Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918), like Mozart and Schubert, represents sadly unfulfilled promise in that she died at age 24, having already written a number of significant works. “D’un matin de printemps” (“Of a spring morning”) is a brief but dramatic tone-poem combining sparkling “awakening” music with two slower, more languorous sections. She was completing the work in her last days, and her sister Nadia (the famous teacher of many American composers like Aaron Copland) had to write in the final editorial details.
We tend to form impressions about composers based on their most oft-performed works, and so when Debussy is mentioned his slow, dreamy “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” comes to mind. Not everything he wrote was gauzy and rhythmically vague, and in his Petite Suite (originally written for two pianos) there are many dancelike moments and some extroverted festivity.
The final two works on the concert were rescheduled from two previous pandemic-canceled concerts. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture is one of those “guilty pleasures” many of us share. The combination of Shakespearean drama with Slavic rhythmic elements and a generous helping of unabashed sentimentality has made this work a perennial favorite.
My Azalea Suite was commissioned by the 2020 North Carolina Azalea Festival and was intended for a spring 2020 Azalea Festival Pops Concert. The orchestral parts were copied and slipped into the musicians’ folders in anticipation of the first rehearsal when North Carolina was shut down due to coronavirus. I’m thankful to the Festival and grateful that two years later we’re finally able to give the first performance.
The inspiration for the five-movement suite was the many forms that azaleas take- each of the first four movements is based on one or two varieties and my subjective reaction to their differing characters. The final movement incorporates themes from the other movements in a kind of chaotic depiction of a whole bank of azaleas.
This concert is framed by the works of two very different French composers- Gabriel Fauré, with his pastel musical colors and mostly introverted expression, and Georges Bizet, with his red-blooded operatic style. Fauré’s Dolly Suite is a gathering of piano duet pieces the composer gave on birthdays and other occasions during the late 1890’s to Dolly, the daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac. The movement titles are child-like but the music isn’t. Meltingly beautiful melodic lines spin out over lush harmonies, even in the two playful waltz-like movements. The final movement connects Fauré to many other French composers (including Bizet) who made Spanish dance rhythms part of their music. I first heard the orchestral version of this infrequently performed suite back in the mid 1970’s and didn’t realize at the time that Dolly herself was still alive (she died in 1985).
Max Bruch was frustrated later in life that his first Violin Concerto, written in 1866, continued to eclipse the popularity of anything he wrote later. I think Bruch hit on the perfect balance between solo virtuosity and memorable melodies, between the focus on the orchestra and on the soloist, and between the minor-key turbulence of the first movement, the serene lyricism of the second, and the fresh major-key exuberance of the third, and perhaps never hit that sweet spot again.
When we engaged our violin soloist for this performance, Randall Goosby, he was fresh off his 2018 success in the Sphinx Competition, but in the two Covid-delayed years since, his career has taken off and he is now in demand internationally. I’m grateful that we’re still able to present him this season.
Bizet died believing Carmen to be a failure, but it eventually enjoyed so much success that his friend Ernest Guiraud compiled several orchestral suites from the opera. I’m not a fan of “opera without words,” but luckily Bizet composed many instrumental preludes, interludes, and occasional pieces that are part of the Carmen. In tonight’s selection, the only movement that was originally a vocal solo number is the “Séguedille,” where the low register of the oboe stands in for the sultry voice of Carmen. The whole suite is full of memorable tunes and colorful orchestration, the progressively accelerating “Danse Bohême” bringing it to a whirlwind finish.
In planning the music for the Wilmington Symphony’s Fall 2021 season, I avoided works scored for large orchestra because of uncertainties regarding the number of players allowed under pandemic restrictions. This stimulated some exploration of masterworks with modest performing forces and led me to works like Johannes Brahms’s Serenade No. 2, which calls for eleven wind players and a string section comprising only violas, cellos, and basses. What it lacks in sheer decibels is made up for by its graceful beauty and charm.
