WSO Sept 07

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra

September 29, 2007

Beginning with the Greek’s Pyramus and Thisbe, the story of two lovers from warring families or cultures has been the central plot of many plays, operas, ballets, and musicals. Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) music catapulted the familiar plot to outstanding heights in West Side Story. In 1961 Bernstein followed up with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, offering a concert version of themes from the show, using the full timbral resources of the orchestra as opposed to a small Broadway pit band. Bernstein set the order of the tunes and then gave his two orchestrators (Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) free rein, resulting in a version that uses a symphony orchestra and a jazz band, with added percussion, harp, and piano.

The Prologue opens with the rising tritone interval from the song Maria (the first two syllables of “Ma-ri-a” are the tritone, resolving to a perfect fifth on the last syllable). Historically, student composers have been taught to avoid this melodic distance, yet this acerbic interval, with all the meanings that accrue in a story dealing with the search for peace out of conflict, is the germ for most every musical theme in West Side Story. The first section builds tension and includes improvisatory-sounding jazz combos and drum solos, as well as finger snapping and a diabolical bass line borrowed from a 1930s dance beat.

The second movement, Somewhere, uses the rising interval of the almost perfect Minor Seventh, which is presented by various solos over the cabriole-gesture accompaniment. A brief Scherzo then leads to the big Mambo dance scene in the gymnasium where the Jets and Sharks skirmish. The rising arpeggio lends a particularly spicy jazz sound. It is a minor triad with a major seventh, a conflicted chord which Bernstein collapses into a melody. The Latin percussion section cooks with flutter-tonguing brass and full-throated shouts of “Mambo!” as the tension and dynamics build.

The Latin rhythm continues in the more refined and lightly trod Cha-cha with pizzicato strings and staccato winds. This soon gives way to a brief rubato transition, enriched by divisi violins, leading to the Cool fugue which is built on the insistent tritone interval rising and falling. The string section idles while harp, piano, celesta, and percussion join the active brass and woodwinds. The fugue winds down to piano and vibes with a lone hi-hat cymbal before the Rumble erupts in sharp jabs and syncopation. Every section of the orchestra participates in hocketed, non-symmetrical rhythms until a torturous glissando slides from Eb up to A (a tritone, naturally). A short flute solo leads to the tragic finale I have a love. Here the orchestrators spared no amount of ink in creating a rich string sound. They divided the sections (usually five: violin I and II, viola, cello, bass) into fifteen sub-units that gently recede toward the final resolution of the tritone interval.

Besides several masterpieces of ballet Pyotr Chaikovsky (1840-1893) produced symphonic and chamber music, sometimes betraying his fascination with Mozart and Classicism. Last September the WSO presented Chaikovsky’s Suite No. 4 “Mozartiana” of 1887, and this evening we hear his 1876 composition Variations on a Rococo Theme, with a theme and orchestration also suited to Mozart’s late symphonies. Chaikovsky never wrote a cello concerto but this work certainly fills that niche. There is a grand exposition and cello entré with the Theme. This leads to various iterations of texture, decoration, and meter, building to the fifth variation when the full orchestra joins a solo flute and an incredible cello cadenza. A lyrical section follows before the last variation and finale.

In 1936 Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) had only recently resettled in the Soviet Union when he completed his Romeo and Juliet ballet, followed by the Romeo and Juliet Suites. His anti-Romantic musical characteristics were balanced by his theatrical sense of dramaturgy. While his Russian contemporaries portray irony and despair, Prokofiev seeks parody and whimsy, poking fun at the conventions and forms of the day. Prokofiev considered himself a Classicist in his quest to simplify his structures and melodies, paring everything down to a minimum, but this caused problems with his ballet. The dancers complained they couldn’t hear the beat because some sections were so delicate or sparse, and they were required to use acting skills instead of ballet technique to convey the long dramatic line over Prokofiev’s score. Prokofiev also created a furor when he wrote his ballet with a happy ending (Romeo arrives in time). He was eventually convinced to let the original tragedy stand.

Rather than following the plot, Prokofiev created these three Suites with the movements ordered in a musical scheme. Many conductors (including Maestro Bjaland) excerpt a few movements from the suites and assemble them in dramatic order, and so tonight our story opens with The Montagues and the Capulets and the dissonant harmonies that could represent the clannish discord. A jaunty dance melody with simple accompaniment portrays a celebration except for the foreshadowing: unexpected key changes and “wrong notes.” In the contrasting section the melody modulates away, gets lost, and returns home, creating a wistful atmosphere. An alto saxophone reprises the first theme and concludes before the next movement, Juliet as a Child, skitters in playfulness (and virtuosity for the string players) with the contrasting melodies sectionalized and repetitive as befits a dance troupe. The third movement, The Friar, is a lugubrious tune plodding along with variations before it curiously wanders off to abruptly end in the wrong key.

The Madrigal, reminiscent of the vocal consonances of the Renaissance, starts with three, then four string voices in a contrapuntal conversation (listen to the cellos versus the violins). A theme from Montagues and Capulets reappears in the opening sections, with material recalled from Juliet as a Child in the faster contrasting section. These two themes alternate, as do the winds and the strings. This dialogue of textures creates not a madrigal but a parody of a madrigal.

Prokofiev’s humor is evident in the Minuet. The movement has all the proper characteristics of a courtly dance: triple meter, binary sections plus a trio, and symmetrical phrases with cadences in the expected places. But there has never been a minuet like this one – the crazy key changes, missed melody notes and harp/piano off-beat chords create a madcap ballet. An oom-pah-pah wind band develops the contrasting theme before the dance veers off course and ends in a key different than which it began. Masks opens with percussion and clarinet clowning in a particularly delicate setting. The accompaniment attempts numerous wrong turns (key changes) but is repeatedly yanked back by the melody, but despite all sorts of jerking and staccato accents this melody has one of the sweetest tag endings ever composed. After cameo solos by brass, clarinet and oboe the light dissonances build with the return of the main theme.

Often hidden by his sardonic humor, Prokofiev’s deep sense of pathos is revealed in the next movement, Romeo and Juliet, set with classic Russian ballet orchestration. After the opening build-up, a solo violin recalls the Madrigal movement, followed by solo flute also reprising Madrigal. A gracious tutti orchestra builds the dance, made lush with glissandi (sliding pitches), rubato solos, Romantic shifts of key, and balletic arpeggios rippling before the opening material rounds off this expansive movement. The mood and tempo pick up in Folk Dance, a rollicking country tune in 6/8 time showcasing the entire orchestra through a series of variations on two themes. The final movement, Tybalt’s Death, starts out gaily enough, with two musical characters that mingle and jab in alternating variations. A furious challenge between two Generalpausen (silences) is followed by a presto tempo of extreme challenge for the strings, possibly a close-stepping sword fight leading to convulsing downbeats and a macabre funeral march. Thus closes the only movement which never modulates from its home key. – all rights reserved to Richard Gard 2007