Spring Symphony

Saturday, April 27, 2019 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Arwen Myers, soprano
Stephen Rumph, tenor
Damien Geter, bass
Benjamin Yu, piano


Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
D’un matin de printemps

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Vier Gesänge, Op. 17

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Der Himmel Lacht!, BWV 31

— intermission —

Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 [second movement]

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B♭ major (“Spring”), Op. 38

About the Concert

“Landschaft auf Rügen mit Regenbogen” by Caspar David Friedrich

We conclude our 49th season with a wave of fresh air and a ray of sunshine. Our season-long retrospective of the music of Lili Boulanger culminates with her final completed composition, D’un matin de printemps (“Of a spring morning”), a bright and impressionistic work for orchestra that owes much of its musical language to Claude Debussy. This is followed by Johannes Brahms’ opus 17 collection of four songs scored for the unusual combination of women’s choir, two horns and harp. We conclude the first half of our concert with Bach’s sunny Easter cantata Der Himmel Lacht! (“The sky is laughing!”), a festive work for soloists, choir and orchestra.

Our grand finale is Robert Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, which the composer said “was written in that rush of spring which carries a man away even in his old age, and comes over him anew every year.” Full of sparkle and verve (and sketched out in a mere four days!), it brims with spontaneity.

About the Soloists

Soprano Arwen Myers, praised for her artistry and warm, clear tone, is a versatile artist equally comfortable in oratorio, chamber music and on the recital stage. Ms. Myers has performed major works with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and Sacred Music at Notre Dame. Recent engagements include Bach’s Mass in B minor and the title role in Handel’s Semele with the 2018 American Bach Soloists Academy; world premieres by Zachary Wadsworth (with Vancouver’s Chor Leoni) and Robert Kyr (with Trinity Music and the Ensemble of Oregon); world premieres of songs by Renée Favand-See, William C. White, and Emerson Eads with Northwest Art Song; Handel’s Italian cantatas with Seattle’s Gallery Concerts; Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers with Early Music Vancouver; and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and a program English songs and arias with Portland Baroque Orchestra. A native of Augusta, Georgia, Ms. Myers holds degrees in vocal performance from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Learn more: arwenmyerssoprano.com@sopranoarwen

Tenor Stephen Rumph has established himself as a sought-after performer in opera, oratorio and on the concert stage. He made his Seattle Symphony debut in Bach’s BWV 171 and returned to sing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Uematsu’s Distant Worlds. Recent operatic credits include: Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) and Tamino (The Magic Flute) with Pacific Northwest Opera; Eisenstein (Die Fledermaus) and Danilo (The Merry Widow) with Tacoma Opera; and Don José (Carmen) with Vashon Opera. Concert performances include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Spokane and Bozeman Symphonies, Mozart’s Requiem with Northwest Sinfonietta and Walla Walla Symphony, Handel’s Messiah with Symphony Tacoma and the Bellevue Philharmonic, and Beethoven’s Mass in C with OSSCS and the Kirkland Choral Society. He is a professor of music history at the University of Washington and the author of Beethoven After Napoleon (2004) and Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics (2011), both published by the University of California Press. Learn more: northwestartists.org

Bass-baritone Damien Geter is a diverse artist whose credits include performances ranging from the operatic stage to the television screen. Recent concert performances include: appearances with the Resonance Ensemble (Portland); Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem at Lewis & Clark College; selections from La bohème and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the Bremerton Symphony; a Schubert Mass with the Oregon Chorale; and Fauré’s Requiem with Northwest Sinfonietta. Operatic roles include a Seattle Opera debut as the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess, a debut with Vashon Opera in La bohème, and a return to Portland Opera in La traviata. In the realm of musical theatre, he has appeared as Kevin Rosario in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights with Stumptown Stages and in the role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar with Post5 Theatre. A native of Chesterfield County, Virginia, Mr. Geter made his television debut in the role of John Sacks on NBC’s Grimm. Learn more: damiengeter.com

Fourteen-year-old pianist Benjamin Yu is currently a freshman at the International Community School in Kirkland. He began his piano studies at age six and has been a top prizewinner at many local and regional competitions, most recently being the reigning Gold Medalist of the 2019 Northwest Chopin Foundation of the United States, Northwest Division. During 2018 Benjamin participated in the prestigious Music Fest Perugia in Italy, where he performed with the Virtuosi Brunenses Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Uri Segal. Benjamin has performed in masterclasses with world-renowned artists such as Marina Lomazov, Alex Sokolov and Sarah Tal. Aside from playing piano, Benjamin enjoys playing violin as a second instrument, as well as participating in the Seattle Youth Symphony Junior Orchestra. in his spare time, he enjoys drawing, swimming, studying video-game development and music theory, and having fun with his friends. Benjamin Yu is student of Nino Merabishvili.

