Notes (2002/03/10)

Sunday, March 10, 2002 at 3pm
ACO’s 25th Anniversary, Part 1


Stewart Wallace has written for opera, theater, concert hall, film and ballet. His unconventional and highly theatrical body of work is at once intensely rhythmic, melodic, irreverent and emotionally compelling. He was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera to write Harvey Milk, his fifth full-length opera and most widely known score. With a libretto by longtime collaborator Michael Korie and directed by Christopher Alden, the 1995 world premiere in Houston. The work was recorded on Teldec with Donald Runnicles conducting the San Francisco Opera. Earlier this season, Wallace’s Gorilla in a Cage had its New York premiere here at Carnegie Hall with Leonard Slatkin conducting the National Symphony and Evelyn Glennie as the soloist. Slatkin and Glennie previously performed the American premiere at the Kennedy Center. The first of three works written for Glennie, Gorilla was commissioned by Steven Sloane and premiered with the Bochum Symphony in 1997.

Upcoming Wallace works include Yiddisher Teddy Bears, his second collaboration with writer-director Richard Foreman which was developed last summer at Sundance; and Skvera for Electric Guitar and Orchestra for Marc Ribot and the National Symphony with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Stewart Wallace is Music Alive Composer-in-Residence at the National Symphony for 2001-2002.

About The Book of Five Wallace says:

The Book of Five is dedicated to my friend and colleague Steven Sloane. It was written for him and because of him. Initially, it was inspired by Harold Bloom’s THE BOOK OF J which posits that the earliest author of the bible was a woman in King David’s court. Events both international and personal intervened, altering the content and intent of the work, though the five movement structure remains.

I began composing shortly before the Trade Center attack. After September 11, I felt I had to respond in some way through my work and in order to be able to continue working. This was not to be a grand statement, but a deeply personal one. The central movement is subtitled September 11, 2001 and features strings and chimes with antiphonal elements in the orchestra. The soloists, Icebreaker, are noticeably absent. At the time my wife was 8 months pregnant, and I was despairing about bringing a child into the world. On September 18, 2001, exactly one week after the attack, our son Lucas was born – five weeks early. The date is significant for reasons aside from the fact that it’s his birthday.

September 18 was also the postmark on the anthrax letter to NBC News where my wife works. Had Lucas not been born then, she (and he) surely would have gone through rounds of severe antibiotics not to mention the possibility that they might have been exposed to anthrax. His birth emphatically answered the tragedy of the week before with life. The fourth movement, played by Icebreaker only, is his and includes fragments of songs that I make up to sing to him.

I first heard Icebreaker at their New York debut in Town Hall over ten years ago. No one who was there could forget their performance. Since that time I wanted to create a large scale work for them and orchestra. James Poke, the artistic director of the group, and I began talking about doing just this in 1998. The Book of Five is the result. It’s been a great joy writing for them and hearing how they’ve dug their teeth into the music.”

The Book of Five was commissioned by the ASCAP Foundation for ACO’s 25th Anniversary.

ERICH KORNGOLD: Symphony in F-sharp Major, Op. 40

Born in provincial city of Brno, Korngold grew up in Vienna, where his father was respected and influential music critic. His talents ripened early, so by the age of fourteen he had international reputation, supported by works given their premieres by such eminent figures as Bruno Walter, Artur Schnabel, and Arthur Nikisch. He had been pronounced a genius by Mahler and praised by Richard Strauss and Puccini.

Where his childhood works had been considered amazing for their modernity, the subsequent musical revolution led by Stravinsky and Schoenberg made his late-Romantic language seem old-fashioned to critics and commentators. His involvement as a Hollywood composer worked against him, too. No one who wrote for movies could be considered seriously as a composer. His music suffered neglect and denigration until the mid-1970s, when Die tote Stadt was revived in New York and recorded. The Symphony was recorded in the same period, and Korngold’s reputation as a classical composer began to receive an overdue re-appraisal.

Symphony in F sharp Major was written in 1951-52, for a large orchestra. The dissonant, percussive opening is one of the most arresting and original of any symphony. It leads to the fifty bars long and complex principal theme, written for B-flat clarinet. Haunting, highly chromatic and perfectly suited to this instrument, it gives way to the lyrical second subject – a tranquil song, which, like so many Korngold themes, is built on fourths and fifths.

The march-like development is brilliantly scored and tensely dramatic. By this time Korngold had honed his orchestration to such a degree that the shifting perspectives and instrumental clusters act like a prism of kaleidoscopic color (rather than a great was of sound), sharp and clear, enabling each dazzling effect to be heard in minute detail. The lyrical second subject now becomes a thrilling fanfare for horns unveiling whole panoply of orchestral color.

The Scherzo is a swift tarantella, which demands articulate virtuosity. The second subject is a heroic theme for horns. The Trio, sparse, ghostly and eerily chromatic, is based on a simple, descending motif, which travels through a seemingly endless series of keys. Kornogold was especially proud of this trio and its economy of idea.

The somber Adagio in D minor is pervaded by an air of great tragedy, penetrated with a series of three ecstatic climaxes. The entire movement is based on three notes introduced in a long, expansive statement of twenty-eight bars. There are two secondary ideas – a simple rising scale and a menacing, descending chromatic figure.

The Final is playful and optimistic. A fresco of scintillating invention, it recalls in cyclic references all the preceding movements and its principle subject is actually the lyrical second theme of the first movement now transformed into a quirky, humorous dance for flute and piccolo answered by a warm, syncopated, instantly memorable cello theme. The work ends triumphantly in the key of F sharp major.

Although premiered on Austrian Radio by Harold Byrns in the 1950s, this work was forgotten until Rudolf Kempe discovered it in 1972.