Monthly Archives: January 2015



“Gustoso ” Program Notes

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, January 25, 2015

by Sherry Campbell Bechtold

“All that is important in this one moment is movement.  Make the moment important, vital, and worth living.  Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” – Martha Graham, Choreographer

Kenneth Fuchs, Discover the Wild

 Fuchs is a contemporary American composer, born in 1956, who received his B.A. in Music from the University of Miami, and went on to complete his masters and doctorate work at Juilliard. His compositions include works for orchestra, band, chorus, and various chamber ensembles. A cursory survey of his compositions is impressive, but my interest was piqued by those whose inspiration came from literature – including novels and poetry by John Updike, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Yeats.  A particularly notable work is his transcendent composition Falling Man, based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, evoking the very personal tragedies that unfolded in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster.

Tonight’s offering is Discover the Wild, a bright, engaging opening which expands to a beautiful, lyrical, almost cinemagraphic romantic second theme. The third section weaves the first themes with a fresh approach and ends with a light, optimistic finish. Notice the variety of percussion instruments and textures throughout.

Though this composer and his music may be new for many in our audience, there is a comfortable familiarity to our ears with influences of Copland, and other popular contemporary American composers. Don’t be surprised if you hear passages that bring to mind one of your favorites!

Manuel de Falla, El sombrero de tres picos Ste. No. 1 & 2

Born in Cadiz, Spain in 1876, Manuel de Falla is the most distinguished Spanish composer of the early 20th century. This reputation is largely attributed to two Iberian ballet scores: El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician), which includes the popular “Ritual Fire Dance”, and El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) which he wrote for the Ballet Russes.

With regional success in his early career in Madrid, particularly for Andalusian Flamenco, de Falla moved in 1907 to Paris, where he lived for seven years and discovered the world of French composers Debussy and Ravel. The profound influence of these years inspired his first piano pieces and songs, and gained him status among international Impressionist composers. His exposure to Stravinsky during this time also inspired the incorporation of neoclassic style in later compositions. De Falla is still considered ‘hard to classify’ as either Impressionist or Neo-Classic.

Formally retired in 1926, having produced a relatively small body of highly regarded work, de Falla was able to remain apolitical during the Spanish Civil War, living in Granada and continuing to work at a lesser pace. Following Franco’s victory in 1939, de Falla moved to Argentina, where he taught, worked on his pet project Atlantica, adamantly refused requests to return to Spain and died in 1946.

On tonight’s program, we are treated to two Suites from El sombrero de tres picos.  Based on a novella, which involves a powerful magistrate who has a lustful eye for a humble miller’s wife, the story is a humorous tale of flirtation, disguise, reconciliation and comeuppance. The Spanish–inflected music is filled with colorful folk tunes, sultry Latin attitudes, sharp Spanish rhythms, fanfares, birdcalls, soaring string melodies – all designed to tell the story in dance.

Aram Khachaturian, Spartacus, Ste. No.2

Born to poor Armenian parents in Tbillsi, Georgia, June 6, 1903, Khachaturian showed early musical prodigy that eventually opened the doors to the Moscow Conservatory, an introduction to Sergei Prokofiev and the beginning of a prolific career. Though his brightest talent was expressed in symphonic composition, he also made significant contributions to the ballet, dramatic plays and films. The composer was among those who walked the fine line of approval and critique from the Stalin regime. Ironically, his first ballet Happiness was reworked during World War II as the patriotic ballet Gayaneh, with its famous “Sabre Dance.”

In 1954, Khachaturian wrote the ballet music for Spartacus, loosely telling the story of the slave uprising against the Romans and its heroic leader. It was staged three times before the 1968 version secured its place as one of the composer’s greatest popular works and one of the best ballets of the 20th century. The sweeping, lush main theme is familiar and beloved.

Joseph-Maurice Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe, Suite #2

Ravel was born in 1875 in the Basque town of Ciborne, France, near the Spanish border, and his mother had grown up in Madrid. Though his family moved to France when he was an infant, the Spanish influence in his music is apparent. Ravel was among the most prominent French composers considered Impressionist, a style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term is also applied to the compositions of Debussy, DuParc, de Falla in Spain and John Ireland in England, and is linked to the art of Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. True in both the art and music worlds, Impressionism is evocative of moods, atmospheres and feelings – one could say that the music ‘sounds like’ the art and the art ‘looks like the music”.

