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Program Notes: The Rite of Spring (April 29-30, 2023)

Program

April 29-30, 2023



Gabriela Lena Frank

Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra (2017)

Pinkillo Serrano—

Haillí—

Apu


Béla Bartók

Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)

Allegretto

Adagio religioso; Poco più mosso; Tempo I—

Allegro vivace


Piotr Anderszewski, piano


Intermission


Igor Stravinsky

Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-1913)

Part I: The Adoration of the Earth

Introduction—

The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls—

Ritual of Abduction—

Spring Rounds—

Ritual of the Rival Tribes—

Procession of the Sage—

The Sage—

Dance of the Earth

Part II: The Sacrifice

Introduction—

Mystic Circles of the Young Girls—

Glorification of the the Chosen One—

Evocation of the Ancestors

Ritual Action of the Ancestors—

Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)

 

Program Notes

By Yvonne Frindle


In an increasingly secular world, one of the bastions of spirituality and ritual is the orchestral concert. The parallels with religious worship are uncanny: the audience/congregation, the conductor/high priest, the instrumentalists/acolytes dressed in black, the musical score/holy book, and the rapt listening/contemplation. And then there are the little rituals of tuning, arrivals and departures, applause… Attending a concert can be a spiritual experience that immerses us in an emotional and narrative journey, and this concert promises such a journey.


The program begins in Andean Perú with a three-part tone poem that paints a vivid picture of a cheeky mountain spirit, Apu. Its composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, points to Béla Bartók as an important creative influence, and it’s his third piano concerto that forms the emotional heart of the concert. The backstory is a touching one: this concerto was composed as a farewell gift from a dying composer to his wife—a labor of love that Bartók was determined to finish. He nearly succeeded: the final 17 measures were left in shorthand, with the Hungarian word “vége” (the end).


Following intermission is a seminal work of the 20th century: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This portrait of “pagan Russia” is nearly 110 years old, yet it remains as thrilling and visceral in its effect as it must have been at its riotous premiere.

 
Gabriela Lena Frank

Apu: Tone Poem for Orchestra

Gabriela Lena Frank

Born 1972, Berkeley, California


“I don’t look like most composers in classical music,” says Gabriela Lena Frank, “I’m not white. I’m a woman. And, I’m alive.”


This California-born composer of Peruvian, Chinese, Jewish, and Lithuanian heritage, who was born with significant hearing loss, and who likes to remind listeners that she is “a disabled woman of color who is middle-aged,” has created a life writing string quartets and symphonies. And it’s appropriate that she shares the first half of this concert with Béla Bartók, since both composers incorporate their cultural heritage and ethnic traditions into the frameworks of the Western classical music tradition.


For Frank, narrative is all-important, and there are micro-stories woven into Apu, a tone poem in three continuous movements. The title refers to one of the many spirits or minor deities that inhabit the rocks, rivers and mountains of Andean Perú, keeping watch over travelers. Apu has a mischievous side, but can be placated by simple folk song and solemn prayer. The first movement, Pinkillo Serrano, provides the song. The inspiration is the pinkillo (a small, agile flute), and so the piccolo, shadowed by the flutes, takes center stage, leaping and laughing with ever-shifting rhythmic accents. It’s no accident that wind instruments are so prominent in Apu—in the Andes, Frank explains, you are so high up, you become very conscious of breath.


The longer second movement offers a prayer: Haillí. Marked “mysteriously,” it shifts the emphasis to the lower woodwind instruments, sharing the wispy melodic ideas between them. This leads directly into the third movement, Apu, representing the spirit itself with brilliant and dazzling music. At this point, the tuned percussion instruments, which have played such an important role throughout, really come into their own. Watch—and listen!—for the mallets flying above the marimba (wooden keys) and the xylophone (metal).

First performance: July 19, 2017, by the National Youth Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

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

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

 
Béla Bartók

Piano Concerto No. 3


Béla Bartók

Born 1881, Sânnicolau Mare, Romania

Died 1945, New York, New York

Who better to introduce Béla Bartók than one of his companions on the program?


Gabriela Lena Frank has often pointed to Bartók’s influence on her own music, including the life-changing college encounter with his music that led her to experience his genius: the intriguing theoretical innovations, the imaginative use of instrumental colors, the thrilling virtuosity, and, above all, the way he seamlessly integrated the folk traditions of his Hungarian

roots into his music. In this “cultural hybridity” she recognized the parallels and found an “unlikely reference point” for her own Peruvian roots.


Today, audiences know Bartók as a composer, with his vibrant Concerto for Orchestra one of his most popular works. (If you’ve studied piano, you may have played music from his Mikrokosmos.) But in his lifetime he was equally active as a concert pianist, and his first two piano concertos were composed as showpieces for himself to play—crafted to suit his particular style and technique.


His third piano concerto, however, tells a different story. It was composed in 1945 at the very end of his life. He was in exile in the United States—one of many European composers who fled the horrors of Nazism—living in poverty and dying of leukemia. This concerto was a farewell gift to his second wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, but there’s nothing valedictory about the music. Rather, it shares the attractive optimism and infectious melodic character of the Concerto for Orchestra.


Bartók, one of the first ethnomusicologists, had made it his life’s work to record and collect, with uncompromising fidelity, the folk music of eastern Europe. But he doesn’t resort to quoting this folk material in his music—instead he writes his own. The result is the finespun melodies of the first movement, presented first by the piano, above trilling strings and solemn timpani beats.


