Saturday, May 19, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto

This weekend is the last Masterworks concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s season when Stuart Malina conducts the orchestra welcomes guest violinist Karen Gomyo back for her third appearance here, this time playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto.

The program opens with "Starburst," a recent work by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff and concludes with one of those great sonic experiences with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concerts are Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will also be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(Sorry, I wanted to get this posted before, but technical difficulties and time constraints have been working against me.)
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Shostakovich & Oistrakh, late-1940s
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is regarded as one of the great names of the 20th Century and one of few composers to translate well to international acclaim outside the Soviet Union. His 5th Symphony has become one of the most popular symphonies from the past century and his 1st (written when he was still a teen-ager) and possibly his 10th may also be familiar to wide audiences. All three have been performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony in past seasons.

The 1st Violin Concerto was written between 1947 and the spring of 1948, written specifically for David Oistrakh. It’s in four movements, opening with a dark, elusive “Nocturne,” a very personal statement compared to the extroverted “Scherzo” that follows. The “Passacaglia” is again perhaps brooding and personal. From this, a solo “cadenza” begins to unfold, gradually building and getting faster until it erupts into the finale which the composer described as a Burlesque, another extroverted, manic dance.

Here is a performance with Julian Rachlin recorded with the Detroit Symphony and Leonard Slatkin recorded this past February:
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Further down, I’ll post a historic recording made in 1955 with Oistrakh who had just given the world premiere in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in October then gave the second performance of it on his American tour in December, 1955, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Dmitri Mitropoulos. It’s an amazing performance, despite the monaural sound quality.

With all due respect to the many violinists I've heard perform this piece in recording (I believe this is the first time I've experienced the concerto live), after hearing Karen Gomyo rehearse it with the Harrisburg Symphony this evening, I can say that she is the first violinist I've heard who can match Oistrakh for his intensity and understanding of the piece. I've always thought the opening slow movement to be too dark, dreary and ponderous, a problem people have with many of Shostakovich's symphonies that open with extremely long, extremely slow and often depressingly dark slow movements. But tonight, even in rehearsal, I found it now moving and heart-rending and, above all, beautiful. And yet they're same notes everybody else is playing: but that is the magic of art.

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Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto comes from the same period as the 10th Symphony and, like both that and the 5th Symphony, shared a similar fate when politics becomes too closely involved with the arts.

I’ve discussed this in previous posts about Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony which opened this season as well as the common bond in the 5th and 10th Symphonies.

This violin concerto was written following the unexpectedly light-hearted 9th Symphony (following the war, everyone was expecting a mammoth celebration of the Soviet victory ending with, most likely, a vast choral ‘Ode to Stalin’ or some such, and were sorely disappointed with what could be called his “Classical Symphony” – and yes, I even blogged about this one, here).

And, more significantly, it precedes the 10th Symphony which Shostakovich says he began composing following Stalin’s death in 1953 but which at least one close friend and colleague (the pianist, Tatiana Nikolaeva, for whom he was writing a series of preludes and fugues after Bach) says he was already writing in 1951.

The timing couldn’t have been worse – well, much worse.

Perhaps it was the critical reaction to the 9th – compared to their expectations – that prompted yet another political crackdown on Soviet artists writing “bad music for Soviet listeners” in 1948, leveling charges of “formalism” against composers like Shostakovich who imitated bourgeois Western standards – intellectual abstractions like fugues or symphonies in particular.

He’d been through the horrors of government condemnation before – in 1936 following his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (despite its popularity with audiences) which brought down Stalin’s displeasure and a personal attack published in Pravda famously called “Muddle instead of Music.”

He withdrew his 4th Symphony which was in rehearsal because he knew it would only make things worse. Instead, he wrote a new symphony famously subtitled (presumably not by Shostakovich) “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” This became his 5th Symphony and one wonders if perhaps there isn’t some “secret program” behind it which Shostakovich knew the politicos would be too dense to realize. It is said that music lovers in the audience understood it and cheered. At any rate, the composer found himself more-or-less rehabilitated, though the road through the future was not always an easy one.

But then, another decree came down in February of 1948 initiated by Stalin's minister, Andrei Zhdanov. Now Shostakovich was being attacked as a “formalist” – he, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and practically any Soviet composer of note – for following bourgeois Western art-forms: using things like fugues and writing symphonies which were considered German art-forms (keep in mind this was now after World War II and his 5th and 7th Symphonies were considered examples of Great Soviet Art).

Shostakovich had been working on a new violin concerto for his friend, the violinist David Oistrakh. He was in the midst of writing the third movement, the Passacaglia, when he received word that he was once again under attack.

Later, when one of his students was showed the finished concerto, he asked Shostakovich where he was working when news of the Zhdanov Decree came down. The composer opened the score and pointed to an exact measure. There were 16th notes before it and identical 16th notes continuing after it, as if there had been no break in the creative continuity, no earth-shattering change or outcry commemorating the moment, reacting to the reality outside the art.  

But this time, Shostakovich was tired of it - all the politics and the betrayals. He was older if not wiser and on the verge of illness. At 30 he might have had that kind of self-preservation and spunk to at least dance with the enemy if not overcome them outright. But at 42, he just wanted to be left alone.

This time, he “retired” from composing.

He completed the Violin Concerto the following month but didn’t want to have it performed or published. He and Oistrakh played through it and each of them made some minor changes. But basically, Shostakovich just put it in a drawer and left it there.

This time, he would wait.

Now, only some works of Shostakovich’s had been banned outright – including the 6th, 8th and 9th Symphonies – yet other works like the 5th Symphony or the Piano Quintet (despite its 2nd movement being a fugue) were not on the list. Considering his name was becoming synonymous with “enemy of the people,” few were the brave artists who would perform even his ‘acceptable’ works.

And so commissions were cancelled and new ones were not forthcoming. Royalties disappeared and performances vanished.

It didn’t happen until autumn but then he was dismissed as a professor from the conservatories in both Moscow and Leningrad.

At one point, Yuri Levitin, a friend and student of the composer's, relates (quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered") how Shostakovich, always nervous (even as a child) was now suffering from constant headaches and frequent nausea and was taken to a sanatorium outside Moscow and kept there for several days ("he was in a terrible state") where his wife told them "You cannot imagine our position. Mitya [Dmitri] is on the verge of suicide!"

They were able to calm him down and some time later that year (or early the next, the context is not clear), Shostakovich informed them "I have decided to start working again so as not to lose my composer's credentials. I shall write a prelude and a fugue every day," taking into consideration "the experience of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Hardly something you'd think an artist accused of "formalism" would consider writing...

A year after the decree was handed down, Shostakovich received a personal phone call from none other than Stalin himself. One can only imagine what was going through his mind when he realized who was on the other end of the line!

The Soviet leader was calling him personally and asked him if he needed anything - medicine, for instance - but Shostakovich told him he had everything he needed. Then, after a pause, Stalin told him he had been chosen to represent the Soviet Union at the “Cultural and Scientific Congress for world Peace” to be held in New York City.

But somehow, during the conversation, Shostakovich had the presence of mind to point out the inconsistency of his representing a state where much of his music was banned.

A month later, Stalin lifted the ban of the previous year.

But still, when he returned from New York, Shostakovich did not immediately begin to publish works like his “hidden” violin concerto. He wrote politically acceptable works like a cantata extolling Stalin’s reforestation program but focused more on more intimate, less public statements like the string quartet, again some of which he placed in the drawer and didn’t perform or publish.

Thinking writing music inspired by folk-songs would endear him to the folk-loving government officials - music of the people, literally - it turns out his settings of Jewish folk poetry became the victim of international politics when Stalin went up against the United States for backing the formation of the State of Israel.

And so on.

The D-S-C-H Motive
It wasn’t until after Stalin died in March of 1953 that Shostakovich’s creativity found its thaw. Whether he had been working on it before or not, he finished and presented his 10th Symphony which, to Western ears, sounds like a celebration of Stalin’s Death, not to mention Shostakovich’s use of his personal motive, transforming his monogram into musical notes – DSCH. In Russian, the first letter of his last name is an “sh” and in German this would be “sch” so, since in German notation H is actually B-natural and S is E-flat, he turns the musical pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural into a musical signature.

But he had used it earlier in his Violin Concerto.

Most prominently at dramatic points in the demonic scherzo and as the soloist’s cadenza turns from a meditation on fate into a dynamic outburst, exploding into the extroverted finale.

Now, in the 10th Symphony - which includes a quote from his setting of Pushkin's "What is in my name?" - this motive appears triumphantly, as if celebrating the fact that though Stalin is dead, I, DSCH, am still alive! But it's always set at those specific pitches, never transposed interval-for-interval to different pitches.

In the 2nd Movement
In the Violin Concerto it usually appears (and never so extravertedly as in the Symphony) on different pitches, so I'm not sure if its full "significance" had sunk in creatively. Similar to the BACH motive that Bach used so frequently in his own music (and others, ever since, in homage), it is a recognizable shape, whatever the pitches.

in the cadenza before the 4th Movement
In the scherzo, it appears translated a diminished fifth higher (the old "tritone," that devil in music as it was called since long before the days of Bach), and in the cadenza, it's a half-step lower, as part of a series of four-note chords for the solo violin (the cadenza excerpt, by the way, is three separate lines, not a score happening simultaneously).

Later, he would use it to chilling effect in his 8th String Quartet which he dedicated to the "victims of fascism and war," writing it after visiting the bombed-out city of Dresden in 1960, appearing almost constantly amidst a number of self-quotations from many of his earlier works. The autobiographical implications in this motive makes you wonder what the real program is behind this music...

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Anyway, back to the concerto: in 1955, two years after Stalin's death, Oistrakh practically had to coax it out of Shostakovich's desk drawer. Reluctantly, Shostakovich allowed him to work on it, though Oistrakh admitted it took a while for him to “get into it,” as we’d say today. He gave it its world premiere in Leningrad on October 29th, 1955.

It was practically ignored by the critics and was poorly received by the audience.

Oistrakh had already been invited on a tour of the United States and he wanted to take the ‘new’ concerto with him, an opportunity that probably convinced Shostakovich to release it from its desk drawer in the first place.

The second performance of the concerto took place in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos on December 29th, 1955. It was subsequently recorded.

Here is the audio of that historic recording:
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It was met with great enthusiasm from the American audience. During the bows, Mitropoulos held up the score and bowed with it in honor of the absent composer.

Later, Oistrakh returned to give the Moscow premiere where it was again greeted by official silence. Only later did it become a successfully regarded work in the Soviet Union.

Here, by the way, is a video of the finale with Oistrakh and the Berlin State Orchestra conducted by Heinz Fricke. I believe the recording was made in 1967.
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- Dick Strawser

Friday, May 18, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Mussorgsky at an Exhibition

This weekend’s concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony features one of the great sonic experiences of the modern concert hall, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Stuart Malina conducts a program that will include Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Starburst” and also Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with returning guest artist, Karen Gomyo.

Performances are Saturday/8pm and Sunday/3pm at the Forum and Stuart will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

You can hear excerpts from a few different performances and recordings (scroll down) along with some of the artwork that inspired them.

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Poor Mussorgsky.

Think about it: largely self-taught, Modest Mussorgsky had serious doubts about his musical talents (even his friends wondered about him) and had a job he hated (working in a drudge job in the civil service to make ends meet) and became an alcoholic. In fact, his older brother had changed the spelling of their family name, adding the “g” so it wasn’t “Músorsky,” from the Russian word “músor,” meaning “rubbish” (though he sometimes jokingly signed letters to friends “Musoryanin,” garbage-dweller).

Yet he wrote some music that is considered some of the greatest of Russian music – the opera Boris Godunov, the tone-poem Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.

But wouldn’t you know it, for most of the century after his death, we didn’t even know his music the way he wrote it. These pieces were published and performed in versions by other composers!

Boris was re-orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff and later re-orchestrated by several other composers including Dmitri Shostakovich.

It’s hard to say what the original version is of Night on Bald Mountain is because there were so many different attempts to use it (from an opera, there’s a version with choir) – but still, we know it (even today) in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s re-orchestration.

And Pictures is so often heard in symphony concerts in an orchestration by Maurice Ravel, people are surprised when they hear some pianist is performing it and wonder if they’re doing a transcription of it.

It’s only in the past thirty years or so operas like Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina are being heard as he wrote them – well, one of the ways he wrote them. Part of the problem, if the work was ever finished, very often there was no definitive version and often changes were made to an opera (add a scene, drop a scene, put them in a different order), it’s hard to know what the composer really wanted or if his initial idea was really the best one.

Because he was untrained – though Balakirev might argue with you on that one – his friends considered his orchestration odd or weak and most of all very dark. His harmonies (since he never studied harmony – the language of chords and how they function) seemed crude to them and audiences cringed because not only were they unfamiliar, they seemed… well, primitive.

And since Rimsky-Korsakoff was a brilliant orchestrator, he took his friend’s darker music and made it brilliant, too. Even today, I admit I miss the brilliance of certain scenes in the traditional Rimsky versions of Boris or Bald Mountain when I hear them, but there is also a raw power to them that, somehow, Rimsky didn’t understand.

The “problem” with Pictures, unfortunately, was that it was viewed as a piano piece screaming out to be orchestrated!

After all, how could any single pianist make as great a noise as a stageful of a hundred musicians?

Maurice Ravel was not the first one – or the last – to have turned Mussorgsky’s collection of piano pieces into an orchestral tour-de-force. Ravel, like Rimsky (who inspired him), was a brilliant orchestrator and had a knack for turning piano pieces – especially his own – into brilliant orchestral works that didn’t sound like transcriptions.

But I think Ravel succeeds because he realizes Mussorgsky’s original is not intended to be a typical piano piece – and after his version brought Mussorgsky’s name into the concert hall, there was little need for anyone else to bother transcribing them again. And those that do are always compared (unfavorably) to Ravel.

We tend to forget that Mussorgsky’s raw talent had something to do with that.

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Viktor Hartmann
In 1870, Modest Mussorgsky met Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect who had many of the same views about the intrinsic value of the “Russian” in Russian art as the composer had.

By this time, Mussorgsky was in the midst of writing and revising (and re-revising) Boris Godunov which was to be rejected several times between 1867 and 1872. The influential critic, Vladimir Stasov, was interested in both of them and probably had something to do with bringing them together – perhaps with the idea of some collaboration.

Then, in 1873, Hartmann suffered an aneurism and died at the age of 39 and his death greatly saddened Mussorgsky, himself only five years younger.

Stasov helped organize an exhibit of some 400 of Hartmann’s drawings in a memorial retrospective that opened in February of ’74. Mussorgsky, of course, attended and was much affected by seeing his friend’s work.

He began composing a suite of pieces for the piano inspired by ten of these drawings. In June, Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov, “Sounds and ideas float in the air and my scribbling can hardly keep pace with them." In six weeks, it was finished.

He called it “Hartmann.”

I’m not sure when the title became “Pictures at an Exhibition” but despite being written at white-heat in June, 1874, it wasn’t published until 1886 – and Mussorgsky had died in 1881.

And true to form, it appeared in print in a version “corrected” by Rimsky-Korsakoff. It wasn’t until 1931, the 50th Anniversary of the composer’s death, that his original version was made public.

Ravel’s orchestration was made in 1922.

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But it’s not just a collection of pieces, each one describing a different painting.

The work opens with what he called a “Promenade” which recur in different guises between several of the movements. This represents the gallery visitor viewing the paintings, wandering through, looking at and reacting to the different works, perhaps remembering his friend.

Mussorgsky in 1870
As Mussorgsky told Stasov “My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes.”

In some of them, we can hear a reminiscence of (or a reaction to) the picture we just saw and it ends, often inconclusively, with a musical premonition of the next one – walking from picture to picture, looking, thinking, remembering.

Eventually, the promenades disappear – but toward the end, this theme (representing the composer) becomes part of the piece, in the one called “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in the language of the dead)” before being transformed into the triumphant conclusion of the “Great Gate of Kiev.”

In this sense, at least for the composer, the experience becomes interactive – he remembers his friend and essentially joins him through this “language of the dead” and perhaps realizes something like this:

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He whom we have loved and lost
Is no longer where he once was:
He is now wherever we are.
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(To be honest, I have no idea if Mussorgsky knew that quote which I’ve only ever seen once, attributed to St. John Chrysostomos, the Russian orthodox saint who composed the text for the Orthodox Christian liturgy.)

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Most people I know have shared that uncomfortable feeling I had when I first saw copies of the pictures that inspired “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

“That’s it?!”

These stiff, fussy, almost garish drawings inspired this music?

It’s not so much that the pictures themselves fail to “reach” me but that they seem to be so much the opposite of the music they inspired which has that wild, barely containable energy and emotionalism that made Mussorgsky’s music so questionable to his friends.

Music inspired by these drawings should be square-cut and ornate, strict meters and standard phrase patterns, little miniatures of little value – like the salon pieces that were the Standard Operating Procedure of Russian Music before the likes of Rachmaninoff and Skryabin.

And Mussorgsky wrote melodies spiraling along in measures of 5/4 and 7/4 within phrases that didn’t care if they were three measures or five measures or more, unlike the usual classical 4+4+4+4 in 4/4.

But curiously, when I look back at it, those metric irregularities are in the Promenades – Mussorgsky’s self-portraits. The paintings themselves are often more straightforward in the way they’re put together. Maybe in this sense, he’s making a distinction between his own personality and his friend’s?

In a way, it doesn’t surprise me that of those 400 drawings Stasov gathered into his retrospective of Hartmann’s life-work, few of them survive. We’re not even sure which of them might have inspired certain of Mussorgsky’s pieces.

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Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra in the opening of Pictures: starting with the Promenade through the Gnome, the second Promenade and the Old Castle.

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After the initial Promenade with its opening solo line (the individual viewer) which Ravel so brilliantly turned into a trumpet solo, we meet a gnasty little Gnome. This was presumably a costume design; the original is lost.

The Old Castle by Viktor Hartmann
“The Old Castle” is based on a watercolor of an Italian palazzo. Stasov added the comment about “before which a troubadour sings a song” which, again brilliantly, Ravel turned into a solo for the saxophone.

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Ion Marin & the National Philharmonic of Russia from the promenades with “Tuileries,” “Bydlo,” the “Ballet of the Chicks,” “Goldenberg & Shmuyle” to “The Marketplace at Limoges.”

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In “Tuileries,” with its comment “dispute between children at play,” we are in Paris, in the gardens of the palace – perhaps the children are arguing over who gets to play with the toy next before the run off down a path and out of sight.

“Bydlo” or the “Polish Ox Cart” comes rumbling up from the distance and passes by with the power of a slow-moving train before receding into the distance. In Mussorgsky’s original, it begins loud like it’s right in front of us but Rimsky-Korsakoff (and Ravel who used his edition) starts it softly, in the distance. Yeah, I have to admit, that is an improvement…

"Chicks in their Shells"
The “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (or “of the Unhatched Chicks”) wins the prize for cuteness though it’s also fiendishly difficult to play (in both piano and orchestral versions). The inspiration is a costume drawing for a production of a ballet called “Trilby” (after the evil magician) with music by Julius Gerber and choreography by the great Marius Petipa. Hartmann did the décor. This ballet was originally for canary chicks to be danced by children.

Considering Ravel’s love for mechanical toys and clock-work mechanisms (his father, after all, was an inventor and engineer), this is, however daintily, one of the more brilliant successes in the orchestral version: listen to the percussion sounds imitating the turning of wheels and gadgets in a mechanical doll. As Ravel held up a mechanical toy bird (was it named "Zaza"?), he said to a friend, “Listen – I can hear its heart beating!”

The next picture may actually be a pair of pictures or a conflation of a whole series of pictures. Mussorgsky called it “Two Jews.” Stasov added the distinction “One Rich, One Poor.” I think it was Rimsky who described the rich one as “Samuel Goldenberg” and the poor one as “Shmuyle.”

Hartmann spent a while traveling through Poland – for instance, the earlier ox-cart is specifically a Polish one – and around the town of Sandomierz where he painted a number of portraits of its Jewish inhabitants. While some of these survive, none of them is specifically identified as Goldenberg or Shmuyle.

In Mussorgsky’s musical portrait, the rich one is evidently deep in prayer, his long melodic line full of exotic inflections that bring to mind the singing of a cantor. (I loved how, in the middle of the first rehearsal last night, Stuart stopped the orchestra to work out a detail in this passage and said, “and here – this is the mother that made my grandmother cry.”)

The poor Jew is nervous, perhaps a beggar nattering at the crowd for alms. Ravel turns him into a muted trumpet – again, brilliant. You can imagine the rich one passing him in the street for, at one point, we hear their music together.

Back to France for the marketplace at Limoges, a city in central France. Stasov describes this one as “French women quarreling violently in the market.” Mussorgsky had originally added several lines of French text describing the women’s discussion as “the great news” and then withdrew it. This is a great chaotic scene where fragments of different voices are flapping about like a gathering of gossips enjoying the latest news and adding their two cents. At the end, I can imagine seeing nothing but wagging tongues and fingers. Today, we might call it “The View.”

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This is from Claudio Abbado’s recording with the London Symphony, playing “The Catacombs” and “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua.” The artwork is actually Viktor Hartmann’s watercolor.

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Limoges collapses into the next picture – the shock of two contrasting paintings side by side. From the lively market place with its gossips, we suddenly find ourselves in the dark catacombs underneath the streets of Paris. In the original painting, Hartmann is one of the men exploring by the light of a lantern. In his manuscript, Mussorgsky wrote this in the margin: “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within." The second section, perhaps from a second painting, is inscribed in Latin “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in the Language of the Dead)” and we hear the Promenade Theme (the viewer) now communing with the dead artist in the music.

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Here is Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar (Youth) Orchestra of Venezuela in a concert in Salzburg in 2008 with the conclusion of Pictures at an Exhbition: Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev.

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The last two are perhaps the most famous, by themselves, and the most brilliant. Rare is the pianist who can bring these off without bringing the instrument to its knees.

Clock: Baba Yaga's Hut on Fowl's Legs
Hartmann designed an intricate, ornate clock inspired by the Russian fairy-tale of Baba Yaga, the old witch who flew through the skies in her mortar-and-pestle (not just a broom), collecting the souls of children, and who lived in a strange hut in the midst of the dark forest (but not made out of candy like the one in Hansel & Gretel). This hut was built on chicken’s legs: when an unwanted visitor, the hut would rise up on its legs and the visitor could not enter. Somehow, that’s supposed to be frightening.

Actually, I think Hartmann’s clock, though representative of the fairy tale, is also a bit silly, compared to the music. The music is, without doubt, frightening. I can’t imagine Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird without it.

Mussorgsky also adds the final detail: Baba Yaga flying away in her mortar.

Apparently she slams into the Great Gate of Kiev because there isn’t even a pause to catch your breath. The sudden change from horror to grandeur is breath-taking.

The Bogatyr Gate, Kiev
The “Bogatyr Gate in the City of Kiev” was a drawing Hartmann made for a proposed archway (like those arches the Romans built to celebrate great events) to mark the spot where Tsar Alexander II survived an assassination attempt (only narrowly – later, he would not be so lucky). For some reason, the gate was never completed which was a disappointment to Hartmann who thought his design was some of his best work.

The music this inspired in Mussorgsky, however, may well be some of his best work, certainly some of his grandest, considering the Coronation Scene in Boris (though, originally, his was a very dark concept given its treacherous underpinnings and grim historical outcome).

Russians love their bells – there is a whole system of “bell-ringing” that is uniquely their own – and you hear this reflected in both Boris Godunov’s Coronation Scene and the ending of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” as the finale of Pictures came to be known. Even on the piano, it’s a very impressive sound but who can stand up against a whole orchestra bashing away on these great tolling chords, the chimes chiming and the gong bombulating to reverberate through your memory down into the future?

1874 was a banner year for Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov was finally performed, he was beginning work on a collaboration with his friends of "The Russian Five," an opera that was a kind of Russian answer to Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung called Mlada (which was to include another choral version of his Night on Bald Mountain), and he started another vast operatic project, Khovanshchina, about the uncertain times before Peter the Great became Tsar of Russia.

But already his friends of "The Might Handful" - the Russian Five that included Mily Balakirev, its guiding light and the only person Mussorgsky ever knew as a teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, Alexander Borodin, and the usually forgotten and easily overlooked Cesar Cui - was beginning to disintegrate - "soulless traitors," he called them, complaining to Stasov.

While he had been something of a dandy as a young man and as a cadet before he met Balakirev when he was 19, the teenaged military life fostered a life of partying and heavy drinking. Through most of his life he was able to withstand the temptations, despite his career beginning to take off and perhaps because of his dead-end job and a sense of abandonment by his friends, he took to drinking again and became an alcoholic. He was able to keep his job only because his music-loving superior was willing to overlook his frequent absences and illnesses.

Repin's portrait
But in 1880, only six years after composing his Pictures, he lost his job and was reduced to begging from his friends. He suffered four seizures in quick succession and died in 1881 in a hospital a week after his 42nd birthday. The famous portrait of him by Ilya Repin (see left) was painted just a few days earlier.

It is a very haunting reminder of the delicate balance between art and reality.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Leshnoff's "Starburst"

This weekend marks the last Masterworks concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s current season when Stuart Malina conducts the orchestra and guest violinist Karen Gomyo makes a return appearance playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto. The program opens with a recent work by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (see photo, left) and concludes with one of those great sonic experiences: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concerts are Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will also be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Unfortunately, Stuart’s schedule turned out to be more hectic than usual between concerts, so we were never able to find time to sit down and chat about the program.

But I remember two, maybe almost three years ago, when I would ask Stuart about, say, Jennifer Higdon’s just premiered Violin Concerto, he was asking me if I’d heard anything by Jonathan Leshnoff. I said “No, I’m not familiar with his name.” Then Stuart began a very enthusiastic description of the music he’d found.

I figured it wouldn’t be long till we’d hear something by Leshnoff on a Harrisburg Symphony program.

So this concert will begin with Leshnoff’s “Starburst,” a work the Baltimore Symphony premiered in the spring of 2010.

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“Co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas Symphony Orchestra and the Fundación Orquesta de Extremadura (Spain), Jonathan Leshnoff’s Starburst receives its world premiere at these concerts. An associate professor of music at Towson University and a composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Leshnoff is also a graduate of Johns Hopkins, the Peabody Institute and the University of Maryland. His energetic Starburst begins with a lively rhythm in the upper woodwinds and strings, and as the title implies, builds upon the excitement and vigor from the orchestra, before ending with an exhilarating musical explosion.” – the Baltimore Symphony website
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With its performance in Kansas City to start their 2010-2011 Season, the composer was interviewed by the city’s on-line journal of the Arts, You can read the interview here.

