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Barber, Copland, Piazzolla, Falla

Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5
Samuel Barber
b. West Chester, Pennsylvania / March 9, 1910
d. New York, New York / January 23, 1981

First performed by the RPO on April 22, 1982; Kazuyoshi Akiyama, conductor. Last performed on May 8, 1993; Peter Bay, conductor.

After a period of relative neglect, Barber’s reputation has ridden the recent neo-romantic wave and returned to the high level it enjoyed during the peak of his career. His music combines the emotion, drama, and communicative spirit of nineteenth-century Romanticism with those elements of contemporary practice which suited him. The 1950s and `60s were his most productive years, as he fulfilled numerous significant commissions. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his opera Vanessa in 1958, and for his Piano Concerto four years later.     

Barber composed this quite accomplished overture during an Italian holiday in 1931, the year before he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After a run-through by the Curtis orchestra in the autumn of that year, it was given its public premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alexander Smallens conducting, on August 30, 1933.

Barber revealed that it was “suggested” by a 1777 comedy of manners by an Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, although it clearly flows from the play’s merry spirit rather than its courtly eighteenth-century origins. It fairly bursts with wit and youthful energy. Yet nestled in alongside the cheeky tunes and bustling rhythms lies a haunting lyrical theme that points winsomely ahead to the warmth of heart so characteristic of Barber’s maturity.

Suite from Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland
b. Brooklyn, New York / November 14, 1900
d. Peekskill, New York / December 2, 1990

First performed by the RPO on November 1, 1945; Artur Rodzinski, conductor. Last performed on January 20, 2007; James Gaffigan, conductor.

During the 1930s, Copland and the celebrated choreographer Martha Graham developed a mutual sense of admiration, based on their shared interest in simple, natural expression. Their first opportunity to collaborate came when arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned Copland to compose a score specifically for Graham’s company. It remained nameless until Graham announced, shortly before the debut, that she had decided to call it Appalachian Spring. She admitted that she had chosen it simply because she liked the sound of it, and that it had no connection with either the location or scenario of the ballet. The premiere took place on October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., with Graham dancing the part of the bride.

The scenario unfolds during the early nineteenth century, on the site of a Pennsylvania farmhouse which has just been built as a pre wedding gift for a young couple. Here is Copland’s own synopsis: “The bride to be and the young farmer husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end, the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.” Copland’s fresh, luminous music climaxes in a set of variations on Simple Gifts, a hymn tune associated with the Shakers, a New England religious sect.

The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
Astor Piazzolla
b. Mar del Plata, Argentina / March 11, 1921
d. Buenos Aires, Argentina / July 4, 1992
Arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov
b. Kharkiv, Russia / October 16, 1955

First performance by the RPO.

In the 1940s, Piazzolla took the traditional tango – the sultry, melancholy dance which originated in Argentina during the final quarter of the nineteenth century – mixed it with elements of jazz and classical music, and created the more sophisticated and experimental Nuevo Tango (new tango). His innovative compositions in this style – designed more for listening than for dancing – met with great resistance from traditionalists.

In 1954, he traveled to Paris on a composing scholarship to study with the famed tutor, Nadia Boulanger. She prodded him to write the tango-based music he felt in his heart, rather than follow purely classical pursuits. After an unsuccessful period in the United States, he returned for good to Argentina. He finally won success there, first through operetta, then through his numerous tangos, which Argentines were now ready to accept and enjoy.

In the late 1980s, classical performers began taking his music into their repertoire. Among his compositions of this period are a Bandoneón Concerto, a Cello Sonata written for Mstislav Rostropovich, and Five Tango Sensations, a moody piece for bandoneón and strings commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.

He composed Verano Porteño (Buenos Aires Summer) in 1965. Originally part of his incidental score for Melenito de oro, a play by Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz, he later adapted it for his tango quintet. Five years passed before he decided to create three more pieces, each one inspired by another of the four seasons. He considered them separate works, and only occasionally performed them together.

After his death, the celebrated Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer commissioned composer Leonid Desyatnikov to bring the four pieces together and to transcribe them for solo violin and string orchestra. Kremer wanted a piece that he could perform in concert on the same program as Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Desyatnikov strengthened the links between the two scores by weaving witty references to Vivaldi into Piazzolla’s music. The Piazzolla/Desyatnikov Seasons offer a heady, colorful, and highly entertaining mixture of ingredients: tango, jazz, Romanticism, and Impressionism, all liberally spiced with saucy humor and playful contemporary techniques.

Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat
Manuel de Falla
b. Cádiz, Spain / November 23, 1876
d. Alta Gracia, Argentina / November 14, 1946

First performed by the RPO on January 18, 1929; Eugene Goossens, conductor. Last performed on February 5, 2005; Jeff Tyzik, conductor.

Falla’s music blends Spanish folk roots with the misty, atmospheric style of French composers such as Debussy and Ravel. He led Spanish music onto a new path, away from its tradition of providing little more than simple pictures, and more toward the mainstream of international twentieth century composition.

In 1916, he composed a score for a stage pantomime based on Pedro de Alarcón’s novel The Corregidor and The Miller’s Wife. Sergei Diaghilev, artistic director of the renowned dance company, the Ballets Russes, heard it during a visit to Madrid. He suggested that Falla expand it into a full-scale ballet, and the composer agreed eagerly. Léonide Massine created the choreography for the new piece, re-christened The Three-Cornered Hat, and Pablo Picasso designed the curtain, sets, and costumes. The premiere was given in London in 1919.

The story takes in the Spanish countryside. The principal characters are a miller and his wife, plus the Corregidor, a local official whose three-cornered hat symbolizes his rude, snobbish nature. The Corregidor sets his sights on the miller’s wife, but his clumsy efforts at courting her come to nothing and the couple resumes its happy life.

Falla drew two concert suites from the full score of the ballet. The second opens with The Neighbors’ Dance (Seguidillas), a warm, sweet piece based on fragments of authentic Spanish folk tunes. The Miller’s Dance (Farruca) is a fiery number in flamenco style. To the strains of the exciting Final Dance (Jota), the entire cast rushes about madly as they try to solve the plot’s many comical complications.

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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