Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Conductor's Notes

On June 7th and 8th, Claremont Chorale and Chorale Bel Canto combine singers to present the final concert of this season,  America Sings! Today, the conductors describe the first half of the concert. See the sidebar for details about the two performances of this concert.

America Sings!
              By Gregory Norton and Stephen Gothold

Poet Walt Whitman famously wrote “I hear America singing… singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” This program seeks to celebrate that song with tunes that emanate from the land and that straddle the worlds of “high art” and the common folk.

We begin with music of Randall Thompson (1899-1984). A true “Yankee,” Thompson was born in New York City and had a successful academic career at the Curtis Institute, the University of Virginia and Harvard, his alma mater. His students included Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler and others. His choral music has remained popular and is noteworthy for its musical accessibility and for his excellent taste in texts. That said, his most popular work is an anthem setting of but one word, Alleluia. He wrote The Testament of Freedom in 1943 while teaching at the University of Virginia, having been commissioned by the university's Glee Club to celebrate the bicentennial of one of their most distinguished alumni, Thomas Jefferson. Although the Jefferson texts were chosen for the occasion, the piece's stirring message soon became popular to wartime America. It was widely broadcast and was performed in Carnegie Hall as part of a concert in memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Thompson's Frostiana: Seven Country Songs on poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) was commissioned for another bicentennial – that of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts in 1959. Although born in San Francisco, Frost was long associated with Amherst. Frost and Thompson knew and admired one another, and Thompson himself selected seven poems to construct a suite of choral songs for the commemoration. They include some of the poet's most familiar and beloved lines alongside lesser-known items. All portray various shades of the American landscape by both painting musical pictures of the terrain and by disclosing what might be called the 'landscape of the heart.'

Much of the music of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) brings the American landscape to mind (Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo). The first half of the program ends with a brief excerpt from The Tender Land, a two-act opera Copland wrote in the 1950s that was intended for television. The opera is set in the mid-west of the 1930s and Stomp Your Foot captures the exuberance of a country “hoe-down” in that time and place. 

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