Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra

Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra

Written in 1954, this short 3-movement work was Vaughan Williams’ last concerto.

It is a compact work, with 2 modernistic outside movements surrounding a slow movement. It begins with a vigorous opening built around rising and falling scale-like passages. This is followed by a second theme (a little reminiscent of Hindemith in style), and a third, folk song-like theme.

The second movement harks back to Vaughan Williams’ earlier melodious and dreamy style. Orchestra and soloist both take part, weaving in and out of the musical fabric; the tuba’s sonorous capabilities are on full display in the scale-based theme followed by baroque-like ornamentation.

The concluding Finale is a rollicking “German rondo” (“Rondo alla Tedesca”), with a robust main theme first played by the tuba and echoed by the orchestra; the second theme is harmonically more adventurous, with a plaintive, almost urgent feel to it. After successive, ever more frenetic renditions of the 2 themes, the concerto ends in a furious dash.

The first and third movements both contain substantial solo cadenzas displaying the tuba’s range and versatility.

Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

This extraordinary work was composed for tenor Peter Pears and horn player Dennis Brain in 1943. It consists of six songs set to English poems framed by a solo horn prologue and epilogue. While many of the poems deal in some fashion with sleep, decay, or death, each has its own distinct character, beautifully set off by the interplay between the two soloists and the strings.

The Pastoral (“The Day’s grown old”) by Cotton describes a late afternoon scene in the countryside with flocks of sheep, lengthening shadows and sunset. “The splendour falls on castle walls” (“Blow Bugle Blow”) by Tennyson evokes the heroics of a bygone age, with bugle calls echoing and dying in a craggy landscape.

For Blake’s doleful Elegy (on its face, about a rose and its destruction by the worm that finds it), Britten has composed horn and tenor melodies based on minor second motifs. It leads directly into the Dirge, a haunting 15th-century anonymous poem about death and whether salvation or damnation awaits the deceased, depending on his/her conduct in life. The Dirge is also notable for its structure, a multi-voiced fugue played by the strings and horn over an ostinato sung by the tenor.

Ben Jonson’s hymn to Diana the huntress is set as a spritely hunting tune, while Keats’ Sonnet (“O soft embalmer of the night”) is a paean to sleep.

“The Belle of Chicago”

Sousa reigned as the “March King” in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. His musical output was prodigious, consisting of marches (well over 100), operettas, suites, songs, arrangements, etc. His “Belle of Chicago” march dates from 1892 and was meant as a tribute to the ladies of the Windy City.

Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1

In the early to mid-twentieth century, as the revival of interest in early music continued and intensified, composers explored the possibilities of this music using a modern orchestral sound.

Some of the more notable are the Pulcinella Suite of Stravinsky, the Stokowski Bach transcriptions, the Ricercare from the Musical Offering by Bach/Webern, and the Suite of French Dances arranged by Paul Hindemith.

The Ancient Airs and Dances of Respighi falls into such a category. In each of these composers’ efforts, what is basically an arrangement or transcription of existing earlier music inevitably shows the contemporary stamp of it’s arranger, and the techniques and expression which characterize that particular composer or arranger’s contemporary musical passions as well.

The lute music Respighi used as his source was written for a very quiet and intimate instrument. Respighi manages to find a way to imbue these pieces with his own particular kind of broad orchestral color. Traditional dance forms, in addition to their Italian heritage, also likely appealed to Respighi’s sense of color and variety, lending themselves to the kind of instrumental treatment he used in his own compositions.

Suite No. 1 from “The Three-Cornered Hat”

Falla was a quintessentially Spanish composer who partially developed his style while living in Paris, between 1907 and 1914. There he became well-acquainted with Ravel, Debussy and Dukas.

He originally composed the music for The Three-Cornered Hat in 1917 to accompany a pantomime based on a story by the late 19th-century Spanish writer Pedro Alarcón. The famous impresario Diaghilev persuaded Falla to turn the music into a full ballet, which was premiered in London in 1919, with sets by Picasso and choreography by Massine. Falla later arranged the music into two separate orchestral suites, the first of which we are performing today.

The story focuses on an ugly and misshapen miller and his beautiful wife, who is very much in love with him; the Corregidor, a local magistrate who wears a large three-cornered hat as a sign of his office; and a series of amorous pursuits and mistaken identities (with a happy ending).

After a short introductory fanfare, the piece opens to an afternoon scene in a small Andalusian village. The miller and his wife, amid their daily tasks, are trying to teach a bird to tell the time; they kiss, then dance.

Announced by the bassoon, the Corregidor appears; he is captivated by the pretty miller’s wife, but leaves the scene after a disapproving glance from his own wife. The miller’s wife dances a rousing Fandango, featuring a typically Spanish meter alternating between 3 and 2.

The Corregidor appears again; the miller’s wife politely curtsies, and then begins a flirtatious dance, teasing the Corregidor with a bunch of grapes which she keeps just out of his reach. The Corregidor stumbles and falls, and storms off. The miller and his wife dance again, reprising the Fandango theme, to end the Suite.

