Program Notes | Oct 5–7
Kate Whitley: Speak Out
Britain’s Kate Whitley chose a speech by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai as the text. Children’s chorus is the focus for Malala’s inspirational message about the importance of education for all.
Walker: Lyric for Strings
We perform this celebrated work in memory of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker—a Montclair resident and friend of the NJSO.
Beethoven: Ninth Symphony
This is the composer’s most grandiose work. The stormy movements get a lot of attention, but the sublime slow movement has its own heavenly power. Beethoven was an idealist; he selected Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” because of its message of universal brotherhood. Its inclusion in the finale adds emotional and spiritual depth to the music.
KATE WHITLEY: Speak Out (US Premiere)
Born: April 23, 1989, in Oxford, United Kingdom (Currently residing in London)
World Premiere: International Women’s Day concert on March 8, 2017, in Cardiff, Wales. Xian Zhang conducted the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales with Côr y Cwm.
NJSO Premiere: These are the US and NJSO premiere performances.
Duration: 9 minutes
“My music has definitely been influenced by having to write for unusual contexts, rather than the traditional ones,” Kate Whitley has said. After graduating from university, she co-founded the Multi-Storey Orchestra, whose first performance—of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, no less!—took place in an abandoned parking garage in Peckham. The audience of 1,500 was thrilled. Whitley’s concept has grown into a full-scale community outreach project. Her focus is broadening access to classical music. Her choral music has been widely performed in the UK.
Whitley drew her text for Speak Out from Nobel Laureate Malala Youssefzai’s speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013. Malala’s mission is to promote education for every child. Here are excerpts from Whitley’s composer’s note:
The words for Speak out are taken from Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 speech given at the United Nations Youth Assembly as part of her campaign to promote education for every child.
Malala grew up in the Swat Valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan where she first came to public attention aged 11 as an activist for girls’ education. She survived being shot by Taliban gunmen on her way from school in 2012, an assassination attempt that was covered worldwide. Protests against the shooting were held across Pakistani the day after the attack, over 2 million people signed the Right to Education campaign's petition and Pakistan's first Right To Free and Compulsory Education Bill was passed the following month. Her advocacy has grown into an international movement and in 2014 she was the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner for her struggle for young people’s rights.
Her 2013 speech was a call for the importance of education. I have taken four of her statements and turned them into a verse about the power of words in the struggle against oppression. This is first sung by children’s choir alone: Let us pick up our books and pens / Let us wage a glorious struggle / We can never all succeed when half of us are held back / One child, one pen, one teacher, one book can change our world. There is then a middle section, starting with adult choir alone before the children join them, where Malala speaks in the first person: Here I stand, one among many / I speak not for myself, but for those without voices / We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced / And out of that silence comes thousands of voices.
The leads back into the second verse – a repeat of the first but with all singers, before going into the final coda with the repeated phrase ‘Today is the day of every woman, every man, every boy and every girl’, and ‘Today is the day we speak out’.
The children’s chorus is enormously effective, using upward gestures to assert hope and determination. Words like “struggle” elicit agitated descending swoops in the orchestra. Whitley’s shimmering textures place the voices—and Malala’s inspiring message—firmly in the foreground.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, strings, children’s chorus and mixed chorus.
WALKER: Lyric for Strings
Born: June 27, 1922, in Washington, DC
Died: August 23, 2018, in Montclair, New Jersey
World Premiere: 1946 at the Curtis Institute of Music.
NJSO Premiere: Summer 1989 at the Garden State Arts Center. Hugh Wolff conducted.
Duration: 6 minutes
On opening weekend, the NJSO celebrates the life and legacy of George Theophilus Walker, one of New Jersey’s most influential compositional voices, who passed away on August 23, 2018, at the age of 96. Born in 1922 (the same year as the NJSO’s founding) in Washington, DC, Walker was an accomplished pianist who graduated from Oberlin at the age of 18 and became the first African-American admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music. Despite his extraordinary prowess as a pianist, Walker faced significant discrimination from concert presenters and turned his musical focus to teaching and composition and settled in New Jersey, where he served on the faculty (and ultimately, as chair of the music department) at Rutgers University in Newark.
In 1996, Walker was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for his work Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra. The piece features settings of Walt Whitman texts; it was premiered and commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa conducting. Despite breaking barriers, Walker eschewed being labeled, saying, “I just like the idea of being an American.” Walker’s oeuvre is vast, and much of it is virtually unknown and unperformed—even Lilacs has had just a handful of performances. After winning the Pulitzer, Walker said: “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner. But not a single orchestra approached me about doing this piece or any piece … it materialized in nothing.”
