Dabke for String Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Conducted one hour before each performance, the Concert Conversation will be led by host Raúl Gómez-Rojas. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit orsymphony.org/conversations to watch the video on demand.
Dabke for String Orchestra
Work composed: 2014. Commissioned for and premiered by the Kronos Quartet and Community MusicWorks players. Dedicated to the memory of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
First Oregon Symphony performance Instrumentation: string orchestra
Estimated duration: 7 minutes
Steeped in the musical traditions of the Near East and trained in Western concert music and jazz, Syrian-American Kareem Roustom is a musically bilingual composer who has collaborated with a wide variety of artists ranging from the Kronos Quartet to Shakira. BBC Radio 3 classical music host Tom Service has described Roustom’s music as “among the most distinctive to have emerged from the Middle East.” Roustom’s genre-crossing collaborations include music commissioned by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, arrangements for pop icon Tina Turner, and a recent collaboration with acclaimed British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.
Roustom writes, “Dabke for string orchestra is an arrangement of the third movement of my triple string quartet A Voice Exclaiming. A dabke is an Arab folkloric line dance that is typically performed at joyous occasions. The leader of the dance line, the hawaash, directs the movements of the dancers behind him. There are many variants of this dance that involve men and women and I felt that this ideal of a communal, inclusive dance best supports the inspiration behind this project with the ideals of Community MusicWorks and the Kronos Quartet. This movement is based on a six-beat dabke rhythm called sudaasi.”
Concerto No. 4 in D major for Violin and Orchestra
Work composed: Summer 1775; finished in October of that year
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Claus Flor led the Oregon Symphony with violinist Stefan Jackiw on October 31–November 2, 2009
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
During his lifetime, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s abilities as a violinist were often overshadowed by his accomplishments as a composer/pianist. However, it is worth noting not only Mozart’s skill with the instrument, but the instruction he received from his father Leopold. Mozart began playing violin at the age of six and made his solo violin concerto debut at seven. Leopold Mozart was known in his own right for his influential pedagogical work, Essay on the Fundamental Principles of Violin-Playing. This work, still referenced by violinists today, was published the year Mozart was born.
In 1777, Mozart (somewhat ironically) reported to Leopold on a performance he had given of one of his serenades for solo violin, “I played as if I were the greatest fiddler in Europe.” Leopold wrote back, “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin; if only you will do yourself credit and play with energy, with your whole heart and mind, yes, just as if you were the first violinist in Europe. Many people do not even know that you play the violin, since you have been known from childhood as a keyboard player.”
Mozart wrote four of his five violin concerti between April 14 and December 20, 1775, at the age of 19. We do not know precisely whom they were written for, although it is possible Mozart intended them for himself. His mastery of the violin and his comprehension of its technical and musical potential is a player’s understanding. As musicologist Neal Zaslaw points out, “We may guess how Mozart played the violin, for he valued in performers what we value in his music: beauty, clarity, logic, balance … once, after hearing a difficult violin concerto performed, he informed his father that he enjoyed it but added, ‘You know that I am no lover of difficulties.’ The paradox is that Mozart’s playing down of virtuosity for its own sake in his violin concertos makes them harder, not easier, to perform well.”
The performer’s musicianship is tested in the very first notes of the solo, which are played high up on the E string. The exposed melodic line allows no margin for errors of intonation or color. The contrasting Andante cantabile lives up to its name; the soloist’s graceful melody showcases Mozart’s affinity for singable vocal lines. In the closing Rondeau, Mozart juxtaposes a refined primary theme with a rollicking, ebullient secondary tune. Throughout the concerto, Mozart’s writing emphasizes grace, artistry and a purity of tone that requires a heightened musical sensibility.
Work composed: 1953–57. Dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4, horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, castanets, 3 tom toms, xylophone, piano, harp, mandolin, and strings
Estimated duration: 23 minutes
“I know that the twelve notes in each octave and the variety of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.” – Igor Stravinsky
The early 1950s were a challenging period for Igor Stravinsky. In 1952, the year he turned 70, he found himself at a creative impasse, and told close friends he wasn’t sure he had anything left to say in music. The previous year, critics had thoroughly dismissed Stravinsky’s opera, The Rake’s Progress.
