Saturday, September 25, 2021 at 7:30pm
Concert Hall at the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts, Hope College
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 19, in B-flat Major
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Ralph Votapek - piano
Symphony No. 9, op. 95, in E minor, “From the New World”
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
For more information about what to expect at the concerts, see "Covid-19 announcements" at the bottom of the website.
We will be hosting not only the Classical Chat series at Freedom Village, but also Pre-Concert Talks! Details below:
Classical Chats at Freedom Village: These informative and fun talks are led by Johannes Müller-Stosch and take place at 3:00pm on the Thursday before each Classics concert. (Freedom Village, 6th Floor Auditorium, 145 Columbia Ave.)
Pre-Concert Talks: These talks, led by Johannes Müller-Stosch and Amanda Dykhouse, will be online this year under the "Pre-Concert Talk" Tab. There are opportunities for you to ask questions about upcoming programs on that tab. We look forward to resuming live Pre-Concert Talks when the pandemic lessens.
Parking Map at the Miller Center
Holland Symphony Orchestra will reserve and monitor Lot 40 for handicapped parking. The faculty parking lots are available for parking after 5pm
William Grant Still, Jr. was born in a small Mississippi town. His parents were teachers and musicians. HIs father, William Grant Still, Sr., died when he was three months old. His mother moved to Little Rock, Arkansas and continued teaching high school English. She eventually remarried in 1904, and Still’s stepfather nurtured his interest in music, buying him records and taking him to concerts and operettas. Still began violin lessons at age fifteen and also taught himself to play clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello, and bass.
Following his mother’s wishes, Still pursued pre-medical training at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio. While there he conducted the band, started composing and orchestrating music, and learned several more instruments. He left Wilberforce before graduating and pursued musical studies at Oberlin College, funded by a small inheritance from his father. That money didn’t last long, and he had to work a lot to pay for his education. Eventually some faculty, who were impressed with his musical abilities, noticed his challenges and created a scholarship just for him. Still subsequently studied composition with the modern French composer Edgard Varése and American composer George Whitefield Chadwick.
Early in Still’s career he spent a lot of time in New York City. He worked for W. C. Handy’s band and performed with many notable pit orchestras. He arranged a lot of music for the popular NBC radio broadcasts Deep River Hour and Old Gold Show. He was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance movement and is known as the “Dean of African-American composers.” He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he continued performing and composing and arranged music for films including Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon.
During a time in the United States when Jim Crow laws were common, William Grant Still attained a level of musical prominence that would have seemed impossible for almost any other person of color. He claims many “firsts” for African-American composers.
As a composer, Still is known for blending European art music and African-American melodies like those in spirituals and scales and harmonies from jazz and blues. This is evident in Darker America. This piece was championed by Edgard Varése, who connected Still to a group of American composers who organized concerts and encouraged organizations and journals to promote each other’s works. Still wrote this tone poem in 1924 to describe the challenges facing African-Americans in contemporary society, a topic he wrote about frequently. In the program for the piece’s premiere, Still described it in this way:
“Darker America, as its title suggests, is representative of the American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows through fervent prayer. At the beginning the theme of the American Negro is announced by the strings in unison. Following a short development of this, the English horn announces the sorrow theme which is followed immediately by the theme of hope, given to muted brass accompanied by string and woodwind. The sorrow theme returns treated differently, indicative of more intense sorrow as contrasted to passive sorrow indicated at the initial appearance of the theme. Again hope appears and the people seem about to rise above their troubles. But sorrow triumphs. Then the prayer is heard (given to oboe); the prayer of numbed rather than anguished souls. Strongly contrasted moods follow, leading up to the triumph and the people near the end, at which point the three principal themes are combined.”
To listen to this piece, click here.
Instrumentation: solo piano, 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, strings
Music donated in memory of Esther Van Ark, mother of Dawn and Laurie, by Ellen Rizner, Mary Hofland, and Susan Formsma.
