July 7 2024 : Family Concert: Green Eggs and Ham

May 8, 2024

FAM 1 July 7
Jacob Joyce, conductor HOLD
Really Inventive Stuff CONFIRMED
TBD Soprano

Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmilla 5’
Dorff, Three Fun Fables 11’
Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture 12’
Kapilow, Green Eggs and Ham 20’

Mikhail Glinka  
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla 

Soon after Mikhail Glinka began work on his second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, a complication emerged: His librettist was killed in a duel. And it wasn’t just any librettist, but the great Russian author Alexander Pushkin, whose narrative poem of the same title had prompted the opera. Pushkin was just 37 years old when he died in the senseless skirmish involving his wife’s honor. Glinka concluded that the show must go on, however, and soon enlisted a team of five librettists, who together made a muddled spectacle of an already fantastical tale. 

Set in pagan Russia, the story concerns Ruslan’s attempts to rescue Ludmila, the daughter of an aristocrat, who has been abducted by an evil dwarf. Along the way, he encounters various supernatural creatures, plus a magic sword and a magic ring. Glinka’s inventive score rose above the plot difficulties and Tchaikovsky later called Ruslan, “the Tsar of operas.” Igor Stravinsky also added his appraisal, stating that “all music in Russia stems from [Glinka]” (perhaps notwithstanding the ancient traditions of Russian folk music and liturgical chant).  

The overture begins with two vigorous themes, both from the opera’s final wedding scene. The quicksilver string textures established a template for later composers such as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. A contrasting, lyrical theme, introduced in the low strings and bassoons, is taken from Ruslan’s second-act aria, sung on the battlefield as his thoughts turned to Ludmilla. All three themes are developed before the exuberance of the final bars. 

Poorly cast and under-rehearsed, Ruslan and Ludmilla drew a lukewarm success at its 1842 premiere in St. Petersburg. But it became established in the repertory after Glinka’s death in 1857 and today, the overture remains a treasured curtain-raiser.

Daniel Dorff  
Three Fun Fables 

Aesop’s Fables have been delighting children for millennia, even if little is known about Aesop himself—including whether the ancient Greek storyteller existed at all. But like the writings of Shakespeare or Tolkien, the stories have become part of the cultural bloodstream, passing down wisdom from one generation to the next, with each starring a cast of sly and savvy animals. Even titles like “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” require little explanation in 2024. 

A prolific composer as well as saxophonist and bass clarinetist, Daniel Dorff has an extensive catalog that includes many works for young people. On a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, he gathered three Aesop tales and developed this wry and evocative suite, originally scored for narrator and octet. Later, on a request from the Philadelphia Orchestra, he expanded it for full orchestra. 

Animal sounds, of course, have long been a source of musical delight, from the braying effects in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture (also on this program) to the assorted creatures of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. In Three Fun Fables, creatures scamper and chirp, cackle, and caw. A trumpet and contrabass portray the cheese-loving adversaries of “The Fox and the Crow.” In “The Dog and his Reflection” a trombonist stars as the greedy, narcissistic hound, accompanied by violin, harp, and percussion. Finally, a lumbering contrabassoon and a sprightly clarinet capture the underdog tale of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” concluding the trilogy with the tortoise’s courageous dash to the finish line. 

Felix Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture

Though Beethoven had laid the groundwork for the stand-alone concert overture with his Leonore No. 2 and Coriolan overtures, Felix Mendelssohn brought this form into new realms of mood painting and illustrative detail in the A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. It’s even more remarkable that Mendelssohn was just 17 when he composed this work based on Shakespeare’s tale of love lost and found in an enchanted forest. 

The young Felix, along with his sisters Fanny and Rebecka, grew up in an intellectually rich household in which they were not only constantly making and playing music, but were tutored in English, French and German, and encouraged to read voraciously. Shakespeare’s plays, long known in German-speaking countries, had begun appearing in an appealing new series of German translations which were heavy on romantic atmosphere. Ludwig Tieck, one of the translators, even called Midsummer “a romantic masterpiece.” This version arrived in the Mendelssohn family library in 1826. 

For the teenage composer, the story was memorable chiefly for its forest world of fairies, elves, and magic spells. Recognizing the story’s musical potential, he reported to Fanny in a letter, “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden… Today or tomorrow, I am going to dream there the Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have a lot of nerve!” Mendelssohn’s teacher, Adolph Marx, left a detailed account of the overture’s genesis, which stresses the importance of his advice to the precocious composer, and which Felix, after some initial petulance, gratefully accepted.  

At any rate, the entire composition of the overture, including revisions, took less than a month, and the result is wonderfully evocative of Shakespeare’s elfin world, starting with four gleaming woodwind chords. Elfin fairy music scurries through the violins and soon the noble lovers’ music swells. As the overture develops, the plot references pile on, notably with the hee-hawing sounds of Bottom, the ruffian who has been endowed with the head of a braying ass. The fairy music is fancifully developed before the four chords of the opening return and the overture ends as it began. 

Rob Kapilow 
Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham

In 1960, Theodore Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, needed just 50 different words to write his perennially popular picture book Green Eggs and Ham. Composer, author, and commentator Rob Kapilow uses the same words but many more notes in this teeming musical adaptation of the tale for soprano, boy soprano, and orchestra.  

Like Aesop’s Fables, Dr. Seuss’s whimsical and mischievous verse has been passed down over generations, not only in print but through film, TV, streaming, and audio book adaptations. The late author published more than 60 children’s books, often with fanciful drawings of imaginary places and creatures. Some of these explored adult topics, too. “The Lorax” warns of environmental destruction. “The Butter Battle Book” is a parable about the nuclear arms race.  

In “Green Eggs and Ham,” a child tutors an adult about prejudice and the importance of trying new things. The persistent Sam-I-am offers the grumpy, unnamed adult a plate of the titular dish. Though the adult (a man in the book) initially refuses, he eventually gives in, declaring: “I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am.”  

Kapilow introduced his Green Eggs and Ham in 1992, early in what would be a sweeping career of tutoring audiences in the fine art of listening. His “What Makes It Great?” series—heard on public radio and in concert halls—has featured his erudite and enthusiastic deconstructions of music by Haydn, Beethoven, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and Joni Mitchell. “I knew that if I could get permission to set Dr. Seuss’s ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ people would come through the door for that who would otherwise never set foot in a concert hall,” Kapilow told the New York Times in 2003. “And it’s the only libretto in America that every kid knows by heart. So, when you set it to music, they would ‘get’ what music can do.” 

This 18-minute score romps across a broad stylistic panorama, including the sounds of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, Stravinsky-like modernism, quotes of “Heart and Soul” and the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. At the end of a detailed performance note, Kapilow offers this bit of advice: “In general, be creative and enjoy yourselves.” 

—Brian Wise

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