Looking Forward, Looking Back program notes

PROGRAM NOTES

by Jane Rausch

Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, is usually depicted as having two faces looking opposite ways, one towards the past and other towards the future. The three compositions that we present this afternoon likewise have this same quality. While grounded in tradition and tonality, they also look forward to developments in the future. As a special highlight, Jodie Hoye will be our oboe soloist in The Winter’s Past, a work the Holyoke Civic Symphony first performed in its second concert on May 10, 1968.

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Composer and arranger Richard Meyer received a B.A. degree from California State University, Los Angeles. For many years he has conducted the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra and taught middle school instrumental music in the California public schools. Meyer is also a nationally recognized, best-selling composer with over 130 compositions and arrangements in print.

The All Southern California Junior High Orchestra premiered Millennium in 1998, the same year that the piece won the National School Orchestra Association Composition Contest. Preceded by a short but foreboding introduction, the work falls into three thematic sections. The brasses introduce the heroic main theme, followed by a lyrical theme stated first by the cellos and then by the entire orchestra. The third and final section is an energetic march, pitting brass against the woodwinds and strings. Millennium closes with a majestic restatement of the main theme.

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Wayne Brewster Barlow studied composition at the Eastman School of Music where he received his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees in music. Between 1937 until his retirement in 1978 as professor emeritus, he was a member of Eastman’s faculty and served in a variety of positions. During this period he traveled extensively, mainly within the United States, as an invited guest lecturer, guest composer, and conductor of his own compositions.

Barlow was a pioneer in electronic music, but as a composer he worked in various genres adopting an “eclectic, tonal, free 12-note style.” The majority of his works were scored for orchestra, chamber music, and chorus. Strangely enough, in spite of the longevity of his career, he published no more than a dozen of his compositions.

The Winter’s Past, a chamber work scored for oboe and string orchestra written in 1938, has proven to be his greatest commercial success. The work (subtitled “Rhapsody for Oboe and Strings”) is a romantic fantasia taking as the basis for much of its melodic material two Appalachian folksongs: “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” It is designed not as a flashy virtuoso showcase, but rather as a demonstration of the composer’s lush harmonic treatment of the melodies, and an exploration of the affecting tonal quality of the oboe – alone, in combination with a solo violin, and together with the massed strings. In short, The Winter’s Past is regarded as an important contribution to oboe literature, and over the decades numerous artists have recorded it for commercial release.

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Born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833 into a Lutheran family, Johannes Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. He composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works, and he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim. In his lifetime, Brahms’ popularity and influence were considerable. Following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs.”

Few great works of music have taken longer to get from sketch to finished product than Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. He began it in 1854, and twenty-two years elapsed before its completion in 1876. Two factors account for this long gestation. First, Brahms’ self-criticism led him to abandon many of his early attempts. When a piece didn’t please him, he put it aside or reworked it, or – as in the case of his First Symphony – he simply destroyed it. Second, although Ludwig van Beethoven had died six years before Brahms was born, there was an expectation from Brahms’ friends and public that he would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of commensurate dignity and intellectual scope – an expectation that Brahms felt he could not easily fulfill.

The proposed symphony that Brahms began in 1854 was in D minor and became instead his first piano concerto, even though the idea of “symphony” is written all over it. After composing A German Requiem and Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in 1862 Brahms sent a completed first movement of his long-awaited Symphony, now in the key of C minor, to Clara Schumann. Clara was delighted to see the evidence that he had at last begun his great work, but she felt the beginning of the movement, which took off like a rocket with a headlong Allegro, seemed bold and rather harsh. As a result, Brahms later added a powerful, measured drum beat and chromatic introduction that better served as a preview of what would follow. Fourteen years later his symphony was completed. It was premiered on November 4, 1876 in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The first movement – Un poco sostenuto – Allegro – begins with a broad introduction wherein three key elements are heard simultaneously: low drumming, the rising figure in the strings, and the falling figure in the winds. The following Allegro section is like a large orchestral sonata, wherein musical ideas are stated, developed, and restated with altered relationships among them.

The second and third movements – Andante sostenuto and Un poco allegretto e grazioso – are lighter in tone and tension. The second movement exhibits gentle lyricism throughout its three sections, the third of which is a new treatment of the themes from the first and includes a long violin solo reminiscent of some of Beethoven’s later works, such as the late quartets and Missa Solemnis. The third, scherzo-like movement has an easy spirit yet is full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures.

The finale fourth movement’s introduction, with fragments of the ensuing Allegro, is more extended than that of the first movement and emanates a fearsomeness bordering on terror. This dark emotional tone is finally pierced by a radiant horn call, and by a solemn chorale that speaks of deliverance and peace. The next theme has been called Brahms’ version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme in the Ninth Symphony. In its reappearance, this grand melody is a source of deep comfort. In its radical transformations, it forms a nucleus for the imposing grandeur that unfolds on the way to the symphony’s blazing, unrestrained, and triumphant conclusion.

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