At the Proms! Program Notes
Ouverture Jeunesse / Youth Overture, Airat Ichmourtov
Born in Kazan, Russia, Airat Ichmouratov studied clarinet at the Kazan State Conservatory . In 1993 he became Associate Clarinetist at the Tatarstan’s Opera and Ballet Theatre. In 2000 he obtained Masters degree from the University of Montreal followed by a Ph.D in conducting from the same university. In 2000 Dr. Ichmouratov joined the Klezmer group Kleztory in which he plays clarinet, composes and arranges. He has absorbed the musical influences of all the great Russian composers and created a versatile style of his own.
The composer prefaced his score for Ouverture Jeunesse with the following: “Youth is the most magical period in our lives. It’s a time of most important experiences which will have impact on our entire existence. It’s a time of profession, it’s the time of a first kiss, it’s a moment in life when we are for the first time to choose a path to make our world a better place, a place without war, a place where we can take care of our home, instead of slowly destroying it. Imagine … just imagine that this wild and beautiful scene is simply your life, and you are a sailing boat that crossing it, facing strong winds and brutal waves, sometimes failing, but standing up again and again in order to victoriously conquer your dreams.”
The Overture is dedicated to Jean-Phillipe Tremblay and Orchestre de la Francophonie on the occasion of their 15th anniversary and to the Youth of our Planet, ambitious and fearless in making our home a better place. Ouverture Jeunesse was premièred at the Françoys-Bernier Concert Hall, Domain Forget, Quebec on July 30th 2016.
The Overture begins with strong brass, winds and percussion over a pedal bass. There are opportunities for some virtuoso solos from Principal players in the orchestra, such as clarinet and French Horn. There is a slower middle section with some big themes. It is capped off with a rousing, perky March. It is a vibrant, tuneful opener in the grand Russian/Hollywood tradition. There will be no cobwebs left in the rafters after Ouverture Jeunesse has been performed!
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21, Chopin
Fryderyk Chopin was nineteen, already a piano virtuoso, and in need of a professional calling card. Born in 1810 in Zelozawa Wola (near Warsaw), Chopin was the son of a French father and Polish mother. Frédéric (as he later preferred to spell his name) was essentially self-taught as a pianist, such was his natural talent. After he graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire he composed a half dozen works for piano and orchestra that would allow him to present himself on the musical stages of Europe. His father sent him to Vienna where he had success as a virtuoso pianist. But he needed a bigger calling card. This resulted in the composition of two piano concertos. The F minor one was actually the first to be composed, but was the second to be published – so it became No. 2 in his lexicon.
The opening Maestoso sort of follows Classical norms though Chopin gets rather inventive with his key relationships. The orchestra is fully engaged with the exposition of the opening thematic material but once the piano solo enters it more or less vanishes into the background as supportive musical furniture. This is, after all meant to be a display for the solo pianist (i.e., Chopin himself). Forget about the symphonic structural constructions of Beethoven or Brahms, this concerto belongs to the stile brilliante of the virtuoso keyboard legends such as Weber, Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Field & Ries, etc – lots of astonishing finger-work rather than hefty musical substance. But Chopin is one of the few of this period to pull off something lasting within this genre.
The opening Maestoso exposition is presented by the full orchestra. The solo piano repeats the exposition (with a few extra twiddles) and basically commands the platform. The orchestra is allowed a few moments of glory at strategic structural moments but this is essentially a platform for the pianist to display his wares. The slow movement (Larghetto) is a love song to a young soprano at the Warsaw Conservatoire with whom the teenage Chopin was smitten – but with whom he didn’t dare converse until a year later. So it is not a surprise to find Chopin recalling the bel canto scena of Bellini and Donizetti in this affecting movement. The finale (Allegro vivace) references his Polish origins by recalling aspects of the Mazurka in Rondo form to bring the concerto to a brilliant conclusion.
The first public performance was on March 17th, 1830 at the National Theatre in Warsaw with the composer as soloist. It was a huge success and had to be repeated a week later. Within a year (after the failed 1830 uprising of the Poles against Russia) Chopin was ensconced permanently in Paris where he was fêted as one of the greatest pianists of his time. The competition included Liszt – a great admirer of the slow movement of this concerto, as was Schumann. Those were heady musical times!
Crown Imperial: Coronation March, Sir William Walton
Place: Westminster Abbey, London (current edifice begun in 1245 for Henry III)
Occasion: a Coronation
Expectations: music of the most celebratory kind
Requirements: an orchestra, the great cathedral organ, a large bunch of choristers (from the Abbey and the Chapel of St. George’s, Windsor).
King George V died on January 20th 1935. His successor was King Edward VIII. Plans were made for his coronation on May 12th 1937 – except, on December 11th 1936, Great Britain and the Commonwealth was shocked to suddenly learn that King Edward had abdicated so he could marry the divorcée, Mrs Simpson. But the bureaucracy ground on and simply changed the monarch’s name to George VI while keeping the date and all the ceremonial pomp already commissioned for Edward VIII. This included the invitation by the BBC for Walton to write a March for the occasion. He had some magnificent models to use as guides – Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance Marches are the obvious antecedents. In fact Nos. 1 & 4 of the Elgar set were also included in the ceremony. And, of course, Handel’s Zadok the Priest was an essential inclusion (it has never missed a chance to shine at a coronation since its première in the Coronation Ceremony for King George II. And that was on October 11th 1727 !!).
The title Crown Imperial was derived from the medieval Scottish poet, William Dunbar: “In Honour of the City of London”. It included the lines:
“Empress of towns, exalt in honour
In beauty bearing the crown imperial,
Sweet paradise excelling in pleasure
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.”
