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November Program Notes 2022

Written by Todd Giles


Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to Il Signor Bruschino, or The Accidental Son (1813)

Rossini (1792–1868) was a prolific Italian composer of thirty-two operas, including The Italian Girl in Algiers and The Barber of Seville, two cornerstones of opera buffa, or comic opera. Between the ages of 18 and 21, he wrote eight operas, five of which, like Il Signor Bruschino, are musical farces. The lighthearted Il Signor Bruschino premiered in Venice in 1813. As is the case with most of Rossini’s overtures, this one features airy, energetic rhythms driving the fast sections, with slower passages highlighting the woodwinds. What makes this brief overture atypical is the playful repetition of the second violins tapping their bows on their music stands. The fifteen-scene opera, which is based on René de Chazet’s play, Le fils par hasard, employs some standard themes from the theatre and opera house—mistaken identity, an arranged marriage, and two lovers competing for the same hand.


Jessie Montgomery: Starburst (2012)

Born in 1981, violinist, music educator and social activist Jessie Montgomery is a prime example of the ways in which early 21st century classical music is progressively moving away from the academic, dissonant and complex music of the mid- to late-20th century towards a more diverse and eclectic music better representing the changing face(s) of America. Starburst was composed in 2012 for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the touring ensemble of the Sphinx Organization, which supports young African American and Latinx musicians in the Detroit area. The aptly named one-movement work explodes into the dynamic play of an ever-changing soundscape of chords, driving rhythms, plucked strings, and complex harmonies—like an exploding star, now you see it, now you don’t. One thing is certain, you will be riding the perpetual motion shockwave of the three-minute Starburst for some time to come.


Antonio Vivaldi: Guitar Concerto in D major, RV 93 (1716)

With more than five hundred concerti, fifty operas, forty secular sonatas and four oratorios to his name, Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was the most influential composer of his generation both in Italy and abroad. As the numbers indicate, it is with the concerto form Vivaldi made his mark, in particular his emphasis on showcasing the virtuosity of soloists, whether lutenists, bassoonists, violinists or organists. Also important was the three-movement fast-slow-fast structure of his concerti, which became the gold-standard of the form. His Guitar Concerto in D major was originally scored for lute, an instrument then in the twilight of its days as a solo instrument of choice. In this chamber concerto, Vivaldi was able exploit the lute’s timbres and ability to play arpeggios, which translates ideally for guitar, the solo instrument the work is most often heard performed with by modern audiences.


Joaquín Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez, for Guitar and Orchestra (1939)

Joaquín Rodrigo’s (1901–1999) first attempt at composing in the concerto form turned out to be not only his most accomplished work, it also quickly became one of the most performed works in the classical repertoire. What makes this three-movement concerto unique is the way in which Rodrigo weds neoclassical poise and economy with the dancelike rhythms of the Spanish folk tradition. Scored for solo guitar and full orchestra, the voice of the guitar, even at its most subtle, is never overshadowed by the orchestra. While the two outer movements are dancelike and lively, it is the second movement, marked Adagio, which is most well-known by listeners for its melancholy mood and interplay of the guitar and English horn. The plaintive nature of the second movement speaks back to the death of the Rodrigos’ infant son, but the overall work itself finds inspiration in a much happier place—the gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez near Madrid, a spot the couple knew well.


Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 (1824)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was the most beloved composer of his day, as well as the 19th century’s only musical prodigy who could rival the young Mozart. Best known for his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his Italian and Scottish symphonies, Mendelssohn was a Classical formalist who employed a Romantic pallet; his music, always refined, often overflows with energy, drama and excitement. This conservative bent set him apart from contemporaries such as the more musically progressive Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn composed thirteen string symphonies, the last of which was revised to include brass and woodwinds, and thus became his first formally numbered symphony. The Symphony No. 1, completed in 1824 when Mendelssohn was just 15, is informed by Mozart’s classical model and the young Mendelssohn’s intense study of Bach’s use of counterpoint. Initially introduced to a small private audience in honor of his sister’s nineteenth birthday, the composer himself conducted it publically for the first time during his visit to London in 1829. The Symphony No. 1 opens with a bold burst of energy (and a bit of dissonance) before moving into the gentler, graceful slow second movement. The third, a Menuetto, is followed by a finale marked Allegro con fuoco, which opens with a theme reminiscent of the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.


