Composer James Barry (b. 1969) describes his music as “drawn from a unique amalgam of high and low art.” His early influences include playing in and writing songs for metal, rock and punk bands, followed by rigorous academic compositional training. The end product is an immediate, intelligent, colorful, original and dramatic brand of contemporary music. Snapshot, his award-winning work that we present today, dates from 2002. It is an accessible, upbeat, and colorful five-minute composition for orchestra originally written for the Tallahassee (FL) Symphony Youth Orchestra, and intended to provide the group with a challenging, yet rewarding, concert opener. As the composer explains it, “The piece is essentially cast in sonata form where the opening material returns at the end in the same key – but in this case the music is slightly altered. Between these two bookends, the theme is developed melodically and rhythmically, explores different keys, and is placed in contrasting musical textures.”
The Promised Land is a set of arrangements and adaptations of traditional American folk songs and spirituals. The common element is the yearning for, or celebration of, the life beyond death – the “next life.” The songs express a variety of emotions, ranging from the sorrow of leaving this world, to the release from a life of suffering, and finally, to the joy of walking up to heaven. “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down” is a sorrowful yet hopeful song, expressed in the lyrics ‘True love don’t weep or mourn for me. The Lord has come to set me free.’ The sustained chordal accompaniment emphasizes the heaviness of the mourning. Ascending arpeggio patterns express the rising to heaven. Near the end of the song, the tonality shifts upward from E-flat to E Major to reflect the lyrics ‘And when I rise up to the sky…on wings of silver I will fly.’ The voice and accompaniment ascend and fade away. “The Morning Train” starts where the previous song ended – in the high range, softly – and then grows in dynamics and speed, like a train gathering energy. Special joy was taken in creating this accompaniment, with glissandi and active rhythmic underpinning in the style of a train speeding past! Train whistles may be heard in the minor thirds floating above the ensemble (either played by the trumpets or sung as vocal ‘ooh’ sounds). The music takes a dramatic turn near the end when the vocal line rises to a high C, with glissando, on the words ‘Lord God Almighty, please hold my hand!’ This use of virtuosic singing within a folk song is characteristic of the approach taken in creating The Promised Land. “All My Trials” is the most poignant of the songs in this set. Phrases such as ‘Hush little baby, don’t you cry, you know your mama was born to die’ or ‘Oh my brothers, I must leave you here behind’ view the approach of death in terms of those left behind. And indeed, the final notes in this song are held in the accompaniment rather than by the singer (who has departed). “Walk On Up to Heaven” is a thoroughly joyous song. Therefore, it is presented in a “strutting” style, walking/bouncing steadily on up to heaven. The singer presents an ever-growing list of the things she is planning on doing when she arrives: ‘put on my shoes, shout the glory, follow my dreams, spread my wings and fly.’ She is filled with dreams, hope, joy and life – all of these to enjoy when she arrives in the Promised Land.
That Johannes Brahms labored long and with much trepidation with the composition of his first symphony is well known. The work’s lengthy gestation was partly the product of his feeling intimidated by a combination of public expectations, concern over his reputation, and a feeling that the specter of Beethoven was looking over his shoulder. Happily, when the symphony finally appeared in Brahms’ 43rd year, it became abundantly clear that the public’s hopes were amply fulfilled and his reputation continued unblemished. (It remains unclear, however, whether there was ever any word on the matter from Beethoven’s specter.) Having passed that key milestone, the composer soon started on his Symphony No. 2 in D Major, finished the following year and also broadly successful. This symphony, in contrast to its often turbulent and somber predecessor, is generally more spacious and tranquil in mood, especially rich with attractive melodies ingeniously worked out. A contrast is found with the contemplative second movement, but the allegretto which follows has a delightfully light touch and lyric charm. The cheerful and explosive finale builds up to one of the more exciting endings in the symphonic repertoire.