British Isles

Saturday, November 12, 2016 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Alastair Willis, conductor
Amanda Opuszynski, soprano
José Rubio, baritone

Program

Malcolm Arnold (1921– 2006)
Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59

Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014)/arr. Jimmy Joyce
“The Bells of Rhymney”

Traditional/arr. K. Lee Scott
“All Through the Night”

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)
Irish Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 78

— intermission —

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 –1958)
A Sea Symphony

About the Concert

“Behold, the sea itself!” is the opening line of Vaughan Williams’ epic Symphony No. 1, his first attempt at a work of such duration or for such large forces. Scored for orchestra, chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists, its texts come from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In the first half, we take a musical peek at the other nations that comprise the British Isles, starting with four charming Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold. Wales, a country famous for its choirs, is represented by two classics: “All through the Night” and “The Bells of Rhymney.” And what could be more Irish than “Londonderry Air” (“O Danny Boy”), which forms the breathtaking lyrical sections of Charles Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No. 1?

About the Guest Conductor

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During the past few seasons, Grammy-nominated conductor Alastair Willis has guest-conducted orchestras around the world, including the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Mexico City Philharmonic, Orquestra Sinfônica de Rio de Janeiro, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonic, Hong Kong Sinfonietta, China National Orchestra (Beijing) and Silk Road Ensemble (with Yo-Yo Ma), among others. His recording of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges with the Nashville Symphony and Opera for Naxos was Grammy-nominated for Best Classical Album in 2009.

Mr. Willis recently completed a successful four-year tenure as music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra. Last season he was re-engaged by the Chicago Symphony, Győr Philharmonic (Hungary), Pacific Northwest Ballet and Symphonia Boca Raton, while making his debuts with the Dresden Philharmonic, Victoria Symphony, Orquestra Simfónica de les Illes Balears (Mallorca) and Auburn Symphony. This season he returns to the Qatar Philharmonic, Victoria Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, Dresden Philharmonic, Symphonia Boca Raton, Pacific Northwest Ballet and OSSCS, while making his debuts with the Wichita Symphony, Boise Philharmonic, Illinois Philharmonic, South Bend Symphony and Roosevelt Contemporary Ensemble.

Previous positions include principal guest conductor with the Florida Orchestra’s Coffee Concert series (2008–2011), associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony (2000–2003), assistant conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestras, and music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Born in Acton, Massachusetts, Mr. Willis lived with his family in Moscow for five years before settling in Surrey, England. He received his Bachelor’s degree with honors from England’s Bristol University, an Education degree from Kingston University, and a Masters of Music degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. Mr. Willis currently resides in Seattle. Learn more: alastairwillis.com

About the Soloists

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Soprano Amanda Opuszynski, hailed for her “luscious,” “powerful” voice and “dazzling technical facility,” debuted as Micaëla in Carmen with St. Petersburg Opera and Musetta in La bohème with the South Dakota Symphony during the 2015–2016 season. She also returned to Seattle Opera as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro and the Boston Youth Symphony as Clorinda in La Cenerentola. Notable past engagements include Frasquita in Carmen (Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Atlanta Opera, Pacific Symphony), Najade in Ariadne auf Naxos (Seattle Opera, Virginia Opera), Johanna in Sweeney Todd (Virginia Opera), Oscar in Un ballo in maschera (Boston Youth Symphony) and Nannetta in Falstaff (Virginia Opera). Ms. Opuszynski has enjoyed apprenticeships with the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and the Wolf Trap Opera Studio. She is the winner of a prestigious Career Development Award from the Sullivan Foundation and Santa Fe Opera’s Lilian Caroff Meyer Award, and a two-time regional finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Learn more: amandaopuszynski.com, @SopranoAmanda

rubio

Baritone José Rubio is equally comfortable in the concert hall and on the operatic stage. His Carnegie Hall recital debut met with great acclaim, The Opera Insider proclaiming it “nothing short of stellar” and describing the performance as “an hour of intensely passionate singing and playing. It could have gone on forever without complaint.” Mr. Rubio’s recent engagements include Tonio in I Pagliacci with Vashon Opera, Falke in Die Fledermaus with Tacoma Opera, bass solos in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Philharmonia Northwest at Benaroya Hall, and the role of notorious gangster Legs Diamond in Evan Mack’s opera Roscoe with the Albany Symphony (featuring Deborah Voigt as the female lead). He is featured on recordings of two Philip Glass operas on the Orange Mountain Music label, Orpheé and Galileo Galilei, and can also be heard on Albany Records’ world premiere recording of Evan Mack’s Angel of the Amazon. Learn more: joserubiobaritone.com

Program Notes

Malcolm Arnold
Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59

Sir Malcolm Arnold was born in Northampton, England, October 21, 1921, and died in Norwich on September 23, 2006. He composed this set of orchestral dances in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra in the first performance at the Royal Festival Hall on June 8, 1957.

