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Program Notes - May 1, 1999 Concert
("Symphony Firsts")

Max Derrickson

Symphony No.1 "CityStrains"

Russell Steinberg

Notes by the composer

CityStrains is my musical response to the fast-paced stress and excitement of city life-our great modern urban adventure, if you will. The clashing of different cultures, fashions, appearances, attitudes, architectures..how does it all hold together?

The piece has three movements (fast-slow-fast) and lasts about 24 minutes. The first movement, "CityPulse", evokes the energy and bustle of the day, the traffic, the crowds, all in constant movement. Juxtaposition marks the essential flow of the music as a sunrise of chordal outbursts suddenly gives way to brass fanfares, which in turn dissolve to a motoric hubbub in the strings. The music continually strains to ascend. At one point, there is a kaleidoscope of popular styles ranging from Mariachi to Rap to Rock, plus several in-between! Stress ultimately gives way to serenity in the coda as the strings intone a chant in a four part round. But then the movement closes with a startling wink of descending energy.

"NightFall", the second movement, is a nocturne of loneliness inspired by the dazzling night sky and city lights atop Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. The flip side to living around 10 million people is an occasional sense of overwhelming personal isolation. The movement begins with night sounds that feature the woodwinds. Then the music dissolves into a plaintive melody accompanied by two alternating chords and colored by the harp and celesta.

The third movement, "RushHour", is a wild ride through traffic, a veritable tone poem to this bane of our urban existence: The morning commute commences with a rousing energetic scramble; but driving over a hilltop suddenly reveals the dreaded panorama of gridlock traffic backed up at a signal; horns, car engines, impatience continue until...Green light! (The stroke of the triangle) and smooth sailing...which lasts but shortly as the familiar stop and go traffic pattern establishes itself; we enter the zone of the "Car Radio Web" (competing car radios blare the pop music kaleidoscope from the first movement)...mounting tempers; a major collision triggers a SIG Alert and other assorted collisions; traffic helicopters and sirens surround the scene; the excitement dies and cars slowly begin to move; a brief coda ends the symphony in a blur of traffic.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Johannes Brahms

Brahms premiered his First Symphony in November of 1876 when he was 43 years old. The reaction to it was only generally favorable. Long-awaited, it may have suffered from the music world's grand expectations. Robert Schumann, a center piece of German music and a great supporter of Brahms, had been encouraging Brahms to write a symphony for years. Others, critics and musicians, had also wondered when Brahms would at last create a symphony.

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897, had by 1868 already established his place in the music world with the premiere of his German Requiem, op. 45. Beyond that, he had also gained acclaim with his works in lieder, works for piano, chorus (other than the Requiem), and chamber ensembles. But it was the symphony, as a form, that the composer waited to tackle, owing in part to the extraordinary legacy of the symphonies of Beethoven which Brahms was so keenly aware that he followed.

The genesis for the First Symphony began long before its completion, perhaps going as far back as the mid 1850's. But this was the way in which Brahms often wrote; deliberately and often protracted. Upon the First Symphony's premiere, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick praised not so much it's musical content but what it seemed to represent: "Brahms seems too willing to sacrifice sensuous beauty to the cultivation of greatness and seriousness, severity and complexity."

The entire work indeed engages in making a grand statement, and to this end, each movement owes its place. The symphony opens in a massive utterance, with the pounding timpani and a thick, painful progression in the strings and winds. The middle two movements were criticized contemporally as being too short and outweighed by the huge outer movements. Brahms admitted that he deliberately abbreviated them, and it is quite possible that this was to illuminate the chordal progression of the work, which is a progression of major thirds over the whole. The first movement, in c-minor, is followed by the second movement in E-major, then the third in A-flat major, and the finale in C-major, shimmering of gloriousness that is far away from the grimness of the beginning of the work. It is a progression from darkness to light, mortality to immortality; the grand statement of Brahms in his symphonic debut.

Musically, Brahms also states his ideal of musical composition in the German tradition. Brahms was a traditionalist who fostered a love of the Classical style during the Romantic era. His dislike for the works of Wagner and Bruckner was over their sacrificing of form and development of musical motifs for sheer emotional expression. Brahms' First Symphony makes this statement very clearly. From a 19th Century standpoint, Brahms generally abandons melodic treatment for a much denser motivic style. Thematic development is no longer confined to the central (called the Development) section of the Classical Sonata Form, but pervades and dominates the whole of the music. It marks for Brahms the advent of a compositional style that is almost exclusively developmental. Speaking from today's standpoint, Brahms' First Symphony seems to have shed the criticism and melodic yearnings of its day. We hear the seriousness and gorgeousness of the voice of Brahms that will speak for centuries.