We began our 2015-16 season with a French spectacular, and we end with a similar program—although this one is not entirely French and not entirely spectacular. The clearest outlier is the opener, blue cathedral. Receiving a commission from the Curtis Institute at the dawn of the 21st century, American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) wrote the work as a memorial to her younger brother, Andrew Blue, casting it partly as a dialogue between the flute (her instrument) and the clarinet (the instrument he played). While it’s a remembrance, however, it’s far from mournful, centering on consolation rather than lamentation. In that sense, it shares something with the Brahms German Requiem, which we performed a few concerts back, although blue cathedral is vastly more luminous in color and more ecstatic in spirit. The title is full of associations for the composer: blue represents not only her brother but also, as she puts it, the sky “where all possibilities soar”; cathedrals represent “a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth.” A profoundly beautiful piece, it is the most frequently performed work by a living American composer.
At the heart of blue cathedral is a striking image: “As I was writing this piece,” says Higdon, “I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church.” Images are also central to our closer, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). The inspiration for Pictures came in 1874, when the critic Vladimir Stasov organized a large retrospective of works by the short-lived Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann. Mussorgsky, a friend of the artist, wrote a piano cycle memorializing the exhibit—with musical evocations of selected pictures, often separated by “promenades” representing the composer’s clumsy gait as he walks through the gallery.
The work went on to become Mussorgsky’s most successful—not because of the art that inspired it but in spite of it. Mussorgsky chose eleven pictures (two separate Jewish portraits combined into a single movement), which are listed on the program page; but only half of them survive—and for most people who come to them after having heard the music, Hartmann’s pictures are a let-down compared to the pictures conjured in their imaginations. Certainly, after hearing Mussorgsky’s evocation of “Baba-Yaga,” the witch who inhabits a hut on chicken’s legs, Hartmann’s design for a clock seems tame.
Indeed, Mussorgsky’s imaginative powers are so great that within a decade or so of its composition, other composers started to adapt Pictures for a dizzying variety of forces—from solo guitar through rock ensembles on to full orchestra. Yet of all those hundreds of variants, by far the most popular is the orchestration made in 1922 by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Some (most notably conductor Leopold Stokowski) have criticized it for being too “French”—insufficiently attentive to the rough-hewn Russian quality of the original piano score. Conductor Larry Loh understands this position—but the orchestration is so brilliant, he notes, that you have to “marvel” at what Ravel did. It’s not really surprising. After all, Ravel was the greatest master of orchestration of his time; and the piano original is recolored so imaginatively (for instance, the use of a saxophone to represent the troubadour in “The Old Castle” or the high tuba in the representation of an ox-cart in “Bydlo”) that few have been able to resist. It’s a great orchestral display in part because, as Larry points out, each section has a different character—something that will be emphasized in the high contrast performance you’re about to hear. The closing “Great Gate of Kiev”—a depiction of Hartmann’s sketches for an architectural idea never concretized—is one of the grandest moments in the repertoire, and a fitting conclusion to our season.
Between these two image-driven works, we have a pair of what tonight’s soloist Anne Akiko Meyers calls “rich, virtuosic” French showpieces for violin and orchestra. In their technical dazzle, they have a lot in common—not the least of which is the pleasure of playing them (as Anne puts it, they are “so yummy, so delicious to sink your bow into”). Yet ultimately, their characters are quite distinct, since each has a different national flavor inspired by the particular violinist who inspired it.
Ravel wrote his 1924 Tzigane (a word for Gypsy found in many European languages) after hearing the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi perform Bartók’s First Sonata—followed, apparently, by an impromptu concert of Gypsy music that ran into the next morning. Ravel didn’t incorporate any pre-existing tunes into his work; in that sense, despite its ethnic flavor, Tzigane differs from the folk-inspired music of such contemporaries as Bartók, Kodály, and Grainger. But Ravel did provide an idiomatic outlet for d’Arányi’s own playing, one both expressive and flashy—and, according to Anne, “raunchy” as well. (“It would be such fun to play it in a smoky bar.”) It may sound especially rich tonight, since Anne will be playing on one of world’s finest and most legendary violins, the 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu. “I’m really looking forward to being able to dig into those low notes on Tzigane on that violin.”
Tzigane begins, strikingly, with a long cadenza for the soloist. Anne calls it “one of the most compelling and difficult starts to a piece,” a story in which we hear a Gypsy “bemoaning his life, sharing his struggles, his challenges, memories, dreams, and passions.” Technically dazzling (“You get the whole gamut of color”), it’s followed by what she calls “a dance, a romp, a cat-and-mouse chase to the rousing finale which almost has a Tom and Jerry aspect to it.” Symphoria regulars may find a resonant echo in that “Tom and Jerry” reference—earlier in the season, pianist Orion Weiss compared Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, coincidentally written in the same year, to a Marx Brothers film.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) opened our first concert this season, and he returns again at the end with his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (1863). It was written for the brilliant young Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, not yet twenty but already a star across Europe. Originally intended as the last movement of Saint-Saëns’ First Violin Concerto, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso ended up as a stand-alone piece, one that Anne deems “operatic,” with “big Spanish flourishes that are also very technical. With all the running around the fingerboard, you feel like you’re running a marathon.” No wonder it has remained popular with both violinists and audiences for a century and a half.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org