Program notes for October 21, 2017.
This evening we celebrate the start of a new season of music making by the GSO. We shall hear memorable music by leading composers from Canada, Russia, Armenia, Bohemia, and Italy, all of whom travelled widely and yet were tied to certain places, places that found expression in their music.
Remembrances by Roydon Tse (1991- ). This work was composed while Tse was adjusting to life in Canada, having recently emigrated from Hong Kong to Edmonton. Remembrances is a window into the past and the composer’s memories associated with his years in Hong Kong as well as a stay in the UK. The piece begins with a melancholic melody. We hear various solo instruments. A large and heroic tutti section transitions into a lighter mood, featuring a solo flute. The voyage continues and ends in a loud and triumphant manner, highlighting the power of the brass and string families.
Selections from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Prokofiev’s life was not easy for he lived through two wars, a revolution, suffered from homesickness while living abroad, and, perhaps worst of all for a composer, condemnation in the 1940s and early 1950s by Stalin’s henchmen in the music establishment. Prokofiev’s music, they claimed, was “anti-people”! Today his unique yet very Russian compositions are acknowledged as being at the forefront of new musical art forms that are now fully appreciated and enjoyed. His remarkable ballet Romeo and Juliet drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s play, surely the most famous and tragic love stories of all time. The ballet encountered production problems due, in part, to Prokofiev having written a happy ending, but he eventually relented and wrote the expected sad ending. We shall hear selections of the ballet’s striking music: Romeo and Juliet Pas de Deux and the Final Scene.
Violin Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Prokofiev left Russia in March 1918 but while centred in Paris he was restless and increasingly homesick. In 1927 he began visiting resorts in Russia and then, in 1934, he returned to Russia, naively ignoring growing evidence of Stalinist control of musical life (such as the condemnation of Shostakovich’s and Khatchaturian’s music, condemnation Prokofiev too would all too soon experience though he — and they — survived). That aside, the Violin No. 2 evolved during one set of travels, for the principal theme was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh (a beautiful city south of Moscow), the orchestration was completed in Baku (on the Caspian Sea), while the first performance was given in Madrid. The second movement opens with pizzicato triplets with the solo violin entering with an inspired melody. Then the soloist’s duplets are set against the orchestra’s triplets, thereby offering a fascinating rhythmic dissonance. In time the principal melody returns. A rich accompaniment reaches a magical passage in which the solo violin “scurries like a dragonfly on a pond”. Following a quicker tempo interlude the main theme returns, this time played by the orchestra’s violins to which the soloist adds a descant. With muted cellos, clarinets, and horns, the concluding coda lovingly reminds us of the opening melody.
Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Khachaturian valued his Armenian heritage. He studied music in Moscow and successfully premiered many compositions there. After surviving official condemnation, in the 1950s Khachaturian taught at the Moscow Conservatory, conducted, and wrote film scores and the 1955 ballet Spartacus. In later years he toured with concerts of his own works in 30 countries. In 1941 he wrote his ballet Gayane which featured the joyous Sabre Dance. The dance was instantly successful in the USA in 1948 when it was broadcast and recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (whose record sold over one million copies). The Sabre Dance is a delight to the ear, with brilliant orchestration, a steady pulse yet with exciting displaced accents, incessant repetition of short melodies, and, yes—but you will have to imagine this—Armenian dancers displaying their skill with sabres!
Vltava (“The Moldau”) by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). This composer was yet another traveller, for after the 1848 Prague uprising he left for Sweden, where he became a teacher and choirmaster in Gothenburg, In the early 1860s, due to political changes in Bohemia, Smetana returned permanently to Prague. While well known for the opera The Bartered Bride, Smetana’s most important orchestral work is the cycle of six remarkable symphonic poems grouped under the title Má Vlast (My Fatherland). Each poem episodically and evocatively relates something of Bohemia’s beautiful landscapes and the people’s rich mythical and actual past. (Today the region is within the Czech Republic.) While Czech’s relish the music’s passion, power, and lyrical beauty, the music is universally enjoyed for the same reasons. So, like the patriotic music by Sibelius, Smetana’s patriotic music also speaks to all. Sadly, like Beethoven, Smetana suffered from deafness for the last ten years of his life, yet he too composed some of his best music while deaf. Vltava is the second of the six pieces in Ma Vlast and it is often played as a stand-alone concert work. The Vltava, the largest river in Bohemia, is known in Germany as the Moldau.
The music takes us for a fascinating river ride through the landscape. The work opens with two flutes and then clarinets as they reveal two springs, bubbling in the morning sun, that merge and become a brook. With the addition of other instruments and, in time, the full orchestra, we witness the broadening of the waters into a mighty river. The river flows through forests and fields; a hunter’s horn and trumpet fanfares reveal a hunt is underway; and we pass a wedding feast being celebrated with songs and dances. Then, using Smetana’s words, “At night wood and water nymphs revel in the river’s sparkling waves. The developing music refers to bygone days of knightly splendour and the vanished glory of fighting times. At the St. John’s Rapids [today hidden by a hydro-electric dam] the river races on, winding its way through cataracts and hewing a path for its foaming waters through the rocky chasm into the broad riverbed.” Now a mighty river, it flows on in majesty toward Prague where it flows by the mighty Vyšehrad fortress before continuing as it gradually fades into the distance and so out of view. Two strong chords remind us that this is no incidental river but one that is filled with special meanings.