The second movement is the exquisite heart of the concerto. It’s marked “religioso” (a noteworthy choice for an atheist composer) in reference to the “Holy song of thanksgiving to the godhead from a convalescent” in Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op.132. The central section evokes Bartók’s signature “night music” style—mysteriously flickering and shimmering, and quoting North American bird calls, which he’d transcribed with as much care as one of his Hungarian folksongs. (Scholars have since identified specific birds, the Towhee and the Wood Thrush among them.) The chorale-like music of the opening then returns, leading directly into the virtuoso finale with its dance-like rhythms and hectic, uninhibited energy. This was to be the last music Bartók wrote—the final 17 measures (6 seconds or so) left in musical shorthand, to be expanded for orchestra after his death.

First performance: February 8, 1946, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, with György Sándor as soloist

First SLSO performance: December 12, 1953, conducted by Vladimir Golschmann, with Leonard Pennario as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: October 13, 2018, Gustavo Gimeno conducting, with Javier Perianes as soloist

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

Approximate duration: 23 minutes

 
Igor Stravinsky

The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky

Born 1882, Lomonosov, Russia

Died 1971, New York, New York


The first notes of The Rite of Spring emerge from the middle of the orchestra: a solitary bassoon playing a tortuous melody at the top of its range. Imagine a seedling, striving to pierce the frosty spring soil. At the 1913 premiere—played on a French bassoon with its distinctive reedy sound—it must have sounded strained and difficult. Today, every bassoonist perfects this solo as a matter of course. You’re more likely to hear this famous musical moment floating into the auditorium than struggling to find its way.


A century on, the ballet score at the heart one of the 20th century’s great succès de scandale has become a venerable concert hall classic. Even the story of the riot at the premiere is old news. (The riot, incidentally, was provoked more by Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography than by Igor Stravinsky’s music, which even the dancers could barely hear over the din.)


Since Gabriela Lena Frank has introduced Bartók, let’s look at Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring from Bartók’s viewpoint. Lecturing at Harvard in 1943, Bartók claimed that Stravinsky’s scores for Serge Diaghilev’s dance company, the Ballets Russes, were infused with folk material, and none more so than The Rite of Spring. “Almost all the motives,” he said, “seem to be Russian peasant music motives or their excellent imitations.” Elsewhere, Bartók observed how Stravinsky, rather than adopting multi-phrased folk melodies, instead takes short, brittle fragments, repeating them in compelling patterns.


Stravinsky, for his part, denied folk influence in The Rite, admitting to only one instance: the opening bassoon solo stems from a Lithuanian folk song. (Russian music scholar Richard Taruskin subsequently established that Stravinsky’s raw material included more than a dozen Lithuanian, Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian tunes, nearly all of them related to ancient spring festivities.) Ironically, as Taruskin points out, “It was precisely the most novel aspects of Stravinsky’s music, its form and rhythm, that were most heavily indebted to folklore.”


The Rite of Spring is notable for its beautifully haunting melodies and for its striking use of orchestral colors, but the real trademark of the music is the elemental, and often savage, rhythms. This spring awakening—conceived by Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and the original designer Nicholas Roerich as “Scenes from Pagan Russia”—is ancient and fierce. Stravinsky’s “primitive” harmonies and rhythms have become a familiar part of our musical language, absorbed into sound worlds as diverse as the concert hall, the film studio, and rock power chords, but they still sound undeniably modern and even a little confronting. There’s no need to put on “1913 ears” (or thump the head of your neighbor) in order to experience the essence of The Rite of Spring.


The list of musical numbers mirrors the ballet’s scenario, outlining its terrifying drama of ritual sacrifice, and the larger structure of the music is easily discernible. It falls in two roughly equal parts—The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice—each of which begins quietly and mysteriously (not all of The Rite is brutal) before building to a shattering climax.


Stravinsky’s pounding syncopations begin by emphasizing all the wrong beats while basically following a regular metrical scheme, but by the Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One at the end of the ballet, every measure is in a different time signature, with the beats changing rapidly from groups of three, to two, to five… Stravinsky, who composed at the piano, said of the Sacrificial Dance that at first he knew how to play it, but not how to write it down. And Pierre Monteux, who conducted the premiere, never actually saw the ballet, quite possibly because he didn’t dare take his eyes off the music stand.


The Rite of Spring made Stravinsky’s name. The 31-year-old was already a minor celebrity when the ballet premiered in Paris, but The Rite brought him true notoriety. And while the original ballet soon fell out of the repertoire, the music quickly established a place in the concert repertoire. Stravinsky made sure of that, suppressing the original scenario and its pagan Russian setting, and claiming, for example, that the physicality of his hammering chords had inspired the vision of a “Great Sacrifice,” rather than the reverse. “I have written a work that is architectonic,” he said, “not anecdotal.” We might not believe that—this music is too visceral to be purely abstract—but it’s also true that the hypnotic, ritualistic qualities of Stravinsky’s music stand on their own.


First performance: May 29, 1913, by the Ballets Russes, Pierre Monteux conducting

First SLSO performance: October 12, 1963, Eleazar de Carvalho conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: September 17, 2011, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: 2 piccolos, 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo 2), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn 2), 2 English horns, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet 2), 2 bass clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon 2), 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns (7th and 8th doubling Wagner tuba), 4 trumpets (4th doubling bass trumpet), piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 33 minutes

 

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

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