May 11 2019

Spring Concert 2019

Fort Worth Civic Orchestra

Kurt Sprenger, Music Director

Saturday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Truett Auditorium
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
2001 West Seminary Drive, Fort Worth, TX

Admission Free


In our 42-year history, the Fort Worth Civic Orchestra has never performed (to the best of our knowledge) any musical works composed by a woman. That realization took us by surprise, considering the fact that FWCO plays a LOT of contemporary music, a stream where women are very well represented.

So, just in time to observe 100 years since passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote (June 4, 1919), we end our season in a splashy way with a concert by (almost) all-women composers. The history of symphonic music includes several remarkable women. As our mission is to offer music of quality to the community and to broaden our audience’s exposure to the classical literature, we add three new (to us) composers to our repertoire.

Joan Tower (b. 1938)

Fanfare No. 6 for the Uncommon Woman

Joan Tower comes from a generation of American composers who emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s, among them Philip Glass, John Corigliano, William Bolcom and Steve Reich. Though their styles ranged broadly – some were called “minimalists,” others “new Romantics” – their music embraced tonal centers, consonant harmonies and recognizable melodic themes without fear or shame. Following the experimentalism of the ‘50s and ‘60s, they reaffirmed a musical language that echoed the expressive lyricism of 19th century models but were filtered through a modern esthetic.

Tower’s standing in the musical world was firmly established with Sequoia in 1981, and in the decades since, she’s produced a much-admired body of work. She was the first woman to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music (for Silver Ladders in 1990), and her Concerto for Orchestra (1991) and Made in America (2004) have become firmly established in the repertoire.

In 1986, the Houston Symphony commissioned fanfares from 21 composers to observe the 150th year since Texas declared independence. Though it should have produced many forgettable throwaways, the project yielded notable works, including John Williams’ Celebration Fanfare, John Adams’ Tromba Lontana and Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers. The most enduring, however, has been Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, whose title is a play on Aaron Copland’s anthemic Fanfare for the Common Man. In the years since, she’s composed five more, dedicated as a group to “women who take risks and are adventurous.” Fanfare No. 6, composed in 2014 for piano and later arranged for full orchestra, is an energetic work of pulsating rhythms, shimmering surfaces and big, jazzy interjections. The Fanfare was premiered by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony in 2016.

In a 1991 essay about her composer residency with the St. Louis Symphony, Tower wrote: “I recently asked a pre-concert audience of around 1,500 people how many of them expected to dislike my piece, and about 90 percent of the hands went up. I then asked them how many thought that was unfair. The same hands went up! With orchestra players it’s a little better, but not much.” The League of American Orchestras has announced that it will award its Gold Baton to Joan Tower at its annual convention this June in Nashville.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Fanfare for the Common Man

Copland’s fanfare was a commission from the Cincinnati Symphony, whose English music director Eugene Goosens had buoyed British public morale in the first world war with fanfares written by British composers. With the world at war again, he now invited 17 Americans (and himself) to contribute fanfares reflecting on aspects of the war, each to be unveiled weekly through the 1942-43 season. There were fanfares …for the Fighting French (Walter Piston), …for Freedom (Morton Gould), …for the Signal Corps (Howard Hanson), but Copland’s is the one that has stayed with us through the years.

Its name was inspired by Vice President Henry Wallace’s speech to the Free World Society in 1942 proclaiming “the century of the common man.” Goosens said to Copland: “Its title is as interesting as the music, and I think it is so telling that it deserves a special occasion for its performance. If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it on March 12, 1943 at income tax time.” As Copland observed later, “I was all for honoring the common man at income tax time.”

The opening fanfare in Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (familiar as the theme to “2001: A Space Odyssey”) was built on three ascending notes (do-so-do) in the trumpets that pose Nietzsche’s “world riddle.” Like a magician, Copland took those rising fifth and fourth intervals but started on the fifth degree of the scale (so-do-so) to transform Strauss’ fanfare to the Super Man – this, just as the fight against Nazism was beginning – into a resounding assertion of the spirit of the Common Man.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)

Symphony No. 3

In Poland, they pronounce her name gra-ZHEE-na bot-SAY-vitch. She was a gifted violinist, composed seven violin concertos and couldn’t have escaped a life in music if she’d wanted. Her father was a choirmaster. Her brother was a composer. Her other brother was a pianist. Yet hers is the name found in the standard music histories and biographies.

