KSO Season 56 2011-2012

Unless otherwise stated, all concerts take place at St. John's, Smith Square and are conducted by Russell Keable.

Monday 17 October 2011
Stephen Goss: The Shard (World Première)
Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 5
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2

Monday 28 November 2011
Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6

Tuesday 24 January 2012 at Cadogan Hall
 Hindemith: Concert Music for Strings and Brass
Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Haydn
Dvořák: Cello Concerto

Cello: Philip Higham 

Saturday 10 March 2012, with guest conductor William Carslake
Elgar: In The South
Walton: Symphony No. 2
Janáček: Sinfonietta  

Monday 14 May 2012
Puccini: Tosca
Tosca: Naomi Harvey
Cavaradossi: Geraint Dodd
Scarpia: Nicholas Folwell
Sacrestan: William Robert Allenby
Angelotti: Matthew Hargreaves

Monday 11 June 2012
Peter Nagle: Until I die there will be sounds (World première)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7
Brahms: Symphony No. 1  

Saturday 16 June 2012 at Edwardes Square
Coates: March: The Dambusters
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1
Tchaikovsky: Overture: 1812  

Dvořák: Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 “From the New World”

Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 “From the New World”

  1. Adagio – Allegro molto
  2. Largo
  3. Scherzo: Molto vivace
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Duration: 41'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2011, 2003

A.C. Grayling’s plans to open a private university may be a current controversy, but the idea is far from new.  In 1884 the wealthy American socialite Jeannette Thurber opened her National Conservatory of Music of America in New York.  Thurber was the daughter of Henry Meyers, a Danish immigrant violinist.  She studied at the Paris Conservatory and later married into money; thereafter she became one of the first important patrons of classical music in the United States.  Her ambition that the Conservatory should be the first of a nationwide franchise of educational institutions never came to pass.  Its founder’s declining energy meant that its activity declined rapidly after the First World War.  The stock market crash of 1929 effectively killed the institution, although it was not declared officially defunct until 1952.

However, for a brief period at the turn of the century the Conservatory was a beacon for music education in the United States.  Its aim was to make a musical education available to all, and Thurber made a particular point of encouraging disabled and African-American students; among the latter was the composer Harry T. Burleigh, now best remembered for his collections of spirituals.  To raise the profile of the institution, Mrs Thurber sought out the services of distinguished musicians.  Undoubtedly her biggest coup in this regard was appointing Antonín Dvořák as Director in 1892.

By the early 1890s Dvořák’s international reputation was secure, and his music was attracting increasing attention in the U.S.A.  So when the first director of the National Conservatory resigned in 1889, it was natural that Thurber should put a proposal to the famous Czech composer (although she apparently also considered a young Finnish composer called Jan Sibelius for the post).  Dvořák was excited by the prospects of taking on the job.   “The Americans expect great things of me,” he wrote to a friend, “and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musicians, they say, why could they not too, when their country and people are so immense?”

His ideas about the possibility of a national American music were swayed quickly by one of his new pupils.  As well as studying at the Conservatory, Harry Burleigh was supplementing his income by working as a handyman there.  Dvořák’s first encounter with him was when he heard Burleigh singing spirituals as he cleaned the halls.  Dvořák was fascinated by what he heard, and insisted that Burleigh sing more to him and tell him about this music.  For Burleigh, such interest in music that most white society dismissed as barbaric was inspiring.  The two men established a close friendship that lasted until Dvořák’s death in 1904.

Such music struck a chord with Dvořák because of his fierce pride in his own Czech folk heritage.  “Nothing must be to low or too insignificant for the musician,” he wrote in an article in 1895.  “The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing amidst encroaching weeds.  Thousands pass it, while others trample it under foot, and thus the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else.”  Soon after his arrival in America and his encounter with Burleigh, he declared, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States... They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”  Dvořák’s prediction was in a sense accurate, though in the detail he was wildly wrong.  He assumed that African-American music would be absorbed into the old European forms and techniques.  In fact what happened was the opposite: African-Americans imported elements of European harmony and form into their own tradition to create the definitive American music,  jazz.

