November 26-27, 2022
Xian Zhang, conductor
George Li, piano
Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri (1813)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43 (1934)
George Li, piano
Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915)
La fontana di Valle Giulia all’alba
(The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn)—
La fontana del Tritone al mattino
(The Triton Fountain in the Morning)—
La fontana de Trevi al meriggio
(The Fountain of Trevi at Midday)—
La fontana di Villa Medici al tramonto
(The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset)
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923)
I pini di Villa Borghese
(The Pines of the Villa Borghese)—
Pini presso una catacomba
(Pines Near a Catacomb)—
I pini de Gianicolo
(The Pines of the Janiculum)—
I pini della Via Appia
(The Pines of the Appain Way)
by Yvonne Frindle
For more than 150 years, classical music lovers have talked about “the three Bs”—the phrase was coined around Bach, Beethoven, and Berlioz. Nowadays it’s Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Tonight’s concert offers “the three Rs” with an Italian twist: Rossini, Rachmaninoff, and Respighi.
Given that Italy is generally recognized as the birthplace of classical music, it’s surprising just how few Italian composers are represented in the so-called standard symphonic repertoire. It’s the Germans who dominate, followed by the Russians and the French. The one place where Italians hold their own is opera, with Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini among the leading names.
And that’s where tonight’s concert begins: in the opera house with a high-spirited overture by Rossini. It ends with Respighi in the first quarter of the 20th century, striving to release Italian music from its operatic pigeonhole and carve a place for it in the concert hall.
A third Italian hides behind the “Rach Pag,” as it’s fondly known. Here virtuosity is the theme, with a bewitching theme by one of the first great Romantic virtuosos, Paganini, transformed by one of the last, Rachmaninoff.
L’Italiana in Algeri
Born 1792, Pesaro, Italy
Died 1868, Paris, France
The year was 1813. With the Venice Carnival season fast approaching, Teatro San Benedetto was in trouble. After a series of flops, it needed a new opera that would be a guaranteed success. The management called on Gioachino Rossini (just 21 years old but already a celebrity), agreed without discussion to his large fee, and four weeks later, a comic masterpiece entered rehearsal.
The overture to L’Italiana is as rich and sophisticated as the opera it introduces. And it’s true to type, featuring all the musical trademarks that make a Rossini overture so effective—not just as music to secure attention and set the mood in the theatre, but as concert music in its own right.
Listen for the distinctive and witty opening: furtive plucked strings violently interrupted by the full orchestra. Hear the oboe as diva, introducing divine melodies with unsurpassed expressiveness. There’s the irresistible Rossini crescendo, its thrilling build-up of sound made all the more exciting by the sudden drop to a whisper quiet pianissimo. There’s more humor when the highest and lowest voices of the woodwinds, piccolo and bassoon, pair up to present one of the main themes again. And the whole thing arrives at an electrifying conclusion with one final signature crescendo.
First performance: May 22, 1813, at the Teatro San Benedetto, in Venice, Italy
First SLSO performance: January 14, 1961, Edouard van Remoortel conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: April 14, 2013, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, strings
Approximate duration: 9 minutes
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Born 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died 1943, Beverly Hills, California
In 1937, Rachmaninoff approached the Ballets Russes choreographer Michel Fokine with a scenario based on his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: “Why not recreate the legend of Paganini selling his soul to the Evil Spirit for perfection in art and also for a woman?” He set out in detail how the different sections of the music might represent the 19th-century virtuoso violinist, the diabolical contract, the love episodes and the triumph of good over evil.
The scenario may have come to Rachmaninoff after he’d composed the music but, more than any other work based on Niccolò Paganini’s theme (and there are many), the Rhapsody has all the signs of being “about Paganini” and not simply a musical exploration of his famous 24th Caprice for solo violin.
The Rhapsody was completed in 1934—after Rachmaninoff had settled in the West and turned his focus to a career as a concert pianist—and was his final work for piano and orchestra. It enjoyed instant success and has remained one of his most popular creations—admired by audiences and musicians for its lyrical appeal, energy, and satisfying showmanship.
This is the kind of piece that confounds expectations. You can see a piano in front of the orchestra, but it’s not a piano concerto. Rachmaninoff eventually settled on the name “Rhapsody,” but it’s actually a set of variations. And yet, the music does have the character of a freely unfolding rhapsody and—when you take a step back—those variations seem to be grouped, creating the structure of a concerto in several “movements.”
