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Program Notes - Apr. 11, 2012


Festive Overture, op. 96
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

Although he was the greatest genius of his era in Soviet music (or perhaps because he was the greatest genius) Shostakovich was forever running afoul of the musical establishment. His tendency to speak emotionally from the depths of his soul, combined with a desire to create a truly new musical idiom, often led him to create a work the “needed some listening to.” The Soviet authorities (a.k.a Joseph Stalin) had decreed that a composer must write music that honors, uplifts and entertains the proletariat. Music that failed to do so was often decreed to be “formalist” and its composer was in danger of losing prestige – not to mention his liberty and perhaps his life – if he didn’t toe the line. Shostakovich had most recently incurred the government’s displeasure in 1948 when his Ninth Symphony failed to be a monumental tribute to the triumph of Communist Russia in the second world war, but was full of lighthearted irony and deemed to be “unworthy.” To save his skin, he once again changed his style of composition, turning out several pleasant but unsubstantial works in a more approachable idiom.

Five years later, he was still treading lightly when he was commissioned (i.e. ordered) to write an overture to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the Russian revolution. He responded with his only concert overture, a deliberately straightforward outpouring of effervescent energy. Its plan was simple, its harmonies were easy to listen to and it featured several tunes that stayed in the audience’s heads at the end of the performance. Just exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Stalin’s musical tastes. It opens with a rich fanfare for the brasses, followed by a lively bouncing woodwind theme. For contrast, a lyrical section features the cello section plus a solo horn. Their melody eventually combines with the original tune in a complex interaction that sounds like the two themes were made for each other. A recapitulation of the original fanfare brings the formal structure to a satisfying conclusion – the furious presto final coda adds an exclamation point to a sentence that says little, but says it very convincingly.

The piece is so upbeat and joyous that one has to wonder if Shostakovich had his own hidden agenda for the work. Maybe the festive occasion he was celebrating was not the anniversary for which it was commissioned, but his own personal sense of release: Stalin had died in the months just before its premiere, and Dmitri Shostakovich could breathe a little easier!

Kikimora, op. 63
Anatole Liadov (1855 – 1914)

Anatole Liadov was a follower of the influential circle of Russian composers known as “The Mighty Five” (Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov). He enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but his career as a music student was a bit tenuous – he was thrown out of Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class for “failure to attend”, and was dismissed from the Conservatory. He somehow managed to return to the good graces of the authorities, and was readmitted. His studies then progressed so well that he was appointed to the faculty after graduation. He went on to later teach both Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

Liadov and Korsakov eventually became close friends (proving that professors don’t always hold a grudge against troublesome students) and frequently tried out musical ideas on one another. One summer, to improve their skills with counterpoint, they each wrote “a fugue a day” on identical starting themes and then compared notes. Even though Korsakov encouraged him repeatedly, Liadov was both slightly lazy and highly self-critical. He completed only a few orchestral compositions that he considered worthy of publication. In spite of the fact that he experimented with exotic harmonies and extended tonality, his music is very approachable for most audiences, though it frequently sounds mystical and eerie.

Most of his orchestral works were programmatic (which relieved him from the pressure of having to adhere to standard symphonic forms) and many were based on fantasy. A kikimora is a legendary creature from Slavic mythology, a slightly demonic female house-spirit who often lives, unseen, in the houses of unlucky hosts. It is often characterized has having evil intentions, and is “difficult to get rid of.” Supposedly, people would accurse those with whom they were unhappy by making a doll in the image of a kikimora and leaving it surreptitiously in their house. Liadov wrote about the particular version of Kikimora portrayed in this short tone-poem: “She grew up in the mountains with a magician, whose cat would regale her with tales of ancient times and faraway places as she rocked in a cradle made of crystal. She was thin as a blade of grass, and spent her life spinning flax from dawn ‘til dusk, with evil intentions for the world.” (Liadov’s version of the legend is a bit reminiscent of the Norns from Wagnerian mythology, who spin the rope of fate that binds the world.) In spite of the eerie image, the music is gentle, and only occasionally uneasy. It is probably his most-performed work.

Flamingo
Michael Daugherty (b. 1954)

Who would ever think to use a tambourine as featured soloist in an orchestral work, let alone two of them? Well, the moment has arrived. Michael Daugherty, who deserves consideration as one of the most unusual and eclectic living American composers, brought a very unusual background to his entrance into serious classical music. He grew up in a small town in Iowa, where he might have been the most musical person in his high school class (probably along with all of the previous and future classes at that school!). While in school he played percussion in a rock band, and marched with a competitive drum and bugle corps, just about the most opposite musical cultures as you can find. He played jazz piano in nightclubs. He interviewed major jazz artists passing through the region on tour, (e.g. Buddy Rich, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck) and wrote about them for his high school newspaper. His interest in jazz took him to North Texas State University, where he studied jazz performance and composition.

Early in his studies at North Texas State he composed a new work that was chosen for performance by the Dallas Symphony. It was so successful that the faculty at NTS awarded him a fellowship, which supported the rest of his studies there. His interests began to shift to new music and composition. He moved to New York, earning a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music. He later studied in Europe (with Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Gyorgy Ligeti …), Tanglewood (Leonard Bernstein), and finally at Yale (Jacob Druckman), where he received his doctorate – his thesis was on the relationships between the music of Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler. Unsurprisingly, during all this time, he continued to perform as a jazz pianist to earn money.

