Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This is the final piece on the May 22 program. Lee Cullum will narrate the work.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Benjamin Britten
Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, England
Died December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh, England

Benjamin Britten, a prolific British composer, conductor, and pianist, began his musical career at an early age. At only fourteen, he composed his Quatre Chansons françaises for soprano and orchestra, garnering him much acclaim. Britten’s potential for musical brilliance was later recognized as he eventually came to compose one of the most beloved works in all of symphonic literature, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
Britten was a gifted adolescent who enjoyed exploring the many facets of classical music. He eventually enrolled in the Royal College of Music where he received superb training and also developed into a first-rate pianist. His disappointment with the traditional methods of instruction, however, caused him to leave without completing his musical education. Britten decided to depart from England as a conscientious objector to the political turmoil resulting from World War II. After traveling between the United States and England for several years, he ultimately decided to return in order to focus on his music. Britten’s efforts finally came to fruition with the composition of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945. This work became a landmark in the history of English opera, propelling him to the forefront of British composers during his time.
In the same year as the premiere of Peter Grimes, the British Ministry of Education asked Britten to compose a piece that was to be featured in a film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra, designed to educate students about instruments that are common to a modern symphony orchestra. It was to feature a narration written by Eric Crozier, a British theatrical director and Opera librettist who later co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival with him. Britten had always wanted to extend his passion for music with young people. Consequently, he viewed this offer as an opportunity. He began to compose the piece during the following year, basing it on Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s 1965 tragedy Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge. This is the reason that The Young Person’s Guide is often referred to by its alternate title, Variations and a Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell. The alternate title is used when no narration is included, since the score functions as an independent musical composition.
The Young Person’s Guide opens boldly with full orchestra playing the original Purcell theme. Britten provides each full section of the orchestra with an individual variation, followed by shorter variations for each specific instrument. He then reunites the fragmented orchestra, concluding with a grand and triumphant finale.
Benjamin Britten believed that music was the key to understanding and communication, an embodiment of the entire spectrum of human emotion. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra exemplifies Britten’s appreciation and love for every instrument in the orchestra. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the piece is that it provides younger audiences with an understanding of how symphonic music comes together. This, however, does not detract from the value it brings to older audiences as well. The Young Person’s Guide is an enduring musical work that has been enjoyed by all. Tonight’s performance features a new narration written by Dr. Laurie Shulman.
Britten scored The Young Person’s Guide for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat and A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, Tuba, percussion (timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, wood block, xylophone, castanets, tam-tam and whip), harp and strings.
-Saad Daniari, viola

Monday, May 16, 2011

An American in Paris - Gershwin

This is one of three pieces that will be performed on the May 22 GDYO Season Finale concert.
An American in Paris
George Gershwin
Born on September 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York
Died on July 11, 1937 in Hollywood, California

In 1951, one film stole the show with 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Musical Score, and a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. The film was An American in Paris, a groundbreaking MGM musical film inspired by the orchestral composition of the same name written by George Gershwin more than two decades earlier. Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant, and scored entirely with Gershwin’s music, the film followed an American World War II veteran-turned-expatriate and his friend, a struggling concert pianist, around the streets of Paris as they embarked on various escapades and became entangled in different love triangles. The movie’s success echoed that of Gershwin’s original composition, which the composer had written in 1928: the piece quickly became a favorite in the classical repertoire. Today, as a classical trademark for Gershwin, An American in Paris comes second in popularity only to Rhapsody in Blue.
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, An American in Paris is based on the sights, sounds, and moods of the French capital, which Gershwin had visited in early 1928. Deems Taylor, the 1920s composer and critic, stated Gershwin’s intention in his program notes for the premiere of the piece:
You are to imagine an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild sunny morning in May or June. …Our American’s ears being open as well as his eyes, he notes with pleasure the sounds of the city. French taxicabs seem to amuse him particularly.
Gershwin was so amused by those “French taxicabs” that he brought back Parisian taxi horns for the December 13, 1928 premiere, which was played in Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch. Gershwin had already enjoyed considerable success as a celebrated Broadway songwriter and composer of many hit Broadway shows. His concert works Rhapsody in Blue and his Piano Concerto in F had enhanced his reputation. An American in Paris was groundbreaking in that it combined jazz—the use of saxophone and unconventional instruments like the taxi horns to evoke the feeling of the bustling La Ville-Lumiére (“The City of Light”)—and “serious music”—those unconventional elements embedded into a traditional symphony orchestra—into one symphonic piece.
Reviews were mixed. While many critics acclaimed Gershwin for bringing the vitality and dynamism of jazz onto the serious classical-music stage, others were not so thrilled with the composer’s avant-garde style. Regardless, An American in Paris proved a great success with the public and helped cement Gershwin’s position as one of the greatest composers of the day. Tonight, the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra will take you on an animated jaunt through the streets of the French Capital. As Taylor noted, “It will be great to get home; but meanwhile, this is Paris!”

Instrumentation: An American in Paris is scored for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B flat, bass clarinet in B flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B flat, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, wood block, cymbals, low and high tom-toms, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, 4 taxi horns, alto saxophone and soprano saxophone/alto saxophone, tenor saxophone/alto saxophone, baritone saxophone/alto saxophone, and strings.
Vivian Ludford, Cello

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Beethoven violin concerto in D

This piece will be played on the GDYO Season Finale on May 22, 2011 at the Meyerson Symphony Center. This program note is written by Brendan Kim, who is in the first violin section of the GDYO.

