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PROGRAM NOTES: A Night at the Opera: From Italy to Catfish Row
February 9 & 10, 2019

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Christopher Theofanidis, b. 1967

Visions and Miracles

Born in Dallas, TX and a graduate of Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, Christopher Theofanidis has been the recipient of the Masterprize, the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship, among others. He is a former member of the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Juilliard School in New York City, and currently teaches at Yale. 

Many of Theofanidis’s works draw inspiration from meditative or spiritual sources that cross cultural boundaries. Rather than working with singable themes, he creates soundscapes based on rhythmic and melodic cells, which he continually and subtly transforms in a similar fashion to those of Middle Eastern and Asian traditional music. Theofanidis composed the three-movement Visions and Miracles for string quartet in 1997 and adapted it for string orchestra in 2002. Each movement bears a title that reflects its musical character.

1.    “All Joy Wills Eternity” is an exuberant dance in which the syncopated rhythm is the most important element.

2.    “Peace, Love, Light YOUMEONE” is based on the writings of Timothy Leary, the LSD guru. It is a kaleidoscopic meditation on an ascending major scale – with a few unexpected digressions into new modes. 

3.    “I Add Brilliance to the Sun” returns to the dance-like rhythms of the first movement but derives its principal melodic elements from reversing the direction of the fragmented scale of the previous movement. The movement incorporates some Middle Eastern modal melodies and harmonies. Although it vacillates between energetic and slower passages, it progressively accelerates in tempo until reaching a “dervish-like” conclusion.

George Gershwin, 1898-1937

Porgy and Bess in Concert

The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century from ragtime and the blues. But it was in Europe where American dance bands became popular, and where classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908), Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918) and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).

George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. 

In 1923 Paul Whiteman, the self-styled “King of Jazz,” heard Gershwin play piano arrangements of a few of his songs. In an attempt to move jazz from the dance hall to concert hall, Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write an extended jazz composition. The result was the Rhapsody in Blue. Its performance at the Paul Whiteman Concerts in 1924 made history. Although most critics – true to form – panned it, the audience loved it. Gershwin himself played the piano part and became an instant celebrity.

He capitalized on that fame producing into a string of immensely successful musicals. From Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933, the opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.

Gershwin’s ambition to write a true opera, rather than musicals, culminated in 1935 in Porgy and Bess, a blend of operatic recitative, spirituals, jazz and blues, that is probably his most enduring stage work. It tells the gritty story of Porgy, a crippled beggar living in Catfish Row, one of the poorer slums of Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her drug-dealing pimp, after the latter has killed a man in a crap game. Later at a community picnic, Porgy accidentally kills Crown in a fight over Bess and is taken off to jail. Crown’s sidekick Sportin’ Life lures the distraught Bess to New York, tempting her with a combination of fantasy and drugs. After Porgy is released from jail, he sets off in his goat cart to find her.

Porgy and Bess was based on a novel by DuBose Heyward, who had already converted it into a successful stage play and later collaborated with the two Gershwin brothers in creating the opera. Gershwin had been captivated by the novel. When he received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write a quintessentially American opera, he turned to Heyward’s story, insisting that the cast be entirely African-American. But the Met had never employed so much as a single black extra and was not about to change its policy in 1930, and the composer refused to have it performed in blackface. Porgy and Bess finally premiered on Broadway under the aegis of the Theater Guild in 1935.

While over the years, Porgy and Bess has proved popular and durable, it has also raised issues both aesthetic and political: Its mix of musical styles has set it in a class by itself, which Gershwin himself dubbed “folk opera;” some critics have objected to its negative portrayal of the black community, with its focus on poverty, promiscuity and drugs. It has, nevertheless, during its 85-year history featured some of the greatest African-American performers, opera singers and entertainers, including Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Paul Roberson, Sammy Davis, Jr. Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey.    

Today is the Stamford Symphony premier of this piece.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018