NOTES ON OUR PERFORMANCE--When I’m putting an orchestral program together it is a balancing act.
I tend to think of it like architecture, the entire program needs good structure---you want to grab the audience’s attention at the beginning and I tend to want to always end the concert on a high note. You don’t start a concert with Barber’s Adagio for Strings and you don’t want to end the concert on a down note (as in the piece by Dvorak today which ends with the musical depiction of the murder of a child!!!)
This weekend’s concerts present some difficulties there. Beethoven’s 6th is a Masterwork---one of the most loved Classics. But I don’t want to end with it as it closes with a beautiful serene calm scene of nature after a thunderstorm. But it makes a great opener.
I would not want to end either a first or a second half of a program with Dvorak’s Water Goblin but it is still a great work that is just not heard often---I’ve never performed or conducted it nor have many of our orchestra members. But the Three Dances from the comic opera The Bartered Bride are a perfect way to end the concert thus completing what I think is strong architectural form for the concert
RICHARD WAGNER: Overture to Tannhäuser
Richard Wagner (1813–1883) is the major German opera composer of the nineteenth century. He conceived opera as gesamtkunstwerk (“total-art-work”), meaning that it combined various arts—music, visual spectacle (scenery, costumes), literature (the libretto, the story), and theater (staging, acting)—into one overarching, ultimate art-form. Likewise, he considered the orchestra as but one facet of the music portion, no mere accompaniment to the singing, but rather an equal partner with the voice and an essential element of the whole. Thus, in addition to the lush orchestral passages with which Wagnerian singers frequently find themselves obliged to compete, one often finds rather weighty, substantial overtures that are not the lesser siblings of the vocal art to follow.
The overture to Tannhäuser is one such case (indeed, Wagner later feared that the substance of this overture gave away too much of the story.). The work opens softly with a solemn hymn-like passage (the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Act 1, scene 3) in the low woodwinds and horns, followed by a lyrical, passionate theme in the celli. A fanciful, livelier section introduces the wild abandon of the “Venusburg” music, representing the realm in which the knight Tannhäuser spent a year as a “willing captive” of the goddess Venus. Some idea of the conditions of his, um, “captivity” in the grotto of Venus can be readily surmised from the orgiastic opening scene of the 1978 Bayreuth production (advisory: children and persons of delicate sensibilities may wish to refrain from viewing the YouTube video of this production!). A pensive clarinet solo portrays the knight’s reflection on his misdeeds, and of his love of Elisabeth of Wartburg (no, not the one in Iowa); following Wagner’s common motif of redemption through love, her death serves as atonement for Tannhäuser’s wrongdoing. Solemn, heroic, passionate, and ecstatic themes alternate and combine throughout to represent the volatile emotions of the drama. The overture builds to a climax, ending with a glorious reprise of the opening Pilgrim’s Chorus music—oh, to be a trombonist!—representing the procession bearing Elisabeth’s body. Tannhäuser, absolved of his sins, joins her in death.
ÉDOUARDO LALO: Concerto in D Minor for Violoncello and Orchestra Prelude, Allegro maestoso
French composer Édouardo Lalo (1832–1892) studied violin and cello in his youth, although his father, a decorated military man, was not enchanted with such foolishness as his son pursuing a career in music. But nonetheless Édouardo went to Paris and continued his musical studies, including composition with Julius Schulhoff, a protégé of Chopin. Lalo’s success, though, was long in coming: he was in his fifties before his first major work was published. Although perhaps not a household name, Lalo has an engaging style featuring expressive melodic writing, colorful orchestration, and dramatic flair.
His Cello Concerto in D minor dates from 1876, two years after perhaps his best known work, Symphonie espagnole, a symphony/concerto for violin and orchestra written for the celebrated Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Tonight, SEISO young artist competition winner Sam Schulte will perform the first of the work’s three movements. In two sections, the movement opens with a slow but dramatic theme in the orchestra. The cello enters in the low range with a theme stated three times that expands upward in range and increases in intensity, punctuated by the orchestra. The second section of the movement, marked Allegro maestoso, continues to develop the idea of an upward-striving theme with a more sharply defined rhythmic drive. The considerable demands on the soloist include intensely expressive virtuosity throughout the cello’s wide range, including numerous rapid arpeggios and scale passages. A return to the slower opening theme leads to virtuosic cadenza passages for the soloist and the climatic culmination of the movement.
SERGEY PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, opus 25 (“Classical”)
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, op. 25 (“Classical”), lasts—in its entirety—about fifteen minutes. Concertgoers who attended SEISO’s performance of Mahler’s massive fifth symphony last year may recall that in such a short span of time as this, dear Gustav had done little more than get a good grip on his tonic key of C-sharp minor. But Prokofiev’s symphony, written a mere fifteen years later, was born of quite a different esthetic.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953) was a precocious musical talent who, as an eleven-year-old, had the young Reinhold Glière as a musical tutor. Prokofiev subsequently studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with other notable Russian composers, including Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The budding composer continued to develop, but felt that his teachers at the conservatory were hopelessly old-fashioned. Prokofiev eschewed the antiquated sentimentality and bombastic style of nineteenth-century Romanticism, favoring instead leaner, harder-edged qualities. The economy of form and emotion of classical-era music held particular appeal for him.
