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Opening Night with Renée Fleming

Program Notes

Richard Strauss: Don Juan
Kevin Puts: Letters from Georgia
Samuel Barber: Overture to The School for Scandal
Leonard Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Licinio Refice: Ombra di nube
Friedrich von Flotow: “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” from Martha
Harry Warren: You'll Never Know
Aaron Copland: Selections from Suite from The Tender Land
Meredith Wilson: “’Til There Was You” from The Music Man
Kander and Ebb: “Love and Love Alone” and “Winter” from The Visit
Sting: “August Winds” from The Last Ship
Stephen Sondheim: “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music

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Richard Strauss
1864–1949

Don Juan, Op. 20 

Work composed: 1888
Most Recent Oregon Symphony Performance: November 7, 2011; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, orchestra bells, triangle, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 18 minutes

Don Juan is the third of Richard Strauss’ symphonic tone poems, and at its premiere it confirmed Strauss as the preeminent composer of his generation. Strauss’ matchless orchestrations are showcased throughout this bold, provocative work, and his challenging brass parts are especially noteworthy. During rehearsals, one horn player asked sarcastically, “Good God, in what way have we sinned that you should have sent us this scourge?!” Strauss sympathized; in a letter to his father, also a horn player, Strauss wrote, “I felt really sorry for the poor horns and trumpets. They blew till they were blue in the face, it’s such a strenuous business for them … [but] the sound was wonderful, with an immense glow and sumptuousness; the whole affair will make an incredible impression here.” He was right. From the moment of its premiere, when Strauss led the Grand Ducal Court Orchestra of Weimar on November 11, 1889, Don Juan both confounded and thrilled audiences with its groundbreaking use of colors and vibrant, musically articulate character portraits.

The Don’s theme explodes into our ears just after the opening introductory flourish, a swashbuckling ascending line in the violins. Immediately we perceive the Don as an impulsive adventurer, forever looking for his next escapade or conquest, and this theme recurs several times. But Strauss’ Don Juan is more than a roguish libertine; he also embodies a nobility of spirit, captured by a heroic counter-theme first played by four unison horns. Strauss is equally adept at depicting the Don’s seductive virtuosity. A solo violin drips with tender intimacies, and later an oboe soars with a melody of serene gentility.

The character of Don Juan has fascinated writers and artists since it first appeared in Tirso de Molina’s 17th-century play, The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest. Strauss’ Don Juan retains many of the original character’s traits, most notably his unbridled libertinism, but it also includes several accepted 19th-century Romantic tropes. Strauss took as his literary source Don Juan, A Dramatic Poem, written in 1844 by Hungarian Nikolaus Lenau. In Lenau’s poem, the Don is a multifaceted Romantic figure, full of psychological complexity, whose true quest for the ideal woman suggests Goethe’s notion of the elusive and unattainable “eternal feminine.” Each seduction takes its toll on the Don, and he becomes filled with existential ennui. He begins to long for death, and eventually commits a passive form of suicide by allowing himself to be killed by the son of a man he murdered.

 

Kevin Puts
b. 1972

Letters from Georgia

Work composed: 2016
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: soprano, 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (1 doubling piccolo trumpet), 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, Chinese cymbal, claves, bowed crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, triangle, bowed vibraphone, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 21 minutes

“My first memory is of light – the brightness of light – light all around.” –Georgia O’Keeffe

A graduate of Eastman School of Music, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts set five letters written by artist Georgia O’Keeffe to music. “I think the sense of space and simplicity and aridity is in the music,” says Puts. “[O’Keeffe’s] language has almost a kind of Hemingway simplicity, which I love. I respond to that better than I think I would to a more florid kind of language. It’s clear and it’s direct, and that’s what I try to do with the music.” Puts begins the cycle with O’Keeffe’s recollection of her first memory, which is quoted above. “It serves the piece so well,” Puts says, “because the sun is incessantly burning throughout the music. I thought of the clarity of that, setting it musically, and having the orchestra becoming luminous behind Renée.”