While still a teenager, Malcolm Arnold joined the trumpet section of the London Philharmonic, subsequently mov- ing to the BBC Symphony Orchestra before returning to the Philharmonic as principal. In 1948 he gave up life as an orchestral musician to become a full-time composer. Best known for his lighter music (including A Grand, Grand Over- ture for three vacuum cleaners, one floor polisher, four rifles and orchestra), Arnold composed nine remarkable sym- phonies, 20 concertos, a great deal of chamber music and more than 60 film scores.

In 1950 the publishing firm Alfred Lengnick & Co. requested from Malcolm Arnold and other British composers sets of orchestral dances modeled after Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (from which they had earned a significant income as sole British distributor). Arnold responded with Four English Dances, followed by a second set in 1951. Four Scottish Dances arrived in 1957, with later sets of Cornish Dances (1966), Irish Dances (1986) and Welsh Dances (1989).

A publisher’s note identifies the first of the Scottish Dances as being “in the style of a slow strathspey,” a dance in 4/4 time that resembles a hornpipe, but in a slower tempo and marked by the familiar “Scotch snap” sixteenth–dotted-eighth rhythm. Trombones evoke the drone of bagpipes while horns unleash wild two-octave glissandos.

“The second, a lively reel,” the note continues, “begins in the key of E♭ and rises a semitone each time it is played until the bassoon plays it, at a greatly reduced speed, in the key of G. The final statement of the dance is at the original speed in the home key of E♭.” Arnold reportedly based this movement (recycled from a cue he had composed for the 1949 documentary The Beautiful County of Ayr) on a tune by Robert Burns.

“The third dance is in the style of a Hebridean song and attempts to give an impression of the sea and mountain scenery on a calm summer’s day in the Hebrides.” In this beautifully orchestrated movement, with the tune introduced by solo flute over arpeggiated harp chords, Arnold (according to John France) “has succeeded in producing music that is more ‘Scottish’ than the Scots would write.”

The breathless finale, in 2/4 time, “is a lively fling which makes a great deal of use of the open strings of the violins.”

Pete Seeger
“The Bells of Rhymney”

The son of a musicologist and a concert violinist — and the stepson of noted composer Ruth Crawford Seeger — Pete Seeger enjoyed a magnificent career as an American folk singer, songwriter and activist that spanned more than 70 years. In 1957 he set to music “The Bells of Rhymney,” a brief poem from Welshman Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta.

“Davies, a coal miner in south Wales was a friend of Dylan Thomas,” recounted Seeger. “I came across this poem reprinted in one of Thomas’ essays. After the failure of the general strike of 1926, Idris Davies — determined to leave coal mining — became a school teacher in London, and published three slim volumes of poetry. Rhymney is a typical mining town: one hundred yards wide and two miles long.” Following Seeger’s initial recording, on the 1958 live LP Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry, a number of other artists covered the song, from The Byrds to Cher to Bob Dylan to John Denver.

Traditional
“All Through the Night”

The song “Ar Hyd y Nos” first appeared in Edward Jones’ 1784 tome Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards. In 1886 Harold Boulton wrote English lyrics (heard this evening) recorded by a number of popular singers, often on Christmas albums.

Charles Villiers Stanford
Irish Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 78

Stanford was born in Dublin on September 30, 1852, and died in London on March 29, 1924. He completed the first of his Irish Rhapsodies in March 1902, conducting the premiere on October 23 of that year at the triennial Norwich Festival.

Charles Villiers Stanford studied music at Cambridge University, where he became a professor in 1887 while retaining a post teaching composition at the Royal College of Music. A respected choral and orchestral conductor, his compositions include seven symphonies, 10 operas, numerous choral, chamber and keyboard works, and greatly admired music for Anglican church services.

