May 22 • New Frontiers
Concert program notes by Dr. Suzanne Moulton-Gertig
“Krypton” from the Metropolis Symphony
Michael Daugherty (b. 1954)
21st-century composer Michael Daugherty studied composition from very noteworthy composers including Earle Brown, Jacob Druckman, Bernard Rands, and Roger Reynolds. Following his terminal degree in composition from Yale in 1986, he taught composition for several years at Oberlin Conservatory, then joined the composition faculty at the University of Michigan in 1991.
Daugherty composed the Metropolis Symphony between 1988 – 1993. According to the composer,
The Metropolis Symphony evokes an American mythology that I discovered as an avid reader of comic books in the ’50s and ’60s. Each movement of the symphony — which may be performed separately — is a musical response to the myth of Superman. I have used Superman as a compositional metaphor in order to create an independent musical world that appeals to the imagination.
The second movement, “Krypton,” named after Superman’s home planet, is being performed this evening. The opening of the movement features a siren that signals the destruction of the planet. Sirens blare throughout the movement, along with portentous outbursts from the brass section. Chaotic sounds help to build Krypton to its musical destruction.
Daugherty says the following about this movement:
Krypton refers to the exploding planet from which the infant Superman escaped. A dark, microtonal soundworld is created by glissandi in the strings, trombone, and siren. Two percussionists play antiphonal fire bells throughout the movement, as it evolves from a recurring solo motive in the cellos into ominous calls from the brass section. Gradually the movement builds toward an apocalyptic conclusion.
Celestial Fantasy, Op. 44
Alan Hovhaness (1911 – 2000)
When Alan Hovhaness was 32, he accompanied his spiritual teacher, Greek mystic painter Hermon Di Giovanno, through the cultural worlds of ancient Armenia, Greece, Egypt and India. Inspired by what he learned and observed, the composer returned to the United States and destroyed most of the music he had composed up to that point and started anew.
A product of this new beginning, Celestial Fantasy for string orchestra, had its premiere in Boston in 1944. The work is dedicated to Saint Nerses Shnorhali, an Armenia saint and mystic poet, who was the head of the Amenian Church at the beginning of the 12th century. Fantasy is a fugal work, solemn in nature, encircled by lyrical melismatic prayer-like passages in the lower strings. The fugue itself makes use of canon, augmentation, and contrary motion of the fugal subject.
Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934)
Without doubt, The Planets is Holst’s best known composition. Written in 1914, the work stands as a surprising contribution to English music from the earlier years of the 20th century, for nothing like it had been heard previously. When the initial shock of the seven-movement orchestra suite was over, it was greeted with passion and hailed as a masterwork. Interestingly, the composer himself never ranked it amongst his best compositions and was baffled when it achieved such acclaim.
“Mars, the Bringer of War” was written in the early summer of 1914. Though completed before the onset of combat, it appears to foretell the mechanized warfare of World War I. The storm that is portrayed musically is, in reality, a storm in the mind. An unremitting five-four rhythm hammers its way through this first of the seven sections, while coursing chromatic triads attempt to rise, but are dragged downward seemingly by their own weight. A moment of startling chase occurs when the trumpets and the tuba modulate higher stepwise, but fail to catch up with one another, followed by an instant of bleak exhaustion when the storm descends to its deepest ebb before breaking out once again.
“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” affords a respite from Mars in the tranquil ascending notes of the solo horn and the tranquil accompaniment of the flutes. The quietly undulating quarter notes play back and forth effortlessly, affording solace to the listener after Mars’ chaos.
The scherzo style “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” follows featuring bitonal writing and an elastic 6/8 rhythm. The rising eighth notes in the muted strings mimic a rushing wind as Mercury flies over these auditory wind currents without care on his appointed mission.
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” is unabashed in its cheer with its energetic pace, consciously ordered syncopation, and dance-like heavy pesante melodies. The middle section, marked maestoso, in later years became a patriotic song, familiar to the denizens of the British Isles.
“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” provides the polar opposite in character to Jupiter. The opening augmented fourths plod slowly, imitating the measured tread of the very aged. The trombones provide a dirge-like procession. In mid movement, the bells begin tolling an urgent foreboding message, followed by a moment of panic when the entire orchestra mimics the chimes. The music advances to an agonizing climax, nonetheless arriving there with a tone of acceptance of its fate. A calmer section ensues, and the movement symbolically ends in peaceful resignation.
“Uranus, the Magician” shatters the repose of Saturn’s conclusion with an almost clumsy, cloddy folk-like dance character. The listener can almost hear the Magician become increasingly more involved with his spells: the music becomes noisier and more raucous until an unexpected organ glissando in effect sweeps everything away, conveying the listener away to a remote region that lacks the bustle and activity associated with the Magician’s art.
The final section, “Neptune, the Mystic,” contains a footnote in the score ordering the orchestra to play sempre pp throughout.” In fact, in Holst’s own score copy he added in pencil: “dead tone, except the clarinet tune.” The effect is that of quiet extended concentration. The harmony moves around the alternating chords of E and G-sharp minor, and occasionally mingles while the two harps cross and cross one another in arpeggiated entrances that seem to wander into the vast empty spaces that surround them. The end of the movement provides a surprise with the entrance of a female chorus singing in “tideless waves of sound” back and forth until their voices disappear into the heavens.