After receiving his degree at Yale he was appointed to the faculty of Oberlin College. All of this was in preparation for his composing career, which began in earnest when he left Oberlin to be appointed Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan. It was then that he actually started publishing his compositions, and Flamingo is among his first. Since then, he has written for nearly all types of groups, from full symphony to chamber music, to symphonic band, to percussion ensemble, and has featured more than a dozen different types of instruments as concerto soloists. (Strangely, nothing in the “standard” jazz medium.) Prepare yourself for a truly new musical experience.

Marche Slav, op. 31
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Tchaikovsky stands head and shoulders above the nineteenth century Russian musical scene, far and away its greatest composer. His music is so approachable and direct that it has often been fashionable for musicologists to call it “shallow.” His formal training stamped him with a Western approach to musical structure that set him apart from his more nationalistic contemporaries. Yet his quintessentially Russian spirit is the foundation on which rises the emotional content of his works. His genius was for creating what he himself called the “lyrical idea”, which goes beyond simply composing a beautiful melody line.

His life was troubled in all its stages, and clearly this must have influenced his music. It would be difficult to conceive how a man who lived through Tchaikovsky’s personal anguish could write anything cerebral and unemotional, and he did not. Nearly all of his music is highly charged. Even a nonprogrammatic piece is generally expressive – “wearing its heart on its sleeve for anyone to see.” Such is the case with this work. Marche Slav is by far the best known of his three concert marches.

It was composed at the request of Nicolai Rubenstein (who had just recently spurned the composer’s first piano concerto, and might have wanted to get back into his good graces). Tchaikovsky loved Russian folk music, looking to it for inspiration throughout his career, and he makes considerable use of it here. From the opening statement theme to the final glorious statement of the Czarist national anthem, the march draws on the music of the land. But, as in his other works, Tchaikovsky seldom takes the simple stone and mortar and builds from them a structure. Instead, he crafts his elements carefully, aligning each one exactly. And whether it is truly a noble monument or simply a humble dwelling, almost everyone recognizes and appreciates its architecture.

Suite from “The Firebird”
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Igor Stravinsky was born into the Russian gentry, in a musical family. His father, descended from a line of Polish aristocracy that had emigrated to Russia, married the daughter of a minor Czarist interior minister, thus ensuring the family a place in the aristocracy. The elder Stravinsky was very successful opera singer, and his mother a pianist. Obviously, music became the core of the young Igor’s heritage. His mother taught him piano, and his father was so well-connected musically that he could arrange for his early musical education.

As was common with the Russian gentry, Igor entered St. Petersburg University to study law, but his true love was music. While studying law he became close friends with a fellow law student who was also a superb violinist. This young man just happened to be the son of Rimsky-Korsakov, and he introduced Igor to his father (one of the most influential musicians in Russia at the time). When Stravinsky showed Korsakov the scores of his early compositions, the established composer recognized that this was a raw talent who saw music in a different way. He also knew that Stravinsky’s radical ideas and lack of formal training would clash with the conservative establishment so he counseled him not to enroll in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was Professor of Music. Instead, he took him on as a private student, teaching him orchestration and harmony. Eventually, he allowed the young genius to enroll at St. Petersburg, where one of his teachers was Liadov.

Early in his career, Stravinsky developed a small reputation as a rising young talent, but not much more. At about that time, the famous ballet producer Diaghalev was taking Paris by storm with his Ballet Russes. The Parisians loved the spectacle of the Russian dancers, but he was criticized by the French establishment for the lack of originality in the music to which his dancers performed. Diaghalev was determined to overcome this criticism, and sought an established Russian composer to commission a new ballet. When he was turned down by several well-established composers (including Liadov!) he gave the commission to a young talent that he had heard about – through Korsakov, naturally. A partnership was born that led to the three greatest ballets ever produced by Diaghalev. The sequence began with The Firebird, and from there to Petroushka and The Rite of Spring. The stunning work that began this sequence catapulted Stravinsky onto the worldwide music scene.

The story of the ballet is not a true Russian legend, but was concocted from four elements common to many Russian stories: an evil sorcerer (Prince Katschei), a Princess to be rescued, the heroic rescuer (Prince Ivan Tsarevich) and a supernatural mythical being – the Firebird. This supernatural creature is simultaneously the goal of a quest by Prince Ivan and a source of magical help as Ivan despatches Katschei and saves the Princess, whom he eventually weds. The Suite is drawn from the music of the ballet, with major modifications. It follows the sequence of the full ballet, but does not attempt to present each element of the story.

The first of its five movements presents Prince Ivan’s quest, searching through the forests for the legendary magical Firebird, and ends with the appearance of the creature itself. The second movement is a languidly sweet dance (performed by the full female complement of the corps de ballet) by the princesses being held captive under the spell of the evil Katschei. The third section, titled The Infernal Dance of Prince Katschei, show Stravinsky’s fascination with exciting rhythmic effects and his almost hypnotic use of syncopation and jazz-like rhythms. The following Berceuse begins with a lullabye sung by the firebird, which enchants Katschei into a deep sleep. This is immediately followed by an awakening to a new dawn, in which Katschei’s palace has disappeared, his evil spells have been broken and the princesses have been freed. The petrified knights who had been under his spell return to life and everyone rejoices together in the glorious finale. Only in the ballet could such a preposterous story-line hang together, but Stravinsky’s music captures its essence perfectly.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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