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MUSICAL CHARACTERS
PROGRAM NOTES

December 12, 2015 │ Tsai Performance Center │ 3 p.m.

Do you have a favorite book? Who is your favorite character? Some pieces of music get their ideas from books, too. This afternoon we will perform three works based on characters in stories, and one piece written by a composer who could be the hero of his own Romantic novel.

First up is Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra, by John Harbison. It comes from a book called The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of a man named Jay Gatsby who has millions of dollars but can’t get what he really wants. He throws parties at his mansion where everyone dances to the latest tunes. This one is called a “foxtrot,” although it doesn’t have anything to do with foxes. After a slow and somewhat threatening section, the lively dance music begins, led by a soprano saxophone. The party gets wilder and wilder, until the music starts to fall apart and the darkness returns.

Next is another famous character from American literature, Tom Sawyer, who appears in several books by Mark Twain that were written almost 150 years ago. Tom and his friend Huckleberry Finn are two boys who live in a small town on the Mississippi River. They are always plotting adventures and frequently get into trouble. The composer, George Antheil, once wrote a piece for sixteen player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers, and he called his autobiography The Bad Boy of Music—so he knew about adventures and about getting into trouble too. The music is very lively and energetic, just like Tom and Huck.

The third piece on our program is a piano concerto, a musical form where one solo instrument takes the spotlight while the rest of the orchestra plays along. Franz Liszt, the Hungarian conductor, pianist, and composer of this concerto, was a musical superstar in nineteenth-century Europe who was almost as famous for his love affairs as he was for his music. In this concerto, the piano soloist has the starring role, acting out all kinds of moods and characters, from quiet and dreamy to playful to martial, ending by leading the orchestra on a merry chase to the finish.

Finally, Elijah’s Angel, by Robert Kapilow, is based on a real story told in a book by Michael Rosen. Here is the composer’s description:

“When I set Elijah’s Angel, it truly was a conceptual companion to my previous chamber setting of Chris Van Allsburg’s Christmas story The Polar Express. I wanted to create a holiday concert that would not be a Christmas or Chanukah concert, but a concert that would welcome everyone. The key for me to Michael Rosen’s story is the idea that a young Jewish boy and an elderly Black woodcarver develop a friendship in which each learns that the differences that separate us are not as significant as the human connections that can bring us together. The core of Elijah’s Angel is an occasion for us all to give thanks together, as the key words of the Shehechiyanu prayer illustrate: ‘Thank you, God, for letting us reach this season together.’”

While the singers are telling the story, listen for some familiar Christmas and Chanukah songs. Here are the English words to one of them:

Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Comes to our aid.