Program Notes: Made in America (October 9-10, 2021)

Program


Leonard Slatkin, conductor

David Halen, violin


Joan Tower

Made in America (2005)


William Bolcom

Violin Concerto (1983)

Quasi una Fantasia—

Adagio non troppo ma sostenuto

Rondo–Finale


David Halen, violin


Béla Bartók

Concerto for Orchestra (1942)

Introduzione: Andante non troppo: Allegro vivace

Giuoco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando

Elegia: Andante non troppo

Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto Finale: Presto




Program Notes

By Caitlin Custer


Preview

This is a program that travels backwards in time to get three very different views of America. Joan Tower offers her reaction to America in the mid-2000s with Made in America. William Bolcom’s Violin Concerto from 1983 presents a mosaic of sounds that could only come together in this country: folk-jazz, a Romanian influence, and Bolcom’s own American voice. And Béla Bartók, a new American immigrant in the 1940s, takes his Concerto for Orchestra from despair to delight.

Joan Tower

Made in America

Joan Tower

Born September 6, 1938, New Rochelle, New York


Joan Tower is no stranger to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. She spent 1983-1987 as the SLSO’s Composer-in-Residence with then–Music Director Leonard Slatkin. The position of Composer-in-Residence is mutually beneficial: the orchestra receives brand new pieces to perform before the ink dries, and the composer has easy access to an orchestra, hearing their works played live. It is the ideal way for a composer to hone their craft.


Tower was already well on her way to a successful career as a composer when she arrived in St. Louis. By the time she achieved her doctorate in 1968, she had studied with some of the midcentury’s biggest names in composition. But before all of that, she was a kid from suburban New York, who—at nine years old—experienced a culture shock when her family moved to Bolivia.


She credits her years spent in Bolivia with influencing her musical voice, especially when it comes to rhythm. Decades later, in 2005, Tower was commissioned for a piece that would become Made in America. Immediately, the experience of returning to the U.S. from Bolivia came to mind:


“When I returned to the United States, I was proud to have free choices, upward mobility, and the chance to try to become who I wanted to be. I also enjoyed the basic luxuries of an American citizen that we so often take for granted: hot running water, blankets for the cold winters, floors that are not made of dirt, and easy modes of transportation, among many other things. So when I started composing this piece, the song ‘America the Beautiful’ kept coming into my consciousness and eventually became the main theme for the work. The beauty of the song is undeniable and I loved working with it as a musical idea. …This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, unsettling it, but ‘America the Beautiful’ keeps resurfacing in different guises (some small and tender, others big and magnanimous), as if to say, ‘I’m still here, ever changing, but holding my own.’”


First performance: October 2005, by the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra, Glens Falls, New York, Charles Peltz conducting First SLSO Youth Orchestra performance: May 7, 2006, Scott Parkman conducting First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, maracas, sleigh bells, suspended cymbal, tambourine, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), strings Approximate duration: 14 minutes

William Bolcom

Violin Concerto


William Bolcom

Born May 26, 1938, Seattle, Washington

As a young man, William Bolcom moved away from the serial style of the era, eventually making it his mission to blur the line between classical and popular music. Calling himself an “unrepentant eclectic,” Bolcom makes good on this goal with the Violin Concerto (and perhaps even more so with his cabaret, show tune, and popular song performances and recordings with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris).


The 1983 Violin Concerto blurs lines immediately, pairing influences from across decades and oceans. Its primary influence is hot jazz violinist Joe Venuti, an American who rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s—and legend has it, Bolcom once jammed with.


Fifty years later, there was another violinist exploring jazz: Sergiu Luca. Bolcom wrote the piece for Luca, including folk tunes from the violinist’s birthplace, Romania. Today’s soloist, David Halen, counts Luca among his teachers.


Bolcom’s student Derek Bermel notes that the concerto’s language comes “just as much from Ellington and Gershwin as from Stravinsky and Schoenberg.” The concerto’s hybrid nature, Bermel writes, combines “bluesy lyricism with pulsating rhythms and more than a hint of crunchy chromaticism…”


Listening Guide

I. Quasi una fantasia (Like a fantasy): A jaunty theme opens the work, as our main character makes their way through a bustling city. New characters flit in and out, new vistas come into view. A foreboding undercurrent threatens.