Program Notes

Lili Boulanger
D’un matin de printemps

Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger was born August 21, 1893, in Paris, and died at Mézy-sur-Seine on March 15, 1918. She began composing this work in 1917, completing the orchestral version in January 1918. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus piccolo, English horn and bass clarinet), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, harp, celesta and strings.

At 24, Johann Sebastian Bach was six years away from composing the cantata heard this evening, Johannes Brahms was three years shy of writing his Op. 17 choral songs, and Robert Schumann was seven years from his first symphony. At the same age, Lili Boulanger was nearing the end of her tragically brief life while composing her final two orchestral works and the last music written in her own hand: D’un soir triste (“Of a sad evening”) and _D’un matin de printemps (“Of a spring morning”). Boulanger conceived three versions of each work, with D’un matin being scored for violin (or flute) and piano, piano trio, and full orchestra.

“Her manuscripts for these works betray the increasing effects of her illness,” writes Boulanger biographer Léonie Rosenstiel. “The notes are minuscule. What reveal most the composer’s steadily worsening condition are the alternative versions within a single score, the insertion of ideas between staves.” D’un matin, which Rosenstiel calls “by turns mordant, animated, agitated and slightly ironic,” exhibits — more than any of the other Boulanger works OSSCS has explored this season — the influence of Claude Debussy, who would die a mere 10 days after Lili.

Johannes Brahms
Vier Gesänge, Op. 17

Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He composed this work for SSA chorus, two horns and harp during February 1860. The composer conducted the Hamburg Women’s Chorus in the first public performance on January 15, 1861.

In 1859 Friedchen Wagner, one of Brahms’ piano students in his hometown of Hamburg, requested that he arrange some folk songs she could sing with her sisters. “After a short time,” she wrote, “several young ladies came to take part in the singing and thus gradually a women’s chorus was formed in my parents’ home.”

Among several works Brahms composed for the group is this set of four choral songs with the unique accompaniment of two horns and harp (the latter suggested by the text of the first song, the horns by the folk-music style Brahms employed). Clara Schumann encouraged this choice, calling it “most uncommon,” “full of feeling” and even “spellbinding.” As Leon Botstein notes, this instrumentation “represents an effective solution to the particular problems of composing for a chorus of women’s voices without male sonorities. ... [T]he horns function both as accompaniment and contrast..., while the harp provides the rhythmic propulsion often supplied by keyboard instruments.”

Johann Sebastian Bach
Der Himmel Lacht!, BWV 31

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. He composed this cantata in Weimar for Easter Sunday, April 21, 1715, revising it slightly for later performances in Leipzig during 1724 and 1731. In addition to SSATB chorus and three vocal soloists, the work calls for 3 oboes, bassoon, 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo.

From 1708 until 1717, Bach was employed by the Duke of Weimar, who promoted him to Konzertmeister in 1714. That job required him to write one cantata each month for Lutheran church services, resulting in roughly 40 such works from this period, about half of which survive. Most were composed for the small vocal and instrumental forces on staff at the ducal palace but Der Himmel Lacht!, created for Easter Sunday 1715, calls for an extravagant orchestra including trumpets, oboes and divided strings. John Eliot Gardiner has theorized that Bach wrote BWV 31 for performance not at the duke’s small chapel but at the much larger Church of Saints Peter and Paul, with the town musicians participating in the two grand opening movements and the concluding chorale, while Bach’s smaller ensemble performed the intervening solo arias and recitatives.

A brilliant, festive instrumental sinfonia opens the work, which then, Gardiner writes, “bursts out in a chorus evoking celestial laughter and worldly jubilation at Christ’s resurrection. The five-part choral texture, the dance-propelled rhythms and the trumpet-edged brilliance” anticipate the “Gloria” from the Mass in B minor, “even to the slowing down of tempo and silencing of the brass when the words speak of Christ’s release from the tomb.”

In the first of three pairs of recitatives and arias, the solo bass heralds the resurrection of Jesus, accompanied by solo cello and continuo. “Faced with a verse of undiluted dogma” in the text for the tenor aria, Gardiner writes, “with no discernible emotion and no opportunity for word-painting, Bach sets in a motion a pulsating, full-blooded string texture suggestive more of rites of spring that of man’s resolve to turn over a new leaf.” But the crown jewel of the cantata is the aria for soprano and obbligato oboe, over which Bach superimposes violins and violas playing the melody of Nikolaus Herman’s deathbed chorale “Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist,” which the chorus then sings as the cantata’s closing number — with a descant trumpet line floating high above.

