Reflection + Wonder

Saturday, May 10, 2014 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Clinton Smith, conductor
Karin Wolverton, soprano
Sarah Mattox, mezzo-soprano

Program

Charles Ives (1874–1954)
The Unanswered Question

Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)
Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1

Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915

—intermission—

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
The Music Makers, Op. 69

About the Concert

Clinton Smith notes that Ives’ The Unanswered Question provides “quite an experience for the audience. The strings’ slowly changing chords represent the ethos, or the continuum of the universe, while solo trumpet asks the question seven times. With ever-increasing frenetic energy, four flutes represent human beings reacting to the question of existence that cannot be answered.” Faurè’s Après un rêve, “a gorgeous meditative piece originally for voice, depicts a dreamer’s longing for someone encountered in the dream.”

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 sets to music excerpts from an ode to childhood by James Agee, remembering the summer before his father’s death. Barber dedicated the work to his own father, casting a solo soprano “as a young child who sometimes acts as an adult” to “paint the nostalgia of childhood.”

Elgar’s The Music Makers quotes from a number of the composer’s previous works, most notably the “Nimrod” movement of the Enigma Variations. In their first entrance, the chorus sings, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Indeed, notes Clinton, “the performers of OSSCS are the music makers and this rarely performed masterwork provides the perfect anthem with which to conclude our initial season together.”

About the Soloists

Violinst Stephen Provine has served as co-concertmaster of Orchestra Seattle since 2004. Born in the north of England, he began studying the violin at an early age, winning many local and regional competitions. He has performed throughout Europe and the United States, including concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and in the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Promenade concert series.

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Soprano Karin Wolverton has been described by Opera News as “a young soprano to watch,” having “a lovely warm tone, easy agility and winning musicality.” She recently took on the challenging role of Anna Sörensen in the world premier of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night with Minnesota Opera and made her Carnegie Hall debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3. Last season she returned to Minnesota Opera for the premiere of Doubt. The 2013–2014 season includes her debut with Tulsa Opera as Micaëla in Carmen and appearances with the Pennsylvania Ballet for Carmina Burana and the Huntsville Symphony as Mimì in La bohème. Future engagements include a debut with the Austin Lyric Opera as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. Learn more: karinwolverton.com

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Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox is a first-prize winner of the Belle Voci National Competition and has sung principal roles with Cincinnati Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric Opera Cleveland, Eugene Opera, Amarillo Opera and many others. The Seattle Times said she “raised eyebrows all over the Opera House with her believable, lifelike acting and her well-schooled voice,” while the Akron Beacon Journal called her “a rich-toned mezzo-soprano.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer praised her “sensitive singing,…warm, expressive voice and clear diction” in concert appearances with the Seattle Symphony. Her first solo CD, Copland and Cole, with pianist Judith Cohen, features Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and an entertaining selection of Cole Porter’s lesser-known songs. Learn more: sarahmattox.com

Program Notes

Charles Ives
The Unanswered Question

Charles Ives was born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut, and died on May 19, 1954, in New York City. He completed The Unanswered Question in 1908, revising it between 1930 and 1935. Theodore Bloomfield conducted students from the Juilliard School in the first performance on May 11, 1946. The work requires 4 flutes, solo trumpet and strings.

A decade before Stravinsky and Schoenberg began shocking Europe with their groundbreaking compositions, Charles Ives was turning out equally innovative music in America—most of which would remain unheard for several decades. Ives supported himself as an insurance agent, founding one of the most successful firms in the country and pioneering the field now known as financial planning. Late at night, on weekends and during summer vacations, he devoted his time to composition.

Ives completed the first version of his most famous and most often-performed work, The Unanswered Question, in 1908, originally pairing it with another tone poem, Central Park in the Dark, calling them “Two Contemplations.” A heart attack in 1918 slowed his musical output—and by 1927 he had stopped composing altogether. Over the next several years, he revised and edited his earlier music, including The Unanswered Question, to which he applied some minor edits and affixed the following, rather enigmatic, program:

“The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent ‘The Silences of the Druids— Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.’ The trumpet intones ‘The Perennial Question of Existence,’ and states it in the same tone of voice each time…the hunt for ‘The Invisible Answer,’ undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active…‘The Fighting Answerers,’ as the time goes on, and after a ‘secret conference,’ seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock ‘The Question.’ After they disappear, ‘The Question’ is asked for the last time, and ‘The Silences’ are heard beyond in ‘Undisturbed Solitude.’ ”

Gabriel Fauré
Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1

Fauré was born May 12, 1845, in Pamiers, France, and died in Paris on November 4, 1924. He composed “Après un rêve” for voice and piano in 1878; Henri Büsser’s 1924 orchestration of the accompaniment calls for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings. Gabriel Pierné conducted the first performance of this orchestral version with soloist Yvonne Gall and the Orchestre Colonne at the Théâtre du Châtelet on January 4, 1925.

Fauré, most widely known today for his ever-popular Requiem and haunting Pavane, was a master of the mélodie, or French art song. Set to lyrics by Romain Bussine, “Après un rêve” (“After a Dream”) dates from a period shortly after the composer’s broken engagement. “The song describes with aching poignancy,” writes Jessica Duchen, “the disillusionment upon discovering that a passionate dream was merely an illusion.”

