Program Notes: Classical II – American Portraits
This concert features American musical perspectives. Florence Price’s Ethiopia’s Shadow in America honors the experiences of enslaved Africans in the United States. YSO member Ryan Hare’s Tephra 2 was inspired by Washington’s volcanic past. Copland’s iconic Lincoln Portrait is based on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Finally, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra combines his experience of arriving in America to escape WWII with his background of Hungarian folk music.
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Florence Beatrice Price
(April 9, 1887-June 3, 1953)
Ethiopia’s Shadow in America
(1932)
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Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a mixed-race family. After initial musical training from her mother, she attended the New England Conservatory in Boston and then returned to Arkansas to teach. She moved to Chicago in 1927 for more study, and in 1932 her Symphony in E minor won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker competition, which led to a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first symphony by an African-American woman performed by a major orchestra. Two other orchestral pieces won Honorable Mention, including Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. Price’s musical language mirrors the Neo-Romantic style popular in the 1920s-1940s, but also reflects the influence of her cultural heritage, incorporating spirituals and dance music in classical forms.
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Ethiopia’s Shadow in America was re-discovered in 2009 and given its first known performance by the University of Arkansas Symphony in January 2015. The first movement, subtitled “The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave,” begins with an introduction that is both dignified and oppressive. A lighter section follows, with syncopated rhythms and jazzy melodic figures. The second movement, “His Resignation and Faith,” features a spiritual-like melody, reflecting resignation to one’s fate and a resulting turn to faith for solace. The final movement, “His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses,” is uplifting and dance-like with several contrasting moods. The work ends dramatically with a return of the dignified material from the introduction, reminding the listener how all this started.
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Ryan M. Hare
(b. March 23, 1970)
Tephra 2
(2015)
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Ryan M. Hare, composer and bassoonist, was born in Reno, Nevada, and now lives in Pullman, Washington. He taught composition, bassoon and music theory at Washington State University from 2003 to 2020, taking a voluntary early retirement in order to focus his attention on composing. Hare’s music has been performed at a variety of venues and festivals, in locations as diverse as Tokyo, Japan, and Darmstadt, Germany. Commissioners include Fred Korman (former principal oboist of the Oregon Symphony), the Washington State Music Teachers Association (who awarded Hare “Washington State Composer of the Year” in 2012), the Walla Walla Symphony, Mid-Columbia Symphony, and Washington Idaho Symphony, among many others. His music has been championed by performers and ensembles around the world, with notable recognition from New Music USA, Artist Trust, and the American Prize. Much of his music is inspired by nature; recurrent themes include the deep mysteries of the cosmos and the extraordinary beauty of the state of Washington—as originating from a gloriously violent and volcanic past. 
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The US Geological Survey defines tephra as “fragments of volcanic rock and lava regardless of size that are blasted into the air by explosions or carried upward by hot gases in eruption columns or lava fountains. Such fragments range in size from less than 2 mm (ash) to more than 1 m in diameter…Tephra includes large dense blocks and bombs, and small light rock debris such as scoria, pumice, reticulite, and ash.” Hare says, “I was drawn to the word ‘tephra’ as a title because of the prominence and beauty of volcanoes and volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest, whose striking landscape was born from a geologically violent past, and also as a metaphor for the creative process.” He has produced three works based on this inspiration: Tephra 1 (2007) for solo percussionist, Tephra 2 (2015), commissioned and premiered by the Washington Idaho Symphony, and Tephra 3 (2020) for organ.
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Aaron Copland
(November 14, 1900-December 2, 1990)
Lincoln Portrait
(1942)
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Aaron Copland has done more for the collective imagination of American music than most, in a sense defining the sound of American music for his and subsequent generations. In the 1930s, Copland experienced the same stresses that others felt in the buildup to World War II, and his heightened social consciousness and nationalist feelings led him to a more popular style and indigenous subject matter. His goal was to reach people where they lived, and with works like Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring, he succeeded.
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Lincoln Portrait was commissioned by Andre Kostelanetz for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The music reflects Lincoln’s life and personality, including his childhood, his energy and vitality, and his thoughtfulness. The narration, featuring Lincoln’s own words in the third and final section, seems inevitable. The premiere by the CSO occurred on May 14, 1942, with William Adams as the narrator, and its impact on orchestral concert repertoire, much like Lincoln’s words in American culture, has been pronounced and lasting.
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Béla Viktor János Bartók
(March 25, 1881-September 26, 1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, 116 BB 123
(1943)
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Bartók was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and pianist, recognized today as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He began composing at an early age, and his first orchestral works were clearly influenced by the music of Strauss, Brahms and Debussy. From the mid-1920s, however, his music was more strongly influenced by folk music he collected and studied, particularly from Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak cultures. In 1940, Bartók and his wife emigrated to the United States to escape Nazi occupation, settling in New York. There he completed several of his greatest works, including the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation.
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Concerto for Orchestra is a fascinating mix of Western formal structures, such as sonata form, and folk elements like non-traditional scales/harmonies, folk-sounding melodies, drones and dance rhythms. Bartók himself said: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one… The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner.” The movements form a musical palindrome with a slow movement in the center, surrounded by two shorter, lighter movements, and beginning and ending with larger dramatic movements.
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The first movement presents a slow introduction, using harmonies built on fourths and “night” effects that were a characteristic of his style. This section gradually builds in intensity, finally giving way to a faster section with a wide variety of moods and fugal passages. This is contrasted by a calmer section with a beautiful melody shared among the woodwinds. This calmer music alternates with an attempt to restart the faster section in the trumpets and a quasi-fugue in the brass. A final statement of the fast section brings the movement to a dramatic close.
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A drum cadence begins the second movement. Subtitled “Presentation of couples,” it features pairs of instruments playing together at different intervals, e.g., bassoons separated by minor sixths, oboes by minor thirds, clarinets by minor sevenths, and trumpets by minor seconds. The movement has five sections with a lighter character in contrast to the first movement.
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The third movement is entitled Elegy. It is very slow and uses themes derived from the first movement. It also includes more “night” music, in particular mysterious fleeting figures in the woodwinds. There are several dramatic moments that emphasize the serious, somber mood. The movement ends quietly but the mood is not settled.
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The fourth movement, “Intermezzo interrotto” (Interrupted Intermezzo), is surprisingly light in mood. Scholars have found quotations from and parodies on several pieces by a range of composers, including Shostakovich, its most famous being the song “Meet me at Maxime’s” from Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. The flowing melody and uneven beat patterns create an interesting imbalance within the lighter mood. The “interruption” occurs after the first restatement of the opening theme, with a section reminiscent of circus music—recent research has revealed that Bartók was poking fun at Shostakovich and his Seventh Symphony which was quite popular at the time.
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The finale begins with a bold fanfare, and then the orchestra is off to the races with a rollicking folk dance, embodying the “life-asserting” intent of the movement. The dance music is interspersed with unexpected contrasts that include a range of folk-sounding elements mixed with many Western musical techniques, especially imitation.
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Concerto for Orchestra was premiered on December 1, 1944, in Symphony Hall, Boston, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. At the time, Koussevitzky himself called it “the best orchestra piece of the last 25 years.”