Program Notes: Czech Hits

Concert Program

Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 1884)
Vltava (The Moldau), from Ma vlast
Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 1884)
Sárka, from Ma vlast
Bob Becker
Music On The Moon
Dinuk Wijeratne Invisible Cities
I. Valdrada
IV. Ersilia
Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904)
Symphony No.8 in G major, op.88
I. Allegro con brio
II. Adagio
III. Allegretto grazioso
IV. Allegro ma non troppo

Program Notes


Born in Litomyšl, Bohemia, March 2, 1824; died in Prague, May 12, 1884

Šárka, from Má vlast (1875)

Born in Bohemia, then a part of the Austrian Empire, with German as its official language and Vienna as its capital, Smetana soon became a passionate nationalist.  In 1848, he fought against the Austrians in an unsuccessful revolution, taking a role in the emerging Czech nation much as did Verdi in the unification of Italy.  Political harassment followed and, for six years, Smetana moved to Sweden.  In 1866, he returned to Prague as principal conductor of the Provisional Theatre (whose orchestra included the young violist Antonin Dvořák, whose Eighth Symphony, the most nationalistic and Czech of his nine symphonies, concludes today’s concert).   In Prague, Smetana composed his masterpieces, the operas The Bartered Bride, and, two years later, Dalibor, together with an epic cycle of symphonic poems titled My Country.

Originally conceived as a cycle of four, Smetana added two further symphonic poems to Má vlast a few years later.  All build on the freedom of structure and content of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt and are therefore designed to stand as independent pieces.  Smetana wrote descriptive program notes for his publisher, revealing the six narratives.  Šárka is the third of the set, following The High Castle, an evocation of Vyšehrad castle which dominates Prague’s skyline and history, and The Moldau, representing the river from its source to its majestic presence in the Czech capital.  Šárka, however, tells a grislier tale of the legendary warrior Šárka and, in Smetana’s words, “her rage against men, her mortification and wrath – the outcome of love betrayed – and her vow to take vengeance.”  Finding Šárka bound to a tree (in a set-up plotted together with her friends), the warrior Ctirad is overcome by her beauty.  He and his soldiers celebrate her apparent liberation and are duped into drinking spiked wine.  They fall asleep.  The horn gives Šárka’s signal to her women and, in Smetana’s words, they “fall upon the slumbering camp.  Their triumph.  The massacre.  Vengeance is accomplished.  There is no moral,” Smetana continues.  “Each listener is free to follow their own fancy and add what they please to this broad outline.”

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904

Symphony No. 8, in G, Op. 88, B. 163 (1889)

Dvořák was in a happy vein of mind while writing his Eighth Symphony.  He began sketching it in the summer of 1889 in his small country home at Vysoká in the Bohemian countryside that he loved.  Always a quick worker, he completed the orchestration by November and conducted the Prague première early the following year.  Like Schubert, Dvořák has the knack of making his music sound natural.  His abundant melodies seem grounded in the Bohemian countryside and his writing has a spontaneous, open-air feel.  Little in the work sounds contrived or academic, though the apparent spontaneity (as in the cello theme at the opening of the finale) sometimes had to be arrived at only after hard work, false starts and much revision.  In the Eighth, Dvořák creates a highly original structure, in the perfect combination of form and content.  He referred to it as “different from other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.”  He forges a close interconnection between the melodies of all four movements, both underpinning the work and making the exuberant Bohemian dance of the finale all the more effective.  The opening sonorous, hymn-like phrase for cellos, clarinets, bassoons and horns immediately stands out as a minor key opening to a major key symphony.  But it also generates the flood of melodies to come, all of them memorable, all contributing to the forward surge of the music.  “Melodies simply pour out of me,” Dvořák said at the time.

