PSYO Fall Concert: Program Notes
Recently returned from its summer performance tour of China, Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra inaugurates its 2016-17 season with charismatic works performed by Southern California’s finest young orchestral musicians. Glinka’s thrilling Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla” ushers in an exciting evening that includes George Gershwin’s soulful “Porgy and Bess.” Feel the might of this brilliant orchestra electrified by the sound of the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ during Saint-Saëns’ powerful “Organ Symphony.”
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for the PSYO Fall Concert. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
To meet PSYO Music Director Roger Kalia, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.
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Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra Fall Concert
ROGER KALIA • CONDUCTOR
KRISTEN LAWRENCE • ORGAN
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Selections from Porgy and Bess
Arr. Robert Russell Bennett
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3, "Organ"*
II. Poco Adagio
III. Allegro moderato
This evening’s performance is generously sponsored by Walter Dietiker.
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Known as the father of Russian classical music, Mikhail Glinka was the first composer to write music in an authentic Russian style.
The son of a nobleman living on a country estate, Glinka’s first exposure to music came from family servants singing folk songs. Living in the countryside, Glinka had many opportunities to hear Russian folk music as well as Orthodox liturgical music.
While attending a boarding school in St. Petersburg, Glinka took the opportunity to take piano lessons with the Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782-1837), the inventor of the nocturne whose music proved highly influential to Frédéric Chopin.
During the early 1830s, Glinka spent a three-year sojourn in Italy for medical reasons. While recuperating from a serious illness, the composer familiarized himself with Italian opera and became personal friends with Donizetti. He composed a great deal of music in the Italian style during his stay there.
However, by 1833 he became disillusioned with Italy and decided to write music “as a Russian” rather than in the Italian fashion.
Composed intermittently between 1837 and 1842, Ruslan and Ludmilla was Glinka’s second opera. He began its composition immediately after the triumphant 1836 success of his first opera, A Life for the Tsar.
Glinka based Ruslan on an 1820 poem by the famous Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), and in fact discussed his desire to turn it into an opera with Pushkin. Glinka had hoped to collaborate with the author personally, but Pushkin's death in a duel early in 1837 prevented this. Instead, the libretto was completed by Valerian Fyodorovich Shirkov (1805-1856).
Unlike most operas, Glinka composed much of the music before the text had been prepared. The opera was first performed at the Bolshoy Theatre in St. Petersburg on Dec. 9, 1842. While its music was highly praised, the opera’s libretto was seen as weak and thin from the very beginning.
Glinka’s second opera is entirely different from his first. Replete with giants, magic swords and water spirits, its fantasy and farce take the place of A Life for the Tsar’s historical and political drama.
The opera features many Russian musical elements. The first composerto devise an authentic Russian musical style, Glinka derives the harmonic and melodic language of the opera from the Russian folk music he had gained exposure to as a child.
Notably, he uses the harp to imitate the gusli, an ancient Russian stringed instrument.
In addition, Ruslan also features a number of highly progressive elements. In this opera, Glinka associates magic and the supernatural with whole tone scales, unrelated seventh chords linked only by common tones and octatonic scales.
Glinka also uses what has been termed “ostinato variations,” in which the melody is repeated but harmony and orchestration are “magically” changed. Glinka firmly establishes the convention of using diatonic music to represent human characters and chromatic music to represent supernatural ones. These musical features would prove extremely influential to Russian music, and would be associated with magic up to and including Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird.
During the early and middle parts of the 19th century, Russia found itself engaged in a vigorous military expansion program. Already in possession of a huge territory stretching from Europe through northern Asia and across the Pacific into North America, Russia sought to extend its control further to include more strategic areas.
During the 19th century, military commanders incorporated large areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia into the Russian Empire. As a result, an explosion of exotic local colors came into the Russian musical scene at the time. In addition to native Russian elements, Glinka’s opera depicts Persian, Turkish and Finnish musical features. Glinka depicts Eastern exoticism through extremely slow “languorous” music as well as extremely fast, rhythmically agitated “primitive” dance music. These musical features would also come to define Russian musical exoticism for the next hundred years.
In spite of these fascinating and highly influential musical features, the opera has been largely forgotten. It is hardly ever performed in its entirety, and almost never at all outside of Russia. The opera’s overture, however, is widely performed and well known to audiences around the world. Its musical style forms a stark contrast to that of the rest of the opera.
The composer’s recent sojourn in Italy and his affinity to Italian opera are manifest from the very beginning. Its bright, sunny orchestration, exuberant mood, and lyric melodic writing immediately call to mind similar overtures by Gioachino Rossini. After a long transition and Glinka’s imitation of a Rossini crescendo, the music rises to an exhilarating conclusion.
Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila
Singapore National Youth Orchestra
Conductor: Darrell Ang
Selections from Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin (1898 - 1937)
A native of Brooklyn, New York, George Gershwin lived the archetypical American story of rags to riches. Born to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, Gershwin grew up in a rapidly expanding New York City (in the year of Gershwin’s birth, New York had expanded beyond Manhattan to include Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island).
Home to world-renowned Ellis Island, New York at the dawn of the 20th century was the center of American immigration, a growing financial, economic and cultural center, and a meeting ground for a multitude of different cultures.
Gershwin began his musical career employed by a music publishing company as a “song plugger.” In the early 20th century, publishing companies hired pianists to play songs for many hours a day. Walking by music stores and hearing the melodies, pedestrians would be charmed by the music they heard and enticed into buying sheet music—in theory.
In fact, so many music publishing houses had stores so close together that several blocks of West 28th Street became known as “Tin Pan Alley”; the cacophony of different song melodies being played at the same time from the different music houses was said to resemble the banging of tin pans. (The term later came to denote the musical style of popular songs emanating from these music stores.)
By 1917, Gershwin left the publishing house world behind and began to compose the music for several Broadway shows; by the 1920s he began writing classical concert works. With Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Gershwin reached national fame.
By the late 1920s, the largely self-taught musician had become the most famous classical composer in America. In spite of his fame and commercial success, Gershwin constantly sought out qualified teachers, studying with Joseph Schillinger from 1932 until 1936.
(A popular legend has it that Gershwin sought out French composer Maurice Ravel for lessons in orchestration. After hearing of Gershwin’s tremendous popular and financial successes, the French composer remarked, “Perhaps it is I who should be studying with you!”) Gershwin toured internationally, appearing with major orchestras in many European cities, and relocated to Paris in the 1920s with the intent of studying with the famed composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887 - 1979).
Although Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess between 1933 and 1935, its history dates back long before this. In fact, he read the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward in 1926, a year after it was first published. Fascinated by its subject matter, he immediately contacted the author and asked to collaborate with him on the production of an opera.
Busy with other projects, Gershwin put Porgy on the back burner until the early 1930s. The work premièred at the Alvin Theatre in New York City in 1935 with a libretto by Heyward and Ira Gershwin.
Porgy and Bess is often seen as a hybrid art form. Gershwin labelled the work a “folk opera”; it depicts the life of African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina.
It uses many traditional operatic and classical forms: recitatives alternate with arias, and leitmotivs refer to people and places as in a traditional opera. At a particularly dramatic moment in the first act, Gershwin arranges the music to form a fugue.
Moreover, the dramatic sweep of the entire uncut work is of prime importance, as in operas from Mozart to Puccini and beyond.
On the other hand, it premièred in a commercial theatre rather than an opera house, and for most of its history it was performed with large cuts rather than in complete form. Finally, numbers are often extracted and performed on their own, a practice more common to Broadway musicals than to operas.
The opera takes place in Catfish Row, a tenement house in Charleston. After a game of craps, Crown kills Robbins over a lost wager; when he flees, his lover Bess is rejected by the other residents.
Porgy, a disabled beggar, takes her in. Courted by Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer, she rejects him in favor of Porgy. When Crown returns to Charleston, he attempts to win back her favor. He and Porgy fight, resulting in Crown’s death.
Porgy is apprehended by the police for questioning; on his release, he finds that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life. The final curtain goes down on Porgy leaving Charleston for New York by goat cart. The opera viscerally depicts the importance of religion and community (choral numbers are equally important and share equal weight with solos), although its depiction of gambling and violence have been criticized.
Scene from "Porgy and Bess," 1935 to 1936. Theater Guild production. Library of Congress.
Porgy and Bess
The work’s authenticity has been questioned by numerous critics, some of whom have raised questions about the appropriateness of a white Jewish New Yorker imitating African-American music from the South.
However, Gershwin had long maintained a genuine interest in African-American musical culture. He was heavily influenced by ragtime, jazz and blues; in his music, he did not merely use these superficially as stylistic elements, but successfully adapted European forms to fit them.
When preparing Porgy and Bess, Gershwin spent extended periods of time in Charleston to research local African- American culture.
Gershwin’s opera is a masterpiece in spite of any controversy and stands as a testament to the importance of every strand in America’s diverse cultural fabric.
Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra
National Youth Orchestra of the USA performs its signature encore, Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture, under the direction of Orchestra Director James Ross.
Symphony No. 3, "Organ Symphony"
Camille Saint Saëns (1835 - 1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns was considered one of the greatest French composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His Symphony No. 3, “Organ” remains one of his most famous compositions.
Composed in 1886, it was dedicated to the memory of Saint-Saëns’s friend Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist and composer who had recently died. The work utilizes some of the same musical procedures that Liszt had used in his music. The symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society in London; Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere there himself.
The fact that Saint-Saëns wrote symphonies at all deserves special attention. Throughout its history, the symphony had traditionally been a German-dominated form of music. Many of the greatest symphony composers had been Germans or German-speaking Austrians: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. By the late 19th century, the symphony came to symbolize Germany itself.
Historical events would bring dramatic consequences to this fact. In the year 1870, German troops under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) conquered and defeated France. This humiliating defeat spurred a national crisis in confidence. In the face of overwhelming military defeat, many artists and intellectuals expressed a defiant pride in French culture, leading to an intense national revival.
Composers responded to these circumstances in two distinct ways. One approach led to the reinvigoration of French traditions, a direction that would lead to composers such as Debussy and Ravel several decades later.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique: from top left, clockwise, Camille Saint-Saëns, Ambroise Thomas, Jules Massenet and Théodore Dubois
During the 1870s, a number of French composers, including Saint-Saëns, came together to form the Société Nationale de Musique (national society of music), an institution devoted to the cause of French music. Concurrently, other composers favored the opposite approach: beating the Germans at their own game.
During the 1870s and 1880s, France experienced a revival of the symphony. A number of French composers began writing symphonies of their own, including Vincent d’Indy (1851- 1931), Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) and Saint-Saëns. These composers hoped to prove that French composers were every bit as qualified to write symphonies as their German counterparts.
For his part, Saint-Saëns proved to be somewhat ambivalent toward German and non-French musical developments. Before the war, he had been an advocate of the music of Richard Wagner, which was then sweeping across Europe. He had attended performances in Bayreuth of Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and had defended Wagner’s music in France.
Although a founding member of the French national music society, he would break with it during the 1880s because he wanted to include performances of foreign composers as well as French ones. Saint-Saëns would later go on to argue for a ban on performances of any German music during World War I, especially the music of Wagner.
The only composer of the mid-Romantic to survive well into the 20th century, Saint-Saëns outlived not only his rough contemporaries Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, but also many later composers including Mahler and Debussy. He remained active through the end of his life, responding to changing social conditions.
For example, he wrote a cantata, Le feu celeste, to celebrate the widespread introduction of electricity in France, and he became the first major composer to write film music (L’assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908).
In his last years he spent much of his time traveling between Egypt and Algeria, visited South America in 1916, and gave his final concert at the piano on Aug. 6, 1921. Although by the end of his life he had come to be seen as reactionary, his later music possessed many of the qualities that would soon come back into fashion among French Neoclassicists: wit, clarity and logic.
Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony is often subtitled an “organ symphony” or “symphony for organ” although he himself titled the work “symphony with organ.” The organ takes on an important, although subordinate, role, appearing in two of the piece’s four movements.
The instrument’s unique sonority lends a religious signification to the work. The piece uses a musical procedure known as thematic transformation, pioneered by Franz Liszt, in which the individual notes of a melody come back later in recognizable but different guises and characters. The excitement, drive and expansiveness of the work transcend French-German national politics and speak to audiences around the world.
Joshua Grayson is a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at the USC Thornton School of Music.
Saint-Saëns - Symphony No. 3, 'Organ', Movt 2/2
New South Wales Youth Orchestras
Kristen Lawrence - Organ
Kristen Lawrence studied piano from age 7, then at age 12 found her “musical home” in the organ under the instruction of Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer/organist Dr. Robert Cummings.
In high school she won the Philharmonic Society’s Ed Doyle Music Award competition, then accepted a music scholarship to Brigham Young University where she studied with Dr. Parley Belnap and Dr. Douglas Bush, graduating with a bachelor of music in organ performance and pedagogy.
In 2008 and 2011, Lawrence performed with Pacific Symphony in their Halloween Spooktacular and Halloween Whodunit family concerts. And in 2014 she spotlighted the organ in Pacific Symphony’s Dinosaurs!
She also has performed several times in the Symphony’s “Class Act” series and enjoys playing with Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra and Youth Wind Ensemble.
As one who loves all styles of music, Lawrence has played guest keyboards for The Iron Maidens (all-female tribute band to Iron Maiden) and Checkpoint Charley (with whom she has recorded two CDs and won BB King’s Battle of the Bands).
Halloween is one of Lawrence’s great passions, and for over a decade she has studied its history and culture, which has led to her composing a collection of music and lyrics called the Halloween Carols. She has released three CDs—Arachnitect, A Broom With A View and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” her musical setting of the famous poem which she has performed at two National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored events.
Lawrence is currently recording her fourth CD of Halloween Carols, featuring Steve Bartek (Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman) on guitar. She has already released two singles from this album— “Zombie Ambience” and “Gust”—as little trick-or-treats to tide her fans over until the collection is complete.
To meet PSYO Music Director Roger Kalia, please click here.>>
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.