Ravel is known particularly for his melodies, masterful orchestration, rich harmonies and inventive instrumental effects.  Perhaps best known of his compositions is Bolero, originally composed for ballet, which the composer described as “a piece for orchestra without music” and is instantly recognizable by its incessant theme, which is repeated throughout the piece and intentionally is never ‘developed’.

The Greek tale of Daphnis and Chloe involves a boy and a girl who are abandoned by their parents and raised by shepherds. The two meet and gradually fall in love as they grow up. After various trials, the two are reunited with their families and married to each other. This popular story was the main source for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and inspired many musical compositions.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe was commissioned in the early 1900s by the Ballet Russes and its wildly successful impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Igor Stravinsky called the work “one of the most beautiful products of all French Music”. Tonight we will hear Suite #2 from the ballet, which Ravel remarked was his ‘most important score’. This is a work of lush harmonies typical of the Impressionist style.  Listen for the familiar strains borrowed for the writing of  “You can see forever” from the musical On a Clear Day.

Program Notes are the property of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra are posted here by permission from the Orchestra and the author.  Photograph credits: Steve Lineberry













Program Notes

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, January 11, 2015

by Sherry Campbell Bechtold

 George Gershwin, Cuban Overture

“True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time.  My people are Americans and my time is today.” – George Gershwin

Gershwin was born in Brooklyn NY in 1898, the second son of Russian immigrants. When he was 12, his parents bought a piano for his older brother Ira, but it was George who showed the greater musical talent. As a high school ‘drop-out’, Gershwin went to work as a “song plugger”, demonstrating new sheet music for prospective buyers on Tin Pan Alley. At 17, he cut his first piano rolls and began to compose songs.  At 19, he got a job as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway, and quickly became a Broadway composer.  His big break was Swanee, which he wrote with Irving Caesar and which was recorded by Al Jolson. Swanee was the biggest song hit of the composer’s entire career. By his mid 20’s George and his brother Ira became a team and produced the Broadway Musical hit LADY BE GOOD, and went on to write the scores of some of Broadway’s most successful musicals of the day. Their political satire OF THEE I SING was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Price for drama.

In 1924, Gershwin composed RHAPSODY IN BLUE, which introduced his hallmark style of integrating jazz elements with classical structure and established his credentials as a serious composer.

His subsequent CONCERTO IN F brought him to Europe and into the company of several prominent European classical composers; this exposure led to his first large-scale piece without piano, the tone poem An American in Paris, a commission for the New York Philharmonic.  In 1935, the Gershwin brothers opened their “American folk opera” PORGY AND BESS on Broadway, which ran 124 performances and never recouped its investment.  A year later, the pair settled into the Hollywood scene and wrote the songs for SHALL WE DANCE, A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS and THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES.

George Gershwin died at the tender age of 38, following surgery for a brain tumor. His abbreviated life was consumed with music. Perhaps due to an awareness of his lack of formal musical training, he never stopped studying theory, composition, conducting and orchestration. He did enjoy his hobby of painting and his later works are well-regarded in the world of art. Despite his elegant social demeanor and popularity, he spent his time at parties seated at the piano and he never married.

Tonight’s performance of Gershwin’s CUBAN OVERTURE, originally entitled RUMBA, is a symphonic overture – or tone poem. It was composed in 1932, after a two-week holiday in Havanna from which the composer returned with rhythms in his head and Cuban percussion instruments under his arm.

The work represents a giant leap forward in the composer’s symphonic music, in its harmonic sophistication and orchestration. The overture is dominated by Caribbean rhythms and Cuban native percussion instruments, which he noted should be ‘set right in front of the conductor’s stand’. Rich, exciting, and complex, the work’s main theme was influenced by a then current hit “Échale Salsita” and, as the composer intended, “embodies the essence of Cuban dance”.

The work premiered on August 16, 1932, at the first all-Gershwin concert at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium before an enthusiastic crowd of almost 18,000 people, with 5,000 turned away. It was a huge success, with audiences and critics alike. About the performance, Gershwin wrote, “It was, I really believe, the most exciting night I have ever had!”

