January 28-29, 2023
Stéphane Denève, conductor
James Ehnes, violin
Visions of Cahokia (World Premiere)
Serenade (after Plato's Symposium) (1954)
Phaedrus; Pausanias: Lento; Allegro marcato
Socrates; Alcibiades: Molto tenuto;
Allegro molto vivace
James Ehnes, violin
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 43 (1901) Allegretto
Tempo Andante, ma rubato
Finale: Allegro moderato
by Benjamin Pesetsky
The first two pieces on this program harken back to pre-Columbian America and Ancient Greece. James Lee III’s Visions of Cahokia, an SLSO commission receiving its world premiere, evokes the Native American city that was sited just east across the Mississippi River from modern-day St. Louis. Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade was inspired by Plato’s Symposium,
a lively philosophical dialogue that examines the nature of love through a late-night Athenian party.
Jean Sibelius enjoyed what he called his own “symposium” in the mid-1890s, drinking heavily in Helsinki restaurants while discussing Finnish nationalism with friends. He tried to get away from politics by writing symphonies, but in 1902 the public nonetheless heard his Symphony No. 2 as a cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire.
Visions of Cahokia
James Lee III
Born 1975, St Joseph, Michigan
In recent decades, historians, archaeologists, and other scientists have
reassessed the idea that Pre-Columbian North America was only sparsely
populated by cultures less advanced than those in Europe or Asia. Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005) brought this research to the broader public, sharing a growing consensus that humans arrived in the Americas earlier than once thought,
that they tamed the natural landscape in ways unrecognized by later explorers, and in some cases lived in large cities.
Perhaps the most significant archaeological site in evidence of this is Cahokia, located in Collinsville, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. Today known as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, it was a religious center with about 30,000 inhabitants at its peak around 1300 CE, even larger than London at the time. It was founded by the Mississippian people, who built earthworks and pyramid mounds, the largest of which is Cahokia’s Monks Mound. Though the city declined and collapsed prior to European contact, modern descendants of the Mississippian culture include the Alabama, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Missouria, Natchez, Osage, Seminole, and Tunica-Biloxi peoples.
The Composer Speaks
Visions of Cahokia is an SLSO commission and world premiere by James Lee III. He described the piece:
I have structured this work in three movements, in which the second and third movements incorporate American Indian words as their titles. The first movement, Cahokia’s Dawn, is a brief depiction of various tribes’ initial journey toward Cahokia. An ostinato-type figure
in the sleigh bells and bass drum is accompanied by the harp and clarinet solo of the “singers” among the tribes as they contemplate settling at what would later be known as Cahokia. As the music continues, it reaches a climatic arrival point in which the orchestral
texture is decidedly denser, which depicts the growing and bustling population. Various vocal expressions of joy are depicted in the woodwind instruments, which is a counter point to the sheer force of the brass instruments’ presence as the violin melodies continue to ascend to the heights of the mounds at the site.
The second movement, Na Yimmi, is a Choctaw word that means faith. The fact that Cahokia was a major religious center of Mississippian culture inspired this movement with the initial ascending flute melodies depicting the earnestness of the individual who worships Chihowa, the Choctaw word for God. The calmness of most of the movement suggests an attitude of humility, sincerity, and prayer among the worshippers.
In the third movement, the word Chukoshkomo, is a Chickasaw word for play, game, or frolic. The beginning of the last movement seeks to depict various instances of a powwow ceremony involving feasting, singing, and dancing. As the movement progressed, I also tried to musically depict various individuals playing the game called chunkey. The excitement and density of the piece continues to the very last bar of the music, which celebrates this Mississippian cultural community at the height of its existence before the mysterious decline and abandonment of the city.
First performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling
contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani,
percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 10 minutes
Serenade after Plato's Symposium
Born 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died 1990, New York, New York
Long before a symposium was a dry, academic conference, it was an
after-dinner party with a lot of wine. Plato’s Symposium, written around 360 BCE, imagines such a party attended by Phaedrus (a wealthy intellectual), Eryximachus (a physician), Aristophanes (the comic playwright), Agathon (the party’s host), Pausanias (Agathon’s lover), and Socrates (Plato’s teacher). Gathered in Athens, they decide that each man should make a speech in honor of the god of love.
Some of the characters’ ideas may seem both jarringly unfamiliar and yet surprisingly contemporary. Love between men is assumed to predominate, with women almost an afterthought, and they discuss the legality of same-sex relationships across different city-states. Phaedrus sees love as motivating: “Love will make men dare to die for their beloved alone.” Pausanias, meanwhile, says that love between men is of the highest order, that its prohibition is tyrannical, and legal recognition is important because “open loves are held to be more honorable than secret ones.” (It resembles a modern progressive position, except he thinks women’s intellects are the limiting factor for heterosexuality.)