Written when the composer was 25 years old, the serenade is cast in five movements, differing from the typical four-movement work in having two scherzos instead of one. The absence of violins (which tend to dominate symphonies) allows the wind instruments to be showcased, starting with the serene quartet of two clarinets and two bassoons that begins the first movement. The second movement features some humorously dislocated accents, the third is slow and yearning (Clara Schumann was enormously fond of it), the fourth a more gentle minuet, and the fifth a cheery and energetic Rondo (a form unified by a recurring tune). In this final movement Brahms seems to have remembered that he had a piccolo player in the ensemble and makes brilliant use of the instrument.
We had scheduled a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (his sole composition in this genre) to coincide with the composer’s 250th anniversary year in the fall of 2020, so we’re offering a happy belated birthday celebration. The concerto, written for Beethoven’s colleague Frank Clement in 1806, is spacious in its time scale. The measured tread of the timpani solo that creates such a distinctive beginning lets us know that the music will unfold at a leisurely pace. The violin solo weaves complexity into the melodies heard in simpler form during the three-minute orchestral introduction, often spinning out rapid scalar and arpeggiated lines over the orchestra. The four steady notes introduced by the timpani insistently return a number of times, often played by the string section using four consecutive upward bow-strokes.
The second movement is hushed, almost suspended in mid-air, the violin solo tracing ethereal responses over the expressive melody in the orchestra. Later on, when the solo part plays the main melody, it is supported by sparse punctuations in plucked strings. It is one of Beethoven’s more daring creations in the way it does so much with so little.
The concentrated spell of the slow movement is broken by the dance-like theme of the Finale, which, like the last movement of the Brahms Serenade, is a Rondo. Soloist and orchestra take turns playing the main theme and the contrasting episodes. At the end, Beethoven makes us think the work is fading away, but two emphatic tutti chords proved the final punctuation.
Georges Bizet wrote the Symphony in C Major in 1855 as a 17-year-old student at the Paris Conservatoire while studying with Charles Gounod. He shelved the manuscript and it was not until its rediscovery in 1933 that it was brought to the world. Scholars have pointed out the degree to which Bizet emulated and even quoted elements of his teacher’s Symphony in D, which may explain why he suppressed the work, but in its concert life it has far eclipsed Gounod’s work. It is fresh and attractive, and although much simpler than the Beethoven symphonies Bizet might also have been aware of, it gives strong hints of the master tunesmith Bizet was to become later in operas like Carmen.
Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was written in 1829 when the composer was 19 years old (despite the numbering, it was actually his first). Many of the characteristics of the later Chopin style are already evident- dramatic use of the full range of the keyboard, highly ornamented (almost improvisatory) flights of ornamentation in the right-hand part, and colorful shifts of harmony. Commentators have criticized the relative unimportance of the orchestra’s contribution, but this concerto was conceived as a showpiece for the soloist in the manner of other contemporary works which reflected the move from aristocratic circles to large public concert halls.
After the brooding first movement, the second offers a dreamy and tranquil style later seen in the composer’s nocturnes (Chopin confessed to having been inspired by his distant love of a young woman at the Warsaw Conservatory “whom I dream of”). The final movement is in a rapid three beats-to-the-bar meter evoking Polish mazurkas (the accents on the second beats coincide with vigorous heel taps when danced). A surprise in the home stretch is an announcement by a solo French horn and a shift from minor to major, the pianist leading the way to a brilliant finish.
Azalea Suite was commissioned by the 2020 North Carolina Azalea Festival. Although no actual title or subject matter was suggested by the Festival, it seemed a natural thing for me to write a multi-movement piece representing the character of a number of Azalea varieties. I perched color photographs of the chosen blooms on his music rack and decided on an adjective describing each (these are parenthetically listed in the program next to each movement title). The final movement is inspired by walking into an azalea garden, where the profusion and variety of color can be breathtaking. My musical garden consists mostly of a collage of themes from the previous movements.
Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 6, No. 7
Arcangelo Corelli (1653 - 1718)
One of the joys of performing an all-Baroque program is that despite a shared musical language and set of general forms, there is a lot of variety due to regional tastes as well as placement within the 150-year Baroque period. Corelli’s music, from the middle of the period, is sunny and simple- there are rarely more than two musical elements at a time and the rhythms perfectly suit bowed string instruments. Like most of the works on tonight’s concert, there is both an alternation of fast and slow movements and an emphasis on the contrast between one instrument (or a small group of instruments) and the larger ensemble.
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067
J. S. Bach (1685 - 1750)
J. S. Bach admired his Italian predecessors (especially Vivaldi) but brought a new level of complexity to the style. In the Ouverture to his Suite No. 2, the jostling lines of the fugal section are heard in so many layers that each time I listen something new emerges. The remainder of the Suite comprises shorter dance-inspired forms, each in a different tempo and rhythmic style. Throughout, the solo flute rides at the top of the texture, occasionally emerging as the virtuoso soloist (as in Bourée II and the improvisatory Double of the Polonaise). The Badinerie is one of my favorite “built-in” encores.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051
J. S. Bach (1685 - 1750)
If the preponderance of viola jokes on the internet is any indication, viola players have to fight for respect against their more-showy violin-playing colleagues. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is the perfect way to achieve this, since the violins are not even invited. The first movement is fascinating in the way the two viola lines chase each other at a close time interval as the melody keeps diving down and coming up again. The second movement is pure loveliness, and the third is so syncopated that it sounds truly jazzy.
Entrée de Polimne from Les Boréades
Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683 – 1764)
French Baroque composers provide a stylistic contrast to the German and Italian composers we hear more often, so over the years I’ve enjoyed performing works of Lully and Rameau with the Wilmington Symphony. The gossamer textures of this short operatic interlude are magical, and I particularly like the way the bassoon lines weave through the texture.
Concerto a Due Cori No. 1 in B-flat Major, HWV 332
G. F. Handel (1685 – 1759)
The “due cori” in the title refers to the two opposing groups of woodwinds, each group consisting of two oboes and a bassoon. Handel threw this work together in 1748 to augment the premiere of his oratorio Joshua. Apparently, performing a massive oratorio was not enough at Covent Garden and so composers would add some instrumental works to the mix. Messiah fans will recognize Handel borrowing from himself in the second section, but this was actually OK: at least in this case he stole from his own music. Handel effortlessly shifts the focus around the string orchestra and the two woodwind groups, and he goes out dancing in the final Menuet.
Overture to King Stephan, Op. 117
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
2020 is the 250th birthday year for Beethoven, so we’re kicking the celebration off with a performance of one of his lesser-known works. It was written for the 1811 inauguration of a new theater in Pest; the title refers to König Stephan I, who founded the Kingdom of Hungary in the year 1000. The main part of the work, marked Presto, features the breathlessly driving energy so typical of Beethoven. Listen also for the second theme, which begins with an eight-note rising and falling sequence which later shows up as the “Ode to Joy” theme in the Ninth Symphony. Composers are allowed to borrow from themselves, after all.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Samuel Barber’s music, while always rooted in late Romanticism, covers a stylistic span which ranges from gentle and lyrical to aggressively dissonant. The first movement of his Violin Concerto tends toward the former, and it skips the expected long, dramatic introduction by having the solo violin play a simple melody right at the beginning. This main melodic idea reappears a number of times, sometimes subdued and at other times soaring and ecstatic. The other main idea is first heard in the solo clarinet, a theme with a “Scottish snap,” which a short note followed by a long note (the reverse of what normally happens).
Oh, quand je dors…
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
One of seven Victor Hugo poems that Liszt set to music, the beginning of “Oh, quand je dors” translates as “Oh, while I sleep, come beside my bed as Laura came to Petrarch.” Much like the Barber work, the emotional range of the song varies from the quiet beginning to an intense moment on the words “Let your gaze be lifted like a star... Suddenly my dream will shine!” Liszt’s setting was for piano and voice, but the orchestration by Tamás Sulyok allows us to hear it with the richness of a symphony orchestra.
