Music for Families: Work Hard, Play Hard—The Lives of Composers and Conductors

Work Hard, Play Hard—The Lives of Composers and Conductors

Composing and conducting are big jobs: composers imagine the music and write it down, and conductors work with orchestras to bring the music to life. But how do they come up with and communicate their ideas, and what inspires their musical talents? In this concert, musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, Resident Conductor Christian Reif, and composer Anna Clyne examine the lives of composers and conductors. 

Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Bizet: Aragonaise and Habanera, from Carmen
Korngold: Masquerade—Hornpipe, from Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Opus 11
Gershwin: Overture to Girl Crazy
Mussorgsky: The Hut on Fowls’ Legs, from Pictures at an Exhibition
Anna Clyne: Auguries from Abstractions
Ligeti: Allegro vivace from Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)
Copland: Simple Gifts, from Appalachian Spring
Gabriela Lena Frank: The Mestizo Waltz, from Three Latin American Dances
Bernstein: Mambo, from West Side Story

 

Bernstein: Overture to Candide

DID YOU KNOW?: The San Francisco Symphony celebrated the centennial of Bernstein’s birth with performances of Candide in January. Watch highlights here.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was one of the most phenomenally gifted musicians of the twentieth century. He knew where music fits into our overall cultural scheme, and he believed in its power to make life better and richer. Candide, Bernstein’s third Broadway musical, opened in October 1956. It was not a huge commercial success, though it contains some of the composer’s most engaging music. Over the years Bernstein reworked it several times, leading performances of his final version in 1989. The play is an adaptation from Voltaire’s eighteenth-century satire on blind optimism. The Overture has remained unaffected by the difficulties that have surrounded the rest of the musical Candide. Its glittery exuberance was right on the mark from the beginning.

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Bizet: Aragonaise and Habanera, from Carmen

PICTURE THIS: Aragonaise: An excited crowd gathers for a big sporting event in Spain.
Habanera: The beautiful Carmen flirts with the officer Don José.

Georges Bizet (1838-75) was one of several French composers enamored of Spain. His parents were both professional musicians, and his own musical talent developed early—he entered the Paris Conservatory when he was nine. A string of awards, including the coveted Prix de Rome, established his reputation quickly, but the works for which he is remembered today, his opera The Pearl Fishers, the incidental music for the drama L’Arlésienne, and his masterpiece, Carmen, took some time to achieve popularity. His well-known symphony—he had composed it at seventeen—was not even discovered until long after his death and had to wait until 1935 for its first performance. Carmen, the story of the troubled love between a Gypsy woman, Carmen, and the cavalryman Don José, was criticized after its premiere for its subject matter. The music, with generous hints of Spanish seasoning, is rich and magnificent. The aragonaise is a sprightly dance in triple time, with flashy percussion accompaniment. The habanera is a slow dance (originally from Cuba, but later exported to Spain) with distinctive rhythms similar to those of the tango.

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Korngold: Masquerade—Hornpipe, from Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Opus 11

DID YOU KNOW?: A musical prodigy, Korngold went on to become one of the most influential film composers of the 1930s and ’40s.

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) entered his teens, many musicians were ready to salute him as a Mozart-sized genius. He played the piano well by the time he was five and was composing works at ten. The Austrian Imperial Ballet staged his Snowman about the time of his bar mitzvah and the Court Opera in Munich produced two one-act operas he had composed at sixteen. His opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) enjoyed huge success in the early 1920s and still gets revived. Korngold did not turn out to be a second Mozart, but thanks to a turn of events no one could have foreseen at the time of his triumphs, his music came to be heard by uncounted millions. In 1938, Korngold moved to Hollywood and began writing for films, winning an Oscar for The Adventures of Robin Hood.

It was in 1918, when he was twenty-one, that Korngold wrote eighteen numbers of incidental music for a production at the Imperial Schönbrunn Palace of that zanily elegant Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The Hornpipe brings the curtain down after Benedick has called on the pipers to "Strike up!"

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Gershwin: Overture to Girl Crazy

LISTEN FOR: Many of Girl Crazy’s songs have become part of the Great American Songbook. How many can you spot in the Overture? 

The 1930 show Girl Crazy by George Gershwin (1898-1937) is loaded with great material. The show revolves around an improbable plot peopled by cardboard characters (slick New Yorkers, mouthy saloon singers, and heartland ingenues)—its lineage is vaudeville. The original production featured a show-stopping Ethel Merman in her Broadway debut along with a still-teenaged Ginger Rogers. Story line? Who cares! The Overture is a happy mélange of big tunes—from “I Got Rhythm” to “Embraceable You,” to the lesser-known “Land of the Gay Caballero,” to the great “But Not for Me,” and ending with the raucous “Bronco Busters,” which gives way at the last to a brief reminder of “I Got Rhythm.” Yes, he did.