Next, Eryximachus suggests that love is a matter of balance and reconciliation, extending the concept even to music, which “is concerned with the principles of love in their application to harmony and rhythm.” Aristophanes spins a tall tale in which humans were originally four-legged creatures cut in two by Zeus, and now everyone is looking for their other half.
Agathon argues that beauty is the driving force of love. “From the Love of the beautiful has sprung every good in heaven and earth.” Finally, Socrates refuses to praise love, and instead recounts a conversation he once had with Diotima, a priestess. From her he learned that love is a “daemon” between mortals and gods that interprets between the two. Though at first focused on the human body, love can grow to focus on the divine. It is from this passage that we derive the concept of "Platonic love.” As if to underline the difference, the Symposium ends with Socrates fending off the lusty advances of Alcibiades, a drunk party crasher.
It makes sense that this intersection of classical philosophy and homoeroticism interested Leonard Bernstein, a Harvard-educated artist who, according to a friend, “required men sexually and women emotionally.” The Symposium became the framework on which he based a multi-movement work, commissioned in 1954 by the Koussevitzky Foundation, for solo violin and an orchestra of strings and percussion. Bernstein described each section (which slightly reorders the speakers from Plato’s original):
I. Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento—Allegro). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro form, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm.
III. Erixymachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
IV. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving (and famous) speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is simply a three-part song.
V. Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto—Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love... his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, it isn’t anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.
First performance: September 9, 1954, by the Orchestra Del Teatro La
Fenice in Venice, Italy, the composer conducting, with Isaac Stern as soloist
First SLSO performance: February 20, 1982, Leonard Slatkin conducting,
with Jacques Israelievitch as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: March 24, 2013, David Robertson
conducting, with David Halen as soloist
Instrumentation: solo violin, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 31 minutes
Symphony No. 2
Born 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
Died 1957, Ainola, Finland
The music of Jean Sibelius is hard to categorize: it sits between Romanticism and modernism and can be nationalistic yet un-programmatic. When Sibelius composed his Second Symphony, he was already famous in Finland and on the cusp of international success. He was already an experienced orchestral composer, having written Finlandia and a whole body of pieces inspired by Finnish folklore. But in his symphonies, he wanted to create music that worked on its own internal logic without extra-musical associations.
The Second Symphony clearly succeeds in this way, tightly composed with a compelling yet abstract trajectory. The rippling opening bars propel everything that follows, unfurling into a first movement that is inevitably called brisk or bracing. But already our description appears to be influenced by some idea of Nordic weather and sense of place. And to the Finnish public in 1902, the symphony was understood as a symbol of resistance against Tsar Nicholas II and his policy of Russification of Finland. The Finnish musicologist Ilmari Krohn heralded it as “our liberation symphony” from the Russian Empire, and to the present day the work is associated with Finnish independence. Sibelius rebuffed these claims, but he created a symphony that can be heard on both levels.
In 1900 Sibelius and his wife, Aino, were grieving for their 14-month-old daughter Kirsti, who had died in a typhoid epidemic. Then one day he received an anonymous and shockingly presumptuous letter that read: “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius, it is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country
where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful—even the ugly.” The letter was from Axel Carpelan, a very minor aristocrat, who convinced a wealthier friend to sponsor Sibelius’ trip.
He began to sketch what would become the Second Symphony in Florence and Rapallo, near Genoa in early 1901. At first he thought he might write a tone-poem about Don Juan, the legendary womanizer made famous by W.A. Mozart and Richard Strauss. This idea, rather uncharacteristic of Sibelius, was quickly discarded, but the image of Don Juan being confronted by Death inspired the ominous second-movement theme. He also considered a tone-poem based on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, but discarded that idea as well. Sometimes the creative imagination can slip irrevocably from a narrative idea into the abstract.
Back home in Finland, Sibelius finished the piece early the following year. The Helsinki Philharmonic premiered it on March 8, 1902, and it was immediately scheduled for two repeat performances, which sold out.
A Closer Listen
Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 unfurls organically from its first measures; nearly all of its themes are related to what you hear in the first moments. The second movement begins with a timpani roll, followed by deep, lurking pizzicato. On top of this bass line, a long melody unfolds, turning into an impassioned crescendo. The Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus, who led the first recording, described it as a “broken-hearted protest against all the injustices that threaten at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” The scampering third movement runs right into the finale. Kajanus called it “a triumphant closure...arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.”
— Benjamin Pesetsky
First performance: March 8, 1902, by the Helsinki Orchestral, the composer
First SLSO performance: November 18, 1910, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: April 6, 2014, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3
trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 43 minutes
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.