Season Finale Leonard Slatkin Program Notes

Cindy McTee (b. 1953)

Hailed by the Houston Chronicle as a composer whose music reflects a charging, churning celebration of the musical and cultural energy of modern-day America, Cindy McTee (b. 1953 in Tacoma, WA) brings to the world of concert music a fresh and imaginative voice. Her works have received awards and performances by leading institutions and ensembles throughout the world. She also enjoyed a 30-year teaching career alongside her activities as a composer – 3 years at Pacific Lutheran University and 27 years at the University of North Texas where she retired as Regents Professor Emerita in 2011. Additional information about her and her music can be found at

Circuits was written in 1990 for the Denton Chamber Orchestra of Denton, Texas. In her program note, McTee writes: “The title, Circuits, is meant to characterize several important aspects of the work’s musical language: a strong reliance upon circuitous structures such as ostinatos; the use of a formal design incorporating numerous, recurring short sections; and the presence of an unrelenting, kinetic energy achieved through the use of 16th notes at a constant tempo of 152 beats per minute. The inclusion of jazz elements and the playful manipulation of musical materials using syncopation, sudden transposition, and juxtaposition are also characteristic of the work.”

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings, Opus 11

In late summer of 1936, Barber and fellow composer Gian-Carlo Menotti rented a cabin near St. Wolfgang near Salzburg in Austria. There Barber wrote his only string quartet. It was introduced the following December in Rome by the Pro Arte String Quartet.

Later, Arturo Toscanini commissioned a new work from Barber for his newly formed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Barber sent him his First Essay for Orchestra, and also the Adagio for Strings, an arrangement of the first half of the second movement of the string quartet. Toscanini sent the scores back without comment.  Barber assumed the great conductor didn’t like the works, and cast about for someone else to play them.

That summer Menotti visited Toscanini, who inquired why Barber was absent. Menotti replied that his friend was sick. “I don’t believe that,” said Toscanini. “He’s mad at me. Tell him not to be mad. I’m going to play one of his pieces, I’m going to play both.” The maestro had memorized the music. Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra introduced both works on November 5, 1938.

The Adagio was an instant hit. Besides performances as a concert piece, it has been used as a memorial dirge. The Adagio was played at the funerals of presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, and after Barber’s death in 1981.

“It is a knockout!” Barber said when he finished the original version of the Adagio, and commentators have been trying to explain its appeal ever since. William Schuman called it “a perfect piece of music…. I think it works because it’s so precise emotionally. The emotional climate is never left in doubt. It begins, it reaches its climax, it makes its point, and it goes away.” For Virgil Thomson, “I think it’s a love scene…a detailed love scene…a smooth successful love scene. Not a dramatic one, but a very satisfactory one.”

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Symphony No. 2, Opus 132 (Mysterious Mountain)

Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Massachusetts on March 8, 1911. After studying composition with Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory and privately with Bohuslav Martinu, he produced a large number of works well within the Western tradition, influenced somewhat by Sibelius.

While working as an organist at an Armenian church near Boston, he became fascinated by various Eastern musical cultures. As a result, in 1940, he destroyed nearly a thousand of his early scores in order to pursue a fusion of styles as disparate as French troubadour songs and Japanese Gagaku music. The synthesis is uniquely Hovhaness.

From 1948 to 1951, he taught at the Boston Conservatory, then moved to New York and later to Lucerne, Switzerland. In 1967 he was named composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony and then settled in Renton, Washington.

Hovhaness wrote 67 symphonies. His second, titled Mysterious Mountain, was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski for his first concert as conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. It was first played on October 31, 1955. Hubert Roussel wrote in the Houston Post: “Hovhaness produces a texture of the utmost beauty, gentleness, distinction and expressive potential. The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music.” 

Hovhaness commented on the inspiration for the work: “Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds. To some, the Mysterious Mountain may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside–Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton.”

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma) 

“Dedicated to My Friends Pictured Within,” Elgar’s Enigma Variations consist of musical portraits of thirteen of the composer’s friends, and a finale depicting Elgar himself. Elgar never revealed either the significance or the origin of the theme, which he labeled Enigma in the score. The theme came to him, he said, “after a long and tiresome day’s teaching, aided by a cigar.”

Here is the cast of characters, in the order of their appearance as variations: 1) Caroline Alice, Elgar’s wife; 2) pianist Hew David Stuart-Powell; 3) actor Richard Baxter Townshend; 4) Elgar’s neighbor William Meath Baker; 5) Richard Penrose Arnold, Matthew Arnold’s son; 6) violist Isobel Fitton; 7) architect Arthur Troyte Griffith; 8) pianist Winifred Norbury; 9) “Nimrod,” or Arthur Jaeger, Elgar’s close friend; 10) “Dorabella,” or Dora Penny; 11) organist George Robertson Sinclair and his bulldog, Dan; 12) cellist Basil Nevinson; 13) (the score is marked only with three asterisks and the word “Romanza”), believed to be Lady Mary Lygon. The last variation is really the finale, a portrait of Elgar himself.

The first performance of the Enigma Variations was conducted by Hans Richter on June 19, 1899, in London. The critic for The Times complained that “it is evidently impossible for the uninitiated to discuss the meaning of the work,” but admitted that “on the surface” the work was “exceedingly clever, often charming and always original, and excellently worked out.”  Another review said that “the Variations stand in no need of a programme; as abstract music they fully satisfy.”

The subject of the “Nimrod” variation, Arthur Jaeger, wrote: “Here is an English musician who has something to say and knows how to say it in his own individual and beautiful way…. He writes as he feels, there is no affectation or make-believe.  Effortless originality–the only true originality–combined with thorough savoir-faire and, most important of all, beauty of theme, warmth and feeling are his credentials, and they should open to him the hearts of all who have faith in the future of our English art and appreciate beautiful music wherever it is met.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2022.