Handel, Price, Mussorgsky

When: Friday, November 15 at 8 p.m. and a 7:15 p.m. pre-concert talk by the orchestra’s Music Director Michael Repper
Where: Lancaster Middle School Theatre in Kilmarnock

The Northern Neck Orchestra will open its 2019-2020 concert season on Friday, November 15 featuring George Frideric Handel’s exuberant Music for the Royal Fireworks, Florence Price’s joyful Suite of Dances and Modest Mussorgsky’s grand Pictures at an Exhibition.

Program notes by Nancy Rowland

Welcome to the first concert of the Northern Neck Orchestra’s 2019-2020 season led by Michael Repper, music director and conductor. Maestro Repper has selected a trio of unique suites, one each from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries: Handel’s exuberant Music for the Royal Fireworks, Florence Price’s joyful Suite of Dances, and Mussorgsky’s grand Pictures at an Exhibition.

Music for the Royal Fireworks

The suite known as Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was created for one of King George II’s sumptuous outdoor pageants. This one was to celebrate the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which ended hostilities between France and England. For the music, the King wanted a huge wind band (100 players) and “no fiddles.” Handel agreed, but wrote parts for strings into the score anyway, which he used in subsequent performances.

Handel had already been eulogized in his own time as “the greatest musician who ever lived.” Because of his reputation, even the rehearsal for this piece drew 12,000 paying customers and resulted in one of London’s first traffic jams. The performance day was somewhat less spectacular due to rain, but the fireworks, which went off after the music, added excitement when technical errors resulted in a large pavilion going up in flames.

The first movement of Fireworks is an Overture in the French style and on a majestic scale. This is the longest and grandest movement of the piece. It begins slowly (adagio), the music sounding like a magnificent assertion of royal authority. This is followed by a faster part (allegro), then slow (lento), and a return to allegro. The music seems to evoke richness and power. The timpani especially are used to indicate a “battle-ready” condition.

The second movement is a brief bourée or quick dance. This is followed by La Paix (Peace), a celebration of the peace with a gentle pastoral theme. Next is La Réjouissance (Rejoicing) which reflects the happy mood of the country: the fanfares of the overture are brought back with plenty of trumpets and drums. The final movement has two minuets, the first somber and the second festive and celebratory.

Suite of Dances

Florence Price (1887-1953) was an African-American composer who emerged from a segregated musical world due to her talent, determination, and perseverance. She was one of the first African-American students to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music, and the first to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra: she won the prestigious Wanamaker Competition, and her first symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

After this start, she steadily built her reputation as a composer of many types of music, including classical forms as well as songs based on her deep religious sense and experiences of segregation and racism. She was refused admission to the Arkansas Music Teachers Association, so she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians. After moving to Chicago she founded the Chicago Music Association to provide venues for Negro musicians and composers.

Gradually, her works began to be performed all over Chicago and later by symphonies in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. She became friends with singer Marian Anderson, who chose to conclude her historic 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s song “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” (This was a concert arranged with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt after Anderson was denied the opportunity to perform at DAR Constitution Hall because of her race.)

Price died in 1953 and much of her over 300 compositions has been lost. A treasure trove involving dozens of her unpublished musical manuscripts and notes was discovered in 2009 by a couple who bought an abandoned house in Illinois that had been her home. The find included a fourth symphony and many new songs. In 2018 music publisher G. Schirmer announced they had acquired the exclusive rights to her work. This was the company that had first published her songs and piano music, including teaching manuals, in the 1920s.

The suite we will play is called Suite of Dances (1933), originally written for piano. Price wrote the orchestral version in 1951 when it was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a live televised pops concert. There are no known recordings of the work.

The piece has three movements, the first two to be played allegretto (slightly fast) and the third allegro molto (very fast). The third movement is an orchestration of the Juba dance, a dance brought by slaves to the American plantations. She emphasized the rhythm and melodic traits of African-American spirituals in her music and mixed this inspired approach with more traditional classical techniques.

Pictures at an Exhibition

The second half of the program is devoted to Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). He wrote this suite for piano and it has become a showpiece in virtuoso recitals. After Mussorgsky’s death and over the years, numerous composers have written orchestrations, transcriptions, and adaptions. The most famous of these is the brilliant orchestration by Ravel whose 1922 colorful and dramatic version is the one most often performed. However there are at least 20 orchestrations now available, each having its own approach to the music via different selections of instruments, phrasing, and orchestral texture. Leonard Slatkin, who programmed a concert performance by selecting individual movements from nine different versions, asked his audience, “Is any one version better?” He said no, but he wanted to introduce his audience to other people’s ideas.

Tonight we will play the orchestration written in 1995 by Carl Simpson (b. 1955), an active composer and arranger who is fascinated by musical texts and the process of tracking down original manuscripts. He is currently the chief operating officer of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) dedicated to sharing the world’s public domain music. The NNO makes frequent use of IMSLP for access to music parts and scores.

Pictures was written late in Mussorgsky’s life when he was literally a starving artist. He had been born to wealthy parents who nurtured his musical ability but then had him enter the Army as a career. Yet, before he was 20 he had resigned from the Army to pursue a musical career. Just a few years later, serfdom was abolished in Russia and Mussorgsky’s family was impoverished. He was forced to take a clerk’s job working for a pittance, a position he was to keep for the rest of his life. The turning point in his life was at age 26 when his mother died and he began a pronounced physical and mental deterioration. Even so, his creative powers continued to grow. Between periods of mental confusion and drunkenness and times of clarity he produced his finest work, which included the masterpiece opera Boris Godunov as well as Pictures.

Mussorgsky wrote Pictures when his artist friend Victor Hartmann died suddenly, and more than 400 of Hartmann’s paintings and lively sketches were collected into a memorial exhibition. The music represents a tour of 11 pictures in the exhibit of which only six can be identified today.

The music we will hear tonight is in 15 movements, beginning with a Promenade that recurs several times as a transition to the next picture. Mussorgsky talked about how the music depicts himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.”

The movements are diverse and quite short, only 1-2 minutes each. The descriptive movement titles are listed on the program page. The final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” depicts a Hartmann design sketch for a new city gate to be constructed as a memorial to the Tsar. The grand scale of the design is reflected in the music that reaches a glorious climax, one of the most memorable and exciting in all classical music.


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