In the summer of 1951, Stravinsky’s colleague and fellow-exile Arnold Schoenberg died. For all the years Schoenberg composed and taught the compositional technique known as dodecaphony, or 12-tone music, Stravinsky had been critical of the style in public, although his irrepressible composer’s curiosity could not contain his growing private interest. With Schoenberg’s death, Stravinsky felt freer to explore dodecaphony in his own music. From 1951 until his own death in 1972, Stravinsky continued investigating the musical possibilities of the 12-tone sound world. Agon, the last of Stravinsky’s “Greek” ballet collaborations with choreographer George Balanchine, remains the best known and most performed of Stravinsky’s 12-tone works.
“Agon” in Greek means “contest” or “struggle.” In the context of the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballet, the choice of title suggests music and dance in conflict. Balanchine, however, described Agon as “a measured construction in space, demonstrated by moving bodies, set to certain patterns in rhythm and melody.” Rather than framing the movement and music as rivals, Agon unites and celebrates them in an energetic, often joyful amalgamation. 12 dancers perform 12 sections of music written in 12-tone style. When the New York City Ballet premiered Agon in 1957, critics praised its importance to the world of modern dance, and called it “a living textbook on the art of blending music and motion.” For his part, Balanchine said Agon was “the most perfect work” to come out of his decades-long collaboration with Stravinsky.
Without a narrative, Stravinsky and Balanchine linked the dancers’ movements directly to each section or phrase of music. Each of Agon’s 12 tableaux features a different combination of instruments (and a different grouping of the eight women and four men who executed Balanchine’s intricate choreography).
Agon’s genius also lies in Stravinsky’s unique idea of pairing avant-garde dodecaphonic melodies with French Renaissance-era dances – the galliard, which features a mandolin – sarabande, and several versions of the bransle. Additionally, Stravinsky included melodic fragments inspired by French theorist and musician Marin Mersenne’s 1636 music treatise Harmonie universelle. Stravinsky pored over Mersenne’s writings, and an influential dance treatise from the same period, François de Lauze’s 1623 Apologie de le danse, during the years he worked on Agon.
Stravinsky feared a negative reaction to Agon, and did not attend its New York premiere, but critics and audiences responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. Painter Marcel Duchamp said Agon made him feel as excited as he had at the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris 44 years earlier. The New York Herald Tribune wrote, “For sheer invention, for intensive exploitation of the human body and the designs which it can create, Agon is quite possibly the most brilliant ballet creation of our day.”
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Work composed: Tchaikovsky wrote the first version in 1869 and revised it twice: first in 1870, and ten years later, during the summer of 1880. The first performance was conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein in Moscow on March 16, 1870; the 1880 version heard on tonight’s concert was first conducted on May 1, 1886 in Tbilisi (now the capital of the Republic of Georgia) by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony January 28–30, 2017
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings.
Estimated duration: 21 minutes
In 1869, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then a music professor at the Moscow Conservatory, met and fell in love with a student, Eduard Zak. The two maintained a passionate affair for the next four years, until Zak committed suicide at the age of 19. Tchaikovsky’s love for Zak never wavered; fourteen years after his death Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “The sound of his voice, the way he moved, but above all the way he used to look at me … The death of this boy, the fact that he no longer exists, is beyond my understanding. I believe I have never loved anyone as much as he … his memory is sacred to me.”
A year earlier, Tchaikovsky had made the acquaintance of Mily Balakirev, the leader of “The Mighty Five,” a group of Russian composers that included Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov. Although Tchaikovsky chafed at what he termed Balakirev’s stubbornness and “narrowness of view,” he nonetheless valued the older composer’s opinion and held him in high musical esteem. Balakirev not only suggested that Tchaikovsky write an overture to Romeo and Juliet, but also provided a detailed outline of the musical program, complete with suitable keys. Tchaikovsky was drawn to the story of Romeo and Juliet, which reminded him in some ways of his affair with Zak, particularly its heartbreaking conclusion.
Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy provided Tchaikovsky with a perfect outline for a single movement work of seamless artistry. The title Fantasy Overture is significant: rather than portray the specific storyline, Tchaikovsky created a musical dream incorporating the primary themes of love and conflict. The ferocity of the warring Montagues and Capulets, and Romeo and Juliet’s famous love theme are woven into a colorful tapestry. Romeo and Juliet became the perfect vehicle for Tchaikovsky to express his love for Zak.
Popularity can be a mixed blessing. The love theme, in particular, due to its overexposure, has become an unfortunate cliché, spawning endless parodies in popular culture, including the cartoons SpongeBob SquarePants and South Park, and the James Bond film Moonraker. It can be difficult for audiences today to hear this music with fresh ears, but in the context of the complete overture, this lush, intensely emotional theme works effectively as a powerful illustration of an all-consuming, star-crossed love.
© 2021 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around the country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com