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Lexington Symphony to Perform John Tarrh Commission, Symphony No. 2, “Freedom,” at Town Celebration on Memorial Day
As part of a series of projects celebrating the town of Lexington’s 300th anniversary, Lexington Symphony commissioned a work by Lexington composer John Tarrh to mark this significant milestone in the town’s history. Symphony No. 2, or “Freedom” for orchestra and chorus will be performed as part of the 300th Anniversary Concert: We Are Lexington on Memorial Day (Monday, Monday, May 27, 2013) at 7 pm at Lexington High School. The Symphony is thrilled to have had the opportunity to work on this project with Tarrh, who has agreed to let us share his program notes for this important, community-based commemorative work below.
Symphony No. 2 Program Notes
My Symphony No. 2, “Freedom” (2012) for orchestra and chorus was commissioned by the Lexington Symphony Orchestra for the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. The theme of this large-scale work is freedom, for which I have set various texts associated with the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. The authors include great American poets (Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Madison Bell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman) and statesmen (Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Paine). The symphony is in nine movements, each approximately five minutes long. The first four movements focus on the Revolutionary War while the last five focus on the Civil War. The fifth movement, setting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, connects the two halves of the symphony as its opening reflects back from the Civil War to the Revolutionary War.
The first movement, Crisis, sets excerpts from Thomas Paine’s essay The Crisis of December 23, 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; . . . the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” General George Washington found this essay so inspiring that he ordered it read to the troops at Valley Forge. The first movement also sets excerpts from Patrick Henry’s famous speech of March 23, 1775. The opening melody is mournful and funereal. It serves as an accompanying melody for a somber initial setting of “These are the times.” These two opening melodies return together after Patrick Henry’s speech, transformed rhythmically into a forceful closing recapitulation.
Ride, the second movement, sets excerpts from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved 1860 poem Paul Revere’s Ride. This movement also includes Captain John Parker’s command to the militia at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, “Hold your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Concord Hymn, which was sung at the dedication of the Concord battle monument on July 4, 1837, is set for the third movement, Bridge. This movement opens very quietly, as if one is approaching the Old North Bridge from afar and initially perceives only the ebb and flow of the river. More details emerge as one draws near. The sunlight glistens on the surface of the water and birds sing contentedly. The strings mimic the motion of the water throughout the movement, which ends in the same way that it began.
The fourth movement, Declaration, sets excerpts from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense of February 14, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The movement opens with fanfares and excerpts from Common Sense. Excerpts follow this from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence along with its final sentence. The setting of this text ends with a big plagal (amen) cadence. The movement closes with a recapitulation of selected excerpts from the preamble.
The decisive three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania near the Maryland border, fought July 1–3, 1863, resulted in the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. Both the Union and Confederate armies suffered more than 23,000 casualties (a total of 8,000 killed, 27,000 wounded, and 11,000 captured or missing). Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg where the dead were being reinterred after being hastily buried in shallow temporary graves in the summer heat of the first days after the battle.
Address, the fifth movement, sets the complete text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863. Sung by tenors, baritones, and basses only, the movement opens with an insistent tympani stroke that continues throughout and the sound of death from a dissonant chord in the muted lower brass and percussion. As the movement progresses, this “death chord” lightens somewhat and ultimately resolves.
Walt Whitman’s poem Beat! Beat! Drums! is set for the sixth movement, Drums. Whitman, a giant among American poets, was a government clerk and volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and wrote many powerful war-related poems. Beat! Beat! Drums! was written early in the war in 1861 as a rally call for the North.
The two-day Battle of Shiloh, fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee, was the deadliest battle in United States history up to that time. With a total of nearly 20,000 killed and wounded, few could imagine there would be three more years of war and even larger and more deadly battles to come.
The seventh movement, Battlefield, sets Herman Melville’s poem Shiloh, A Requiem, which describes the scene after the first day of battle. The horrors of the battlefield are intensified by Melville’s juxtaposition of tranquil images of swallows and April rain. The music heightens this contrast with a serene setting sung by sopranos and altos only, accompanied primarily by harp and muted strings.