“Après un rêve” remains Fauré’s most frequently performed song, not only in its original incarnation for voice and piano, but in various instrumental guises (including a 1910 arrangement for cello and piano by Pablo Casals), jazz interpretations (the opening track of Arturo Sandoval’s 2010 CD A Time for Love) and recordings by popular artists (Barbra Streisand’s 1976 LP Classical Barbra). Shortly before Fauré’s death, a former student, Paul-Henri Büsser, showed his old teacher orchestrations of four Fauré songs, including “Après un rêve,” which we hear this evening with violin taking the solo role. “Everything that you have taken the trouble to write is perfect,” Fauré told Büsser.

Samuel Barber
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

Barber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and died January 23, 1981, in New York. He completed the first version of this work on April 4, 1947; Eleanor Steber sang the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, on April 9, 1948. A revised version, made the following year, debuted on April 1, 1950, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and is scored for solo soprano, flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, triangle, harp and strings.

In contrast to Charles Ives, Samuel Barber enjoyed early success as a composer and—although born two years after Ives had written The Unanswered Question—embraced a conservative Romantic style. While Ives finally enjoyed public acclamation in his old age, Barber fell into disfavor during his later years, after the unsuccessful premiere of his opera Antony and Cleopatra.

Although James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” first appeared in the August–September 1938 issue of The Partisan Review, Barber encountered it in January 1947. “I had always admired Mr. Agee’s writing,” Barber revealed, “and this prose-poem particularly struck me because the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home. I found out, after setting this, that Mr. Agee and I are the same age, and the year he described was 1915, when we were both five. You see, it expresses a child’s feelings of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.” The nostalgia evoked in Agee’s text was made all the more poignant by the suffering of Barber’s father and aunt from soon-to-be-fatal illnesses.

The composer took advantage of a February 1947 commission from conductor Serge Koussevitzky, setting Agee’s prose for the large forces of the Boston Symphony—despite his inclination to create a more intimate accompaniment. Unable to attend the premiere, Barber first heard the work at a rehearsal for a radio broadcast featuring Eileen Farrell with Bernard Herrmann conducting the CBS Symphony. He then set about re-orchestrating the piece, making some minor edits in the process.

“I really think it sounded better in this intimate version,” Barber wrote after the 1950 debut of the seminal American work for soprano and orchestra. Aaron Copland even lamented not having had the chance to set Agee’s text himself: “It’s just as well it happened the way it did,” he admitted, “or we wouldn’t have Sam’s beautiful score.”

Jeff Eldridge

Edward Elgar
The Music Makers, Op. 69

Elgar was born June 2, 1857, near Worcester, England, where he died on February 23, 1934. He conducted the premiere of this work at the Birmingham Triennial Festival on October 1, 1912. In addition to a contralto soloist and chorus, the work calls for triple woodwinds (including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, organ, 2 harps and strings.

The music maker upon whose work you will reflect with wonder this evening was once the “composer in ordinary” to the county lunatic asylum; converted part of a backyard outbuilding into a chemistry lab and patented a device for synthesizing hydrogen sulfide; authored an encoded note, known as the “Dorabella cipher,” whose meaning remains a mystery more than a century later; produced the famous march heard at nearly every graduation ceremony across America; was knighted in 1904 by King Edward VII; and was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1924. This versatile, self-taught English composer and conductor, Sir Edward Elgar, wrote in all the major musical forms apart from opera and, perhaps even more significantly for posterity, conducted and recorded most of his own instrumental music.

The fourth of seven children of a piano technician and music-shop owner, violinist and organist, young Edward taught himself to play the instruments available in the store and studied the sheet music as well. As a boy of about 10, he wrote music for a family play that later provided him with themes for several adult compositions. His lack of formal musical training contributed to his originality as a composer, but left him without mentors who could open for him the doors into the adamantine musical structures of his England. Fortunately, a major-general’s daughter named Caroline Alice Roberts, a writer and musician who was one of Elgar’s piano pupils, married the “tradesman class” composer in 1889, much against her family’s wishes, and devoted herself to the advancement of her husband’s career through both her practical assistance and her inextinguishable belief in his talents (“The care of a genius is enough of a life work for any woman,” she wrote in her diary).

Among Elgar’s enduring successes, which came to him relatively late, are numbered his famous Enigma Variations of 1899 (which includes the often-performed “Nimrod” variation), about which Elgar wrote: “The Enigma I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed…further, through and over the whole set [of variations] another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but is not played” (this second theme has never been discovered); the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius of 1900, which is considered the finest such work by an Englishman; and the first Pomp and Circumstance March of 1901, from which the patriotic song “Land of Hope and Glory,” the unofficial British national anthem, is derived, and the music of the middle section of which continues to accompany the entry processions of nearly all American graduating students (about this melody, Elgar told his friend Dora [“Dorabella”] Penny: “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em—knock ’em flat!…a tune like that comes once in a lifetime”). His first symphony (1908) was compared favorably to those of Beethoven, though his second has been thought by many to be his finest symphonic composition, and his cello concerto (1919) is considered his final great masterwork.

