Classical V: String Fever

For this concert, we celebrate the YSO string section, with three of the most celebrated string orchestra pieces ever written, and outstanding new works by two exciting living composers.

Peter Boyer
(b. February 10, 1970)
Three Olympians
     Peter Boyer was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and began composing at the age of fifteen. He has received a Grammy nomination as well as numerous national awards. In addition to his work for the concert hall, Boyer has orchestrated music for more than a dozen major feature films as well as music for the Academy Awards.

     Commissioned by the Conductors Institute in 2000, Three Olympians reflects the composer’s interest in Greek mythology. Boyer says:

The word ‘Olympians’ in the title is not be understood in the modern-day ‘athletic’ sense of the word, but in the ancient Greek sense: an Olympian was a resident of Olympus, the home of the Greek gods…The three which inspired the music in this case—Apollo, Aphrodite, and Ares—were all children of Zeus, but each had a different mother…For me, Apollo meant ‘classical’ harmony and phrasing, and a great deal of energy. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, which to me unambiguously called for lyrical melody. Ares was the god of war, which to me translated as relentless rhythm, as well as a chance to exploit some of the more menacing effects of which strings are capable…This work is unabashedly tonal, straightforward, and hopefully a good deal of fun.

     Three Olympians has had an active performance history and a significant record of broadcasts by classical radio stations throughout the United States and Europe.

Samuel Osborne Barber
(March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981)
Adagio for Strings
     Adagio for Strings is arguably Barber’s best-known work, arranged for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber finished the arrangement in 1936, the same year that he wrote the quartet. It was performed for the first time on November 5, 1938, by Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast. Barber also used the music for his 1967 choral arrangement of Agnus Dei, and the piece has been arranged for numerous instrumental and vocal combinations.
     Adagio is constructed in a long musical arch, beginning with heartfelt strains that gradually build and peak at a fever pitch that, for many, creates a feeling of ultimate release of anguish and deep sadness. The association of the piece with deep sadness has come about through its use by the media at key moments in history, which have given it iconic status in American culture. Performances and broadcasts of this piece have used to commemorate the deaths of such figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and Princess Diana, and events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as other tragic incidents. Adagio for Strings can also be heard on many film, television, and video game soundtracks.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
(October 12, 1872 – August 26, 1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
     Vaughan Williams was an organist, composer, writer, editor and folk song collector. The study of folk music profoundly affected his compositional style, but another important influence was his interest in history. It is no surprise that he would draw upon a work from one of England’s most important early composers.
     Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was a court composer for British royalty from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. He was a versatile composer who created numerous sacred and secular works that are important to England’s musical heritage. It was a melody by Tallis in an English hymnal that Vaughan Williams was editing, Why Fum’th in Fight?, that inspired him to compose this Fantasia, which was premiered at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival with the composer conducting.
     The work is written for a combination of three separate string ensembles: a full string section, a group of nine players, and a quartet. Tallis’s melody is presented fully intact three times during the work, and the rest resembles a set of variations or improvisations on the theme and its motives. Toward the middle of the piece, contrasting material is introduced by the solo viola that is then combined with Tallis’s theme. The lush harmonies and orchestration have also tapped into England’s long tradition of string ensembles, making this piece one of Vaughan Williams’s most beloved works. A review of the premiere captures the piece very well:

One is living in two centuries at once… Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown regions of musical thought and feeling.

Anna Clyne
(b. March 9, 1980)
Within Her Arms
     London-born Anna Clyne is a Grammy-nominated composer. Clyne has been commissioned by a wide range of ensembles and institutions, including BBC Scottish Symphony, Carnegie Hall, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Houston Ballet, London Sinfonietta, Seattle Symphony and the Southbank Centre. Clyne is currently a member of the composition faculty at Mannes / The New School.
     Within Her Arms for string orchestra was commissioned by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The piece was composed in memory of Clyne’s mother, who died in 2009, and was first performed on April 7 of that year. The work is a powerful expression of grief and sadness. The music is prefaced by the following poem by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one
So that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers
This flower smiling quietly in this morning field
This morning you will weep no more dear one
For we have gone through too deep a night.
This morning, yes, this morning, I kneel down on the green grass

And I notice your presence.
Flowers, that speak to me in silence.
The message of love and understanding has indeed come.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(May 7, 1840-November 6, 1893)
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48
     The late 1870s and early 1880s was a transitional time for Tchaikovsky. He gave up teaching at the Moscow Conservatory for a more nomadic existence, looking for places to live that would allow him to compose more freely. This was not without its own difficulties—financial and personal insecurities ebbed and flowed freely. His works during this time include opera and solo songs, but he also sought newer challenges, including the orchestral suite. This genre offered him more freedom from the expectations associated with music for full orchestra, especially in terms of expression and combinations of musical characters. Music on the lighter side also seemed to interest him, as evidenced by his Serenade for Strings.
     This suite is an interesting combination of Russian and Western European musical styles. It is normally performed without a break between movements. Musical materials introduced in the first movement are transformed from an opening chorale followed by contrasting spritely Mozartean flavor to a lush waltz in the second movement, to a gentle lyrical elegy in the third, and finally recast in the finale as a lusty Russian dance as if to emphasize or confirm his Russian roots. The music eventually circles back to the opening chorale for a reminder of where he started before a final rush to a satisfying end. T
he Serenade was given a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on December 3, 1880, followed by its first public performance in St. Petersburg in October, 1881.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019