Program Notes: Romeo and Juliet (January 15-16, 2022)

Program


Stéphane Denève, conductor

Augustin Hadelich, violin


Valerie Coleman

Umoja: Anthem of Unity (2019)


Samuel Barber

Violin Concerto, op. 14 (1939)

Allegro

Andante

Presto in moto perpetuo


Augustin Hadelich, violin


Sergei Prokofiev

Romeo and Juliet Suite (1935, rev. 1940)

Montagues and Capulets—

Minuet

Juliet, the Young Girl

Masks

Montagues and Capulets

Romeo and Juliet

Friar Lawrence

The Death of Tybalt

Romeo at Juliet's Grave

Juliet's Death



Program Notes

By Tim Munro


Stéphane on Romeo and Juliet Suite


My piano teacher, André Dumortier, adored Russian music. I studied and played a lot of Prokofiev’s music. In those days I already realized that, while French music was in my blood, Russia was my second musical motherland. Prokofiev’s music gives me the feeling of being at home.


A link exists between French and Russian music. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian aristocracy spoke French. At the beginning of the 20th century, “Franco-Russian modernity,” from Rimsky-Korsakov to Ravel, and from Debussy to Stravinsky, shared a taste for shimmering orchestral colors, together with a special appetite for dance.


Romeo and Juliet provides the synthesis of Prokofiev’s “Western” and “Soviet” periods. By virtue of its dramatic unity, its breadth, its motifs that change unceasingly, and its richness in theme and rhythm, the ballet rapidly became one of the most famous of his works. He would draw three symphonic suites from it.


I have given a great deal of thought to the ideal presentation of this music in concert. I’ve never found Prokofiev’s own suites to be convincing. I imagined my own suite, which would tell the story of the ballet.

Valerie Coleman

Umoja: Anthem of Unity

Valerie Coleman

Born 1970, Louisville, Kentucky


Valerie Coleman is a GRAMMY-nominated flutist, composer, and teacher. She is the founding flutist of the Imani Winds, a wind quintet whose history is represented in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Coleman’s music embraces the full range of humanity. She has works that celebrate the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, pay tribute to the life of boxer Muhammed Ali, and shout in defiance at the death of Eric Garner.


Umoja is the Swahili word for unity. It is also the first of seven Principles of Kwanzaa. One Kwanzaa website asks people “to strive for unity in the family, community, nation, and race.”


Coleman’s Umoja has its origins in a simple song for women’s choir. Her goal was to embody “a sense of ‘tribal unity’ through the feel of a drum circle, the sharing of history through traditional ‘call and response’ form and the repetition of a memorable sing-song melody.”


The orchestral version, Coleman writes, “brings an expansion and sophistication to the short and sweet melody.” At first, the melody sings sweetly. It is then interrupted by “the clash of injustices, racism, and hate that threatens to gain a foothold in the world today.”


The melody returns “as a gentle reminder of kindness and humanity. The journey ends with a bold call of unity that harkens back to the original anthem. Now more than ever, ‘Umoja’ has to ring as a strong and beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”

Coleman’s preface in the score includes the following words:


Listen my people,

Children of ALL

It’s time for Unity

Hear the Winds call.

Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah.

Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah.

First performance: September 19, 2019, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Seguin conducting

First SLSO performance: This concert

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes

Samuel Barber

Violin Concerto


Samuel Barber

Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died January 23, 1981, New York, New York

At age 9, American composer Samuel Barber handed his mother a letter. “Mother,” he wrote, “I have written to tell you a worrying secret. I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer.”


Barber’s musical voice was clear early. It would combine deep wells of emotion with rigorous technique. “My aim,” he said, “is to write good music that will be comprehensible to as many people as possible.”


The Violin Concerto was Barber’s first significant commission. Months prior, a broadcast of the Adagio for Strings brought his name to national attention. His music would be in demand for the rest of his life.


The concerto was commissioned by a soap magnate. Tension over the music’s difficulty left a bitter taste—Barber would later call the work his Concerto del sapone (“The soap concerto”). But he poured time and care into the work, testing and revising the concerto over months.


The first movement’s long, arcing lines are a reminder that the young Barber wanted to become a professional singer. But storm clouds darken the sky—Barber wrote much of the concerto in Europe, threatened by the imminent danger of war.


