Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra Winter Concert

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Candide Suite (Arr. Charlie Harmon)

Bernstein’s third Broadway musical, Candide, opened at New York’s Beck Theater on December 1, 1956. It lasted only 73 performances, but was revived in 1973 and was voted the best musical of 1974 by the New York Drama Critics Circle.

Described as “a comic operetta based on Voltaire’s satire,” Candide was staged by Tyrone Guthrie, with book by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics by John Latouche and Dorothy Parker. After its original opening night, Walter Kerr wrote: “Three of the most talented people our theater possesses–Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Tyrone Guthrie–have joined hands to transform Voltaire’s Candide into a really spectacular disaster.”

Charlie Harmon was Bernstein’s assistant for four years and music editor for the Bernstein estate for ten years. He edited numerous works for performance and publication, including the present suite from Candide, which was introduced by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra on January 14, 1999. It contains the songs “You Were Dead You Know,” “Paris Waltz,” “Bon Voyage,” “Drowning Music,” “The King’s Barcarolle,” “Ballad of El Dorado,” “I Am Easily Assimilated,” “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” and the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Luis Pastor (b. 1966): Cubanerías

Born in Mexico City, Pastor studied cello and composition at the National School of Music of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He now teaches musical technology, composition and film scoring there. He has composed music for film, radio, video and multimedia. Cubanerías was commissioned by the Children’s Orchestra of Mexico in 2004.

José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958): Huapango

Born in Guadalajara, Moncayo studied composition with Carlos Chávez, played jazz piano in local cabarets, and eventually became the conductor of the Mexican National Symphony Orchestra. He was a one of the “Group of Four” Mexican composers  who were dedicated to promoting a national music. He and another member, Blas Galindo, once visited the town of Alvarado in the state of Veracruz to collect folk music. There they encountered a dance called the “huapango.” Depending on the source, “huapango” is a corruption of the word “fandango,” or a word from the Náhuatl language meaning “the site where the wood is placed,” namely, the wooden planks for dancing.

Moncayo used three of these huapangos in an orchestral work first performed on August 15, 1941 by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Chávez. It has become a second Mexican national anthem. A lyrical central section with solos for harp and winds is flanked by more rhythmic parts. In the last section, trumpet and trombone engage in a kind of musical duel.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemaya

“Music that makes one think is intolerable, excruciating. I adore music that puts me to sleep,” said Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who abhorred abstruse musical theories, but loved the put-on.

Born on New Year’s Eve, 1899 in Santiago Papasquiaro in the northern state of Durango, Revueltas studied violin as a youth. He came to the United State three times, for study in Chicago and Austin, Texas and for work as a theater musician in Texas and Alabama. He returned to Mexico City in 1929 to become assistant conductor to Carlos Chavez and the newly founded Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico.

After seven years, differences with Chavez led to the founding of Revueltas’s own ensemble, the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional. In 1937 he was associated with the Fine Arts Department of the Loyalist Government during the Spanish Civil War.

Revueltas wrote music steeped in the traditions of his country, without actually quoting folk songs as such. “Why should I put on boots and climb mountains for Mexican folklore if I have the spirit of Mexico deep within me” he said. His sense of humor often invaded his titles; for example Octet for Radio and Duet for Duck and Canary.

Revueltas died of pneumonia in 1940. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians blames his early death on “exertions and irregular life.”

His last orchestral work was Sensemaya, composed in 1938 from a song for voice and small orchestra he had written the year before. It was introduced by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico on December 18, 1938.

The title is a Mayan word meaning ritualistic popular rhythm or song. The work was inspired by a poem by the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén subtitled “Chant to Kill a Snake.” The poem begins:

The snake has glassy eyes
The snake comes and coils itself around a tree
With its glassy eyes around a tree
With its glassy eyes around a tree.

The work is in three sections, each main tune separated by huge climaxes. The considerable percussion section includes timpani, piano, xylophone, claves, maracas, raspador, gourd, small Indian drum, bass drum, tom-toms, cymbals, gongs, glockenspiel and celesta.

Leonard Bernstein called Sensamaya “the work of a sophisticated composer with a very advanced technique handling an idea of savage primitiveness. All the savagery and violence are to be heard in the wild rhythms, the shrieks and howls of the orchestra–but controlled by the knowing hand of a real artist.”

~ Program notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2019.