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Program Notes – Superman and More

“I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer,” quipped Richard Strauss, only a little self-deprecatingly. This sort of wit was what drew the master tone poet to the tale of Till Eulenspiegel. In German folklore, Till—whose name translates to “owl-mirror”—was a vagabond prankster with a taste for skewering authority. In Strauss’ imaginative setting, we are ushered into a world of make-believe by a “once upon a time” motive, heard at the very opening in the strings. Immediately following this is the horn call that is Till’s signature theme. (This is an item every horn player must master to win a coveted orchestra job; it demands finesse and power, and it spans the better part of three octaves.) Another prominent motif is the wheedling figure first heard in the clarinet, set apart by a short pause in the action. Till rides his steed into a busy village market, topples produce stands, chases girls, taunts the clergy and the intelligentsia, and arouses the ire of the authorities. Ultimately he is brought to trial and hanged for his mischief, but Strauss’ final bars remind us that the legend of Till endures.

Franz Joseph Haydn was fifty eight years old the first time he crossed the English Channel for a concert tour of London. It was a runaway success, and a second tour was arranged for 1794. This time some competition had arrived, in the form of his former pupil Ignaz Pleyel. Pleyel sat up a rival concert series and began programming his trademark sinfoni concertanti—concertos for multiple instruments. Haydn, who until then had not specialized in concertos, was obliged to offer his own model, which is the work on our program tonight. He cast it for orchestra with violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon as soloists, and his entrepreneurial friend Salomon would take the violin part. It’s easy to see that each of the soloists he was writing for were accomplished professionals; the music is of the highest late-period-Haydn caliber.

The work is in the typical three-movement form, the outer two being generally quicker and the middle one the soft, lyrical point of repose. Throughout, the four soloists engage in amiable conversation among themselves, not mugging for the spotlight but emerging from and receding back into the broader texture casually. One notable exception is an unusual opera-esque violin solo at the beginning of the third movement. The atmosphere in each of the movements is genteel and civilized, warmed by the natural good cheer and humor of its author.

Michael Daugherty, born in 1954 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has become one of our century’s most frequently performed and widely acclaimed composers. The eldest of five brothers, professional musicians all, he grew up playing in rock and jazz groups and soaking up every aspect of American pop culture. In 1988 he took inspiration from a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Superman’s appearance in comics, and worked on this large-scale composition until 1993.

His breakout work, Metropolis is a series of five tableaux dealing with the myth of Superman. Lex, the first, treats the subject of Superman’s arch-nemesis as a devilishly difficult solo violin part, with the orchestra in hot pursuit. Four referee whistles are placed quadrophonically around the stage.

Krypton, the planet from which Superman escaped, opens with microtonal smudges in the violins, trombones, and an air raid siren. There are fire-engine bells placed across the stage from one another. The whole shebang heads towards chaos and a paroxysmal climax.

Up next is the movement who dares you to say its name: MXYZPTLK. Daugherty helpfully tells us this is “a mischievous imp from the fifth dimension who regularly wreaks havoc on Metropolis.” Here, the brightest-hued orchestral colors dominate. Two flutes are in the spotlight, each to one side of the conductor’s podium. Plucked strings are made to flit across the orchestra and back as crisp woodblocks accompany before the whole orchestra joins in a rascally groove.

“Faster than a speeding bullet” is the intimidating tempo given at the top of movement four, Oh, Lois! Yes, that’s a synthesizer you hear, tucked back into the orchestra. Now the whole ensemble is one whiz-bang cartoon concertino group, suggesting the pratfalls, jagged dialogue balloons, and ben-day dots of a gallery full of animated Lichtenstein paintings.

Red Cape Tango is the symphony’s final, and weightiest, movement. After an introduction by two horns—one onstage, one offstage—a solo double bass sets up the tango rhythm. As a bassoon and violin begin flirtatiously to dance, you’ll notice a haunting tune tolling softly in the chimes. It’s the Latin poem evoking the Day of the Dead: the Dies Irae. This is Superman’s fight —or, dance? Or, uh, bullfight?—to the death with Doomsday.

 

© Jamey Lamar 2018