Tonight we will hear what the excitement was all about!

Leonard Bernstein, WEST SIDE STORY Symphonic Dances

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

The New York Times called Leonard Bernstein “Music’s Monarch…one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American History.”  Born August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bernstein fell in love with the piano as a child, earning his own money to pay for lessons. He showed such passion and aptitude, his father was moved to support his desire for a life in music. He attended Boston Latin School, was a graduate of Harvard in 1939, studied at Tanglewood under Serge Koussevitsky, and returned less than a decade later to become head of its orchestral and conducting departments. He was Music Director of the NYC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, where he led more concerts than any previous conductor and, among other endeavors, ran his renowned Young People’s Concerts.

Bernstein’s compositions span works for the concert hall, Broadway stage, ballet, opera and film. Among his long list of honors, he received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1985. He was a strong advocate for American composers, a humanitarian, philanthropist and active, outspoken advocate for world peace. Also an author, his book “The Joy of Music” is a must read for any music lover.

Fragile health since childhood in no way inhibited the Music Monarch’s ambition, commitment and productivity. Performing almost to the end, he died at the of 72 of a heart attack caused by progressive lung failure.

Leonard Bernstein’s astounding career can hardly be touched in a few hundred words. It is worthwhile for any appreciator to explore his contributions to the American music landscape.

West Side Story

A contemporary telling of Shakespeare’s ROMEO and JULIET, set in New York City during a time of gang rivalry, WEST SIDE STORY was a whole new thing on the Broadway scene in 1957 – revolutionary, different in style and content, pushing the boundaries of musicals to a new art form and setting a new standard for musical theatre. Original and innovative as it was then, the music, Latin rhythms, fantastic innovative dance, romance and drama that is WEST SIDE STORY has become indelibly woven into our culture.

Bernstein’s melodies, Steven Sondheim’s lyrics, Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Arthur Laurents’ book– the cohesive amalgamation that we have come to love and revere – was a collaboration hard-won. It took years to manifest, the concept shelved, resurrected – again and again – finally finding its way to Tony and Maria, the Sharks and the Jets. It was Hal Prince who picked up the gauntlet, ignoring the naysayers in his decision to produce WEST SIDE STORY, after others had shied away and strongly urged him to do the same.

Bernstein himself said, “Everyone told us that it was an impossible project … the score was too rangy for pop music … and who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on the stage… then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the actors had to be able not only to sing but dance and act and be taken for teenagers!”

Despite the formidable odds, the team persisted. The pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C. was a critical and commercial success, followed by moving to New York, where it won several Tony Awards, ran for 732 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre, went on tour, then returned to Winter Garden in 1960 for another 253 performances. The film version in 1961 brought the masterpiece to people who had never seen a live Broadway production and won 10 Academy Awards.

Tonight’s performance is a suite of orchestral music from the show that was prepared by Maestro Bernstein in 1961. We will hear strains of the Rumble, Mambo, Cool, Maria, Somewhere, and other familiar melodies that evoke the thrill of the entire theatrical experience. It is truly wonderful!

Program Notes are the property of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra are posted here by permission from the Orchestra and the author.  Photograph credits: Steve Lineberry




Program Notes

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, December 7, 2014

by Sherry Campbell Bechtold

Carl Nielsen, Symphony No.3, op. 27 (Sinfonia espansiva)

Nielsen was one of 12 children, born in 1865 to parents of modest means on Funen, the “garden island” of Denmark (also the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen). His musical experience began when, at the age of 6, he was bedridden with measles. His mother took one of his father’s violins off the wall and gave it to the boy to keep him occupied. He began composing at 9, attended the Royal Conservatory in Copenhagen on scholarship, and worked as a professional musician for years before the success of the first of his popular symphonies in 1896 truly launched his composing career. He worked incessantly both conducting and composing throughout his life, ignoring signals from his body to slow down.  In October of 1931, he was finally hospitalized against his will, forced to lie in bed and listen on the radio to a substitute conductor perform a concert of his music. He died a day later and all of Denmark mourned the loss. At his funeral, his wife commented that his nature “never stagnated, was always on the move….it was running water.”

