Timeless Threads Program Notes

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on November 17, 2019 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Timeless Threads” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

Truth be told, most music doesn’t survive for more than a single generation.  Quick: can you hum a tune from any of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s more than a dozen or so operas?  He was quite popular, back in his day. Wilhelm Furtwängler is still remembered as a great conductor, but he also wrote three symphonies.  Did you know that? Who else here today remembers Johnny Cymbal’s 1963 rock & roll hit, “Mr. Bass Man?”  Does music follow some version of the Charles Darwin rule?  If so, that rule would have to be, “survival of the most beloved.”  Whenever we hear music that’s older than our parents, we’re hearing something that a lot of folks through the years have thought to be great.  We might think so too, but that’s our decision. Each generation has some say. When enough time has passed and the music is still with us, it finally earns the title, “Timeless.”  In today’s concert, we will present selections of timeless music, each still as fresh as the day it was born — plus a brand new composition, just emerged from music’s maternity ward. 

Bach wrote dozens of fugues for organ.  Scholars believe he composed his Fantasia and Fugue in C minor during the latter part of his Weimar years, before about 1717.  By that time, Bach had already established himself as a great organist.  Aspiring organists came from all over Europe to hear Bach play and to learn more about his technique, which has been described as economical: the hands remained calm while the tips of his fingers flew.  The word “fantasia” doesn’t imply a specific musical blueprint — you can just think of it as a friendly but informal introduction to the fugue that follows.  The fugue itself is remarkably chromatic for music that was written more than a century before Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.   Maybe that’s why the English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) found it so appealing.  Elgar wanted to orchestrate this piece in collaboration with the German composer, Richard Strauss, and when the two friends reunited after World War I, they struck a deal: Strauss was to orchestrate the fantasia, and Elgar the fugue.  However, Strauss never got around to fulfilling his part of the bargain, so Elgar finished up without him and conducted the first performance at the Gloucester Festival in September, 1922. In a conversation with the conductor, Eugene Goossens, Elgar sold himself short: “I can’t be original and so I depend on people like John Sebastian for a source of inspiration,” and added that his purpose was “to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had our means” — the modern symphony orchestra, in other words. 

We don’t think of the Beatles as English composers, but that is what they were, at least in part.  They wrote songs rather than symphonies, but Schubert wrote songs, too, as did Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov — same creative impulse, different styles.  We don’t know how much longer Beatles tunes will enjoy popularity, but, as of now, they are certainly holding up. What John, Paul, George, and Ringo did was what every composer aims to do:  create music that touches us deeply. Dismissing with a wave of his hand the interminable arguments over what constitutes “the best style,” the composer Dmitri Shostakovich said, “There is only music that moves you, and music that leaves you cold.”  The Beatles moved us, whether they were singing about mean Mr. Mustard, or pining over the girl who had to go and wouldn’t say why.  

The Beatles Fantasy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” is a faithful rendition of numerous Beatles’ tunes, set for solo violin and orchestra by Maxime Goulet and Eric Jones Cadieux.  There are three movements, exhibiting a chronological drift, more or less, from the Beatles’ earlier works toward their later efforts.  The soloist is Lindsay Deutsch, who made her solo debut playing with an orchestra at age 11.  When she’s not touring with the Greek musician, Yanni, she devotes her efforts toward captivating younger audiences with classical music. 