Between 1901 and 1922, Stanford composed six Irish Rhapsodies, two of them miniature concertos (for violin and cello) but the others crafted as standalone symphonic works. “They are skillfully developed movements, perfectly proportioned and balanced with the greatest regard for the- matic cohesion,” wrote one of Stanford’s students, Thomas Dunhill. “This is not, however, the really vital quality which distinguishes them. Nothing Stanford did, except some of his songs, makes so strong an appeal, by reason of the wild natural poetry which is in them. The scoring, too, is more inspired than that of the symphonies, more full of light and shadow, of colour and glamour.”

Stanford wrote that his first rhapsody “is founded on an episode in the battles of the Finns and the loves of Cuchullin and Emer,” Irish folktales that inspired the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Taking the form of an orchestral scherzo that would not have been out of place in one of his symphonies, the rhapsody utilizes two Irish melodies: the battle song “Leatherbags Donnell” for its vigorous opening section and “Emer’s Farewell to Cuchullin” (better known as “Londonderry Air” or “O Danny Boy”) for an expansive central episode.

 — Jeff Eldridge

Ralph Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony

Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams was born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England, and died August 26, 1958, in London. He composed this symphony for chorus, orchestra and two vocal soloists between 1903 and 1909, conducting the Leeds Festival Chorus and Orchestra in the first performance on October 12, 1910.

What an impressive pedigree Ralph Vaughan Williams brought with him into the world! The youngest of three children, the composer, conductor, teacher, writer, lecturer and mentor to many younger musicians was the son of a parish rector descended from eminent lawyers. Ralph’s mother was related to the famous pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood and the 18th-century intellectual Erasmus Darwin. (Ralph’s grandmother taught him to read using the same book with which she had tutored her younger brother, Charles Darwin.) Following his father’s death in 1875, the three-year-old boy was taken by his mother to live with her family at the Wedgwood home. He began to learn the violin at the age of seven, and also studied the piano and organ and played the viola.

Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Charles Villiers Stanford, at Trinity College, Cambridge, in Berlin with the German composer Max Bruch, and in Paris with master orchestrator Maurice Ravel. (In an attempt to reign in Vaughan Williams’ predilection for modal writing, Stanford tasked him with writing a waltz: “True to my creed, I showed him a modal waltz!”) He became an avid collector of English folk songs, making arrangements of them and incorporating their rhythms, scales and melodic shapes into his own music. English music of the 17th century and English hymnody also exerted powerful influences on his musical language.

After military service during World War I, first in the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force, where he assisted in evacuating the wounded, and later as an officer in the Royal Artillery, Vaughan Williams became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. Always deeply interested in the English choral tradition, he conducted local choruses at the Leith Hill Music Festival and composed choral works for such events. Two years after the death of Adeline Fisher (a talented cellist and pianist who was a cousin of Virginia Woolf), his wife of 54 years, Vaughan Williams married the poet Ursula Wood, nearly 40 years his junior, whom he had met in 1938 and with whom he had enjoyed a passionate 13-year affair, apparently with his wife’s assent. Ursula served as Ralph’s personal assistant and literary advisor following her husband’s death in 1942, moving into the Vaughan Williams’ home in Surrey and taking care of Adleline, who suffered from debilitating arthritis, until her death in 1951. Ursula Vaughan Williams, who outlived her husband by 49 years, was his collaborator on a number of vocal works and later became his biographer. Still vigorous and active two months before his 86th birthday, Vaughan Williams died in his sleep in London, having on the previous evening, according to his wife, “sat on his bed eating bananas and biscuits and making plans for going to Walthamstow for the recording of his Ninth Symphony on the following day.”

Vaughan Williams’ many and varied works include nine symphonies, five operas, film scores, ballet and stage music, song cycles, church music, works for chorus and orchestra, and even a tuba concerto and a Romance for harmonica and strings! His finest and best-known compositions include his symphonies, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and The Lark Ascending for solo violin and orchestra.

Em Marshall, managing and artistic director of the English Music Festival, describes Vaughan Williams as “one of the truly outstanding composers of his or any age. One who had all the techniques one could wish for; who could experiment with the best of them; who rejuvenated a nation’s musical life; who preserved its musical heritage; and who remained modest and unassuming throughout. This, of course, was part of his greatness.” His compositions somehow not only exude the essence of “Englishness” but also exhibit timeless, visionary qualities that continue to enrapture audiences everywhere, the work you will hear this evening being one of these. “In the next world, I shan’t be doing music with all the striving and disappointments,” the composer said. “I shall be being it.”