In an interview, Renée Fleming describes the letters and the woman who penned them. “They’re all different; they’re provocative, very interesting. She’s a fascinating woman … she was quoted as saying that ‘Singing seems to me to be the most perfect means of expression, spontaneous. After that, the violin. I cannot sing, so I paint.’” Letters from Georgia does not follow a particular narrative arc. As Fleming says, the letters are “vignettes, moments that she wrote about, that corresponded, in Kevin’s mind, to music that he could create around her.”

These five letters, written to O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, or her life-long friend Anita Pollitzer, highlight different moments in O’Keeffe’s life. The first, Taos, describes O’Keeffe’s enraptured reaction to the light and space of the New Mexico desert and the Pueblo culture she finds there. In Violin, O’Keeffe ruefully admits her lack of musical ability as she “labors on the violin till all my fingers are sore. You never in your wildest dreams imagined anything worse than the notes I get out of it.” O’Keeffe expresses ardent eroticism and desire for Stieglitz in Ache – “All of me waiting for you to touch the center of me with the center of you.” Friends, written from a later vantage point in O’Keeffe’s life, ruminates on the meaning of friendship: is it borne out of usefulness, collaboration, or similarity of viewpoint? “The term ‘friend’ is an odd word,” O’Keeffe admits to Pollitzer. In Canyon, O’Keeffe describes the scenery she sees on a sunset walk – “land that is more like ocean than anything else I know” – and sums up her decades-long connection with the desert: “It is absurd how I love this country.”

 

Samuel Barber

1910–81

Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5 

Work composed: 1931–32
Most Recent Oregon Symphony Performance: October 1, 2011; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, cymbals, triangle, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 8 minutes

Throughout his life, Samuel Barber found inspiration for his music in works of literature. Barber’s first work for full orchestra, composed during an Italian summer holiday with his lover Gian Carlo Menotti in Cadegliano, was inspired by Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, an 18th-century comedy of manners. Barber’s music effectively captures the topsy-turvy plot and biting social satire of the play, something he emphasized in his later comments about the work and his motivation for writing it. Far from program or incidental music, Barber said his Opus 5 was “a musical reflection of the play’s spirit.”

Barber was still enrolled as an undergraduate at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia when he completed Opus 5, but Fritz Reiner, then conductor of the Curtis Orchestra, showed little interest in Barber’s work, and it did not premiere until August 30, 1933, with Alexander Smallens leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. Audience and critical reactions were favorable, and The School for Scandal established the young Barber as a rising compositional star.

One reviewer wrote, “A work robustly scored – indeed, almost excessive in instrumentation at times – marked by a certain melodic facility and a sure sense of design, neither purely freakish in effect in the modern manner, nor complacently old-fashioned.”

 

Leonard Bernstein
1918–90

Overture to Candide

Work composed: 1956
Most Recent Oregon Symphony Performance: April 18, 2015; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone, harp and strings
Estimated duration: 5 minutes

In 1954, Leonard Bernstein teamed up with playwright Lillian Hellman and lyricist Richard Wilbur to adapt Voltaire’s 18th-century satire Candide, the story of a naïve innocent who believes wholeheartedly in the teachings of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, who proclaims, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” Determined to prove his teacher right, Candide and his sweetheart, Cunégonde, embark on a worldwide journey of discovery with Pangloss. Together they visit Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the mythical land of El Dorado, where they witness the terrible realities of life in the forms of crime, atrocity, and suffering. Utterly disillusioned, Candide returns to Venice with Cunégonde, stripped of his idealism.

Bernstein’s high-voltage treatment of Voltaire amounts to a brilliant and sophisticated parody of opera itself. However, in its original version, which premiered at New York’s Martin Beck Theater on December 1, 1956, Candide failed to appeal to either audiences or critics. In 1973, Bernstein worked with Hugh Wheeler on a revised book with some added lyrics by Steven Sondheim. This revival version quickly became a hit, both on Broadway and at the New York City Opera.

The music of the overture captures the frenzied hither-and-thither action of the story, with its relentless travel and equally relentless optimism. Candide’s straightforward, simple character emerges in fresh, sparkling orchestral colors and sunny harmonies.