Dark minor-key clouds hang over the outer sections of the slow movement, punctuated by stillness and silences, revealing an otherwise tranquil country scene.  An heroic C major central interlude gives the composer an opportunity to work in memories of his student days when he played under Wagner’s direction, a composer he respected.  The G minor scherzo opens as a forlorn country-dance, compellingly beautiful in its melancholy, comforted by a warmer, major-key trio section.  A trumpet fanfare introduces the finale, which frequently looks forward to Mahler, who both admired and conducted Dvořák’s symphonies.  In this theme and variations, Dvořák writes some of his most profoundly Czech music, meditating long and lovingly on a theme related to the opening flute theme of the first movement, before the trumpet fanfare returns in a blaze of glory.

©2019 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed:


Music On The Moon

Music On The Moon was commissioned by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra with a grant from the Laidlaw Foundation. Work on the piece was begun during a residency at the Leighton Colony of the Banff Centre for the Arts in June, 1996. It was completed in Toronto the following December. The piece is scored for a standard chamber orchestra with harp, double winds, and brass. In 2010 an alternate orchestration was created to include four percussion soloists. Tonight’s performance will be the Canadian premiere of that version.

The musical language used here is one that has been evolving in my music since as long ago as 1982 with Palta, a “concerto” for the Indian tabla drums accompanied by traditional western percussion instruments. The approach became explicit in 1990 with the percussion quintet Mudra, and has remained consistent in all of my music since that time, the idea being to extract a functional harmonic system from a purely melodic source – particular ragas of Hindustani classical music. Although Indian music is usually characterized as being elaborately melodic with no harmony (by western European definitions) whatsoever, my personal experience has been one of subliminally perceived harmonic movement, a sensation clearly related to my cultural background and musical training. This kind of cross-referencing is always experienced when one strong cultural expression encounters another and, in my opinion, this perceptual phenomenon will be the defining issue in all of the arts and politics of the twenty-first century. Rag Chandrakauns, traditionally linked to the full moon and late-night hours, and with the scale degrees tonic, minor third, fourth, minor sixth, major seventh, has always attracted me. I have used these interval relationships to determine both the melodic and harmonic content of all my music for the past twenty-five years.

The image of the moon in general, and the full moon in particular, is a potent one for nearly every society in the world. There is great variety, however, in the interpretation of its significance. In North American culture alone the full moon is associated not only with romantic love and bountiful harvests, but as well with more sinister things such as mental imbalance, evil spirits and violence. I am intrigued by this psychological ambiguity, and it is reflected in the unsettled and dream-like character of the music. In any event, the moon is known to exert a gravitational pull on the earth and everything on it, including our own bodies and, perhaps, our minds.

Note by Bob Becker (2015)


Carlos Izcaray, conductor

Carlos Izcaray is Music Director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and of the American Youth Symphony. Praised by the international press as inspiring, spirited and conducting with nuanced sensitivity, he has appeared with numerous ensembles across five continents and is now firmly established as one of the leading conductors of his generation. Throughout his career Izcaray has shown special interest and prowess in tackling some of the most complex scores in the symphonic repertoire, while also championing a historically informed approach.

On the symphonic platform he is leading ensembles such as the Pacific, St. Louis, North Carolina, Grand Rapids and Kitchener-Waterloo Symphonies, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin, Malmö Symfoniorkester, Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música, Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá, Orchestra Regionale dell’Emilia-Romagna, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Macedonian Philharmonic, Orquestra Sinfônica da Bahia, Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, Venezuela Symphony Orchestra, and Orquesta Sinfónica Municipal de Caracas, among others. Izcaray’s latest recording, ‘Through the Lens of Time’, featuring Max Richter’s Recomposed: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and violinist Francisco Fullana, was released in March 2018 on the Orchid Classics label, and has garnered widespread attention and praise.

Izcaray is equally at home with opera repertoire, receiving rave reviews for his performances at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Utah Opera, Opera Omaha, International Opera Festival Alejandro Granda in Peru, and in particular at the Wexford Festival Opera, where he has led many productions since the opening of Ireland’s National Opera House. His 2010 performances of Virginia by Mercadante won the Best Opera prize at the Irish Theatre Awards.

