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Sebastian Ballet Suite

A Royal Invitation
or Homage to the Queen of Tonga

6 Old American Songs
(for choir and orchestra)

Concert Artists of Baltimore
Edward Polochick, conductor

Catalog #S022585CD [DDD]

Program Notes

Composer, conductor, writer and lecturer, teacher, advocate of modern music, a founder of the American Composers Alliance and the Tanglewood Festival, Aaron Copland commanded a central role in this country's musical life for almost seventy years. Copland began his musical career late in life compared to the other great composers such as Bach and Beethoven. At the age of twelve he began to learn to play piano from his sister, Laurine. After six months, Laurine modestly admitted, "You know more now than I learned in eight years of study. I can't teach you anything else". In 1921, Copland received a scholarship to a music school for Americans at Fontainebleau near Paris. During the two years that he attended Fountainebleau, Copland came under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger, who was to have a profound affect on his life. Under her direction, Copland moved from his short, solo pieces mainly for the piano, to ballets and symphonies. He also met many of the leading musical personalities and some of the now legendary literary figures such as Joyce, Hemingway, and Pound. Copland returned to America in June 1924 and began work on the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, which was commissioned by Nadia Boulanger for her performances with the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Symphony was a success for Copland and he received a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The piece, Music for the Theatre, brought the Jazz style into the concert hall, something that was unheard of up until this time. For the next ten years, Copland was known for his abstract, dissonant music. In 1935, however, on a trip to visit his friend, Carlos Chavez, the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, he discovered a new sound that has made him one of the most famous composers of all time. While strolling through a small Mexican town, Aaron wondered into a dance hall called El Salon Mexico. There he found a mariachi band playing stylized versions of Mexican folk songs all night long. This inspired Copland to write a symphony, El Salon Mexico, which combined seven different folk songs into a full orchestra piece, which was meant to capture the spirit of Mexico. After El Salon, Copland wrote several other very "American" sounding works. The first of these was The Second Hurricane, which is an opera written for high school performers about a group of young people who are stranded while trying to bring relief supplies to an area flooded by a hurricane. They are forced to overcome their differences when a second hurricane threatens them. The next piece is Prairie Journal (Music for Radio). It was commissioned by CBS for an on-air contest. Contestants were to listen to the piece on the radio, then send in their idea of what it should be called. Billy the Kid was Copland next major work, he used many folk songs as he did with El Salon, but this time in a ballet form.
Copland then wrote Lincoln Portrait, which presents the words of Abraham Lincoln with a musical background. It usually features a celebrity speaker who reads the words while the orchestra plays the music. While working in Hollywood on one of his many movie scores, Copland received a commission to write a ballet for Martha Graham. It was begun in 1943 and completed the following year while Aaron was teaching at Harvard. This ballet was given the title Appalachian Spring by Martha Graham only two days before the premiere performance. It won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1945.

While composing his song cycle "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson" (1950), Copland had worked concurrently on his two sets of "Old American Songs", arrangements of folk tunes that became so popular in their piano and orchestral versions as to eclipse the original melodies on which they were based.

Gian Carlo Menotti was born in 1911, in Cadegliano, Italy. At the age of 7, he began to compose songs, and four years later, he wrote the words and music of his first opera, "The Death of Pierrot". In 1923, he began his formal musical training at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan. Following the death of his father, his mother took him to the United States, where he was enrolled at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. His first mature work, the one-act opera buffa, "Amelia Goes to the Ball", was premiered in 1937, a success that led to a commission from the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera especially for radio, "The Old Maid and the Thief", the first such commission ever given. After the premiere of his Piano Concerto in 1945, Menotti returned to opera with "The Medium", shortly joined by "The Telephone", both enjoying international success. "The Consul", Menotti's first full-length work, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle award as the best musical play of the year in 1950. The composer's next effort, "The Saint of Bleecker Street", a serious drama set in contemporary New York, won the Drama Critics Circle Award for the best musical play of 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize for 1955. It also received a Music Critics Circle Award for the best opera. On Christmas Eve, 1951, the first opera written expressly for television, Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" was broadcast on NBC. The opera, influenced by Bosch's Adoration of the Magi, has become one of the most frequently performed operas of the 20th century.
Menotti writes the text to all his operas. Recent operas include "The Singing Child"(1993) and "Goya" (1986), written for Plácido Domingo and given its premiere by The Washington Opera. In 1958, Menotti organized the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, staging old and new musical works. In 1977, he inaugurated the American counterpart of the festival in Charleston, North Carolina. In addition to being awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in the arts, Menotti was also chosen as the 1991 "Musician of the Year" by Musical America. Gian Carlo Menotti has become the most performed contemporary opera composer. He stands alone on the American scene as the first to create American opera with so much appeal to audiences that it has become established in permanent repertory