The NJSO and then-Music Director Zdenek Macal commissioned Walker to write a piece for the opening of NJPAC, the result of which was his 1997 work Pageant and Proclamation, a festive and celebratory work which The New York Times noted “moves well, from fanfare to serenity, and ends with a noble brass phrase from We Shall Overcome.” As part of the New Jersey Roots project, the NJSO co-commissioned and gave the world premiere of his Sinfonia No. 4, “Strands,” with then-Music Director Jacques Lacombe in October 2012. The NJSO also gave the US premiere of his Variations for Orchestra and the New Jersey and New York premieres of his Poeme for Violin and Orchestra.
By far his most performed work, Lyric for Strings is an orchestration of the slow movement of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1 (not unlike Barber’s Adagio for Strings). Initially premiered under the title of Lament in 1946 and dedicated to his grandmother, Walker’s Lyric is an instantly gripping and intensely intimate work. Each string section is given its own contrapuntal lines that occasionally converge in moments of cathartic climax. While Walker was vocal in his desire to be known for more than just this short early work, few pieces from the 20th century can match it for directness of expression and sheer beauty.
– Patrick Chamberlain, NJSO Director of Artistic Planning
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, “Choral,” Op. 125
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born: December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
Composed: 1822–24. Some sketches date as early as 1817.
World Premiere: May 7, 1824, at the Kärtnerthor Theater in Vienna. Michael Umlauf conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1952–53 season. Heidi Krall, Jane Hobson, Ernest McChesney, Manfred Hecht and the Oratorio Society of New Jersey were the soloists; Samuel Antek conducted.
Duration: 65 minutes
What makes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony so memorable? Entire books have been written to answer that question, and many more will doubtless follow. But the immediacy of a live performance enhances the symphony’s impact. The Ninth always provides a revelation, whether to a first-time listener or the veteran concertgoer.
Friedrich von Schiller wrote his poem “An die Freude” (“To Joy”) in 1785. Beethoven read it as a youth and felt a strong affinity with Schiller’s philosophy of the joy that unites all humankind in brotherhood. As early as 1793, he considered setting the text. By 1818, he had come up with the revolutionary idea of incorporating voices into a symphony. Finally, in 1822, his thoughts germinated in the finale to the Ninth Symphony. Selecting about half ofSchiller’s 18 sections, Beethoven rearranged and repeated stanzas to suit his musical needs. The result is a very personal interpretation of the poem, emphasizing the call to universal brotherhood.
The Ninth is inextricably identified with its choral finale. But to overlook the massive impact of the first three movements is impossible. Each segment of this enormous symphony broke musical ground in a striking way.
At the outset, the strings outline a groundswell of open fifths, stark and rumbling, before the main theme erupts in a decisive D-minor downward unison swoop. The battle has begun in this longest of all Beethoven’s opening movements. He takes time for sweeping, majestic music, culminating in the spine-chilling coda. At the very point of emotional exhaustion, when we are certain that the power and drama of this movement is played out, Beethoven hammers home the darkness of D minor with thunderous finality.
Only in this symphony did Beethoven place his scherzo second rather than third. Listeners of a certain age still associate this movement with NBC-TV’s “Huntley/Brinkley Report” (1956–70). The Molto vivace concentrates the storm of the first movement into sheer nervous energy. A virtuoso showpiece, it is both a brilliant five-voice fugato and a fully developed sonata form. Timpani tuned in octaves underline its principal rhythmic motive, with electrifying effect. Some relief from the rhythmic and harmonic tension occurs in the D-major trio section.
All volcanic rumblings and dark clouds dissipate in the slow movement. Beethoven’s architecture starts to become clear. He transcends the earthly struggle of the symphony’s first half in an Adagio of ineffable, heavenly beauty. After the thunderclaps of the scherzo, the tranquil woodwind chord that opens the Adagio is an oasis of beauty and calm. The music that follows is deeply tender and emotionally intense: this is Beethoven at his most human and loving.
A cacophonous shriek opens the finale, shattering the celestial calm. The music leaves no doubt that what will follow is of major importance. Beethoven briefly alludes to the three previous movements before presenting the “Ode” melody. This bold gesture makes his Ninth one of the first cyclic symphonies and heightens the dramatic effect of the “Ode.” By the time the orchestra delivers the simple, step-wise melody, it has the effect of a rainbow. From there, Beethoven declaims several orchestral variations on the theme before introducing the bass recitative and the chorus.
After the buildup to a climactic pause, Beethoven's sense of humor surfaces in a march for German military band. The double fugue that ensues is the last section for orchestra alone. Fiendishly difficult, it serves as a brilliant transition. When the chorus re-enters, it sings forth with the most exuberant declamation yet of praise and thanksgiving. Through his four heroic movements, Beethoven wages a struggle between minor and major, with an ultimate victory by major mode. The emergence of triumph out of tragedy—the triumph of universal brotherhood—is the essential message of this miraculous symphony.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings. The finale adds soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists and mixed chorus.