In 1903, Vaughan Williams began work on some songs for orchestra and chorus that, after six years, became an immense four-movement choral symphony (initially called The Ocean), the largest musical project he had yet attempted. In a 1907 letter to his cousin Ralph Wedgwood, Vaughan Williams expressed his concerns about its reception: “This is all about the sea and is for every conceivable voice & instrument & takes over an hour to perform — so I suppose it will now go into its drawer and remain there forever.” Fortunately, this proved not to be the case! The sea-vast composition is a magnificent setting of free-verse texts from Leaves of Grass by the controversial humanistic American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Finally titled A Sea Symphony, the work opened a new chapter in British choral and symphonic writing, bringing to audiences’ ears the composer’s freshly “English” musical language, colored by folksong and church music, and speaking to hearts worldwide.

An arresting blast from the brass section warns of the impending tsunami of choral sound that breaks upon listeners with an almost physical force as “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” based on texts from Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition” and “Sea Drift,” opens the symphony and commands its hearers to “Behold, the sea itself!” Two motives that appear throughout the symphony — a harmonic shift from an anxious minor chord to an exultant major chord whose foundational note is two whole-tones away from that of the previous chord, and the juxtaposition of duplet and triplet rhythmic figures — are presented immediately as the ships sail forth upon the undulating billows. The winds and spray sweep from solo baritone to chorus, and this sea shanty is followed by a contrasting chorale-like “chant for the sailors of all nations” that surges toward the reappearance of the initial fanfare motive and the flaunting out of the flags of the nations by the solo soprano and then by the chorus. Intricate counterpoint soon weaves the musical lines together into “one pennant universal” that waves, “emblem of man elate above death,” in tribute to all the brave souls who have been lost at sea. The baritone and chorus exalt this “one flag above all the rest,” with the soprano soon joining them to “behold the sea itself” and all its ships, shrouded in a shimmering choral mist.

In the symphony’s ruminative slow movement, with its text taken from Whitman’s “Sea Drift,” the solo baritone, stationed “On the Beach at Night Alone” (but with the chorus for company), is introduced by a dusky, inscrutable orchestral passage that leads him to contemplate the unity not only of humanity but also of time and of the entire cosmos. A chant-like lullaby leads to a brighter central section featuring a “walking bass” and swelling to a grand climax celebrating “the vast similitude” that spans and encloses all that exists. The music fades gently away as the orchestra sings those on the dark shore to sleep.

The complete text of Whitman’s “After the Sea Ship” from “Sea Drift” appears in “Scherzo: The Waves,” the Sea Symphony’s chorus-centered, vividly pictorial and technically challenging third movement. A fanfare, reminiscent of the symphony’s beginning, introduces a breathtakingly powerful, masterfully crafted portrait of roistering, rollicking, wind-whipped waves that surround and pursue a majestic ship as it surges across the sea and rides the towering crests of an ocean-anthem praising the “great vessel sailing.” “A motley procession” of foam-flecked billows sweeps back the movement’s opening music and follows in the wake of the ship as it suddenly vanishes from view.

Vaughan Williams sets portions of Whitman’s poem “Passage to India” in “The Explorers,” the massive finale of the Sea Symphony that consists of some 12 sections. The unfathomable ocean and those who sail upon it appear as a symbol of the human soul’s venturing into unknown regions in an attempt to comprehend the mysteries of the universe and to search out God. The chorus provides a solemnly flowing processional introduction that is followed by a description, chanted by the men of the chorus and answered by a questioning four-part chorus of women, of humanity’s creation and restless search for meaning. The imitative setting of the phrase, “Yet soul be sure” leads to the coming at last, in reassuring unison, of the “true son of God,” singing his ecstatic songs. A cascading instrumental interlude encourages the soul to continue its quest in a soaring, shimmering duet for baritone and soprano. The soloists are joined by exultant choral voices that, following a meditative passage for baritone and violin, are soon crying excitedly, “Away, O Soul,” to the accompaniment of scampering sea-shanty rhythms. The soul-ship sails forth on its voyage of exploration, carrying the chorus, soloists, orchestra, and listeners farther and farther into the deep waters, until, rocking peacefully upon the seas of God, it drifts softly into silence.

 — Lorelette Knowles