WHAT WOULD TCHAIKOVSKY DO?
Imagine if Tchaikovsky were in charge of programming CityMusic concerts. This is exactly the kind of program he might have assembled for his own delight – and ours. Tchaikovsky's greatest influence as a developing composer was French music. He sought out composers such as Fauré, admired the ballets of Delibes, was friendly with Saint-Saëns. But his greatest admiration was for Bizet, and especially the opera Carmen. No doubt he was attracted by the melodic gifts of these composers, but in the case of Bizet, it was the sincerity of expression that also caught his attention. So it's easy to imagine Tchaikovsky, who always wears his heart on his sleeve, framing his own violin concerto with the tender tragedy of Fauré's music for Pelléas et Mélisande and the brilliant exuberance of Bizet's youthful symphony.
Faure's Pelléas et Mélisande
Pelléas and Mélisande aren't quite household names like Romeo and Juliet, but these ill-fated medieval lovers have inspired their share of music. The source is the influential symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, written in 1892 and prompting four different composers to interpret the story of forbidden love in the decade that followed: Debussy, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Fauré, who was the first.
Maeterlinck's play was performed once in Paris - it found more support in London, where it was played in French and then, in 1898, in English. It was for this 1898 production that Fauré was invited to compose the music. The complete incidental music included a song for Mélisande, which was omitted when Fauré assembled a suite for concert performances
The slow Prélude introduces the dreamlike world of the play. The music suggests both intimacy and impassioned longing as well as the inexorable force of destiny. The curtain rises on a horn call: Golaud, the king's grandson, is hunting and he is about to meet the mysterious Mélisande beside a stream.
The Spinning Girl draws on a scene from Act III. The first violins are muted – their rushing figuration with the plucking of the other strings suggests the spinning wheel. Suspended above this is the oboe's gentle melody: Mélisande in conversation.
The Sicilienne was added to the suite after it had achieved popularity in its own right, especially in arrangements for flute and harp. The liquid, lilting sound of this old-style dance was used in Act II for the meeting of Mélisande and Pélleas in the park – a brief moment of happiness, but also the beginning of tragedy when Mélisande loses her wedding ring in the fountain.
The Death of Mélisande, brings the suite to a slow and somber conclusion. The music begins with a fragile march from flutes and clarinets above the discreet tread of the cellos and double basses - a funeral cortége for a fairytale.
Although Fauré had engaged his student Charles Koechlin to help prepare the orchestrations for the theatrical premiere, for the suite he enlarged the orchestra and revised details of coloration, enhancing the music’s evocative and 'hazy' atmosphere. Pelléas et Mélisande is thought to contain Fauré's finest music for orchestra, and it stands as an example of evocative and delicate orchestral colour, perfectly suited to the poignant love story.
MUSIC RUN MAD
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky's violin concerto didn't start out as one of the best-loved violin concertos in the repertoire. At first a number of violinists refused to play it, including the young man for whom it was written and the virtuoso to whom it was dedicated. And when it was premiered in Vienna in 1881, the critics had a field day. The most famous review comes from Eduard Hanslick: "The violin is no longer played: it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue… Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that 'stinks to the ear'." Even in America the critics sneered: "It is a very uneven work. The Finale is nothing less than music run mad, a frenzy of notes of incomprehensible savagery."
Not a note has changed since 1881, but this concerto is now received as beautiful, expressive and a gratifying challenge for the virtuoso. There are two reasons for this. First, Tchaikovsky always wrote "from an inward and irresistible impulse". His music is full of strong emotions. Second, his music always dances. There's a rhythmic impulse combined with supreme elegance - as if a ballerina were waiting in the wings.
One of these moments is the second theme in the first movement ('moderately fast'). Heard about three minutes into the concerto, this theme is remarkably similar to the tender violin solo in Swan Lake, when Prince Siegfried implores Odette not to reject his love. Since Tchaikovsky was writing his concerto for the young violinist Joseph Kotek, the object of his affections, it's tempting to read into the music a similar plea.
Tchaikovsky was not a violinist and he worked closely with Kotek, who provided all-important technical advice. It was Kotek who suggested that the original slow movement was too sentimental (it became the Méditation from Souvenir d'un lieu cher). In its place Tchaikovsky offered a beautifully hushed Canzonetta, replacing sentiment with simplicity and the sincerity he aspired to.
Like the best of Tchaikovsky's creations, the Canzonetta speaks from the heart. It then transforms itself, without pause, into the exhilarating finale ('fast, very lively') where the inspiration of folk dance makes its presence felt. If this is 'music run mad', then every concert could do with more madness!
Bizet's Symphony in C
Bizet entered the Paris Conservatoire as a piano and composition student when he was only nine years old. When he was 18 he came second in the Prix de Rome and the next year he won the coveted composition prize itself. But before he won either of those awards Bizet had written his first symphony, his first major work. He was barely 17.
Bizet himself never heard the symphony performed. Perhaps he simply forgot about his student effort; maybe he hid it away because he thought it was too similar to Gounod's first symphony, which he'd taken as his model. After his death, the score of the Symphony in C came into the possession of the composer and conductor Reynaldo Hahn, who eventually deposited it in the Paris Conservatoire library in 1933. Almost immediately the music was examined by Bizet's first English biographer, who showed it to Felix Weingartner. Excited by the find, Weingartner conducted the premiere in Basle in 1935.
And what a welcome discovery it would have been. The Symphony in C is spirited and unpretentious and it makes an appealing combination of youthful verve and real technical accomplishment.
