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Program Notes: New World Symphony (April 8-10, 2022)


April 8-10

Jean Sibelius

En Saga, op.9 (1892)

Jessie Montgomery

Rounds for Solo Piano and String Orchestra (2021)

(SLSO Co-commission)

Awadagin Pratt, piano

Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No. 9, "From the New World" (1893)

Adagio; Allegro molto


Scherzo: Molto vivace

Allegro con fuoco


Program Notes

Jean Sibelius

En Saga

Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died September 20, 1957, Ainola, Finland

An element of uncertainty surrounds the creative impulse that led to Jean Sibelius's tone poem En Sago. In 1892, Sibelius scored a conspicuous success with his symphonic poem Kullervo. Based on a Finnish epic legend, this ambitious work deeply affected many listeners when the composer conducted its premier in Helsinki, but its great length (nearly 90 minutes) and complexity augured poorly for widespread performances. Accordingly, Robert Kajanus, director of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and a longtime champion of Sibelius' music, suggested that the composer write a shorter and more accessible piece.

Sibelius recalled that he was "not at all disinclined to write [such] a piece," and in the autumn of 1892 he composed a single movement work for orchestra, using thematic ideas he has sketched a year or two earlier, mostly in connection with an octet for woodwinds and Strongs he had begun but abandoned. But late in his life, the composer denied that he had be swayed by Kajanus. "Nothing came of it [the conductor's suggestion], " he asserted. "Instead I completed the orchestral work that I had started and to which I gave the name En Saga. This tone poem was by no means the result of Kajanus' request to write a popular piece. I never complied with that request." It remains uncertain which of these contradictory accounts accurately reflect the genesis of the composition.

But that as it may, Sibelius conducted the first performance of En Saga in February 1893. This Brough no repeat of the triumph of Kullervo, and the composer subsequently withdrew the work. Nearly a decade later, in 1902, he completed a thorough revision of the score, trimming and improving the orchestration. In its new form, the piece enjoyed considerable audience favor, and it still does today.

The Music

One might think that music titled "A Saga," to translate Sibelius's title, would tell a particular story. Yet En Saga carries no specific narrative program; rather, it imparts merely the atmosphere of Nordic legend. Sibelius indicated that the music held personal meaning for him, but he declined to specify what this might be. Late in his life, the composer descaled: "En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien."

The piece begins with an introductory passage in moderate tempo. Shimmering string sonorities, sustained horn tones, and a phrase in the woodwinds sounding like a primitive folk melody all contribute to a mythic impression. So, too, does a bardic theme, which sounds in the rich voice of the bassoons and, moments later, again in the horns. With its acceleration to a faster temp, the music assumes a more dramatic character, though the rich orchestral fantasy that developed concluded, much as it began, in a quietly poetic manner.

—Paul Shiavo

First performance: February 16, 1893, by the Hensinki Orchestral Society, the composer conducting First SLSO performance: November 7, 1913, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: January 29, 2012, Christopher Warren-Green conducting Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, strings Approximate duration: 20 minutes


Jessie Montgomery

Rounds for Solo Piano and String Orchestra

Jessie Montgomery

Born 1981, New York, New York

Rounds for Solo Piano and String Orchestra is inspired by the imagery and themes from T.S. Eliot's epic poem Four Quartets that opens evocatively:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contianed in time past

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable

In addition to this inspiration, while working on the piece I became fastinated by fractals (infinite patterns found in nature that are self-similar across different scales) and also delved into the work of contemporary biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber who write about the interdependency of all beings. Weber explores how every living organism has rhythm that interacts and impacts with all of the living things around it and results in a multitude of outcomes.

Like Eliot in Four Quartets, beginning to understand this interconnectedness requires that we slow down, listen, and observe both the effect and the opposite effect caused by single action and moment. I've found this an exercise that lends itself very natural towards musical gestural possibilities that I explore in the work-action and reaction, dark and light, stagnant and swift.

