by Jane Rausch
Today’s concert – “A Joyful Sound” – is HCS’ gift to you for the holidays. As part of our 50th anniversary year, we present a program of beloved classical and popular favorites with the added attraction of two orchestra premieres – the first composed by newcomer Jonah Dratfield and the second, commissioned by the HCS, written by Clifton “Jerry” Noble, Jr.
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Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer/conductor to make a lasting impression internationally. Educated to be a civil servant, he obtained a position at the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg, but he could not get music out of his head. After four years performing work he did not enjoy, Tchaikovsky failed to get a promotion and resigned. Anton Rubenstein, a pianist and composer who directed the new St. Petersburg Music Conservatory, recognized his talent and invited him to become a student at the Conservatory. While he was studying, Tchaikovsky supported himself by giving music lessons on piano, organ, and flute, and joined the Conservatory Orchestra. Imbued with extensive orchestral colors and lots of drama, his early compositions showed glimpses of what was to come in later work. By the end of his career he had composed symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, and chamber music, some of which are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire.
One of the most famous of his works is The Nutcracker, which, in addition to Handel’s Messiah, has become a staple of holiday fare. If people have not seen nor heard of another ballet, they certainly would recognize the melodies that portray the sugarplum fairy and the waltzing flowers. This suite of miniature masterpieces was first performed in St. Petersburg on March 7, 1892 as a sneak preview for the complete ballet. It was a great success with the public, although the ballet itself, an adaptation from E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouseking, had trouble gaining a foothold in the repertoire. Without the composer’s marvelous music, the ballet surely would not have survived. Today the story of young Clara, her love for her “ugly” nutcracker, the growing Christmas tree, the battle between the toys and mice, Clara’s role in the release of the enchanted prince from his spell, and the journey through the snow to the Kingdom of Sweets where the sugarplum fairy reigns as queen, have become famous through live ballet performances, TV, film, cartoons, books, websites, and toys.
Composed of eight miniature pieces, the Nutcracker Suite does not include much of the music that carried the drama of the ballet’s plot, but it does present a sampling of the wonderful melodies and distinctive tone colors that characterize all the music of the larger work. It begins with an overture, orchestrated with light strings and winds, which invites us to enter the magical world of the fairy tale. Immediately following is the March which introduces the Christmas party scene. This piece shows the full power of the orchestra with brass and percussion resounding, underpinned by pizzicato strings, a typical Tchaikovsky touch.
The remaining pieces are all second act characteristic dances, which take place in the Kingdom of the Sweets, illustrated by appropriate orchestral colors. In the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy the celesta, a newly invented instrument, makes its first appearance with an orchestra. The Trepak (Russian Dance) displays the most Russian flavor, as one can imagine the spectacular leaping of the leather-booted Cossacks. The Arabian Dance is scored mainly for the woodwinds and muted strings, though the tambourine is occasionally heard. The plaintive cry of the oboe recalls the sound of the Middle-Eastern shawm (an ancient double-reed instrument) and reveals Tchaikovsky’s obsession with the exotic. The Chinese Dance echoes this exoticism with the use of the glockenspiel and the triangle. Mirlitons were musical instruments rather like kazoos played by children. A flute trio represents them in the Dance of the Mirlitons. Finally the Waltz of the Flowers brings the suite to a grand conclusion with a woodwind and harp introduction followed by the horns leading the way to the dance.
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That the observance of Christmas is universal is reflected in Around the World at Christmastime, arranged by Bruce Chase, who was a direct descendant of Aquila Chase, a Massachusetts Bay colonist and co-founder of Newbury, Massachusetts. He was also related to Salmon Portland Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and for whom the Chase Bank is named. Chase was a musician and composer who often conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The selections in this medley include traditional carols from Germany (O Tannenbaum), Poland (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly), England (What Child is This?), Sicily (O Sanctissima), Southern France (Whence comes this Rush of Wings), the African-American spiritual (Go Tell It on the Mountain), and a nod to the Jewish holiday with The Hanukkah Song.
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Jonah Dratfield is a guitarist and singer-songwriter from Western Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and a current sophomore music student at UMASS Amherst. He began studying guitar and composition with Paul Kaplan at the age of 10 and has subsequently studied with a wide variety of teachers, including Joe Belmont, Bob Ferrier, Jeremy Milligan, and Mike DePicco. Aware of the dearth of popular Hanukkah songs, he was inspired to write They Can’t Hold a Candle to You. It was premiered by the PVPA Groovy Truth Jazz Ensemble last December, under the direction of its arranger, Frank Newton.
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Clifton J. Noble, Jr. is an accomplished musician, composer, and music critic for the Springfield Republican. For the world premiere of his new composition, A Caribbean Christmas, commissioned by the HCS as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, he has graciously provided the following program note:
“A Caribbean Christmas blends a number of familiar holiday tunes together and infuses them with a spicy, saucy melody from Trinidad. The result is a kind of musical punch into which some mischievous guest has poured a liberal helping of liquid courage. The piece began its life as a piano duet, written for a Christmas tour of Trinidad and Tobago. I asked my Trinidadian collaborator to recommend a Christmas calypso that everyone would recognize, and he responded with Drink a Rum and a Punch a Crema, popularized by Lord Kitchener. I laced each of my noels – Deck the Halls, Away in a Manger, Mary Had a Baby, and Joy to the World – with a shot of Kitchener’s party song, and Trinidadian audiences responded warmly. Now that it is orchestrated, I hope that A Caribbean Christmas is as popular in Holyoke as it was in Port of Spain!”
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John Finnegan was a drum major of the Harvard marching band in the 1940s. After he graduated in 1947 he continued to arrange music for the band for twelve years. Among these compositions, his Christmas Singalong, an attractive medley of seasonal favorites, has achieved enduring popularity and has been a frequent feature of our December concerts.
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Cambridge-born composer and arranger Leroy Anderson studied at Harvard and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger and orchestrator. He wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms, and striking effects.
Somewhat ironically Anderson composed Sleigh Ride in 1946 during a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that tell of a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949 and provides a rollicking conclusion for our joyful concert.