Cinderella Suite No. 1, Op. 107
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
During my college years in the early 1970’s, when serialism and other avant-garde styles ruled the campuses, composers like Prokofiev, who wrote a style still attached to traditional tonality, were quite out of fashion. However, one of my theory teachers at the time, Paul Boylan, told us his prediction that after the dust settled on the many trends of the 20th-Century, Prokofiev would be one of a handful of composers still being played in the 21st. With fifty years’ hindsight, I would say his prediction has been borne out. In works such as Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, Prokofiev’s memorable tunes, rhythmic vitality, and orchestral color still sound fresh. His ability to express emotional complexity can be heard right at the beginning of Cinderella Suite No. 1, where the brooding strings suggest that this is not going to be a simple fairy tale. The suite heard tonight collects eight sections from the whole ballet, and (spoiler alert) it ends where the clock strikes midnight. Perhaps in future WSO seasons we’ll play Suites Nos. 2 and 3 to complete the story.
El amor brujo (1925)
Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946)
El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”) was originally written in 1914-15 as a gitanería (“Gypsy Piece”) for a renowned flamenco dancer, but went through a number of other versions before released in its final version as a one-act ballet pantomímico. The plot is essentially boy-meets-girl, but in this case the girl is tormented by the ghost of her former lover, who is eventually lured away so that the two protagonists can exchange the “kiss of perfect love.” The composer described trying to capture the character of the Andalusian gypsy in the music, but I’ve always appreciated how he went beyond the mere imitation of folk music. The orchestration is lean and transparent (even the famous “Ritual Fire Dance” has a more sparse sound than some of the more bombastic re-arrangements of it).
Austin Piazzolla Quintet
Part of my job description as conductor of the Wilmington Symphony is to choose programming and guest artists. Last year, the Austin Piazzolla Quintet performed at Ted’s Fun by the River, and the reaction by those fortunate enough to be there was so enthusiastic that the idea of bringing that energy to a collaboration with the Symphony was suggested (in particular by my wife Sandy, who likely exerts more influence on me that perhaps other audience members). Their name-sake composer Astor Piazzolla, in a way similar to what de Falla did with his Andalusian sources, used Argentinian popular music as a departure-point. APQ’s take on nuevo tango adds many harmonic twists, metrical surprises, and influences from jazz, contemporary classical music, and beyond, above all with a great flair for the dramatic and emotional elements.
W.A. MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Overture to The Impresario, K. 486
While an undergraduate at the University of Michigan,
I was fortunate to be in the conducting class of
Elizabeth A. H. Green, who had literally written
the book on the subject. “Ma” Green (as she was
called by students only when she wasn’t around)
taught conducting as a rigorous and disciplined
system in service of a non-rigorous, wholly
expressive outcome. She used Mozart’s Overture to
The Impresario as a teaching piece because it has
a wide range of dynamics and articulations that
required us to go beyond mere time-beating.
The work itself belongs to a 30-minute comedy with
spoken dialog that Mozart wrote as his entry for
a private competition on the invitation of Emperor
Joseph II. In what sounds like it should have been a
scene from the film Amadeus, the other entry was
written by Antonio Salieri. Mozart’s Overture brims
with energy and lyricism, with no fewer than six
distinctive themes practically climbing on top of each
other to be heard in the first minute-and-a-half.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
I was surprised to learn that Tchaikovsky loved the
music of Mozart, whose elegant classical style would
seem to be antithetical to the composer of the 1812
Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and the “Pathetique”
Symphony. Yet amidst all Tchaikovsky’s bombast
and pathos there is plenty of music that reflects his
admiration for the earlier composer, perhaps no more
clearly than in the Variations on a Rococo Theme.