Loss, the eighth movement, sets Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain! My Captain! Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 inspired Whitman, a great admirer of Lincoln who was shocked and grieved by Lincoln’s death, to write a number of poems soon afterwards. In this metaphorical poem, Lincoln is the captain, the ship is the United States, and the fearful trip is the Civil War. The musical setting is reminiscent of the third movement, Bridge, which also depicts a water scene. However, the music is transformed so that it is hardly recognizable until it reaches a tranquil, mournful ending.
The ninth movement, Freedom, sets excerpts from James Madison Bell’s epic poem The Triumph of Liberty that was written to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870. The last of three Reconstruction Era amendments, this gave former slaves the right to vote by prohibiting the United States or any State government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Bell (1826–1902), an African American plasterer and abolitionist in Ohio, also became one of the most successful black poets of the nineteenth century. In The Triumph of Liberty, he traces events over a ten-year period from the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 until passage of the 15th Amendment.
The musical setting for the last movement begins with a fanfare that recurs and evolves as the poetic mood shifts from majestic to shameful to joyful to triumphant. The movement ends with the final phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States, “…with liberty and justice for all,” and a repeated statement of the theme of the overall work, “Freedom!”
—John M. Tarrh
To listen to a synthesized audio recording of this work on Tarrh’s website, click here.
Lexington Composer John Tarrh Shares His Thoughts on Michael Gandolfi, New Music, and Lexington’s 300th Birthday
This is an extraordinary year for the town of Lexington. Lexington Symphony has commissioned three new musical works to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the town’s founding. I salute the Symphony for committing the time, energy, and financial resources to make this a reality, and I salute the orchestra’s supporters for providing the significant financial support needed. All of this combines to make Lexington a very special place to live and makes me enormously proud and delighted to be a part of the town and its celebration. As humans have done for ages, we will memorialize this major occasion in our lives with new music.
I am one of three very fortunate composers chosen to create musical works for the celebration. My piece, a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus entitled Symphony No. 2, “Freedom,” sets texts associated with the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Members of the Lexington Symphony orchestra will perform this work for the 300th closing ceremonies with the Halalisa Singers, the Lexington Pops Chorus, and the Master Singers, augmented by talented musicians from Lexington High School. (More information is available on my website.)
Coincidentally, one of the other three composers is my former composition teacher, Michael Gandolfi, who heads the composition department at the New England Conservatory of Music. Lexington Symphony will perform his commissioned piece, Fortune, Fate, and The Fool, on February 16th. Those fortunate enough to hear Michael speak recently at the Depot and experience his sublime choral work Winter Light may have some inkling why it was so wonderful for me to study with him. His abundant intellectual curiosity enables him to present difficult, complex technical subjects in terms everyone can understand. He likens the process of musical composition to storytelling. Even when there is no specific detailed narrative or text associated with a musical work (called “absolute” as opposed to “program” music), the musical themes interact and evolve as if the composer is having the music tell a story. He compared the experience of hearing a new work for the first time to visiting a new neighborhood. The streets and houses may all be new and unfamiliar, but once you’ve walked around the block a few times you feel like you know the neighborhood. This is the way we become familiar with new musical works.
Musical composition has been taught the same way for hundreds of years: Through one-on-one meetings between student and teacher. Michael is an exceptionally gifted teacher. His knowledge of the musical repertoire is vast, so he can easily suggest other pieces to examine in consideration of how other composers have handled particular situations. He has an amazing ability to listen to a new piece or passage once, and immediately pick out detailed errors or suggest improvements, whether it’s the structure of the piece, its harmonic evolution, pacing, instrumentation, or rhythm. I always felt that any piece I was working on was much improved at the end of a session with Michael.
One of the most remarkable things about Michael is all the wonderful music he has written. It used to be that contemporary music was so abstract and difficult to understand that audiences lost interest in hearing it. Now, the pendulum is swinging back toward music that is much more accessible and enjoyable on first hearing. Michael is a leader in this camp, which is one of the primary reasons I wanted to study with him. Michael’s music is unfailingly energetic, tuneful, colorful, and has a terrific sense of forward motion. This is my kind of music. The last time I heard a Gandolfi premiere, it was paired with a Beethoven work. As much as I revere and love Beethoven’s music, I thought Michael’s was the better, more enjoyable piece. This time, Fortune, Fate, and The Fool is going up against Beethoven’s beloved Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral.” I’m eager to see if I have the same reaction. It won’t surprise me a bit if I do.
