Today’s concert offers an eclectic blend of musical styles. Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular Scheherazade is an unmatched showcase of orchestral colorings, while Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 is as elegant and refined as the composer himself. Evocative music adapted from John Corigliano’s 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles opens the concert.
(Born 16 February 1938, New York, New York)
First performance: 20 March 2000; Minneapolis, Minnesota
Last MSO Performance: MSO Premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet) alto saxophone, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, chimes, crotale, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymblas, tambourine, temple blocks, tom tom, triangle, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone), harp, celeste, harmonium, piano, strings
Approximate Duration: 26 minutes
In addition to his film music for The Red Violin, American composer John Corigliano is best known for his Symphony No. 1, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1991, and his opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. The work heard tonight draws upon music from the latter. It began its life in a scoring for cello and piano (1993), written for Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on a commission by the Freer Gallery and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. Corigliano later orchestrated the piece; in that guise, its premiere was given by the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.
The composer writes:
My opera The Ghosts of Versailles takes place on three different planes of reality: (1) the world of eternity, inhabited by the ghosts of Versailles, including the playwright Beaumarchais and Marie Antonette; (2) the world of the stage, inhabited by 18th century characters of Beaumarchais (Figaro, Susanna, the Count and Countess, et al); (3) the world of historic reality, primarily the reality of the French Revolution itself, populated by the characters of (1) and (2). Thus, The Ghosts of Versailles represents a journey from the most fantastic to the most realistic.
The architecture of the three-hour opera is mirrored in microcosm in Phantasmagoria, which begins with spectral ghost music and a melodic fragment from Marie Antoinette’s first aria that reappears throughout the work. Sliding harmonics and cluster-chords create a liquid tableau behind this melody.
The world of the stage is highly stylized; as the characters would suggest, it is set in the world of 18th century opera buffa. This section of Phantasmagoria comprises parts of Figaro’s Act 1 aria and the may chase scenes that occur throughout the opera. Subliminal quotes from Mozart and Rossini (and even one from Wagner) are interspersed with rhythmically eccentric passages of great virtuosity for the orchestral players.
Throughout the work, the ghost music floats in and out, binding the other sections together. After the buffa reaches a climax (with, of all things, the “Tristan chord”), we arrive at a setting of the septet from Act 2… The end of the septet flowsinto the ghost music, and Marie Antoinette’s melodic motto leads to a conclusion of liquid repose.
Recommended Recording: Eri Klas, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra (Ondine)
(Born 9 October 1835, Paris, France; Died 16 December 1921, Algiers, Algeria)
First performance: 19 January 1873; Paris, France
Last MSO Performance: April 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor; Joseph Johnson, cello
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 19 minutes
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy. At age ten, he made his debut in a concert that included piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven. As an encore, he offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas—from memory. Wedded to this remarkable precocity was an insatiable intellectual curiosity that shaped and informed his entire life. His tireless advocacy helped revive interest in Bach, Handel, and Mozart, while his non-musical pursuits included archeology, astronomy, geology, mathematics, and philosophy. He published articles on philosophical problems, on the décor of ancient Roman theatres, and on the instruments depicted in the murals at Pompeii and Naples. An inveterate traveler, his journeys took him to such diverse locales as Egypt, Algeria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Uruguay, Scandinavia, England, Russia, the Canary Islands, and America.
From our 21st-century perspective, we see Saint-Saëns as a Romantic neo-Classicist who embodied certain traditional French characteristics: neat proportions, clarity, refined expression, and elegant melodies. His distinctive harmonic language is simple and direct, but with many divergences and variations bestowing stateliness and charm upon the music. As an orchestrator, he relied on harmonic means rather than purely instrumental effects to attain his sense of color. And though he contributed to every genre of his day, including opera, his most accomplished works are those that adhere to the models of the Viennese composers: sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, and concertos.
