Program Notes: KU University & Orchestra & KU Symphony Orchestra - Oct. 21, 2021

The University of Kansas Symphony Orchestra and The University of Kansas University Orchestra

Carolyn Watson, director of orchestral activities

Frances Ho, graduate teaching assistant

Joseph Chan, assistant conductor

Lullaby Suite

George Gershwin was born in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York. He was known as a popular American composer.  Lullabywas composed around 1919 as a string quartet. It wasn’t until 1967 when the piece received its first public performance by the Juilliard String Quartet, then later premiered as a string orchestra version. Gershwin’s Lullaby blends both classical and jazz musical elements with colorful harmonies and syncopated rhythms. Listen out for the soft delicate harmonics in the first violin and the flowing cello line throughout the work. 

Estampas Nocturnas

Manuel María Ponce was a Mexican composer in the 20th century. He works as a composer, music educator and scholar of Mexican music.  Estampas Nocturnas originated as a set up piano impressions written in 1908.  It wasn’t until 1923 when Ponce expanded this version to string orchestra.  The two movements performed are strongly influenced by the harmonies and form of Mexican traditional songs.  En Tiempos del Rey Sol (In the Times of the Sun King) passes the rhythmic figure, “long- short- short,” throughout different instruments and in different registers, creating a gavotte.  Arruladora (Lullaby) features a leisurely swaying melody, providing a platform for a cello solo.     

Capriol Suite

In 1589, Thoinot Arbeau published Orchésographie, a study on sixteenth century French-ballroom dances.  The book is written as a conversation between a teacher, Arbeau, and his student, Capriol.  Jump to the early 20th century, Peter Warlock, a self taught British composer, became a respected authority on neglected music from the Elizabethan and Jacobean era.  In 1926, he selected six dances spoken of in Orchésographie and composed a suite for string orchestra.  Capriol Suite is one of Warlock’s most celebrated works. Each movement has a unique melody and character.  It begins with a stately dance, the Basse-Dance where the dancers would glide in a striding motion.  The Pavane is a solemn dance popular in Italian courts.  Bransles is a round, circle dance that was seen in country celebrations or weddings.  Pieds-en-l’air, literally feet in the air, is the most lyrical movement, and the set ends with Mattachins, a traditional sword dance.  

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Tchaikovsky approached his Fifth Symphony from a position of extreme self-doubt, nearly always his posture vis-à-vis his incipient creations. In May 1888, he confessed in a letter to his brother, Modest, that he feared his imagination had dried up, that he had nothing more to express in music. Still, there was a glimmer of hope: “I am hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.” Tchaikovsky was spending the summer of 1888 at a vacation residence he had built on a forested hillside at Frolovskoe, not a long trip from his home base in Moscow. The idyllic locale proved conducive to inspiration and apparently played a major role in helping him conquer his demons long enough to complete this symphony, which he did in four months. 

The Fifth Symphony adheres to the classic four-movement form, but the movements are unified to some degree through common reference to a “motto theme,” a sort of Berliozian idée fixe announced by the somber clarinets at the outset. Most commentators are happy to agree that this represents the idea of Fate to which Tchaikovsky referred in his prose sketch of April 1888. It will reappear often in this symphony, sometimes reworked considerably, and it certainly defines the bleak tone that governs much of the proceedings. And yet, not everything is bleak. Shafts of sunlight often cut through the shadows: hopeful secondary melodies, orchestration of illuminating brightness, rhythmic vivacity and variety, passages of balletic grace. “If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door,” wrote a commentator when the piece was new, “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.” It nearly does so in a journey that threatens to culminate in a series of climactic B major chords. But notwithstanding the frequent interruption of audience applause at that point, the adventure continues to a conclusion that is to some extent ambiguous: four closing E major chords that we may hear as triumphant but may just as easily sound ominous.

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. (July 2019)