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Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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February 01, 2013

February 2013 Program Notes

Composers have always made use of the music of their predecessors, but never more directly than in tonight’s concert. Our program consists entirely of 20th-Century works that re-orchestrate and sometimes completely transform earlier music, including folk songs and short pieces of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras.

OTTORINI RESPIGHI

Born Bologna, Italy, 9 July, 1879; died Rome, 18 April, 1936.

Gli Uccelli (The Birds)

The 5-movement suite was composed in 1927, and premiered in Sao Paolo, June 1928, the composer conducting. It calls for 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; celesta, harp and strings. Performance time is about 19 minutes.

Though most famous for his grand musical canvases like The Fountains/Pines/Festivals of Rome (1916, 1924, 1928), Ottorino Respighi also composed on a more intimate scale, as in his three sets of Ancient Airs and Dances (1917, 1923, 1932) and The Birds (Gli uccelli). Composers of all eras have been fascinated by birdcalls and have attempted to imitate them in their own music. For The Birds (whose Italian title is pronounced “Lyee oo-CHAYL-lee”) Respighi arranged “bird music” by various Baroque composers.

The Preludio opens and closes with a stately yet genial theme by Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710), while the middle provides previews of the music to come. Next, La Colomba (The Dove) features a very long-lined melody played by the oboe, then violins, then (somewhat altered) the clarinet. For much of the movement, strings and woodwinds provide a cooing accompaniment. The source material is a lute piece by Jacques de Gallot, from the late 1600s.

La Gallina (The Hen) is taken from a well-known harpsichord piece by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). The clucking, strutting, pecking and scratching of the fowl, brilliantly suggested in Rameau’s original, are arguably even more vividly portrayed by the variety of winds and strings at Respighi’s disposal. Respighi was a superb orchestrator, as admirers of his “Roman Trilogy” will know, and as La Gallina demonstrates in miniature.

In The Pines of Rome Respighi not only evoked the rhapsodic sound of the nightingale through a solo clarinet but called for a recording of the actual birdsong to be played at one point in the score. Now, for L’Usignuolo (The Nightingale) Respighi portrays the nocturnal singer in a much more serene mood. Perhaps surprisingly for a Baroque-themed suite for small orchestra, Respighi begins with a hint of the enchanting “Forest Murmurs” music from Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, before a solo flute, echoed by bassoon, states the simple tune. (Respighi thought he was using an anonymous English melody, but it can be found in a mid-1600s book of flute pieces by the Dutch Jacob van Eyck). Other winds intertwine with the flute, different birdcalls—or fragments of the nightingale’s song—are heard in the background, and the celesta adds its own starry sparkle to this leisurely nocturne. 

Respighi again uses music by Pasquini as he turns to Il Cucù (The Cuckoo). A sprightly opening section leads to a slower, more rapturous passage, until what seem like spring breezes--rapid passages for winds and strings--bring back the cuckoo sound. Eventually the celesta restates the opening tune of the Preludio and the rest of the orchestra joins in to conclude the suite.

JOSEPH CANTELOUBE

Born Annonay, France, 21 October 1879; died Grigny, near Paris, 4 November 1957.

Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne): 6 songs

Canteloube published five sets of Songs of the Auvergne between 1923 and 1955: 30 songs altogether. Tonight’s selections, taken from the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th Series, together require piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani, bass drum, cymbal, sleigh bells, piano, harp and strings, in addition to the soprano solo. Performance time is about 18 minutes.

Joseph Canteloube wrote in a variety of genres, including opera, but is known today almost exclusively for his five orchestral sets of arrangements of folk songs from the south-central district of France known as the Auvergne. Canteloube was captivated by the land where his family had roots and where in his day the spoken language, especially amongst country people, was Auvergnat, a dialect of what is now called Occitan (formerly Langue d’Oc), related more closely to Catalan and Provencale than to French. Like Vaughan Williams in England, Bartok and Kodaly in Hungary, and Falla in Spain, Canteloube collected folk songs—in his case directly from local shepherds and farmers throughout the Auvergne, a land of high plains, gorges, and the volcanic hills the French call puys.

