Prokofiev Triumphant

Program Notes

Music by Milwaukee native Emily Cooley opens today’s concert. Then Drew Petersen—winner of the American Pianists Association competition—plays Gershwin’s ever-popular Rhapsody in Blue. Prokofiev’s celebratory Symphony No. 5 makes up the second half of the program.


Green Go to Me

Emily Cooley
(Born 22 January 1990; Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

Composed: 2014

First performance: 30 July 2014; Santa Cruz, California

Last MSO performance: MSO premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, wood block, suspended cymbals, claves, cabasa, maracas), harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 6 minutes

Milwaukee native Emily Cooley is a composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music that ranges from delicate intensity to a pulsing, energetic sound. In 2015, Emily was awarded a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her music has garnered additional awards and recognition from the National Federation of Music Clubs, Tribeca New Music, ASCAP, the Renée B. Fisher Foundation, and others. Cooley has received commissions and performances from ensembles including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, the JACK Quartet, the Fifth House Ensemble, and Music from Copland House. She has been a fellow at the Norfolk New Music Workshop, the Wellesley Composers Conference, CULTIVATE at Copland House, and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

Cooley holds degrees from the USC Thornton School of Music and Yale University, where she was awarded the Louis Sudler Prize for excellence in the creative arts. Of Green Go to Me, the composer has stated:

Lately I’ve become interested in writing pieces that consist of only one section, usually in the form of a long, slow build of density and variety in sound. This piece takes that model: there are no delineated sections and no transitions, just the goal of reaching the ending and revealing the core of this music’s material. One of the inspirations for this piece is the work of California artist Andres Amador, whose sand murals flourish into massive and stunning images, but are inevitably washed away by the ocean.


Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin
(Born 26 September 1898; Brooklyn, New York; Died 11 July 1937; Hollywood, California)

First performance: 12 February 1924; New York

Last MSO performance: January 2013; Francesco Lecce-Chong, conductor; Stephen Beus, piano
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, snare drum, triangle), 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, banjo, strings
Approximate duration: 16 minutes

George Gershwin, along with his lyricist brother Ira, gave us some of the most beloved songs in the history of popular music. “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm”—these are just a few of their contributions to the Great American Songbook.

In 1924, Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), the country’s best-known band leader from the 1920s to the 1940s, tapped Gershwin to write a “jazz concerto” for a concert he planned to present at New York’s Aeolian Hall. (Whiteman had been impressed by his earlier collaboration with Gershwin on George White’s Scandals of 1922.) Entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” it promised to broaden concertgoers’ perceptions of what serious American music could sound like. Whiteman, who had set the concert date for 12 February, didn’t bother to discuss the project with Gershwin until early January.

The 25-year-old tunesmith was up for the task, but told Whiteman a full-length concerto wasn’t feasible, given the time constraints. Gershwin agreed to write a free-form composition, some sort of rhapsody that would feature him as the solo pianist. Whiteman’s band, which would be expanded to 23 musicians, would comprise the orchestra. The young composer committed the first notes to the page on 7 January, completing the piece on 3 February, just over a week before the concert. Gershwin’s customary Broadway process was to write the tunes and to leave the instrumentation to someone else. When he told Whiteman of his unease about the orchestration, the band leader replied, “No problem.” Gershwin notated the score for two pianos—one for the solo part and the other for the orchestral accompaniment, including certain suggestions for instrumentation. Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s staff arranger since 1920 (nowadays best remembered for his 1931 Grand Canyon Suite), was called in to do the job, working daily to keep up with Gershwin as his composing proceeded. (In 1926, Grofé created the version for solo piano and full symphony orchestra that is most often heard.)

The title of the piece came from Ira, the family wordsmith, who had been inspired by a recent exhibition of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s paintings. Whistler liked to give abstract titles to his paintings, even the representational ones; for example, the actual title of what we call “Whistler’s Mother” is Arrangement in Gray and Black. This concept appealed to the Gershwin brothers, who came up with Rhapsody in Blue, a moniker that infers “the blues” and, by extension, jazz. And indeed, as Whiteman intended for his “Experiment,” characteristics of both jazz and classical styles are melded into this ever-fresh “concerto,” a work its composer called “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” 

From its first performance, Rhapsody in Blue was a smashing success, one that catapulted Gershwin into a totally new status as a composer. He was acknowledged everywhere as a major figure in American music and in asserting American influence in Europe.

Recommended Recording: Leonard Bernstein, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

Serge Prokofiev
(Born 23 April 1891; Sontsovka, Russia; Died 5 March 1953; Moscow, Russia)

Composed: 1944

First performance: 13 January 1945; Moscow, Russia

Last MSO performance: February 2015; Andrew Litton, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, wood block, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, tambourine, triangle), harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 46 minutes

In the last years of tsarist Russia, Sergei Prokofiev, still in his 20s, made his name as a composer of music both weighty and sardonic. Following the Revolution, making his home mainly in the United States and then Paris, his mode of expression progressively became more settled and, one might say, more polished. He spent the last 17 years of his life back in the Soviet Union, however, both spurred on and restrained by the cultural policies of Stalin’s regime. Throughout his life, he occupied himself with music for the stage, and was one of the 20th century’s most distinguished creators of symphonies, concertos, and piano sonatas.

As Russia emerged from its darkest hours of World War II, Prokofiev’s triumphant Fifth Symphony, composed in summer 1944, symbolized a turning point in the spirit of the Russian people. With the composer on the podium, the first performance in 1945 occurred just moments after word reached Moscow that Red Army soldiers had won a decisive victory against Hitler’s army on the Vistula River. According to legend, as Prokofiev raised his baton, the sound of distant cannons made its way into the concert hall. Exhilarated by both the good news and the exultant tenor of the music, the premiere was a great success. The Symphony No. 5 has since been reckoned as a victory celebration and has become one of Prokofiev’s best-loved works.

Though Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony while the war was at its most vicious, it is not a “wartime” symphony in the same sense as, say, Shostakovich’s Seventh or Vaughan Williams’s Sixth. The Russian master called it “a hymn to free and happy man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.” And, indeed, the summer of 1944 was a felicitous time for him, as he lodged at a large country estate provided by the Union of Soviet composers. Surrounded by like-minded folk—his colleagues included Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, and Glière—he composed, took walks, played tennis, and insisted that evenings be spent together, comparing notes (literally).

The opening Andante is in sonata form. Moderately paced and melodically expressive throughout, it is emotionally powerful but, unlike much of the music of its era, it is never combative nor rough. The scherzo (Allegro marcato) finds Prokofiev in his toccata mode: fast-moving, assertive, yet colored by a razor-sharp sense of humor. The contrasting central theme is in triple time, framed by a prancing motif in the woodwinds.

The dreamy, nostalgic Adagio is typical of Prokofiev’s coolly elegant slow music. It is a three-part form that moves from dreaminess to an agonized climax, then back to dreaminess. The finale begins with a brief introduction (a woodwind phrase answered by the strings, then a cello chorale); a rondo-like structure makes up the main body of the Allegro giocoso. There’s a generous amount of melodic material here, but the clarinet, playing the main theme that begins each important structural section, helps us delineate the form. The bustling coda ends the work in a whirlwind of orchestral color.

Recommended recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.