The Wild, Wild West program notes

Program Notes
by Jane Rausch

Hannah Lynn Cohen, a senior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Lee, MA, has been playing the violin for almost 14 years. She studies with Wendy Sharp, lecturer and head of chamber music at Yale School of Music. Her many accomplishments include serving as a first violinist with the Empire State Youth Orchestra for four years and touring with the group to China and South Korea in the summer of 2012. Having won the Uel Wade Music Scholarship Competition in May 2014, she plans to pursue a degree in violin performance in college next fall.

Hannah enjoys being with her extended family and her two dogs. She loves to play chamber music with her sister Sophie, but despite the important place music has in her life, she excels in other activities. As captain of her school’s cross-country and track teams, she has been to the state level competition for both sports.

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On this season’s concert tour around the world we have arrived at our final destination: the American West – a region real and mythic – best-known to most of us through books, songs, and films. Our program reflects this awareness by including selections from iconic movie scores and orchestra pieces written by contemporary composers – all inspired by the mystique of the Wild, Wild West.

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Elmer Bernstein was an American composer and conductor who wrote theme songs and scores for more than 200 films, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. Born in New York City, he gravitated toward music at the age of 12 and received a scholarship in piano with Henriette Michelson, a Juilliard teacher who guided him through his career as a pianist. He was also encouraged by Aaron Copland, which may account for some stylistic similarities in his western scores to Copland’s music. He was not related to Leonard Bernstein, but the two men were friends, and within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard).

Over the course of his career Bernstein received 14 Academy Award nominations. He was nominated at least once per decade from the 1950s until the 2000s, but his only Best Original Music Score win was for Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. Outside the Academy, his musical score for the Magnificent Seven (1960) won a Western Heritage Award, as did his score for the Hallelujah Trail (1965).

The Magnificent Seven is an American western film directed by John Sturges and starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, and Steve McQueen. It is an Old West-style remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese-language movie Seven Samurai (1954). Critics were not impressed with the film when it was released in 1960, but their opinions notwithstanding, the main theme of the musical score took on a life of its own. Frequently quoted in the media and popular culture, it was used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes and included in the James Bond film, Moonraker.

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Adrienne Albert is an American composer living and working in Santa Monica, CA. The child of European-trained professional violinists, she began studying the piano at age 4 and composition at age 10. She had the good fortune to have had excellent piano and composition teachers, and she graduated from UCLA with a degree in music performance and education. Albert’s first professional work in music was as a mezzo-soprano soloist. She enjoyed a long working relationship with Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky among others in this capacity. Then after a career performing other people’s music in New York City, she returned to Los Angeles to devote her talents to composition.

About her Western Suite which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra in 1999, she writes: “As a native of the American West, I have always been deeply affected by the large scale of the vast landscapes and craggy shapes that dominate our region. In Western Suite, I’ve attempted to draw from my well of emotional interior images and interpret them musically.” The suite opens with a solo oboe playing a tranquil melody representing a sunrise, and as the sun grows in the sky, more instruments are added to fill in the harmonic landscape. A solo trumpet heralds the beginning of the work day as the strings pizzicato in syncopation to the hoedown melody. The horns join the hoedown “dance” melody and transition into a lyrical section for the strings, woodwinds conjuring up pictures of a vast, purple sky. A transition into another dance-like section using muted trombones in rhythmic contrast to a flute, clarinet, and violin trio melody carries us into another lyrical section for the strings, woodwinds, and horns. The woodwinds rhythmically pulsate in a minimalist exercise as two trumpets “converse.” Their duet/dialogue is interrupted by the recapitulation of the opening theme now played by the oboe, piano, and strings. The suite closes with a flourish of motifs of the hoedown theme played in counterpoint to the pealing of tubular bells and finishes with a joyful surge of orchestral colors.

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The American composer, conductor and pianist John Williams is the most popular and successful film music composer by far. He was born in New York in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1949. Attending UCLA, he studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and returned to New York to attend Julliard after his military service. While in New York he also worked as a jazz pianist before moving back to Los Angeles where he started his career in film music. He went on to write music for TV programs during the 1960s, winning two Emmy awards. Between 1980 and 1993 he conducted the Boston Pops, and, upon leaving that post, he was named Laureate Conductor. He has appeared as guest conductor with major symphony orchestras all over the world and was awarded honorary degrees from 14 American universities.