Strikingly, the Rhapsody begins with a short introduction followed by the first variation—a harmonic skeleton in which the piano is silent. Only after this do the violins present Paganini’s theme, accompanied by the soloist. What follows is the quick “first movement” (variations 2–10) concluding with an ethereal cadenza for the soloist (variation 11) that transitions into an artful minuet and scherzo (variations 12–15). At variation 16, the music returns to two-four time for the “slow movement,” culminating in the best-known moment, the inspired variation 18.
According to Horowitz, Rachmaninoff said of variation 18, “This one is for my manager.” It’s an ingenious invention: a dreamy and impassioned tune created by turning Paganini’s lively, jumping theme upside down.
Equally ingenious in the Rhapsody is the way Rachmaninoff weaves in quotations of the Dies irae plainchant for the dead, beginning with variation 7, where it’s outlined by the soloist with sparse chords. These become the musical allusions to the “Evil Spirit.”
Variation 19–24 provide a spirited finale, with one final quotation of the Dies irae by the full brass.
First performance: November 7, 1934, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, with the composer as soloist
First SLSO performance: December 14, 1934, Vladimir Golshmann conducting, with the composer as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: October 22, 2017, David Robertson conducting, with Orli Shaham as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 22 minutes
Born 1879, Bologna, Italy
Died 1936, Rome, Italy
Tonight’s concert concludes with two “symphonic poems for orchestra” from Respighi’s Roman trilogy—showpieces that demonstrate an orchestra’s power and brilliance, as well as the poetry and colors of the composer’s musical imagination.
They’re exhilarating to hear—viscerally so—but the significance of Respighi’s “Roman” works extends well beyond their surface appeal. These symphonic poems bring together the diversity of influences that shaped this Italian-born but Russian- and German-educated composer. It’s possible to detect, for example, the early music revival and Respighi’s interest in ancient church music alongside the influence of contemporary voices: Debussy and Stravinsky, and the master of the symphonic poem, Richard Strauss. The direct influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov is plain to hear in the colors of the orchestra. At the same time, these works were central to Respighi’s efforts to develop a truly Italian symphonic voice for a nation that was known almost exclusively for opera. Above all, these symphonic poems represent his “need to express Rome’s sublime beauty in music.”
Fountains of Rome
In Fountains of Rome the four movements are played continuously, each representing a landmark fountain at a particular time of day and in a particular mood. Respighi himself sanctioned the following program (or set of “captions”), which was published with the first edition in 1916:
In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give impression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.
The first part, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape: droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh damp mists of a Roman dawn.
A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, The Triton Fountain in the Morning. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.
Next there appears a solemn theme, borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at Midday. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwind to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot, drawn by sea-horses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes, while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.
The fourth part, The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset, is announced by a sad theme which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset…
First performance: March 11, 1917, by the Augusteo Orchestra, Antonio Guarnieri conducting First SLSO performance: March 6, 1924, Rudolph Ganz conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: November 27, 2016, Robert Spano conducting Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, celesta, organ, strings
Approximate duration: 15 minutes
Pines of Rome
Pines of Rome is also organized in four, continuous movements, each representing a different view and, again, a particular mood. “Pines of the Villa Borghese” races by so fast you might almost miss the traditional children’s singing game (“Madama Doré”) that Respighi quotes. As in all good games, everyone gets a go with the tune, including a rare, quiet moment when it’s played by oboe and clarinet. The exuberance of children at play comes to a climax with a wild, whooping conclusion, so extraordinary the first audience booed.
“Pines Near a Catacomb” brings a serious tone, evoking the gloomy, underground tomb with quotations of ancient plainsong chants. Listen for the remote, muted sound of a trumpet playing a “Sanctus” chant from the Roman Catholic Liber Usualis.
“Pines of the Janiculum” is all about atmosphere: a moonlit night on a distant hill overlooking the city. The mood is set with impressionist rippling from the piano and a clarinet floating on a cloud of muted strings. But this movement is most famous for the appearance of a nightingale at the end. In 1924 the gramophone record was the latest in music technology, and Respighi took delight in using a recording of an actual nightingale. (Nearly a century later, the effect can seem almost quaint, which is why some conductors revert to “old technology” by giving a bird whistle to the percussion section.)
“For Pines of the Appian Way” Respighi provided a very detailed “caption,” all of which can be heard in the powerful and evocative music:
Misty dawn on the Appian Way: pine trees guarding the magic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories: trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.
First performance: December 14, 1924, by the Augusteo Orchestra, Bernardino Molinari conducting
First SLSO performance: January 7, 1927, Rudolph Ganz conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: March 25, 2018, Gemma New conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flute (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 6 off-stage buccini (this performance uses 4 trumpets and 2 trombones), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, organ, strings
Approximate duration: 23 minutes
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.