Program Notes: Youth Orchestra Performs Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (May 29, 2022)

Program

Sunday, May 29, at 3:00pm


St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra

Stephanie Childress, conductor

Leonard Slatkin, conductor


Leonard Slatkin

Bachanalia (2019)


Leonard Slatkin, conductor



William Grant Still

Symphony No. 3, "The Sunday Symphony" (1958)

Moderately

Very Slowly

Gaily

Resolutely



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36 (1878)

Andante sostenuto; Moderato con anima

Andantino in modo di canzona

Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro

Finale: Allegro con fuoco

 

Program Notes


Leonard Slatkin

Bachanalia


Leonard Slatkin

Born September 1, 1944, Los Angeles, California


It is hard to imagine a time when there was not a St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Still, when I arrived for my first year as an assistant conductor in 1968, my first big shock was discovering that there was not a civic ensemble for students. I decided that forming a youth orchestra needed to be my priority. With the help of the SLSO board, we were up and running in 1970.


There were more than 500 students who auditioned from different parts of Missouri and Illinois. 125 made it into the orchestra. The very first piece we rehearsed was the Stokowski orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. It remains my most vivid memory of the 27 years I spent in St. Louis. A sweeter sound had never been heard, at least to my ears.


Bachanalia takes the opening eight bars of the original, and from there, it goes into some bizarre places. At each turn of phrase, there are harmonic suprises, unusual orchestral devices, and several quotes taken from the German master. Near the end, each musician gets to play something from their favorite piece by Bach, resulting in a mash-up of sonic mayhem.


After an abrupt cut-off of the chaos, an offstage piano is heard playing one of the most familiar pieces every student learns. While this is occurring, a few instruments intone the notes B-flat, A-natural, C-natural, and B-natural, while the rest of the orchestra whispers the initials of the composer. The piece comes to a gentle end, with the sound of air blown through the wind instruments.


Bachanalia is dedicated to the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, past, present, and future.


First performance: This concert Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings Approximate duration: 5 minutes

 

William Grant Still

Symphony No. 3, "The Sunday Symphony"


William Grant Still

Born May 11, 1895, Woodville, Mississippi

Died December 3, 1978, Los Angeles, California


William Grant Still was a prolific American composer with nearly 200 works to his name. He grew up in Arkansas, the first in his family born outside of slavery, and showed an early interest in music. "He was always singing music, humming it, tapping it, pointing it out, always," his granddaughter, Celeste Headlee, has said.


Encouraged by his stepfather Still went on to teach himself most of the instruments of the orchestra. After starting a science degree, the promise of music drew whim to Oberlin Conservatory. He worked odd jobs to pay his tuition, while also studying with some of the most renowned composers of the time.


In the 40-some years between his college studies and writing his Third Symphony, Still created an enviable music career. He worked in Memphis for W.C. Handy (of "St. Louis Blues" fame), gigged in New York where he rubbed elbows with other greats of the Harlem Renaissance, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and conducted the Hollywood Bowl. His orchestral, operatic, and film music were performed regularly across the country.


By the time he wrote his Third Symphony, "The Sunday Symphony," Still was in his 60s, and commissions for his work were drying up. His granddaughter remembers him as a patriot, but thinks he may have lost hope in his later years, "that he thought there was a chance that racism had actually won."


The Third Symphony returns to Still's roots in the south, where attending church services on Sundays was the centerpiece of cultural life. The work takes us through the stages of a southern Sunday: waking up and starting the day, worshipping, relaxing, and looking to the week ahead.


I. Moderately: A rousing brass fanfare makes way for a cheerful theme in the strings. The same theme travels throughout the orchestra to an energetic end.


II. Very Slowly: The oboe opens the second movement lamenting, answered by the flute. The drama heightens as the brass layer in, followed by sweeping strings.


III. Gaily: A lively and swift movement—listen for the big band—inspired percussion.


IV. Resolutely: Clear, stalwart musical statements turn into tenderhearted moments and back again.


—Caitlin Custer


First performance: February 12, 1984, by the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Carlton Woodsi conducting First SLSO performance: This concert

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 25 minutes


 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia


At 37, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky rushed into marriage. At the time, he had achieved some measure of professional success, but rumors spread about his personal life. Marriage seemed to offer him stability, respectability, and freedom from questions about his sexuality.


Tchaikovsky and Antonina Milyukova were a terrible match. She, filled with youthful passion for him. He, haughty, superior, and cold to her. The marriage lasted only a month. Tchaikovsky, who attempted suicide soon after the wedding, fled from Milyukova.


The Fourth Symphony was written during this turbulent period. In a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote that the work was "an unburdening of the soul in music."


Tchaikovsky was part of a new generation fulling the hallowed halls of the symphony with dark Russian colors.


After completing the symphony, he wrote to von Meck, laying out the private feeling that roiled beneath the symphony's surface. Below are extracts from this letter:


I. The seed of the symphony is Fate: a force ensuing that happiness cannot be unclouded. A sweet daydream appears—some blissful, radiant human image. But no! Fate wakes us. Life in an alteration of harsh reality with fleeting visions of happiness. No haven exists.


II. An expression of melancholy, like an evening alone with a book. Memories appear: happy moments when young blood boiled, and life was satisfying. There are also painful memories, irreconcilable losses. It is sad yet sweet to be immersed in the past.


III. Whimsical arabesques, vague images sweep past the imagination. Suddenly, a picture of drunken peasants and a street song. Somewhere in the distance, a military procession. They are images which see through the head as one falls asleep: strange, wild, and incoherent.


IV. Go out among the people. See how they enjoy themselves, surrendering to joyful feelings. Fate appears and reminds you of yourself. Others don't care— they have not noticed that you are sad. Their joy is a simple but powerful force. You must rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.


—Tim Munro



First performance: February 22, 1878, by the Russian Musical Society, in Moscow, Nikolai Rubinstein conducting First YO performance: March 12, 1976, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 15, 2003, David Amado conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings Approximate duration: 44 minutes

 

Benjamin Pesetsky is composer and writer. He serves on the San Fransisco Symphony staff and contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.