Symphonic Dances Program Notes

Concert info:

Two words that resonate in the music of today’s concert are beauty and craft. The former is meant beyond the traditional concept of something pleasing to the eye and is used in this instance to incorporate the idea of stirring the intellect and moral sensibilities. An awareness of beauty is often heightened aesthetically through symmetry and balance, two attributes often connected to form in music, an important part of a composer’s craft. The four works we hear today—all chosen by the third of Philharmonia Northwest’s Music Director finalists, Stephen Rogers Radcliffe—imprint upon the listener as works of highly skilled composers who are invested in connecting at an emotional level to their listeners.

Jessie Montgomery: Hymn for Everyone

From its opening chime strike and stirring melody, Jessie Montgomery’s Hymn for Everyone asks us to listen with both our mind and our heart. Composed in 2021, in part as a response to social upheavals and the pandemic, the work is indeed a hymn, created by Montgomery after a hike, breaking a stint of writer’s block. “It is a meditation for orchestra, exploring various washes of color and timbre through each repetition of the melody,” offers Montgomery about the work, which was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Listen for statements of the stirring hymn tune, often over an insistent, sometimes disturbing pulse which hinders the melody from reaching its full glory. When the pulse finally relents and we hear the troubled waters cease, it is like streaks of sunlight breaking through storm clouds, bringing us to that deep beauty only made possible by deep craft.

Frederick Delius: Double Concerto

It is often said that Delius is an “acquired taste.” In his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, composed in 1915 and premiered in 1920, we get both a sense of why this may be true and, more importantly, why acquiring a taste for Delius can deliver great dividends. Inspired by his hearing of Brahms’ Double Concerto, also for violin and cello, Delius explores constantly shifting melodic patterns that play out across one movement in linear rather than a cyclical form. We don’t hear major themes stated, then repeated, then altered, then repeated, such as what we might find in a more traditional concerto. Rather, in Delius’ inimitable fashion, we experience a constantly evolving sonic landscape, obscuring our sense of how time is passing. Even the highly virtuosic writing for cello and violin, played today by two of the Pacific Northwest’s finest string players, violinist Hal Grossman and cellist Walter Gray, is camouflaged, blending into the landscape so as not to draw too much attention. This is highly skilled writing—controlled beauty, if you will—that has us on the end of our sonic seats until the very last ringing notes.

Engelbert Humperdinck: Overture to Hansel and Gretel

At the opening of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Overture to Hansel and Gretel, we are solidly back [taken in]to beauty. The expertly crafted opening horn chorale is a sublime example of technique at the service of emotion. The Overture, which offers themes of Humperdinck’s celebrated “fairy tale” opera Hansel and Gretel, is equal measure song and dance, moving between lyrical melodies and jaunty rhythms, akin to what Hansel and Gretel experienced in their forest journey. Premiered in 1893 with Richard Strauss as conductor, Hansel and Gretel was an immediate success and has been Humperdinck’s most enduring work. Indeed, Humperdinck’s stable career was that of a successful and skilled craftsman, as opposed to the heights reached by his mentor, Wagner, in whose shadow Humperdinck often stood. We hear this attention to detail in the writing of Hansel and Gretel in the careful blending of winds and strings, the latter often in pizzicato, and the use of brass and percussion to punctuate the soaring melodies. It’s a charming work whose complexity is balanced by emotional depth.

Edvard Grieg: Symphonic Dances

Originally written for piano four hands and orchestrated for its premiere in 1898, Edvard Grieg’s Symphonic Dances explores four Norwegian folk songs that had specific dances connected to them. In this way the work is programmatic, meaning it is attempting to sonically bring to mind specific dance gestures and movements. The opening movement evokes the kicking and leaping associated with many Scandinavian couples dances, while the 2nd dance’s sweeping melodies, interlocking rhythms, and call and response gestures across the orchestra suggest a more stately and serene setting. Movements three and four bring forth images of light spring dances, romantic  rendezvous, and ceremonial weddings. We are treated to sublime lyricism in this work, made all the more alluring by the lightness of the dances, which often bookend the melodies.

Edvard Grieg’s music is the epitome of craft and beauty. The inner logic of his orchestrations, the clever variations by which he treats his melodies, and the complex rhythms that cascade throughout the orchestra, all serve our experience as listeners to find the lesser known Symphonic Dances, like many of Greig’s more popular works, ultimately listenable. Tchaikovsky summed this up well when describing Grieg: “When we listen to Grieg, we instinctively recognize that this music has been written by a person driven by an irresistible pull to express a deeply poetical flow of emotions and moods.”

James Falzone
Dean and Professor of Music
Cornish College of the Arts