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Mussorgsky: The Hut on Fowls’ Legs, from Pictures at an Exhibition

PICTURE THIS: A frightful old witch who lives in a hut on the edge of the forest.

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, as a set of piano pieces. French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) orchestrated the piano score in 1922.

The pictures that inspired Mussorgsky, and whose essence he attempted to render in sound, are by Victor Hartmann, a close friend who died at only thirty-nine in the summer of 1873. When Mussorgsky composed this tribute to his friend, he imagined himself at an exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings, and in each section of his score he tells the story of the scene depicted on the canvas.

The picture that inspired The Hut on Fowls’ Legs shows an ancient clock in the shape of a hut with roosters’ heads and on chicken legs. Mussorgsky associated this with the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who flew about in a mortar as she chased her victims.

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Anna Clyne: Auguries from Abstractions

DID YOU KNOW?: Anna Clyne’s Auguries draws inspiration from an etching of the same name, by noted Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu (b. 1970). Several of her works can be seen at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

London-born composer Anna Clyne (b. 1980) has been described by The New York Times as a "composer of uncommon gifts and unusual methods." Clyne's Auguries is the second movement of a five-movement orchestral work, Abstractions, commissioned and premiered by the Baltimore Symphony in 2016.

Each movement of Abstractions is influenced by a contemporary artwork. Clyne notes, "In drawing inspiration from these artworks, I have tried to capture the feelings or imagery that they evoke, the concept of the work, or the process adopted by the artists.” In this movement, she relates to “the long arching lines, compact energetic marks and dense shifting forms of a system on the verge of collapse in Mehretu’s Auguries

Some common threads between the artworks are their use of limited color palettes, references to nature, and the capturing of time as a current that flows—distilling and preserving it so that we can contemplate it as the viewer." 

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Ligeti: Allegro vivace from Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)

DID YOU KNOW?: Ligeti became famous through the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used several of his compositions (without his permission).

Growing up in a Jewish family in a Hungary that was in turns dominated by Germany and Russia, György Ligeti (1923-2006) did not experience life as a bed of roses. Later in life (when he was celebrated as a composer of daring and experimental works), Ligeti reminisced about the activities of the period in which he produced his Concert Românesc:

“In 1949, when I was twenty-six, I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto [Concert Românesc]. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands.”  

The second movement is a quick dance that swirls with infectious vigor, in which the flavorful voices of piccolo, solo violin, and percussion instruments provide particular delight.  

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Copland: Simple Gifts, from Appalachian Spring

PICTURE THIS: A pioneer celebration of spring.  

Born in Brooklyn, Aaron Copland (1900-90) was trained as a composer in Paris, but much of his work has a distinctive sound that has come to be identified with this country’s wide-open spaces, and he created music that will always be identified with this country. Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet written in 1943-44 for Martha Graham, is the loveliest realization of the composer’s gift for simplicity. Copland’s more rural American speech, a manner marked by spaciousness, stillness, and serenity, dominates Appalachian Spring. The ballet depicts a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the nineteenth century. Its last scenes, danced to a series of variations on the old Shaker melody “Simple Gifts,” depict a newly married couple enacting scenes of daily domestic activity.

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Gabriela Lena Frank: The Mestizo Waltz, from Three Latin American Dances

THE COMPOSER SAYS: “It should make you want to get up and dance!”

Gabriela Lena Frank was born in 1972—across the Bay, in Berkeley. Her compositions reflect both her Peruvian-Jewish heritage and her experiences growing up in the US. The Mestizo Waltz is the third movement of Frank’s Three Latin American Dances. The composer describes the waltz as “a lighthearted tribute to the mestizo, or mixed-race, music of the South American Pacific coast. In particular, it evokes the romancero tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African cultures, and Western brass bands.” She also notes that “you will hear a lot of Latin percussion instruments such as the shimmery chekere, the rich conga drum, and the clackety castanets. It should make you want to get up and dance!”

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Bernstein: Mambo, from West Side Story

PICTURE THIS: Spirited dancers face off in a high school gym.

In West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Verona to Manhattan’s West Side. The Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the “Jets” and the “Sharks,” two rival neighborhood groups. No Broadway show had ever leaned so heavily on dance to convey so much. The overt dance rhythms of the Mambo underline a competitive dance between two groups.

(April 2018)

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