The Theme is actually by Tchaikovsky; I’ll leave it to
the musicologists to decide whether it is even in a
Rococo style, but it does have a clear two-part with
repetitions form that is typical of mid 18th-century
themes used for variations. The work was written
for German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a colleague
at the Moscow Conservatory, who had more than the
usual influence on the progress of the work (in the
manuscript, the solo part appears in Fitzenhagen’s
handwriting). Tchaikovsky’s publisher complained that
Fitzenhagen was trying to “cello it up.” The Variations
are predominantly light-hearted and are accompanied
by a Mozart-sized orchestra, the Russian composer
successfully channeling the spirit of his idol.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
The Wilmington Symphony is in the midst of an ongoing
Brahms Symphony cycle, with one performed
every other year. This season we’ve reached his third,
the shortest of the four and one that is unusual in
the genre because it ends quietly. It does follow the
four-movement plan that would have been familiar to
Brahms’ Viennese predecessors Haydn, Mozart, and
Beethoven. The first movement has a dramatic sweep
similar to that of Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony,
with which it also shares a rhythmic and metrical
pattern. The second movement has a hymn-like
theme played by a four-part choir (two clarinets and
two bassoons) which alternates with more expansive
music enjoyed by the larger orchestra. In place of the
typical Minuet and Trio, Brahms offers what is for
me one of his most beautiful creations- a passionate
triple-time movement with a yearning, melancholy
melody first played by the cello section. The last
movement begins with a rapid but shadowy theme that
flits through the string section before gathering into
more substantial material. As the momentum gathers
for an ending, Brahms instead lets the energy subside
into unexpected tranquility, and the symphony ends
with a serene echo of the very beginning.
Over the Stone (Tros y Garreg)
Karl Jenkins (b. 1944)
One of the royal advantages of being the Prince of Wales includes having an official harpist. “Over the Stone,” for two harps, percussion, and strings was “commissioned at the kind request of His Royal Highness” for harpist Catrin Finch and composed by Sir Karl Jenkins in 2002. Jenkins became famous for the familiar quasi-Baroque string music accompanying the DeBeers diamond commercial, and since has written a number of works that blend a popular-music sensibility with classical choral and symphonic forms.
“Over the Stone” capitalizes on the possibilities of having two harps instead of one- sometimes the soloists reinforce each other and at others there is a kind of dialogue. The styles range from folk-music simplicity (Tros y Garreg) to Piazzolla-like Latin abandon (Vamp Latino). The fifth movement, for just the two soloists, demonstrates more unusual ways of playing the harp, including pedal glissandi (bending the pitch of ringing strings by changing the pedals), playing close to the soundboard, and slashing across the strings with fingernails.
Much of the work is joyful and immediately attractive, and I think that the percussion instruments work particularly well with the crisp articulations inherent to the harp.
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere in 1908 to great applause with the 34 year-old composer conducting. Since then the work’s reception has varied- even while the composer was still alive its almost hour-long duration was felt to be excessive and so drastic cuts were made. I can recall that by the time I went to college in the 1970’s no self-respecting serious musician would even admit to liking Rachmaninoff, his reputation having sunk so low. Since then, though, audiences have come around to appreciating the great beauty and vivid emotional content of his music, not to mention his dazzling way with the symphony orchestra.
The three faster movements of Symphony No. 2 are similar in that once the more energetic initial theme has had its say, the composer brings in one of his “big tunes.” Even in the second movement Scherzo the fun is interrupted by a melody with a great romantic sweep. The third movement, being the contrasting slow part of the symphony, is practically all big tunes. The rising melody that the violins introduce at the outset was loved so much by pop musician Eric Carmen that he appropriated it for his 1976 hit “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and was shortly thereafter contacted by the Rachmaninoff estate about royalties owed. As beautiful as this melody is, the next one floated by the solo clarinet over gently undulating strings is even more so. I included this symphony in the WSO’s 2018-19 season at the suggestion of Symphony member Coleman Burgess, who also happens to be the solo clarinetist.
Other than not observing one repeat sign in the first movement, we are presenting the symphony without cuts, and so my advice is to sit back and luxuriate in the sheer abundance of memorable tunes and let the composer’s structure gradually and rewardingly unfold.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Dr. Steven Errante.