The Unanswered Question

Ives is one of America’s most intriguing composers. He began his musical studies under his father (a bandmaster), became an organist for a Connecticut church, and began composing around the turn of the 20th century. After graduating in 1908 from Yale University, Ives went into a successful career in the insurance business, but continued his composing activities.

Widely ignored until the end of his life, Ives is now an established American composer. His style is pioneering and eclectic, and runs the gamut from beautiful melody to wild dissonances and polyrhythms.

He wrote his original version of The Unanswered Question around 1906, and revised it between 1930 and 1935. The work is scored for strings, solo trumpet and wind choir (2 flutes, oboe, and clarinet).

While the strings play a slow soft chorale, the solo trumpet asks a series of “questions.” Each time, the wind quartet answers the trumpet. While the first “answers” are slow, they rapidly increase in intensity, tempo and urgency. After a final shrill burst from the winds, the trumpet repeats the question, letting it hang in the air until the end of the piece.

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel first composed Tombeau as a suite for piano in six movements, and then arranged it as a 4-movement suite for orchestra in 1919.

A “tombeau” was, in the French baroque tradition, a composition meant as a memorial, and each movement of Ravel’s Tombeau is dedicated to a friend who perished in World War I.

The reference to “Couperin” evokes one of France’s great baroque composers, and indeed the four movements of this work are based largely on baroque French dance forms. Ravel’s genius is to fuse these baroque frameworks with modern harmonies and instrumentation to create works of atmosphere, charm and grace.

The opening Prélude is a cascade of motifs led by the oboe (which has a virtuosic part in this entire work). The dance movements all have main sections with contrasting interludes. The Forlane is a wistful modern rendering of a stately dance, evolving into ever more unearthly harmonies until its resolution; the Menuet is a charming updating of an old classic; and the Rigaudon, with woodwind and brass highlights, provides a rousing finale.

Concert Fantasy on Russian Themes

Both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ralph Vaughan-Williams were intensely interested in the folk music of their native soil. Each composer attempted to create a distinctive national style by incorporating local folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies into their art.

The two works that we are to hear today are excellent examples of this process. “The Lark Ascending” draws its inspiration from the mysticism of the English countryside, setting several folk tunes in a quiet manner, conveying a calm, peaceful and transcendent mood to the listener, with the solo violin observing and commenting on the scene from afar. The work begins and ends with meditative reveries from the solo violin.

The “Fantasy on Russian Themes” sets the solo violin in an active mode, with the brilliance and power to compete directly with an exuberant orchestra. Here, too, the violin is given solo moments of an improvisational nature, but rather than the inward-looking ruminations of the “Lark,” we are presented with what are merely lyric interruptions in an otherwise boisterous, robust scene of a country gathering. Here joyous peasants participate in the highly social activities of dancing, singing and drinking among family and friends.

The two works together are an interesting study in contrast, and provide an enchanting view into two artistic minds as they envision a showcase for the solo violin.

The Lark Ascending

Both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ralph Vaughan-Williams were intensely interested in the folk music of their native soil. Each composer attempted to create a distinctive national style by incorporating local folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies into their art.

The two works that we are to hear today are excellent examples of this process. “The Lark Ascending” draws its inspiration from the mysticism of the English countryside, setting several folk tunes in a quiet manner, conveying a calm, peaceful and transcendent mood to the listener, with the solo violin observing and commenting on the scene from afar. The work begins and ends with meditative reveries from the solo violin.

The “Fantasy on Russian Themes” sets the solo violin in an active mode, with the brilliance and power to compete directly with an exuberant orchestra. Here, too, the violin is given solo moments of an improvisational nature, but rather than the inward-looking ruminations of the “Lark,” we are presented with what are merely lyric interruptions in an otherwise boisterous, robust scene of a country gathering. Here joyous peasants participate in the highly social activities of dancing, singing and drinking among family and friends.

The two works together are an interesting study in contrast, and provide an enchanting view into two artistic minds as they envision a showcase for the solo violin.

Histoire du Tango

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was one of Argentina’s most gifted and prolific composers. He was a self-taught composer and an accomplished player on the bandoneon, the Argentine version of the accordion. Piazzolla is inextricably associated with the tango, which he was largely responsible for re-energizing and modernizing in his numerous compositions.

In his Histoire du Tango, Piazzolla sought to trace the evolution of the tango itself from an erotic, “not quite respectable” dance to its modern form, which is still very much alive and well in today’s Buenos Aires.

The Histoire is a series of four pieces – “Bordel 1900, Café 1930, Nightclub 1960, and Concert d’aujourd’hui” – which he composed originally for flute and guitar. We are performing the third piece in this series, in an arrangement for soprano saxophone and orchestra by Mark Spede.

Like all tangos, the music is full of wistful melody, with abrupt rhythms alternating with hints of sadness and languor.