Program Notes: Hope & Harmony

Seattle Symphony Conducting Fellow Lina González-Granados takes the podium to conduct the Seattle Symphony in a program featuring works by Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Juan David Osorio López and Carlos Simon on Thursday, February 4, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27

The first two works on tonight’s program are programmatic in nature, pulling from poetry to musically depict nature. The first piece, Felix Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.27, draws from the poems of the acclaimed German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Mendelssohn composed Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage when he was just 19, but he was not the first composer to set these poems to music. Just two years prior, Ludwig van Beethoven had crafted them as a choral work.

And yet, Mendelssohn felt the text would be best expressed not through the human voice, but that of instruments. Exploring the expressive capacity of instrumental music was characteristic of the Romantic era, particularly as composers, many of whom were accomplished instrumentalists themselves, saw music as a means of deep personal expression.

Mendelssohn’s piece is divided in two, mirroring the two texts that inspired it. The piece’s sonorous opening captures the calm and stillness of water. A violin melody moves as if it were waves on the beach. The second half begins with a flute solo as Mendelssohn depicts the shining heavens and thrill of voyage.

Part 1: Calm Sea
Calm and silence rule the water,
motionless the ocean lies,
and the sailor’s anxious gaze
finds glassy flatness far and wide.
Not a breath of air is stirring!
Fearful, deathless stillness reigns!
On the infinite expanse
not a single wavelet moves.

Part 2: Prosperous Voyage
The mists are rent,
the heavens shine,
and Aeolus loosens
restraining ties. The winds now are whistling,
the sailor bestirs himself.
How swiftly; how swiftly
the distance draws near;
and now I see land.

Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons and contrabassoon; 2 horns; 3 trumpets; timpani; strings.


The Lark Ascending

Like Mendelssohn, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams drew inspiration from poetry. Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914 as a romance for violin and piano but re-invented the work only five years later for orchestra. The Lark Ascending is infused with English folk song and nostalgia for a lost pastoral world — which is perhaps why Vaughan Williams orchestrated the work after his time serving as an orderly in World War I. The composition was inspired by poetry of the English writer George Meredith, whom Vaughan Williams quoted in the preface to the piece’s score:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

The orchestral work begins with a solo violin (played tonight by Concertmaster Noah Geller) mimicking the flight of a lark as the strings play gentle, harmonious chords underneath. The orchestra fades away, leaving only the violin’s sonorous melody. When the orchestra returns, hints of English folk song figure in the horn and clarinet as Vaughan Williams paints a setting reminiscent of the English countryside. The middle of the piece, in particular, is animated and nostalgic as the solo violin weaves through the melodies of the woodwinds and strings. As the piece closes, however, the solo violin sings alone, much like a single lark in the sky.

Scored for solo violin; 2 flutes; oboe; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; percussion; strings.


El Paraíso según Maria (“The Paradise According to Mary”)

The final two works on tonight’s program are representative of a new wave of composers who are making their mark on classical music while still paying deference to the past. A composer and conductor from Columbia, Juan David Osorio López has been commissioned by orchestras across the world. His work from tonight’s program, El Paraíso según Maria (“The Paradise According to Mary”), received its world premiere last year in Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] series.

The work has two sections — the first based on a funeral chant called ‘Alabaos’, originally sung by slaves working in the fields. The second section features two courtship dances called curulao and Bambuco Viejo. An opportunity for the musicians to sing, as well as play their instruments!

Discussing the premiere of El Paraíso según Maria with The Seattle Times last year, conductor Lina González-Granados described the work as growing classical music in Latin America: “The music is multicultural. There is not only one style. For example, in the piece I’m bringing to Seattle Symphony, the instruments have to sing a little music of the [Colombian Pacific]. We’re not afraid to blur the lines.”

Scored for flute doubling piccolo; oboe; clarinet; bassoon; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; percussion; strings.


Fate Now Conquers

The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned Fate Now Conquers from Carlos Simon to pair with their performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in March of 2020, but the concert was canceled when orchestras across the country shut down due to the pandemic. The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the work virtually this past October.

Simon composed the work to accompany Beethoven, and he drew the piece’s title from an inscription in Beethoven’s diary that quoted Homer’s The Iliad: “But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share in my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit. And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.”

The harmony and structure of Fate Now Conquers similarly alludes to Beethoven. Simon modelled the harmonic progression of the work after the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which features slow-moving chords and an ever-present, pulsing rhythm. Furthermore, Simon depicts the chaos, confusion and unpredictability of fate through the melody. Describing his music, Simon wrote: “Jolting stabs along with frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depicting the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.”

Scored for flute and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; strings.

© 2021 Megan Francisco

Posted on February 5, 2021