Canteloube’s arrangements were not simple transcriptions of the songs he collected. Following his move to Paris in 1901, he studied with Vincent d’Indy, who himself had used a folk song as the basis for his popular Symphony on a French Mountain Air and was sympathetic to Canteloube’s interest in the language and spirit of his homeland. Canteloube’s orchestrations are rich and colorful, reflecting his awareness of the music not only of d’Indy but also Debussy and Ravel. His woodwinds in particular echo the sounds of Auvergne folk instruments, like the cabrette, a bagpipe made of goatskin.

1. “Hé! beyla-z-y dau fé!” (“Hey! Give him some hay!”) (5th Series, #4)

The title refers to a donkey; but the rest of the song tells a young man to be patient over the arrival of a mountain girl at a dance. The music suggests the braying of a donkey as well as a village dance with lively three-quarter-time rhythm.

2. “Baïlèro” (Dialogue of the Shepherds of the High-Auvergne) (1st Series, #2) 

This is surely the most famous of Canteloube’s songs, with its gorgeous orchestral introduction and soaring vocal line. One shepherd calls to another across a stream, singing about grazing the sheep in a meadow and catching a wild hare, while the orchestra provides a shimmering accompaniment and sounds of shepherds’ pipes.

3. “Lou Coucut” (The Cuckoo), 4th Series, #6.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the cuckoo when it sings,” this very playful song tells us, especially when it sings in the tree with the red blossoms at the bottom of the meadow.

4. “Passo del prat” (“Come through the meadow”), 3rd Series, #2.

A man asks his beloved for a meeting where the meadow meets the wood. The music conveys not only passionate yearning but a confident joy.

5. “Per l’èfon” (For the Child), 4th Series, #3.

This song is a tender lullaby, in which the mother scolds “naughty” sleep for not coming to her child.

6. “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” (“Unhappy he who has a wife”), 3rd Series, #5.

“He who has one wants none, he who has none wants one,” the song tells us. But the second verse counters with “Happy is the woman who has the man she needs. But still more happy she who hasn’t any.” 

LUCIANO BERIO

Born 24 October 1925, Oneglia, Italy; died 27 May, 2003, Rome.

Four original versions of the “Ritirata notturna di Madrid” of L. Boccherini, superimposed and transcribed for orchestra

Composed for a concert-opener for the La Scala Philharmonic, Milan, which premiered the work on 17 June 1975, Piero Bellugi conducting. (The work is dedicated to Bellugi’s son David, a recorder virtuoso.) It calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 snare drums, triangle, bass drum, harp and strings. Duration about 7 minutes.

The Italian Luigi Boccherini (1748-1805) spent much of his career in Spain, and is best known today for his chamber and guitar music and his cello concertos. One of his string quintets, subtitled “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid,” is a portrait of the nocturnal city in seven movements, finishing with the “Retreat”—the military night watch marching through the streets announcing the curfew. Beginning very softly, the music reaches a loud climax over the course of several variations of the theme, then disappears “into the night.” Boccherini later made a number of arrangements of the “Retreat,” most famously for guitar and string quartet.

Fellow Italian Luciano Berio spent a good deal of his own career abroad, including in the United States (Tanglewood, Julliard, Harvard), but remained more connected to his native country. Among the most distinguished composers who came to prominence after World War II, he is known for works in a huge variety of styles, from his Sequenze for solo instruments to orchestral works (notably his 1968-69 Sinfonia for voices and orchestra) and a good deal of electronic music. Always experimental, Berio often made arrangements of earlier music (including two of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne in his 1964/73 suite Folk Songs).

Berio’s rendition of the “Retreat” takes four of Boccherini’s arrangements but superimposes them on top of one another to create a piece that sounds both traditional and very modern, simple and wildly complex, at the same time. He follows Boccherini’s scheme of letting the stately march grow and fade away in volume: a bit like Ravel’s Bolero in its hypnotic repetitions, but with the climax in the middle.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN

Born Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 4 December 1976.