October Program Notes 2022

Written by Todd Giles


Christopher Rouse: “The Infernal Machine” from Phantasmata (1981)

Christopher Rouse (1949–2019) started out his musical career as a rock & roll drummer before attending Oberlin and Cornell to study music. Along with an affinity for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Rouse’s music was also influenced by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Hector Berlioz, the combination of which helped inspire Rouse’s energetic, clamorous orchestral sound. Rouse composed four symphonies and a variety of other orchestral and chamber works, including several concertos for some of the 20th century’s most accomplished soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Sharon Ibsin, the latter of whom will be performing with the WFSO later this season.

Originally composed as a brief concert opener in 1981, Rouse was convinced by a friend that The Infernal Machine could also be used as part of a larger multi-movement work yet to be penned. Completed in 1985 and premiered the following year by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Infernal Machine, paired with two other brief pieces for orchestra, came into the world as the menacing soundscape that is Phantasmata. According to Rouse, all three movements were inspired by dream images—“the first mystical, the third secular, The Infernal Machine somewhat more amorphous in origin.” Rouse conceived of the central movement as an “immense juggernaut, eternally in motion for no particular purpose,” belching out “slightly hellish sparks, grinding occasionally as it changes gears.”


Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (17951800)

In the hands of Mozart, the concerto form achieved the apogee of lyrical beauty and ordered logic based on the back-and-forth conversation between orchestra and soloist. Building on what Mozart developed before him, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) expanded the form’s scale and pushed that dialogue in more interesting and complex directions. While that is certainly true for the last three of his five piano concertos, the first two remain somewhat Mozartean in nature. Really, how could they not speak back to his predecessor who died just four years before the younger composer began sketching his first piano concerto in 1795?

The Concerto No. 1 premiered in Prague in 1798 alongside Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major, the twenty-seven year old composer at the keyboard surely showing off his virtuosity. The first two concerti, which were composed during his early period (1792–1803), are classically proportioned, melodic, and optimistic, whereas his third concerto for piano, which he started sketching while putting the finishing touches on the first two, begins to introduce elements of his darker, more experimental middle period.

Typical of concertos at the time, the Concerto No. 1 opens with a quiet strings-only passage which builds anticipation for the featured solo instrument to come. Before the piano makes its appearance, though, the orchestra adopts a more vigorous martial sound with the brass and timpani. The first movement provides soloists ample opportunity to highlight their technical skills through a light and charming virtuosic display. The second movement, marked “Largo,” is gentle, melodic, and stately. The final movement, a rondo, brings the lightness and energy back to the fore, including hints of the high-spirited folk music Beethoven and Mozart were fond of.


Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32 (19141917)

English composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934) studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London, where he also became lifelong friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams. After graduation, Holst earned a living picking up trombone gigs where he could find them, while at the same time focusing his composing on choral and operatic works. Though his instrument of choice at school was the piano, the neuritis in his hands made it too painful to play, thus the trombone. The neuritis (and poor eyesight) also kept him from being able to enlist in the service at the onset of World War I. Surely sensing the menace to come, the forty-year-old Holst began composing the first movement of what would become his most popular work, The Planets.

Holst worked on The Planets from 1914 to 1917. The complete suite was not performed in its entirety until after the war in London in 1920; that same year it premiered in the US at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Much like Rouse’s Phantasmata, Holst pulled out all the stops when it comes to the breadth of instrumentation for The Planets; both works are scored, for example, for glockenspiel, celesta, harp(s), cymbals, chimes, and several other percussion instruments which add to the bombast. The seventh and final movement of The Planets, “Neptune,” even includes a hidden six-part choir of female voices, the ethereal sounds of which speaks to his interest in Near Eastern mysticism and astrology.

In much the same way we can see echoes of Holst in Rouse’s use of the full orchestral apparatus, we can also think of the booming menace in the opening movement of The Planets (“Mars, the Bringer of War”) as influential to John Williams’s score for the film Star Wars, which WFSO patrons will have the pleasure of hearing performed live later this season.