by Jane Rausch
“49 and Counting” As the Holyoke Civic Symphony looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary season in 2016-17, Maestro Kidwell has put together four very special concerts to make the orchestra’s 49th season distinctive and memorable. For example, this afternoon’s program, “Haunted Holyoke” evokes the spirit of Halloween with three wonderfully scary compositions. After intermission, the orchestra shifts gears by performing Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of composer’s birth.
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The French composer, conductor, critic, and author HECTOR BERLIOZ was born on December 11, 1803 at La Côte-St-André, near Grenoble. His father was determined that Hector study to become a physician, but the child’s impulse toward musical expression was so strong that he began composing at the age of twelve. In his nineteenth year while a medical student in Paris, he revolted against his parent’s choice and decided to devote himself to music. Berlioz gained admission to the Paris Conservatory and succeeded in winning the coveted Prix de Rome for his work. Eventually after years of work and struggle, he achieved recognition as one of the greatest nineteenth-century Romanticists as well as one of the most significant of all French composers.
Berlioz composed his first major work, Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 in 1830 at the age of 26, drawing upon years of angst-ridden love-obsessions dating back to pre-adolescence. His deeply felt personal experience helps to explain the subject of this five-movement program piece that tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who finds himself in the depths of despair because of hopeless love. Berlioz wrote his own program notes to clarify the gruesome story of his musical creation. To describe the fourth movement of the symphony, March to the Scaffold, which the orchestra is performing this afternoon, the composer wrote:
“Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness, the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide, but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes somber and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappears like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.”
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LAUREN BERNOFSKY holds a master’s degree in composition from the New England Conservatory and a doctorate in composition from Boston University where her mentor was Lucas Foss. She is a former faculty member of the Peabody Institute and currently the Music Director of the Musical Arts Youth Organization (MAYO) in Bloomington, Indiana. Bernofsky has written over 100 works including solo chamber and choral music, as well as larger-scale pieces for orchestra, film, musicals, opera, and ballet. Critics have described her music as “delightful,” and destined to “become standard repertoire.” As she strives to capture the unique expressive potential of each instrument, her philosophy of composition is simple: music should be a joy both to play and to hear.
In addition to writing for professional performers, Bernofsky has a strong commitment to creating music for young musicians. House of Untold Horrors reflects this aim. Written for the annual Halloween concert of the Indiana University String Academy, it is basically a silly version of a haunted house story with sound effects provided by the cellos. Bernofsky provides the following explanation:
“I am not only a composer but also a music mom; at the time I wrote this piece, my son, Nicholas, was seven and studying the cello at the Indiana University String Academy. When his teacher, Cara Miller asked me to write a piece for the annual cello Halloween Concert, I happily agreed. I’m always looking for ways to make music-making fun. Cara and I wanted a piece that the kids would have a great time playing. I later arranged the piece for string orchestra.
“I thought that having an actual story would be a fun basis for the piece, and it’s not really a scary story (well, not until the very end, but by then it’s just funny). The story, of course, justifies the many unusual sound effects called for in this piece, which will broaden the students’ “palette” of sounds that they know how to produce on their instruments. And these sound effects, strange as they may seem, also have pedagogical value. For instance, the rain sound effect, made by tapping fingers on the tops of the instruments, actually serves to develop strong, curved fingers in both hands. Two of the sound effects, the scuttling rats and the scream, were invented by Nicholas!
“House of Untold Horrors was premiered on October 27, 2007 at Indiana University by the String Academy cello ensemble, directed by Cara Miller. Our wonderfully ‘horrible’ narrator was Dr. Joss Marsh, Professor of English at Indiana University, whom I would also like to thank for her help in editing the text of the story.”
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CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS was a remarkable child prodigy. Before he was three years old he displayed perfect pitch and enjoyed picking out tunes on the piano. After studying with Camille-Marie Stamaty, he made his concert debut at the age of ten, and by the time he reached his 20th birthday, he was already known internationally as a composer and pianist to be reckoned with. Not only was he a precocious talent, but during the first half of his 84-year life he was also a champion of new musical forms. A friend of Franz Liszt, he adopted many of the Hungarian trailblazer’s new ideas including the composition of symphonic poems – a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single movement, that illustrates the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting or landscape.
Between his mid-30s and mid-40s, Saint-Saëns penned four symphonic poems. The third of these, written in 1874, would become the most famous: the short, lively Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death” inspired by a poem of Henri Cazlis describing the medieval superstition that at Halloween “Death” (or the Devil) has the power to summon the dead from their graves to dance until dawn.
Saint-Saëns’ work opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The Devil tunes up his (intentionally) mistuned violin and begins playing a waltz. A dancing army of ghosts and skeletons (you can hear the bones rattling) appears, and the party begins. The action becomes increasingly frenzied until a cockerel (an oboe) announces the dawn. The spectral party then vanishes into the morning mist and the Devil plays a last mournful fiddle solo before slinking back to hell for another year.
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JEAN SIBELIUS, the celebrated Finnish composer, was born in 1865 in a small town in the south of Finland where the language and culture of his middle class family was actually Swedish. It was at school that he first learned Finnish (which remained his second language) and developed an interest in the early legends of his country which at that time was an autonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia.
As a youth Sibelius aspired to be a concert violinist, but while a student at the Helsinki music school he realized that his true gift lay in composition. Disturbed by the repressive measures imposed on Finland by Tsar Nicholas II in the 1890s, he became ardent nationalist, and his music, especially Finlandia and his symphonic poems, became a central rallying cry for the Finish people in their fight to preserve their linguistic, cultural and political independence.
Without discounting his shorter compositions, the core of Sibelius’s oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies – each used to develop further his own personal compositional style. He composed Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 in 1898 and 1899 and conducted its successful premiere in Helsinki on April 26 of the latter year. Although critics have noted that the work appears to have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky’s compositions, they likewise concede that Sibelius immediately established the characteristic Nordic quality of his music – the sense of still, wide-open spaces. Behind the borrowed ideas and sonorities, one hears glimmers of the highly original, deeply personal symphonic style of the mature composer.
The first movement, Andante ma non troppo; Allegro energico, opens with a rhapsodically brooding clarinet solo against a soft drum roll. The main sonata structure is launched by the strings, its first subject craggy and tempestuous, the second pointed in four-note woodwind phrases. After a busy, eventful development, the recapitulation arrives with even greater force.
The second movement, Andante (ma non troppo lento), has been described as a “Rondo” but sounds more like a free variation form. The sighing main theme has an extraordinary wistfulness, and is molded and reshaped pliantly, rather than just decorated – although the “color schemes” are a wonder to behold.
The Scherzo (Allegro) third movement is straightforwardly rugged and outdoorsy. In a reversal of customary roles, the violins and violas produce rhythmic beats to set off the theme which is actually played on the timpani. It is echoed by the lower strings and winds, and then tossed back and forth among the timpani, clarinets and trombones. The trio is as openhearted in its nostalgic tenderness as the scherzo proper is in its gruff vigor, and the two elements combine for a brief but heady moment before the brisk conclusion.
In the Finale (quasi una Fantasia); andante, Sibelius announced that he was doing something out of the ordinary. The brooding clarinet solo from the first movement reappears as a bold statement by the strings. The overall impression is of a grand summing-up, emerging from the emotional turbulence of the preceding movements, and the soaring second theme is hymnic in the distinctive Sibelian sense.