A resident of Lexington, John Tarrh received a Master of Music in Composition with Academic Honors from New England Conservatory in 2008, as well as a Master of Music in Theoretical Studies with Academic Honors from NEC in 2007. He has written music for a variety of ensembles, from solo and chamber music to works for concert band and full orchestra with chorus. A member of ASCAP and the Society of Composers, Inc., he plays percussion with the New Philharmonia Orchestra of Newton, and sings with the Lexington Pops Chorus, of which he was named Assistant Conductor in 2010.
Lexington Symphony Concertmaster Liz Whitfield Talks “Brit to Brit” with Guest Artist Ruth Palmer, Violinist
Described as “the most distinctive violinist of her generation” by Britain’s The Independent, Ruth Palmer won a Classical BRIT award, classical music’s high honor in the UK, for her debut recording and has performed across Europe, Asia, and Australia with renowned orchestras and conductors, including the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which she led from her violin. Here, Lexington Symphony’s concertmaster Elizabeth Whitfield (whose trim British accent gives her own roots away) visits with Palmer about her upcoming performance with Lexington Symphony.
Liz: Hi Ruth, looking forward to next week and our time together with Lexington Symphony. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions… Starting right off with the upcoming concert on February 16th, why did you choose to play the Korngold Violin Concerto?
Ruth: It was suggested to me several years ago, and it is now quite often performed here in the UK. It’s a fascinating piece – at once florid, complex and simple; European and American. The implications that Korngold’s different influences may have on my idea of sound were also very attractive to me, and it is made more complex because I think that our hindsight turns it into something different from what it was when it was written. Now I try not to think of it as Viennese or Hollywood-ese, neither operatic nor Rat-Pack-tic, and just let the music on the page speak to me.
Liz: People say that the string sound of a UK orchestra is quite different to the string sound of a US orchestra – have you noticed that?
Ruth: Within the UK there are different string sounds and different orchestras; from the lushness of the London Symphony Orchestra (an orchestra I think takes years to change musical direction after a change of principal conductor), to the lively phrasing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Liz: On a recent trip to the UK, I was astounded by two things while listening to Classical radio: the amount of “new music” performed and the number of live performances. This tells me that classical music is still “alive and well” in Britain. Would you agree?
Ruth: Yes. I think there is a dichotomy between different approaches to classical music in the UK; the commercial sales-driven programming and the public-funded education- driven programming. They each each try to reach out to each other, but it doesn’t always work. Finances in public funding and in household budgets are under pressure; in the end we may just be left with the artists!
Liz: The violin can be rather a temperamental instrument. England, I know from experience, is mostly damp so stringed instruments don’t change too much, but how does your instrument handle changing climates?
Ruth: My instrument has been fine so far, it just occurred to me that the driest place is probably in the plane!
Liz: I understand you did a collaboration with a dancer both in London and Sydney – did this involve any “dance moves”?
Ruth: No – I’m not a dancer, even though I love it. I was asked to collaborate by Rafael Bonachela, a choreographer, after he saw me perform. He said he could see my movement and stage presence fitting well with his muse, dancer Amy Hollingsworth.
Liz: Like you, I attended Wells Cathedral School – many years ago when it was just beginning its “specialist music program.” Can you tell me a couple of your favorite haunts (or memories) around the school?
Ruth: I lived in Wells, and it’s a beautiful city. The 14th Century Vicars’ Close is beautiful; it is the oldest residential street in Europe.
Liz: I remember it well!! I see that you have performed in a variety of different venues and different countries. Is there a venue that stands out to you?
Ruth: When I played in the Limonaia in Villa La Pietra in Florence, the acoustic, the building felt warm. It was a beautiful Tuscan summer day, so they had put the lemons outside which meant that there was room for me to play and the audience to listen!
I was playing the Bach E Major Partita which I also perceive as being about light, and as being warm. The acoustic was unexpectedly good. The Limonaia roof sloped down from one side, and was not baroque or ornate; it was long and thin, but the sound was full and earthy.
Ruth Palmer joins Lexington Symphony and conductor Jonathan McPhee in a performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto on Saturday, February 16 at 8:00pm, Cary Hall, 1605 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington Center. Conductor’s Talk with Jonathan McPhee and composer Michael Gandolfi at 7:00pm. Tickets available online at http://www.lexingtonsymphony.org or by phone at 781 523-9009.