Program Notes – Symphonic Strings

Montgomery – Strum

Jessie Montgomery belongs to a younger generation of composers who have found a seamless integration of classical techniques with styles of other cultural traditions. She studied the violin in her native Manhattan before attending Juilliard and New York University. In 1999 she began her association with the Sphinx Organization which promotes string playing by musicians of color, and has received numerous distinctions from them.

The short piece Strum dates from 2006 in a string quartet version, revised in 2012. It was on Montgomery’s debut compositional solo album (2015). As the name implies, plucking the instruments is one feature of the work, which showcases her trademark rhythmic vitality and textural variety. She describes her music as taking inspiration from “folk idioms and other forms of popular song,” often including a free or improvisatory element. Her projects have naturally centered around strings but have expanded to include full orchestra and voices the last several years.

Montgomery is based in New York and had her music performed by major orchestras in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco last season besides such familiar soloists as soprano Julia Bullock and violinist Elena Urioste.

Grieg – From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40

Bergen is a picturesque city on the west coast of Norway and birthplace to Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), known primarily for authorship of stage comedies and historical nonfiction. In 1884 the city celebrated his bicentennial by asking the most prominent Scandinavian composer of the day, Edvard Grieg, to write music for the festivities which would help raise money for a statue of Holberg that still stands in Market Square.

Despite Grieg’s celebrity — he had already published his beloved piano concerto — he was coming out of a personal and professional slump when he’d separated from his wife and was expecting more from himself musically. After a reconciliation with Nina in Rome, he took on the festival tasks: a cantata for male voices and the present suite in its original version for piano.

The cantata was a “boring job;” moreover Grieg dreaded the thought of introducing it outdoors October 30th in Norwegian weather: “I can see it coming- snow, hail, storm, and tempest; a huge choir of men with rain streaming into their open mouths, conducted by a raincoat, galoshes, and umbrella. And, of course, a cold to follow with goodness knows what ailments thereafter. Well, that is one way of dying for the Fatherland.” 

But a few days later he tried it again inside and played the piano work titled From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Old Style, finished in August. This clearly drew more enthusiasm from the composer and consists of a prelude and four baroque-inspired dances. The whole achieves a delicate balancing act of genuine sentiment and affectionate parody; particularly the fourth movement simply called Air has a rare poignancy. By February 1885 Grieg had scored the suite for string orchestra, and his comments imply he had that in mind all along. (Previously he had only transcribed two of his songs for strings alone.) Bergen first heard the orchestration in March, a few days before Grieg moved into the newly built house at Troldhaugen that would remain his home for over twenty years.

Hanson – Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings, Op. 22

About thirty miles north of Lincoln, Nebraska lies the agricultural town of Wahoo. Howard Hanson was born there to Swedish immigrants in 1896, marking one of the Great Plains’ biggest claims to classical music fame. His mother was a remarkably serious musician given her resources and Howard studied three years at Nebraska colleges before eventually moving on to Northwestern University via New York.

Almost immediately he began his career in higher education administration in California, but his 1921 success in the Prix de Rome (Rome Prize) competition allowed him to focus on composing for three years. During that time he created an experimental work described as a “symbolic poem” for large orchestra and wordless choir showing the influence of Stravinsky and Holst. Titled North and West (in contrast, not synthesis), it drew on Lutheran chorale melodies from Hanson’s upbringing. Seeing the score, conductor Walter Damrosch agreed to introduce it in New York as well as let Hanson conduct it, marking his American debut in 1924. That same year he took up the directorship of the fledgling Eastman School of Music in Rochester and his name has been indelibly associated with the school ever since his forty-year tenure. (It shows how quickly careers took off a century ago that a musician in his twenties was put in charge of shaping the growth and curriculum of a well-funded conservatory.) 

The 1920s were a busy decade for American composers as they rapidly began producing more concert music, a trend Hanson highly encouraged during his time at Eastman. Like his near-exact contemporary Aaron Copland, Hanson’s early experiments in modernism conceded to a more accessible style in middle age.

The organ teacher at Eastman suggested to Hanson that North and West would suit the instrument so the composer recast it as a concerto with full orchestra in 1926. At some point however Hanson decided the wind instruments competed too much with the reed stops of the organ and in an unusual move reimagined the piece yet again, this time with only strings and one harp for support (compared to respectively two and none in the prior scoring!). Most notably he increased the organ’s solo prominence. This version was first heard in 1943 in a CBS broadcast; it remains the most performed today while the others are unpublished.

Vaughan Williams – Concerto grosso

 Never one to slow down in old age, Ralph Vaughan Williams was still working every day in 1950 after a lifetime of composing. The quality and variety of his works in this period are undiminished, from the desolation of the Sinfonia antartica and related film score Scott of the Antarctic to a romance for harmonica. 

The orchestral work that fell in between those antipodal projects was a concerto grosso, a genre from the Baroque era that features a small group of soloistic strings in contrast to the ensemble’s main body. It was commissioned for the Rural Music Schools Association, a cause that entwined threads sympathetic to Vaughan Williams: populism and devotion to education.

Like his best-known work for strings the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the concerto grosso looks to the distant past with a soundscape made luxuriant through a heavily divided scoring. The concerto is full of dance rhythms but also contains passages of a bracing vigor like blasts of sea mist (perhaps left from the momentarily postponed Antarctic Symphony) that mark Vaughan Williams’s later music.

The three groups of parts are for advanced, intermediate, and (optionally) beginning string players, those last divided even further to accommodate students who can’t use their left hands yet! Vaughan Williams consulted teachers to create the easy parts, and indeed there were a large number of novices at the November 1950 premiere in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall where 400 young players were led by the estimable Sir Adrian Boult. Vaughan Williams was invited to sit with the queen (known to us as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002) but declined in order to keep an eye on the second violins of the orchestra. The following year he undertook a similar project, this time for young singers. 

Grainger – Mock Morris

A truly unclassifiable figure, Percy Grainger was born in Australia in 1882 and made his touring career as a pianist while largely based in London and New York, where he died. He was an avid folk song collector in multiple countries and composed and arranged prolifically while seeking a holistic approach to self-improvement in which music was just one component. Some of his theories, to which he dedicated more time as he aged, sound eccentric if not outright ignorant today, and one biographer flatly declared him mad. (Toward the end of his life he was creating instruments with names like ‘Kangaroo-Pouch Tone-Tool.’) But he was intelligently dedicated to the universality of music and took seriously national traditions such as those of the Far East that were considered mere curiosities up to then. His work as a teacher was vivid and memorable to his students.

The Morris dance is a type of ceremonial English folk dance sometimes incorporating costumes and implements — handkerchieves, swords, etc. It had fallen out of use in its native context by the nineteenth century but was revived with gusto in Grainger’s day. In accordance with the title, Mock Morris is actually an original composition in the style of a Morris dance. Grainger revealed “the tune came to me in bed, the morning after seeing The Arcadians” (i.e. a music hall show with a vaudevillian atmosphere).

Grainger made four versions of Mock Morris shortly after its composition in 1910, including two for solo piano, violin/piano, and tonight’s own for strings. It was the string formulation premiered in Copenhagen that October by a women’s orchestra while Grainger was on tour. He was later dismissive of the relative trifle but it skillfully employs a rich range of textures for all instruments.