Nielsen named his Symphony #3 ‘Espansivo’, perhaps referring to the international breakthrough it represented for the composer. Many have speculated what other meaning was implied in the name; biographer Robert Simpson has written that it suggests the ‘outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it’ and Nielsen’s belief that ‘great art, although forged from the private fires that burn inside an artist, seeks to grow beyond its origin and contribute to humanity’s collective experience.’

This explanation seems consistent with the composer’s philosophy and certainly his ideas of movement and organic development are embodied gloriously in this work. We feel as though we are on his “garden island” – a fresh wind from the sea, capturing and carrying the fragrances of flowers, orchards, trees in a vast waltz, always moving and transforming, leading to new variations and new motifs.  We hear the wordless voices of two soloists, soprano and baritone, intermingling with the forces of nature, as they soothe and calm the temperamental wind.

Even as the third movement quickens the heartbeat with its building sense of urgency, in the end the clouds part and the sun shines once again. We are reassured and left with an uplifting feeling of peace and exhilaration.

Giuseppe Martucci,  Notturno,No. 1, op.70

Born in the Campania region of Italy, Martucci was a child prodigy performing at the age of 8, and a student at the Naples Conservatory at 11. Although he began to compose as a teenager, concentrating on instrumental music and songs, he is best known for his work as a pianist, conductor and educator (Ottorino Respighi was his student). Atypical of Italian composers, Martucci wrote no opera and was influential in reviving Italy’s interest in non-operatic music, in particular giving exposure to the music of Debussy, Berlioz and Wagner.

The great conductor Arturo Toscanini performed many of Martucci’s works with the NBC Symphony Orchestra between 1938 ad 1952. Last season, we recall Maestro Ponti introduced this audience to the composer with the performance of his Symphony #1.

The Notturno we hear tonight was originally written for piano in 1891, followed by the enchanting full orchestral version in 1901. It has become his most widely performed work. Musicologists and critics have described this piece as ‘delicate’, ‘refined’, bittersweet’, ‘tasteful sentimentality’, ‘smooth Italian lyricism’, evoking ‘a mood of wistful introspection’. All of these words are certainly suitable….but ‘deliciously gorgeous’ feels right to me.

Ottorino Respighi, Feste Romane, P. 157 (Roman Festivals)

Respighi learned piano and violin from his father in his childhood home of Bologna in the 1880’s. His musical studies continued throughout his youth with a number of notable teachers in Italy and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia. Well into his career as composer and conductor, he was appointed as teacher of composition at the Conservatorio de Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he lived the rest of his life. His body of work is an impressive mixture of Orchestral, Chamber, Vocal/Choral, Opera, Ballet and Orchestral, for which he is best known. His crowning glory is the spectacular trilogy of tone poems: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, the third and most ambitious of the three and the thrilling conclusion of tonight’s concert.

Written toward the end of his career, Respighi said that this work represented his “maximum of orchestral sonority and color” and upon its completion stated “I do not think I shall write any more scores of this kind.”

Opposed to the settings of Fountains and Pines, which are a sparkling tour of modern day Rome, Festivals graphically depicts scenes dating back to antiquity and brings us to the traditional celebrations that have survived millennia. The first movement Circuses brings us to the arena, gladiators, trumpet fanfares and the violence of pitting beasts against man. In the second movement, we experience the Papal tradition of Jubilee, celebrated every 50 years since 1300. It is easy to imagine being with the pilgrimage to a sacred site at the top of a hill, enjoying a breath-taking view of Rome with church bells ringing in the background. Harvest of October paints the scene of harvest and the hunt,  a French horn solo signifies day’s end and a mandolin plays a serenade in the twilight.

Finally, we celebrate Epiphany in the Piazza Navona with trumpets once again raising a riot of Roman songs and dance, food and drink. Notice the solo tenor trombone and envision a reveler who has stayed a bit too long at the party!