Soirées Musicales (Suite of Five Movements from Rossini), Op. 9

Composed 1935-37 and premiered 19 August 1937 by Sir Henry Wood and the BBC Orchestra, Queen’s Hall, London. It calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, castanets, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration about 10 minutes.

At the height of his international renown as an opera composer, following the premiere of his William Tell (1829), Gioachino Rossini withdrew from the world of the theatre and for the remaining 38 years of his life composed (other than a few major choral works) mostly songs and piano pieces, published under titles like Musical Evenings (Les Soirées musicales, 1830-35) and Sins of Old Age. Many of these pieces have been arranged by later composers, notably Ottorino Respighi in the 1920s: his ballet La Boutique fantasque and suite Rossiniana.

In 1935 Benjamin Britten began working for the Film Unit of the British General Post Office, writing and arranging music for various short documentaries. Two years later, he chose three of his Rossini arrangements and added two more to create a suite he called Soirées Musicales, in homage to Rossini. (Later, invited to expand the suite for a George Balanchine ballet,Divertimento, Britten devised five more numbers, which he then arranged as a second suite, Matinées Musicales, in 1941.)

Britten’s wit and energy as a composer are evident in every bar of Soirées Musicales. His orchestra is hardly larger than one of Rossini’s day, his harmonies no more daring; yet the ingenuity and playfulness of his arrangements make the suite a perfect amalgam of the mature Italian of the Paris salons and the young Englishman delighting in new sounds and new media like film.

Britten opens with a jaunty soldiers’ March taken from William Tell, with the tune passed among several soloists, including xylophone. It’s followed by a graceful, balletic “little song,” the Canzonetta (Rossini’s Soirées musicales no. 1, “La promessa”). Next is a Tyrolese (Soirées musicales no. 6, “La pastorella dell'Alpi”), with a clodhopping triple meter and a yodeling trumpet.

The Bolero (Soirées musicales no. 5, “L'invito”) is a slow, sinuous Spanish dance to which Britten adds castanets among other flourishes. To finish the suite he offers a Tarantella, the rapid, swirling Sicilian “tarantula” dance, though his Rossini source is actually a religious chorus (“La charité” from 3 Choeurs religieux).

BRITTEN

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell

Composed 1945 for a film called The Instruments of the Orchestra, featuring Sir Malcolm Sargent narrating and conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; the concert premiere on 15 October 1946, with Sargent conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, preceded the film’s opening. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, side drum, Chinese block, xylophone, castanets, gong, whip, harp and strings, plus optional narrator. Duration about 18 minutes. The SSO previously performed The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra on 6 February, 2000, Guy Victor Bordo conducting and William TeWinkle narrating.

In 1695 Henry Purcell wrote incidental music for a revival of a play called Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge, by Aphra Behn. The “Rondeau” from that music became the inspiration for one of Benjamin Britten’s most celebrated pieces, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Britten was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, shortly after the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, to write music for a film introducing instruments of the orchestra. He is said to have composed it in only two weeks, completing it at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1945. The score is written so that an orchestra can perform the piece either with narration, written by Eric Crozier, or as a purely instrumental work. Both versions remain popular today.

A major part of the pleasure of hearing any set of variations is to discover how the composer has taken a theme—perhaps a very famous tune—and transformed it in many ingenious ways, until it might be almost unrecognizable, though still there to be discerned by the listener or score-reader. After establishing Purcell’s theme very strongly in the listener’s head—it is stated by the full orchestra, then in turn by woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, and again the full orchestra—Britten offers thirteen astonishingly different variations, one for each instrumental grouping, before ending the piece with a fugue on Purcell’s theme. Beginning with the piccolo, each instrument adds to the fugue until the brass restate the original Purcell tune while the rest of the orchestra dazzlingly continues with the fugal theme.

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