Ottawa Symphony
Alain Trudel, Music Director | Directeur artistique

Oct 7: Programme Notes

Lost Love
Programme Notes

Provided by Dr. David Gardner


Brass Dance
Jan Järvlepp

Jan Järvlepp and I were colleagues in the cello section of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra for over three decades. I joined the OSO in 1967 and he joined in 1981 after his return from his doctoral studies in composition at the University of California, San Diego. In Ottawa he has been active as a composer, teacher, freelance cellist, recording technician and as a contractor for chamber music groups.

            In 1993, the OSO, conducted by David Currie, performed his Camerata Music for an enthusiastic audience. In 1996 the OSO premièred his percussion concerto, called the Garbage Concerto, again to a very receptive audience. It was subsequently recorded by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for the prestigious BIS recording label.

            As the composer describes, he “has been delving deeper and deeper into the world of pop-influenced contemporary “classical” composition. Since his studies in California he has turned his back on avant-garde Modernism. The result has been a series of accessible, tonal pieces of music that appeal to a surprisingly wide cross-section of the public, including young people.”

            Dr. Järvlepp has provided the following programme note:

            “Brass Dance started life as the second movement of my Symphony for Brass and Percussion, which was written for Capital BrassWorks of Ottawa. I decided to orchestrate it for full symphony orchestra so that it could be heard more widely. As the title suggests, it features lively rhythms that one could dance to, although not in any traditional style due to its 5/8 time signature that makes one feel off-kilter.

            It starts off innocently enough with a melodic fragment reminiscent of a 1950s pop song. But then things start getting a little unpredictable. The two percussion players energize the music using woodblocks, timpani, bongos and marimba. Brass players are often featured in the melodic solos as they were in the original version. The piece gets faster and faster, while the texture thickens, leading to a full orchestral tutti at the end.

Tonight we hear the première performance.”

Overture‑Fantasia: Romeo and Juliet
Pyotr Tchaikovsky

            Tchaikovsky embarked on the composition of this early work at the instigation of Balakirev, whom he met on a visit to St. Petersburg in 1868. Completed in 1869, in its original form it was decidedly unsuccessful – both at home (Moscow), and abroad (Vienna, Paris, and Dresden). Consequently Tchaikovsky reworked it in 1870 – shortening it, and sharpening its focus by making major cuts, adding new thematic material and generally reorganizing the structure to produce a much greater dramatic effect.  However, he remained dissatisfied, especially with the ending, and reworked his Overture-Fantasia once more in 1880. This final version was met with enthusiastic applause at its première in Tbilisi on May 1st, 1886.  It has remained a firm favourite with audiences ever since.

Romeo and Juliet opens with the orchestra looking uneasily over its shoulder. Tragedy hangs in the air. Out of this introduction the two basic moods of Shakespeare’s play develop: the love of Romeo and Juliet – passionate and longing; and the feud between the Montagues and Capulets – the chase, confusion, anger, clash of swords. All these behaviours and emotions are brilliantly depicted in this short symphonic poem. The greatest stroke of genius, however, appears at the end. By the 1880 revision Tchaikovsky had discovered how to combine the love theme with the feud theme until the former is left a twisted, broken vestige of itself. Now the music of the closing bars telegraphs the final tragedy of Juliet’s remembrance of her beloved Romeo. Then she, too, lies in the tomb, dead, destroyed by intolerance.

Suite from Romeo and Juliet, Opus 64
Sergei Prokofiev

            There was a change in Prokofiev’s compositional style after he began to return to Soviet Russia in 1933 after fifteen years in the West. He abandoned his earlier iconoclastic, approach, for which he had earned the label of ‘futurist’, not a term of endearment in many quarters, with its emphasis on motoric rhythms and harsh ‘primitive’ harmonies. This reputation was enhanced by his association with that greatest of innovators and impresarios, Sergei Diaghilev, and is reflected in the disquieting titles of several works of that period – such as the opera, The Fiery Angel and the ballet The Age of Steel.

            But Prokofiev was only too well aware that what had set the West on its collective ear was not likely to be a recipe for success with the more conservative Soviet public. Consequently, for his first major score after returning to Russia, Prokofiev began work on a ballet with no less a romantic subject than Romeo and Juliet. Unlike his ballet scores for Diaghilev, this was to be a full-length score for, as Prokofiev explained, “the Russians like long ballets which take a whole evening: abroad the public prefers short ballets ... This difference of viewpoint arises from the fact that we attach greater importance to the plot and its development ...” It also happened to coincide with a generally more cautious and conservative public attitude to the arts in both East and West after the avant‑garde adventures of the 1920s, as well as a detectable softening in Prokofiev’s own irascible, extravagant personality.