Ballet "Sebastian" was given its world premiere in October of 1944 at the International Theater in New York City with the Marquis de Cueva's Ballet International. "Sebastian" was subsequently revived for the Original Ballet Russe at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on October 8, 1946 and by the Grand Ballet De Monte Carlo in Europe in the summer of 1947. The ballet is in one act and three scenes. As is his custom, Menotti also wrote the story on which the ballet was based. It is set in Venice at the end of the seventeenth century. A Prince is in love with a Courtesan, but he has two sisters, Fiora and Maddalena, who are determined to put an end to the union. They are evil and well versed in the ways of witchcraft. They know that if they can get possession of something belonging to the Courtesan they can have power over her. They plot and finally steel her veil. Fiora and Maddalena then construct a wax image of the women they hate and cover it with her veil. They plan to kill her through the image, but wish to torture her first. They stab the image with arrows and to their delight, the image shudders with each blow. What they do not know is that Sebastian, their Moorish slave, has taken the place of the image. He has loved the Courtesan from afar and, knowing the sisters' plot has substituted himself for the wax image. Sebastian takes the deadly arrows, and by his self-sacrifice breaks the power of Fiora's and Maddelena's witchcraft. With this act, the Prince and his beloved can be reunited. "Sebastian" was hailed particularly for its score. It was not only a harbinger of the operas to come, but it also pointed the way toward two important orchestral works to follow: his 1945 Piano Concerto in F (still his favorite) and his 1952 Violin Concerto in A Minor. Both, like Sebastian and the operas, were stamped with the Menotti flair for the dramatic and the singing line - whether vocal or instrumental.

Dominick Argento, considered to be America's pre-eminent composer of lyric opera, was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1927. At Peabody Conservatory, where he earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees, his teachers included Nicholas Nabokov, Henry Cowell, and Hugo Weisgall. Argento received his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson. Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships allowed him to study in Italy with Luigi Dallapiccola and to complete his first opera, "Colonel Jonathan the Saint". Following his Fulbright, Argento became music director of Hilltop Opera in Baltimore, and taught theory and composition at the Eastman School. He has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Music at the University of Minnesota since 1958. Among his many honors are the OPERA America Award for Achievement, Chorus America's Founder's Award, the Peabody Medal and several honorary doctorates. Argento has composed more than a dozen operas, including "The Boor" (1957), "The Masque of Angels" (1963), "Postcard From Morocco" (1970), "The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe" (1975), "A Water Bird Talk" (1981), "Casanova's Homecoming" (1985), and "The Aspern Papers" (1988). In addition to the operas, several of Argento's song cycles are well on their way to becoming classics, especially "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf", which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975. Argento's symphonic works have been performed by many of America's leading orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Although Argento's instrumental works have received consistent praise, the great majority of his music is vocal, whether in operatic, choral, or solo context. This emphasis on the human voice is a facet of the powerful dramatic impulse that drives nearly all of his music, both instrumental and vocal. Following his arrival in Minnesota, Argento accepted a number of commissions from significant organizations in his adopted state. Among these were the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who commissioned his suite "A Royal Invitation" in 1964.

The piece is a superb tone portrayal of the story about the invitation of and subsequent attendance of the Queen of Tonga at a coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was considered a scandalous appearance of the Queen of Tonga, who arrived in London, dressed in leopard skins. At the coronation, the Queen of Tonga would not, despite the rain, put her umbrella up in the vicinity of the Queen of Great Britain, as umbrellas are an ancient emblem of the very highest rank. Apparently, the press had a field day on the event. Argento is brilliant in his tone painting of the scenario.


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