At age thirteen, Beethoven was already a skilled pianist and composer. He started to write his first piano concerto at that time, though it was never published and only survives in sketches. His teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, was touting him as the next Mozart in some local publications. In 1787 Beethoven travelled to Vienna and took a few piano lessons from Mozart. He moved there permanently in 1792 and became a pupil of Haydn. He also started cultivating a group of patrons, many of whom sponsored piano recitals in their homes. Some of these people supported a benefit concert organized by the Vienna Composers Society on March 29, 1795 at Vienna’s Burgtheater to raise funds for musicians’ widows and orphans. Beethoven was featured at this concert and premiered his Concerto in B-Flat Major.
Beethoven’s “second” piano concerto was actually the first completed piano concerto. His “Concerto No. 1” in C Major was written later, but was published by a different publishing house before the B-Flat concerto. Though he had begun writing the B-Flat concerto several years earlier, and brought the sketches with him from Bonn to Vienna, Beethoven barely got the piece completed on time. One of Beethoven’s friends was visiting him at the time, and described Beethoven finishing the last movement two days before the concert, writing the score in a bout of severe colic, with four copyists working next to him writing out individual parts from Beethoven’s full score as he handed finished pages to them.
Beethoven's early piano concertos were highly influenced by Mozart’s concertos. Beethoven knew them well, as did all pianists in Vienna in the 1790s. Beethoven used a similar sized orchestra and the same structure: a first movement in sonata allegro form (ABA), a lyrical slow movement, and a rondo, in which a recurring theme alternates with contrasting material. Beethoven’s concertos, like Mozart’s, were also orchestral in nature. Unlike some composers who wrote purely secondary orchestral parts to support a virtuoso soloist, Beethoven treats the orchestra as an equal partner--though the pianist probably has as many notes as the rest of the orchestra combined!
The first movement begins with a robust statement, followed by a winsome lyrical phrase. A long orchestral introduction precedes the pianist’s entrance. Beethoven alternates moods and dynamics, foreshadowing some of the adventurous harmonic shifts he would explore more in later works. The Adagio begins with a peaceful melody that becomes increasingly elaborate. This movement would have provided Beethoven the opportunity to show off his skill as an improviser. This was likely in the premiere, since he hadn’t written down the piano part in his score yet! The third movement is based on a snappy tune with a “short-long” rhythm. This rondo theme happens four times, alternating with contrasting material. It is energetic and contains lots of accents in fun and surprising places.
To listen to this piece, click here.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (including piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 1 percussionist (triangle and cymbals), strings
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a man of humble origins. He grew up in a butcher’s home in a small village near Prague. At times poverty threatened to rule out a musical career, but he managed to get to Prague and become a violist. He earned his living for several years in a theater orchestra and then as a private teacher. Success as a composer came slowly, but eventually he could devote himself solely to composing. By the time he was 40, he lived very comfortably and served as a professor of composition at the Conservatory of Prague, where he could exert significant influence on the musical scene of his day.
In 1892, Dvorak was invited to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. (The school no longer exists.) Having just begun his tenure in Prague, Dvorak was not eager to move, but he was eventually offered such a tremendous salary that he could not refuse the invitation. At first, Dvorak enjoyed his time in America. He was revered as a composer, had the opportunity to conduct orchestras in New York and Chicago, and enjoyed the people and scenery of the big city. He also spent a musically and emotionally refreshing summer at a Czech colony in Spillville, Iowa. Dvorak’s time at the conservatory was unfulfilling, however. He had some serious composition students, but he described the playing of the student orchestra as “torment.” Ultimately, despite great efforts to keep him at the Conservatory, his homesickness led him to return to his homeland in 1895.
Dvorak’s most famous piece from his time in America is his Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.” The piece was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in December of 1893. After the second movement and again at the conclusion, the composer was given wildly enthusiastic ovations. After the symphony’s premiere, people speculated about the origin of Dvorak’s themes. Dvorak was well known for using Czech folk melodies, and during his time in America he found a rich supply of similar folk material in African-American spirituals, plantation songs, and Indian music. He often encouraged his American students to cultivate a distinctive American music, drawing on “indigenous” music and seeking inspiration from American literature in their compositions. Dvorak found inspiration for the two middle movements of the work in Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha; the largo by the funeral of Minnehaha, deep in a snow-bound forest, and the scherzo by the wedding dance. Dvorak, however, was too much of a Czech to presume to write an “American” work, so his intention in this symphony was to record his impressions as a visitor—the bustle and excitement of New York (where he composed the piece), the broad expanse of the land, and the generosity and openness of the people. In a letter he cleared up the speculation that he had been quoting American folk melodies, “Please omit the nonsense about my having used Indian and American Themes. That is untrue. I merely tried to write in the spirit of those national melodies.”
All the movements in this work are closely connected. The first movement begins with a brooding, chordal introduction, similar to that in the second and third movements. Dvorak saw this as symbolic of the “New World.” A noble horn solo begins the Allegro molto melody. Then, a flute solo borrows from a fragment of Dvorak’s favorite spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The second movement centers on a folk song heard first by a solo English horn. The first theme of the opening movement reappears dramatically in the middle section and makes two further appearances in the scherzo movement. The middle section of the largo movement contains darker coloring, leading to a climax before returning to the English horn melody. The third movement is a classical scherzo with two trios. The opening is very rhythmic. The trios provide contrasting charm with a folk song played by the flute and oboe. Despite its appearance in an “American” symphony, this movement is a Czech dance with an involved pattern of repetitions. The stormy introduction of the finale leads to a vigorous march theme derived from the middle section of the largo. The movement continues as a free fantasy on symphonic themes. The largo theme of the second movement reappears played by various instruments. The solemn chords of the largo’s introduction take a final bow in the coda.
To listen to this piece, click here.
Ralph Votapek is professor emeritus of piano at the Michigan State University College of Music.
He is the gold medalist of the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and winner of the prestigious Naumburg Award. Votapek has been featured 16 times as the Chicago Symphony’s guest soloist, has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Boston Pops, the Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, National Symphonies, and other top ensembles.
With eastern hemisphere concerto engagements stretching from London to Taiwan, he has also toured in Russia, Japan, and Korea. He has made a special commitment to Latin America, where he has toured for nearly 50 years, performing repeatedly in Buenos Aires, Rio, Santiago, and other cities. He recently received the Foreign Artist in Recital Award from the Argentine Association of Music Critics. He is equally celebrated as a solo recitalist throughout the United States and has performed repeatedly in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and the National Gallery in Washington. Guest appearances with the Juilliard, Fine Arts, New World, and Chester String quartets highlight his extensive chamber music experience.
Votapek was the soloist on Arthur Fiedler’s last Boston Pops recording, a Gershwin program released on CD by London Records and most recently available as a part of the Deutsche Grammophone CD titled “The Arthur Fiedler Legacy.” In recent years he has recorded prolifically for the Ivory Classics and Blue Griffin labels. On the former he recorded the complete Debussy Preludes, the complete Goyescas of Granados, and a collection of important 20th century works. On the latter there are “Votapek Plays Gershwin,” “The Votapeks from Mozart to Piazzolla,” and the complete works for piano and cello of Beethoven with cellist Suren Bagratuni. They have been critically acclaimed by Grammophone, American Record Guide, International Piano, and Fanfare magazines.
His wife, Albertine, frequently joins him in two-piano and four-hand recitals. They have appeared in Buenos Aires under the auspices of the Mozarteum Argentino, on the Van Cliburn Series in Fort Worth, the Pabst Theatre Series in Milwaukee, and on many college campuses.
Votapek is now retired from Michigan State University, where he served as artist-in-residence for 36 years.
Click here to listen to the pre-concert talk!
To submit a question for our next Pre-Concert Talk, Classics II, "The Nature of Music," please text 616-275-4298 or email email@example.com.
Deadline: October 8, 2021.