Structurally, with these concepts in mind, I set the form of the work as a rondo, within a rondo, within a rondo. The five major sections are a rondo; section "A" is also a rondo in itself; and the cadenza—which is partially improvised by the soloist—breaks the patterns, yet, contains within it, the overall form of the work.

To help share some of this with the performers, I've included the following poetic performance note at the start of the score: Inspired by the constancy, the rhythms, and duality of life, in order of relevance to form:

Rondine - AKA Swifts (like a sparrow) flying in circles patterns

Playing with opposites - dark/light; stagnant/swift

Fractals - infinite design

I am grateful to my friend Awadagin Pratt for his collaborative spirt and ingenuity in helping to usher my first work for solo piano into the work.

—Jessie Montgomery

First performance: March 27, 2022, by the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina, John Morris Russell conducting with Awadagin Pratt as soloist First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: solo piano, strings

Approximate duration: 17 minutes


Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No.9 in E minor, op. 95, "From the New World"

Antonín Dvořák

Born September 9, 1841, Nelahozeves, Czech Republic

Died May 1, 1904, Prague, Czech Republic

Antonín Dvořák was born in Bohemia, the country we now know as the Czech Republic, and during the 1870s rose to prominence as his homeland's foremost composer. In the years that followed, his fame speed throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic, where it attracted the notice of Jeanette Thurber, who had established a new conservatory of music in New York. In 1891 she invited Dvořák to the director of this school. He would be well compensated and his duties light, leaving plenty of time for composing. Dvořák accepted the position, and in September of 1892 he sailed for America, where he spends most of the next three years.

It was during this American chapter in his life that Dvořák composed his Symphony No. 9 which bears the subtitle "From the New World." Dvořák declared that he intended the subtitle to mean "Impressions and greeting from the New World." This heading signifies something very different from a musical panorama of America and American life, which some commentators have held the piece to be. Yet Dvořák also stated that the symphony's American provenance would be obvious "to anyone who 'had a nose.'" He told one correspondent: "I do know that I would never have written [it] 'just so' had I never seen America."

Dvořák observes the classical convention of prefacing the first movement with an introduction in slow tempo. The meditative atmosphere of the passage is shattered by an ominous figure rising from the low strings and brass. A timpani roll and suspenseful tremolo in the violins herald the principal theme of the movement proper, a theme given out by the horns and woodwinds. Dvořák balances this idea with two lighter melodies, the first introduced by the woodwinds, the other presented in the low register of the flute.

The Largo presents Dvořák's most famous melody and surely one of his most exquisite. But the beauty of the celebrated English horn solo should not overshadow the strange power of the brass chords that frame movement, nor the meting poignancy of the second subject. That latter theme presents melancholy phrases in the woodwinds against tremolo figures in the strings that sound like wind rustling through tree branches in a bleak autumn sky. A third idea brings a dance-like melody introduced by the oboe. The music grows stringer and more sonorous, then yields to a surprising development: as if in a dream, three themes heard earlier in the symphony appear in succession. This leads to a reprise of the English horn melody and one of the most extraordinary moments in orchestral literature, as the music seems to hesitate and then falls entirely silent.

The opening measures of the third movement are patterned closely on those of the scherzo in Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and the succeeding passages manage to attain some of the work's fierce energy. Dvořák balances them with a relaxed and folkloric central episode. Before the movement is through, we hear recollections of the symphony's initial Allegro.

The finale provides a summation of the entire composition, for in addition to its own ideas, it also recalls themes from preceding movements. These recollections tie the symphony's disparate episodes into a coherent unity and provide, in the final minutes of the piece, a comprehensive and exciting conclusion.

—Paul Schiavo

First performance: December 16, 1893, by the New York Philharmonic, Anton Seidl conducting First SLSO performance: March 13, 1905, Alfred Ernst conducting Most recent SLSO performance: January 15, 2017, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings Approximate duration: 40 minutes



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