Program Notes: Mahler and More!

Mason Bates
Rusty Air in Carolina

American composer, Mason Bates, was born on January 23, 1977 and raised in Richmond, VA, His music has received wide-spread acclaim and frequent performances throughout the concert world, which recently has led him to be named the Mead Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He holds the Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition and English literature from the Columbia University-Juilliard School Exchange Program. His composition teachers included John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, and Samuel Adler. He received his PhD in composition in 2008 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied with Edmund Campion. In addition to his work as a composer, he is a disc jockey and techno artist. His best known works include Alternative Energy, Liquid Interface, a water symphony commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony under the direction of Robert Moody during the 2012-13 season. Rusty Air in Carolina was composed in 2005-06 for Robert Moody in honor of his appointment as Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony and received its world premiere here in May 2006. The work is scored for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo),2 oboes (2nd doubling English Horn),2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns in F,3 C trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba,
electronica, percussion, harp, piano, and strings.

The composer provides the following notes for Rusty Air in Carolina:

To begin with: I’m a Virginian. Perhaps to anyone in the Carolinas, the task of conjuring up the rich summer noise of the South and pairing it with orchestral textures should be a job for an authentic Carolinian. But the memories are so vivid from that summer in Brevard, South Carolina – where I spent several months at the music festival there as a teenager – that some sort of homage seemed necessary, so state pride will have to take a back seat.

Not only did the thick buzzing of cicadas and katydids always accompany the concerts there, but sometimes it was the music itself: on more than one occasion, I remember sitting on the porch of 100-year old Nan Burt and listening to the sounds of summer while she told stories from her long life. This venerable lady was introduced to me by the assistant conductor at the festival, Robert Moody – who, a mere ten years older than me, would become a dear friend and collaborator. When Bob took the helm at The Winston-Salem Symphony [in 2006] . . . if I might write a new piece for him, perhaps his own return to the Carolinas inspired Rusty Air. Though he travels the world, he’s a Greenville boy.

The work uses electronics to bring the white noise of the Southern summer into the concert hall, pairing these sounds with fluorescent orchestra textures that float gently by. “Nan’s Porch” begins at dusk, while the katydids make their chatter. Three orchestral clouds – each inhabiting a different harmony, register, and orchestration – hover in the heavy air, and they ultimately begin to meld together when the cicadas start their singing. The climax of this movement sends us into ‘Katydid Country,’ when the ambience of the first movement evolves into a bluesy, rhythmic tune. The clicks of the katydids become a beat track over which the orchestra, in a smaller, more chamber setting, riffs on a simple tune inspired by old-time blues. It is said that katydids are loudest at midnight, and as the work reaches its central point, the rhythmic katydid music at last finds its melody.

Soaring in the strings over the last breaths of the blues tune, this long-lined melody moves us into “Southern Midnight.” The three distinct textures from the opening return, but now each is brought to life by a phrase of the melody. At the close of this lyrical section, we hover in that strange space between night and day, when only the singing of the first bird alerts us to the approaching dawn. But it is a hot, Southern dawn, both sparkling and heavy, with the air made rusty again by the buzzing cicadas (popularly called locusts). The bluesy tune begins to creep back into the middle register, while above and below figuration buzzes about in different tonalities.

Program Notes by David B. Levy/Mason Bates, © 2006/2015

Samuel Barber
Knoxville: Summer of 1915

The great American composer Samuel Osborne Barber was born in West Chester, PA on March 9, 1910 and died in New York City on January 23, 1981. A precocious talent from an early age, Barber demonstrated mastery as a composer during his studies at the then newly founded Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was composed in 1947 and revised three years later. It received its first performance on April 9, 1948 in Boston with eleanor Steber singing under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. It was last performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony in November, 2001. It is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, optional triangle, harp, solo soprano, and strings.

If ever a prose text has received a more poetic musical treatment than James Agee’s idyll as set by Samuel Barber, I am at a loss to think of what it might be. Composed in 1947 for soprano Eleanor Steber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (revised 1950) has taken its place as one of the indisputable masterpieces of American vocal music. Barber, a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, was encouraged from a very early age to develop his prodigious musical talent. This advice led him to enter the newly-established Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a school to which he was to return as a teacher later in his career. Although Barber produced significant music in a large variety of genres, his strong lyrical bent enabled him to excel in the composition of music for the voice. It is this very gift of melodic invention that has endeared to audiences his best known and popular instrumental works—the Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto.

Agee’s prose-poem, published in the 1938 edition of the Partisan Review, spoke strongly to the composer, as he revealed in the following interview:

I had always admired Mr. Agee’s writing and this prose-poem particularly struck me because the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home. I found out, after setting this, that Mr. Agee and I are the same age, and the year he described was 1915 when we were both five. You see, it expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.

From Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music
(Oxford University Press, 1992)

The impending death of Barber’s father during the composition of this “lyric rhapsody” (the composer’s self-description of Knoxville) may have lent an additional layer of poignancy to his effort.

As is the case with nearly all Barber’s music, the melodic and harmonic idiom of Knoxville is tonal. Much of its charm and child-like innocence derives from modal inflections. Its orchestration and rhythmic subtlety is completely masterful. Structurally, the one-movement work is a kind of rondo, whose principle musical idea rocks the listener as gently as the sweetest lullaby one can recall from our collective youth. Its only jarring moments come at entirely appropriate moments in the text—a graphic description of a streetcar passing by, the child’s expression of doubt in his/her identity, and the fervent wish that the child’s beloved family be kept safe from harm. That Knoxville takes us into so many different emotional regions without ever resorting to melodramatics or sentimentality, is one of its many miracles.