 

Licinio Refice
1883–1954

Ombra di nube (Cloud Shadows)

Work composed: 1935
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: solo voice, solo cello, and string orchestra
Estimated duration: 4 minutes 

Following in the footsteps of his countryman Antonio Vivaldi, Licinio Refice pursued both ecclesiastical and musical careers. As a priest, he taught at Rome’s Scuola Pontifica for more than 40 years; he also composed a number of oratorios and completed two operas. He is best known for Cecille, an opera based on the life of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music (Refice died during rehearsals of Cecille in Rio de Janeiro).

“Ombra di nube,” although written in the style of a 19th-century aria, is in fact a popular song from the 1930s. Refice wrote it for the Italian soprano Claudia Muzio, whose voice he described as “having God in her throat.” The lyrics describe the beauty of a blue sky, and a plea that the dark clouds dissipate: “Let me see the clear sky for all eternity!” Ms. Fleming’s recording is featured in the soundtrack to the recently released film Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

 

Friedrich von Flotow
1812–83

“’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” from Martha

Work composed: 1813; 1844–47
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation:  2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes

In the early to mid-19th century, it was customary during an opera to insert popular songs of the day into the plot. Usually these songs were chosen by the leading diva, to showcase her particular strengths. Friedrich von Flotow pre-empted this custom by incorporating an Irish ballad into the second act of his opera Martha. Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote the words for “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” in 1805, and it was published as a song in 1813, using the melody from a traditional ballad, “The Young Man’s Dream.”

In Martha, Lady Harriet, disguised as a serving wench named Martha, sings the ditty as a means of distracting her “employer,” Lionel, who can’t seem to take his eyes off her. Unfortunately, Lady Harriet’s singing only further beguiles Lionel, who tells her he wishes they could wed, so he could free her from serfdom.  

Ms. Fleming’s recording of this song is featured in the soundtrack to the 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

 

Harry Warren/Mack Gordon (Arr. Desplat)
1893–1981/1904–59

“You’ll Never Know” 

Work composed: 1943
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling bass flute, 2 doubling alto flute), oboe, 2 clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, drum set, glockenspiel, snare drum, celeste, piano, harp, jazz bass, and strings
Estimated duration: 5 minutes

This popular song from 1943 was featured in the soundtrack to the 2017 Academy Award-winning film, The Shape of Water, sung by Ms. Fleming. “You’ll Never Know,” whose lyrics were based on a poem written by a young Oklahoma war bride, won the Academy Award for best original song in 1943 for the film Hello, Frisco, Hello!, where it was sung by Alice Faye. Since then it has been covered by a number of other performers, including Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Vera Lynn, Rosemary Clooney, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand.

 

Aaron Copland
1900–1990

“Party Scene” and “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land Suite 

Work composed: 1948–54
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 16, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, ratchet, slapstick, snare drum, triangle, woodblock, xylophone, celeste, piano, and strings
Estimated duration: 9 minutes

Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land, with a libretto by Copland’s colleague and lover Erik Johns, tells the story of Laurie Moss, a young farm girl growing up in the Midwest. Copland and Johns took inspiration from James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ iconic book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which chronicles in words and pictures the plight of Southern sharecroppers during the 1930s. The Tender Land premiered on April 1, 1954, in a production by the New York City Opera, conducted by Thomas Schippers and directed by Jerome Robbins.

“The Promise of Living” concludes the first act of The Tender Land. As he did in Appalachian Spring, Copland uses an actual hymn melody as the basis for “The Promise of Living.” Johns and Copland transform the music of this hymn, “Zion’s Walls,” into a paean of praise for the land and the bonds of family and community. Laurie and her family sing, “The promise of growing/with faith and with knowing/is born of our sharing/our love with our neighbor.” 

Although the complete opera is not often performed (it garnered harsh criticism at its premiere), several selections from the opera, including an orchestral suite and “The Promise of Living,” have become a standard part of both the orchestral and choral repertoire.

 

Meredith Willson
1902–84

“’Til There Was You” from The Music Man

Work composed: 1957
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, glockenspiel, temple blocks, triangle, vibraphone, whistle, wood block, xylophone, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man features a long list of indelible hits, most particularly “’Til There Was You.” This song was recorded and released even before the show premiered, and prior to the release of the original cast album, in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle featuring a 17-year-old Sue Raney on vocals.

The 1957 show, which won five Tonys, including Best Musical, has never lost its timeless popularity, whether on Broadway, at regional and community theatres, in film, or on high school stages around the country. The album recorded by the original cast won the first Grammy for best musical theater album. Following on the heels of the show’s success, others hurried to cover the tune. The most famous cover, by the Beatles on their second album, Meet the Beatles!, features an impossibly young Paul McCartney on vocals. This cover earned more royalties for Willson and his estate than did the actual show.

Willson used his hometown, Mason City, Iowa, as the backdrop for his delightful comedy about a con man who ends up falling for the prim librarian, who discovers his scam and falls for him anyway.

 

John Kander/Fred Ebb
b. 1927/1928–2004

“Love and Love Alone” and “Winter” from The Visit

Work composed: 2000
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, drum set, glockenspiel, mark tree, triangle, vibraphone, celeste, piano, accordion, banjo, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 3 minutes

The hit team of composer John Kander and Fred Ebb are best known for their hit shows Cabaret and Chicago. The duo continued creating musicals until Ebb’s death in 2004, including their 2000 musical The Visit. Based on a dark satire by a Swiss playwright, The Visit tells the story of the richest woman in the world, Claire Zachanassian, who comes back to her hometown and offers its financially strapped citizens a chance to improve their fortunes if they agree to murder her former lover, Anton Schell.

Kander and Ebb wrote The Visit with Angela Lansbury in mind as Claire. During rehearsals, Lansbury withdrew from the show to care for her husband, and was replaced by Chita Rivera. The Visit opened in Chicago less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The unfortunate timing of world events, along with the show’s dark plot about greed and revenge, combined to prevent The Visit from making its planned move to Broadway.

Claire sings “Love and Love Alone,” a paean to love’s ability to thwart carefully laid plans near the end of the show, as she waits for Anton to arrive at their old meeting place. In “Winter,” from the end of Act I, Claire describes Anton’s perfidy and her vow to get revenge.

 

Sting
b. 1951

“August Winds” from The Last Ship

Work composed: 2013
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, mark tree, triangle, acoustic guitar, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes

Gordon Sumner, better known to fans around the world as Sting, first made his name with the British band The Police, who had a string of top ten hits in the late 1970s and through the 80s. Sting went on to a successful solo career, and has since expanded his musical horizons in unexpected directions, including his 2006 album Songs from the Labyrinth, which reinterprets the lute and solo music of 16th-century composer John Dowland. In 2011, Sting began writing The Last Ship, an original musical that tells the story of the slow death of the shipbuilding industry in his hometown, Wallsend, in northeastern England. The Last Ship premiered in 2014 and went on to garner two Tony nominations, for best original score and best orchestrations.

Gideon, son of a shipbuilder in Wallsend, decides to defy family tradition and leave his hometown to see the world. He tries to convince his girlfriend Meg to join him, but she remains behind, and sings “August Winds” as she waits by the harbor for Gideon’s return.

 

Stephen Sondheim
b. 1930

“The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music

Work composed: 1972
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, bells, crotales, snare drum, triangle, xylophone, piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes

No Broadway composer turns a phrase better than Stephen Sondheim, whose hit musicals span more than half a century and include West Side Story (lyrics), Company, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Sundays in the Park with George, among many others. Hailed as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater” by critic Frank Rich, Sondheim is equally renowned as a composer; he has won eight Tonys, eight Grammys, and numerous other honors, including the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A Little Night Music, which premiered in 1973 and went on to run for over 600 performances, takes its title from Mozart’s serenade of the same name, better known in German as Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and the outline of its plot from the 1955 Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. The film traces the romantic journeys of several couples on Midsummer Night at a country house in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden. Sondheim tweaks Bergman’s comedy, giving it a poignant dimension as the female lead, Desiree Armfeldt, a prominent stage actress, discovers too late that she had love and lost it in pursuit of her career.

“The Glamorous Life,” sung by Desiree’s daughter Fredrika, details the relentless life of a touring actress, and pokes fun at the decidedly unglamorous aspects of a life lived on the road.

 

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com