Another important influence on Dvořák as he began to write his Ninth Symphony was Jeannette Thurber’s determination that Dvořák should write an opera based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha.   She even took him to see “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s Wild West show to stoke his enthusiasm. This may explain why, when the new symphony was performed, Dvořák declared that” the work was written under the direct influence of a serious study of the national music of the North American Indians,” although he qualified this by admitting, “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies.”  He also declared in an interview that “I found that the music of the Negroes and of the Indians was practically identical.”  This extraordinary statement can only really be explained by the fact that Dvořák had not actually studied Native American music in any great detail (although he had been given access to a limited number of transcriptions of dubious merit).

Whatever the true extent of the local influences on the New World Symphony (a title bestowed by Thurber), it is evident that the composer’s own Bohemian roots exert at least as great, if not greater an influence.   The critic Henry Krehbiel observed that “Dr. Dvořák can no more divest himself of his nationality than the leopard change his spots.”  The slow movement may be inspired by Indians on the plains at night, and the Scherzo a portrait of Hiawatha’s wedding feast as he claimed, but Dvořák’s view of the New World is that of someone longing to return to the old one.  Homesickness eventually led him to resign in 1895 and return to Prague.  But regardless of the true extent of the American influence on his symphony, it has a vital legacy: what mattered was that Dvořák stood up and declared the value of these often dismissed traditions.

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle

Richard Ayres: No. 37b

No.37b  for orchestra

  1. Alfred Wallis (in Paradise) Observes Saint Joseph (the carpenter) at Work and at Leisure
  1. Sjonnie Kurzak (a broken soul) Ascends
  1. When Gippy Dizon opened his eyes, the heavenly procession was still there…
  1. Exit

Duration: 25'
Publisher: Schott Music
KSO perfomed: 2011

Of No.37b, Richard Ayres says, “This piece is about death and various forms of afterlife.  Many of my pieces are about death (and life)... it is probably a way to dispose of my childhood woes.”  Lest this sound too grim, he qualifies: “Although my music is generally tragic, I do try to include humor, and all other emotions, in the same way that I experience them in life.  Perhaps the longer films of Charlie Chaplin are the closest to my creative ideal.”

Like Chaplin, Ayres’s music has a rare ability to be simultaneously genuinely funny and poignant.   ‘ I often feel that I am making films without pictures,’ he says.  ‘Music is rarely thought of as more than pitches and sounds, but the act of playing a note on the horn has a theatrical and a narrative power, and the violin section is fulfilling a narrative function as well as making sounds, I feel this is something to be aware of when writing music - a musical performance is in every way a three dimensional event.’

All Ayres’ works are given numbers instead of titles.  He gives three reasons for this.  Two are prosaic:  ‘I don’t have a lot of imagination for titles, and the ones I have made up were pretty awful; I find it easier to remember which piece is which (although this is no longer true. As I get older and the number of pieces increases, I find I can’t remember which is which).’  The third suggets a deeper impulse at work: ‘A title determines, or colors the listeners perception of a piece of music. I don’t want to pollute a listener’s experience unless it is absolutely necessary.’  In his more recent music the utilitarian numbers are increasingly contradicted, however, by extravagant subtitles that ‘either concur with, or contradict how we experience the music’s emotional world.’ 

The composer and writer Christopher Fox has described No.37b as a symphony that cannot quite remember ‘how a symphony might hold together.’  This sense of ad-hoc construction is graphically illustrated in the opening movement, in which the percussion section engages in carpentry - ‘trying to nail the piece together,’ Fox suggests.  The carpentry and the divine setting have a personal resonance for Ayres, whose father was a carpenter and is a fundamentalist Christian, neither of which traits have been inherited: ‘I am hopeless at woodwork, and have developed an extreme allergy to religion.’ This use of sounds that are assorted with life outside a concert hall are a natural development of Ayres’s eclecticism, which embraces Janáček, Richard Strauss, and Charles Ives with equal enthusiasm: ‘I want to use consonance, dissonance, melody, texture, elephants, clouds, snowballs, anything, from any time and whenever it is needed.’ 

