The Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra is presenting Symphony & Soprano – a concert at the Avalon Theatre in Downtown Grand Junction, on September 18-19, 2021. This concert will feature Leah Brzyski, soprano, the 2020 Young Artist Competition award winner. You can read more about her here.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Second Essay for Orchestra (1942) 10 minutes
Flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
This is the first performance of this work by the GJSO
Samuel Barber was born into an upper middle-class family in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was exposed to music at an early age; his aunt sang with the Metropolitan Opera and his uncle was a composer. Barber began piano lessons at six and completed his first composition the next year. His parents wanted him to be more extroverted and athletic, but by nine, Barber knew he was meant to be a musician, not an athlete. He wrote his mother a letter explaining how he was supposed to be a composer and asking to not play football anymore. His parents relented and Barber continued on his musical path, completing an opera at ten, and becoming his church’s organist at twelve. He entered the Curtis Institute of Music at fourteen. While at Curtis, Barber was recognized for his talent in composition, voice, and piano. He quickly became a favorite of the school’s founder, who introduced Barber to the Schirmer family, who became his publishers for the rest of his career. Barber also met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti, a person who quickly became a close friend and who would go on to become his musical and life partner. After completing his education, Barber composed a number of pieces and quickly became a well-known composer. He won the Prix de Rome and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1943, he and Menotti bought a home in Mount Kisco, New York where they spent the rest of their lives. Barber composed steadily for the rest of his life. Music critic Donal Henahan wrote, “Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent, and such long-lasting acclaim.”
Composer Sydney Homer, troubled by the rising turmoil in Europe, suggested to his nephew, Samuel Barber, in 1940 that he should write a musical drama “on the lines of (Beethoven’s) Fidelio, built on sympathy for suffering and with a voice of true eloquence.” Barber’s response was his Second Essay for Orchestra, completed in 1942. Barber approached his musical essay as “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject…more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” Barber introduces three main ideas and then reflects on them throughout the short work. Although based on only a few thematic elements, Barber is able to transform and adapt these ideas organically to create widely contrasting sections and feelings within the constraints of the form. Although there is no programmatic element to the work, Barber did think that audiences would be able to tell the piece “was written in wartime.” Barber showed the finished piece to Bruno Walter who premiered it on April 16, 1942, as part of the centennial celebration of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after, in September 1942, Barber was drafted for military service and joined the Army Air Corps.
The work begins with a simple flute melody, which is the passed to the other woodwinds. This lyric melody is accompanied by the low brass and bass drum. The second theme develops from the first and is introduced by the violas. The third theme features the brass section playing a fuller chorale-like development of melodic fragments introduced in the first section. Loud orchestral chords start a fugue played by the woodwinds which is based on the first theme. After a brief lull in the action, the second theme is juxtaposed with the first bringing the work to a jubilant conclusion.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
“Großmächtige Prinzessin” from Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) 8 minutes
Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpet, timpani, piano, strings, and solo soprano.
This is the first performance of this aria by the GJSO
Richard Strauss was born in Munich in 1864. His father, Franz, was the principal horn player for the Court Opera. He received a thorough musical education from his father and his father’s peers, including orchestration lessons from the assistant conductor during rehearsals. He completed his first composition at six. In 1872 he began studying violin at the Royal School of Music. Strauss heard his first operas by Richard Wagner in 1874. Wagner’s musical style would have a profound influence on Strauss; however, his deeply conservative father forbade his son to study the works. He did obtain a score to Tristan und Isolde when he was sixteen and later in life regretted his father’s hostility toward Wagner.
In 1882 Strauss enrolled in university to study philosophy and art history. He left a year later to become assistant conductor for Hans von Bülow, eventually taking over when von Bülow retired. Strauss’s early works were fairly conservative, following the influence of his father. In 1885, Strauss met the composer Alexander Ritter who suggested that Strauss begin writing tone poems, orchestral works that tell a story solely through instrumental music. Strauss’s tone poems make use of interesting, complex harmonies and beautiful orchestration that mark his maturation as a composer. Beginning in the early 1900s, Strauss turned his attention to opera. His first two successful works, Salome and Elektra, feature dissonant chords and modern sensibilities. His next opera, Der Rosenkavalier was far more romantic, featuring lush harmonies and beautiful melodies. He wrote operas regularly into the 1940s. Strauss wrote little during World War II but had an extraordinary output of work at the end of his life. Strauss died shortly after his 85th birthday.