Her father, Vincas Bacevičius, went by his Lithuanian name, but Grażyna identified more with her mother’s Polish nationality. After graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1932, she sought the help of Nadia Boulanger in Paris to hone her composing craft just as Aaron Copland had done a decade earlier. As a violinist, Bacewicz was concertmaster of the Polish Radio Symphony until its disbanding at the outbreak of World War II, but she continued composing and giving concerts in Warsaw throughout the war. In 1945, she took a professorship at the State Conservatory of Music in Łódź. A serious auto accident in 1954 put her in the hospital with a broken pelvis, broken ribs and injuries to her head and face. A friend reported that “she was in a darkened hospital ward fighting for her life, and though she had difficulty talking, she spent the time joking and refusing to discuss the accident or the seriousness of her condition.”

By that time, Bacewicz had already begun to curtail her performing career in order to concentrate on composing; she made a complete break with the violin the year after her accident. By then, she had composed all four of her numbered symphonies, including the Third, which dates from 1952. The works she wrote in the 1940s and ‘50s are often described as neoclassical, though she disputed the term. She did, however, admit to the primacy of structure in her works. “I mainly care about the form in my compositions… [I]f you place things randomly or throw rocks on a pile, that pile will always collapse. In music, there must be rules of construction that will allow the work to stand on its feet.”

Bacewicz’ Third is in the mold of a classical four-movement symphony. The intensity of the opening Drammatico molto lives up to its name and could automatically trigger an, “Uh, oh! An ugly piece of modern music!” reaction. But a minute in, she quickens the pace and tosses a punchy rhythm around the orchestra very much like the motto of Beethoven’s Fifth, this followed by a less urgent but still dark second subject based on the introduction. A muscular development, recap and coda complete the movement’s sonata-allegro structure. The slow movement begins and ends on a stealthy bass pizzicato that bookends a luxuriantly dreamy piece of orchestral writing. The third movement is a quicksilver scherzo with prankish humor while the finale has echoes of the first movement, a slow and sinister prologue and music of obsessively pounding agitation and fury.

Watch Grażyna Bacewicz perform her own Oberek in 1952, the same year she composed her Third Symphony


Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)

The Wreckers Overture

The history of English opera after Handel resumes – after near silence for 150 years – with Dame Ethel Smyth. (Arthur Balfe’s 1843 Bohemian Girl didn’t exactly jumpstart the artform, and the Savoy operas of Gilbert & Sullivan aren’t exactly opera.)

Smyth, the daughter of a stern military man from Kent, shocked her family when she Brexited to Germany to study music. On the continent, she hobnobbed with Clara Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. She composed a large body of chamber music in the 1880s, but like her musical heroes Wagner and Berlioz, Smyth dreamed of writing opera. Her concert overture Antony and Cleopatra (1890) and choral Mass in D after Thomas à Kempis (1891) gave her a dry run managing large orchestral and vocal forces, and in 1892, she started work on both the comic opera Fantasio and her pirate opera The Wreckers.

It was on a visit to Cornwall in 1886 that Smyth first heard century-old tales of coastal villagers who doused the harbor lights to lure passing cargo ships aground on the rocks, murder the crews and plunder the ships’ stores. Sixty years before Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Smyth saw the possibilities of the sea as a darkly dramatic setting for opera. The Wreckers overture opens abruptly on a swashbuckling call to arms that the villagers sing in Act 1:

    Haste to the shore, the storm is nigh,
    The breakers roar, the seabirds cry!
    Wreckers away, and haste ye!

This is followed by the heroic theme of Mark and Thirza, young lovers condemned to die in a cave amid rising tide waters for the crime of warning away the sailing ships. A liturgical chorale evokes the piety of the villagers, who credit Providence with delivering the ships, and the overture ends with a coda based on the opening chorus.

The Wreckers had only one performance at its 1906 Leipzig premiere because Smyth withdrew it over her objections to the conductor’s edits. It was mounted in London under Arthur Nikisch in 1908, under a young (not yet Sir) Thomas Beecham in 1909 and at Covent Garden in 1910 under Bruno Walter. Smyth’s Der Wald was the first opera by a woman staged at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1903 (followed by Kajia Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin 113 years after!).

Inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign to win voting rights for British women, Smyth became a suffrage activist – famously serving two months in Holloway Prison with a hundred other women for a window-breaking rampage. Dame Ethel was awarded the DBE in 1922, having confessed to her diary when she was 9 of wanting “to be made a Peeress in my own right because of music.” She accepted it enthusiastically, she said, “especially as it was all due to an absurd row in the Woking Golf Club.”

Hear Dame Ethel Smyth’s recollections of Johannes Brahms…