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Program Notes for Celebrate America!

Motor City Triptych: Rosa Parks Boulevard
Michael Daugherty
b. Cedar Rapids, Iowa / April 28, 1954

Michael Daugherty’s exuberant, imaginative, pop-oriented music has made him one of the most performed and commissioned American composers of his generation. He studied composition at North Texas State University (1972-76) and Manhattan School of Music (1976-78), and computer music at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris (1979-80). He received his doctorate in composition from Yale University in 1986. After teaching composition 1986-1991 at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he joined the School of Music at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) in 1991, where he is currently Professor of Composition. He was composer-in-residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1999-2003) and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (2001-2003).

The composer writes,

Rosa Parks Boulevard pays tribute to the woman who, in 1955, helped set in motion the modern civil rights movement by her refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, she moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she lived until her death in 2005. One of the many honors bestowed upon Rosa Parks is a downtown Detroit boulevard bearing her name.

 

In the fall of 1999, I had the pleasure of attending a Sunday church service with Parks at the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. For more than four decades she has attended this modest church with the motto “The Church Where Everybody Is Somebody” hand-painted over its entrance. During the four-hour service, I joined Parks and the congregation in singing various gospel hymns and listening to the preacher's inspired oratory.

After the service, Parks told me her favorite piece of music was the traditional African-American spiritual Oh Freedom…Rosa Parks Boulevard features the trombone section, echoing the voices of generations of African-American preachers in Detroit and across the country. Fragments of the melody Oh Freedom are played in musical canons by the trombones, which I associate with the preacher. I also introduce a musical motif, which I associate with Parks, first heard in the woodwinds and vibraphone. These lyrical sections alternate with a turbulent bus ride, evoked by atonal polyrhythms in the trumpets, horns and non-pitched percussion. The recurrence of ominous beating in the bass drum reminds us that while progress was made in civil rights in the twentieth century, there is still much to be done in the twenty-first century.


Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Samuel Barber
b. West Chester, Pa. / March 9, 1910
d. New York, N.Y. / January 23, 1981

Barber’s Violin Concerto is his first concerto of any kind. It was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a soap tycoon from Philadelphia, as a vehicle for Iso Briselli, a young violinist who was Fels’ protégé. With the threat of war looming over Europe, Barber sketched the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. According to Barber, Briselli didn’t care for their lyrical character, complaining that they weren’t virtuosic enough to show off his technique and thus advance his career. Barber assured him that the Finale would provide the desired element of bravura. He was so successful in this that Briselli pronounced the last movement unplayable, and Fels demanded his fee back! Barber found performers who demonstrated that the Finale was indeed playable, but Briselli still declined to perform the concerto.

Briselli’s account of the affair is much different. He claims that he felt only “enthusiasm and admiration” for the first two movements, and that his objection to the Finale was that it was too short and lacking in substance to match the previous sections. Whatever the case, it was British violinist Albert Spalding who gave the premiere on February 4, 1941, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

With no preliminary gestures, Barber launches the concerto with a lyrical, gracious opening theme on solo violin. Throughout the first movement, humor and drama make themselves felt, but the overall mood is sweet and restrained. This atmosphere continues in the slow second section, with an added overlay of melancholy. Barber prefaces the violin’s first entry with lovely solos for wind instruments. Tension later builds gradually to an orchestral climax of darkened fervor. The vigorous “perpetual motion” finale brings a strong change in tone and a greatly heightened energy level. Brief, concentrated and Barber’s most “modern” creation to date, it offers plenty of rhythmic thrust and virtuoso fireworks, for soloist and orchestra alike.


Third Symphony
Aaron Copland
b. Brooklyn, N.Y. / November 14, 1900
d. Peekskill, N.Y. / December 2, 1990

As good as Copland’s earlier symphonies are, none possess the broad, epic nature to qualify as something that composers and listeners had long sought after: The Great American Symphony. By the mid-1940s he was not about to delay taking up the challenge any longer.

The commission for the Third Symphony arrived in 1943, courtesy of Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Copland knew that Koussevitzky liked big, dramatic works and would expect something along those lines from him. This suited Copland’s frame of mind perfectly, because he had been collecting materials for a “grand symphony” for some time. In the summer of 1945, he wrote, “The commission from Koussevitzky stimulated me to focus my ideas and arrange the material I had collected into some semblance of order.

“A 40-minute symphony is very different from a short work for a specific purpose. It has to be planned very carefully and be given enough time to evolve. I had put the first movement of my Third Symphony together in Mexico during the summer of 1944, and the second in the summer of 1945. By April, 1946 I had a third movement; with an October date set for the premiere, I headed to the MacDowell colony for the month of June to work on the last movement. It was a mad dash! The finishing touches were put on the score just before rehearsals were to start for the premiere, October 18, 1946.”

Although some of the piece’s themes may sound like folk tunes, they are all Copland originals. He does quote his own Fanfare for the Common Man in the finale. He cast the first movement in the shape of an arch, opening and closing in a mood of serene contemplation. In between these bookends, the music rises to heights of measured eloquence and barely restrained power. The following scherzo-like movement is a witty, headlong emotional rush floated on waves of thrusting, syncopated rhythms. Copland provides contrast through a lyrical central Trio section spotlighting the woodwinds. The Trio’s theme returns, transformed and bolstered by percussion, to cap the movement in grandiose fashion.

Copland thins out the texture considerably in the slow third movement. In form it draws close to a set of variations, embracing a range of moods from withdrawn and pathetic to bright and charming. Out of the gentle, ethereal wisps of the closing pages, the symphony’s mighty finale emerges without pause. The familiar strains of Fanfare for the Common Man are heard quietly in the winds, only to blossom forth in volume and splendor shortly thereafter. Thus Copland sets the stage to launch the vigorous, festive finale proper. The symphony concludes with a broad, thunderous restatement of the theme with which the entire work began.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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