For some 33 years following Alice Elgar’s death from cancer in 1920, Elgar’s musical muse remained largely silent. The composer was made Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1928, and in 1932 he recorded his very personal 1910 violin concerto, containing, mysteriously, a “soul enshrined,” with the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin as soloist. Following his death, also from cancer, at age 76, Elgar was buried beside his wife.

“I am still at heart that dreamy child who used to be found in the reeds by the Severn side with a sheet of paper trying to fix the sounds and longing for something very great. I am still looking for this.” So wrote, in his last years, the Edward Elgar who, as a musician and person, was drawn to the wondrous realm of dreams throughout his life, and who was therefore naturally and powerfully attracted to the now-little-known “Ode” (which opens with the lines, “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams”) from the 1874 poetry collection Music and Moonlight by Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy (1844–1881), a then-popular British poet of Irish heritage who was a library transcriber and later a herpetologist at the British Museum. The poem expressed Elgar’s own belief that creative artists, who are somehow “different” and who therefore live, often in loneliness, slightly apart from other people, are humanity’s inspiration and the “movers and shakers” of history and society.

Elgar began to sketch a setting of O’Shaughnessy’s poem, to be called The Dreamers, around 1902, but a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Festival impelled the completion in the late summer of 1912 of a work of deep reflection and reminiscence, now entitled The Music Makers and dedicated to Nicholas Kilburn, an amateur musician and one of Elgar’s dearest friends. Elgar conducted the work’s premiere at the Birmingham Festival on October 1 of that year with Muriel Foster as soloist, and it gained immediate public popularity, though critics disliked the text and objected to Elgar’s incorporation into the piece of motives from some of his significant earlier works (such “selfquotation” is certainly not unknown in the compositions of others!).

This intimate but passionate work meant a great deal to its composer, who was depressed and physically unwell as he wove, beautifully, intricately and highly appropriately, the threads of his musical past into a shimmeringly colorful fabric that, he declared, allowed his bared soul to shine through. Elgar himself observed: “The atmosphere of the music is mainly sad, but there are moments of enthusiasm and bursts of joy occasionally approaching frenzy: moods which the creative artist suffers in creating or in contemplation of the unending influence of his creation. Yes suffers:—this is the only word I dare use; for even the highest ecstasy of ‘making’ is mixed with the consciousness of the somber dignity of the eternity of the artist’s responsibility.” Two undulating motives are introduced in the work’s orchestral prelude, the first nervously chromatic and restless, and the second, for the strings, more romantically lyrical. The main Enigma theme, representing the lonely composer himself through its use of the rhythm of the name “Edward Elgar,” appears before the contemplative chorus, the “music makers” themselves, enters with an “artist’s theme” that recurs throughout the work as a sort of refrain. At the word “dreams,” the “judgment” motive from The Dream of Gerontius haunts the orchestra, while Sea Pictures are briefly sketched at the words “sea breakers.” After additional Enigma quotations, the vigorous singers “fashion an empire’s glory” in the work’s second section with the help of Rule Britannia and La Marseillaise, and then “trample a kingdom down” in descending whole tones.

The march-like third section, which builds Nineveh, then tumbles Babel’s tower, and finally brings to glorious birth a new dream, concludes with a hushed choral chanting of the theme of the artists who, in Elgar’s words, “renew the world as of yore.” The orchestral prelude’s serene second theme opens the fourth section, in which the chorus inspires the soldier, king and peasant to work together in one (on a unison note) to realize a dream upon a pedal point’s foundation. The contralto soloist next meditates on the prelude’s second theme until the appearance of Enigma’s “Nimrod” variation, in which the chorus joins the high-soaring soloist in a tribute to Elgar’s deceased friend A.J. Jaeger, whose unfaltering belief in the composer’s greatness brought undying light and “wrought flame on another man’s heart,” these words being accompanied by music from the finale of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2.

In the work’s frenetic sixth section, the soloist enlists the choral multitudes in the thrilling fulfillment of the music makers’ dream; the rapturous proclamation of the “artist’s theme” swells into a fugato that soon dissipates into somber musings by soloist and chorus upon the more melancholy aspects of the dream. The orchestra reintroduces the prelude’s uncertain initial theme as the seventh section begins, but soon the music makers’ dreaming and singing sway and sweep skyward into a glorious future, and the Enigma theme returns together with references to Elgar’s violin concerto. A quiet quotation of the “artist’s theme” opens the next section, but at once the main motive of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 sends the music soaring into the infinite dawn. Following a choral warning that those of the past must die, the soloist, accompanied by the music of the second prelude theme, urges the music makers, who continue to dream and sing “a little apart,” to share with humanity their new songs and dreams. The prelude’s first theme returns to commemorate “the singer who sings no more,” and the music that accompanies Gerontius’ final words (“This is the last [newest] hour!”) is heard before the chorus’ final whispered reminder, in the music of the opening “artist’s theme,” that music-making dreamers indeed have the wonder-filled “last word” that renews the world.

Lorelette Knowles