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The Season Premiere: David Danzmayr Conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony

Program Notes

Kenji Bunch: TIME IN (World Premiere)
Elegía Andina
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection"

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Kenji Bunch
b. 1973

TIME IN (World Premiere)

Work composed: 2021
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: World premiere
Instrumentation:
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, claves, congas, daluo (flat Beijing Opera gong), drum, glockenspiel, hi-hat, marimba, referee whistle, roto-toms, shaker, 3 slide whistles, snare drum, temple blocks, xiao luo (convex Beijing Opera gong), piano, and strings
Estimated duration: 4 minutes

The music of Portland native Kenji Bunch inspired The Oregonian to coin a new genre: “Call it ‘neo-American:’ casual on the outside, complex underneath, immediate and accessible to first-time listeners ... Bunch’s music is shiningly original.” Hailed by the New York Times as “A Composer To Watch” and cited by Alex Ross in his award-winning book, The Rest Is Noise, Bunch’s wit, lyricism, unpredictability, and exquisite craftsmanship earn acclaim from audiences, performers, and critics alike. Bunch currently serves as Artistic Director of Fear No Music; he also teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

Bunch writes, “When I was asked to write a short work to kick off the 125th season of the Oregon Symphony, I knew whatever I wrote would be the first notes the orchestra would play together in front of a live audience on their home stage in a solid 18 months since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Thus, TIME IN seemed an appropriate notion to observe this occasion.

“As I began work on the piece, I saw another interpretation of the title materialize. Polyrhythm, or the concurrent presence of more than one rhythmic pulse, is sometimes used as a metaphor for the peaceful coexistence of opposing ideologies. This seemed an especially meaningful analogy during the uniquely fraught moment we find ourselves emerging from. To underscore this idea of tolerance and inclusion, I wove elements of traditional Chinese opera as well as Latin and hip-hop rhythms into this short, propulsive work.”

Kenji Bunch and his music will be featured in the first concert of the Symphony’s Open Music series on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, at 7:30 pm at The Old Church. Open Music, curated and hosted by Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane, shines a light on the creative process of nationally-renowned composer-performers in an intimate, one-on-one setting.

 

Gabriela Lena Frank
b. 1972

Elegía Andina

Work composed: 2000. Made possible by the Albany Symphony Orchestra American Voices Commission, and dedicated “to my older brother Marcos Gabriel Frank.”
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: at these concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, temple blocks, 2 triangles, whip, woodblocks, and strings
Estimated duration: 11 minutes

Gabriela Lena Frank is one of the foremost American composers of the 21st century, and a member of the Oregon Symphony's Creative Alliance. The daughter of a Peruvian/Spanish/Chinese mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father, Frank's diverse cultural identity is central to her music.

"Elegía Andina for Orchestra is dedicated to my older brother, Marcos Gabriel Frank," Frank writes. "As children of a multicultural marriage ... our early days were filled with Oriental stir-fry cuisine, Andean nursery songs, and frequent visits from our New York-bred Jewish cousins. As a young piano student, my repertoire included not only my own compositions that carried overtones from Peruvian folk music but also rags of Scott Joplin and minuets by the sons of Bach. It is probably inevitable then that as a composer and pianist today, I continue to thrive on multiculturalism. Elegía Andina (Andean Elegy) is one of my first written-down compositions to explore what it means to be of several ethnic persuasions, of several minds. It uses stylistic elements of Peruvian arca/ira zampoña panpipes (double-row panpipes, each row with its own tuning) to paint an elegiac picture of my questions. The flute part was particularly conceived with this in mind but was also inspired by the technical and musical mastery of Floyd Hebert, principal flutist of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In addition, as already mentioned, I can think of none better to dedicate this work to than to 'Babo,' my big brother – for whom Perú still waits."

 

Gustav Mahler
1860–1911

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Resurrection"

Work composed: Mahler drafted the first movement in 1888, the second and third movements in the summer of 1893, the fourth movement in 1892–93, and completed the finale by December 28, 1894.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony on May 22, 2017
Instrumentation: Soprano, Mezzo- soprano, SATB chorus, 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn), 5 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (2 doubling contrabassoon), 10 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, 2 tam tams, triangle, organ, 2 harps, and strings.
Estimated duration: 77 minutes

How important is it for an audience to understand what inspires a composer? How much does that understanding color the listener's experience? All of Gustav Mahler's music is variously informed by his interest in poetry, religion, and metaphysics. Each of these subjects contain multiple layers of meaning. A basic knowledge of what preoccupied Mahler as he worked is helpful for gaining some understanding of the music. However, we can also make the mistake of assuming we must know the genesis or subtext of a symphony in order to fully grasp it.

Critics, colleagues, and friends pestered Mahler for a program to "explain" his second symphony; bowing to pressure, he did initially suggest a general outline for the work, but over time, Mahler's attitude towards such descriptions soured. In 1901, Mahler criticized the program outline he had provided to King Albert of Saxony (at the king's request), remarking that "It gives only a superficial indication, all that any program can do for a musical work, let alone this one, which is so much all of a piece that it can no more be explained than the world itself. I'm quite sure that if God were asked to draw up a program of the world he created he could never do it. At best it would say as little about the nature of God and life as my analysis says about my C-minor Symphony."

It is interesting that Mahler describes the symphony as "so much all of a piece," because the movements were composed over a seven-year period, and the first was initially conceived as a stand-alone work. Originally titled Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), this movement emerged from a macabre fantasy in which Mahler imagined himself, as he explained, "dead, laid out in state, beneath wreaths and flowers."

The Allegro maestoso is the one of the longest of the symphony's five movements, second only to the Finale. Its original title reflects Mahler's lifelong fascination with ontological questions of life and death. The music alternates funeral marches with contrasting episodes of tender intimacy. In one of the "programs" Mahler reluctantly provided, he included some existential questions posed by the first movement: "What now? What is this life – and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning? – And we must answer this question if we are to live on."

The gentle serenity of the Andante moderato provides a respite from the relentless philosophical demands of the Allegro, with its placid melodies and cello solo. The drama of the first movement returns briefly about halfway through before the lyrical opening returns.

As Mahler did with each of his first five symphonies, the Second includes a song with text from the poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn). In July 1893, while Mahler was working on the Second Symphony, he composed the song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes) for voice and piano. An orchestrated version became the third movement.

The text of Urlicht (Primeval Light) also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler scored it for Mezzo-soprano, whose voice represents humanity. She pleads to God on behalf of all humankind for the peace of eternal life. The combined text and music are a tender benediction, which Mahler ruthlessly destroys in the opening bars of the final movement. This monumental section, over 30 minutes in length, sums up the preceding movements and then, using distant offstage horns, Mahler sets the scene. A flute sounds a solitary birdcall, followed by a rich silence. Then, hushed, the chorus sings, "Rise again, yes, you will rise again, my dust, after brief rest! Immortal life will He who called you grant you!" On the word "rief" (call), the soprano drifts in, floating like a shaft of sunlight above the choir.

In 1894, Mahler's colleague, conductor Hans von Bülow died. At the memorial service, which Mahler attended, a choir sang a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's poem Auferstehung (Resurrection). "It struck me like lightning, this thing," wrote Mahler to a friend, "and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain." To Klopstock's words Mahler added his own, which speak more specifically about his belief in the resurrection, not of Jesus, but of the individual soul. The soloists trade lines about transcending pain and death, and the chorus triumphantly declares, "I shall die so as to live!" Cascading chimes and ebullient brasses bring the symphony to a transcendent close.

© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around the country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com