Britt Orchestra: Brahms & Sasha Cooke

Saturday, July 28 • 7:30 p.m.

PROGRAM: Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
NOTICE: Due to wildfire smoke, this Britt Orchestra concert has been moved to the North Medford High School auditorium. For more information, see the press announcement here. For arrival and parking directions check out this map of North Medford High

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” • Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
MASON BATES: Passage • Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
JOHANNES BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E minor

TICKETS: General Admission $20 | Child/Student $10 
DOORS OPEN: @ 6:30 General Public

Sasha Cooke
Program: Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

LEONARD BERNSTEIN - Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” • Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano


MASON BATES - Passage • Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

JOHANNES BRAHMS - Symphony No. 4 in E minor

Allegro non troppo
Andante moderato
Allegro giocoso
Allegro energico e passionato

Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)

Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah


Instrumentation: three flutes (one doubles piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (one doubles bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, piano, strings, and mezzo-soprano soloist (third movement only).

Many of you are likely familiar with the prophet Jeremiah, and his prophecies regarding the fall of Jerusalem. Leonard Bernstein was certainly familiar with the story, as much of his work as a composer was influenced by his Jewish heritage and, in a broader sense, the concept of faith. Bernstein said in 1977, “The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith.” His First Symphony marks the first steps down this exploration of faith, which winds its way through The Age of Anxiety (1949), Kaddish (1963), Chichester Psalms (1965) and, Mass (1971). According to his estate, this exploration “... led him to a profound conclusion—that a renewal of faith in modern times requires a return to innocence, a shedding of the trappings of dogma and orthodoxy, and a fundamental belief in our common humanity.”

Jeremiah began life in 1939 as a sketch for a “Hebrew song” Bernstein completed shortly after his time at Harvard, and immediately before he began his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music. His conducting studies at Curtis forced him to set the song aside, but as he composed his first major instrumental work, he realized the song would be a perfect ending to what he had for his first symphony. After entering the work into a competition at the New England Conservatory (he did not win, if you’re curious), he shared the work with his conducting teacher from Curtis, Fritz Reiner. Reiner loved the work, and invited Bernstein to conduct its premiere at the Pittsburgh Symphony. Reiner also encouraged Bernstein to add a fourth, more uplifting movement to close the symphony, but Bernstein refused, later writing to his close friend Aaron Copland, “[Reiner] is most anxious for the fourth movement; insists it’s all too sad and defeatist. Same criticism my father had; which raises Pop in my estimation [to] no end. I really haven’t the time or energy for a fourth movement. I seem to have had my little say as far as that piece is concerned.”

Rather than belabor describing each movement to you, we’ll let Bernstein give his impressions:

“The intention is ... not one of literalness, but of emotional quality. Thus the first movement (‘Prophecy’) aims only to parallel in feeling the intensity of the prophet’s pleas with his people; and the Scherzo (‘Profanation’) to give a general sense of the destruction and chaos brought on by the pagan corruption within the priesthood and the people. The third movement (‘Lamentation’), being a setting of poetic text, is naturally a more literary conception. It is the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it.”

“The Symphony does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material. The first theme of the Scherzo is paraphrased from a traditional Hebrew chant, and the opening phrase of the vocal part in the Lamentation is based on a liturgical cadence still sung today in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Other resemblances to Hebrew liturgical music are a matter of emotional quality rather than of the notes themselves.”

Mason Bates (1977)


Instrumentation: three flutes (two double on piccolo), three oboes (one doubles on English horn), two clarinets (one doubles on bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, laptop, strings, and mezzo-soprano soloist.

The following notes were provided by the composer:

Passage examines the theme of American exploration through the visionary words of Walt Whitman and John F. Kennedy. Commissioned to commemorate the centennial of JFK, the work sets Whitman’s Passage to India alongside actual recording of JFK’s moonshot speech. Two iconic American voices – that of poet and President – come together on a journey to the ever-expanding human frontier.

Mason Bates also blogged the experience of writing and premiering the work at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Below are excerpts from that blog. The entire post can be found on his website: the-premiere-of-passage/

How do you set a President to music?

I confronted this challenge when the National Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new work on the occasion of John F Kennedy’s centennial, which occurred on May 24.

