Waterbury Symphony Orchestra May 07

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was formally educated as a naval officer and was known for his disciplined professional habits, strong ethics, and deep loyalty to the Russian nation and its budding musical culture as championed by the composers of Moguchaya kuchka (translated as Mighty Handful or The Five): César Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Musorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. His sense of service was evident in his lifelong efforts to promote, edit, and publish the music of Russian composers. For example, Rimsky-Korsakov created the performance versions of Musorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Rimsky-Korsakov was an inventive genius of orchestration who recognized Scheherazade (published 1889) as one of his finest achievements. The storyline is fertile ground for Rimsky-Korsakov’s fascination with programmatic oriental devices, and this scenario is noted in the orchestral score frontispiece:

The sultan Shakriar, convinced of the falsehood and inconstancy of all women had sworn an oath to put to death each of his wives after the first night. However, the sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in the tales which she told him during 1,001 nights. Driven by curiosity the sultan postponed her execution from day to day and at last abandoned his sanguinary design.

Rimsky-Korsakov originally titled each of the four movements descriptively but later removed these descriptions and discouraged the idea of literal storytelling in his music. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine characters and scenarios in this tone poem. The sultan and storyteller are introduced in the first movement (originally titled “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”). A stern brass figure builds over waves of low strings, interrupted by a sinuous violin weaving the first tale. These two themes, along with twelve gentle rising woodwind chords (the light of dawn?) generate the entire first movement. The two main characters reappear in all the movements with different timbres and backgrounds, and were described by Rimsky-Korsakov as purely musical material “appearing in different settings… the motives and themes correspond each time to different images and actions.” This programmatic method of resetting melodies on varying substrates was learned from Nikolay’s most revered Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka.

The second movement is “The Kalendar Prince,” a tale of a disguised prince who joins a tribe of dervish dancers. Scheherazade’s violin introduces the bassoon as dancing prince. This prince is played by various soloists as well as tutti orchestra even as it is interrupted by the sultan, Scheherazade and the whirling dancers. This dervish is not an authentic Turkish tune but a martial brass contour (related to the sultan theme) with twirling clarinet lines, giving the sultan and dancers the last word in the second movement.

“The Young Prince and Young Princess” move wistfully in the third movement, and the two lightly contrasted dancing themes are the least adventurous in the entire work, even as they sashay around the sultan, storyteller and a trumpet tap (which will figure mightily in the last movement).

The final movement is a mash-up of previous material and new tunes in a vigorous finale titled “Festival in Baghdad. The sea. The ship breaks up against a rock surmounted by a bronze horseman.” The Sultan and Scheherazade themes burst into the festival. The Rock, an insistent trumpet call, grows immovably in importance as the prince, princess, sultan, the sea, percussion, and new themes (including Flight of the Bumblebee?) crescendo to a catastrophic crash. The music recaps the sultan and sea themes but subsides as the sultan is mollified, giving Scheherazade the last bow.

Along with Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is one of the great innovators of orchestration from the early 20th century. Ravel analyzed and modeled the experiments of Rimsky-Korsakov, with a special emphasis on Scheherazade and other oriental devices and textures from Russia. Ravel was also intrigued by American jazz and enjoyed Rhapsody in Blue during one of his American concert tours. Ravel pledged he would return with his own jazzy piano concerto but his health and other factors created different circumstances for the premiere of Concerto for piano and orchestra in G major in 1932.

The concerto begins with a whiplash and a piccolo melody. The pianist speeds through rhythmic figurations and melodic lines, showing the American influences of jazz band “comping” along with some blue notes. But the jazz influence is no more prominent than the pseudo-oriental tunes, gongs, and exotic impressionist intervals, rhapsodically set amidst changes of texture and tempo. A cadenza-like solo section closes the movement.

The second movement, beginning as a contemplative waltz in the mood of Erik Satie, is as much an English Horn sonata as it is a piano solo. Eventually the orchestra joins, leading to the delicious cor anglais accompanied by the pianist. This is no ordinary accompaniment but a virtuosic descant around, above, and with the double reed player.

The finale snaps to it with brass and percussion, calling the pianist out for rapid calisthenics while the orchestra bubbles above and below. This demanding work-out propels the music, a rhythmic dynamo, again imitating the function of a jazz band pianist without using the tonal palette of American music. Another whip snap and the orchestra rollicks in 6/8 meter, leading to fast piano passagework that is punctuated by the orchestra. There’s no time for a final cadenza as we end with four great tutti chords and a final whack on the bass drum.

Shine was commissioned for the centennial of the Oregon Symphony and in memory of composer Morton Gould. Jennifer Higdon (b.1962) described her initial concept in a 1997 interview: “I thought about building some sort of sculpture to honor these things. I thought about all the energy all the musicians had put in during one hundred years and about how Morton Gould was a multi-talented individual. If I could compress this into a sculpture, it would be a very bright piece. That’s how I came up with the name Shine.”

This single movement work is a kaleidoscope of contrasting compositional techniques evoking Karl Popper’s “clouds and clocks” meta-theory: some systems are strict and deterministic while others are pointillist and probabilistic. The “clocks” begin with brass and percussion and a core idea of the entire piece, a triplet motive that builds into groups of sixes and twelves, often on a repeated pitch but later into scales. Energy builds with the percussion “shooting gallery” developing the motive as “clouds” of strings join with reverse-attack vertical blocks. A dense polyphony ensues, a lá Penderecki and Ligeti, the motive expanding in multiple layers of canon. Micro-rhythms build horizontally, thread on thread, until the cantabile section begins.

The contrasting contemplative “cloud” offers overlapping segments of piano, strings, woodwinds, and violin solo (shades of Scheherazade!); conjuring reminiscences of musicians past while revealing Higdon’s taste for American minimalism in the consonant pattern playing. The marching-band pulse soon returns with a recapitulation of the opening brass and percussion figures, reflecting the bright exposition. A brief coda closes happily with Bernstein-like orchestration and rhythmic patterns. – all rights reserved to Richard Gard