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Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 01, 2011

November 2011 Program Notes

RICHARD STRAUSS

Born Munich, Germany, 11 June, 1864; died Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 8 September, 1949.

Dance Suite after Couperin

Composed to be part of a ballet evening, the Tanzsuite nach Couperin was first heard at the Vienna Redoutensaal, 17 February 1923, conducted by Clemens Krauss, and later performed as a concert suite in Dresden, Fritz Busch conducting, 21 December 1923. The work calls for pairs of flutes, oboes (2nd alternating with English horn), clarinets, bassoons, and horns, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, glockenspiel, tambourine, celesta, harpsichord, harp, 7 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 2 contrabasses. The length is approximately 32 minutes.

Francois Couperin (1668-1733), nicknamed le Grand, was a celebrated French Baroque composer, appointed the King’s Organist by Louis XIV, and later court composer for Louis and his great-grandson Louis XV.  Besides his many works for chamber ensemble and for voice, Couperin published several books of music for the clavecin (harpsichord). These have drawn the admiration of composers from J.S. Bach to Johannes Brahms, who played Couperin pieces in concert, and Maurice Ravel, who wrote a set of memorial pieces for piano he called Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Richard Strauss, though best known for requiring a huge Late-Romantic orchestra for his earlier tone poems (Also Sprach Zarathustra) and operas (Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier), did use French baroque touches and a chamber orchestra for his opera Adriane auf Naxos and incidental music to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1912-16).  In 1923 he arranged parts of 22 Couperin harpsichord pieces into an 8-movement suite for 30 players. This Tanzsuite was first performed to accompany a ballet during Vienna’s Carnival and later as a concert suite. Though much less famous than Igor Stravinsky’s 1920 “Neoclassical” ballet Pulcinella, based on music by Couperin’s younger Italian contemporary Giovanni Pergolesi, Strauss’Dance Suite nevertheless has great charm and elegance.

The Dance Suite opens with an Introduction and Ceremonial Round-Dance (Pavane), a slow processional dance with a slightly faster middle section. The Courante is a somewhat faster dance (the name means “running”) in triple time; Strauss features a solo trumpet in the first section, and woodwinds in the more tripping 6/8 second half. The Carillon, named after Couperin’s “The Carillon of Cythera” (referring to Aphrodite’s island), has a remarkable orchestration, featuring celesta with glockenspiel and harp accompaniment, soon joined by harpsichord. The effect is that of a fantastic music box. After a section featuring strings, the celesta again takes center stage, now with a swirl of woodwind sound and some final moments that suggest 1923 more than 1723.

The fourth movement is a stately and somber Sarabande, again with a slightly faster and sweeter middle section. Next comes a sprightly Gavotte, featuring first a solo violin, then flutes and eventually most of the orchestra, before dwindling to a quiet close.

The sixth movement is a breathtaking WirbeltanzWirbel means “whirl” or “swirl” in German, and Strauss’ arrangement uses three Couperin pieces whose titles translate as “The Turbulent One,” “The Little Windmills” and “The Knitters.” It’s followed by an Allemande (a “German” dance), which opens with a brisk contrapuntal section followed by a strikingly lovely and gentle minuet. The suite ends with a very brief March, taken from Couperin’s “The Provençal Sailors”: it moves along jauntily and soon fades to silence, bringing the Dance Suite to a wittily quiet close. 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622

Composed in 1791, the concerto was premiered by Anton Stadler, for whom it was written; his first performance of the piece is thought to have been in the Prague National Theatre on 16 October 1791. The work calls for 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. Duration about 29 minutes. The SSO played the Adagio second movement with Jill Hanes as soloist on 13 October 2001 , Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

It is not only clarinet enthusiasts who consider the Clarinet Concerto to be one of Mozart’s supreme masterpieces. Its gracefulness, wit, melodic flow and beautifully balanced structures make it a hallmark of the Classical era, while the sense of some intense feeling just below the surface--“Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,” to borrow William Wordsworth’s line--makes it far more profound than a light divertissement. It was the last major work that Mozart completed before his untimely death.

The clarinet evolved somewhat later than its fellow woodwinds in the modern orchestra, though by the later 18th Century it was becoming well known in Paris and parts of Germany, and concertos were being written for it. Anton Stadler was a celebrated Austrian clarinetist of his day, and a good friend of Mozart as well as fellow Mason. Stadler played in chamber ensembles, court orchestras and opera pits as well as performing as a soloist, and Mozart is thought to have written most of the clarinet parts for his later symphonic and operatic works with Stadler’s talents in mind.

Mozart especially admired the “singing voice” of Stadler’s clarinet, as one can imagine in hearing the eloquent slow movement of the Concerto. Throughout all three movements Mozart exploits the full range of the instrument from the rich and mellow chalumeau (lower) register to the clarion brightness of the upper register, often calling for leaps of over two octaves. Of course it should all sound as effortless as breathing.

For the Concerto, and also for the great Quintet for Clarinet and Strings of 1789, Mozart composed for an extended clarinet that had been created for Stadler, allowing him to play extra lower notes. (This instrument is now called a “basset clarinet” to distinguish it from both the modern bass clarinet and the clarinet-like basset horn of Mozart’s day.) After Mozart’s death, his publisher had those lowest notes rearranged for a “normal” clarinet, but scholars have created performing versions for artists possessing a modern basset clarinet.

