2015–16 program notes: Gould, Rachmaninov, Dvořák

Here are the program notes for the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra’s concerts on Jan. 31 and Feb. 5–6, 2016. Get your tickets here.

morton-gouldAmerican composer Morton Gould was recognized for his musical abilities at an early age, and had his first composition published at the age of six. During his long career, he did much to bridge classical and popular idioms in music. When he was asked in 1942 for a salute to the United States, he wrote American Salute, consisting of orchestral variations on the song When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Reportedly written overnight, with copyists standing by, it has since become a staple of the patriotic repertoire. Much later the composer said “It was years before I knew that it was a classic setting. What amazes me now is that critics say it is a minor masterpiece, a gem. To me, it was just a setting. I was doing a million of those things.”

RachmaninovThe Piano Concerto No. 2 of Sergei Rachmaninov is one of the most popular of all concertos. Its sumptuous harmonies and passionate melodies have immediate appeal, but give no hint of the extraordinary circumstances under which it was composed. In January of 1900, Rachmaninov, then in his twenties, was in a state of deep depression. He went to a prominent neurologist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who was also a good amateur cellist. The composer later wrote: “I heard daily the same formula as I lay half asleep in Dr. Dahl’s study … You will start to write your concerto … You will compose with the greatest of ease … The concerto will be of excellent quality.” Dr. Dahl’s treatment was evidently a great success, and Rachmaninov completed the concerto early in 1901, with a dedication to Dr. Dahl. In the decades that followed that pivotal time, Rachmaninov’s talents flowered as a virtuoso pianist, teacher and composer.

dvorak1In 1892, Antonin Dvořák came to America to take up a two-year appointment as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), written during that period, represents his response to the new surroundings and spirit that he found. Dvořák intended to write a piece based on American folk themes, particularly Negro spirituals, and this influence is apparent, including a reference to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the first movement. However, the influence of folk music from the composer’s native Bohemia is just as evident. Regardless of its origins, the symphony conveys feelings of the exuberance, the space, and the infinite possibility of the young American nation. After a slow and dramatic introduction, the first movement is fast and rhythmical. The second movement contains a beautiful (and famous) theme played initially by the English horn. The lively third and fourth movements are more clearly Bohemian in flavor. At the first performance in New York in 1893, the New World Symphony was an immediate success, perhaps partly because its syncopated rhythms echoed the ragtime music that was all the rage then, but also because of its freshness, vitality and melodic beauty.

– Tim Secomb

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