For our season opener, we’ve gathered up an all-time favorite, a neglected work by a beloved romantic composer, and a New York State premiere. All three are sonic gems, and all three are programmatic (even pictorial)—yet each is markedly different in spirit.
The centerpiece is The Wounded Healer, a percussion concerto by Richard Danielpour (b. 1956) composed in 2016 for tonight’s soloist, Lisa Pegher. Danielpour doesn’t generally like to talk technically about “the music itself,” since he feels this distracts from the listener’s personal experience. Nonetheless, he points out that the work grows out of his interest in cross-cultural spiritual matters: each movement (The Prophet, The Trickster, The Martyr, and The Shaman) represents a different “face of the archetype of the Healer, who is known in various cultures to be a catalyst for physical and spiritual transformation.” The interplay between soloist and orchestra parallels that between healer and community; and the concerto reflects the composer’s recognition that, whatever their outer differences, healers in every culture manifest profound similarities. True, the movements alternate slow, fast, slow, fast, and each has a different surface quality (The Shaman, for instance, is “like a rock drummer”); yet each draws from the same basic material. The title reflects Danielpour’s recognition of another point of commonality among the healers: they have achieved their “evolved states” through some “prior wounding” of their own. Many of Danielpour’s works chart out a journey, “from point A to point B.” This one, in contrast, offers four portraits—each a different perspective on the same thing.
Like many new works, The Wounded Healer involved collaboration between performer and composer. Lisa found the process especially rewarding both because it involved significant exchange of ideas (a “process of invention” that has continued even after the first performances) and because she and Danielpour have similar views on the nature of percussion: as a viable solo instrument, not as some spectacle that, in her words, is “completely chops and bombastic drums.” She’s “always trying to find ways to get percussion to be respected the way a solo violin is”—and she thus hoped for a concerto that treated percussion as “a musical, melodic, solo instrument.” Danielpour provided precisely that: “When you listen to this piece,” says Lisa, “you wouldn’t question solo percussion as a normal concerto solo instrument.”
Two romantic Russian works surround the Danielpour. The concert opens with an early tone poem composed in 1893 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). Generally known in English as The Rock, but more accurately translated The Cliff, the work is entangled in Russian cultural history. It’s often said to be inspired by Chekhov’s story “On the Road,” but the score is headed by two lines from a short poem by Lermontov—lines that also preface Chekhov’s story. The two literary works are thematically linked, each dealing with a chance encounter leading to regret. But in spirit, Rachmaninoff’s work is closer to Lermontov’s lyric (which evokes the pang felt by a cliff when it’s abandoned by a golden cloud that has briefly rested on it) than it is to Chekhov’s more detailed exploration of wasted lives and lack of communication. The music paints a vivid picture: it’s easy to hear the dour cliff in the bass grumbles that open The Rock, just as it’s easy to hear the mercurial cloud in the contrasting thematic material introduced by the flute about a minute in. But the program is not necessary for the work’s success: Rachmaninoff was barely out of his teens when he wrote it, yet The Rock shows clear premonitions of the great works to come, especially The Isle of the Dead.
In retrospect, The Rock’s gloom may appear to be an unintended premonition of Tchaikovsky’s death: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff’s idol, was supposed to conduct the premiere, but he died before the concert could take place. In any case, The Rock is tied to Tchaikovsky in other ways, too: not only is Tchaikovsky an obvious stylistic model, but in addition, he himself had set the Lermontov poem (once as a song and once for chorus)—something that must surely have been in Rachmaninoff’s mind.
The composer of our closer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), coincidentally set that same poem when he was a beginner, too. But he was a far more assured composer when he composed Scheherazade, inspired by 1001 Nights, in 1888. Like The Rock, it opens with a thematic contrast that’s hard to miss. The trombones shout out a theme representing the Sultan Schahriar who, as Rimsky puts it, “convinced of the perfidy and faithlessness of women, vowed to execute each of his wives after the first night.” Within a minute, however, we hear the solo violin representing the voice of Scheherazade, his story-teller last wife whose savvy ability to draft cliff-hangers convinces the Sultan to let her live so she can continue—and eventually wins his love (for what it’s worth). Scheherazade’s mercurial spirit is brilliantly conveyed by the differences in the violin solos throughout the work.
Beyond this general outline, however, the score’s program is vague. Rimsky intended the score less to suggest particular stories than to nourish subjective flights of fancy. Yes, each movement has a programmatic title (although, at times, Rimsky wished to eliminate them), but they refer to general situations, rather than particular events. Thus, while the first movement, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” evokes the sea and its changing colors, it doesn’t call up any particular story. And the love music in the third movement, “The Young Prince and the Princess,” beautiful as it is, isn’t attached to particular individuals the way the love music in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is. The one exception is the shattering climax of the last movement, when a ship “breaks up against a cliff” (thus bringing the concert full circle to Rachmaninoff’s and Lermontov’s cliff), leading to a peaceful conclusion.
Scheherazade has been an audience favorite in part because of Rimsky’s skill as an orchestrator; in fact, almost nothing composed before that time—other than perhaps Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique—has as much coloristic ingenuity. But the piece is also popular because it allows an orchestra to show off its identity as an ensemble. It does so in a superficially contradictory way. On the one hand, it’s full of solos for first-desk players, and, as conductor Larry Loh puts it, “You want all the soloists to have freedom to do their own interpretation.” At the same time, though, “They have to work together, so that their worlds match.” It’s the ability to navigate this combination of individuality and community that marks the best orchestras, where the players really know and listen to each other—and that ability will be clearly on display tonight.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org