The young Bizet's influences are clear: early Beethoven (in the first main theme), Mozart (especially in the oboe theme from the first movement), Mendelssohn, Rossini (in the second movement's evocative and languorous oboe melody with its plucked viola accompaniment), Haydn (in the brio of the finale) and - although we may not recognise it today - Gounod (in the overall plan of the symphony, not to mention some of its details). But what is impressive in a composer so young is the deftness with which he assimilates the charm, the colours, the mastery of structure and the lyrical gifts of his models.
Perhaps it's fortunate that Gounod's First Symphony is rarely performed nowadays: there's little risk of Bizet's Symphony in C being held up for comparison with the impeccable elegance of another composer. It was an excellent thing when this symphony disappeared for 80 years: now we can appreciate it on its own merits.
Yvonne Frindle © 2011
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2011
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE OVERTURE
Rossini is best known for his sparkling, witty operas, composed in the first part of the 19th century – The Barber of Seville is the one that's staged most often. But even If you never set foot in an opera theater, you’ve almost certainly heard some of the overtures that he wrote for these operas. Some have become staples in the concert hall, played as "curtain raisers" by orchestras all over the world, but the real source of Rossini's popular fame in modern times is Bugs Bunny. Thanks to those classic cartoons, some of Rossini's greatest tunes became known outside the world of classical music: The William Tell overture with its "Lone Ranger" finale, the "Largo al factotem" aria and the overture from The Barber of Seville, and the overture to the Thieving Magie. (Carl Stalling was the genius composer and arranger behind most of these cartoons).
Speaking of thieving magpies, Rossini was something of one himself – or perhaps it would be fairer to describe him as a model recycler. He wrote nearly 40 operas during his career, but only 26 overtures, which means that he often reused an overture from a previous opera. True to form he borrowed some of the themes from two earlier operas he wrote, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra. This means that the music of the overture has nothing to do with the opera that follows – its real purpose is to seize your attention and whet your appetite for the morning’s entertainment, and with its lively themes, the The Barber of Seville overture certainly does that.
Yvonne Frindle © 2011
Illustration by Charles Krenner © 2011
DANIEL AND SNAKEMAN
Margaret Brouwer's music has earned her singular praise for its lyricism, musical imagery, and emotional power. It has been said: "that she is one of America's contemporary composers who has an incredible inventive imagination and creates dramatic moments that keeps the attention riveted". She lives in Cleveland and New York and this is her second commission with CityMusic Cleveland.
Daniel and Snakeman is a musical tale in which the orchestra tells the story, helped along with a narrator. Ms Brouwer wrote Daniel and Snakeman at the invitation of CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, to celebrate Cleveland's many ethnic groups, and to remind people that it is possible to live in peace with each other no matter where we come from, which language we speak or customs we bring with us. There is a moral to the story, and it is about the value of different cultures, faiths and generations playing, working, and making music together. The story is set in a future time. The villain in the story, Snakeman, is a hold-over from an earlier time and imprisons people in his fortress who do not keep to their "own kind." Still people have fun making music together with others whose music is very different from their own, and work on finding a way to escape.
Each character in Ms. Brouwer's musical fairytale is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra: Daniel (the boy every boy wants to be who saves people by his strength and intelligence) is represented by the trumpets and horns playing a heroic melody. Wiggy (a talking and somewhat comical bat) is represented by the clarinet with high and low runs and occasional jazz licks. Snakeman (a somewhat ponderous creature with bulky shoulders and human head but with a very long, coiling body and tail of a snake) is represented by the trombone with many slippery glissandi and a ponderous melody. Snakeman has a cocky, know-it-all attitude and is a bully and a bigot - and is sneaky and strong. He is a hold-over from an earlier time when people of different cultures and faiths could not get along. Malik the Drummer (a boy from a Middle-Eastern Provincehood) is represented by Tabla, Daf, Tombak - or whatever percussion instruments the player chooses to use. Elizabeth and Fadumo, a dancing team (two young girls, one with long blond hair and fair skin from a Northern provincehood, and the other with long black hair and brown skin from a Southern provincehood) are represented by the oboe and violin. These girls cannot speak each other’s language, but communicate with music and dancing. Pod 333 and Jane (an unusual pair: a lopsided and crazily clanking robot and an oldish, tall, stately woman who sometimes has a sad and serious look, and sometimes a mischievous smile) are represented by the lower strings and percussion for Pod 333, the robot, and by the bassoon for Jane.
Margaret Brouwer © 2011
Fauré found professional security and influence as an organist, and later director of the Paris Conservatoire, composing during the summer. His style was profoundly lyrical and his most significant contribution to French music was in the realm of song. Pelléas et Mélisande tells a tragic story of doomed lovers: Mélisande, who can remember only her name; Golaud, the king's grandson, who claims her as a bride; and his step-brother Pelléas, who wins her heart.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky's near-universal popularity stems from three things: an astonishing gift for melody, an unerring dramatic instinct, and the directness and sincerity of emotion in his music. These qualities emerge in all his works, whether for the concert hall or the stage. Add to this a finely tuned ear for orchestral sounds and colours, and it's no surprise that pieces such as the Violin Concerto have an unchallenged place in the classical repertoire.
Bizet might have become the most prominent French composer of the late 19th century, but - like Mozart - he died far too young: he was 36 years old and had just completed Carmen, the opera whose catchy melodies and Spanish themes were to bring him posthumous fame. He wrote his lively and brilliant Symphony in C when he was 17, but it wasn't performed until 1935.
Italian composer (1792–1868)
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....