Ayres offers few clues to the lives of Sjonnie Kurzak or Gippy Dixon, the named protagonists of the middle two movements.  No amount of googling will offer any evidence that they even existed.  ‘I actually don’t see any deep difference between the invented and the remembered...  I think we are all busy rearranging what exists - playing around with cultural building blocks. It is how we personally rearrange our vision of the world, what choices we make or don't make, that leads to an interesting and personal musical composition - or a personal contribution to life... In music, something that is somehow structured in time (structured to help us remember?), we are dealing all the time with memory - people chose to do it in different ways.’  He does suggest that   ‘Sjonnie Kurzak was a gypsy trumpet player.  When he was too old to play he was left homeless, and died neglected, broken, and in great poverty. I imagined his tortured soul, finally at peace, ascending to heaven.’ 
The finale seems certain that it should be providing a triumphant climax but constantly peters out.  At one point the tuba attempts a sermon, assisted by a dustbin lid.  Everything grinds to a halt, and then stutters back into life, in a way reminiscent of the magic broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, before reaching an abrupt, apparently arbitrary conclusion. Given that the previous two movements have been set in heaven or thereabouts, the natural conclusion to be drawn is that “Exit” is a descent to earth, or possibly further.  

These ideas - of remembered and imagined worlds and the ways they connect and reflect each other - find an echo in the work of Alfred Wallis, whom Ayres evokes in the opening movement ‘sitting in heaven watching St. Joseph (the carpenter and earthly father of Jesus Christ) who is keeping himself occupied, for eternity, with a new (and divine) wood-working project.’  Wallis (1855-1942) was, like Ayres, a Cornishman.  He was a fisherman by trade, and took up painting in his 70s after his wife died, “for company.”  He had no training, and painted mostly on cardboard with the same paints used to paint boats.  His subject was the sea, and his memories of fishing. There is a strange power to his paintings, naive in execution and built from whatever materials he had to hand, that finds a resonance in the juxtapositions Ayres creates of familiar ideas in unfamiliar settings, and the combination of fact and fiction that he uses to direct (and sometimes misdirect) our ears. By the time Wallis began to paint, steam ships had all but replaced sailed boats; his art is thus a similar combination of memory and invention.   Wallis’s idiosyncratically spelled description of his work in a letter to a friend could also stand for much of Ayres’s world:
“What I do mosley is what used to bee out of my own memory what we may never see again as Thing are altered all to gether Ther is nothin what ever do not look like what it was sence I can Rember”

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle

Smetana: Overture from The Bartered Bride

Bedřich Smetata (1824-1884)
Overture from The Bartered Bride

Duration: 7'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2011

Until the 1850s Smetana was known mainly as a teacher and composer of salon music. This was frustrating for a man who had counted Liszt among his early supporters. In 1856, hearing that opportunities were easier to come by in Sweden, he left Prague for Gothenberg. There he worked as a teacher and choirmaster, while beginning to write large-scale music that he hoped would improve his reputation. His incentives for leaving Bohemia were not entirely musical. There was no independent Czech state at this time, Bohemia being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1848 there had been an uprising in Prague against the conservative and repressive regime. Smetana had briefly participated in this revolt. After its failure, the political climate became even more poisonous, and so it was wise for someone with nationalist sentiments to seek a life elsewhere. In 1857 Smetana visited his old mentor Liszt in Weimar. While there he met the Austrian conductor Johann von Herbeck. Herbeck commented that in his opinion the Czech people were incapable of producing a distinct national music. This incensed Smetana, and he determined to prove Herbeck wrong: “I swore there and then that no other than I should beget a native Czech music.” This provocation was to prove the making of Smetana. By the 1860s the political climate was thawing slightly in Prague, and Smetana decided to return. He was encouraged by the news that an opera house was to be built there, and saw this as an opportunity to create an authentic Czech musical style. First he had to overcome a rather unfortunate handicap: he did not actually speak Czech very well. As a subject of Austria he had been educated almost entirely in German, and had to work hard to gain fluency in what was supposed to be his native language. Eventually he improved enough to gain a job as a music critic. Meanwhile he composed his opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, on the subject of the invasion of Prague by Otto of Brandenburg in the 13th century. The Brandenburgers was a hit, and the opera house readily accepted Smetana’s next opera for performance, a light comedy called The Bartered Bride. Its première in 1866 was less successful. This was partly due to the fact that Prague was under threat of invasion by the Prussian army, a tense situation that would shortly explode into war. However, after revisions The Bartered Bride was restaged in 1870. This time it was a huge success. It quickly established itself as the Czech national opera, and was a great inspiration to the nascent independence movement. The distinct rhythms and inflections of the Czech language and Czech folk dances were an important part of the style of the music, and this is heard to great effect in the bustling overture, which unusually was the first part of the opera to be written.

Note © 2011 by Peter Nagle.