Conducted one hour before each performance, the Concert Conversation will feature Associate Conductor Deanna Tham and Brandi Parisi, host of All Classical Portland on Saturday & Sunday, and Adam Eccleston, host of All Classical Portland, before the Monday evening performance.
War informed and impacted all the music on tonight’s concert. The works of Henri Dutilleux and Maurice Ravel were written in response to the devastation of two different world wars. Sergei Prokofiev had to wait five years for the premiere of his first violin concerto, which had been originally scheduled for November 1917, barely a month after the Russian Revolution broke out.
The Shadows of Time: Five Episodes for Orchestra
Work composed: 1997. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: at these concerts
Instrumentation: 3 children’s voices, 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, crotales, glockenspiel, small Chinese gong, marimbaphone, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tams, temple blocks, tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, whip, wood chimes, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 20 minutes
Henri Dutilleux wrote The Shadows of Time in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, but also to mark the particularity of one example of Nazi inhumanity: the deportation of an entire population of Jewish orphans to concentration camps. Dutilleux links these children with another young victim of the Nazis: Anne Frank, whose diary was returned to her father Otto Frank in 1945 by a friend who had rescued it after Nazis discovered the Franks’ hiding place.
Shrieking trumpets and discordant brasses rip open “Hours,” which features a myriad of downward cascading lines and a temple block relentlessly ticking away. The brief, hair-raising music of “Evil Ariel,” named for a malevolent spirit, whirls in controlled chaos, spiraling like mini-tornados full of harsh timbres and ominous muttering.
Dutilleux dedicated the third episode, “Memory of Shadows,” to “Anne Frank and all children who died innocently between 1945 and 1995.” Three child singers cry, “Why us?” “Why the [yellow] star?” on a repeated rising fragment echoed by the brasses and developed by the full ensemble. Gradually a maelstrom of sound, anchored by growling brasses and echoing timpani, engulfs the children’s poignant cries.
An unnamed interlude connects the third and fourth episodes with repeated soundings of a single pitch using varied timbres. “Waves of Light” continues this evolution, beginning in the low strings and gradually moving into a rich chorus of winds, which expand and comment on the original fragments of melody. The concluding “Dominant Blue?” reprises the children’s upward-rising question phrase, which the orchestra attempts to answer with a series of thick-textured responses in the brasses and strings. The ticking temple block resumes its inexorable counting: time continues its forward march while those who survived the war’s atrocities attempt to make sense of the unimaginable.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Work composed: 1915-17
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Principal Guest Conductor Jun Märkl led the Oregon Symphony and violinist James Ehnes on March 21-22, 2015
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 22 minutes
In 1917, as WWI raged across Europe and political unrest in Russia grew, 26-year-old Sergei Prokofiev was enjoying the most productive year of his compositional life; in addition to his first violin concerto, Prokofiev completed his Classical Symphony, the Third and Fourth piano sonatas and the Visions fugitives for piano. Prokofiev had returned to the St. Petersburg Conservatory when the war began, to avoid conscription in the Russian army; there he also began work on what would become his best-known piano concerto, No. 3.
Unfortunately for Prokofiev, the premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 1, which had been scheduled for November 1917, was cancelled after the October Revolution swept across Russia. As a result, the Violin Concerto did not receive its premiere until 1923, in Paris. Prokofiev, apolitical by nature, was frustrated by the long delay.
A number of celebrated artists attended the premiere, including Pablo Picasso, composer Karol Szymanowski, dancer Anna Pavlova, pianist Artur Rubenstein and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Post-WWI Parisian audiences, who, according to musicologist Michael Steinberg “wanted their modern music to carry a certain shock value,” scoffed at the concerto’s lyricism and conventional format; composer Georges Auric’s sneering description of the concerto as “Mendelssohnian” neatly summed up the Parisian point of view. Prokofiev, however, had gone beyond the standard violin concerto format and put his own unique stamp on this time-honored musical genre. This violin concerto practiced a type of musical subversion, full of subtle and not-so-subtle surprises, which the Parisian audience clearly failed to appreciate. Audiences in Moscow, however, where the concerto was performed three days later in a version for violin and piano, received it with great enthusiasm.
Russian critic Israel Nestyev said he heard “the vibration of all the joy of living, all the love of sunshine and nature” in the Violin Concerto No. 1, and the outer movements live up to Nestyev’s characterization. In the Scherzo, however, Prokofiev utilizes every possible string technique to create tension and agitation. At the time, several of these techniques were new and daring, particularly spiccato (staccato bowing) and sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge, which produces a buzzing, nasal tone). By combining the conventional virtuosity and lyrical melodies of a typical violin concerto with the in-your-face, avant-garde techniques of the Scherzo, Prokofiev expanded his musical vocabulary and also created a new dimension for subsequent violin concertos to explore.
Le tombeau de Couperin
Work composed: Originally a six-movement work for piano, written between 1914-17; each movement is dedicated to the memory of a friend killed during WWI. The orchestrated version, which does not include either the Fugue or the Toccata of the original piano suite, was completed in June 1919.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Claus Peter Flor led the Oregon Symphony on October 31-November 1, 2009
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, harp, and strings.
Estimated duration: 16 minutes
World War I took a heavy toll on Maurice Ravel, as a number of his friends were killed in action. Ravel also witnessed the horrors of war firsthand; although he was 39 when the war began, Ravel enlisted, and became an ambulance driver.
Ravel wrote Le tombeau de Couperin as an homage to François Couperin, one of the major composers of the French Baroque era “and to 18th-century French music in general.” Tombeau literally means “tomb,” but it also refers to a work, or collection of works, either musical or poetic, written in homage to a dead colleague or master. Tombeaux of this sort are a part of French musical and literary tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Musicologist Gerard McBurney points out, “Beneath the formality of this music is an elegy for French culture, which was being deeply threatened and might well have been destroyed by a world war which was turning the north of France into a blood bath … [Le tombeau] doesn’t talk directly about the war at all; it talks about eternal values: beauty, elegance, the things that we want to preserve … in other words, the opposite of war.” For Ravel, however, Le tombeau de Couperin was also a personal memorial to friends and colleagues killed during the war.
Pianist Marguerite Long, whose husband was one of those to whom Ravel dedicated a movement of the Tombeau, and who premiered the original piano suite in 1919, resolutely defended Ravel when Le tombeau was criticized for its lack of solemnity. “The dead are unhappy enough as they are,” Long declared. “Is it necessary to dedicate laments to them forever? When a musician of genius gives them the best of himself and at the same time something they would have enjoyed, isn’t that the most moving tribute he can make?”
Le tombeau employs several dance styles, in the manner of a Baroque suite. The second movement forlane is a dance from northern Italy, the third is the popular Baroque menuet, and the final movement’s dance, a rigaudon, hails from Provence.
La valse, poème chorégraphique pour orchestre
Work composed: Ravel began this music, then titled “Wien” (Vienna) in 1914, and set it aside when the war began. Ravel returned to Wien in 1919, retitled it La valse, and completed it in the spring of 1920. Originally commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led the Oregon Symphony on November 19-21, 2016
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, ancient cymbals, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, 2 harps and strings.
Estimated duration: 13 minutes
Between 1914 and 1918, Maurice Ravel composed virtually nothing, aside from Le tombeau de Couperin. Although he was 40 in 1915, Ravel insisted on serving in the army; he became a truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment. The stress of war, and concern over his mother (she died in 1917), took a heavy toll on Ravel’s physical and mental state.
In 1919, Serge Diaghilev approached Ravel about a commission for the Ballets Russes. In response, Ravel resurrected an unfinished symphonic poem from 1914, Wien (Vienna), inspired originally by Ravel’s affection for Viennese waltzes. Now retitled La valse and reconceived as a “choreographic poem,” Ravel played it for Diaghilev in a two-piano version in April 1920. When Ravel had finished, Diaghilev said to him … “Ravel, it’s a masterpiece, but it isn’t a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.” Stung by Diaghilev’s rejection, Ravel severed all ties with the impresario.
“I conceived of this work as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling to death,” wrote Ravel. “At first the scene is dimmed by a kind of swirling mist, through which one discerns, vaguely and intermittently, the waltzing couples. Little by little the vapors disappear, the illumination grows brighter, revealing an immense ballroom filled with dancers…” By the end of La valse, the waltz itself has been splintered beyond recognition, by, in Ravel’s words, “a fantastic and fatal whirling.” This frightening conclusion suggests not merely the death of the waltz, but Europe’s collapse during WWI. Although Ravel rejected any political interpretations of La valse, this music, with its ironic, fractured rhythms and ominous harmonies, has come to symbolize the annihilation of pre-war European culture.
© Elizabeth Schwartz