Logo

Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   March 2013 Program N...
March 01, 2013

March 2013 Program Notes

PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY

Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia, 6 November, 1893.

Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 (arranged by Merle Isaac)

Composed in 1880 and premiered 18 December 1880 in Moscow, with an orchestra led by Nikolai Rubenstein. Isaac’s arrangement calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel and strings. Performance time is about 7 minutes.

Tchaikovsky was inspired to write his “Italian Caprice” by a trip to Rome during Carnival time. He incorporated into it a number of folk tunes he heard on the streets or found in a book of notated folk music, though the only tune that has been firmly identified is the opening fanfare: it was a bugle call from the Italian cavalry regiment that Tchaikovsky heard outside his hotel window each night. The Capriccio Italien is quite free in form, featuring a variety of solemn and festive moods and ending (like so many musical evocations of Italy, including Britten’s Soirées Musicales) with a vigorous tarantella.

MODEST MUSSORGSKY

Born Toropets, Russia, 21 March 1839; died St. Petersburg, 28 March 1881.

Khovanshchina: Introduction (Dawn on the Moscow River) (orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)

The opera was composed 1872-80 but unfinished at the composer’s death; a piano score for the Prelude to Act I had been written by 1874. The opera was completed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and premiered in St. Petersburg 21 February 1886. Rimsky’s orchestration of the Prelude calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Duration is about 7 minutes.

Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina is an epic portrayal of the Moscow Uprising of 1682, a failed political-religious-military rebellion that led to the ascension of Czar Peter the Great. The opera, uncompleted at the time of the composer’s death in 1881, is most often heard today in either the 1886 completion by Mussorgsky’s close friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or the 1959 one by Dmitri Shostakovich. (In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel worked on their own edition, but only Stravinsky’s finale survives.) The Introduction, or Prelude, to Act I has become a concert favorite in its own right.

Subtitled “Dawn on the Moscow River” the music opens with an achingly beautiful rendition of a Russian folk tune, followed by suggestions of a rooster’s call. Gradually, as the folk tune is taken up by other instruments, the scene shifts from dawn to full daylight on the mighty river, as solemn church bells ring in the distance. Eventually solo winds echoing the folk melody take us to the serene close.

SERGEI PROKOFIEV

Born 23 April 1891, Sontsovka (now Krasne), Ukraine; died 5 March 1953, Moscow.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63

Composed in 1935 and premiered 1 December of that year with Robert Soetens and the Madrid Symphony conducted by Enrique Fernàndez Arbòs. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, bass drum, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, castanets and strings, in addition to the solo violin. Performance time is about 27 minutes.

The Second Violin Concerto was one of Sergei Prokofiev’s last works before the long-roaming composer and virtuoso pianist resettled in his native Russia, by then the Soviet Union. It was a period in his life that produced a number of his most beloved compositions, including the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the charming Peter and the Wolf, and the film scores for Lt. Kije andAlexander Nevsky. Prokofiev wrote the concerto for Belgian violinist Robert Soetens, for whom he had recently written a Sonata for Two Violins (the other violinist premiered Igor Stravinsky’s 1931 Violin Concerto).

The Second Violin Concerto dazzlingly combines traditional concerto writing and Prokofiev’s distinctive, sometimes astringently modern, style of composition. It has the three-movement format typical since Mozart and Haydn: fast movement in sonata form; lyrical slow movement; fast rondo-finale. But no strict musical analysis can convey the concerto’s constantly evolving emotional drama, its ever-fresh and original orchestral colors and its spectacular demands for the soloist.

The opening Allegro moderato begins with the soloist alone, playing a brooding, Russian-inflected melody, soon taken up by the orchestra; the contrasting theme of this movement is rapturously lyrical. The Andante assai that follows features a soaring melody against a pizzicato background; the tender lyricism of this movement, with its quicker middle section, reminds many listeners of the “love music” in Romeo and Juliet, written concurrently. The vigorously rhythmic Allegro, ben marcatofinale has a certain Spanish flavor, not only because of the castanets in the percussion section; perhaps Prokofiev was playfully saluting the gypsy-style finales of many a Romantic violin concerto, including Brahms’. The prominence of the bass drum in certain passages is noteworthy, as is the mix of exuberance and dark sardonic wit throughout. 

ALEXANDER BORODIN

Born 12 November 1833, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died there 27 February 1887.

Requiem (orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski)

The original piano piece “Requiem,” from the collection Paraphrases, was published in 1879. Stokowski’s orchestration, found in the Stokowski archives of the Curtis Institute of Music, seems not to have been performed in his lifetime; its world-premiere recording, with Geoffrey Simon conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Men’s Chorus, was issued in 1992. The score calls for 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, small suspended cymbal, tam-tam, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings; for the recording, and for tonight’s performance, organ and male chorus were added by Dr. Edwin E. Heilakka. Performance time is about 5½ minutes.

