Lisa Pegher, percussion
Overture to The School for Scandal, Op. 5
Richard Sheridan’s (1751-1816) madcap comedy of manners, The School for Scandal, has delighted (and scandalized) audiences ever since it premiered in 1777. Samuel Barber, all his life an avid reader of literature, composed his overture not as a prelude to the play, but rather: “as a musical reflection of the play’s spirit.”
The overture was Barber’s first completed work for full orchestra. He composed the bulk of it while vacationing in Italy during the summer of 1931, tossing it off between tennis matches, swimming, bicycle trips, shopping expeditions and other vacation activities. It was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933.
The Overture, in classical sonata form, opens with a sneering fanfare (perhaps in “tribute” to the play’s principal female villain, Lady Sneerwell).
The fanfare sets in motion a scurrying, tonally ambiguous theme, suggestive of the nefarious scandal mongering and plotting of Lady Sneerwell, her hireling, Snake, and arch hypocrite, Sir Joseph Surface.
The contrasting second theme, a sentimental melody introduced by the oboe perhaps represents the play’s principal innocent, Maria, who is in love with Charles Surface and is being pursued by Sir Benjamin Backbite.
There are innumerable rapid changes in tempo, dynamics and meter changes as the two themes are developed, in one place seven changes within 30 measures, a representation of the complexity of a plot driven by the webs of deceit woven by six of the principal characters.
Percussion Concerto: The Wounded Healer
Richard Danielpour appears to have little use for much of the mid-twentieth-century music. In an interview for the Sony recording of his Concerto for Orchestra, he stated that some of the post-World War II music “…was made with very little sense of its own internal memory. None of the ideas that were presented came back in any recognizable form…This branch of composers also seemed to be avoiding any association with music written before its time. There was no stylistic or historic continuity. But the music that has meant most to me over the last 60 years has come from a different place – Copland, Shostakovich, Britten, Bartók and Stravinsky – which had a connection with the past and a sense of extending that path forward.”
Danielpour composed The Percussion Concerto in 2016 for percussionist Lisa Pegher with a commission from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The title, The Wounded Healer references the work of both mythographers (particularly Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero of a Thousand Faces) and the psychological theories of Karl Jung. Danielpour’s website offers a Jungian explanation of the premise of this Concerto:
The “Wounded Healer ” archetype is initiated into the art of healing through some form of personal hardship — anything from an actual physical injury or illness to the loss of all one’s earthly possessions. The Wounded Healer archetype emerges in your psyche with the demand that you push yourself to a level of inner effort that becomes more a process of transformation than an attempt to heal an illness. If you have successfully completed the initiation, you inevitably experience an exceptional healing, and a path of service seems to be divinely provided shortly after the initiation is complete.”
The mythological element is apparent in the titles of four of the five movements, each one focusing on a different instrument combination: The Prophet (glockenspiel), The Trickster (marimba), The Martyr (glockenspiel), The Shaman (drum set with suspended cymbals). The final movement, This Year, is cadenza for drum set. The archetypal figures for each movement appear in mythologies from Native American, to Greek, to Hindu traditions. The Prophet is a Cassandra figure, crucial for his or her culture’s survival, but disbelieved or ignored. The Trickster achieves ascendance through lying and shape shifting; The Martyr self-sacrifices for the good of the community. And the shaman drives out evil forces through ceremony and “magic.” Through any or all of these manifestations, the hero heals both personal and community wounds through transcendent self-knowledge and suffering. The different instrumentation for the soloist suggests this process, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra mirrors the relationships between the individual and the community.
Some of the repertoire’s greatest concertos involved collaboration between composer and soloist – often because the former needed to better understand the technical parameters of the solo instrument(s). Lisa Pegher’s input was – and remains – central to the “process of invention.” Pegher and Danielpour see percussion as a legitimate solo instrument, “…trying to find ways to get percussion to be respected the way a solo violin is.”
“The segmented movements of the new percussion concerto are based on different guises and faces that the Wounded Healer might show up as across different cultures. [the soloist] has taken on the role of these characters in order to bring them to life on stage. Each performance embodies one or all of the characters as part of the live show.”
A graduate from the New England Conservatory and the Juilliard School of Music, Danielpour is currently on the composition faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute. He is one of the most prolific contemporary composers and has written works for many artists, including Dawn Upshaw, Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma and the Emerson Quartet.
