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Concert I, 2022-2023 season

Season Opener

Seven O’Clock Shout
Valerie Coleman

Valerie Coleman is an acclaimed flutist, founder of the ensemble Imani Winds, and an active composer. She is a faculty member at the Frost School of Music of the University of Miami and a Clara Mannes Fellow at the Mannes School of Music. Her music, which includes solo, chamber, band, and orchestral works, incorporates elements of jazz and other African diaspora elements. “Seven O’Clock Shout” was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given its first, virtual performance in July of 2020. The composer writes about this work:

“Seven O'Clock Shout” is an anthem inspired by the tireless frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the heartwarming ritual of evening serenades that brings people together amidst isolation to celebrate life and the sacrifices of heroes. The work begins with a distant and solitary solo between two trumpets in fanfare fashion to commemorate the isolation forced upon humankind, and the need to reach out to one another. The fanfare blossoms into a lushly dense landscape of nature, symbolizing both the caregiving acts of nurses and doctors as they try to save lives, while nature is transforming and healing herself during a time of self-isolation.”

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich wrote this concerto in 1957 for his then-nineteen-year old son Maxim, still a conservatory student. (Maxim went on to become a renowned pianist and interpreter of his father’s music). This was the period, often designated The Thaw, when Nikita Khrushchev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and the Stalinist Soviet regulation of artistic expression was relaxed somewhat. The traditional story about Shostakovich is that after 1936, when Stalin had condemned the composer’s somewhat avant-garde and definitely risqué opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich wrote enough “positive,” easily accessible, and functional music to satisfy the authorities. However, he embedded elements of agony and dissent in his more artistically ambitious pieces, with these representing the “true” expression of his inner life and his more “affirmative” works a mere façade. The idea of “two Shostakoviches” was a common theme in non-Soviet commentary on his work. There is some truth in this idea, but of course the reality is more complex. Shostakovich was legitimately terrified of being sent to the gulag, as had happened to some of his colleagues in the arts, and his music was clearly written in part in response to this terror and the power of the regime. But it is not correct to hear his cheerful music, which often has a slightly hysterical edge, as an emotionally false submission to the Party’s retrograde aesthetics. As he himself said in 1953 after a roller-coaster ride, “I love the madcap… You’ve undoubtedly forgotten that I am the author of the opera The Nose (his 1930 absurdist work based on a story by Gogol).

That said, Shostakovich spoke belittingly of this undoubtedly cheerful concerto in a letter to a friend. As always with Shostakovich, though, the cheerfulness has an acidity that we can read either as simply inherent in modernism, as a barely-hidden resistance to the demands of the regime, or just as more generally ironic. Sandwiched in between the first and third movements of (ironic? resistant?) good cheer is a slow movement of exceptional sweetness.

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Johannes Brahms

Brahms published his four symphonies in the relatively narrow span of nine years, between 1876 and 1885. He was at the peak of his fame not only as a composer but also as a touring pianist and conductor when the Fourth Symphony came out in 1885. He himself conducted the first performance of this work.

The symphony is archetypical Brahms in a number of ways. The first movement uses some of his most characteristic rhythmic devices. Brahms is famous for using “cross rhythms”—that is, rhythms that in one way or another tug against the beat that you might want to tap your foot to. He puts groups of three against groups of two within the same beat, he asks the performers to accent the weak beats, he changes the groupings of the notes from one bar to the next, so there is often a pervasive feeling of delicious tension or uncertainty, which he often emphasizes with the rich chords he deploys. The first movement of this symphony begins with the simplest of rhythms—an upbeat followed by a downbeat (like the word “ballOON”). This simple rhythm is present throughout the movement, which could easily become tedious. But Brahms plays with it by adding notes in between the “syllables” (“ball-a-LOON-a”) by adding more syllables at the end of the idea (“ballOON game”), by having it sometimes very detached and other times extremely connected, and by changing the stress (“BALLoon”). And to make things more interesting, the conductor Fritz Steinbach, a close friend and colleague of Brahms, left instructions about how to conduct Brahms’s music; he mentioned the importance of “Brahmsian nuances,” chief among which was stressing the upbeat more than the downbeat (“BALLoon”) even when it wasn’t marked in the score, which would make it harder for listeners to find the beginning of each bar.

The second movement contrasts sweeping lyricism with almost march-like figuration, which is a trick Brahms may have learned from Schubert. The third movement plays around with accents in a more straightforward way—it may remind us of the peasant dances often evoked in the scherzos of symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven but with a duple rather than a triple beat.

Brahms’s sense of himself as a carrier of that “Classical” tradition—German composers from Bach to Schumann—is especially evident in the last movement, which is a passacaglia, or a ground bass movement, that is, is a series of variations all built on the same 8-bar-long bassline. This bassline occurs 33 times in the course of the movement, with some extra bars for transitions between the variations. (Some of the variations take only one go-round of the bass; others take two or more.) Ground bass is a compositional device that originated well before Bach, and which is probably most familiar today from Pachelbel’s famous “Canon in D.” However, Brahms’s contemporaries would probably have associated the technique with Bach, not only because they thought of Brahms as an inheritor of that Germanic tradition in general, but because he was known to be deeply involved in bringing public attention to Bach by sponsoring the first complete edition of his music. 

© Copyright Mary Hunter 2022