Saturday, April 27, 2019

All About Our May 12 Concert

by David Leehey

Our Mother's Day program
will open with our concerto competition winner Leah Iosevich playing a work for violin and orchestra by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams called The Lark Ascending.  This will be followed on the first half of the program by the Concerto Grosso No.1 by Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born Jewish American emigree.

What is a concerto? According to the "new font of all knowledge", Wikipedia, a concerto is a musical composition in which, usually, one solo instrument (for instance, a piano, violin, cello or flute) is accompanied by an orchestra or concert band. The word concerto comes from Italian; its origin is uncertain, but it seems to originate from the conjunction of two Latin words: conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight).  So how do you join and fight at the same time?  You don't, but you can alternate between episodes of opposition and cooperation, which is what typically happens in a concerto.

The instrumental concerto arose in the late Baroque period (ca. 1700-1750).  During that time, a form of concerto called the concerto grosso, which contrasted a small group of instruments called a concertino with the rest of the orchestra, called the ripieno, was standard fare. Handel wrote several collections of concerti grossi, and several of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach loosely follow the concerto grosso form. The popularity of the concerto grosso declined after the Baroque period, only to be revived in the 20th century. In the interim, the solo concerto, one instrument playing with (and against) an orchestra, reigned, and continues to do so today. 

Solo concerti were also written during the Baroque era, with the solo instrument usually being a string instrument (such as the violin, viola, and cello) or a wind instrument (usually a flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon, horn, or trumpet). Bach wrote a famous concerto for two violins and orchestra.  Keyboard concertos were comparatively rare until the evolution of the modern piano, whose increased volume and the richer sound could compete with a full orchestra.

During the Classical period (ca. 1750-1820), the solo concerto really came into its own.  Mozart wrote five violin and 27 piano concertos, as well as concerti for other instruments.  Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto and five piano concertos, but all remain in the standard repertoire.  Haydn wrote two cello concertos which also remain popular today.

In the 19th century the concerto became a vehicle for virtuosic display.  This was the Romantic era, and the solo artist was seen as a hero. Many famous concertos were written by composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvořák, among many others.  Many of these pieces are among the most popular compositions in the history of music.  Such virtuosic pieces continued to be written in the 20th century by composers such as Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Bartók, and Prokofiev.

But let’s return back to our Mother’s Day Concert.  Neither of the two concerto pieces on the first half of the program are typical concertos (by the way, the plural is technically concerti, but concertos is more commonly used in English).  There are so many great examples of a typical concerto to be heard on YouTube that it is hard to choose just one, but I will choose Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 for Piano and Orchestra (the “Emperor” Concerto) as my example of a typical concerto. 
  1. First of all, it is generally recognized as one of the masterpieces of the concerto literature.
  2. Second, you only need to listen for a few moments to hear the competition between the soloist and orchestra.  After a loud opening orchestral chord, the piano soloist enters with a flourish of scales, arpeggios (broken chords), and trills, which leads to another loud orchestral chord (take that!), followed by yet another even more virtuosic piano passage, leading to (you guessed it) a third loud orchestral chord.  The piano soloist, not to be outdone, plays another flourish, leading to the beginning of the main theme.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending could hardly be more different from the “Emperor” Concerto.  The composer wrote this beautiful idyll in 1914 before the onset of the Great War, revising it in 1920.  The inspiration for the piece was the eponymous George Meredith poem: 

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 'til 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  

'Til lost on his aerial rings  

In light, and then the fancy sings. 

A warm, hazy, rising orchestral opening lifts the solo violin into a rhapsodic soaring fluttering tune.  The soloist and orchestra interweave their sounds throughout this gently lyrical piece, though there is a daring and innovative unaccompanied cadenza for the violin (lark) to close the work. 

Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No.1 was written in 1925 as a challenge to his students at the Cleveland Institute of Music, for which he was the founding director.  Encountering skepticism regarding the usefulness of “old” techniques (such as tonality and classical form!) when writing new music, the composer chose to prove his point by composing a new work using these old techniques in a modern way.  At the first rehearsal, the school orchestra played through this new piece with enthusiasm, leading Bloch to shout triumphantly, “What do you think now? This is tonal! It just has old-fashioned notes!”