Knoxville received its premiere on April 9, 1948 in Boston with Steber singing under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. The composer was unable to attend the premiere, but heard the soprano sing it later that year in Minneapolis. Although he was happy with the work, he made a few revisions, as well as a second version for chamber orchestra in 1950. Perhaps the ultimate compliment paid to Knoxville came from Barber’s fellow American composer, David Diamond, who, in his review of the vocal score called it “as clear and original and American as anything yet written . . . the pinnacle beyond which many a composer will find it impossible to go.”

Program Note by David B. Levy © 2001/2015

Gustav Mahler:
Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Gustav Mahler was born May 7, 1860 in Kalischt, near Iglau [now Kaliště, Jihlava], Bohemia and died May 18, 1911 in Vienna. His Symphony no. 4 was first performed in Munich on November 25, 1901. It is scored for 4 flutes (2 piccolos), 3 oboes (1 English horn), 3 clarinets (1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, sleighbells, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle, tam-tam, bass drum, harp, and strings. His Symphony no. 4 was last performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony in November, 2003.

The fourth of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies was begun in the summer of 1899 and completed the next year. It received its first performance on November 25, 1901 in Munich where it met with vicious attacks from the audience. Its Viennese premiere occurred in 1902. On that occasion the audience was deeply divided between opponents and enthusiasts. The work is in four movements and takes less than one hour to perform—a stark contrast to the more than 90 minutes it takes to perform Mahler’s Symphony no. 3.

“My time will yet come,” said the famous conductor/composer about the fate of his compositions. “One need not be present when one becomes immortal.” In retrospect, these comments have proven to be remarkably prophetic. Mahler’s time has come. The truth of this statement has been borne out by the veritable explosion of interest in his songs and symphonies since the 1960s. Part of this interest may be attributed to the persistent enthusiasm of Leonard Bernstein, but credit is due to conductors of an earlier generation—especially Willem Mengelberg and Mahler’s disciple, Bruno Walter—who championed his music, often in the face of a hostile public and unsympathetic critics.

Mahler’s music represents both a beginning and an end. The fin-de-siecle world in which he lived and worked was politically and ideologically falling apart, and it is hardly coincidental that Mahler and Freud were children of the same epoch. Mahler knew the “psychological man,” but still yearned for a purer innocence of the earlier Romantic era. This yearning was graphically demonstrated by his profound interest in the collection of folk poetry amassed by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano around 1808 and published under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). Mahler responded to the Wunderhorn anthology by setting several of these German-Austrian folk poems to music for voice and orchestra. They also found their way into Mahler’s symphonies. The Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies each contain one movement in which a vocal-orchestral setting of a Wunderhorn poem can be found.

In the case of the Fourth Symphony, the Wunderhorn poem is the basis for the work’s last, and shortest, movement. The poem in question is an alleged Bavarian folksong entitled “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen,” (later retitled, “Das himmlische Leben” [Heavenly Life]). Mahler gives this text a charming setting for soprano and orchestra. Interestingly, this poem and its setting was under consideration for the finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony, and listeners familiar with both works will note thematic connections between them. “Das himmlische Leben” also has a poetic antithesis in the Arnim and Brentano anthology. This poem is called “Das irdische Leben,” (Earthly Life), and Mahler’s setting of it forms part of his Wunderhorn cycle. “Das irdische Leben” tells the grim story of poverty as a hungry child begs its mother for food. Each plea for food is deflected by the mother. Sadly she waits too long, and by the time the bread is ready, the child has died of starvation.

“Das himmlische Leben,” by contrast, describes a heavenly banquet as a child might envision it. But even here, the imagery is not without its disturbing moments. Why, for example, is the “butcher Herod” lying in wait for the lamb, or St. Luke slaughtering an ox? The benevolent sleighbells from the first movement turn menacing as each scene is described. But all turns to bliss and dream as the text ends with a depiction of Saint Ceclia’s heavenly court music.

The three movements that precede the finale, each in its own way, point toward the naive vision of life in heaven. Mahler achieves this through a network of thematic interrelations among the four movements which the careful listener can apprehend. The sound of sleighbells that open the first movement, as mentioned above, return in the finale. But there are other links. An unusual feature of the second movement (In gemächlicher Bewegung) is the spectral quality of the solo violin, whose strings are deliberately mistuned a whole step higher than normal—an effect known as scordatura. The resulting sound evokes a medieval fiddle. The third movement is one of Mahler’s most sublime creations, a Poco adagio marked Ruhevoll (Restful). Near its end, Mahler reveals, in a blaze of glory, a foreshadowing of “Das himmlische Leben” in the horns.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 contains some of his loveliest melodic ideas. As is typical of his style, these melodies are placed into sharp juxtaposition with brilliant, nervous passages of orchestral counterpoint, abrupt modulations, and unusual instrumental colors. Mahler’s experience as a master conductor is witnessed by the meticulous detail etched into every instruction to conductor and performer that permeates the score. Less “cosmic” in scope than many of his other works, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony taken its place as the one by which his music, aesthetic, and philosophy is most easily approached.

Program Note by David B. Levy © 2001/2015

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