $44 to $74 and subscription packages of 3 or more concerts start at $33 per concert. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm.

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