The second movement pulls us inwards. It paints a Barber at home in solitude, musing quietly in his private world of music, books, and art. Solo winds and horn bring us to a place that lies somewhere between melancholy and nostalgia.


The finale fizzes like popped champagne. At parties with friends, Barber’s warmth was sharpened with an acid wit. The violin is a tongue that dishes gossip and enjoys several rounds of drinks.

First performance: February 7, 1941, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, with Albert Spalding as soloist

First SLSO performance: June 24, 1976, Leonard Slatkin conducting with Dylana Jenson as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: December 6, 2009, Peter Oundjian conducting, with David Halen as soloist

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 25 minutes

Sergei Prokofiev

Romeo and Juliet Suite

Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia


At 40, Sergei Prokofiev was world-famous. He toured the globe, writing fashionable music that took risks. His home was divided between Paris and Moscow, but the gathering clouds of the 1930s would make this life impossible.


Soviet operatives made a pitch to bring Prokofiev back to Russia. The carrot: a bottomless well of work as the preeminent Soviet musician. The stick: a ban on entering Russia if he continued living in the West. Homesick and trusting, he chose Russia.


Prokofiev spent his first summer in a tiny cottage outside Moscow, writing the ballet Romeo and Juliet. It would face uphill battle: disagreements about the music (“too complex, undanceable”) and the ending (happy or tragic?).


There were also arguments about politics. The Soviets had cast older works aside, but Shakespeare survived: his plays had a centuries-old history in Russia, and Karl Marx was a fan. Still, was the story “Soviet” enough?


Prokofiev’s music matches Shakespeare’s blend of love and violence, humor and tragedy. He combines instruments like flavors, blending and enhancing and contrasting. The full orchestra revels in virtuosity, while orchestral solo seek emotional truth.


Synopsis

Stéphane Denève has made his own suite of sections from the ballet. Below, he introduces the music and story.


Montagues and Capulets. In the first moments, Prokofiev expresses the opposition between these two clans. A loud, dissonant chord fades to reveal the strings playing as quietly as possible. On one side, the Montagues, and on the other the Capulets. The décor has been set and the story can begin.


Minuet. A gallery of characters glare at one another.


Juliet. Prokofiev introduces Juliet at three different ages. In infancy, learning scales and arpeggios. In adolescence, embodied by a graceful clarinet melody. At the cusp of adulthood, with a nostalgic flute. Prokofiev’s apparently simple musical ideas express complex sentiments.


Masks. Here come the Montagues! These mocking young men are very excited by the prospect of wearing a mask to join in the Capulets’ celebrations.


Knights Dance. Romeo and Juliet fall in love. The image is frozen: over two chords, Prokofiev unfolds a simple, syncopated arpeggio; the rhythm develops into a slow waltz; a flute solo is doubled by the violas.


Balcony Scene. The hot-headedness of the two lovers is expressed with passion. Prokofiev’s music is sensual and lyrical. The music, and bodies, fly away.


Friar Laurence. Prokofiev evokes this affable character with a slow, clumsy march on the bassoon, tuba, and low strings, accompanied by clarinets.


Death of Tybalt. Romeo, urged to take revenge, kills Tybalt in a virtuosic musical duel, with the violins playing countless notes per second!


Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb. Romeo flees, and, believing Juliet to be dead, goes secretly to the Capulets’ crypt. Finding her inanimate body, he takes poison and dies in music of overwhelming dissonance.


Juliet’s Death. Juliet awakens and, on discovering the lifeless Romeo, she dies by suicide.


Initially, Prokofiev imagined a happy ending for Romeo and Juliet. Obliged to preserve Shakespeare’s ending, his music for this tragic episode betrays his taste for the miraculous. Prokofiev’s soft and moving conclusion gives the impression that Juliet and Romeo are united in death for eternity. Prokofiev, a Christian Scientist, believed in the immortality of the soul.


In a word, love is stronger than death...


First performance: December 30, 1938, at the Mahen Theatre in Brno, Czech Republic (ballet)

First SLSO performance: February 4, 1949, Vladimir Golschmann conducting (Suite No. 2)

Most recent SLSO performance: January 28, 2018, Gemma New conducting (selections from Suite No. 2 and No. 3)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 40 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.