Prokofiev & Pictures

Prokofiev & Pictures
September 26, 2015

6:30 p.m. – Know the Score | 7:30 p.m. – Concert
Bill Heard Theatre, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

Featuring Bella Hristova, violin

Packales: Tour/Retour – A Tango for Orchestra
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1
Mussorgsky (Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky-Ravel’s famous “Pictures” are combined with the virtuosity of the Prokofiev concerto and the emotional complexity of a tango for orchestra.


Tour/Retour: A Tango for Orchestra – Joseph Packales

Born March 28, 1948, in New York, New York – Died September 30, 2008, in Gardiner, Maine

This work was premiered in 1996 by the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. It is scored for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, E-flat clarinets, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, two bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings.

Joseph Packales was a composer of the highest caliber with training from The Eastman School of Music, Cleveland State University, and Kent State University. He was honored by two Pulitzer Prize nominations and the recipient of several awards, including The Howard Hanson Prize, several Macdowell Colony fellowships, a major grant from the I.B.M. Corporation, and two grants from The National Endowment for the Arts. Packales also served organist for several churches in Texas and Maine. Respected as an influential teacher, he served on the faculty of Skidmore College, Belknap College, Cleveland State University, and The University of Southern Maine, and was composer-in-residence and associate professor of music at The University of Texas at El Paso.

Packales’s musical style is rooted in functional harmonies and beautiful melodies, but he also used the latest musical techniques. He composed for orchestra (with and without soloists), chorus, band, piano, and many other ensembles.

Tour/Retour dates from 1995 and was premiered the following year. The composer explains, “In November of 1994, I received a generous commission from the El Paso Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Gürer Aykal, to compose a new work for their forthcoming 65th anniversary season. Tour/Retour, completed in January 1995, is the result of that commission.” He continues, “I tried to re-create the passionate, sensual and slightly seedy world of the tango, as it was originally danced in Argentina and in Paris on the early part of this century. Although there is no overt ‘program,’ the listener is certainly free to imagine one, if it suits his fancy, as the piece is very visual.”

Tour/Retour begins with an extended timpani solo after which the full orchestra enters on a descending chromatic scale.

The timpani plays again, this time with percussion before a short section played on metallic percussion instruments. The main body of the tango is in two main parts – a first section introduced by the alto saxophone…

and a lyrical middle section that begins with three fermatas.

A flute solo enters and plays a variation on the second theme. This is interrupted by a chorale-like section of long note values. The initial tango theme returns in a grand treatment for the full orchestra.

A whole new section begins with repeated eighth notes with other elements layered over.

Soon the eighth notes become the main element and dissonances become part of the texture. The main tango theme enters briefly followed by a return of the chorale-like music, but it is highly modified.

The second tango melody is heard in the strings over a brass chorale and the eighth notes again gain prominence. Amid a jumble of previous themes, the work ends with a dazzling coda.

 

Concerto No. 1 in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19 – Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia – Died March 5, 1953, in Moscow, Soviet Union

It was first performed on October 18, 1923, by the Paris Opera Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky with Marcel Darrieux as soloist.

In Sergei Prokofiev’s earliest works, he struggled to balance the traditional with the innovative. On one hand, his works needed to be accessible enough to draw an audience. But, on the other hand, he had to establish himself as a unique voice in modern music. Clearly a child of his time, Prokofiev sometimes experimented with the latest musical trends in search of this individual musical style.

Prokofiev’s attraction to Neoclassicism, in which composers combined certain eighteenth-century elements with newer techniques, was understandably strong. The music of Haydn and Mozart, upon close examination, has several features in common with that of Prokofiev and other composers of his generation. A sense of compactness, balance, and a genteel flavor permeate the clearly defined textures of both eras. It was probably this built-in sense of structure that attracted many composers to Neoclassicism in the years of World War I. Exiled from his homeland after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev settled in Paris, where he resided for two decades.

The first violin concerto skirts Prokofiev’s departure from Russia in that the work was composed before he left, but was premiered in Paris. Inspired by a 1916 performance of Karol Szymanowski’s virtuoso work for violin entitled Myths, Prokofiev was moved to attempt a violin concerto – his first large-scale solo work that did not include piano. For the first movement, the composer used a theme that he had written in 1915 for an abandoned concertino for violin. After the work was completed, a proposed November 1917 premiere with violinist Paul Kochanski fell through because of the Russian Revolution and the work had to wait six years until it was given its first performance in Paris.

The most obvious feature of this work is its reversal of the traditional concerto framework. Its outer movements are lyrical, while the second movement is a brisk and witty scherzo. Those familiar with Prokofiev’s fairy tale music from Cinderella or Peter and the Wolf will find a familiar style in this dazzling work. It is difficult to believe that this is the composer’s first composition for solo violin since he displays a complete knowledge of virtuosic bowing styles and provides so many breathtaking passages of arresting beauty and astounding feats of seemingly impossible virtuosity.

