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Program Notes: Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony (April 22-23, 2022)


April 22-23

Nagillar (Fairy Tales) (2002)

Alberto Ginastera

Harp Concerto, op. 25 (1956)

Allegro guisto

Molto moderato

Cadenza:: Liberamente capriccioso—Vivace

Allegra Lily, harp

Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100 (1944)


Allegro marcato


Allegro giocoso


Program Notes

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Nagillar (Fairy Tales)

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Born May 29, 1947, Baku, Azerbaijan

The Composer

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh was born in 1947 in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Growing up in the Soviet era, Ali-Zdeh studied piano as a child and began composing by age seven. In 1965, she entered the Baku Conservatory, studying with Kara Karayev, who has in turn been a student of Dmitiri Shostakovich in Moscow. Karayev collected Azerbaijani folk music and incorporated it into his orchestral writing. Even in the most oppressive decades under Stalin, folk music was a permitted resource to draw from, so many composers, especially from the outlying Soviet Republics, turned to local traditions as a way to explore new sounds.

One style of traditional music in Azerbaijan is mugham, based on a system of seven-note modes and related to the maqam system in Arabic and Persian music. Mugham performers often sing poetry over the accompaniment of the tar (a long-necked lute with sympathetic strings) and däf (tambourine), sometimes with the addition of other percussion, wind instruments, and Jamaica (upright violin). The pitches are fixed within a scale, but the ornamentation and rhythm can be quite free and improvisatory.

Like her teacher, Ali-Zadeh was greatly inspired by mugham and sought to evoke its sounds in an orchestral context. She also added avant-garde elements from Western Europe and the United States: by the time she was a student in the mid-1960s, stylistic restrictions had relaxed. As a pianist, she gave the first performances in the USSR of once-banned pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Alan Berg, John Cage, and Oliver Messiaen. In the late 1980s, she visited the United States as part of a cultural exchange. After the collapse of the USSR, she moved to Turkey, and then Germany, where she lives today. In recent decades, her music has been commissioned and performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Evelyn Glennie, Silk Road Ensemble, and Kronos Quartet. In 200, she was named People's Artist of the Republic of Azerbaijan and in 2008 became a UNESCO Artist for Peace.

Fairy Tales

Nagillar was commissioned by the Lucerne Festival and the Orchestre Philharmonique Suisse, and premiered in August 2002 conducted by Suanna Mälkki. The title means "Fairy Tales" in Azerbaijani, and the piece was inspired by the flying carpet adventure in the Arabic collection One Thousand and One Nights.

The brisk opening represents the carpet taking off into the sky and gaining height. Then the suspended, sliding notes in the strings depict the breathtaking flight and aerial view of the Earth below. Together, the prince and princess fly across several vistas before arriving at a bazaar, where the babble of voices is evoked by the musicians freely repeating small segments of music, uncoordinated with each other. "Play the repetitive notes in a chaotic rhythm," the composer instructs the flutes and clarinets (a technique related to both the avant-garde and mugham improvisation). Gradually, the orchestra re-congeals into an energetic dance. But suddenly the princess is kidnapped from the crowd.

"How many difficulties the hero had to overcome to find her," Ali-Zadeh describes. "He makes his way across the stormy oceans and fights his way into an enchanted kingdom in which the princess is being held captive. The heroes, who have walked the dangerous path together, are set free. And finally... the hero's return to the land of the fathers. But suddenly the story ends and it turns out that it was just a beautiful vision."

First performance: August 17, 2002, by the Orchestre Philharmonique Suisse, in Lucerne, Switzerland, Susanna Mälkki conducting First SLSO performance: This weekend's concerts Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, celesta, harp, strings Approximate duration: 14 minutes


Alberto Ginastera

Harp Concerto

Alberto Ginastera

Born April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Died June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

The Composer

Alberto Ginastera was the leading Argentinian composer of the 20th century, arguably usurped only by his onetime student, Astor Piazzolla. Early in his career, he developed a nationalist style of orchestral music—creating an imagined soundtrack for the Argentinian gaucho akin to what Aaron Copland did for the American cowboy. (Copland, in fact, mentored Ginastera at Tanglewood when he received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in the United Stated, and they remained friends.) Later, Ginastera became increasingly involved with experimental music, gradually shifting his style away from the one that first made him famous.

Ginastera's Harp Concerto was commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips, the principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first woman to be a member of that orchestra. She has been a student of Carlos Salzedo, the pedagogue and composer who revolutionized modern harp technique. Building on that tradition, Phillips was always looking for new works to expand her instrument's repertoire.