To develop these leaner, economical, classically-inspired qualities he admired, Prokofiev, a virtuoso pianist, came to believe that his practice of composing at the keyboard was detrimental. His study of Haydn led to a different approach, as he explains:
“Haydn’s technique had become especially clear to me after my studies with Tcherepnin, and in that familiar channel it was, I felt, much easier to venture into dangerous waters without the piano. It seems to me that, had Haydn continued to live into our time, he would have retained his own way of writing and at the same time added something ‘new.’…I wanted to compose a symphony in a classical style, and as soon as I began to progress in my work, I christened it the Classical Symphony, first because it sounded much more simple and second out of pure mischief—to ‘tease the geese,’ in secret hope that eventually the symphony would become a classic.”
Such qualities of classicism are clearly manifested in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, composed 1916–1917. The work is written for a small orchestra and cast in the traditional four-movement design familiar to Haydn and his eighteenth-century audiences. Haydn would, though, likely be startled at the surprising turns of phrase, unsettling modulations, and other sometimes jarring twists. For Prokofiev was not so much imitating the master as poking affectionate fun at the conventions of a highly conventional style, invoking, as he put it, “whimsicality, laughter, and mocking.”
The first movement, set in the customary sonata form, features numerous witty turns, such as the disorienting occasional extra beat, the decidedly un-Haydn-like two-octave leaps in the second theme, and disconcerting modulations with that jolting “there-was-one-more-stair-than-you-thought” feeling. The slow second movement begins ordinarily enough, but its eccentricities include the violins’ ascent to what would be an unnaturally high altitude for eighteenth-century tastes. The whimsical third movement is a Gavotte, the customary dance-like movement of the eighteenth-century symphony (albeit not in the usual triple meter). With short and somewhat clumsy-sounding phrases, the extreme brevity of the movement adds to the humor—again, a comparison with Mahler’s fifth: the time it took for SEISO’s principal trumpeter Derrick Murphy to play Gustav’s opening fanfare was only a little less than is required to play the entire Gavotte. The molto vivace finale is a rollicking, hang-on-to-your-hats tour-de-force of musical energy and wit, a fitting end to this high-spirited symphony.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY: Verleih’ uns Frieden, WoO5
Like another composer on the program—Prokofiev—Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was something of a child prodigy. Born to a prominent and well-to-do family that settled in Berlin, Felix received an excellent education, as did his other siblings, including sister Fanny. Both Felix and Fanny studied music from an early age; both, in fact, were steeped in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach from an early age as part of their cultured upbringing. Felix’s interest in the old master’s music became such that he famously arranged a performance in 1829 of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (having received a manuscript copy of the score from his grandmother), the first time the work had been performed in a hundred years.
Mendelssohn spent time in Rome as part of a sojourn to various European musical centers from 1829-1832. Here he composed numerous sacred works, perhaps inspired in part by such things as his visit to the Roman monastery where Martin Luther made his metamorphosis from priest to pioneer of the reformation. The work by Mendelssohn on tonight’s program was an 1831 product of that trip.
In his setting of Verleih’ uns Frieden, Mendelssohn’s homage to J. S. Bach can be seen in the contrapuntal texture (Bach did love a good fugue) combining chorale-like vocal lines with a contrasting instrumental obbligato, much like Bach did in his church cantatas. The text, Luther’s German translation of the Latin hymn Da nobis pacem, Domine, is presented three times. As the work opens softly in the divided cello parts, the basses in the chorus sing the text in a simple, chorale-like tune as the sinuous cello obbligato continues. The altos take up the text a second time, with the woodwinds joining in the obbligato. In the third and final statement, the full chorus declaims the text in a four-part harmonization, this time with more chorale-like support in the orchestra. This graceful, earnest prayer for peace ends softly as the obbligato dissipates.
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich,In these our days so perilous, Herr Gott, zu unsern Zeiten.Lord, peace in mercy send us; Es ist doch ja kein andrer nicht,No God but thee can fight for us, der für uns könnte streiten,No God but thee defend us; denn du, unser Gott, alleine.Thou our only God and Saviour
GIACOMO PUCCINI: Gloria from Messa a quattro voci (“Messa di Gloria”)
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) is widely considered the most important Italian opera composer after Verdi, and is one of the last composers to specialize in opera. Among his best known works are La Boheme and Madame Butterfly, but his did compose a few works in other genres, including the Messa di Gloria of 1880.
Puccini, one of his parents’ nine children, was born into musical family. His great-great grandfather (also named Giacomo) served as maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca; when his son Antonio succeeded him, a musical dynasty was established that extended over a century down to Michele Puccini, father of our famous opera composer. Young Giacomo participated in the musical life of the cathedral as a member of the boys’ choir and later as an organist. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Puccini composed a setting of the mass, culminating his family’s long association with church music.
Written as his graduation exercise from the Istituto Musicale Pacini, the first performance of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria (as it is generally known) was well received; however, it was not performed again for some seventy years when it was resurrected in 1952 in Chicago. The Gloria on the program tonight is the second movement of Puccini’s full mass. The festive text and the composer’s festive musical setting make it an excellent choice to perform independently.