Bloch’s point was not that new works should be created exactly in the style of older ones, but that new and exciting music could evolve by combining aspects of various musical techniques.  Bloch infused the Baroque concerto grosso structure with the rhythmic and melodic sensibility of the romantics and the polytonal harmonies of the early 20th century, using “old-fashioned notes” to create something entirely new.

The Concerto Grosso No. 1 begins with a prelude of grand, dramatic statements; a dirge follows, with ethereal textures evoking the Impressionistic world of Debussy or Ravel. The third movement brings a new perspective to the baroque fondness for including dance music in concert suites.  And naturally, the final movement is that most characteristic Baroque form, the fugue.  Bloch masterfully juggles musical textures between three groups: solo strings, section strings, and piano (an update to Bach’s harpsichord). 

A final word about this piece:  it is most definitely not a piano concerto.  The piano is one of the instruments of the ensemble and should be positioned in the midst of the ensemble.

-David Leehey

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Veterans Day Concert
November 11, 2018

November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary centennial of the end of World War I.  In remembrance of this historical event, and since November 11, 2018 happened to fall on a Sunday, the Symphony decided to program a Veterans Day Concert this year.  The artistic committee spent considerable time and effort on the program, deciding in the end on three pieces, one each by an American composer, a French composer, and a British composer.

The concert will start with a short piece by Morton Gould entitled American Salute, its theme based on the Civil War era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.   Interestingly, the premiere of this piece was on NBC radio on November 11, 1942, at the height of World War II. 

The following two pieces on the program pay respects to the veterans of the first world war. 
The next piece features our piano soloist Winston Choi, head of piano at the College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, who gave us a superb rendition of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto two years ago. 

The story of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by French composer Maurice Ravel is a fascinating one.  It was written for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, a scion of one of Vienna's most remarkable families —Brahms was only one of the famous guests at the Wittgensteins’ celebrated gatherings. 

When World War I broke out, Paul enlisted in the Austrian army. A few months later, he was shot and severely wounded, and his right arm was amputated.  Being a member of a distinguished family of overachievers and survivors, and raised by a father of forceful determination, Wittgenstein did not give up his career as a pianist. (That same oppressive upbringing, however, may have led the two oldest sons to commit suicide.) Instead, he took family money and commissioned more than a dozen works for piano left-hand from some of the world's leading composers.

This concerto by Maurice Ravel was not the first, but it is generally regarded as the best. Written in 1929-1930, it contains many jazz effects that Ravel had picked up on his 1928 trip to the United States, during which he met bandleader Paul Whiteman and spent several nights visiting jazz clubs in Harlem with George Gershwin. (He also conducted the Chicago Symphony and continually complained about American food!). 

It is clear from this work that Ravel had learned all about blue notes!  A personal note..I first heard this piece when I was 14 years old.  My parents had just bought a stereo system, and my mother brought home a record of this concerto from the library.  I think she chose it because the pianist was John Browning, and she thought he was very handsome!  I listened to the record so many times that I wore out the grooves.  The piece remains a personal favorite.

The biggest work on the program is the Pastoral Symphony by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It was during the composer’s service in World War I that he heard a bugler practicing, giving him the first idea for his Pastoral Symphony.  He began work on the symphony just after the war ended, and it was completed in 1921 and first performed at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert at Queen’s Hall, London, on January 26, 1922.

The composer referred to this symphony in his first program notes as “almost entirely quiet and contemplative,” yet it is not without moments of underlying passion.  The symphony is in four movements, with the second movement containing two cadenzas, the first for a natural trumpet (sounding a lot like a bugle) and the second for a natural horn.  The final movement is unusual, beginning with a wordless soprano lament over a timpani roll.  After the orchestra swells to an impassioned climax, the symphony will end with the same elegiac soprano melody disappearing into silence.  In overall mood the Pastoral Symphony is quite different from most symphonies, but at the same time it is a quite moving testament to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Riccardo Muti
Visits us for the 6th year!

The musicians of the orchestra are quite excited about the visit of Riccardo Muti, the eminent conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, known throughout the world for his musicianship and leadership.

Maestro Muti will take the orchestra through the "1821 Overture" by Tchaikovsky on Sunday, September 23 at 5 p.m.

There is free parking in the parking garage adjacent to the site of the rehearsal: Concordia University, corner of Bonnie Brae and Thomas in River Forest.