Violin Concerto and Orchestra in D major Opus 61
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Ludwig van Beethoven is justly heralded as perhaps the greatest composer of all time. His immensely acclaimed concerto for violin serves as a paradigm of his musical genius, and many violinists consider the concerto as the grandfather of all pieces composed for the violin. This immense 44-minute work features pastoral elegance, dignified drama, and a symphonic part that sets itself apart from the solo accompaniment with its own heroic themes.
The Heroic Period
Beethoven’s works are generally divided into three periods of composition. This Violin Concerto dates from his second period, widely referred to as his “heroic” period. Violence and war in Europe during this time deeply influenced Beethoven’s music. Specifically, the Napoleonic Wars caused a traumatic episode in his life. Because of the deafening blasts that ensued as Napoleon was bombing Vienna, Beethoven’s home since the early 1790s, he was overwrought with the fear of hearing loss, forcing him to stay at the basement of his brother’s home with pillows covering his ears. These emotional experiences of intensity and absolute fear helped characterize this period as one boasting gripping drama, noble melodies, and musical heroism that produced unparalleled music at the time: notably the “Eroica” Symphony, the Egmont Overture, and the Fifth Piano Concerto.
The heroic period also yielded a more sensitive, halcyon side of Beethoven, referred to by many as his “pastoral” side. This style of Beethoven’s expressed his desire for peace amongst the ravages of war-torn Europe and may also have been his musical response to violence. These works have calm melodies and themes that pay tribute to the beauties of unadulterated nature. Examples of such works include the “Pastoral” Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Beethoven completed the concerto in only five weeks in 1806, a very short amount of time for the completion of a full concerto. He was commissioned by Franz Clement to compose the work for an annual benefit concert for charity. Clement, one of Europe’s most talented violinists at the time, also premiered the work as the violin soloist in December 23, 1806 under the baton of Beethoven himself. It wasn’t until after Beethoven’s death, however, when the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim performed the concerto with Felix Mendelssohn conducting in 1844, that the work gained recognition. Joachim, then only twelve years old, kept the concerto firmly in his repertoire and immortalized it as the iconic masterwork it remains to this day.
About the Concerto
What comes to mind with this concerto is the figure of Beethoven as a master storyteller, revealing every detail, every emotion of his story with patience, dignity, and respect, and with a touching intimacy that reaches out to the hearts of the audience. Maria Schleuning, the violin soloist for the concerto, provides personal insight to the work, describing it as “a masterpiece that requires intense concentration and study,” which although “demanding both musically and technically,” is “fulfilling, pure, and soaring.” She has studied it while in London under Yfrah Neaman, who was very knowledgeable with the work. There, Ms. Schleuning developed her basics and style for it and, while studying with other musicians, formed new ideas regarding its interpretations. Ms. Schleuning adds, “this concerto is at the top of my list of favorite works, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to play it with the GDYO.”
The first movement of the Beethoven concerto is marked Allegro ma non troppo, which indicates a moderately fast tempo. The opening of the work starts with five lone beats from the timpani, low and resonant, which mark the beginning of the orchestral tutti that follows. The tutti, which is a term denoting that the entire orchestra plays, is repeated in different keys throughout the movement. This work possesses an interesting pattern that shifts from a series of dramatic orchestral parts to the more peaceful melodies of the solo violin, which elegantly embellish the orchestral parts and present diverse shades to the melodies. These transitions from heroic to calm, orchestra to solo violin, bring refreshing perspectives to the work. There are several different cadenzas written for this movement, but Ms. Schleuning has chosen to play the cadenza written by Fritz Kreisler, which is the most famous cadenza because of its structural beauty.
The second movement is a serene movement that continues the pastoral quality with beautiful melodies, tranquil themes, and soft dynamics. The movement starts very softly with muted strings playing shades of sound, setting the tone for the solo violin that eventually enters with a bright solo line. The pure lyricism continues throughout the movement as the winds and strings play the melody while the solo violin elaborates it. Towards the finish of the movement, the orchestra plays a striking passage that breaks the stillness the solo violin had maintained; the soloist comes in on a trill, dramatically ending the movement with bold notes on the G-string.
The second movement elides into the third movement, meaning that there is no pause between the two movements; the solo violin bursts in with a jolly, robust melody in 6/8 time. This movement brings life and gaiety to the concerto, as if the soloist is humoring us with a jovial anecdote, and the orchestra delightfully joins in on it from time to time. The movement also boasts an energetic cadenza towards the end of the movement, again written by Fritz Kreisler, upon the preference of Ms. Schleuning, which features an exciting sequence of chords. Finally, after all of the manifold emotions portrayed throughout the monumental concerto, the solo violin builds to the ending with anticipation and gracefully concludes the concerto.
Beethoven’s violin concerto is a true treasure to the violin literature that comes to mind a gem in all of its multifaceted and flawless beauty. With all of the melodies, instruments, and harmonies in perfect equilibrium, the music is truly sublime in every sense. Instrumentation for the concerto includes flute, oboe, clarinet in A, bassoon, horns in D, trombone in D, Timpani in D-A, solo violin, violin, viola, cello, and bass.
Brendan Kim, First Violin