Program Notes: Classical I – Opening Night: Tchaikovsky’s 5th

The YSO celebrates Opening Night with Maestro Lawrence Golan’s Fantasia for Orchestra, Jennifer Higdon’s haunting blue cathedral, Rony Barrak’s Beirut Sensations, and Tchaikovsky’s famous Fifth Symphony which explores fate, ultimately culminating in victory.

Lawrence Golan
(b. November 28, 1966)
Fantasia for Orchestra
(2020)

Of his Fantasia for Orchestra, the composer writes: “Fantasia for Orchestra was written in July and August of 2020 during, and made possible by, the COVID-19 global pandemic. Normally, my schedule is completely filled with conducting engagements throughout the United States and abroad. However, in March of 2020, virtually the entire world went into lockdown in an effort to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Thousands of concerts were canceled and for many months, those of us who were accustomed to performing night after night found ourselves with some extra time on our hands. I decided to use some of this extra time to re-orchestrate my Fantasia for Solo Violin for full orchestra. The original solo violin version was written in 1993 while I was a doctoral student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. This original version is published by Ludwig Masters Publications and is contained on the Ablaze Records recording Millennial Masters, Vol. 9. It is also available on the Centaur Records CD Lawrence Golan: Fantasia.

The emotional trajectory of the piece is as follows. We begin with fear and uncertainty, and for the first half of the piece the mood is dark and depressing. Midway through, the music becomes stodgy and repetitive, giving one the impression that the drudgery will never end. However, a heroic modulation from D minor to D major brings hope and ushers in a glorious fanfare in the brass. All doom and gloom is wiped away and the piece concludes triumphantly. Coincidental as it may be, this emotional trajectory certainly mirrors that which we all experienced during the many months of living through the deadliest pandemic in a century.”

Jennifer Higdon
(b. December 31, 1962)
blue cathedral
(2000)

Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed figures in contemporary classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto, a 2018 Grammy for her Viola Concerto and a 2020 Grammy for her Harp Concerto. In 2018, Higdon received the Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University which is awarded to contemporary classical composers of exceptional achievement who have significantly influenced the field of composition. Most recently, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and blue cathedral is today’s most performed contemporary orchestral work, with more than 650 performances worldwide. Her works have been recorded on more than sixty CDs. Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere and the opera recording was nominated for 2 Grammy awards. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

blue cathedral is a one-movement tone poem dealing with the death of her brother, Andrew Blue, from cancer. In the composer’s words,

Blue…like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals…a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression…serving as a symbolic doorway in to and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. As I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky…I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music…This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life.

Rony Barrak
(b. September 9, 1971)
Beirut Sensations for darbouka and orchestra
(2009)

Rony Barrak is a Lebanese musician, composer, and one of the world’s finest players of the darbouka, a goblet-shaped drum with traditions that go back thousands of years. Barrak has composed three symphonic poems that combine eclectic Eastern and Western music traditions and feature the darbouka. A program for Beirut Sensations was written by the composer’s brother Elie:

First movement: Fear calls out in Beirut, in a dark scary night; Beirut prepares itself for a long battle in an unknown war, and people of Beirut begin to make their way to underground bunkers. Men of war start dividing their beautiful city into small battlefields. Beirut, once the jewel of the Mediterranean, full of life, history, culture, and love, now is captured by darkness and uncertainty.

Second movement: There is a small pause in the sound of bombings. A man walks out of his bunker, looks at the streets, sad, tears in his eyes with reminiscence of Beirut, nostalgic of how life was a few weeks before, when the smell of orange blossoms and sea air occupied the atmosphere, when the sound of men pushing their vegetable and fruit wooden trolleys, shouting to sell their goods, when the night was as busy as the day, but now……the smell of gunpowder and death occupies the places, destruction in every corner….. Heavy artillery shelling; Beirut is heavily bombarded, the man runs back underground.

Third movement: Winter comes. Rain falls, washing the destroyed houses and buildings, making the streets muddy. Fighting slows down gradually; men fighting look up towards the mountains that are covered with snow, these peaceful mountains, that once inspired poets and made saints, these mountains that embrace cedars, “the trees of the lord,” as quoted in the Old Testament. Men now are unconvinced of the purpose of their war.

Fourth movement: The masses decide to leave their bunkers, not scared about their fate. They want their city back, they want to retake and rebuild their shattered homes. Kids want their schools and playgrounds back. The start of a new era, hope rises in their spirits. They want to live. The fighters, tired and hopeless, decide to throw down their killing weapons, and give in to the sound of peace.

Beirut licks its wounds, as it did for many times through history. Beirut, that has been buried seven times, has seven cities and civilizations underneath it, smiles, knowing that it is hard to be beautiful, that beauty always attracts evil to try to destroy it, but also knowing that goodness always wins.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(April 25/May 7, 1840—October 25/November 6, 1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
(1888)

1888 began well for Tchaikovsky—in January, he received news that Tsar Alexander III had granted him a lifetime federal pension, which gave him some financial stability. He also seemed to gain a second compositional wind after several years of loss and depressing circumstances. The Fifth Symphony was first performed in St Petersburg on November 6, 1888, with the composer conducting. Initial audience responses were mixed, but a strong performance in Hamburg in 1889 finally convinced him of its quality. The composition is “cyclical”—it has a theme that appears in all four movements, uniting the piece on a larger scale.

The first movement begins darkly, with the unifying theme in the introduction, using clarinet accompanied by strings. As the movement goes on, things get increasingly energetic and optimistic. The juxtaposition of full orchestra power and extreme lyricism led by the strings is pure Tchaikovsky. Eventually, the first theme returns and, after one last flourish, gradually fades into the distance.

The second movement features one of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable melodies; after another dark introduction, the horn sings what is essentially a love song. A contrasting middle section sounds exotic, almost Middle Eastern. Eventually, the brass take over with the first movement melody, as if to restore order. The love song returns, decorated by various ornamental figures in the winds and strings, building to a massive climax. Gradually, the emotions subside, and the movement ends gently and quietly.

The third movement is a grand waltz, a surprising contrast to the outpouring of emotion in the preceding movement. At the end, the clarinets and bassoons once again bring the first movement theme back, but the grand mood is not squelched entirely, and the waltz ends with loud, optimistic chords.

The finale begins slowly, recycling the first movement introduction, this time in the strings. The main body of the movement has constant rhythmic intensity as the music is passed from section to section. There is a brief lull, and then the piece rushes forward to a huge ending, with a few last gasps from the first movement, and a final statement of triumph.

The progression from sadness to triumph is one of the most appealing aspects of this symphony. It was very popular during World War II, with many recordings and performances during those years, including one by the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra during the Siege of Leningrad when, during a live radio broadcast on October 20, 1941, exploding bombs were heard while the orchestra played.