Like all artists and musicians of his generation, Strauss had to deal with the constraints of living and working under the Nazi regime. Although he never formally joined the party, he initially felt that he should cooperate in the hope that Hitler would promote German art and culture. However, Strauss’s daughter-in-law and two grandsons were Jewish, complicating his political situation. In 1933 Strauss was named president of the Reich Music Chamber, even though he was not consulted before he was given the job. He decided to take the job but remain apolitical which was an untenable position. Strauss ignored bans on certain composers and continued working with his Jewish librettist. Strauss was ultimately dismissed from his position for these reasons, as well as his unflattering letters about party leaders that were intercepted by the Gestapo, including one calling Joseph Goebbels a “pipsqueak.” Many musicians felt that Strauss was collaborating with the regime, even though Strauss did not actively support the party’s activities. He tried to remain relevant so he could save his family. While he was able to secure only house arrest for his immediate family, he could not save members of his daughter-in-law’s extended family. Ultimately twenty-five members of her family were murdered in concentration camps.
Strauss completed his original version of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. The opera was intended for performance after the presentation of a Molière play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which featured original incidental music by Strauss as well. The combined works were premiered in Stuttgart to mixed reviews. Many in the audience had come specifically to hear Strauss’s new opera and were disappointed to have to sit through the play first, especially since the combined performance lasted over six hours. Despite the length, this play and opera combination was performed in several other cities including Prague, London, and Munich, where the audience hissed after the first act to show their dislike. In subsequent performances, conductor Bruno Walter made cuts to the opera, which improved its reception. Eventually Strauss reluctantly agreed that the opera could not be successfully performed as he had initially intended it. He wrote a new prologue which took the place of the play that explained the plot more succinctly. He also changed the setting from Paris to Vienna. This second version, which was completed in 1916, is the most performed version of the work.
The final form of the opera has two sections, the Prologue and the Opera. The work starts in the home of the richest man in Vienna where an evening of entertainment by two different groups is planned. The first is a burlesque group featuring the comedienne Zerbinetta. The second group is an opera company who will present the dramatic Ariadne auf Naxos. Backstage the two companies argue over which work should be presented first; however a complication arrives when the Major-domo announces that dinner has run late and that both performances must take place at the same time. Since both groups have already been paid, they should both perform, but must be done in time for the fireworks planned for the evening’s finale. The Composer at first refuses any changes to his opera, but eventually he is persuaded by his teacher and Zerbinetta to acquiesce and Zerbinetta is introduced into the plot of the serious work. The second section features the performance by the company based on the mythological character Ariadne, who has been abandoned on the island of Naxos by her former lover Theseus. Ariadne is bereft without Theseus and longs for death. This mournful scene is interrupted by Zerbinetta who tries to cheer up Ariadne and tells her to simply move on and find a new love. Zerbinetta tells her story in the aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin.” In this florid aria Zerbinetta describes her past love affairs and how she quickly moved on after each ended. During her performance, two new suitors vie for her attention and she eventually picks one. The aria is filled with quick runs, large leaps, and shows off the virtuosity of a coloratura soprano beautifully. Shortly after, a mysterious stranger comes to the island. The god Bacchus meets Ariadne and the two fell in love, apparently Zerbinetta’s advice made an impression on Ariadne.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
“O luce di quest’anima” from Linda di Chamounix (1842) 6 minutes
Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, strings, and solo soprano.
This is the first performance of this work by the GJSO
Donizetti was born in Bergamo, Lombardy to a poor family in 1797. At age nine his father was able to enroll him in the town’s music school which had been founded by Simone Mayr, a German opera composer. Although Donizetti’s voice was not great, he excelled in other aspects of musical training. He completed his first small opera in 1811 and remained at the school until 1815. Mayr was incredibly supportive of his pupil, introducing him to publishers, musicians, and nobles in Bologna to further his career. After spending three years in Bologna studying and writing, Donizetti returned home since he had not found a full-time position and spent his time writing instrumental music. Based on a libretto by an old school friend, Donizetti wrote a new opera in 1818, Enrico di Borgogna, which was presented in Venice late that year. Although the performance had issues, the audience recognized Donizetti’s talents and new commissions followed. This minor success did not solidify Donizetti’s career. He remained in Bergamo until 1821 working on instrumental and choral pieces. In June of that year, he received a contract to write an opera for performance in Rome. Although the performance was difficult (the tenor died just before opening night and the role had to be rewritten for a mezzo soprano instead), the opera was a huge success and secured Donizetti’s status as an opera composer.