Walton gathered his ingredients (see above) and let loose. Crown Imperial exudes confidence and has a thrilling brass climax. It just doesn’t get much grander than this – majestic and imperial!
And, to boot, it got a re-run (along with another commission for (now) Sir William Walton – Orb & Sceptre) at the Coronation Ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II on June 2nd, 1953.
Symphonic Dances, Opus 45, Rachmaninov
Performances of late Rachmaninov are sufficiently rare compared with his opulent, earlier works that we can still be surprised by how lean, taut, rhythmic and harmonically adventurous his music became from the mid-1930s onwards. This period contains two major orchestral works: the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances – both of which exhibit this new musical view point.
The Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov’s last major composition. It was written at the Rachmaninov’s rented summer home at Orchard Point, near Huntingdon, Long Island, New York in 1940. Like Brahms’s Haydn Variations, the Symphonic Dances exists in two forms, one for orchestra and one for a two-piano version that he devised for himself and Horowitz to play. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when these two titans of the keyboard launched into that version! Sadly, the plans for Rachmaninov and Horowitz to do a two-piano tour in the 1943/44 season (in which the Symphonic Dances and the Second Suite for two pianos would have been the focal points) were terminated by the composer’s death in March, 1943.
Rachmaninov’s output isn’t particularly large, and a greater part of it was written in Russia before he fled the Revolution in 1917, never to return to his homeland. As the late works signify, this drop in his output was not due to a waning of his creativity. Instead, we can ascribe it to the penury in which he suddenly found himself after 1917. Before, he had been relatively well-off, now he was penniless with a wife and two daughters to look after. In Russia he was a noted pianist, composer and conductor, now he had to start all over again. He moved to the United States in 1918 and concentrated his energies on becoming one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of the twentieth century – at a time that included the afore-mentioned, though younger, Vladimir Horowitz, and the legendary Josef Hofmann. That he succeeded in this goal is shown by his steady stream of concerts across North America and Western Europe (not to mention recordings), but it left little time and the necessary repose for composition.
The Symphonic Dances was written with (and dedicated to) his favourite collaborators – the Philadelphia Orchestra and their Music Director, Eugene Ormandy.
The opening of the first dance is indelibly memorable. First there is a subversive ticking rhythm from the strings with interjections from the lower solo woodwinds, and then the truly unforgettable short, sharp fortissimo chords from the full strings and timpani which, by omitting the first beat of the two-bar phrase, produce a very unsettling effect. This introduces the main stately march-like theme. It eventually morphs into a very expressive extended alto saxophone solo with a spare accompaniment from the solo woodwinds. This is a novel sound in a Rachmaninov orchestral score, (and signals his new interest in solo instrumental sonorities) yet it suits the singing quality of the melodic line to perfection. The first violins and cellos then acquire this melody and play their hearts out over a piano and harp accompaniment. The reprise is more vigorously and colourfully orchestrated. The coda to the dance, however, contains a private message: a reference to the motto theme from his Symphony No. 1 (itself derived from a Russian Orthodox Church chant), the failure of which so devastated Rachmaninov that he stopped composing for three years until some sessions with Dr. Dahl under hypnosis enabled the composer to begin writing again. Out of that came the spectacularly successful Second Piano Concerto. In this context, however, the motto theme is transformed from its dark, vengeful character into a mood of acceptance in the glow of C major. But only Rachmaninov knew this, as he did not allow his Symphony No. 1 to be published in his lifetime.
The Second Dance is like a Valse triste. The waltz slowly entwines us though its background seems anything but gay and relaxed. Rachmaninov creates an unsettled mood – just as Ravel had done in his very disturbing La Valse of 1919. Ravel depicted the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Similarly, Rachmaninov was confronted, in 1940, with a disintegration of world order as World War II got underway. The hand-stopped horns and muted trumpets sound the alarm of disturbing things to come. Woodwind arabesques add to this sense of unease before the principal melody is announced – by the English Horn over pizzicato strings followed by the strings in octaves, and then, more warmly, in thirds. The warning brass chords reappear, and at first the reappearance of the melody seems more relaxed, but that mood is soon diverted to an intense climax that, alarmingly, suddenly disappears – and we are left to wonder what became of our dancers and their world.
In the Third Dance, Rachmaninov revisits two of his greatest sources of inspiration – Russian Orthodox chants (and in particular, Blagosloven esi, Gospodi [“Blessed be the Lord”] which he had earlier used in his masterpiece Vespers of 1915) and the Dies irae. The result, as one critic has opined, is a Dance macabre. It is a mix of dark and romantic moods which, combined with the chant motif and the Dies irae theme (not to mention Rachmaninov’s life-long fascination with pealing bells), make for a very unsettling, extended introduction. But eventually, a cheerful dance emerges which whirls along exhilaratingly (with strong hints of Rimsky-Korsakov in its brilliant orchestration). Then, at the coda Rachmaninov introduces another chant and wrote “Alliluya” at this point in the score, which Geoffrey Norris explains is “in effect an orchestral transcription of the Doxology from Blagosloven esi, Gospodi” where the choral alleluias occur in his earlier Vespers. For it is here that the chant succeeds in overwhelming the Dies irae death motif – a surprisingly life-affirming ending from one whom the vertically-challenged Stravinsky once wittily described as a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl”. Rachmaninov wasn’t famous for his smile!
Initially, like the Third Symphony, the Symphonic Dances was misunderstood and neglected. Audiences wanted more of the lush orchestration and romanticism of Symphony No. 2 and the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3. However, given what has happened to serious music in the second half of the twentieth century, the style of the Symphonic Dances seems reassuringly familiar and is now a very welcome visitor to orchestral concerts.
At the end of the score Rachmaninov wrote: “I thank thee, Lord.” So might we!