Working inside a ‘living memorial’ has been a strange and beautiful experience over the past two years, but nothing has approached the uniqueness of commemorating a man whose very spirit inhabits the building. The result is Passage, a work for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronic sounds. Here’s how it came to life.

Commemorative works, let’s be honest, can ring a bit stilted. Even one of the most beloved, Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, plods along too much for me. Whether because of subject matter or the use of narration, the orchestra feels like a backup band, not the main event. I wanted to write a piece that would both commemorate JFK and live beyond the occasion of its premiere, and – just as important – stretch me artistically. And the orchestra is always the main event.

So I quickly abandoned the idea of narrating JFK’s speeches and decided to use the speeches themselves: the actual recordings of his voice, which carry so much more personality than the words alone (as stirring as they may be). Pouring over his many utterances, from the topic of civil rights to national defense, I found myself most drawn to his moonshot speech at Rice University.

This is one of the most audaciously ambitious moments in all of history – and, unbelievably, it succeeded. When JFK said “we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” he catalyzed the entire country to achieve something that seemed literally beyond the reach of mankind. Listening to that speech over fifty years later, amidst our seemingly intractable world problems – from climate change to socio-economic divisions – I felt JFK’s aspirational vision was needed more than ever. This President defined the American optimism and aspiration that, sadly, seems a distant memory. We need more of JFK today.

To complement his moonshot speech, I wanted another voice in the piece, a more poetic perspective on American exploration. Enter Walt Whitman.

From my English major days, I remembered a mystical poem called Passage to India. What begins as an ode to the steamship explodes into a sprawling homage to American exploration and the limitless frontier. Whitman marvels at our ability to travel by ship to India, then by locomotive to California – then looks into the heavens and says “O sun and moon – passage to you!”

The piece crystallized: a setting of Whitman trailed by ghostly

echoes of JFK’s voice, two perspectives on the expanding frontier from two American visionaries – President and poet. Technology has been a topic I’ve returned to in new ways, and the idea of juxtaposing two different kinds of American voices intrigued me.

Walking through the Kennedy Center over the past six months while immersed in this project has been surreal. I might see a JFK quote chiseled on the wall and think That one has a lot of 700 Hz and some crazy crowd noise. I also think about his vision and, as well, the vision of Walt Whitman – and all Americans who looked to the ever- expanding frontier and said, “O further sail!”

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, op. 98

Allegro non troppo
Andante moderato
Allegro giocoso
Allegro energico e passionato

Instrumentation: two flutes (one doubles piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

In 1881, Hans von Bülow, famous pianist and conductor of the time, offered Brahms a “rehearsal orchestra” at the court of Meiningen, where von Bülow was the principal conductor. This arrangement allowed Brahms to try out any new orchestral arrangements or ideas with an actual orchestra. Any composer in any time would certainly leap at such an opportunity; Brahms quickly accepted the offer. It was through this fruitful collaboration and friendship that Brahms and von Bülow introduced the world to Brahms’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, though not without a certain amount of drama (I’m still amazed that no one has made a movie out of Brahms’s life, since it’s filled with moments seemingly made for Hollywood).

In January 1884, following a prolonged illness experienced by von Bülow, the Meiningen court orchestra embarked on a tour to perform Brahms’s Third Symphony. During this time, it was somewhat customary to present new works twice on the same program, with a short overture-type work in between the two premieres. In some cases, repeated performances of new works were by audience request, and may have included only certain movements of the piece. Von Bülow, it seems, was not adverse to planning concerts with a repeated performance in mind, and did so with Brahms’s Third and Fourth Symphonies. At the premiere for both these works, Brahms conducted his own works, while von Bülow conducted everything else on the program. However, von Bülow grew tired of this arrangement, and wished to conduct the Symphonies to show how much better a conductor he was than Brahms. Naturally, this led to a bit of contention between the two, which culminated in von Bülow resigning his position (where he was succeeded by none other than Richard Strauss). Eventually, Brahms and von Bülow reconciled their differences, but their fruitful collaboration was more or less over.

