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Youth Orchestra Performs La Mer

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Sunday, November 17, 2019, at 3:00PM

Gemma New, conductor

ROSSINI Semiramide Overture JOHN ADAMS The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra DEBUSSY La Mer

SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture


composer Gioachino Rossini photo
Gioachino Rossini


Born February 29, 1792, Pesaro, Italy

Died November 13, 1868, Paris, France

Semiramide Overture

What to listen for

Rossini took what was for him an unusual approach to the overture he composed for Semiramide (the score for the entire opera was said to have taken him less than a month). Many of his other overtures use material unrelated to the opera to come. The famous Barber of Seville overture, for example, actually recycles tunes originally written for non-comic operas. But Semiramide’s overture is woven from thematic ideas that do occur within the opera itself. Moreover, it’s one of Rossini’s most expansive curtain raisers, second only to the William Tell Overture in length.

Semiramide remains a work rarely encountered in the opera house, but the overture enjoys a life of its own in the concert hall thanks to its superb craftsmanship. This is a composer at the top of his game. Already in the opening gestures we hear a brief example of Rossini’s signature crescendo: a tidal pull that involves not just an increase in volume but an increase in density as well, as more and more instruments are piled on to the texture. A slow reverie for a quartet of horns holds our attention for several minutes before the fast Allegro section takes off with another characteristically Rossinian theme in the strings. Notice the delectable writing for the woodwinds, especially in the second theme—and then a longer-range playout of that unmistakable crescendo. The pattern is repeated before Rossini caps the overture with a thrillingly energetic final section.

First performance: February 3, 1823, in Venice, Italy, Antonio Cammerra conducting

First SLSYO performance: November 25, 1977, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting

Most recent SLSYO performance: November 20, 2011, Ward Stare conducting

Scoring: flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), strings

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes

Notes by Thomas May


composer John Adams photo
John Adams


Born February, 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts

The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra

John Adams’ “breakthrough” composition, the one that brought him international attention, was his opera Nixon in China. Completed in 1987 after two years of work, Nixon in China imagines in fantastical, sometimes surreal, terms the historic 1972 visit of the 37th President to the People’s Republic of China and his meeting with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

At the time he had begun working on the opera, Adams also was obligated to fulfill a commission from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a new orchestral piece. Engrossed in the sound-world and mise en scène of Nixon in China, he wrote a “Foxtrot for Orchestra” that he originally planned to include in the opera’s third act. This music, The Chairman Dances, ended up being, in the composer’s words, “an out-take” from Nixon in China, but it has acquired a life of its own as a concert piece.

The scene for which The Chairman Dances was conceived centers, Adams explains, on Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled “Madame Mao,” firebrand, revolutionary, executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow-moving protocol, and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to “come down, old man, and dance.” The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above a bustling fabric of energized motives.

First performance: January 31, 1986, Lukas Foss conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

First SLSYO performance: March 14, 2004, Scott Parkman conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bell tree, castanets, claves, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, high hat, pedal bass drum, sandpaper blocks, snare drum, suspended cymbal, suspended sizzle cymbal, tambourine, triangle, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone), harp, piano, strings

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes

Notes by Paul Schiavo


photo of composer Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy


Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Died March 25, 1918, Paris, France

La Mer

What’s in a Title?

La Mer (“The Sea”) is subtitled trois esquisses symphoniques (“three symphonic sketches”). Debussy chose these words carefully. Fearing the word “symphony” aligned him with a reviled conservative culture, he added the word “sketches.” Sketches: musical drawings. Sketches: forms that are outlined, preliminary.

“I feel more and more that music,” wrote Debussy, “is not something that can flow inside a rigorous, traditional form.” The sounds of La Mer flow like ocean waters: sometimes still, sometimes storm-tossed, sometimes forming recognizable shapes, sometimes slipping from our grasp.

La Mer’s new musical world confounded many listeners. Debussy dismissed the criticisms of those who “love and defend traditions which, for me, no longer exist. [Such traditions] were not all as fine and valuable as people make out. [T]he dust of the past is not always respectable.”

The Music

Debussy is a sonic magician. With pen and paper he conjures whole worlds that might be gone in an instant. A trumpet and an English horn produce new colors through alchemy. Cellos (divided into four groups) soar through the air, leaving French horn contrails. Clarinet and flute play hide-and-seek amid plucked violas.

Each movement takes a journey that is unpredictable, yet feels organic:

1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From dawn to noon on the sea”): The first movement glows and flutters, ending with an overwhelming surge.

2. Jeux de vagues (“Play of the waves”): In the second, slippery melodies dart and weave around the orchestra.

3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialogue of the wind and the sea”): The third movement is wild, violent, barely able to contain its radiant, hymn-like conclusion.

First Performance: October 15, 1905, Paris, France, Camille Chevillard conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux

First SLSYO performance: March 9, 2012, Ward Stare conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, glockenspiel, triangle), 2 harps, strings

Performance time: Approximately 23 minutes

Notes by Tim Munro


photo of composer Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich


Born September 25, 1906, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Died August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia

Festive Overture

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture makes the perfect finale for today’s concert. Its vibrant, celebratory spirit is one reason. Another is its origin in a collection of easy piano pieces called Children’s Notebook. The piece in question is called Birthday, so it’s hardly surprising that it came to mind nine years later when Shostakovich was asked at the eleventh hour to write a concert overture for another kind of birthday celebration: the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Two days before the dress rehearsal, Vasili Nebolsin, conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre, had called on Shostakovich in desperation: “You see, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, we are in a tight spot. We’ve got nothing to open the concert with.” Shostakovich’s laconic reply: “All right.”

One of his friends recalled Shostakovich composing the overture before his very eyes, at a “truly astounding” speed, talking and making jokes at the same time. An hour later, Nebolsin began sending couriers to take the music to the copyists at the Bolshoi Theatre:

What happened next was like the scene with the hundred thousand couriers out of Gogol’s Government Inspector. Dmitri Dmitriyevich sat there scribbling away and couriers came in turn to take away the pages while the ink was still wet—first one, then a second, a third, and so on.

His skill and mastery of musical form and style allowed him to shape the overture from two contrasting themes, which provided for intrinsic musical interest. He framed the whole work with splendid fanfares—simple but strong. Almost certainly modeled after Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, Shostakovich’s overture shares the same characteristics: orchestral virtuosity, exhilarating speed, and compelling melodies. He also borrowed existing musical ideas, taking the Birthday piano fanfare and transforming it for brass and adapting the fast theme in the overture from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

At every turn, Shostakovich drew from craft and experience. The result wasn’t original or groundbreaking, but then the Soviets didn’t want original or groundbreaking, they wanted musical propaganda. It says something about the effectiveness of the Festive Overture that it has risen above its origins to become a popular concert work: brilliant and effervescent “like uncorked champagne.”

First performance: November 6, 1954, in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Alexander Melik-Pashayev conducting

First SLSYO performance: December 12, 1975, Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting

Most recent SLSYO performance: May 16, 2010, Ward Stare conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), strings

Performance time: Approximately 7 minutes

Notes by Yvonne Frindle



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