by Jane Rausch
“We’re Golden!” The Holyoke Civic Symphony kicks off its 50th anniversary season with a “People’s Choice Concert.” During the first three concerts of last season orchestra members and patrons were invited to vote for their favorite symphony and overture from a list of six titles in each category to be programmed by Maestro Kidwell during the 2016-2017 season. As was announced at the May 1, 2016 concert, the selections gaining the most votes were Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture, K. 620 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, “From the New World.” We perform them today with the added attraction of the world premiere of Gwyneth Walker’s Flying Colors, especially commissioned by the HCS as part of its 50th celebration.
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Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s penultimate opera written in 1791, during the extremely fertile last year of his life. It was an example of the popular dramatic style known as Singspiel (a blend of singing and spoken text) and also an allegory on Mozart’s own Masonic associations and beliefs. He would live to see it successfully staged and actually conducted the premiere performances, though his death just months later would deprive him of knowing how lasting and important the work eventually became. As the British music critic Neville Cardus once wrote in the Manchester Guardian, “The Magic Flute is possibly the only opera in existence that might have been composed by God.”
Three chords begin the overture in direct tribute to the Masonic themes of the opera. After the mysterious but inexorable introduction, it is a fleet-footed five minutes until the end. The allegro section is essentially monothematic, but with Mozart one theme is plenty. He treats us right away to fugue, transformation, delightful instrumental playfulness, and an invigorating sense that something special is in store. Right in the middle of this activity is the famous three chords, which not only echo the overture’s opening but clear the air before the development proper with spectacular effect.
It is important to view The Magic Flute not as Mozart’s benediction or farewell to opera but rather as the excited, forward-looking declaration of a young genius in his prime. This is the hopeful music of a man with plans for the future, not the last rites of someone who felt time slipping and assumed he has said enough. From this perspective, the Overture to The Magic Flute may well be the most rewarding six minutes in music.
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For the world premiere of her new composition Flying Colors, Gwyneth Walker has graciously provided the following program note:
This music is about joy! Commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary season of the Holyoke Civic Symphony (Holyoke, MA), the initial focus of joy is on the celebration of musicians coming together for music-making, and for camaraderie. And these are certainly causes for joy.
In addition, for an October premiere in New England, one thinks of Fall Foliage in true splendor. One thinks of brilliantly-colored leaves flying through the air on the breeze. Or, one thinks of a sailboat (with colorful flags) heading off on a sailing-perfect windy day. These are all aspects of Flying Colors. But for the Holyoke Civic Symphony, and for other community ensembles far and near, the accomplishment of maintaining the vitality of the group is worthy of praise. One might say that the symphony staff and players have come through the challenge of longevity with flying colors! Bravo!
The first movement, “High Energy,” begins with a sparse and syncopated dialogue between strings and winds. Soon a short theme, marked crisply, emerges. The theme starts quietly, but grows throughout the movement. A counterpoint in woodwinds, marked festive, bright and sparkling floats above. Perhaps the wind is filling the sails!
“Gathering Speed” starts slowly with a gentle theme in oboe. Suddenly the tempo quickens in a lively section. The strings enter with a joyous theme. But the piccolo is not forgotten either! There is a folk quality to this music, with plenty of fiddlin’ for the strings.
One might wonder how the blues language could be included in a celebratory work such as Flying Colors. The typical blues tempo is slow. Dissonances abound. Yet these dissonances are very sweet. And the theme itself, marked sultry, is more affectionate than abrasive. This music sways and bounces along in a sensuously cheerful manner. And we remember that blue is a color too!
Due to the skills of a nimble timpanist, “Riding the Wind” flies by quickly. In contrast to the subtlety of the blues movement, this music is quite brazen, with strings and winds dueling with the brass for the right to be the loudest voices in the orchestra! Oh yes, our beloved piccolo (soloist from the second movement) provides a moment of peaceful respite before the timpani returns with forceful playing. This time the ratchet (perhaps the very loudest percussion instrument this composer ever uses) joins in. The instruments continue with their duel until the race is won, and the orchestra has come through the entire performance with Flying Colors!”
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The later 19th century brought an increasing consciousness of national identity to various ethnic groups in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Antonin Dvořák was born September 8, 1841 in a Bohemian village where his father was an inn-keeper and butcher. From this inauspicious beginning, he was to follow Bedřich Smetana to become the leading exponent of Czech musical nationalism that rested firmly within the classical traditions of Central Europe. His early musical training prepared him to perform for some years as a violist in the Prague Provisional Theatre Orchestra directed by Smetana. Later with the positive encouragement of Johannes Brahms, he devoted his energies primarily to composition. As a master of the folk music of his native Bohemia as well as the broader Germanic tradition of symphonic music developed by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, Dvořák won recognition abroad and rather more grudging acceptance in Vienna.
In 1892 Dvořák travelled to the U.S. at the invitation of a rich patron of the arts, Mrs. Jeanette Thurber, to become director of her National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He was quickly inspired by the music of the “New World,” especially the songs of Native Americans and African Americans whose rhythms he combined with folk tunes of his country. His Ninth Symphony, which came to be know as From the New World was the first major work that he wrote in America.
The listener knows from the slowly unfolding harmonies that begin the first movement, Adagio; Allegro molto, that the work is one of great dimension, both in scale and emotional impact – a first impression reinforced by the sudden interruption of angular motive and thunderclap timpani that lead into the Allegro proper. The main theme is characterized by a dotted (long, short) rhythm, a device Dvořák employs through the slower movements with a folk-dance quality and allows him to marshal his orchestral forces in large blocks without the sounds becoming muddy.
After an opening chorale in the Largo, the English horn gives out the main theme of the second movement, a wordless song reminiscent of an African-American spiritual and later adapted by William Arms Fisher for the hymn “Goin’ Home.” In the middle of the movement, some lively Czech sounds bring on a wave of “homesickness.” This makes the lovely beginning theme, when it returns, seem even lonelier. A chorale-like sequence of mellifluous brass chords introduces a set of variations on the melody, aching in the gulf between two worlds. This stream of nostalgic serenity is interrupted, at its heart, by a much livelier variation which draws on the motto. The recurrence of the chorale motif and the balancing of episodes around this central emotion together make an elegant arch structure.
The Scherzo breaks into bright, bouncing tunes and snappy rhythms that remind one of both sprightly Czech dances and “Home on the Range” – buffalos, covered wagons and all that. Formally it is model of a classic scherzo and trio, with the motto materials decorating the tails of the scherzo sections, a little gingerly in the approach to the trio, and more ominously near the end.
In the Allegro con fuoco, Dvořák cuts loose in a big way, mixing stacks of new tunes with ones we’ve already heard. But in all the hustle and bustle, you might find that each tune tells you something either about the excitement of the New World or the aching for the Old World (Dvořák’s home). Very near the end, the two tunes crash together, making a terrible grinding noise: Dvořák’s excitement and homesickness are finally head-to-head, locked in combat. At the symphony’s December 1893 premiere this finale resulted in extended cheering from the New York audience. The New York critic W. J. Henderson raved, “It is a great symphony and must take its place among the finest works in the form produced since the death of Beethoven.”