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Program Notes: December 1, 2007

Synkinetic (world premiere)

Matthew Stofferahn

(born Edwards, CA, 1982)

Composer’s Note

Hopkins Symphony Orchestra Music Director Jed Gaylin commissioned Synkinetic to open the HSO’s 25th anniversary gala concert. As a former trombonist with the orchestra (2003-2007), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to this event. I wrote the piece in the spring and summer of 2007, while finishing medical school at Hopkins, moving from Baltimore to Delaware, and starting work as a physician.

Given the piece’s purpose, I conceived of it as an overture. While doing the initial planning, I thought of a well-known example of the genre: Leonard Bernstein’s famous 1956 overture to Candide. What interested me about this work was how the tempo remains blazingly fast throughout, while the character of the piece changes so drastically, from opening fanfares, to whimsical playfulness, to a beautiful love duet. Bernstein convincingly fulfills the overture’s traditional role of introducing the operetta’s major themes, while using the persistently vivace tempo to build momentum and excitement. For my piece, I decided to emulate this approach using my own ideas.

My work is based on three musical motifs that function as “themes.” The first is a simple three-note sequence that opens the piece in the brass: G-A-D (and its various transpositions). The second theme is a forward-moving, scalar melody that is first played by a solo oboe. Finally, a lyrical, legato motif sneaks in, first as a transitional theme in the woodwinds, then becoming more prominent. The three ideas usually appear as independent lines, but also play off each other and combine to create new melodies, as in a brass chorale and a five-voice fugue. Surrounding these themes is a fabric of continuously moving secondary lines, creating a dense network of counterpoint that drives the orchestra forward. The contributions of each member of the orchestra pull the others along in a push to the finish, even as the texture changes from a full orchestral fortissimo to a lone soloist and back.

It is to convey this concept of cooperatively moving forward that I decided to name the piece Synkinetic, literally, “moving together.” The orchestra is the largest standard instrumental ensemble, and the effectiveness of its artistic expression depends on the cooperation and communication among its individual members. If they are not precisely together, the music falls apart. If they are, though, the music can soar. Over the past 25 years, the HSO has taken on this challenge, growing into a mature and capable ensemble, and I’m sure that its next quarter century will bring continuing success. In a way, the HSO and I are moving forward together. I, too, turned 25 this year.

— Matt Stofferahn

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125 (Choral)

Ludwig van Beethoven

(born Bonn, 1770; died Vienna, 1827)

Beethoven’s extraordinary Symphony No. 9 of 1824 gave the music world, and the world at large, reason to pause. The beginning and the ending of this masterpiece most intensely defined Beethoven’s musical mastery, and changed the course of music history.

The astonishing opening 16 measures, like nothing ever heard before, captured the essence of the staggering human effort to give meaning to sound—a sound arising out of infinite silence, devoid of any definable key, rhythm, or direction, and then building to frightfully profound power. Those 16 bars would influence Mahler, Bruckner, and dozens of other symphonic composers for decades to come, introducing an intimacy of expression that had yet to be articulated in Western art music. For Beethoven, those bars must have represented the agonizing silent world of his deafness, clashing against his passion for music.

Likewise, the last movement, in which Beethoven introduced the human voice for the first time into symphonic music, ripped what had been the assumed fabric of the symphony. This gesture alone would be reason enough to make future composers look over their shoulders, constantly sensing Beethoven’s specter. But the fourth movement is much more. It is a “symphony within a symphony”: Its enormous structure revisits the themes of the three previous movements. Each is replayed and then discarded, in favor of the famous “Ode to Joy” theme. Schiller’s poem beseeches us to embrace human unity. Together, the voices, the massive organic structure, and the human message transformed the way Western music would evolve.

Importantly, the Symphony No. 9 expresses Beethoven. Almost entirely deaf, feeling increasingly isolated, and a man of exceptionally high principles, the composer found himself in a world both physically and spiritually imperfect. In his isolation, music became even more of a realm of divine deliverance. In his last works, theMissa Solemnis,the Hammerklavier sonata, the late string quartets, and the 9th Symphony, the expression is no longer abstract, but intimate, from the deepest core. He asks big human questions through a personal language. Perhaps most influential in Beethoven’s later music was his courage in showing his own humanness.

It took time for the music world to embrace the profundity and sincerity with which Beethoven realized his last symphony. But when composers did, they grappled with what they could possibly write in its wake. Mendelssohn almost abandoned the idea of writing a symphony altogether. For Franz Lizst and Richard Strauss, the next step was not a symphony at all, but the tone poem. Richard Wagner believed that his operas, in which he attempted to combine all of the arts (music, literature, drama, and graphic art) into one “Über-art,” were worthy and ground-breaking successors to Beethoven’s last symphony. The 9th symphony alone could be the reason why Johannes Brahms stewed over writing his own first symphony until he was 43 years old, and why the main theme of its last movement pays homage to the finale of Beethoven’s 9th. Indeed, since the 9th Symphony’s premiere, listeners have responded deeply to its extraordinary balance between alarming power and gentle intimacy, and to the last movement’s universality in seeking the joyful brotherhood of man. As the symphony transformed the way composers perceived writing music, it rightfully holds its place as one of the most important pieces of music—indeed, one of the most important works of art—ever created.

— Max Derrickson