Sunday, February 21, 2016

February Masterworks: "You Made Me Want to Get Up and Dance"

Since some of you were asking, the Patriot-News is no longer publishing reviews and there's no longer a Sunday Edition of the Carlisle Sentinel to publish one in, so Dick Strawser has offered his own thoughts on Saturday night's concert with something he calls "in lieu of a review."

This is where we'd put a link to the outside source of a review, so read it, posted at Strawser's blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.

Without a soloist on the program to play a concerto, this concert contains numerous solo parts within the orchestra in each piece: all of them working together "with other players not so highlighted (even briefly) whose playing makes you forget what a solid support they create in turning almost 90 players into a cohesive brilliant whole, making these very difficult string parts and wind and percussion ensembles seem like something you do every day."

And if you missed Saturday night's performance, don't forget Sunday afternoon's at 3pm at the Forum - Truman Bullard offers his pre-concert talk in the hall, starting at 2:00.

Don't forget, too, the Youth Orchestra takes over the Forum stage Monday night at 7:00 with the Junior Strings for their Mid-Winter Concert conducted by Greg Woodbridge which includes the Overture to Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Wasps," the Suite from Faure's Pelleas & Melisande, and Smetana's beloved portrait of a river, "The Moldau."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February Masterworks: Love Among the Puppets

Stravinsky & Nijinsky (as Petrushka) in 1911
This weekend's concerts bring three orchestral showcases to the Forum – the lively Mid-Winter Fair of Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, Ravel's evocation of a sultry summer night in Spain, his Rapsodie espagnole which ends with another festival, and the celebration of love's joy (and love's pain) in the Suite from Richard Strauss' complicated comedy, Der Rosenkavalier, “The Knight of the Rose” (which you can read more about in this earlier post, here).

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in two performances – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – each one preceded an hour earlier by a pre-concert talk.

(In case you missed the news on Monday with all the fuss about who won Grammy Awards and all, Augustin Hadelich, who's appeared as soloist with the HSO on three separate occasions, won a Grammy for "Best Classical Instrumental Solo" for his new recording of the Violin Concerto by Henri Dutilleux. You can read about it, here!)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

With all the folk-pageantry swirling around in the two outer scenes, it's sometimes easy to overlook the core of the story which takes place in the middle two scenes.

Basically, Petrushka is one of those “boy-loves-girl / girl-loves-exotic-stranger / exotic-stranger-kills-boy” stories where Petrushka, a “sad-sack” of an introvert, loves the Ballerina who only has eyes for the dashing Moor.

Oh – and they're all puppets.

V.E. Makovsky's "Village Puppet Show" (1908)
Puppets have been part of our theatrical imagination for centuries – especially Punch & Judy in England, Pulcinella in Italy – and the idea of a puppet who could have the soul of a human isn't lost on someone who grew up watching Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Here is Igor Stravinsky's version of the story, from a Mosfilm DVD (I believe 1992) recreating the original 1911 sets and costumes and, I presume, most of Fokine's original choreography. While I can find little information about the dancers on-line, Andris Liepa is Petrushka and also the director of this film version (staged for the film, not a filmed stage performance) with the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Andrey Chistiakov conducting the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra.

Tableau #1 – Shrovetide Fair

It is the Russian version of Carnival or Madri Gras, the mid-winter Shrovetide Fair (Maslyenitsa), in which people from towns around come and partake of the festivities. In addition to drunken revelers (it is, after all, Mardi Gras) and a barker touting the wonders to be seen inside his booth, two rival buskers begin to dance at 1:57, one to a Russian folksong (“Toward evening, in rainy Autumn”) while playing a triangle (in the score, Stravinsky writes the organ-grinder's part into the flutes and clarinets) and the other to a bawdy French dance-hall song (“A woman with a wooden leg”). The activity of the fair erupts around them, sweeping them aside, until (at 4:50) drummers draw everyone's attention to the puppet theater where (at 5:00) we first see “The Charlatan” who, it turns out (at 5:30) plays a mean flute!

Then he presents his puppets, all hanging on hooks in their respective boxes: from left to right, the fearsome and exotic Moor, a beautiful Ballerina, and, finally, a poor, awkward, sad-faced clown named Petrushka.

At 6:51, he's brought them to life and they begin the “Russian Dance,” based on two more Russian folksongs (“A Linden Tree in the field” and “St. John's Eve”).

More drums mark the transition to the second scene.

= = = = =
Tableau #2

Petrushka is tossed back into his box. We see it from his perspective as a kind of cell where he lives, the original scenery by Benois including an image of the All-Powerful Charlatan like a religious icon overseeing his every moment.

Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911
At 0:16, we hear the “signature sound” associated with Petrushka played on two clarinets – this became so famous it's actually known as “The Petrushka Chord,” a C Major chord superimposed with an F-sharp Major chord, two chords that in traditional classical music are about as far away harmonically as two chords could be! You'll hear it throughout the ballet, always in reference to Petrushka himself.

At 1:01, Petrushka gestures wildly at the – what, injustice of his being cooped up in a box? At being only a puppet and not a real boy with real human emotions?

Also, speaking of sound, note the prominent piano part through this scene. Stravinsky originally considered using this story as a work for piano and orchestra, a “concert piece” – but when he played his sketches for his friend Diaghilev (who'd just presented his first ballet, The Firebird and who was looking forward to a second ballet, the impresario urged him to turn it into a full ballet.

Petrushka is full of self-pity and the music allows us into his thoughts, apparently: from dainty ballet-like music, thinking of the Ballerina, we move on (at 1:57) to the exotic music of the Charlatan.

Petrushka hardly seems a great role for a dashing ballet dancer like the great Vaclav Nijinsky or the more recent Rudolf Nureyev, but the physical control of maintaining the loose body and limp arms of a puppet full of sawdust is a physical challenge all its own.

Then, at 2:40, the Ballerina slips into Petrushka's cell. He then protests his love and tries to impress her with his dancing. But, by 3:10, she has been so frightened by his excitement, she dashes from the room, leaving him to his dejection and rage. The sudden “carnival music” at 3:58 means he must catch a glimpse of the outside world just as, once again, we hear the drums, drawing our attention to the next scene.

= = = = =
Tableau #3 & the beginning of Tableau #4

Here, we find ourselves in the more luxurious box where the Moor lives. Unlike Petrushka, he seems quite self-satisfied though the appearance of a coconut confuses him. Eventually, he decides if he can't figure out what it's for, he must bow down and (at 2:20) worship it.

At 2:40, the Ballerina pays him a visit, dancing while playing a wicked trumpet solo. At 3:27, they dance together (Petrushka apparently listening from the box-next-door). Notice how her dance theme in the trumpet and flute contrasts with the Oriental-sounding, low-register melody in a seemingly independent tempo in the English horn and cymbals, beginning at 4:12 and again at 5:02.

At 5:33, we hear Petrushka's chord again and he breaks into the Moor's box, intent on rescuing the Ballerina. A chase ensues (at 5:50) but the Moor proves to be too strong for Petrushka as he chases the clown out of the box. (At least that's the original stage direction which has some importance for the ending of the next scene: for some reason, here, the Moor tosses Petrushka out the door and sits back to enjoy some us-time with the Ballerina. I prefer, dramatically, the Moor, scimitar raised, chasing Petrushka out into the fair. You'll see why when it comes to the next scene...)

The drums once again mark the transition to the next and final scene which, due to some bad editing, continues in this clip.

Once again, at 6:38, we are back at the Fair (outside the puppets' boxes), and we see drunken coachmen and several nursemaids (the young ladies in pastel-colored coats) and at 7:44 we hear another Russian folksong in the oboe, “Down the Petersky Road.” Like most folksongs, it defies what Europeans call “development.” Stravinsky shows what a Russian composer can do to get some mileage out of a such a tune: you repeat it over and over but each time change the accompaniment and add even more brilliant colors in the orchestration.

At 9:45, the coachmen and the nursemaids are interrupted by... well, wait for the next clip, but while you're in between clips, listen to this recording of that folksong, “Down the Petersky Road,” sung here by the great Russian bass, Fyodor Chaliapin. He was a friend of Stravinsky's father, a leading bass at the Mariinsky Opera – one can imagine Stravinsky as a boy perhaps hearing these guys sing this popular folksong about a drunken coachman. Anyway, this recording was made in 1910, the year Stravinsky began composing Petrushka. What's that, like two degrees of separation?

= = = = =
Tableau #4 – Evening at the Shrovetide Fair (continuing with the Entrance of... the Bear)

Yes, that's right, the dancers are interrupted by a bear, the typical “dancing bear” of Russian folk festivals, lumbering in with his handler – the bear is represented by the tuba solo at 0:15-0:45. (There's a story from a rehearsal – I forget which orchestra – when Stravinsky was conducting and stopped the tuba player after this brief solo and asked him to play it again; then, without comment asked him to play it again. Finally, the tuba player stopped and asked, “Maestro, could you please tell me what I'm doing wrong?” Stravinsky told him “Nothing – I've just never heard it played so beautifully.” True or not, it's a nice story.) 

The bear lumbers off and by 0:52 the bustle of the crowd returns as more revelers join the scene with a return to the Peterskaya Road song with coachmen (here in blue or red coats) and the grooms (in white shirts and brown vests) with the nursemaids. While the music reaches a joyous climax, everything is once again interrupted, this time (at 4:20) by mummers and a nasty-looking demon (at 4:35), no doubt, reminding everyone that Lent begins the next day. At 5:20, the rowdiness resumes.

But then something happens at 5:50 – a long trumpet tone alerts us to some activity back at the Charlatan's puppet theater. At 6:03, Petrushka erupts from the tent, chased by the scimitar-wielding Moor pursued by the distraught Ballerina. (This means that the earlier part of this scene was happening simultaneously with the events of the scene in the Moor's room, since the chase that ended Scene III continues now at the end of Scene IV.)

At 6:25, the Moor fells the poor clown with a single blow (the Petrushka Chord practically strangled in the clarinets). As Petrushka breathes his last, the crowd (and the police) gather round as the Charlatan comes out to see what's going on. At 8:05, after some incantations, he picks up the body but it is only a rag-doll puppet stuffed with sawdust which he tosses around to reassure the crowd (and the police).

The people disperse, enough excitement for one night, and the Charlatan drags the puppet back to his tent. But at 8:49, he hears the trumpet call associated with Petrushka and looks around, then sees Petrushka – or his ghost? – on top of the little theater, making wild, angry gestures (shaking his fists, thumbing his nose) at the futility of it all. The Charlatan runs away, not sure what he has seen is real or not.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Though Stravinsky crafted a suite from his first ballet, The Firebird, he did not bother with Petrushka which is often played in the concert hall intact (or nearly intact with a few cuts in the final moments). But in 1947, largely for copyright reasons, he revised the score, reducing the instrumentation (one less woodwind, each; deleted the two cornets but had three instead of two trumpets; reworked the percussion section a little; deleted one of two harps), giving the piano a bit more to do, and simplifying a few of the metric details.

The film above uses the original scoring (though with some adaptations), but if you'd rather hear the 1947 version, here's a concert video. The Harrisburg Symphony will play this version at this weekend's concerts.

Here, Andris Nelsons, before having taken on his new position at the Boston Symphony, conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2011. (The performance ends at 34:39.)

There was another "version" of Petrushka Stravinsky made in 1921. Remember it had originally been conceived as a piece for piano and orchestra? Well, the composer took three “excerpts” from the complete ballet and turned them into a solo piano piece for Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. He used the Russian Dance from the end of Scene I, material from the 2nd Scene with Petrushka alone in his cell, and then chunks of the final scene to conclude, including an all-out transcription of the Dance of the Coachmen and the Nursemaids written on not two but four staves – along with a skin-ripping glissando to conclude.

Here is Artur Rubinstein in this live recording made at a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1961.

I saw Rubinstein play an all-Chopin program in the mid-'70s when he was in his late-80s (and using Villa-Lobos' Polichinelle as an encore). In the late-'70s, I was brash enough to work on these “Three Movements from Petrushka” though I balked at performing them in public because I didn't have the stamina to get through the final 90 seconds... I know Rubinstein had played the piece but had never recorded it. So it was a delight to discover on YouTube a recording from this Carnegie Hall concert I'd never heard before.

And there's another two degrees of separation. 

- Dick Strawser

Monday, February 15, 2016

HSO Soloist Augustin Hadelich Wins a Grammy Award

Move over, Kanye West.

Augustin Hadelich
There are Grammy Awards for Classical Music, too, and a violinist who has appeared as a soloist with the HSO on three separate occasions has won the 2016 Grammy for "Best Classical Instrumental Solo" [sic] in his recording of Henri Dutilleux's violin concerto, L'Arbre des songes or "The Tree of Dreams," with Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony on their own media label distributed by Naxos.

Congratulations, Augustin Hadelich!

He appeared here most recently last February - remember the snowstorm that weekend? - when he played Eduard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. You may have been one of the many people who missed that concert.

In previous appearances in Harrisburg, he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto in January, 2010 and before that, Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto, the one known as "The Turkish."

He has previously recorded the Sibelius Violin Concerto which he paired with a more recent concerto by the English composer, Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths, which created a good deal of buzz when it was released. Hannu Lintu conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on this Avie recording. You can hear the gorgeous opening movement of the Adès here; the striking slow movement, a chaconne, here; and the dance-like finale, here.