The first movement begins with the unaccompanied soloist presenting the lyrical first theme that unfolds as the orchestra enters gradually.

As the movement evolves, the differentiation between themes is difficult to discern, but this is one of the most attractive features of the movement. Virtuosity is ever-present as the soloist expands, fragments, and reassembles the melodic materials.

The recapitulation is introduced by shimmering tremolos and the flute and harp join the soloist.

The second movement is an elaborate scherzando that is by turns fun and sardonic. Fiery solo lines are abundant.

Prokofiev’s finale is a showpiece for everyone. In addition to the opening bassoon theme to which the soloist adds commentary…

themes from the opening movement are heard again. After an impressive workout…

the concerto ends with a placid coda to which the flute provides a final flourish.

Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

(Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

Born March 21, 1839, in Karevo, Pskov district, Russia – Died March 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia

This orchestration was first performed in Paris on October 19, 1922, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. It is scored for two piccolos, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, two harps, and strings.

During the summer of 1873, the architect/artist Viktor Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurism at the age of thirty-nine. Hartmann’s forgettable talents led to a series of mediocre works that momentarily captured the attention of a few major figures in the artistic community of St. Petersburg. In all fairness, Hartmann’s work should have died with him.

In February of 1874, a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg displayed over four hundred of the artist’s works. Composer Modest Mussorgsky, a close friend of Hartmann, commemorated the exhibition in his solo piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. The work was composed at the peak of Mussorgsky’s career, before the composer’s alcoholism tightened its grip leading to his death in 1881 at the young age of forty-two. Pictures at an Exhibition depicts eleven of Hartmann’s creations, linked together by the Promenade theme, which represents the composer walking from one display to the next.

Although Mussorgsky never conceived of Pictures at an Exhibition as an orchestral work, several other composers soon saw the possibilities. Within a decade, Russian arrangers produced an orchestration, but it was French composer Maurice Ravel, whose masterful 1922 scoring illuminated the work’s numerous nuances, who ensured the eternal popularity of this piece. Over a dozen arrangements exist, but it is Ravel’s that is the standard by which others are judged.

Pictures at an Exhibition unfolds as follows:
Promenade – Mussorgsky used this short majestic melody (presented in Ravel’s orchestration as a trumpet solo) as a linking theme connecting each of the movements. It recurs frequently in different settings between movements throughout the work.

Gnomus – Hartmann’s wooden nutcracker in the guise of “a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed legs” is the subject of the first picture. Ravel’s skill as an orchestrator is so apparent that even the sound of cracking nuts is heard clearly.

The Old Castle – A troubadour sings in front of a castle in this watercolor from Hartmann’s student years in Italy. A plaintive alto saxophone gives voice to the minstrel’s serenade.

Tuileries: Dispute between Children at Play – The scene is a garden near the Seine River in Paris.

Bydlo (Cattle) – Hartmann drew a picture of oxen while visiting the remote Polish village of Sandomierz, but Mussorgsky again changed it slightly for his composition. In this version, a rugged oxcart with huge wooden wheels slowly approaches, and then fades away in the distance.

Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks – This movement is based on Hartmann’s costume design for an 1871 St. Petersburg ballet in which children portray chicks “enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor, with canary heads put on like helmets.”

Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle – This movement is sometimes subtitled Two Polish Jews: One Rich, One Poor. Ravel uses resolute unison strings to depict the rich man…

while giving the poor Schmuÿle’s music to a whimpering muted trumpet.

The Market-place at Limoges (French market women quarreling) – Hartmann painted a scene of market women in the French city of Limoges haggling in the marketplace.

Catacombae (Sepulcrum Romanum) – This drawing depicts the artist gazing into the Parisian catacombs while holding a lantern.

Several skulls are apparent.  The second part of this movement is subtitled Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language). In his manuscript, Mussorgsky writes that “the creative impulse of the departed Hartmann leads me towards skulls, and calls to them – they begin to glow with a soft light.”

The Hut on Hen’s Legs: Baba-Yaga – Hartmann drew a carved clock representing a hut with the legs of a chicken. In Russian folklore, Baba-Yaga was a witch who rode through the forest and destroyed everything in her path.

This movement proceeds without pause into the finale.

The Great Gate of Kiev – Hartmann drew plans for a ceremonial gate to honor Tsar Alexander II after his escape from an assassination attempt in 1886. In Mussorgsky’s music we hear the Boyar victors as they enter Kiev in a solemn procession of triumph.

 

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