Performance Saturday, October 27, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Copland’s stirring tribute to rural America and the bullish spirit of its settlers kicks off the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s only New York appearance this season. Two powerful works for chorus and soloists follow: Bernstein’s tuneful Chichester Psalms, which echo the rhythmic freshness of West Side Story, and Walton’s oratorio about the fall of a Babylonian king. There’s no one better to lead all this than Robert Spano, who captures the drama in everything he conducts.
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The Program


Appalachian Spring Suite

The first collaboration by dancer-choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991) and composer Aaron Copland took place in 1931. Graham selected Copland's Piano Variations (1930) as music to accompany a dance piece entitled Dithyramb. Copland and Graham, who enjoyed a profound mutual respect, looked forward to other joint projects. However, the next opportunity did not occur until 1942, when Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge first saw Graham dance. Coolidge invited Graham to create and stage three new ballets for the 1943 season of the Festival of the Coolidge Foundation, which was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. For the event, Graham commissioned music by three contemporary composers: Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland.

Graham herself chose the title for Copland's ballet from a poem by Hart Crane. Copland began work on the score in June 1943, while in Hollywood. Because of various delays, the premiere of Appalachian Spring (as well as the Hindemith and Milhaud ballets) did not occur until October 30, 1944 (Copland finished his score in June, 1944, while at Cambridge, Massachusetts). Graham and Erick Hawkins danced the principal roles.

Copland scored the original ballet for a chamber group of 13 instruments. He later arranged an orchestral suite for a larger ensemble, although one still remarkable for its lean and transparent sonority. In 1945, Appalachian Spring won both the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the Music Critics' Circle of New York award for outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-1945 season.

The Story of Appalachian Spring

The score of Appalachian Spring contains the following plot synopsis, fashioned by Edwin Denby and approved by Copland. The story concerns

a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

Copland on Appalachian Spring

The suite is divided into eight sections that are performed without pause. The composer offered the following program notes for the suite's 1945 premiere:

1. Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.
2. Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A-major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both exalted and religious gives the keynote to this scene.
3. Moderate. Duo for the Bride and her Intended-scene of tenderness and passion.
4. Quite fast. The revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings-suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.
5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride-presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.
6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scenes reminiscent of the introduction.
7. Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published later under the title The Gift to Be Simple. The melody I borrowed and used almost literally is called "Simple Gifts."

'Tis the gift to be simple
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right
'Twill be in the valley
Of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

8. Moderate. Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left "quiet and strong in their new house." Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. We hear a last echo of the principal theme sung by the flute and a solo violin. The close is reminiscent of the opening music.

Ken Meltzer

 © 2012 Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Chichester Psalms

During the 1964-1965 season, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a post he assumed in 1958. Bernstein hoped that the sabbatical would afford him a greater opportunity to devote his energies to composition. Bernstein's major venture was a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Greena musical based upon Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. However, by January 1965, it was clear that the project would not come to fruition. Bernstein wrote to composer David Diamond: "The wounds are still smarting. I am suddenly a composer without a project, with half of that golden sabbatical down the drain. Never mind, I'll survive."

During the sabbatical period, Bernstein also experimented with "12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out; but after about six months of work I threw it all away. It just wasn't my music. It wasn't honest. The end result was the CHICHESTER PSALMS ..."

In 1964, Bernstein received a commission from Dr. Walter Hussey, Dean of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England, to compose a new work for its summer music festival. Hussey advised Bernstein that "it is not really possible to have a full symphony orchestra for reasons of space and expense and the fact that the combined strength of the three Cathedral (Chichester, Winchester, and Salisbury) Choirs is about 70 to 75." Bernstein's score employs a reduced orchestra that excludes winds.

Bernstein composed his Chichester Psalms in Manhattan during the spring of 1965, completing the work on May 7. The Cathedral graciously allowed Bernstein to conduct the premiere not at Chichester, but at a July 15 New York Philharmonic concert. That performance featured a chorus of male and female voices. On July 31, the first performance of the composer's preferred original version-with a male choir-took place in Chichester.

In describing the structure of the Chichester Psalms, the composer observed, "The work is in three movements, lasting about 18 and a half minutes, and each movement contains one complete psalm plus one or more verses from another complementary psalm by way of contrast or amplification."

Bernstein characterized his Chichester Psalms as "the most accessible, B-flat-majorish tonal piece I've ever written. If one is trying to find optimism versus pessimism in my music, the closest musical equivalent is tonality versus non-tonality." And in a poem written at the conclusion of Bernstein's New York Philharmonic sabbatical, he offered this affectionate tribute:

These psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads and E-flat major.
But there it stands-the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet,
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.

Ken Meltzer


 © 2012 Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Belshazzar's Feast

In late 1929, the BBC approached William Walton with the prospect of commissioning a new work. Walton accepted the BBC's limitations on performing forces, including a "small chorus, small orchestra not exceeding 15, and soloist." Walton decided to collaborate with British writer Osbert Sitwell on a setting of an episode from the Book of Daniel. During a feast, the Babylonian King Belshazzar witnesses a hand appear and write on the wall the prophesy of his demise. Sitwell fashioned a libretto out of excerpts from the Book of Daniel, supplemented by lines from the Book of Isaiah  and the Book of Revelation, and Psalms 137 and 81.

Initial progress on Belshazzar's Feast was slow. But by September 1930, Walton and the BBC agreed that Belshazzar had expanded far beyond the agreed-upon performing forces. In the early portion of 1931, it was announced that Walton's Belshazzar's Feast would premiere at the Leeds Festival that October.

The director of the Leeds Festival was the great British conductor Thomas Beecham. Sir Thomas, never one to mince words, told Walton: "As you'll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands?" As part of the festival, Beecham was conducting Berlioz's epic Requiem; thus, extra brass players would be on hand. Walton agreed with Beecham's suggestion, and added two brass ensembles, each of which comprised three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, and positioned left and right of the conductor. The premiere of Belshazzar's Feast was a triumph for the young Walton. Adrian Boult conducted the London premiere in Queen's Hall on November 25; again, it was a great success.

Belshazzar's Feast is a remarkable achievement, even more so given that it was William Walton's first large choral composition. It is one of the most dramatic and compelling choral works ever written, one that grips the listener from first note to last. Perhaps English writer and critic Neville Cardus summed it up best when, after the world premiere, he described Belshazzar's Feast as "a clear case of red-hot conception instinctively finding the right and equally red-hot means of expression."

Ken Meltzer


© 2012 Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA 

$10 student rush tickets available in the balcony, center balcony, dress circle, and parquet.
This concert and the Choral Classics series are made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for choral music established by S. Donald Sussman in memory of Judith Arron and Robert Shaw.
This performance is part of Choral Classics.

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