Originally her idea was to premiere the concerto at the 1958 Inter-American Festival, which took place in Washington, DC, and featured composers from Canada down to Argentina. Ginastera, however, didn't complete the piece in time (his String Quartet No. 2 was premiered instead), and he delayed until 1964. By that time, Phillips had retired from playing, and so the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the following year with the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zableta as soloist, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Harp Unleashed

The harp is an instrument with ancient roots, but the modern orchestral harp relies on a complicated mechanism developed in the late 19th century. It was just seven strings per octave (corresponding to the white keys on a piano), which can then be set flat, natural, or sharp through the seven pedals. You might notice the soloist's fancy footwork on the pedals in performance, which allows them to play complex harmonies and change keys during the course of the music.

From the very beginning of the concerto, Ginastera seems determined to take full advantage of the harp and to surprise listeners with its possibilities. He gives it the opening melody in bare octaves, clear and stark. This melody is weaved throughout the first movement, until a brief cadenza leads to a more brooding place. The movement ends quietly with ghostly harmonics.

The second movement opens mournfully in the low strings, as if emerging from what came before. The harp and orchestra call and respond to each other, then touches of celeste and violins add colors and strange textures.

The finale begins with a terrific harp cadenza introduced by six notes that echo the tuning of a gaucho's guitar. The harpist offers a soliloquy filled with dramatic chords, runs, and murmurs. Finally, after nearly four minutes alone, the harp sweeps into a full-orchestra Vivace, filled with tuneful urgency and the driving malambo rhythm of Argentinian folkdance.

First performance: 1965, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, with Nicanor Zabaleta as soloist First SLSO performance: November 15, 1974, Leonard Slatkin conducting with Frances Tietov as soloist

Instrumentation: solo harp, 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 23 minutes


Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 5

Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Music Among War

In the summer of 1944, Sergei Prokofiev was working on his Fifth Symphony at an artist's retreat far outside Moscow, where he had been evacuated to safety from the war. On the other side of Europe, Allied troops were landing on the Normandy beaches, beginning the liberation of Franz. The following winter, when the Symphony premiered on January 13, 1945, Soviet troops were starting their final advance into German-held territory. Two weeks later, they would liberate Auschwitz. In the spring, the would reach Berlin, and soon the Western and Eastern Fronts would meet, sealing victory in Europe.

In contrast with the wartime music that reflects the overwhelming horror and suffering experiences by so many, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 is filled with warmth and measured optimism. It's not music of empty morale-raising, but rather music that seems to acknowledge the heaviness of the war while looking ahead to the future and recognizing what was worth fighting for. "I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit," Prokofiev said, "praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul."

The night the piece premiered in Moscow, artillery fired a salute to the 1st Ukrainian Front, which has broken through German defenses hundreds of miles to the west. Time magazine later reported: "The first distant volley shook the hall. A lank, bald-headed man in white tie and tails... mounted the podium and stood and bowed head, facing Moscow State Philharmonic. He seemed to be counting of the rumbles of artillery. At the 20th, he raised his baton and began the world's premiere of his newest symphony. The bald-headed conductor was Russia's greatest living musician, Sergei Prokofiev."

The pianist Sviatoslav Richter was in the audience and also described the scene: "When Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to air straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waiting, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of the—including Prokofiev—had reached some kind of shared turning point."

The following November, after the end of hostilities in both Europe and the Pacific, the Fifth Symphony received its American premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Koussevitzky. It was a tremendous success, resulting in the Time article with Prokofiev on the cover.

The Music

The symphony's first movement is enormous in scale and lushly orchestrated. The opening Andante glows, working its way up to a climax of tam-tam crashed. The second movement, Allegro marcato, is more spritely, beginning almost like chamber music, and then gaining velocity through propellent motor rhythms. It cuts off abruptly, as if to say, "that's enough."

The third movement, Adagio, is reminiscent of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata in its lilting, nocturnal backdrop. Contrasting ideas intervene, but when the "Moonlight" accompaniment returns, it has become horrible and overwhelming. Finally, it fades and moves on, dream-like. The finale begins with the cello and basses contemplating a return of the first movements main melody. But then the tempo picks up and starts to shake off enormous tension—a celebration for people who have not had one for a long time.

First performance: January 13, 1945, by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, in Moscow, Russia, the composer conducting First SLSO performance: November 1, 1946, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: September 28, 2014, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings Approximate duration: 46 minutes


Benjamin Pesetsky is composer and writer. He serves on the San Fransisco Symphony staff and contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.


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