Program Notes: Stéphane Conducts The Firebird (March 12-13, 2022)

Program


Stéphane Denève, conductor

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano


Stacy Garrop

Goddess Triptych (World Premiere) (2020)

Durga Battles a Buffalo Demon

Lakshmi Sits on a Lotus Flower

Ganga Cascades from the Heavens


Camille Saint-Saëns

Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, op. 103, "Egyptian" (1896)

Allegro animato

Andante

Molto allegro


Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano


Paul Dukas

Fanfare from La Péri (1912)

(played without pause)

La Péri (Poème dansé)


Igor Stravinsky

The Firebird Suite

Introduction—

Prelude and Dance of the Firebird

Variations (Firebird)

Rondo (Chorovod)

Infernal Dance—

Lullaby (Buerceuse)—

Final Hymn

 

Program Notes

By Benjamin Pesetsky


Stacy Garrop

Goddess Triptych


Stacy Garrop

Born December 5, 1969, Columbus, Ohio



The Composer

Stacy Garrop’s music is centered on dramatic and lyrical storytelling. She shares stories by taking audiences on sonic journey—some simple and beautiful, others complicated and dark. Garrop wrote Goddess Triptych for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by the League of American Orchestras with the generous support of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Garrop writes:

“The Hindu religion has a very ancient and rich history involving a wide array of gods and goddesses. My interest into Hindu stories began with my orchestral work Shiva Dances... my initial thought was to write a companion piece for Shiva Dances, but this time featuring the tale of a goddess. Over the course of my research, however, I discovered such a wealth of goddesses with fascinating stories that I decided to present three goddesses instead of just one.


Movement 1: Durga Battles a Buffalo Demon

Durga was created by the gods for the purpose of slaying a powerful buffalo demon that could not be killed by any male mortal or deity. She is typically pictured riding a lion, with her ten or eighteen arms carrying an assortment of weapons given to her by the gods. The movement begins with Durga issuing her battle cry. We hear the buffalo demon charging to meet her. The two engage in battle and ends with Durga slicing off the buffalo’s head.


Movement 2: Lakshmi Sits on a Lotus Blossom

Lakshmi is the goddess of beauty, fertility, and fortune. This quiet movement opens with Lakshmi sitting calmly and blissfully on a lotus blossom. In the middle of the movement, Lakshmi opens her lower two hands, and gold coins spill forth from her palms. The movement ends as it began when she returns to a blissful state.


Movement 3: Ganga Cascades from the Heavens

Ganga is the personification of the sacred river Ganges. The final movement opens as Ganga flows cheerfully around the heavens. She continues doing so until the god Vishnu kicks a hole in heaven’s wall. Ganga suddenly finds herself gushing through the hole and plummeting down uncontrollably towards earth. When Shiva realizes that Ganga is approaching with such force that she will destroy all that lies below her, he positions himself directly below Ganga to catch her waters in his hair. Shiva’s tactic succeeds; when Ganga reaches Shiva’s head, she becomes eternally tangled in his tresses. Shiva’s body breaks Ganga’s mighty water column into numerous streams that gently flow down his limbs to lightly fall upon the earth.

First performance: these concerts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 14 minutes

 
Camille Saint-Saëns

Piano Concerto No. 5


Camille Saint-Saëns

Born October 9, 1835, Paris, France

Died December 16, 1921, Algiers, Algeria


Composing Around the World

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Fifth Piano Concerto in 1896 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his own piano debut. At that performance he had been a ten-year-old prodigy; now he was a sixty-year- old man. Remarkably he still had more than 25 years of productive life ahead (he marked 75 years of performing with another concert in 1921)— though he became something of a living musical fossil.

The Fifth Piano Concerto, he explained, depicted one of his many sea voyages, and it captures the adventurousness and spacious pace of travel long before the age of flight. Saint-Saëns insisted the piece was not about one specific place. But unlike other composers who evoked faraway lands they only knew of secondhand, he composed most of the piece while staying in Luxor, Egypt. The only musical borrowing he admitted to was the song of a Nile boatman, which makes an appearance in the slow section of the second movement. But this earned the whole concerto the nickname “Egyptian.”


The Music

The first movement is purely Europe. At first bright and delicate, it grows into sonorous swells. Sometimes the solo piano sounds almost like an organ, while at other times it takes off in pianistic flights. The second movement begins with tremendous energy and rhythmic tension. Now we are clearly far away, bathed in a completely different palette of colors. In the middle section, the orchestra dissolves into a backdrop as the piano accompanies itself liltingly in a love song. We continue to visit here and there, and soon our stay in these distant lands is over. The finale can be heard as the return trip: the engine of the steamship, storms and fog, leisure activities on the deck—and finally the grand arrival back home.