Bring a donation of food for the Oak Park Food Pantry.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Message from David Leehey, President of the Board

This is the concert you have been waiting for.  

I call it "Choral Fantasies".

Beethoven did call his piece, "Choral Fantasy", but Carmina Burana is also a choral fantasy -- a choral piece with a lot of fantasy in it.

There are a lot more similarities between these pieces than one might think:

  • They are both joyous and fun.   

  • Both have uncomplicated harmonies and melodies.  

  • There is lots of C major in both!


 Hope to see you at the concert

on Monday, April 23, 7:30 p.m.

Symphony Hall, 220 S. Michigan Avenue

Chicago, IL

Call 312-294-3000 for tickets.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sad News About Our Webmaster

We are shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Janet Barnstable, our beloved webmaster.

Both Janet and her partner, Richard, perished in a house fire.

At this time, we are unable to post on the main site.  We are seeking advice and support as we work toward the ability to post on our website.

For more information, contact Beth Hoover at:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Our New Season!

We are all looking forward to our fifth open rehearsal with the great conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Riccardo Muti!  

This will happen on October 1 at 7 p.m. at Concordia University in River Forest.  (Free admission with the purchase of a ticket to our October 8th concert or a subscription to four concerts.)

Muti always brings his whole package of jokes and a wealth of musical knowledge!  We learn so much from him! It's an honor to work with a world class musician!

Maestro Muti is a busy man.  It's really wonderful that he donates his time to visit and instruct us!  He sets a wonderful example about helping others in many ways!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Two Titans of the Romantic Era

By David Leehey, Board President of The Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest

Our March 6 concert features music by the two titans of romantic-era German music, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Though today hearing the music of these two masters on the same program does not raise eyebrows, that was not always the case.

The "War of the Romantics" is a term used by some music historians to describe the aesthetic schism between two opposing musical philosophies in the 19th century. The conservatives favored Brahms, who was seen as the heir to the great tradition of German music as it had passed from the Baroque masters such as Bach, through the Viennese classicists (Haydn and Mozart), and on to the early 19th century romantics (Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn). They were believers in absolute music, meaning that the music, in its form, structure, melody, and harmony, could and should stand on its own merits. Their opponents were the progressives of the so-called New German School, led by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. The conservatives believed in writing sonatas, chamber music, concertos, and symphonies. The progressives were believers in program music, thinking that the music should tell a story (and often be accompanied by a narrative). This idea led to Liszt’s creation of the symphonic poem (or “tone poem”) and reached its apotheosis in the music dramas of Wagner.

As is true of many things in life, these two opposing camps were not really as dissimilar as many considered them to be at the time. Robert Schumann had been a progressive composer and critic as well as editor of the influential music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He had artistically fruitful friendships with both the radical romantics — Liszt in particular — as well as with musical conservatives such as Mendelssohn. However as Liszt’s piano performance antics and the fervid audiences he left in his wake (sometimes called Lisztomania) swept through Europe in the 1840s, both he and his pianist wife Clara turned to the new savior of German music, Johannes Brahms.
Brahms and his fellow conservatives were to write a Manifesto against the perceived bias of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which after Schumann’s death was controlled by the progressives. The manifesto lodged a protest againts the leaders and pupils of the New German School, declaring its theories, principles and practice to be “contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned”. This became a catalyst for spreading the conflict to the German press at large. Liszt, to his credit, did not debate the manifesto; instead, he let his music speak for him. Brahms, after this one foray into musical politics, was to do the same in the future.

Although it is true that Brahms did not care much for the music of the progressives, the exception was Wagner. Whiles his fellow conservatives loved to despise Wagner's music, he respected it privately and once told his friends, "I am the best of Wagnerians."

Another piece of the “War of the Romantics” deserves mention. The composer and pianist Hans von Bülow initially supported the Liszt-Wagner side. That was until his wife, Liszt's daughter Cosima, left him for Wagner; he then switched his allegiance to Brahms. It was Bülow who called Brahms the third of the Three Bs, after Bach and Beethoven. It does not take a lot of imagination to see why Bülow would change camps.

In its time, the 'war' was often seen to reflect a clear demarcation between what was seen to be 'classical music' and 'modern music', categories which still persist (although differently defined) to the present day. Today when we listen to the music of Brahms and Wagner, we hear the similarities more than the differences.