Tonight’s concert features two popular orchestral spectaculars, with the most graceful of the great romantic piano concertos snuggled between them. We open with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, composed in 1897 by Paul Dukas (1865–1935). Despite its familiarity, the work unfortunately suffers under a double misconception—that’s it’s a piece for children by a one-work, light-music composer. Yes, many of us first learned the piece as kids, perhaps through Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where the role of the hapless apprentice was taken by Mickey Mouse (indeed, that’s how Rachel Koeth, principal of the all-important bassoon contingent in this piece, first encountered it). But Dukas didn’t intend the music for youngsters; in fact, the first New York Philharmonic performance was conducted by Gustav Mahler, who thought it worthy to stand next to Bach and Brahms. And while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, along with the opening fanfare to the ballet La Peri, is his most frequently played work, Dukas did, in fact, produce other significant music. Audience appeal was never his motivator, however, and the result was a handful of connoisseur works (including a first-rate symphony and the opera Ariane and Bluebeard) that reveal a refined, perfectionist bent. Like Ravel, in his maturity he refused to publish anything that didn’t meet his highest standards.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is nominally based on poem by Goethe, but the basic story goes back at least as far as Lucian two thousand years ago. It’s a tale of over-reach and of the familiar experience where attempts to solve a problem only make things exponentially worse. In this case, a lazy apprentice to a sorcerer copies one of his master’s spells to animate a broom—represented by a jaunty tune on the bassoons—so that it will fetch water. The spell works only too well, as the broom won’t stop when its job is done. Seeing the flooded house, and unable to reverse his spell, the apprentice, at a huge orchestral climax, destroys the broom with an axe. The respite (clearly represented by a moment of silence) is only brief, however, as each piece of the original broom turn into new broom, which brings even more water into the house. At the work’s second climax—which, as conductor Larry Loh points out, is especially exciting because it’s “anticipated for so long”— the sorcerer returns, solves the problem, and (at least as Fantasia represented it) gives the apprentice a swift whack with a musical gesture that brings the work to a startling close.
Among those composers strongly influenced by Dukas is Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), and we close our concert with Petrushka (1911), one of the three large-scale ballets for the Ballets Russes that still serve as the foundation for Stravinsky’s reputation. Not as romantic as its predecessor The Firebird, nor as aggressively modernist as the soon-to-come The Rite of Spring (which Symphoria performed last year), Petrushka straddles the Russian and French musical traditions, offering, among other things, a riot of Russian folk tunes clothed in brilliant and transparent French-inspired orchestration.
The ballet’s story (included on an insert in the program book) gives the composer opportunity to show off the full range of his artistic prowess: bustling crowd scenes, intimate portrayals, earthy realism, fairy-tale fantasy, boisterous carnival spirits, and murderous rage, with a poignant ending as the ghost of the brutalized puppet Petrushka (the Russian equivalent of Punch) gets the last word. And Stravinsky takes full advantage with a score that’s as richly varied as anything he ever wrote. To add to the audience’s pleasures, it offers its share of piano virtuosity as well. The work started out as a fantasy for piano and orchestra, and the traces of those origins can still be heard, especially in the second scene. As Claudia Hoca, the orchestral pianist in tonight’s performance, points out, “It’s a huge challenge, very difficult and soloistic”—one of the most demanding orchestral piano parts in the repertoire. It’s especially difficult, she notes, with respect to rhythm, both in the piano part itself and in the tricky coordination with the rest of the orchestra.
At the time it was introduced, Petrushka was mildly scandalous for its use of bitonality (juxtaposition of two different keys at the same time). Nowadays, though, it’s more notable for the brilliant way it draws you into the magic world than for any shock value that remains. In 1947, Stravinsky rescored the ballet for smaller orchestra, but we offer the more spectacular and more rambunctious 1911 version tonight. As Larry points out, when Stravinsky wrote the original version, he was “only thinking of the music”—only thinking of the best way to create the colors in his mind. “It’s pure, unadulterated Stravinsky trying to create this sound world.” In the simplified revision, he was constrained by pragmatic and economic considerations, and the music suffers.
On the surface, the 1845 Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann (1810–1856) could hardly be more different from the works that flank it. Lyrical where they are rhythmically vital, abstract where they are programmatic, “poetic and gentle” (in the words of tonight’s soloist Shai Wosner) where they are extroverted, it’s easily the most personal of the great Romantic piano concertos. It’s a reflection of Schumann’s passion for his wife, composer-pianist Clara Schumann, who inspired, encouraged, and first performed the work; and as Shai puts it, there’s nothing brash about it. Yes, there are some virtuoso parts, but “they don’t dominate.” The opening is typical, he says: it has “a brilliant beginning, but a few seconds later, we get a lyrical and touching theme. Right from the start, you get the idea that that is what the piece is about. Not the brash stuff, but this more melancholic aspect.”
And yet, for all the superficial differences from the Dukas and Stravinsky, the Schumann offers continuity with the rest of the program as well as contrast. Just as Petrushka has its origins in a one-movement fantasy, this concerto too started out, in 1841, as a one-movement fantasy for piano and orchestra. More important, as Shai puts it, Schumann had an abiding interest in fairy-tales and the fantastic; and “he was almost always influenced by some sort of a literary impulse. Even in pieces like the Concerto that are, on paper, abstract, there is a narrative of some sort, and a world of fantasy that’s always there. So it’s a really cool combination.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org