German music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote reviews of all of Brahms’s symphonies shortly after each premiere. Below are excerpts from his review:

“Since its first performance in Meiningen, this symphony has enjoyed a series of triumphs. Everyone who had read the enthusiastic reports from Frankfurt, Cologne, and Elberfeld, and even those who had not, expected something great and unique. What symphony of the last thirty or forty years is even remotely comparable with those of Brahms?

“Individual preference may favour one or other of Brahms’s symphonies; my particular favourite is the Third. But I do not want to exclude the possibility that my opinion may change when I have become equally familiar with this latest work. Neither its treasure of ideas nor its chaste beauty is apparent at a first glance; its charms are not democratic. Manly strength, unbending consistency, am earnestness bordering

on acerbity – basic characteristics of all Brahms larger works – constitute the decisive factors. In the new symphony they create their own form and their own language.

“The E minor Symphony begins with a simple, somewhat thoughtful idyllic theme, which, after some exposition, finds a vigorous, defiant counterpart. The movement ends strong and stormy. Despite an abundance of ingenious counterpoint, the piece is clear and transparent. The listener does not – and need not – perceive that the theme, with its soft lamentation, is repeated canon-like in the bass.

“Deeper and more direct is the effect of the Adagio, the most exquisite movement of the whole work and one of the most beautiful elegies Brahms ever wrote. There is a peculiar sweet and warm atmosphere in it, an enraptured charm which miraculously blossoms into ever-new tone colours, until, at last, it fades away into soft twilight.

“The theme of the Scherzo announces itself boldly – Schumann would have called it “forward” – until its brusque humour is tamed by a second, rather commonplace melody. A lively sixteenth-note figure in the violins meanders charmingly through the dialogue of these two themes. Piccolo and triangle are added to the instruments already employed, achieving an effect of lights subtly withheld.

“The Finale, although it begins very “energetically” and is ingeniously complex in its nature, seems, on the whole, rather reflective than passionate. Trombones appear, for the first time in the whole symphony, with a series of abrupt chords. They lead directly to the theme which, in eight measure periods, is continually varied in the form of the old chaconne or passacaglia. This is done with an inexhaustible wealth of structural variation and with an astonishing harmonic and contrapuntal art never conspicuous as such and never an exercise of mere musical erudition. This form is completely novel for a great symphonic finale, and every detail in it is novel too. It is the most ingenious of all, but it is also the least popular, possibly because its size is out of proportion to the melodic material. For the musician, there is not another modern piece so productive as a subject for study. It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

— Notes: Mark Knippel

Guest Artist: Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Sasha Cooke

Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has been called a “luminous standout” (New York Times) and “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” (Opera News).  Ms. Cooke is sought after by the world’s leading orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music ensembles for her versatile repertoire and commitment to new music.
In the 2017-18 season, Ms. Cooke will sing the title role in the world premiere of Marnie, by Nico Muhly, at English National Opera. She will sing Goffredo in a concert version of Handel’s Rinaldo alongside The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket, with performances at Carnegie Hall (New York), the Auditorio Nacional de Música (Madrid), and Barbican Centre (London). Other concert engagements will include Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the London Symphony Orchestra, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg conducted by Matthias Pintscher, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Resurrection with the Reykjavik Arts Festival under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, Mary in Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ with both the Melbourne Symphony conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 Jeremiah with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic conducted by Edo de Waart, Duruflé’s Requiem with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and a performance featuring composers Respighi and Jalbert with Orchestre Métropolitain de Montreal conducted by Cristian Macelaru. Ms. Cooke will return to a role she created, Hannah after, in Laura Kaminsky’s opera As One both at Hawaii Opera Theatre and in concert with the Chautauqua Opera Company, and will also offer a concert of Ravel’s Shéhérazade with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Finally, she will give a series of solo recitals at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in addition to joint recitals with guitarist Jason Vieaux at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in California and the Cleveland Chamber Music Society.

A graduate of Rice University and The Juilliard School, Sasha Cooke also attended the Music Academy of the West, the Aspen Music Festival, the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute, the Wolf Trap Foundation, the Marlboro Music Festival, the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and Seattle Opera and Central City Opera’s Young Artist Training Programs.

Visit these sites for more information on Sasha Cooke:

Pre-concert talk: Ignace Jang, concertmaster and Eric Lee, assistant concertmaster

Begins in the Britt Performance Garden at 6:30 p.m.