II. Adagio non troppo ma sostenuto (Not too slow, but sustained): The solo violin sneaks in through a dark entryway. A bluesy romance turns sweet, sailing off into the sunset while a lone trumpet soars above.

III. Rondo–Finale: Back to the original jaunt! Breezy winds, a jazz club with “Heart and Soul,” and a threatening character returns. The solo violin plays games all the while.


First performance: June 3, 1984, by Saarbrucken Radio Orchestra, in Saarbrucken, Dennis Russell Davies conducting, with Sergiu Luca as soloist First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, (2nd doubling English horn), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets (1st doubling piccolo trumpet), trombone, bass trombone, timpani, percussion (Chinese cymbals, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, high hat, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, tom toms, wood block), harp, piano, celesta, strings Approximate duration: 23 minutes

Béla Bartók

Concerto for Orchestra

Béla Bartók

Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary Died September 26, 1945, New York, New York


Béla Bartók’s life was a pendulum, swinging between success and obstacle. By 60, he’d had his share of lows: childhood illness, early loss of his father, patchwork education, divorce, reluctant emigration. And he’d had highs: accomplishment as a young pianist, a professorship, marriage, children, and meaningful work as a composer and collector of folk song from his native Hungary.


The immigrant

Bartók arrived in the U.S. in 1940. He was eager to gain distance from the Nazi regime, but saddened to leave the homeland whose folk music he had studied for decades. Accounts vary regarding the Bartóks’ financial security, but publication royalties and a teaching and research deal from Columbia University kept them afloat. He was known and celebrated in the U.S. as a pianist, teacher, and the father of the field that would become ethnomusicology.


There was little appetite for his compositions. Two years into his American life, Bartók wrote: “My career as a composer is as much as finished…the quasi boycott of my works by the leading orchestras continues; no performances of either old works or new ones.” With stiffness, recurrent fevers, and other symptoms, his body began adding injury to insult.


The Concerto

The same year, the pendulum swung back. Optimism arrived in the form of Serge Koussevitzky—hot-shot conductor who was leading the Boston Symphony through a golden age—who visited Bartók’s bedside in the hospital. And with him came a golden ticket: a commissioning agreement.


There were two secrets kept from Bartók during this time: that Koussevtizky’s commission came at the urging of two Hungarian compatriots, conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti; and that his illness had been diagnosed as leukemia.


The promise of performance by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony lifted Bartók’s spirits, and he completed the Concerto for Orchestra in record time, even convincing his doctor to let him attend the rehearsals and premiere, which “was excellent,” he reported. “Koussevitzky is very enthusiastic and says it is the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years.”


At first glance, the title Concerto for Orchestra seems like a misnomer, since concertos are, by definition, pieces built to spotlight a soloist. Bartók explained that the title came from his treatment of “the single orchestral instruments in a soloistic manner.”


The music

Bartók’s own program note states: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.”


The concerto starts slow and eerie, a trail that will lead to a jagged mountain summit. The second movement arrives with a stark drumbeat, flowing into its “Game of Couples,” which presents pairs of winds strolling arm-in- arm: bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets.


Double basses bring the third movement, “Elegy,” to rich, dark life, rehashing some of the first movement’s material. The fourth movement’s intermezzo offers two frolicking folk tunes, which are soon interrupted by sarcastic parody—in modern terms, throwing shade—with music by Bartok’s contemporary (and sometime-antagonist), Dmitri Shostakovich.


The rhythms of the finale stack on top of each other, some punchy, some smooth. There’s a last chance to hear each section of the orchestra in that “soloistic” way Bartók set out for, building to a fervent finish.


First performance: December 1, 1944, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Boston, Massachusetts, Sergei Koussevitzky conducting First SLSO performance: January 15, 1949, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: April 23, 2017, John Storgårds conducting Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, triangle), 2 harps, strings Approximate duration: 36 minutes

Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.


Leonard Slatkin is the SLSO’s Conductor Laureate and the Daniel, Mary, and Francis O’Keefe Guest Conductor.

David Halen is the SLSO’s Concertmaster and the Robert R. Imse Featured Soloist.

The concert of Saturday, October 9 is underwritten in part by generous gifts from David and Susan Hutchinson and Penny Pennington and Michael Fidler.

The concert of Sunday, October 10 is underwritten in part by generous gifts from Kathleen Clucas and Mr. and Mrs. Jan Ver Hagen.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.