Shakespeare’s comment “If music be the food of love, play on” would seem an apt introduction for this afternoon’s concert, which concludes the 56th season of the HCS orchestra. The all- American program begins with Gwyneth Walker’s world premiere composition, Let There Be Music, followed by our student concerto competition winner, Noah Ferris, who will perform Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2. It concludes with William Grant Still’s Symphony No.1, that stands as the first symphony composed by an African American to be performed by a major orchestra.
GWYNETH WALKER graciously contributed the following program note for Let There Be Music, her piece that we play today:
During the pandemic years of 2020-2021, the Holyoke (MA) Civic Symphony, like many other orchestras remained silent. Their performance venue at Holyoke Community college was closed. Group gatherings were avoided. Yet the orchestra, under the leadership of their Music Director, David Kidwell, managed to keep their shared love of music alive. Online discussions, player profiles, and chamber music videos were among the ways that group interaction was maintained. Finally, during the fall of 2021, it was possible to bring the orchestra back to their auditorium.
Even though this first concert featured only chamber ensembles, the audience was thrilled to experience live music once again. When the players first walked onto the stage, they were greeted with a standing ovation.
This overture was inspired by that memorable concert. Let there be music!
VICTOR AUGUST HERBERT was an Irish-born, German-raised American conductor, composer, and cellist. He was a prolific composer, and his astonishing oeuvre includes two operas, a cantata, 43 operettas, incidental music to 10 plays, 31 compositions for orchestra, nine band compositions, nine cello compositions, five violin compositions with piano or orchestra, 22 piano compositions and numerous songs, choral compositions, and orchestrations of works by other composers! Although he is best known for his operettas, which include The Fortune Teller (1898) and Babes in Toyland (1903), he was an extremely competent cellist, and for several years after 1889, he taught cello and music composition at the National Conservatory of Music.
Of his two cello concertos, the second one – Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor written in 1894 – was the most substantial in terms of serious material and mature writing. Here Herbert appeared to be more interested in providing a tightly knit, coordinated piece of thoughtful music rather than just a bit of light entertainment. The Allegro impetuoso that opens the work leads direction to the Andante slower middle movement, while the Allegro finale essentially consists of material drawn from the two preceding movements. What impresses is the sheer beauty of the writing and the masterful use of the cello’s lyrical capabilities.
Herbert himself performed the solo part at the concerto’s premiere on March 9, 1894, by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was received enthusiastically by the audience at its premiere, but perhaps more important was its influence on Antonin Dvořák, Herbert’s colleague at the New York National Conservatory. Dvořák was also experimenting with incorporating Afro-American themes into his compositions, and inspired by Herbert, he wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 in 1896.
WILLIAM GRANT STILL was the first American Black man to be involved in practically everything having to do with conducting and composing for symphony orchestras and opera companies. A descendant of the famous 19th century abolitionist, William Still, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas where his mother taught high school and created an artistic home environment for her son. She encouraged young William to learn the violin, cello, and oboe, and at an early age, he attended Wilberforce University in Ohio with the goal of becoming a composer – especially for the symphony and opera. Soon thereafter he enrolled in Oberlin College, and after military service in WWI, he accepted a position with W.C. Handy in New York City. There he worked at the highest levels of New York musical circles as an arranger for radio and musical theatre luminaries such as Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, and Sophie Tucker. Along the way he studied musical composition, most notably with the early twentieth-century composer, Edgar Varèse. During his lifetime Still created operas, ballets, symphonic poems, orchestral suites, choral music, songs and five symphonies.
Symphony No. 1 “Afro American,” composed in 1930, was the first symphony composed by a Black man and performed by a major American orchestra—the Rochester Philharmonic. The piece is a rather conservative work, cast in a tonal, accessible idiom. Still indicated that his intent was to reflect the untutored musical characteristics of Black “sons of the soil,” hence the blues and spiritual (but not jazz) elements that thoroughly inform the work.
The first movement, Moderato assai, contains strong allusion to the well-known twelve-bar blues structure, while the second, Adagio, is infused with intimations of Black spirituals, reflecting the metaphor of “going home” for death as an escape from the realities of difficult times. The Animato third movement uses fast rhythmic patterns that create a light-hearted atmosphere, while the fourth movement, Lento, con risoluzione, opens with a somber melody in the strings and closes with a grandiose and satisfying finale.
Sunday, May 7, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. – Annual Fundraiser
Holyoke Community College
Fine & Performing Arts Building
Let There Be Music – Gwyneth Walker (world premiere)
Student Concerto Competition Winner – Noah Ferris
Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” – William Grant Still
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