The three movements can be given a formal musical analysis: the sonata form of the opening Allegro, the ABA structure of the Adagio, the Allegro finale’s Rondo with sonata elements. But the Clarinet Concerto might best be described the way Henry James’ story “The Great Good Place” defines any “perfect” work of art: “It simply stands quiet, and lets us call it names.” 

CARLOS CHAVEZ

Born 13 June 1899 in Mexico City; died there 2 August 1978.

Sinfonia India

Written in New York in 1935, the Sinfonia India was premiered on radio by the CBS Symphony Orchestra, Chavez conducting, 23 January 1936. The score calls for 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, Indian drum, tenor drum, snare drum, bass drum, maraca, suspended cymbal, metal rattle, soft rattle, rattling string, guiro,  rasping stick, claves, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.

Carlos Chavez was one of Mexico’s leading 20th Century composers, as well as an important conductor and educator. From early in his career he sought to reflect the popular and folk music of his native country in his scores, nowhere more conspicuously than in his most popular work, the Symphony No. 2, Sinfonia India. The work not only uses actual Indian melodies but calls for indigenous percussion instruments—if available—such as strings of butterfly cocoons and of deer hooves. Throughout the piece, the percussion section plays such a prominent role that it becomes a truly equal partner to the strings and winds.

Sinfonia India opens with joyful music, a solo trumpet carrying a tune above constantly varying rhythms. This quickly leads to a more exuberant, even raucous section, followed by a much more tranquil tune, first heard on the Eb clarinet and then taken up by the whole orchestra. A new melody, somber, perhaps mournful, is stated by the horn and eventually by the full orchestra.

At this point the music accelerates and we get a restatement, with some variety, of the raucous theme followed by the more tranquil theme—a bit like the recapitulation in a sonata form. The opening joyful music returns briefly, but now a wildly energetic new tune appears, building in intensity with each repetition to bring the symphony to a spectacularly exciting close.

AARON COPLAND

Born Brooklyn, NY, 14 November 1900; died Peekskill, NY, 2 December 1990.

El Salón México

Begun in 1932, El Salón México was completed in 1936 and first performed in Mexico City by the  Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, Carlos Chavez conducting, 27 August, 1937. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn,  2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tambour de Provence, brush, Chinese blocks, wood block, gourd, xylophone, piano and strings. Performance time is about 10 minutes.

Aaron Copland met Carlos Chavez in 1926, during the Mexican composer’s first visit to New York, and they became lifelong friends. Copland performed Chavez’ piano music in concert, and Chavez conducted some world premieres of Copland’s music in Mexico. The American made his first visit to Mexico in 1932, to attend an all-Copland concert conducted by Chavez, and ended up staying for four months. Among the places that delighted him was the Mexico City nightclub El Salón México, which catered to everyone from tourists to barefoot workers.

In the spirit of French composers creating musical portraits of Spain, Copland conceived his own south-of-the-border portrait, whose full title is El Salón México: Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City. He chose his musical themes from two books of popular Mexican tunes, but ran some of the melodies together and varied their rhythms in ways that could be compared to a cubist painting’s rearrangement of a table with fruit and a guitar. The work is intricately constructed in its alternating fast and slow sections but feels like an extended improvisation. Almost immediately it became one of Copland’s most celebrated scores, both at home and abroad 

MAURICE RAVEL

Born in Ciboure, France, near Biarritz, 7 March 1875; died in Paris, 28 December 1937.

Bolero

Composed in 1928 for Ida Rubinstein’s dance company and premiered by that troupe on 20 November 1928, Walther Straram conducting.  Bolero calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano and tenor saxophones, 3 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 snare drums, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, harp and strings. Its length is about 17 minutes. The SSO performed Bolero most recently on 12 November 2005, led by Bradley Thachuk.

Ida Rubinstein was a celebrated Russian dancer, known for her electrifying and, according to all reports, erotic stage presence. She starred with Nijinsky in Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and later formed her own dance company. In 1928 she asked Maurice Ravel to orchestrate some Albeniz piano music for a Spanish-themed ballet; when the rights to the music turned out to be unobtainable, Ravel decided to compose his own music. The premiere created a sensation: Rubinstein portrayed a Spanish dancer trying out some new steps on a long table while other dancers around her become more and more frenzied, eventually drawing knives and passing her around on their shoulders. Ravel’s music created a sensation in itself, quickly becoming his most popular work.

Bolero is a kind of experiment in rhythm, color and volume. Against the same unvarying rhythm heard on snare drum (with subtly changing reinforcements on other instruments), a sinuous Spanish-Arab melody and its counter-melody are played over and over, in alternation, each time with a different solo instrument or combination, until finally the entire orchestra thunders out the theme. A sudden change of key leads quickly to the shattering end. What ought to have been boring to listeners—the same tune played for 17 minutes, simply getting gradually louder—becomes an enthralling experience: a hypnotic display of orchestral color that only a master orchestrator could have designed.

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