A strong believer of supporting the younger generations, Izcaray has worked extensively with the world’s top talents and leading music institutions, including his country’s own El Sistema. In 2014 he led a tour of the Filarmónica Joven de Colombia, and he has additionally worked with the Fundación Batuta, Neojiba in Brazil, London Schools Symphony Orchestra, and Cambridge University Music Society, where he has also taught conducting workshops. Following a project at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in summer 2015 he returned there for a performance with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in 2017. Building on his passion for music education, he became the Music Director of the American Youth Symphony in autumn 2016.

A distinguished instrumentalist himself, Izcaray has featured as concert soloist and chamber musician worldwide, and served as Principal Cello and Artistic President of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra prior to dedicating his career fully to the podium. Increasingly active as a composer, Izcaray’s orchestral work Cota Mil was premiered by the Orquesta Sinfónica Municipal de Caracas. April 2018 saw the premiere of his Strike Fugaz by the American Youth Symphony, commissioned in association with the Human Rights Watch to commemorate, and celebrate, the campaign for worldwide social justice, equality and freedom – a cause for which Izcaray is a proud and committed advocate. Izcaray’s Cello Concerto receives its world premiere in January 2020, and is performed by Santiago Cañón Valencia and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the composer.

Izcaray was born into a family of several artistic generations in Caracas. At the age of 3 he was enrolled in Venezuela’s public system of youth orchestras, continuing at the Emil Friedman Conservatory, where he was a boy chorister as well as an instrumentalist. He studied conducting with his father since he was a teenager, and went on to become a distinguished fellow at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. Izcaray is an alumnus of the Interlochen Arts Academy, New World School of the Arts, and Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and won top prizes at the 2007 Aspen Music Festival and later at the 2008 Toscanini International Conducting Competition. He is a dual citizen of Spain and Venezuela, and divides his time between in Birmingham (AL) and Los Angeles.

TorQ, Percussion Ensemble


TorQ Percussion Quartet is one of Canada’s premiere percussion ensembles and consistently brings new vitality to percussion repertoire and performance in every situation and opportunity. Renowned for their engaging performances, members Richard Burrows, Adam Campbell, Jamie Drake and Daniel Morphy are committed to making percussion music accessible to audiences that span generations and as The Toronto Star states “[TorQ] can stand proud among the growing throng of chamber percussion ensembles around the world.”

Since coming together in 2004, their activities continue to flourish. These past two seasons have seen major inroads for the quartet into the United States with extensive tours in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and residencies in Ohio and Michigan. In 2016, TorQ had its first American symphonic collaboration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Some other international highlights include the International Percussion Quartet Festival (Luxembourg), Percussive Arts Society International Convention (San Antonio and Indianapolis) and with the Stuttgart Chamber Choir. This season sees their collaboration with both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

At home, TorQ has made appearances at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, PEI’s Indian River Festival, MusicFest Canada (Vancouver), Toronto’s Soundstreams, and Kitchener’s Open Ears Contemporary Music Festival. Selected by the three major Canadian touring organisations, Jeunesses Musicales Canada, Prairie Debut and Debut Atlantic, TorQ has performed throughout every province. In 2012, they launched their first annual 4-concert series in Toronto where they collaborated with invited guest artists, composers, and dancers. As collaborative artists, the quartet has performed with the Larkin Singers, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Elora Festival Singers, and the Hamilton Children’s Choir. They have been guest artists with the TSO, UofS Wind Ensemble and MUN Wind Ensemble among others.

Committed to commissioning new works for percussion quartet, TorQ has presented many Canadian and world premieres including a new percussion quartet concerto, Invisible Cities, written by Canadian composer, Dinuk Wijeratne which premiered in 2014. Last season they premiered Whirly, a new concerto by Canadian composer Monica Pearce. Their discography consists of four recordings on Bedoint Records, the first of which titled TorQ, was awarded 3.5/4 stars by The Toronto Star. Their newest release, Modulations, released in November 2017 has been described as “fun listening” by The Wholenote.

TorQ is actively involved in music education initiatives and performs approximately 80 school shows per year. They are also frequent educational collaborators with Soundstreams Canada and present master classes and workshops. This past summer, TorQ hosted their sixth annual TorQ Percussion Seminar, a five-day percussion event that took place in collaboration with Stratford Summer Music in Ontario.