Strange to say, Alexander Borodin’s “Requiem” has as much to do with the children’s piano piece “Chopsticks” as with the traditional choral mass for the dead. This musical joke—containing a solemn beauty brought out by Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration—originated with a polka for piano that Borodin wrote, based on a tune akin to “Chopsticks” but with a duple rather than a triple rhythm. His colleagues Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui persuaded him and the younger Anatol Liadov to compose a set of pieces called Paraphrases, which ultimately included a set of variations and over a dozen other short pieces, including Borodin’s “Polka” and “Requiem.” When the collection was published in 1879, the “Tati-tati” tune was printed above every stave, so that a beginner could pick out the notes while the more professional pianist played the variation. To add to the joke, Borodin wrote the Latin words that begin the Requiem Mass in his score, with parts for men’s chorus and soloists 

Leopold Stokowski, one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated conductors, was also known for his symphonic arrangements, particularly of Bach pieces (such as the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which he conducts in Disney’s Fantasia) but also of more modern works, including Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. For the “Requiem,” he uses his massive orchestra as if it were a cathedral organ (an instrument he knew very well), beginning with the softest strings and adding subtly shifting colors of woodwinds and brass to reach an overwhelming climax before subsiding into silence. Curator Edward E. Heilakka of the Curtis Institute of Music has combined the male chorus for Borodin’s piano piece with Stokowski’s orchestration, and it is this version that we hear tonight. 

MODEST MUSSORGSKY

Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

Originally for piano and written in 1874; Ravel’s orchestration was premiered 22 October 1922 at the Paris Opera, Serge Koussevitzky conducting. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, bells, triangle, tam-tam, rattle, whip, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, xylophone, celesta, harp and strings. The SSO previously performed the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition on 8 February 2008, Andrews Sill conducting. Performance time is about 35 minutes.

Mussorgsky’s 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition is an astonishingly original work: a suite for piano that is more like an intensely personal tone poem. His inspiration was an exhibition of art by his recently deceased friend Viktor Hartmann; the show included works in Mussorgsky’s own possession. Within six weeks the composer had created musical “sketches” of ten of Hartmann’s own drawings and watercolors, connecting them with a “Promenade” theme portraying a gallery visitor strolling from sketch to sketch and shifting mood after viewing each work. In later sections of the piece the stroller seems so deeply drawn into Hartmann’s worlds that he becomes part of the sketches: inside the Catacombs with the artist and walking in a magnificent procession through the Great Gate of Kiev.

Though the original is a rough-hewn classic of the piano literature, composers and arrangers have often been tempted to orchestrate the piece—not only for symphony orchestra but for brass ensemble, solo guitar and even jazz-rock combo. By far the most popular arrangement in the concert hall and on recordings is Maurice Ravel’s. It was commissioned by conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who had exclusive rights to it for some years and recorded it with the Boston Symphony in 1930. While there are truly infinite possibilities for arranging Pictures, Ravel’s choices are extremely memorable: the solo trumpet opening the piece, the saxophone solo representing the troubadour outside the Old Castle, the snare drum suggesting the weighty power  of the Oxcart as it rolls by, and so much else.

The Promenade, with its moderate pace and irregular meter, has a distinctly Russian character, and indeed the section is marked nel modo russico. It leads abruptly to Gnomus, a nightmarish portrait of a troll-like gnome, though Hartmann’s picture is more of a grotesque nutcracker. Another Promenade section, this time (marked “with delicacy”) for horns and woodwinds, leads to the moody and romantic Il Vecchio Casello (The Old Castle), with its haunting saxophone solo.

Another Promenade (more “peasant style”) leads to Tuileries, a portrait of children at play and squabbling amongst themselves in the famous Parisian gardens adjoining the Louvre. This leads directly to Bydlo, a tone painting of a  Polish oxcart, first heard in the distance lumbering toward the viewer/listener, then passing directly by, with overwhelming force, before trailing off again in the distance. A “tranquil” statement of the Promenade theme leads to Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques (Ballet of the Chickens in Their Shells), a whimsical scherzo based on a Hartmann drawing of children’s dance costumes in which the dancers’ arms and legs are coming out of egg shells.

Next, Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle is a portrait of two Jewish men (based on two separate Hartmann sketches), one rich, the other poor, in contention with each other: the first commanding, even threatening, and the second, represented by a muted trumpet, assertive in his own wheedling way. Ravel skipped over Mussorgsky’s next iteration of the Promenade theme to move directly to Limoges—Le Marché (The Market in Limoges), another scherzo, portraying the busy gossip of the outdoor market. This leads without a break to the gloom of Catacombae (Catacombs), based on Hartmann’s sketch of a visit to the Roman sepulchers in the catacombs of Paris. The rather terrifying music links to the next Promenade episode, here labeled Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (Speaking with the Dead in a Dead Tongue), for we still seem to be in the catacombs underground until daylight appears at the end of the section.

La Cabane sur des pattes de poule  (The Hut with Fowl’s Legs) is terrifying in a different way as we witness an apparition of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who in folklore lives in such a house. This portrait takes us directly to the grand finale, La Grande Porte de Kiev (The Great Gate of Kiev), in which the Promenade theme takes on an overwhelming magnificence. Hartmann had created an architectural fantasy drawing of an imposing entrance to the city (now the capital of Ukraine), with colorful detail, capped by a helmet-shaped dome. Mussorgsky’s processional music evokes Old Russia powerfully, somewhat in the manner of the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov, and Ravel’s rich and varied orchestration brings the gallery visit to a dazzling close.

Share this on: