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Vivaldi's Four Seasons

Program Listing

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2022, 7:30 PM

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Deanna Tham, Conductor
SooBeen Lee, Violin

Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 8, Nos. 1–4
Concerto in E Major (“La primavera”)
Concerto in G Minor (“L’estate”)
Concerto in F Major (“L’autunno”)
Concerto in F Minor (“L’inverno”)
SooBeen Lee
 
INTERMISSION

Rodion Shchedrin

Carmen Suite (after Georges Bizet)

 

Program Notes

Vivaldi: Four Seasons
Bizet/Schedrin: Carmen Suite

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Antonio Vivaldi
1678-1741

Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8, Nos. 1-4

Work composed: published 1725. Dedicated to Count Wenceslas Morzin
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor/violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg led the Oregon Symphony on January 6-8, 2017
Instrumentation:  solo violin, continuo, and strings
Estimated duration: 43 minutes

These four concertos are arguably the most well-known works from the Baroque period, and are some of the most recognizable and most performed classical pieces of all time. With that level of exposure, it is easy to assume one “knows” the Four Seasons, but there is more to these concertos than meets the eye, or the ear. For one thing, they are the first four concertos of a larger collection of concerti titled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The contest between harmony and invention). Although published in 1725, there is no firm date of composition; scholars believe the Four Seasons to have been composed as much as a decade earlier. Another interesting aspect of these works is their literary and programmatic components. Each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet, very possibly written by Vivaldi himself, which gives specific descriptions of the music as it unfolds. As with Johannes Brahms, who often set second-rate poetry in his masterful lieder, so here the literary quality of the sonnets is negligible, but the music they inspired has endured for more than 350 years.

All the concertos feature the conventional Baroque structure of three movements, fast-slow-fast, and the fast movements are composed of alternating ritornello (whole ensemble)-solo sections. The slow movements are freer, in the manner of an aria.

Spring begins with a joyful welcome to the Goddess of Spring; the first solo’s birdcalls are a natural complement to the structured music of the ritornello. Subsequent solos evoke a flowing brook and a cloudburst. In the slow movement we hear a gentle lullaby for a sleeping goatherd. A solo viola intones the insistent slow barking of the goatherd’s dog (listen for the “bow wow”). In the third movement, a country dance celebrates the season of renewal.

Summer’s slow introduction suggests a hot, humid Italian summer day: “Under the merciless summer sun languishes man and flock; the pine tree burns…” Lethargic birdcalls are abruptly interrupted by violent thunderstorms. In the slow movement, the soloist (shepherd) cries out in fear for his flock in the blistering heat. While he laments, the ensemble becomes buzzing flies and bluebottles. The final movement is a tremendous hailstorm that destroys the crops.

Harvest celebrations herald the coming of Autumn as the peasants take part in a joyous Bacchanalian revel. The more they drink, the more they stumble, hiccup and finally lay down to sleep. The soloist’s music is by turns merry, fiery, inebriated, and exhausted. The slow movement is a hushed lullaby for the drunken, sleeping merrymakers that features shifting harmonies and slow arpeggios for the harpsichord. In the final movement, everyone gathers for the hunt, one of Vivaldi’s most richly descriptive movements. We hear the hunting horns, barking dogs, and the pursuit and capture of the quarry.

The shivering tremolo of the solo violin ushers in Winter. The solos here are the most demanding in all of the four concertos, and both solo and ritornello effectively capture freezing temperatures and biting winds. In the slow movement Vivaldi takes us indoors to warm up. The soloist plays a lyrical melody over pizzicato strings, which represent dripping raindrops striking a windowpane. In the final movement, we “walk on the ice with slow steps and go carefully for fear of falling,” heard in the stuttering stop-and-start solo part. Despite the unceasing north winds and slippery ice, for Vivaldi, winter “brings joy.”

 

Rodion Shchedrin
b. 1932

Carmen Suite (after Georges Bizet)

Work composed: 1967, for Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso’s ballet Carmen
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor/violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg led the Oregon Symphony on January 6-8, 2017
Instrumentation: bass drum, bells, 4 bongos, castanets, cherleston, chocolo, claves, cow bells, crotales, cymbals, guiro, snare drum, vibraphone, marimba, triangle, wood block, tambourine, maracas, whip, 3 temple blocks, tam-tam, 5 tom-toms, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 22 minutes

Rodion Shchedrin first established himself outside Russia in 1967, with his music for a ballet version of Carmen. Shchedrin wrote the ballet as a vehicle for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Plisetskaya turned to Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso to create the dance based on her husband’s music.

Although well received by the public, Soviet apparatchiks banned all subsequent performances, substituting The Nutcracker instead. Shchedrin recalls, “These were the main accusations against me: 1) mockery of the masterpiece of Bizet and 2) sexual interpretation of Carmen (the Communists were always afraid of sex). ‘You made a prostitute out of a heroine of the Spanish people’ – that was the verdict of the Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtzeva … But Dmitri Shostakovich, who many times helped me and many composers of my generation … openly stood up in my defense; he visited the Ministry of Culture, he called the highest bureaucrats in the government and the Communist Party trying to convince them that Shchedrin very much respects the genius of Bizet … did not have any evil intention, etc. etc. … This, thank God, helped! Nutcracker was replaced by Carmen and the second performance finally took place … The day of the [second] premiere, the great Shostakovich paid me a compliment which I am still proud of: ‘It is even more difficult to have a happy result using well-known melodies of somebody else than to write a good new composition of your own.’” Today, the Carmen Suite is a staple of both the Bolshoi and many other ballet companies around the world. Shchedrin’s orchestral suite has likewise garnered its own renown in the concert hall.

When Plisetskaya first asked her husband to write the music for a new ballet based on Carmen, Shchedrin demurred. He later explained, “I was highly skeptical about this idea ... [it] seemed to ignore the fact that the story had long become inseparable from Bizet’s opera.” Eventually Shchedrin agreed, but he was determined not to create what he called “a slavish obeisance to the genius of Bizet, but rather an attempt at a creative meeting of two minds.” He added, “Bizet’s score is one of the most perfect in the whole history of music, and so I felt that it was very important, while working on the piece, to bring out the differences between my transcription and the original by means of tone colors. This aim also affected my choice of instruments and persuaded me to concentrate on strings and percussion.”

Shchedrin’s ballet offers a fresh take on Carmen, while also confounding our expectations. Hardly a literal transcription, Shchedrin also incorporates music from Bizet’s operas L’Arlésienne and La Jolie Fille de Perth, re-arranges the opera’s chronology of events, deletes the character of Micaela completely, and, in the most surprising move, yanks the famous Toreador melody away in mid-note, leaving only a bare-bones accompaniment.

© Elizabeth Schwartz