Both the Adès and this Grammy-winning recording of the Dutilleux, both favorites of mine, are the best performances of the work I've heard (and I have three other recordings of the Dutilleux). So I highly recommend listening to these.

It is available for purchase on-line through Amazon, here. or through the Naxos Direct website, here.

The award is especially fitting in this year celebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the birth of French composer Henri Dutilleux. 

So, our congratulations to Augustin Hadelich on winning his first Grammy! And we look forward to hearing him again, soon, and to more Grammys in the future!

- Dick Strawser

February Masterworks: The Knight of the Rose

It WILL be warmer this weekend – and presumably snow- and ice-free – even though the sound-spectacular the orchestra has planned for you should warm up the coldest winter. Fittingly, following one of the coldest Valentine's Days in recent memory, two of the three works are love stories and in the middle, a romantic get-away to a festive night in Spain.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in the ballet Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, and an instrumental concert suite from one of the great operas by Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier.

The performances are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.

Incidentally, Stravinsky's ballet (you can read about it here and see a complete performance of the ballet) was premiered in 1911 in Paris, though he'd started work on it the year before.

Ravel wrote his rhapsody between 1907 and 1908 when it was premiered in Paris.

Strauss began working on his opera in 1909 and finished it in 1911 in time for its premiere in Dresden.

Stravinsky's ballet depicts a moment-in-time in the lives of three puppets during a mid-winter fair in Old Russia, the equivalent of a Carnaval celebration (think Mardi Gras with snow).

Ravel expanded a piano piece based on a Spanish dance he'd composed in 1895 to create his orchestral rhapsody in four movements, ending with the celebration of a fair.

Strauss's comic opera - the title, btw, means literally The Knight of the Rose - is set in the world of 18th Century Viennese aristocratic splendor back in the days of Mozart's childhood when Maria Therese was Empress) and celebrates the impending marriage of a young woman named Sophie to the lecherous old Baron Ochs – but wait, there's more!

In this post, let's begin with the last piece on the program.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

(The Mahler Youth Orchestra conducted by Danielle Gatti, recorded at the BBC Proms in 2012)

It's not uncommon for composers to craft “suites” of excerpts from their operas and there might be several reasons for them to do so.

Mozart, arranging wind octet suites from his operas, wanted to make sure he did it himself before someone else got to it in the centuries before there were copyright laws, otherwise he'd lose out on any money that could be gained from having it published.

Others did it so their music could be heard in a variety of “formats” – both in the concert hall as well as the opera house. In many cases, it was a kind of marketing ploy that, hearing it in a concert, might entice a listener to buy a ticket to see the opera.

Franz Liszt wrote and improvised variations and “paraphrases” for solo piano of some of the current operatic hits because his audiences would recognize the tunes.

Richard Strauss, 1910
For Strauss, it was primarily about the money, at least in this case. In 1925, years after Rosenkavalier had become an international hit, he was asked to “be involved in” creating a suite to accompany a silent film of the opera (there's an interesting concept, in itself). They paid him $10,000 – think about it in 1920s terms, not today's monetary values – even though he felt a certain trepidation about the venture's success which turned out to be very real.

Later, in 1944, conductor Artur Rodzinski, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “presumably” arranged a suite which, because of the war, didn't have to pay Strauss anything – with World War II curtailing any income from his foreign publications and performances, Strauss was in a financial bind and, after the war ended, sanctioned the publication of the suite to bring in much needed money.

While much of the music will be familiar to fans of the original opera, following the story-line is kind of pointless, especially in the middle of the suite where things tend to jump around between the three acts. But it helps, I think, to know the gist of the plot. Hang on to your powdered wig...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The curtain rises on the palace of a powerful Field Marshal – to be more accurate, it rises on the bedroom of his wife, known by her title as the Marschallin. To be even more accurate, it rises on the Marschallin's bedroom after she has awakened from a night of love-making with someone who is not the Field Marshal. The young man in question is the 17-year-old Count Octavian. The Marschallin is a woman in her late-40s.

To make it more confusing, as was common in the previous centuries, in order for a young male character to sound like a young man and not a more mature one, women often took these roles which were called “pants roles.” Another horny teen-ager, Cherubino, in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is one famous example. Octavian is probably the most substantial of these roles. Now, yes, a 17-year-old boy's voice would certainly have changed, but a mezzo is more believable in sound than a full-grown tenor. So bear with it – it has some interesting consequences, too, which I think were all part of the comedic plan.

When the Marschallin's relative, Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, arrives unexpectedly, she was afraid it was her husband; Octavian hides himself, then returns disguised as a maid called Mariandel (get it? – a woman singing the role of a young boy now disguised as a woman?). It seems the Baron, a pompous old bore who takes the opportunity to flirt with Mariandel, is getting engaged to Sophie von Faninal, a young woman of a wealthy merchant family. The Baron needs someone to present his symbolic silver rose to his bride-to-be. The Marschallin has just the candidate – her young friend, Count Octavian.

They are in turn interrupted by the traditional “morning levée” in which various elements of the day are planned, from menus to auditioning an Italian singer for the evening's entertainment, while Ochs works out details with the Marschallin's lawyer. Among the suppliants, looking for a financial donation, are two Italian scandal-mongers, Valzacchi and Annina who then latch onto Ochs. And, last but not least, her hairdresser. When everybody leaves, the Marschallin is looking in her mirror and, thinking about her own early marriage and Ochs marrying the young Sophie, realizes that, as she gets older, it won't be long before her lover Octavian will leave for somebody younger.

Octavian, now in his own clothes, returns but leaves without her giving him the silver rose: the Marschallin sends her page, Mohammet (a young African boy), after him.

Act II - Presentation of the Rose

In the second act, we are in the magnificent main hall of Sophie's father's splendid new home, suitably ostentatious for a successful merchant who's just been elevated to the nobility. There is a great deal of excitement because Sophie's husband-to-be is sending over a silver rose to formalize their engagement. Octavian, dressed all in silver, arrives to present the rose and the two young people immediately fall in love. The Baron arrives in conversation with Herr von Faninal, discussing terms of the engagement, when the old man, overweight and smug, examines his future bride as if he were buying a prize cow.

Octavian is incensed, the scene becomes more chaotic (the Baron's servants chasing after the Faninal maids), and when the Baron accuses Octavian's family of having an illegitimate child (he's noted the family resemblance between Octavian and Mariandel), Octavian threatens the blustering old fool to a duel. Receiving a very slight wound on his arm, the Baron cries bloody murder and collapses onto the sofa as Octavian is thrown out of the house.

Left alone, Ochs meditates on his wound, finds Faninal's port of excellent quality which revives him sufficiently when the Italian schemers arrive – Valzacchi and Annina – with a letter that “Mariandel” has agreed to meet the Baron for dinner. Now fully revived, Ochs dances a lively waltz – but forgets to tip Annina for her efforts.

In the third act, we are in a seedy hotel where Valzacchi and Annina have arranged the Baron's tryst. Only by now they've switched sides, out for revenge on the odious Ochs who shortly arrives with “Mariandel” on his arm. Annina, disguised, rushes in with a barrage of children, claiming Ochs is her husband and the father of her children. When the police arrive, Ochs, to avoid a scandal, introduces “Mariandel” as his fiance, Sophie, when, of course, Faninal and Sophie arrive, shortly followed by the Marschallin. The engagement is broken off and Ochs, trying to save face, escapes pursued by a bevy of bill collectors.

This leaves Sophie, Octavian (now changed back into his own clothes) and the Marschallin alone. The day has come, the one the Marschallin has feared, as she realizes Octavian's true love is for Sophie.
Sophie, Octavian & the Marschallin in Act III's seedy hotel

This is the emotional climax (especially from 1:00-1:45) of the entire 3½-hour opera (not counting two intermissions), as depicted in the 20-minute orchestral suite:

= = = = = =

(the Berlin Philharmonic with Andris Nelsons, the new music director of the Boston Symphony, not known for his introverted style of conducting)
= = = = = =

Releasing Octavian so he can follow his heart, the Marschallin leaves with Faninal, leaving the two young lovers to sing another glorious moment, the final duet, “Is this a dream?” As they leave arm-in-arm and you think “what a gorgeous ending!”, little Mohammet rushes in, sent to retrieve the handkerchief Sophie dropped during the duet, and, waving it aloft, prances out to a decidedly spritely conclusion.

That's not quite how the Suite ends, though – and since Strauss had nothing to do with arranging it, one could assume it was a conductor with an eye to a concert's satisfying conclusion – the old adage, to generate more applause, a concert should end with music that is “faster and louder.” So, after a nod at the final duet, we find ourselves swirling away in one of the great waltz tunes from earlier in Act III.

But, wait - there's more!

- Dick Strawser