Today’s concert will debut “Psalm Passacaglia,” a fanfare for orchestra commissioned by Sharon Reyes, dedicated to her mother, Carol Sue Kerk, and composed by our own maestro, Daniel W. Boothe.  (Proceeds of the commission went directly to Symphonicity.)  Passacaglia is a Baroque musical form that dates from the early 17th century; you can think of it as a series of variations over an ostinato, or “stubbornly-repeated” bass.  (Ravel’s “Bolero” and Henry Mancini’s theme from “Peter Gunn” are other examples of this genre.)  Ms. Reyes explained to Maestro Boothe that Psalm 103 has served as a great inspiration for her mother over the years, and wants this new composition to be a “celebration of life.”  She asked him to tie in a theme from Debussy’s “Arabesque,” a piece which she and her mother both love, as well as some aural cues from the style of the late cinematic composer James Horner — his “Braveheart” soundtrack in particular — to signify “an arc of victory over difficulty.”  In his own comments about the work, Maestro Boothe wrote, “Using the words of Psalm 103, I created the work to capture the reverence of the text but also the psalm’s reaffirming statements and sentiments, which ultimately end with divine victory.”  In King David’s words: 

“…As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust….”

About Grofé‘sGrand Canyon Suite,” NPR’s Theresa Schiavone wrote:   

“In 1916, an itinerant pianist in his 20s strapped gas cans to a vintage jeep and drove across the Arizona desert to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. More than 40 years later, Ferde Grofé (1892-1972) described what he saw in a radio interview. I first saw the dawn because we got there the night before and camped. I was spellbound in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn’t hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate.’  So Grofé used music, the language he knew best. Ferde Grofé knew how to use every instrument in the orchestra to bring his compositions to life. In the ‘Grand Canyon Suite,’ he evoked the natural sounds he’d heard on his visit there. He made the woodwinds sound like birds and the trumpets sound like crickets.”

That he did. 

Grofé quit school at age thirteen and worked numerous part-time gigs, including playing viola with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  During these formative years, however, he also played piano in — well, we’ll let his son, Ferde Grofé, Jr. explain: “He was playing piano in bawdy houses, brothels, as a matter of fact, in San Francisco when he was 16 years old where he wasn’t supposed to know what was going on upstairs in the second floor. And that was when he actually first heard jazz.”  This was not an uncommon career path for the pioneers of jazz; Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake also jump-started their careers by providing incidental music for the world’s oldest profession. For a long time, jazz was publicly denounced as indecent, but privately enjoyed in private places. 

Jazz is what got Grofé his big break.  He educated himself on the style by writing down the jazz licks that he heard at the “office,” and then started writing his own jazz arrangements.  These arrangements brought him to the attention of Paul Whiteman, who had made it big with his own eclectic jazz band.  In 1917, Whiteman hired Grofé as a violinist and pianist; eventually, Grofé became Whiteman’s arranger.  When George Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 with the Whiteman band, Grofé is the one who arranged it, and did so again later on for a full-sized orchestra.  By this time, Grofé had become a master of orchestration and aspired to compose his own music. 

Grofe finished the Grand Canyon Suite in 1931.  It consists of the following movements: 

  • Sunrise.”  In Grofé’s own words, “It is early morning in the desert.  The sun rises, slowly splattering the darkness with rich colors of dawn…”
  • The Painted Desert.”  Grofé again:  “The entire scene appears as a canvas thick with the pigments of nature’s blending…”
  • On the Trail.”  The theme here is at once majestic, sweeping, and droll — suggesting, as it does, the braying of a burro.  This melody would become the prototype for hundreds of Western movie and TV orchestral themes — from Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven“) to Henry Mancini (“The Virginian“).
  • Sunset.”  Grofé:  “Now the shades of night sweep over the golden hues of the day.”
  • Cloudburst.” A sudden storm asserts itself.  What follows is programmatic music worthy of a Franz Liszt or a Richard Strauss.  The listener is caught in the middle of a dangerous storm in the Arizona desert. There is booming thunder.  There is running water that could precipitate a perilous flash flood. There is fear. But finally, the storm breaks, and the theme from “On the Trail” emerges once again, exultantly, and the danger is past. 

Odd, isn’t it, how well a jazz musician’s “greatest hit” fits right in with some of the finest products of European late-Romanticism?  Even if it does so with an American flair. 

We hope you enjoy today’s concert and, along with us, reflect on the power of composers to evoke feelings from their loyal listeners even across the span of centuries.