Concert III, 2022-2023 Season
Tried & True, Plus a Newer Crew
Propellers in the Sun
Tanner Porter is a singer, songwriter, cellist, and classical composer with degrees from Michigan and Yale. She received the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019. “Propellers in the Sun,” is, according to the composer, “loosely based on the Icarus myth; flight in the piece is represented by the coughing and hum of propellers.” The piece more or less alternates between quieter passages of short phrases (perhaps trying to get off the ground?) and fuller passages of longer phrases of varying moods, moving from serene to more agitated. The piece’s end is reminiscent of the beginning, with solo flute and violin, but the propellers are silent.
Symphony in D major, K.385, “Haffner”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
From the early nineteenth century on, and especially since Beethoven, to write a “symphony” was to write a work of large proportions and high aesthetic ambition. However, the origins of the symphony lie in the opera overture (often called “sinfonia”) and in instrumental pieces written for particular occasions and not necessarily intended to endure past those moments. Mozart’s “Haffner” symphony fits this tradition. He wrote it in 1782 after he had moved from the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg to a more freelance life in Vienna. His father Leopold, who was still in the Salzburg musical establishment, ordered this work from his son to celebrate the ennoblement of Siegmund Haffner, the son of a prominent local businessman. Mozart wrote it within the space of 10 days, while also finishing a serenade and the arrangement for winds of his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. He was not delighted to receive the commission in the midst of all this work, but took enough trouble over it that he was late sending it off, declaring to his father that he was “really unable to scribble off inferior stuff.”
The work is unusually compact and very tightly constructed. It is very much “about” contrasting musical gestures. In the first movement the loud striding fanfare of the opening is immediately answered by a quieter “tiptoe march” figure, and these two ideas never leave us (or each other) alone. In the second movement a graceful melody is set against a staccato tick-tock accompaniment, and in a couple of places the tick-tock gets confined to a single high note in the first violins and looms over the more graceful material under it. In the third movement, the more boisterous jollity of the Minuet is offset by a gentle melodic Trio. The opening of the Finale introduces perhaps Mozart’s silliest-ever tune, which is countered by ostentatiously loud and busy material. There’s a second graceful tune later, but the alternation between quiet and loud material continues throughout the movement.
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor
Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach wrote this work in 1730–31 for the collegium musicum he directed, on top of his jobs as Kantor at St. Thomas’s church in Leipzig and supervisor of music in three other churches and in Leipzig’s civic life more generally. The collegium musicum was a group of professional musicians and students who gave weekly public concerts; both Bach’s solo violin concertos and this double concerto were written for this ensemble. This double concerto is one of Bach’s best-known and most beloved works, not least because it is part of the Suzuki violin method, and YouTube offers many videos of groups of kids playing the solo parts of the first movement in unison. The work is also a master class in how two solo parts can politely take turns in the spotlight (the first movement is particularly good at this), wind around each other to create a kind of musical double helix, as is the case in the slow movement, and chase each other mercilessly, as they do in the last movement.
Symphony No. 3
Florence Price composed throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and towards the end of her life she gained considerable fame in a variety of circles: Marian Anderson sang her songs; the Marine Band played some of her music, and the Halle Orchestra in England commissioned her to write an overture. After her death in 1953, however, her music occupied only small corners of the repertory until the recent intensification of interest in making the classical music canon more fully representative.
She was educated at the New England Conservatory, paused her large-scale composing in the early days of her marriage and child-rearing, but resumed writing seriously when the family relocated to Chicago in 1927. Partly influenced by the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, Price, like other creative artists of the time, aimed to include and “elevate” African American elements within a musical style that was largely based on late Romantic music, especially that of Dvořák, who also included and transformed national idioms within a largely Germanic style.
Price wrote three symphonies, her first being the first work by an African-American woman to be performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony). Her Third Symphony, her last, was written in 1938-39. In 1940, she wrote to Eric Schwass, an administrator of the Michigan WPA orchestra, in language that we would no longer use about race, “[The symphony] is intended to be Negroid in character and expression. In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs.”
The references to African-American music in the Third Symphony are unmistakable—the most prominent being melodies reminiscent of spirituals and rhythms born of African American dance (especially in the third movement). However, even when this material stands out from its immediate context, it always relates intimately to material elsewhere in its movement. The harmonic language is mostly reminiscent of Brahms or Dvořák, and even Wagner, but there are moments when a more modern idiom—more like Debussy or Ravel—appears. Throughout the work, Price features the brass and wind instruments in important melodic roles, especially for the more lyrical material, and often writes for “choirs” of instruments, giving the work as a whole a distinctive color.
© Copyright Mary Hunter 2022