First performance: June 2, 1896, in Paris by the orchestra of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Paul Taffanel conducting, with the composer as soloist

First SLSO performance: March 15, 1912, Max Zach conducting, with Basil Gauntlett as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: April 16, 2016, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting, with Louis Lortie as soloist

Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 29 minutes

 
Paul Dukas

Fanfare from La Péri

La Péri (Poème dansé)

Paul Dukas

Born October 1, 1865, Paris, France

Died May 17, 1935, Paris, France


French-Russian Relations

Paul Dukas’ La Péri was inspired by a picture and by a dancer. The picture was a graphite drawing by Gustave Moreau, which showed a Péri (a spirit in Persian mythology) riding on a dragon, holding a lute and a lotus flower. The dancer was Natalia Vladimirovna Trouhanova, who was born in Kyiv in 1885 and by 1911 became Dukas’ lover in Paris.


Dukas was a colleague of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, but much less prolific, completing fewer than 30 pieces over 50 years. A performance with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was an opportunity to break away from this staid career. Trouhanova was Diaghilev’s associate, but also sometimes rival; they forged a doomed alliance in which Diaghilev would present Dukas’ La Péri, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, and danced by Trouhanova. Days before the premiere it all fell apart in a disagreement. The show was canceled and a year passed before Trouhanova produced La Péri on her own series in April 1912. It was enthusiastically received by the audience and press, perhaps the pinnacle of Dukas’ career.


The Flower of Youth

Dukas described La Péri as a symphonic poem with a dance rather than a ballet. He added a brass fanfare in 1912, lengthening the instrumental introduction. The two characters are the hero Iskender (a mythological version of Alexander the Great) and the Péri. From Dukas’ own description:

When the Magi saw that his star had faded, Iskender traveled through Iran, searching for the Flower of Immortality. Three years passed without him finding it, until finally he reached the end of the Earth, the point where the land becomes one with the sea and the clouds. And there, on the steps that lead to the temple of Ormuzd, a Péri lay sleeping in a jeweled dress.

Iskender takes the Flower of Immortality from the Péri, but she needs it to enter her temple. So she dances for Iskender, approaching him to pluck it back, and then vanishes. Death nears as a shadow falls over him.


First performance (full ballet): April 22, 1912, in Paris, by the Société des Nouveaux-Concerts, the composer conducting


Fanfare from La Péri details First SLSO performance: October 21, 1949, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: February 23, 2020, Gemma New conducting Instrumentation: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba

Approximate duration: 3 minutes


La Péri (Poème dansé) details First SLSO performance: October 28, 1932, Vladimir Golschmann conducting Most recent SLSO performance: April 23, 1994, Mark Elder conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta, strings Approximate duration: 18 minutes

 
Igor Stravinsky

The Firebird Suite

Igor Stravinsky

Born June 17, 1882, Lomonosov, Russia

Died April 6, 1971, New York, New York


Just a few years before The Firebird premiered in Paris, Igor Stravinsky was an undistinguished law student in St. Petersburg wishing he was a composer instead. By chance he met the son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the reigning tsar of Russian composers, and soon was taking lessons with the man himself.

Meanwhile, Sergei Diaghilev had established the Ballets Russes in Paris, and began developing an ambitious new ballet with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine. They based it on two Russian folk characters—the magical Firebird and the evil Kashchei the Deathless. At least three established composers turned down the project before Diaghilev tried the 27-year-old Stravinsky. He was the last choice.

Yet The Firebird’s irresistible pull was quickly recognized. The French critic Robert Brussel visited a piano rehearsal in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1910: “By the end of the first scene, I was conquered: by the last, I was lost in admiration...a masterpiece.” The Paris premiere was met with universal acclaim. Nearly every musical and literary figure in Paris attended the first night—and suddenly Stravinsky, who the day before had been a complete unknown, was shaking hands with Claude Debussy and Marcel Proust.


The Music

Every good ballet needs a suite made from it, and Stravinsky revisited the piece three times (1911, 1919, and 1945) to adapt it for concert performance. He selected his favorite numbers and reduced the scoring from Diaghilev’s opulent orchestra—which included an overflowing brass section, unusual percussion, and three harps—to a more practical size.

The music emerges from the dark in the lowest depths of the orchestra, setting the stage as Kashchei’s cursed domain. Then the first magical effect: sliding harmonics in the strings, and the Firebird itself appears for its dance (glittering violins, chirping clarinet and flutes). Soon the Prince encounters the 13 princesses (Ronde des princesses), who dance a khorovod—a Russian circle dance, warmly accompanied by solo violin, winds, and cello. But it is a trap—in a sudden eruption of timpani, brass, and xylophone, Kashchei appears for his infernal dance. He is subdued by the return of the Firebird and its lullaby (Berceuse), sung mostly by the bassoon. Peace is restored in the Finale, which slowly builds from the glow of a horn solo into a magnificent full-orchestra celebration.


First performance (ballet): June 25, 1910, at the Opéra de Paris

First SLSO performance (excerpts): November 15, 1914, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 1, 2015, Hans Graf conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 

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


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.