In February 1823 Donizetti moved to Naples where he would spend a majority of his career. He was given a contract to compose new operas and to help prepare performances of operas by other composers as well. His first work was performed in May of that year to rave reviews. Donizetti lived and worked in Naples for the next fifteen years, staging fifty-one of his operas there. Early in his career he focused mainly on comic operas which were popular with audiences. Although he wrote some serious works, they were less popular. This changed in 1830 with his opera Anna Bolena which helped shift focus and popularity to serious operas, many of which were based on historical subjects. Although he mainly worked in Naples, his operas were presented throughout Italy and Europe, and Donizetti traveled widely to assist with the productions of his works. In 1838 the King of Naples banned a production of Poliuto because he felt it was inappropriate to portray sacred stories on an opera stage. Donizetti was outraged by this censorship, vowed not to work in Naples again. He moved to Paris where the opera was staged instead. In Paris he began writing grand operas in the French style, including La fille du régiment and a French translation of his popular work Lucia di Lammermoor. Donizetti spent most of the last ten years of his life based in Paris, although he travelled regularly throughout the continent staging operas in Rome, Vienna, Milan, and Naples. He was constantly traveling, staging his own works and those of other composers, as well as conducting, however his health was beginning to deteriorate. His friends described him as “broken, sad, and incurably sick.” Donizetti continued working and traveling at a frantic pace, perhaps trying to do as much as possible before he was unable to continue. In 1846 his illness (most likely syphilis) required him to be confined to a mental institution. His friends were able to have him moved home to Bergamo in late 1847 where he died the following year.
Linda di Chamounix is a three-act opera which premiered in Vienna in 1842. In the opera, Linda, a beautiful farm girl, is in love with Carlo, a poor artist. Carlo, like the other young men of Chamounix, spend the winter months in Paris to earn money as street performers. Linda also ends up going to Paris to avoid the Marchese, who not only owns the lease on her parent’s farm but wants to marry the beautiful girl. While in Paris, Carlo confesses that he is not a poor artist, but rather a viscount. The two planned to be married, however Carlo’s mother discovers their relationship and does not approve, insisting that Carlo marries a titled young woman instead. The Marchese finds Linda as well and tries to convince her to marry him instead, but Linda refuses. Linda’s father learns of his daughter’s relationship and assumes that it is inappropriate and disowns his daughter. After being abandoned by both Carlo and her father, Linda collapses in a state of mental anguish. As spring begins the young men return home to Chamounix. Carlo arrives searching for Linda in order to marry her, since his mother has finally agreed to the match, however Linda has not returned from Paris. The Marchese, unaware of Linda’s mental collapse, announces his wedding that day and invites the entire village to the ceremony. Linda arrives home, accompanied by a friend, but in her state, she doesn’t recognize her loved ones, until they begin to sing to her. Carlo’s song in particular restores her senses, and the happy couple prepares to be married.
“O luce di quest’anima” is Linda’s aria in Act One. She had made plans to meet Carlo at church before he left for Paris for the winter, but she arrived late. Instead of finding her beloved, she only finds some flowers waiting for her. The aria is lovely, beginning with a slow introduction which shows off the soprano’s vocal range and abilities. A second section is quicker and features several cadenzas for the soprano which have florid runs and rapid jumps. The aria ends with an extended cadenza which showcases the soprano’s range, ability, and stamina in a beautiful and entertaining selection.
