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Home » Posts » “Classical Echoes of American Life” Program Notes – Sat, Apr 27, 2024

“Classical Echoes of American Life” Program Notes – Sat, Apr 27, 2024

On Saturday, April 27, 2024, Festival City Symphony will present “Classical Echoes of American Life,” a Saturday Classics concert featuring diverse selections by composers Roberto Sierra, Aaron Copland, Florence Price, and Leonard Bernstein.  Enjoy program notes for all four pieces written by Milwaukee’s own Roger Ruggeri.

The concert begins at 2pm at the Bradley Symphony Center and will feature an on-stage “Unlocking the Score” presentation beginning at 1:30pm.  Admission is free!  Reserve your tickets today!


Roberto Sierra
b. October 9,1953; Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

First Movement, Tumbao, from Sinfonia No. 3, La Salsa
Approximate Duration: 7 minutes

Roberto Sierra gained many Wisconsin friends for himself and his music during his three seasons (1989-1992) as Composer-in-Residence with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Acclaimed as one of the most active contemporary Puerto Rican composers, Sierra gained degrees at the Conservatory of Music and the University of Puerto Rico before going to Europe, where he studied at the Royal College of Music, the University of London and the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Holland. After spending three years studying with Gyorgy Ligeti at the Hochschule fur Musik in Hamburg, Sierra returned to Puerto Rico as a composer and teacher.  His music came to the attention of MSO Music Director Zdenek Macal, who was instrumental in bringing Sierra to Milwaukee.  At the conclusion of his local residency in the autumn of 1992, Sierra joined the composition faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he currently holds Emeritus status.

Much in demand, Sierra’s music reveals a strong commitment to the expression of Puerto Rican cultural identity. Throughout his many works, Sierra has infused his essentially international technique with elements of folk and popular Caribbean music. In this present work, completed in March of 2005, he carries his muse to the exalted heights of symphonic form. Of it, he writes:

 “As the title of my work implies (La Salsa) this symphony is about the music of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba. In the true spirit of salsa music (sauce in English), I mix diverse types of older and newer rhythms from the music I remember when growing up in Puerto Rico. The first movement is in actual Sonata-Allegro form. The different themes evoke the piano riffs (or tumbaos, as in the subtitle I gave the movement), heard in many salsa pieces…

Tumbao. Salseado. Although the term tumbao literally means fallen, in Latin music it is applied to the salsa riffs generally played by the piano. Infectious salsa rhythms vault through the orchestra, giving way for a few melodic phrases between first violins and flute. The musical energy develops to a joyous return of the first theme in violins, woodwinds and xylophone. Ultimately, a welter of scale passages brings about the movement’s close.

Aaron Copland
b. November 14, 1900; Brooklyn, NY
d. December 2, 1990; New York City

Suite from Our Town
Approximate Duration: 11 minutes

A somewhat surprising aspect of Aaron Copland’s creative life is that he wrote music for eight major Hollywood film studios, mostly in the 1940s. The third of these was for Thornton Wilder’s small-town play Our Town. Direct, modest and folksy, this 90-minute 1940 gem exudes cozy verities that soothed a war-torn American public. Copland’s simple music contributed greatly to the total effect.

Of this tale, set in the hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Copland recalled: “For the film version, they were counting on the music to translate the transcendental aspects of the story. I tried for clean and clear sounds and in general used straight-forward harmonies and rhythms that would project the serenity and sense of security of the story.”

The present 10-minute suite is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, who led its first performance with The Boston Pops on May 7, 1944.

Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith)
b. April 9, 1887; Little Rock, Arkansas
d. June 3, 1953; Chicago, Illinois

Ethiopia’s Shadow in America
Approximate Duration: 13 minutes

Celebrated as the first African American woman to gain recognition as a symphonic composer, Price was also first to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Early training with her mother, a music teacher, led to her first public performance as a pianist at the age of four. She also began to compose in her childhood; an early work found publication when she was only eleven. After sterling achievements in high school. Price went on to study organ and piano teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. While at that Boston school, she also studied composition and counterpoint with noted American composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. By the time she graduated with honors in 1906, she had also written a string trio and a symphony.

Florence began her music teaching career in Atlanta, where she married lawyer Thomas J. Price in 1912. Seeking relief from Jim Crow repression, the couple moved to Chicago in the late-20s, where Price ultimately became part of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Along with her student and friend, Margaret Bonds, Price gained significant association with writer Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson.

Throughout her more than 300 works, the American Spiritual was rarely far from the surface. Characteristically, in Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, 1929-32, Go Down Moses and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot are both in evidence without being overtly quoted. Although this continuous three-movement work won an honorable mention in the Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest of 1932, the manuscript was lost for a number of years and did not actually enjoy public performance until 2015. The title alludes to Black people in general rather than to any specific African nation.

Price explains an intent to portray:

  1. Introduction and Allegretto: The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave.
  2. Andante: His Resignation and Faith.

III. Allegro: His Adaptation, a fusion of his native and acquired impulses.

Leonard Bernstein
b. August 25, 1918; Lawrence, MA
d. October 14, 1990; New York City

Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Approximate Duration: 24 minutes

For many years one of the most illustrious musicians on the contemporary American scene, Leonard Bernstein operated on the highest levels as a composer, conductor, pianist, commentator-educator and author. In the realm of composition, Bernstein was particularly effective when evoking the nervous intensity of America’s modern urban life. His most widely known work in this area is the 1957 Broadway show, West Side Story, a modern retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy. Set in New York City’s West Side, the musical revolves around the love of Maria and Tony amid the rivalry of their respective gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.

Shortly after the initial triumph of the show, West Side Story was filmed and was voted Best Picture of the Year 1961, winning ten Oscars. From the film orchestrations by the composer, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, the Symphonic Dances were created. This new score for large orchestra was premiered on February 13, 1961, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss.

When Skitch Henderson conducted this score with the Milwaukee Symphony, he remarked: “The film West Side Story was the reason behind this set of dances. By the time M.G.M. got around to doing the picture, everybody had a hand in arranging or, should I say, re-arranging the original stage version. These dances are the product of many different orchestrators with a thorough editing job by the composer. Much of it is obvious because of the “hit” songs, but a great deal of the material is developed from ballet material which was not exploited by the juke box fraternity. For me, the most rewarding moments come during the quiet closing bars. Here the tragedy and joy of the Romeo and Juliet motif is said all at once. Someday many of us hope that some choreographer will realize the value of these dances. Because of the Background and the Composer, these dances have a “Dance Feel.” They are definitely not jazz and never were intended to be. They contain every emotion you could wish for, and maybe a few not so desirable. That’s for you to judge. Just relax and enjoy them and smile.”

The Symphonic Dances begin with a Prologue reflecting the nervous bravado of the Jets. A general undercurrent of violence then subsides into the hopeful tranquility of Somewhere. Subsequent sections are entitled: Scherzo, Mambo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, “Cool”-Fugue and Rumble. The Finale concludes with a hymn-like restatement of Somewhere there’s a place for us.