Program notes: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8

Sunday, August 6, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Mason Bates: Soundcheck in C Major

Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

Soundcheck in C Major

Mason Bates (b. 1977)

Composed: 2020-2021
Length: c. 5 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (tuned gongs, vibraphone, crotale, triangle, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, snare drum, field drum, bass drum, woodblock, drum kit, laptop), piano, and strings

Mason Bates is well known to regular Sun Valley Music Festival attendees. In addition to composing his 2014 orchestral piece Devil’s Radio for the Festival’s 30th anniversary season, Bates served as Composer-in-Residence during the 2019 Summer Season and has great enthusiasm for Festival Orchestra musicians and the “stunningly tricked-out pavilion.” On August 14, Bates will host his third wildly popular post-concert Lawn Party, mixing EDM (electronic dance music) as his alter ego, DJ Masonic. Bates embraces the liberation afforded by transcending the boundaries between classical and popular music genres. While working toward his Ph.D. at Berkeley, concentrating on symphonic composition, Bates spent his nights mixing techno beats at Oakland clubs. Elements of electronica borrowed from EDM feature prominently in most of Bates’s symphonic scores, including Soundcheck in C Major.

Soundcheck was commissioned for the opening of the San Diego Symphony’s own impressive outdoor music venue, the Rady Shell. Bates composed the fanfare to show off the acoustics of the new space and the capabilities of its state-of-the-art sound system. Bates wrote of the piece, which includes a laptop to trigger the extensive electronic parts:

The opening shimmering chords echo electronically and then fly over the audience, tentatively testing the concert hall, before the orchestra builds to a resonant unison. A resolute march ensues and then evolves into a quicksilver passage showcasing solo players, before soon building back triumphantly to the opening sonorities.

Bates acknowledges sonic influences of Pink Floyd psychedelia, Wagner overtures, and the THX cinema “sound test” cue in the score. There are also references to the driving rhythms of Led Zeppelin and the 80s-era synth soundscape familiar from the Netflix series Stranger Things.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Composed: 1889
Length: c. 34 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

By the 1800s, Antonín Dvořák was seeking opportunities for musical advancement beyond his Czech homeland. Vienna was still the golden land of music, but political tensions at the time led to strong anti-Czech sentiments in the city. In 1884 he wrote to conductor Hans Richter, discouraging him from programming his Slavonic Rhapsodies in Vienna:

Viennese audiences seem to be prejudiced against a composition with a Slav flavor, so it may not be as successful as it might in other circumstances. It went very well in London and Berlin, and will do well elsewhere too, but in the national and political conditions prevailing here I am afraid it will not be well received.

These concerns had significant dual ramifications for Dvořák. First, he began to consciously alter his compositional style to de-emphasize the Slavonic elements and attend more intentionally to formalism. And second, he pursued other international opportunities outside of Vienna, most notably accepting an invitation to England in 1884. The tremendous success of this tour prompted the esteemed London Philharmonic Society to make Dvořák an honorary member and to invite him back to conduct a newly commissioned symphony—what would soon become his powerful Symphony No. 7.

Somewhat ironically, his international style and success allowed Dvořák to return to his roots with his Symphony No. 8, re-embracing the Slavonic folk elements that characterized his earlier style. At the same time, he was driven toward innovation, loosening the formalism that characterized the Seventh in favor of a poetic exploration of the natural world, viewed through his Czech sensibilities. The result is a sunny and spirited symphony brimming with evocative musical passages that follow each other leisurely and without artifice. Dvořák premiered the work in Prague and then London, celebrating both his native land and the country that embraced him.

What to listen for

  • First movement: In this bucolic opening movement, it can be helpful to track the two main ideas—the dark but peaceful opening (sounding like a richly mellow chorale) and the subsequent cheerful birdcalls in the flute.
  • Second movement: The rhapsodic Adagio is unified by a recurring motive—a quick-rising triplet upbeat figure (it’s the first thing you’ll hear). While rarely absent for more than a few measures, it never feels repetitive as Dvořák constantly varies it—listen in particular for the clarinets’ exotic version.
  • Third movement: The main portion of this movement feels like a wistful minor-key waltz, but be ready for the coda that effortlessly recasts some of the material from the middle of the movement in duple meter.
  • Fourth movement: The finale opens with an unusual trumpet fanfare, of which conductor Rafael Kubelik explained, “in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance.” Indeed, much of the remainder of the jubilant movement brings to mind Dvořák’s raucous Slavonic Dances.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi