by Jane Rausch
Today’s concert – “You Better Watch Out!” – is the Holyoke Civic Symphony’s gift to you for the holidays. As part of our “Plus One” season, we are presenting a program of beloved classical and popular favorites with the added attractions of guest clarinet soloist, Karen Bressett, and the performance of a work that highlighted the orchestra’s first concert on April 1, 1968 – Corelli’s Concerto Grosso.
Arcangelo Corelli was an Italian violinist and composer of the Baroque era. His music, studied by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, was fundamental in the development of the modern genres of the sonata and the concerto. Corelli established the preeminence of the violin and incorporated the first coalescing of modern tonality and functional harmony. Little is known about his early life beyond the fact that he was born and brought up in the province of Ravenna and educated as a musician from an early age. As a young man he traveled throughout Europe, staying in Paris and Germany where his reputation developed. It was in Rome, however, that he enjoyed his greatest success. There, in 1690, he premiered his “Christmas” concerto for the enjoyment of his new patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.
The baroque concerto grosso featured a small group of instruments (the concertino) contrasted with a larger string orchestra (the ripieno) with an accompanying harpsichord (the continuo). Corelli constructed his Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 “Christmas” as a concerto de chiesa (or church concerto). It is a lively and energetic work, with six short movements full of melodic invention that concludes with the lovely and serene Pastorale – a piece that would become the most famous of all his music.
Composer, conductor, pianist, and critic Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber is considered one of the founders of the Romantic movement in Germany. With his opera Der Freischütz, he helped lay the foundation for German romantic opera, paving the way for Wagner. As an orchestrator, he was an innovator, discovering and capitalizing on new characteristics and sonorities of many instruments, especially the horn and the clarinet.
It was only during the second half of the eighteenth century that the clarinet was sufficiently developed to become generally accepted as an orchestral and solo instrument. During this period, it attracted a number of highly talented players, who, in turn, inspired many composers to write for the instrument. In 1811 Weber met Heinrich Baermann, a renowned clarinetist who had already acquired fame after touring throughout Europe. Captivated by Baermann’s expressive playing and velvety tone, Weber composed the Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 73 especially for Baermann in 1811 on a commission from Maximilian Joseph, King of Bavaria. In just one day he wrote the first movement (including the entire orchestral part), but later at the suggestion of Baermann’s son, Carl (who was also a clarinetist), he inserted a cadenza as a brilliant flourish for the soloist. Weber completed the other two movements in four weeks leaving Baermann only a month to practice the formidable difficulties of the score before its premiere.
The first movement, Allegro in F minor, begins with a theme by the orchestra which the clarinet shapes and decorates into a consolidated melody. Because the movement is in a minor key, at least one subsidiary theme must be in the relative major, and Weber provides two. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is even more emotive and contains a lovely interplay between the clarinet and a horn trio. The finale, Rondo: Allegretto, is a spirited romp, with surprising modulations and elaborate pyrotechnics that put considerable demands on the soloist.
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer and a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions – Capriccio Espagnol, Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade – are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas.
The Polonaise is a selection extracted from his four-act opera, Christmas Eve, based on a short story that was a retelling of a folk tale by the Ukrainian-born writer, Nikolay Gogol. The supernatural elements of the plot would seem better suited to Halloween, for they have nothing to do with Christmas except that the action takes place on that day. One Christmas Eve, in the little Ukrainian town of Dikanka, a broomstick-riding widow agrees to help the devil steal the moon. The widow’s son, Vakula, however, has annoyed the Devil, who decides to interfere with Vakula’s courtship of Oksana, the girl he loves. Over the course of a single night, not only is the moon stolen away, but Vakula captures the Devil and magically travels to St. Petersburg to the court of the Tsar. The Polonaise that we hear today comes near the end of the opera, when Vakula is welcomed into the palace, and the petitioners at court are singing to praise and honor the Tsar.
Rimsky-Korsakov routinely made suites from the music of his operas, and he included the Polonaise in a suite that was actually performed in 1894, one year before the opera itself. The work begins in grand manner with trumpets pealing out fanfares. This opening theme is followed by a motif already made familiar to hearers of the complete suite in the ride on the Devil’s back to the palace. Hereafter, the two themes alternate, interrupted by a soft middle section emphasizing the woodwinds. The work ends with a dramatic accelerando of the principal theme.
Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 is a song that was written in 1995 by Robert Kinkel and Paul O’Neill, both members of Savatage, an American heavy metal rock band, but it did not become well-known until it was recorded by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) and released a year later. The song tells the story of Sarajevo-born cellist Vedran Samilovic who returns to his homeland to find it in ruins after the Bosnian War. At that time Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than heading for the bomb shelters to join his family, Samilovic went instead to the town square. He climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart, Beethoven, and Christmas carols as the city was bombed. The TSO created an instrumental medley of Carol of the Bells and God Rest you Merry Gentlemen to fit this story. On the original recording, the orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and a single cello represents Samilovic, as a spark of hope. As arranged by Bob Phillips, the piece reflects the drama of a single musician in the midst of war and the power of music to bring hope.
Cambridge-born composer and arranger Leroy Anderson studied at Harvard and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger and orchestrator. He wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms, and striking effects.
Somewhat ironically, Anderson composed Sleigh Ride in 1946 during a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that tell of a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. Ever since it was first recorded in 1949, this colorful piece has been a holiday favorite.
Delvyn Case majored in music at Yale, graduating in 1997 with a B.A. summa cum laude and earned a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. In 2010 he joined the music faculty at Wheaton College where he maintains a busy career as composer, conductor, choral director, and scholar. He wrote Rocket Sleigh in 2008, and it was premiered soon after by the Quincy (MA) Symphony Orchestra.
In a recent interview Case explained that Rocket Sleigh reflects not only his interest in penning a popular piece of music, but also his lifelong love for Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. “My intention was that my piece would be a modern version. I wanted to evoke the idea of Santa leaving behind his reindeer-powered vehicle for a modern, rocket-fueled version, and to write it so that it sounded like movie music in order to create an image.” Clearly he has succeeded, for critics have praised the four-minute piece for its “fast,” “exciting,” and “irresistibly catchy” qualities.
The Polar Express was a 2004 American 3D computer-animated Christmas musical fantasy film based on the 1985 children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. The Concert Suite from the Polar Express is an arrangement by Jerry Brubaker of tunes from the original film score that was composed by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard. Brubaker’s medley contains Believe, The Polar Express, When Christmas comes to Town, and Spirit of the Season.
Bob Cerulli, a graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, and the College of New Jersey, is a composer, arranger, and free-lance bassist. His arrangement of Christmas Sing-Along includes Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Silent Night.
Mel Tormé, once known as “the epitome of the lounge singer,” wrote over 300 songs during his career, but The Christmas Song that he composed on a hot summer day in 1944 is the only one that survives as a classic. Recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio, it was released in November 1946. It became an immediate best seller for Cole, who devised newer versions with each change in recording technology. Composer, music educator, conductor, and trombonist Bob Lowden wrote the orchestra arrangement that we play for you today.