Stravinsky and Silverman Program Notes

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Symphony of Psalms

“A symphony of some length” was conductor Serge Koussevitzky’s request of Stravinsky for the 50th anniversary season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky’s publisher wanted “something popular,” specifically an orchestral piece without chorus. But, as Stravinsky put it, “I had had the psalm symphony idea in mind for some time, and that is what I insisted on composing.”

Stravinsky planned “a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on an equal footing, neither of them outweighing the other.” For his text, he chose three of the Psalms of David: parts of Psalms 38 and 39, and all of Psalm 150.

The planned premiere with the Boston Symphony was postponed, so the first performance was conducted by Ernest Ansermet in Brussels on December 13, 1930. Six days later, Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber for a performance with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 9, 1948. The text is from James Agee’s prose fragment, which Barber first encountered in The Partisan Reader, and which later became the prologue to the novel A Death in the Family. It describes a child’s thoughts while lying on the grass on a summer evening surrounded by his loved ones.

Biographer Nathan Broder describes the work: “After a brief introduction the voice enters with a gently rocking melody whose sweetness is mixed with the quietly dissonant bitterness of nostalgia. The mood is suddenly disturbed by the ‘iron moan’ of a passing street-car…. The tranquility of the evening returns,

and the child contemplates the stars and then the various members of his family. Here the music wells up into a passionate outburst at the words ‘By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth.’ There follows a fervent prayer: ‘May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away,’ a prayer echoed by the full orchestra. The rocking motif returns as the child is taken in and put to bed; there is a last climax as he yearns for an identity, and the work ends with a quiet orchestral postlude.”

John Adams (b.1947): The Dharma at Big Sur

The Dharma at Big Sur was commissioned for the opening of Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The first performance was given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, with electric violinist Tracy Silverman, on October 24, 2003.

In his program note, Adams writes: “The Dharma at Big Sur is in two parts, each dedicated to a West Coast composer who had been both a friend and an inspiration to me, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. The first part, ‘A New Day’, is a long rhapsodic reverie for the solo violin, an ‘endless melody’ that soars above the stillness of an orchestral drone with its quietly pulsating gongs and harps and  distant brass chords…. The orchestra, so long in the background, surges up and takes over the melody from the soloist. After a delicately cacophonous shower of tintinnabulations from the harps, piano, samplers and tuned cowbells, the tempo takes on a defined pulse…. The solo violin juggles a jazz-infused melody that gradually expands in scope and tessitura. This is ‘Sri Moonshine,’ a tip of the hat to Terry Riley, not only the composer of In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, but also a master of Indian raga singing.

“The easygoing roll of the rhythm gives way to a more insistent throb, producing a dance-like effect like a gigantic, pulsing gamelan. The solo violin flies high and swoops down like a seagull moving in a wind storm. The brass instruments, so quiet and reserved at the beginning of the piece, now fill the acoustic space with great surging walls of resonance. Low tuned gongs mark the inner structure of the music as it vibrates over and over on one enormous, ecstatic expression of ‘just B’.”

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse

“It is not subtle–what I am undertaking at the moment,” Ravel wrote to a friend in 1908. “It is a Grande Valse, a sort of homage to the memory of the great Strauss. You know my intense sympathy for this admirable rhythm and that I hold la joie de vivre as expressed by the dance in esteem.” The original sketches for Ravel’s homage to the younger Johann Strauss were titled simply Vienna.

The impetus to finish the piece came from Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Russian Ballet, who asked Ravel to compose another ballet for him. Ravel had already written Daphnis and Chloe for the Russian impresario.

By 1919 Vienna had become La Valse, subtitled “A Choreographic Poem.” Ravel provided stage directions in the score: “Drifting clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds gradually scatter, and an immense hall can be seen, filled with a whirling crowd. The light of chandeliers bursts forth. An Imperial Court about 1855.”

Recalling the piece later, Ravel wrote: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal kind of dervish’s dance.”

However, Diaghilev found La Valse impossible to choreograph, much less finance. Ravel took this as a criticism of his music. Five years later, impresario and composer met in Monte Carlo. When Ravel refused Diaghilev’s handshake, Diaghilev challenged Ravel to a duel. Fortunately, mutual friends intervened and the duel was cancelled. The two men never met again.

Since Diaghilev refused to perform La Valse as a ballet, Ravel introduced the work as a concert piece in Paris in 1920. La Valse remained in the concert hall until 1928, when Ida Rubinstein, herself a former member of Diaghilev’s company, produced the music as a ballet. That same year, Bronislava Nijinska choreographed it.

~Program Notes by Charley Samson © 2016