Just two quotes: Regarding critics’ comments about it being “intensely driven” and “full of energy and anticipation,” Leshnoff responded, “Energy-filled music was exactly the idea I wanted to convey.”

Concerning many people’s feeling that “new music” is often hard to understand on first hearing, he said, “I try to bring some centricity to music. I write what I want to hear. A lot of people enjoy my orchestration and harmony. I want to connect with the audience so they enjoy my music, too.”

Two recordings on the Naxos label feature works by Jonathan Leshnoff, including his Symphony No. 1, a violin concerto, a string quartet and the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola.

When I had a fly-by encounter with Stuart after last Sunday’s Youth Orchestra program (his daughter is, by the way, principal cellist of the Junior String Orchestra) – he was home briefly between conducting Porgy and Bess in Delaware last week and concerts earlier this week in Florida – he mentioned that Jonathan will be in town for the performance and joining him for the post-concert talk-back chat (if you’re not familiar with these, it’s really worth hanging around after the performance, if for no other reason than to let the traffic clear out a bit).

Stuart also mentioned he feels Leshnoff’s music is in much the same vein as Jennifer Higdon’s – direct and appealing (without pandering). Pointing out that Higdon (whose Blue Cathedral and "Percussion Concerto" were performed here to considerable popular acclaim) and Kevin Puts (whose 2nd Symphony was well received here two years ago) have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music since then, the closest thing along with Grammys that classical musicians in this country receive that's close to national recognition, he expects similar good things to be happening in Leshnoff’s career.

Smiling, he concluded, “It’s always nice to know you’re backing a winning horse!” And then, giving me a hearty thumbs-up, he waved and rushed off.

- Dick Strawser

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra: The Moldau

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Tara Simoncic, will perform selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake,” Bedrich Smetana’s musical portrait of a river called “The Moldau,” the Farandole from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne,” the berceuse and finale from Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Firebird,” and the first movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Amanda Ryan, the soloist.

The Junior Youth Symphony, conducted by Krista Kriel, will perform music from John Rutter’s “Suite for Strings” and the 1st Movement of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony.

The performance is this Sunday afternoon at 3pm and it’s at the Hershey High School (not the Forum as you might usually expect). Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.

Smetana’s “The Moldau” is a concert favorite and probably instantly recognizable even if you might not remember the name or its composer. It’s part of a cycle of tone poems by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana describing the landscapes and history of his native country, The Moldau is actually a river that bubbles up from a spring in the distant countryside, flows from a stream into a river past fields and forests and finally flows through the capital city of Prague with its castles and great bridges.

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Here's a performance with a German youth orchestra, from the Belvedere High School for Music in Weimar, playing the piece in their spring concert last year.

The Moldau River flowing through Prague
At the time this music was composed, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was a province of the Austrian Empire though it had a proud history as an independent kingdom on its own for centuries.

Many Viennese, in particular, considered Prague a provincial town (unlike the great intellectual and cultural center it used to be) and thought people from Bohemia were bumpkins (to use a polite term). Believe it or not, Viennese musicians had little regard for Bohemian (or Czech) composers like Smetana and Antonin Dvořák (best known for his “New World Symphony”) and they both had trouble getting their music performed there. It wasn’t until Dvořák received an endorsement from Johannes Brahms who was not Viennese, but a German from Hamburg who’d moved to the Imperial Capital of Austria only 14 years earlier.

Smetana is generally credited with being the first internationally recognized Czech composer but actually, Dvořák’s reputation received wider recognition sooner primarily because of Brahms’ backing. Smetana's music didn't have the clout of some major figure like Brahms behind it, to overcome this attitude toward music from the provinces. Smetana was considered a major composer in his native Bohemia; Dvořák's fame only came later.

We usually think of Smetana and Dvořák as contemporaries but technically Smetana was a generation earlier, born in 1824 and Dvořák 17 years later. That may not seem significant, but you have to consider the events of Czech history at the time to appreciate it.

Smetana was 24 in 1848 when there was a popular uprising in Prague when the Czech people wanted independence from the Austrian Empire. There were similar revolutions all across what we now know as Germany and in various parts of the Austrian Empire then – similar to what we saw last year in the Middle East, uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and others which we called “The Arab Spring.” Revolutions in Prague and Budapest in 1848 were called “The Springtime of Peoples,” because various ethnic groups under the Germanic Austrian Empire wanted their own cultural and political recognition.

