Cinco de Mayo is a minor Mexican holiday commemorating the nation’s victory over French invading forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. By the late nineteenth century, however, Mexicans living in the United States seized upon the date, then virtually ignored in Mexico except in the state of Puebla, as an opportunity to celebrate their pride and heritage.
Today at least 21 states observe Cinco de Mayo, with special events that highlight traditional Mexican symbols such as the Virgen de Guadalupe, extol prominent figures of Mexican descent, and/or celebrate Mexican culture, music, and regional dances. This afternoon the Holyoke Symphony pays homage to Cinco de Mayo by performing South of the Border, a work written in 1963 for high school orchestra by Jerry Neil Smith. Smith is a clarinetist, composer, and professor emeritus of the University of Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Music degree at the University of Texas in Austin and a Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He played clarinet with the famed Eastman Wind Ensemble under the direction of Frederick Fennell and has taught and performed at the Shanghai Conservatory in Shanghai, China. His compositions include published works for bands and orchestras, and he has written a large number of commissioned works and arrangements for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. Of the piece we play today, Dr. Smith writes:
“South of the Border has five short movements. The outer movements are introductory and closing material with hints of Latin American music, both folk and composed, which highlight some of the characteristics of this important world-music style. The inner movements are well-known modern dance forms (bossa nova, samba, and tango), with occasional flights of fancy. The many dances of the Latin American countries reflect a proud heritage derived from Indian, Spanish, and Portuguese music as well as reflecting the influence of American jazz music. This composition is meant to pay homage to the many contributors to the Latin American music which we have today.”
At the turn of the twentieth century Sir Edward William Elgar was Britain’s preeminent composer, a position he had not easily attained. Largely self-taught as a composer, Elgar was born on June 2, 1857, to a middle class family that lived near the small city of Worcester, in the English West Midlands. His father, who tuned pianos, had a music shop. Elgar studied the music available in his father’s shop and taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments. Throughout the 1880s and the 1890s his experience grew, and his style matured. He conducted and composed for local music organizations, taught violin, and played the organ at St. George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester, but for many years he had to contend with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment, with religious bigotry (he was a Catholic in Protestant majority England), and with a late Victorian provincial society and its pervasive class consciousness.
Despite these obstacles, by the 1890s his fame began to spread, and his first big success, Enigma Variations, a masterpiece of form and orchestration, premiered in London in 1899, revealed that Elgar had surpassed the other leading English composers of his day in technical accomplishment and sheer force of musical personality. Confirming his new status was the immediate popularity of three Pomp and Circumstance Marches that he completed in1901. The Trio section of the first march, also known as “Land of Hope and Glory,” is familiar to most Americans because it has been played as the processional tune at virtually all high school and college graduation ceremonies since 1905! More significantly, the performance of “Land of Hope and Glory” that marked the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 made evident to all that Elgar had emerged as the musical representative of the Edwardian Age of empire and opulence. His symphonies and occasional music, noble and jovial in style, enjoyed phenomenal popularity until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
The disastrous war changed England and the rest of the world forever. When Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in 1919, his last great masterpiece reflected an entirely different Britain, a country numbed by the terrible losses it had endured. Appalled and disillusioned by the suffering in the aftermath of the war, he poured out his angst and despair in a work that has become the cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Here was a new Elgar – less assured, more contemplative, and more withdrawn. In the view of his biographer Ian Parrott, the Cello Concerto “is a work apart, by a lonely man in war-time who sees that artistic criteria have altered irreversibly.” Surprisingly the four-movement piece did not enjoy wide popularity at first, but after well-received recordings by twenty-year-old Jacqueline de Pré, Pablo Casals, and Yo Yo Ma in the 1960s, it quickly achieved its well deserved universal appeal.
The first movement, Adagio/Moderato opens with a recitative in the solo cello, immediately followed by a short answer from the clarinets, bassoons, and horn. An ad lib modified scale played by the solo cello follows. The viola section then presents a rendition of the main theme in Moderato and passes it to the solo cello who repeats it. The string section plays the theme a third time and the solo cello modifies it into a fortissimo restatement. The orchestra reiterates, and the cello present the theme a final time before moving directly into a lyrical E major middle section.
The second movement, Lento/Allegro molto opens with a fast crescendo with pizzicato chords in the cello. Then, the solo cello plays what will be the main motive of the Allegro molto section. Pizzicato chords follow. A brief cadenza is played, and a sixteenth-note motive and chords follow. Then a ritardando leads directly to a scherzo-like section which remains until the end.
The passionate, expansive Adagio third movement, in its distant key of B flat major, is the heart of the concerto. The orchestra is reduced to chamber size, and the cello sings through all but a single measure, like a brief dream that reaches no conclusion and then flows with no pause directly into the fourth movement.
The rondo finale, Allego/Moderato/Allegro, ma non troppo/Poco più lento/Adagio begins with another fast crescendo that ends at fortissimo. The solo cello follows with another recitative and cadenza. The movement’s main theme is noble and stately with many key changes. Near the end of the piece, the tempo slows into a Più lento section in which a new statement of themes appears. The slow section of the finale just before the final coda has been described as one of the most moving passages Elgar ever wrote. As one critic observed, “It is difficult to think of a passage or phrase written by any other composer which conveys such an intense emotional sadness as these few bars in the Cello Concerto.”
Maestro and composer David Kidwell kindly provided the following note for his A Broadway Symphony, being given its world premiere here today.
I love many different styles of music, and I have a particular interest in blurring the dividing lines between styles. In my first symphony, Shenandoah: A Symphonic Portrait (2002), I incorporated Appalachian roots music in to a four-movement symphonic structure. I thought it would be fun to try the same thing with Broadway music. As with Shenandoah, the tunes may sound familiar, but they are all original.
The first movement is a typical overture, made up of three themes which are heard in later movements. I’ve entitled the movement “New York Overture” as an homage to the classic Broadway overtures of the 1940s and ’50s. Usually a show would have out-of-town tryouts before arriving in New York City. In these tryouts, the overture was often very basic – existing sections from elsewhere in the show cobbled together and often not fully orchestrated. Since songs were frequently cut, added, or changed during tryouts, a full-blown “New York Overture” was not created until a show reached Broadway, in its presumably final form.
The second movement is a dance arrangement, taking the place of the typical scherzo in a symphony. The dance arranger’s job is to take a song from the show and expand it into different variations, all of which carefully highlight the dance movements and styles designed by the choreographer. My arrangement begins with a song in soft shoe style which is then transformed into a beguine, tango, tap dance, march, stripper music, and swing.
In place of the usual symphonic slow movement is a pop ballad. Contemporary theatre composers began incorporating pop-style songs into their shows in the 1970s. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar is an example. My pop ballad is in a very traditional song form: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.
The “Eleven o’Clock Number” is usually the penultimate song in a show, sung by the main character when the story has reached its climax. The song is often dramatic and fragmentary, signifying the character’s state of mind and inner conflict – think “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. The “eleven o’clock” reference comes from the heyday of Broadway when shows started later in the evening. These days the eleven o’clock number occurs closer to 10:15 or 10:30. My version begins with dramatic timpani rolls and orchestral stabs, interspersed with lonely single notes and silence. It then morphs into a Sondheim-style ballad, followed by a ticking clock section and melancholy music. It eventually reaches a triumphant conclusion, because of course in the theatre everyone lives happily ever after.
Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Smith: South of the Border
Student Concerto Competition Winner TBA
Kidwell: A Broadway Symphony (world première)
Tickets: $10 general, $5 under 12
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This program is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council; the Holyoke Cultural Council, and the South Hadley Cultural Council, both of which are supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.