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1878) 44 minutes
Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
The GJSO last performed this symphony in 2005 with Kirk Gustafson conducting.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in a small village in Russia in 1840. He showed talent for music early on and began studying piano at the age of five. His parents realized that he had a natural ability for music, however they feared that he would never be able to support himself as a musician. They encouraged their son to try and find employment in the civil service. Following his parents’ wishes, Tchaikovsky began studying at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a boarding school in St. Petersburg, when he was ten. After completing his education, Tchaikovsky began working as a bureau clerk in the Ministry of Justice, but his heart simply wasn’t in the work. He continued to be fascinated by music, and after four years he left his job to attend the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. During his time at the conservatory, Tchaikovsky not only studied, but also taught composition to some of his fellow students. In 1863, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow where he became a professor of harmony at the conservatory.
Tchaikovsky’s first works were performed in Moscow in 1865. Over the next decade, his symphonies and piano concerto were premiered to high acclaim. In 1878, Tchaikovsky resigned from his teaching position in order to devote himself fully to composition. He was able to do this due to the patronage of a wealthy widow who paid the composer a monthly allowance. He worked prolifically until his death fifteen years later, ultimately completing 169 pieces ranging from symphonies and concerti to ballets and operas. Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-three.
Over the course of two years, Tchaikovsky met two women, both of whom would have a profound impact on his life. In 1876, Tchaikovsky received a letter from a wealthy widow, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck. She was a huge admirer of Tchaikovsky and an important benefactor to several musicians in Russia. Over the next year, their friendship grew and Meck became Tchaikovsky’s patron, paying him 500 rubles per month. However, a stipulation of this arrangement is that the two would never meet face to face. For the next thirteen years Meck supported Tchaikovsky and the two maintained an active and highly emotional correspondence. Her support allowed Tchaikovsky to compose full-time without having to keep another job.
The other women entered Tchaikovsky’s life in June 1877 when he received a letter from Antonina Milyukova. She claimed to be his former student and professed her love for him. Although Tchaikovsky had long declared he had “an innate aversion to marriage,” he met Milyukova and proposed to her only a couple of days later. There are several theories as to why Tchaikovsky entered this relationship; perhaps it was to create a cover identity to further hide his homosexuality, it could have been to fulfill his father’s desire to see him married, or it could have been, a now discredited version of Milyukova’s letter threatening her suicide if he did not marry her. Whatever reason compelled Tchaikovsky to marry, it was a disaster. Two weeks after the wedding, Tchaikovsky fled to his sister’s home in Ukraine and spent the summer away from his new bride. In September, he returned to Moscow and reunited with his wife, but this time spent only eleven days in her company before he fled again, suffering a nervous breakdown and spending two weeks unconscious in a St. Petersburg hospital. Although the couple never formally divorced, Milyukova was never again a real part of Tchaikovsky’s life.
Tchaikovsky had been working on the first three movements of the symphony when he took his trip to meet Milyukova. In October, as part of his recovery from his disastrous marriage, Tchaikovsky went on a trip with his brother first to Switzerland and then to France and Italy. Tchaikovsky began work on the symphony again while abroad completing the work in January 1878. During this trip Tchaikovsky also completed his opera, Eugene Onegin, and the violin concerto. Since he began work on the symphony, Tchaikovsky had planned to dedicate the work to his patron, Meck, anonymously “Dedicated to My Best Friend.” Since she was mentioned in the piece and helped support him, Meck required an explanation of the work. Tchaikovsky wrote a detailed description, which although widely quoted, was written after the fact and may not completely tell the story. The most important part of his letter described the role of fate in the symphony: “The introduction is the seed of the whole symphony, undoubtedly the main idea. This is fate.”
The fate theme in this symphony is the dramatic brass fanfare which returns throughout the movement. Following the introductory motive, the strings play the main melody, a waltz. Throughout the fate theme comes back and is used to mark the sections of the movement. Much like the fate motive from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Tchaikovsky uses his motive as a landmark throughout his grand and dramatic opening. The second movement features a plaintive and nostalgic oboe solo. Although most of the section feels heavy and sad, there are light moments that remind us of Tchaikovsky’s skill with ballet music. The Scherzo is the most reminiscent of dance music featuring pizzicato strings and a section that sounds like a folk tune in the middle before ending quietly. The final movement begins with a bang of fortissimo percussion and chords from the entire orchestra. The main melody utilizes the folk tune “The Little Birch Tree” and is jubilant throughout until the brasses once again play the “Fate” motive before ending joyfully. Perhaps Tchaikovsky is reminding us that although fate is always with us, we can triumph in the end.