Program Notes are the property of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra are posted here by permission from the Orchestra and the author.  Photograph credits: Steve Lineberry




Program Notes

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, November 16, 2014

by Sherry Campbell Bechtold

 “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” Victor Hugo

La Forza del Destino, Overture

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was born in Italy in 1813 and is regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 19th century.  He considered himself to be a ‘theatre composer’, and gave the world some of the most beloved operas of all time. He lived a vibrant and successful life doing the work he loved, but was not without his share of heartache.  At the age of 27, mourning the devastating loss of his 2 children and wife, he prepared to retire from composition. Fortunately he was persuaded by a dear friend to continue. Perhaps fueled by his personal experience of powerlessness in the face of fate, he chose to bring to the operative stage a melodramatic libretto by Franceso Maria Piave – a complex plot of starcrossed lovers, curses, war, disguise, death, debts of honor, and redemption. Above all, La Forza del Destino is a tale of the power of Fate.  Verdi’s sublime musical score dramatizes the story’s message that, whatever our choices as mere mortals, we cannot avoid our destiny – that what may appear to be ‘coincidences’, though at times incredulous, are simply meant to be.

The thrilling Overture, opening tonight’s program, grabs the listener immediately with the famous and intentionally haunting Fate Theme, which rises to the surface again and again, weaving insidiously in and out of the gorgeous melodies that carry the characters forward as their story unfolds.  There is a breathtaking urgency that drives the Overture, at times giving way to a false sense of upcoming resolution, a promise of peace, the possibility of escape from what we were warned at the outset – there is no avoiding the power of destiny.

Symphony #1, op.10 F minor

Dmitri Shostakovich

At 19, young Dmitri composed his first symphony as a graduation exercise from Maximilian Steinberg’s composition class at Petrograd Conservatory. The success of its debut performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malkko on May 12, 1926 catapulted Shostakovich to international recognition.  But, this was a time of upheaval in Russia, the establishment of the Soviet Union and an oppressive regime.  Very quickly, the composer’s works became viewed as inconsistent with communist values. He was named an “Enemy of the People”, thus beginning almost 30 years of a mercurial relationship with Stalin (alternating between condemnation and reward) which profoundly affected his health, personal life and, of course, his music.

But, Shostakovich was a survivor. Despite the stifling political climate, he remained prolific, eventually completing 14 additional symphonies, as well as opera, ballet and concerti. No doubt his sense of humor, keen intelligence and fascination with human nature enabled him to walk a fine line – composing to both appease powers that he could not ignore as well as satisfy the creative drive that was his gift.

Symphony #1 feels both biographic and prophetic, with an opening full of light, expressing the composer’s characteristic wit – the playful energy of youth, childhood home, piano lessons with mother.  Subtly the mood begins to shift, hinting of challenging times and growing awareness, finally gravitating to drama and tragedy – a foreboding of the heartbreaking changes in his homeland and things to come that he could not have known, but must have sensed.

Symphony #7, op. 70, D minor

Anton Dvorak

 When we think of Dvorak, we visualize lively folk dances in a Czech village. Such was the fertile cultural soil that nurtured this much loved composer.  His deep roots in the lore and traditions of Bohemia were descriptive of and confined to his homeland in his early works, and continued to be woven throughout his music his entire life. At 30, with the influence and connections of his mentor Brahms, his recognition spread quickly throughout Germany, Austria and England.  In 1892, he moved to the United States and became director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. While in the U.S., Dvorak wrote his two most successful orchestral works – The Symphony From the New World and his highly regarded Cello Concerto.  Eventually, his heart pulled him back to his beloved Bohemia in 1895.

The composition of the 7th Symphony was a response to a commission from The London Philharmonic Society in 1885.  Dvorak was very motivated at that time to expand his international audience and hoped this new symphony would “make a stir in the world”.  Perhaps even more important, the man was in the midst of personal tragedy – the recent death of his mother and of his close friend and colleague Smetana. Within this emotional environment, which he described as “of doubt and obstinacy, silent sorrow” came forth a work of dramatic departure, an exquisite expression of this critical juncture in the composer’s life.

The first movement establishes a crisis, a disturbance amidst the familiar comfort of folk melodies, and ends with heavy sadness, even despondency. Deep from this sadness emerges a lament, a yearning for something beyond reach, becoming increasingly passionate before settling into profound tenderness. We find solace in the third movement, which evokes nostalgia for the countryside, happiness left behind– evolving into a frantic attempt to suppress the pain of loss which surfaces in quiet times.  The finale is a storm of anguish, reflective joy, ultimate resignation, grief, and perhaps, a promise of inner peace.

Program Notes are the property of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra are posted here by permission from the Orchestra and the author.  Photograph credits: Steve Lineberry