From Symphonic Sketches: III. Hobgoblin
Nineteenth-century Boston was the intellectual capital of the United States. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the city’s crowning cultural institution. Not surprisingly, American classical music was birthed there as well. In music, if not in letters, however, there ran a transatlantic umbilical cord. According to music historian Joseph Horowitz, America was a paid-up member of “the cult of Beethoven.”
Bostonian composer, teacher, conductor, pianist and organist George Whitefield Chadwick was a leading figure in the development of classical music in the United States. During his lifetime, he was highly regarded as a composer. He was also an influential teacher and was largely responsible for modernizing the New England Conservatory. Born in Lowell, MA, Chadwick studied music–contrary to his father’s wishes–and as a teenager worked as an organist to raise funds for his music studies. In his early twenties, he spent three years studying in Leipzig, Germany. Although he was not prolific, he composed in all genres, including six operas, three symphonies and five string quartets. In 1897, Chadwick assumed the directorship of the New England Conservatory where teaching and administrative duties limited his output.
Chadwick composed the four Symphonic Sketches between 1895 and 1904. Each movement is prefaced by a line of poetry that sets the mood for the music. Hobgoblin’s preface comes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is marked Scherzo capriccioso:
That shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Good-fellow
Chadwick’s take on Shakespeare’s fairyland is not as effervescent as Mendelssohn’s. Whereas the older composer used a lightweight ensemble of upper winds, Chadwick employs a heavier orchestral sound. The movement is based on two themes, to which the composer adds eerie chromatic embellishments. In the opening motive of the Scherzo, he gives the horn one of its traditional roles symbolizing nocturnal, extramarital skullduggery (from the Italian “cornuto,” or cuckold).
The main theme is a whirling dance in fast triple time.
Rather than presenting the usual contrast, the Trio maintains the same mood, transforming the horn theme into a little fugue.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
The year 1806 was an extremely productive one for Beethoven. Early that year the composer worked on revising his opera Fidelio, which had failed miserably the year before. He also embarked on an astonishing number of masterpieces: the three Razumovsky String Quartets, the Appassionata Sonata, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven had started first on the stormy Fifth Symphony, sketches for which survive from as early as 1804, but put it aside to work on the Fourth, which he finished in early 1807. While the two symphonies are vastly different in mood, one of the interesting connections between them is the descending interlocking thirds that open both works, part of a tense and somber introduction in the Fourth, that morphs into a nervous percussiveness in the Fifth. The Fourth Symphony was premiered in March at a private all-Beethoven concert that also included the premieres of the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Coriolan Overture and netted the composer a tidy sum.
While the Symphony’s shape is traditionally classical, looking back to Haydn, the music is unmistakably Beethoven. The extremely slow introduction of 38 measures baffled his contemporaries: “Every quarter of an hour we hear three or four notes. It is exciting!” quipped composer and conductor Carl Maria von Weber.
The contrasting Allegro is one of Beethoven’s most buoyant movements, with the music cascading like a rushing waterfall. There is a tremendous buildup of tension before the return to the original theme, starting pianissimo and gradually rises to a double forte, a passage that amazed even such later musical iconoclasts as Hector Berlioz.
The symphony’s exuberance is sustained throughout, the only contrast being the second movement. This Adagio, featuring timpani and clarinets, begins with an elegant cantabile theme set to an accompaniment of quiet dotted rhythm in the strings, but the sudden outburst of hammered cadence conjures echoes of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony.
The timpani, now carrying the little rhythmic motive, subside into the background but the little motive remains, like an underlying heartbeat, the unifying force behind an outpouring of new melodies. After a passionate middle section with a new rhythmic motive sustaining it, featuring a solo clarinet,
Beethoven returns to a varied version of the opening section in the classic ternary ABA’ form of most slow movements of the period.
The Scherzo retains the theme of contrasting dynamics by setting the upper winds and violins against the full orchestra and timpani.
In a mildly unusual move for the time, Beethoven repeats the Trio, a lilting oboe solo.
He finishes up with a much-abbreviated additional repeat of the Scherzo.
The Finale is unusual in that it is a classic sonata form – but on speed. Like the Adagio, there is a constant rhythmic pulse in the background, here a driving perpetuum mobile.
In actuality, the entire Symphony abounds in exclamation points, created in many cases by Beethoven’s extensive use of the timpani to contrast with quiet or legato passages. There’s even a surprise in the coda. With Beethoven, as with his mentor, Haydn, one should always expect the unexpected.