Saint-Saëns composed his Op. 33 in 1872 for Auguste Tolbecque, who was also a viola da gamba player, a luthier, and the author of L’art du Luthier (1905). Though set in single movement, the Cello Concerto No. 1 has the effect of a traditional three-movement (fast-slow-fast) work. It is also given formal integration by “cyclic” treatment, recalling earlier themes during the unfolding of the piece. Following a single chord from the orchestra, the cello states the main motif, marked by a triplet figure. Immediately, we are swept into the current of the instrument’s power and lyricism. The concerto’s slow central portion, a delicate minuet, evokes the spirit of the Baroque era. The rushing triplet theme breaks the mood of this quiet dance and leads the way to the finale. Here, the cello introduces a gently syncopated melody, then adds another in its lush low register. One last time, the triplet motif returns to spur the concerto to its energetic gallop to the finish line.
Recommended Recording: Jacqueline du Pré; Daniel Barenboim, Philadelphia Orchestra (Teldec)
(Born 18 March 1844, Tikhvin, Russia; Died 21 June 1908, Lyubensk, Russia)
First performance: 3 November 1888; St. Petersburg, Russia
Last MSO Performance: November 2014; Marcelo Lehninger, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), harp, strings
Approximate Duration: 42 minutes
The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of 1,001 nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.
–Rimsky-Korsakov’s preface to the score of Scheherazade
Most classical music enthusiasts know Rimsky-Korsakov primarily by three pieces: the Capriccio espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Scheherazade, all written within a span of less than two years (1887-88). Though the composer was only in his mid-40s, they became virtually his last essays in purely orchestral music, for in 1889 he decided to expend most of his creative energy writing opera.
Rimsky-Korsakov had piano lessons from age six and had composed some pieces for that instrument, but his heart was not set on music. His ambition was a naval career, in emulation of his much older brother Voin. Accordingly, he enrolled in the College of Naval Cadets in St. Petersburg. There, he continued to take lessons and was a decent enough pianist and an earnest, if unschooled, composer. In December 1861, his piano teacher, Théodore Canille, introduced him to the composer Mily Balakirev. The still-teenaged Rimsky-Korsakov immediately fell under the spell of the fiery Balakirev, who became the self-appointed leader of a group dubbed the Mighty Handful (or the Mighty Five)—Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Their aim was to champion Russian music, especially that of the nationalist Mikhail Glinka, over the Germanic compositions that previously had been the fashion.
Balakirev encouraged the naval officer to pursue a career as a composer, though the latter had no formal training. Encouraged by his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov taught himself orchestration and, while still in the navy, completed a symphony, a tone poem, and an opera. (His autodidacticism was so thorough that he later wrote a book, The Principles of Orchestration, which is still in use today.) In 1871, he accepted an invitation to teach composition and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Over the years, his students included Glazunov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky.
In Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov proves himself a virtuoso of orchestral coloring, memorable melodies, and luxuriant harmonies. The work is a dazzling mosaic (or four mosaics, if you prefer) that is, by turns, both scintillating and poignant. The composer’s preface to the score, quoted above, gives us some background for these “separate, unconnected episodes and pictures,” as he put it, from The Arabian Nights.
Though in later life Rimsky-Korsakov discouraged too programmatic a reading, we can be sure about the portrayal of the Sultan and Sultana in the opening moments. The unison, fortissimo statement that launches the work obviously represents the former. Mendelssohn-like woodwind chords then preface the alluring solo-violin voice of Scheherazade. The composer initially titled the opening movement “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” and indeed the music often rises and falls like ocean waves. These two principal themes recur in various guises, and several ancillary motifs help fill out the movement.
Scheherazade herself opens the second movement, followed by a solo bassoon whose expressive melody is taken up by the oboe, then the violins, and finally the woodwinds. Brass salvos lead to an exotic clarinet solo, then preface a gossamer scherzo. The bassoon takes up the clarinet’s recitative, and the movement makes its way to a dazzling end.
Built mostly on the theme stated by the strings at its beginning, the gentle third movement is an alluring flow of melodic invention, with passages for quiet percussion that are especially captivating. Scheherazade makes an appearance, but it is the lyrical main theme that brings the Andantino to its tender close. In the Finale, Rimsky-Korsakov brings back the themes of the opening movement, weaving them into a radiant musical tapestry that also incorporates the peaceful theme of the third movement. Appropriately enough, it is Scheherazade who has the last word; then, at the very end, as the music climbs into the stratosphere, we realize this is going to be the first untroubled night’s sleep the Sultana has had in 21 months.
Recommended Recording: Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Red Seal)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.