The mood is festive and celebratory from the start, with lively trumpet fanfares, as the choir sings the opening portion of the text, themes from which reappear later in the work. The tenor solo, sung tonight by Dennis Willhoit, enters with Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam tuam. The style varies throughout the movement from prayerful to fervent, solemn to exuberant. Qui tollis peccata mundi, for example, takes the form of a march vaguely reminiscent of the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida. Still triumphant, but more prayerful, is Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. A fugue breaks out (Bach would have been happy) with Cum Sancto Spiritu, leading to the climatic and, well, “glorious” conclusion.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.
Laudamus te; benedicimus te; adoramus te; glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.
Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram. Qui sedes ad dextram Patris, O miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe. Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris.
Glory be to God in the highest. And in earth peace to men of good will.
We praise Thee; we bless Thee; we worship Thee; we glorify Thee. We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory.
O Lord God, Heavenly King, God the Father Almighty. O Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son. Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy, thou only art the Lord, thou only art the most high, Jesus Christ. Together with the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father.
6th Symphony, The Pastoral Ludwig von Beethoven 1770- 1827
Ludwig Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. He lived during tumultuous times of revolution and warfare. He made his living as a virtuoso pianist and as a composer. He was nearly completely deaf for the last 15 years of his life and though he gave up public performing and conducting he composed to the end of his life.
This work is unique among Beethoven’s orchestral repertoire. It is his only symphony connected with program music (music that conveys ideas outside of music) ---and it is a story of nature. Beethoven is known to have been a nature lover. He did a great deal of his composition work while visiting the countryside and tended to walk in the outdoors as often as possible.
Many listeners will recognize this work because of its inclusion in the Disney animated movie Fantasia.
The first sketches for this work are said to have begun in 1802 and it was premiered in 1808. It was written concurrently with his most famous work, the Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven is known to have said that the 6th is “more the expression of feeling than painting” of nature. The titles of the movements are self-explanatory and fit completely with the music.
For me, the 2nd movement is one of my favorites in all the literature. It is a gently rolling depiction of nature that ends with the call of the nightingale, quail, and cuckoo as portrayed by the flute and accompanying woodwinds. While it’s unusual that this work has 5 movements, in reality the piece transitions from the 3rd movement to the end almost without pause. The storm movement is especially interesting as Beethoven literally recreates the sound of the storm with thunder, lightning, wind and rain.
As I remarked earlier, the work ends serenely with a thankfulness enveloping the emotions following the storm.
It’s amazing to think that this piece was composed at the same time as the tumultuous 5th symphony. I hope you enjoy the contrast.
The Water Goblin Antonin Dvorak 1841-1904
Do you know or have you heard this piece? If not, you are not alone. It is a section of the repertoire called Tone Poems that seem to have fallen out of favor for nearly 100 years. I have never heard a live performance, performed or conducted this piece.
Tone Poems are usually one movement works that are inspired by poems or stories and attempt to create a musical version of that story. You all know some of them---The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or a piece SEISO did recently, The Accursed Huntsman.
Dvorak first began working on Tone Poems after the bulk of his symphonic works. This work was completed in 1896 and tells the story of a sinister water goblin who captures a young woman’s soul forcing her to live underwater with him and to have his child. While the woman is allowed to leave the lake and visit her mother the story ends tragically when she fails to return and the goblin retaliates by leaving her beheaded child on the door stoop.
Dvorak ties in several primary themes throughout this 20 minute work as he literally recreates the story based on a Czech poem by Karel Erban. Erban’s work also inspired Dvorak to compose three other tone poems based on his stories.
It’s a pity these well-crafted works have received so little attention. Dvorak was at the height of his skills as a composer and I hope we can present some of his other works from this period over the next several years.
We will perform short sections of the work to show you how Dvorak’s music tells this sad and gruesome tale.
Three Dances from the Bartered Bride Bedrich Smetana 1824-84
Bedrich Smetana, considered the father of Czech music, may not be a familiar name ---certainly not on the level of Beethoven and Smetana’s fellow countryman, Antonin Dvorak---but he was a highly successful and influential nationalistic composer. He, before Dvorak, was the first Czech composer to achieve international fame. He set the example for Dvorak in the use of local music and dance forms in the concert hall.
Smetana’s three act comic opera The Bartered Bride is a main stay in opera repertoire and has been popular for over 100 years.
The three dances you will hear today are almost entirely original music ---as opposed to being built on existing folk music---but you would swear differently as it just sounds like distinctively Czech music.
These works are fun to perform and listen to. The opening Polka occurs at the end of Act I and is a spontaneous dance scene of local villagers. The Furiant, set in a tavern, contains some actual folk music and is a song about praising beer—how beer can deliver you from your problems (just like it can today). The Dance of the Comedians captures the frantic escapades when a circus troupe arrives in town and performs a pantomime. This is the music that accompanied the very first Road Runner/Wily Coyote cartoon in 1949 and remained associated with many episodes throughout the history of the show.
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