Dvořák, by the way, was only 7 years old at the time. It would not have been such a decisive event in his growing up. In fact, when he started composing, Dvořák's music sounded more like his favorite composers at the time - first Wagner, then Brahms. Only later did he start taking his Bohemian roots seriously. But even in the 1870s and '80s, it was not easy to be heard in Vienna. And it was difficult to get to the wider world if you couldn't make it in Vienna...

Anyway, this political activity in the late-1840s gave rise to an interest in creating a musical voice for Bohemia. Rather than writing symphonies like Germans or Austrians might, and sounding German in the process, Smetana wanted to create a melodic style that reflected the rhythms and nuances of Czech speech, to use the rhythms of folk dances rather than the abstract classical patterns and to base his music on Czech folk songs, embedding what would be a familiar song to a Czech person into his concert music.

One of his most famous works is the opera, The Bartered Bride, about the love of a pair of peasants living in a village, far removed from aristocrats or the ancient gods that populated so many operas before.

His cycle of six tone poems called “Má Vlast” or “My Fatherland,” composed in the mid-to-late-1870s, incorporates, among other melodies, the old Bohemian hymn, “Ye Warriors of God” which every Czech would’ve heard as a call-to-arms.

The first of these musical poems describes the great castle overlooking Prague, the home of its great kings from the 10th to the 15th Centuries (one of whom was Good King Wenceslas), a reminder of the nation’s glorious past. Other movements describe the story of Sarka, a maiden-warrior (or amazon) who would be one of the Avengers if the characters had been created in modern-day Prague. The last two depict particular battles in Bohemia’s past, ending with a reference to the death of a vast army of Czech patriots who will rise from their sleep to help their country in its gravest hour, thundering out the hymn-tune “Ye Warriors of God.”

How political is that?

No wonder the people of Vienna were uncomfortable with this music – they were being viewed as the enemy!

The second of these poems, however, is a pastoral interlude, celebrating the Bohemian landscape, especially the river that winds through Prague (see photo above). You can hear the burbling of the water coming up from the spring at the very opening of the piece, and how it grows and grows, flowing along, becoming a bigger stream and an even grander river.

The theme Smetana used – here in the key of E Minor – is based on an old Italian song often called “La Mantovana” or “The Woman from Mantua,” though I’m not sure if Smetana was aware of that or if it has any significance to him or the Czech people. It is, however, familiar to Czechs as a folk song (when sung in the major key) as “The Cat Crawls Through the Hole.” It may have no real significance beyond its being recognized as a Czech song, not a German one. While the tune was used by several composers from the 17th Century on, to modern ears it sounds like Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel.

Around the time he was composing this, Smetana was dealing with the musical politics in Prague where he was identified as a "musical progressivist" and linked with the contemporary styles of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose music was not entirely popular with more conservative-minded audiences. This political in-fighting became more pronounced in the early-1870s and in 1874, his health declining, Smetana resigned from the opera house where he'd been conductor and director.

He also started exhibiting symptoms of deafness. By the time he completed "The Moldau" in December of 1874, he was almost completely deaf. You wouldn't know that from listening to the music!

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By the way, I’ve used the word “tone poem” which can also be called “symphonic poem,” and that means it’s a piece of music inspired by or based on something else, not originally musical. In this case, Smetana is creating a musical interpretation of a river, depicting the flowing waters of the river in the flowing style of the music. When we reach the city of Prague, the music has a certain grand sound about it that is different from the music of the countryside – great, stately music, almost a processional, compared to the gentle, rustic folk dances we associate with the people dancing along its banks in the countryside.

“Tone Poems” are usually single movement works that can tell stories – one of the most famous is Paul Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made famous as the music for the Walt Disney film, Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the poor apprentice who turns a broom into his helper but then can’t get him to stop.

Recently, the Harrisburg Symphony performed Richard Strauss’ huge “tone poem,” Don Quixote which tells the story of Cervantes’ knight and you can hear the music imitating the sheep he attacks (thinking they’re an invading army) or when he’s trounced off his horse by a windmill (thinking it’s a giant he must attack).

The “story” the music tells can almost be like a film-score (when I was listening to Don Quixote, it reminded me of music for a film without the film) or it can just suggest a character, his personality, the setting or the events without being so literal.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony – technically not a ‘tone poem’ – has subtitles for each of its five movements, like “Pleasant Impressions upon Arriving in the Countryside,” and “Scene by the Brook” complete with the imitation of bird-calls near the end. These are followed by a “Merry Gathering of Countryfolk,” a literal depiction of a thunderstorm and finally the “Song of Thanksgiving after the Storm.”

You can hear the Harrisburg Symphony play Beethoven’s “Pastoral” a year from now, at the end of their next season.

- Dick Strawser