            The score for Romeo and Juliet was completed in 1936; then the problems began. Both the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies backed out of agreements to produce the new work. It was eventually premièred in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938. Leningrad (at the Kirov) had to wait until 1940 to see the ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. The rehearsals had been tempestuous: the dancers found Prokofiev’s music hard to dance to, and at times had difficulty hearing the more delicately scored sections from the back of the Kirov stage – a problem that Prokofiev reluctantly rectified by rescoring certain passages. Somehow the Kirov première survived all these vicissitudes and was a great success with the Russian public.

            Prokofiev, however, was not one to let good music go to waste – and certainly not the best parts of this glorious score. Therefore, in 1936, with no immediate prospect for a production of the ballet, he created two suites for performance in orchestral concerts (a third suite appeared in 1946). The success of the suites as concert works attests to the symphonic nature of the music and the masterful way in which Prokofiev gave musical substance to the characters of Shakespeare’s play; they display an orchestral palette that is, by turns, brilliant, powerful and sensitive.  However, the suites are not merely excisions from the complete score: in several instances Prokofiev has changed the order of appearance of the music, and even juxtaposed sections from different parts of the score. Suite No. 1 concentrates mostly on the genre dance interludes while Suite No. 2 traces the main lines of the plot. As is the case this evening, it is now the common practice for conductors to create their own sequence of numbers by combining elements from some or all of Prokofiev’s published suites.

            The opening chords of the Montagues and Capulets (Suite No. 2, #1) instantly convey the menace and foreboding that is the constant backdrop of Shakespeare’s play: out of them float hints of the tenderness that is at the heart of this love story. But we are quickly confronted by the reality of the powerful, haughty, strutting March of the Capulet nobles (part of the Act II ballroom scene), scored to reveal all the arrogance and grandeur a full orchestra can provide. After two abrupt chords, a flute solo (Juliet) emerges, accompanied by a harp and magical glissandos from the violas. The March returns, at first played by the alto saxophone, and then, once again, by the full orchestra.

            The young Juliet (Suite No. 2, #2) presents music that is carefree and vivacious – music to portray the young Juliet, more a girl than a woman at this moment, and full of excitement at the prospect of the ball (with appropriate scurrying from the violins). The clarinet (nurse) interjects with a more poised, maternal voice, after which a flute duet introduces us to a more reflective, dreamy Juliet.

            The Minuet (Suite No. 1, #4) appears in the opening formal ball scene where the guests are arriving in full fig!

Romeo at the grave of Juliet (Suite No. 2, #7) has a heart-breaking, haunting theme (played by the violins) which is the essence of this bittersweet tale of love and death. In the central portion the full brass choir make this theme a majestic funeral March. Pianissimo fragments of Juliet’s theme finish the movement in the unfettered clarity of C major (with Romeo and Juliet now beyond the realm of earthly conflicts).

Immolation of the Gods – conclusion to Götterdämmerung
Richard Wagner

This ‘bleeding chunk’, from the end of the last of the four operas which make up Wagner’s epic The Ring of the Nibelungs cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, & Götterdämmerung), is the culmination of fourteen-and-a-half hours of overwhelming music and drama.

            The Ring of the Nibelungs has it all: power, lust, love, incest, betrayal, gods, water-nymphs, mortals, underground folk, greed, corruption, giants and a dragon. It all starts with Wotan’s untenable pact with the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Wotan has offered them the goddess of youth, Freia, in payment) to build his new palace, Valhalla – and the part the Rhinegold plays in the disasters that ensue. With our ‘bleeding chunk’ we enter as Wotan’s world finally falls apart. Brünnhilde (his favourite but disgraced daughter) has just set light to the murdered Siegfried’s funeral pyre, which she has mounted on her horse. The fire spreads and Valhalla goes up in flames, the gods become toast, and the gold is restored to its rightful place at the bottom of the Rhine, which has overflowed to reclaim it. At the end, the only creatures left are the three Rhinemaidens who are ecstatic about the recovery of the gold they were supposed to be guarding, but lost to the evil dwarf Alberich –which is exactly where we started four operas and many hours ago!

            For so pyrrhic an ending, Wagner does not disappoint. He weaves together his major signature themes (leitmotifs) and unleashes the full force of his large orchestra in music that is powerful, majestic, magnificent, and overwhelming. It is an epic end to an epic cycle. And, being based on human foibles, the Ring’s themes of greed & power, and love & betrayal, are as recognizable and relevant today, as they have ever been.

© David Gardner