In a career spanning over six decades Williams has composed some of the most recognizable film scores in cinematic history, including Jaws, the Star Wars series, Superman, and the first three Harry Potter films. These efforts have been well rewarded, for he has received five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, and 22 Grammy Awards. Williams’ music for the film, The Cowboys, a 1972 Western motion picture starring John Wayne, may be less familiar, but reviewer James Southall regards it as “a real treat” and probably his “best western score.” In the movie, John Wayne is an aging cowboy who takes a group of youngsters under his wing and then follows them in a coming-of-age saga. To underwrite the action, Williams, taking his cue from Copland and Bernstein, came up with a delightfully boisterous, engaging score. The main theme, composed for harmonica and orchestra in the classic tradition of such movies, is highly-infectious, while the Overture is a grand, sweeping piece which instantly conjures up images of rolling plains and galloping horses.

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Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo was a 19th-century French composer who is chiefly remembered for three major works, Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra, the Cello Concerto in D minor, and an opera, Le Roi d’Ys. Although he came from a military family, Lalo was determined to be a musician. He studied violin at the Lille Conservatory and composition at the Paris Conservatory under François Antoine Habeneck. Largely because he favored the then unfashionable forms of chamber music, he didn’t attract attention as a composer until the 1870s when he was in his fifties, but his fortunes turned after he met the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate. Sarasate was both a virtuoso and a great stage presence. Unlike Germany’s master violinist Joseph Joachim, his colorful style combined grace, clean-cut brilliancy, and bewildering vitality to a remarkable degree. Greatly inspired by Sarasate’s unique talent, Lalo wrote the Symphonie Espagnole expressly for him in 1874, and Sarasate first played the work in Paris on February 7, 1875. Sarasate eventually premiered several major works (Bruch, Saint-Saëns, and Dvořák all dedicated pieces to him), but Lalo’s “Spanish Symphony” is the one that best reflected his personality as well as the spirit of his native land.

Symphonie Espagnole with its five movements is a curious hybrid, neither concerto nor symphony. As a character piece it is unsurpassed. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is the most assertively “symphonic” part of the work, particularly in the way it develops most of its material from the opening fanfare. The beginning also introduces the rhythm of a duplet followed by a triplet, and this two-plus-three pattern lends a Spanish quality to the music. The violin enters in the fourth measure – with the fanfare motto – and is rarely silent after that. This is high-wire solo material, memorable not so much for its pyrotechnics as its genuine melodic invention and rhythmic flair. The second movement, Scherzando: Allegro molto, is colored by the same seguidilla dance rhythm that dominates Carmen’s famous aria in Bizet’s opera that was first performed in Paris on March 3, 1875. It features soaring violin lines over pizzicato strings and harp, like the sound of guitars in the night. The fifth movement, Rondo: Allegro, is all bravura and local color. The atmospheric opening, with its bell-like sonorities, is especially striking. Midway, the pace slows for a hushed melody only to be followed by the final fireworks.

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Having achieved a position of great respect among avant-garde composers, Aaron Copland decided in the early 1930s on a fresh path concentrating on his innate affinity for ballet and traditional American and Latino music. The result was a succession of works for orchestra and scores for radio, film, and ballet, which were critical and popular successes that won him an international reputation. His music for Rodeo arose from a commission from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to work with choreographer Agnes de Mille on a “western ballet” for its 1942-43 season. The ballet premiered at the old Metropolitan Opera House in October 1942. It was a very successful collaboration, and the ballet is still frequently performed. Copland’s score, with his seamless blend of cowboy folk material and his own distinctive style, is arguably his best in that genre. He later arranged a four-part suite from the score that continues to be an extremely popular concert number, and we play the last two movements for you today. The ballet tells the story of a lovesick cowgirl, who despite being an accomplished cowpoke, has yet to impress the ranch’s Champion Roper. But the guy does fall hard for her in the course of a rodeo dance after she decides to trade her working duds for a pretty dress and turn on her considerable feminine charm.

“Saturday Night Waltz” begins with the cowboys and town girls pairing off to dance. Sadly, the cowgirl is left standing alone until the Champion Roper approaches her. They dance to the tune of “I Ride an Old Paint.” The opening bars conjure the sound of fiddlers tuning before the main theme is introduced by the oboe. The movement presents the theme in a decidedly innocent manner, depicting the genteelness of the budding courtships on the dance floor.

“Hoe-Down” is the most recognizable of the four movements. It contains large sections of two folk songs, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” which is heard from the outset, as well as “McLeod’s Reel.” The traditional Irish tune “Gilderoy” is also briefly quoted. The Rodeo theme returns toward the end of the movement, slowing down dramatically and finally ending with a major chord featuring a high ethereal string sound – signifying the much-anticipated first kiss between the Cowgirl and the Head Wrangler.

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