Program Notes – November 20, 2016 concert

Concert Details and Tickets – Musical Testaments


Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): VI. Blaník, from Má vlast (My Fatherland), T 121, JB 1:112 (1879)

World Premiere: 1/4/1880 (along with Tabor), Prague
World Premiere of Má vlast: 11/5/1882, Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Adolf Czech, cond.

The concluding work of this cycle of six symphonic poems, Blaník (in D minor) is named after a mountain near Prague where, according to Czech legend, dead heroes sleep until their country needs their help. The last to be completed, it premiered as a pair with the fifth symphonic poem, Tabor (a city in southern Bohemia that served as the center for the Hussites—who founded it—during the Hussite Wars), inasmuch as the beginning of Blaník (is exactly the same as the end of Tabor. Despite this connection, along with other themes and motives from the earlier poems reappearing in this one, Smetana meant each of the six to be independent works, playable out of context—although they rarely are, the extreme popularity of Vlatava (The Moldau), the second of the set, notwithstanding. Well, this concert is one of those rare moments, as we present Blaník—on its own.

In Blaník, the Hussites, who were just defeated at the end of Tabor, retreat to nearby Blaník Mountain, where they will sleep until the time their country will need them to come to their aid. The Hussite’s main choral anthem, “Ye Who are God’s Warriors,”first heard in Tabor, returns here as well. As the anthem develops and swells, the defeated Czech nation slowly revives and gains in strength and power, until these Hussite knights, led by St. Wenceslas (the subject of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”), come to help their country become victorious once again and regain their freedom. This musical development is interrupted only briefly by a pastoral section that depicts a shepherd boy on his pipe. Smetana brings Blaník—a Má vlast –to a close with the final appearance of the main theme first heard at the beginning of this cycle (and having reappeared in Vltava).

The most amazing thing about Má vlast (1874-1879)—variously translated as “My Fatherland,” “My Homeland” and “My Country”—is that it was all written when the composer was as stone deaf as Beethoven. But spurred on by the earlier master’s brave example, he continued working on this monumental epic to the end. Unfortunately, he wound up his life barely one-and-a-half years after the premiere of Má vlast in an insane asylum.


Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, Op.95, S. 117, B. 178

World Premiere: 12/16/1893, Carnegie Hall, New York City, Philharmonic Society of New York, Anton Seidl, cond.

The subtitle “From the New World” was meant to be a short way of saying that this symphony is a series of “Impressions and greetings from the New World,” according to the composer. He also intended his work to be “a study or sketch for a longer work”: The Song of Hiawatha, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 22-chapter epic poem. However, Dvořák never got around to writing the piece, which would have been either a cantata or an opera. Still, “Hiawatha” is felt in Movements II (Largo; inspired by Minnehaha’s funeral) and III (Scherzo: Molto vivace—Trio: Poco sostenuto; the feast scene where members of the Pau-Puk-Keewis tribe danced).

The motto theme of this symphony is first heard when the Adagio introduction goes into the Allegro molto. The motto’s up-then-down motion signifies the composer’s awe-inspired reaction on seeing New York’s skyscrapers for the first time and appears in all four movements. In the finale (Allegro con fuoco), it combines with the principal theme of that movement to produce a dissonant, tension-filled coda. But the motto is not the only recurring theme in the symphony: the Largo‘s introduction and the Scherzo‘s main theme also reappear (and likewise combined) in the fourth movement.

Originally published as “No. 5” due to Dvořák disowning his earlier works, including his first four symphonies, it was renumbered when his earlier works were rediscovered after his death and then placed in chronological order, Symphony No. 9 came about on a commission from the Philharmonic Society of New York (nowadays, the New York Philharmonic), which premiered the work Dec. 16 (and repeated it the next day), 1893, at Carnegie Hall (then not quite three years old), conducted by Dvořák ‘s friend, Anton Seidl. He wrote the work as a challenge to his and all other students at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he was director, conductor and teacher. The challenge was for budding composers in America to write American music, by enriching their works with their own native folk-music for source material—specifically, Native American and African-American folk-songs and dances.

To prove his point, he claimed to infuse this symphony with American folk culture (Native and African). The reality and irony, though, was that the very “American” qualities he espoused in this work are also traits found in Czech music, such as use of the pentatonic scale and flattened notes—proving, if nothing else, that certain traits are shared across folk musics of different nationalities. He then later downplayed this “challenge” by saying his work, although evoking American folk, such as spirituals, is all-original—and therefore, Czech, since it came from the pen of a Czech composer.

Although he claimed not to include any folk quotes, alert ears nonetheless can hear a version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the flute solo of the first movement, and what is unmistakably “Three Blind Mice” in the finale. What is original Dvořák that later became “folk” is the main theme of the Largo, which Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher later adapted into “Goin’ Home” by adding words in 1922.

The orchestration warrants mention. There are instruments that barely appear: the piccolo plays a very short phrase in the first movement, then disappears for the rest of the symphony; the English horn, likewise, plays only in the second movement, but at least there it has the all-important principal theme; the triangle is only in the scherzo, but it fares far better than the cymbals, which have a solitary note near the start of the finale, and nothing else.

Symphony No. 9 has the unique distinction of being the first symphony played on the Moon: Neil Armstrong took a recording of it with him on that fateful first Moon landing July 20, 1969.

-Michael Rydzynski


Reena Esmail (b. 1983): Testament (from Vishwas)

World premiere of symphonic version

Originally written for Albany Symphony Orchestra, Dogs of Desire Chamber Ensemble, David Alan Miller, cond. (2014)

The word vishwas (विशवास) expresses the concept of fervent belief, or faith, in Hindi. Meera Bai, a celebrated saint-poet from 15th century India, is the quintessential embodiment of vishwas. She believes she is married to the Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity, and the events of her life are shaped around her devotion to this intangible but omnipresent figure. My work, Vishwas, picks up the story of Meera as a young adult, and explores her struggle to maintain her spiritual marriage in the context of a mortal one.

III. Testament: In Meera’s stubbornness, she stages a hunger strike outside the temple, refusing to eat until the doors are opened. One night, after days of fasting, she is extremely weak and lays down to rest. A storm brews, and the high winds begin to swing the lamp outside the temple’s wooden door, causing the door to catch fire. As the storm builds, the door burns, eventually causing the entrance to the temple to reopen. Krishna has used the forces of nature to show himself, and to honor Meera’s faithfulness to him. Even as the flames surround her, Meera walks calmly into the temple to honor her Lord.

Vishwas makes use of traditional Hindustani raags, which are woven through the fabric of the composition. The last movement incorporates of one of Meera’s own bhajans (devotional songs), in Raag Malhar, the raag that beckons rain. It is fitting that all the information we know about Meera Bai and her struggles for self-expression are through her own songs.

-Reena Esmail