Frédéric Chopin
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

Chopin was born March 1, 1810, in Żelazowa (near Warsaw) and died October 17, 1849, in Paris. He began composing this work in 1829 and was the soloist at its premiere on March 17, 1830, in Warsaw. The accompaniment calls for pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, bass trombone, timpani and strings.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, the Polish-born son of a French father and Polish mother, began playing piano in public at age seven, by which time he had already composed two polonaises (improvised at the keyboard and notated by his teacher). Seemingly destined for the life of a traveling virtuoso, an 1829 trip to Vienna brought him great acclaim. Upon returning to Warsaw, he began work on the first of his two piano concertos (his only works involving orchestra, aside from a Grand polonaise brillante of 1834).

Chopin premiered his F-minor concerto (known as “No. 2” due to its delayed publication) in March 1830 at the first public concert of his own music in Warsaw. “The first Allegro of my concerto — unintelligible to most — received the reward of a ‘bravo’ from a few,” Chopin reported to a friend. “But the [second and third movements] produced a very great effect. After these, the applause and the ‘bravos’ seemed really to come from the heart.” The young pianist-composer was suddenly a national hero. After his E-minor concerto received a less enthusiastic response, Chopin relocated to Paris (where he would spend the rest of his life), changing his name to Frédéric François and giving a limited number of public concerts, preferring to display his brilliant improvisational talents in private settings.

At the heart of the concerto lies a poetic slow movement inspired by the composer’s love for a soprano, Konstancja Gładkowska, who attended the Warsaw Conservatory with young Chopin. “I already have my perfect one whom I have, without saying a word, served faithfully for a year now, of whom I dream, in whose memory the [Larghetto] of my concerto has been put up.” The love affair was decidedly one-sided: while Gładkowska knew of Chopin and admired his music, she only learned of his infatuation with her decades later from a biography of the composer.

Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 1 in B♭ major (“Spring”)

Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810, and died near Bonn on July 29, 1856. He sketched this symphony over the span of four days (January 23–26, 1841) and completed the orchestration on February 20 of that year. Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the first performance on March 31, 1841. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle and strings.

Today Robert Schumann might be labeled a “binge-composer.” Prior to his 1840 marriage to Clara Wieck, he composed predominantly for solo piano. The year 1840 brought forth 140 songs. At Clara’s urging, 1841 was a year of orchestral works (including two symphonies). And in 1842 he concentrated on chamber music.

Schumann had in fact been thinking about the symphonic form for some time. “I often want to smash my piano,” he told a former teacher in 1839. “It has become too narrow for my thoughts.” Beethoven was of course an obvious model, but the major impetus came during an 1838–1839 visit to Vienna, where Schumann saw the manuscript of the late Franz Schubert’s then-unknown Symphony in C major (nicknamed the “Great”) and was so moved that he engineered a performance in Leipzig by Felix Mendelssohn and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He wrote to Clara that the symphony “is beyond description. The instruments are made to sound like human voices ... and this length, this heavenly length like a novel in four volumes.”

Schumann sketched his “Spring” Symphony during a remarkable four-day period of “sleepless nights” in the dead of winter, later writing that a “longing for spring” was his “main source of inspiration.” Over the next few weeks he orchestrated and refined the work, which was ready for performance by the end of March. Audience and critics alike afforded his Symphony No. 1 an enthusiastic reception. “This symphony is one of the most important of modern times,” wrote one reviewer. “The genuine spring sounds of a poetic nature!” Schumann called the day “surely one of the most important in my artistic life.”

The work begins with a grand brass fanfare (the melody for which seems to have been inspired by the opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9) and an extended slow introduction that leads to a brisk Allegro molto vivace. “I should like the very first trumpet call to sound as though proceeding from on high and like a summons to awaken,” the composer later wrote. “In the following section of the introduction, let me say, it might be possible to feel the world turning green.”

The principal theme of the Allegro, a sped-up version of the opening fanfare, was inspired by the final couplet from a brief poem (Frühlingsgedicht) by Adolph Böttger:

O wende, wende deinen Lauf
im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!

(O turn from this, your present course/springtime blossoms in the valley!) The first movement, to which Schumann originally gave the title “The Beginning of Spring,” is in sonata-allegro form with a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation, and a coda that presents new material while accelerating toward a joyful conclusion.

The lyrical slow movement (originally titled “Evening”) moves to E♭ major, with Schumann reserving the trombones for a magical moment toward the end. The scherzo (“Merry Playmates”) opens with a dynamic D-minor melody derived from the preceding trombone phrase and features not one but two trios, the first shifting gears to a quick 2/4 and D major, the second (after a repeat of the scherzo) to B♭ major and a faster 3/4. The coda combines material from throughout the movement and leads directly to the finale, which returns to the home key of B♭ major. “I want to tell you that I would like to describe a farewell to spring,” Schumann advised, “and therefore do not want it to be taken too frivolously.”

— Jeff Eldridge