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PROGRAM

 

Performed on November 8, 2014 at Course Hinds Theater
Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Russian Easter Overture, op.36

 

Performed on November 8, 2014 at Course Hinds Theater
Allan Kolsky, clarinet; Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting

Carl Nielsen
Concerto, Clarinet, op.57

 

Performed on November 8, 2014 at Course Hinds Theater
Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting

Piotr Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.6, op.74, TH 30, B minor (Pathétique)

PROGRAM NOTES

Does extreme weather encourage extreme music? Perhaps not, but all of our music this evening was written by composers living in the far north (where the weather is even worse than it is in Central New York)—and two of our works tonight certainly manifest musical extremity.

The exception is our curtain-raiser, the Russian Easter Overture. Composed in 1888 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), it moves from initial darkness into glorious bell-drenched sunshine. The composer himself was not religious—but art doesn’t flow directly from personal emotion and beliefs; and using several melodies from Orthodox church services, Rimsky was ...
Does extreme weather encourage extreme music? Perhaps not, but all of our music this evening was written by composers living in the far north (where the weather is even worse than it is in Central New York)—and two of our works tonight certainly manifest musical extremity.

The exception is our curtain-raiser, the Russian Easter Overture. Composed in 1888 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), it moves from initial darkness into glorious bell-drenched sunshine. The composer himself was not religious—but art doesn’t flow directly from personal emotion and beliefs; and using several melodies from Orthodox church services, Rimsky was able to convey the joys of an Easter celebration. After that, though, our program shifts gears.

The central work is the Clarinet Concerto, op. 57, composed in 1928 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Arguably the greatest clarinet concerto after Mozart’s, it threw down the gauntlet for clarinetists, providing extreme trials that earlier composers hadn’t dreamed of. In fact, “it may be the most technically most challenging clarinet concerto in the standard repertoire,” according to Allan Kolsky—and it’s partly because of the rewards of taking on those challenges that he is so excited to be performing it tonight. In four linked movements running around 25 minutes, the turbulent concerto, says Kolsky, “requires sudden leaps between high notes and low notes and dramatic shifts between loud to soft dynamics. The concerto calls for extreme speed, control, subtlety, and flexibility, and it demands a punishing amount of physical strength and endurance. There’s a certain allure to all that. As a musician, you want to see how you can measure up to the challenge—just as some people run marathons or climb all 46 peaks of the Adirondacks. Playing this piece is a gritty, physical test.”

The concerto, however, is more than a technical showpiece. Nielsen had planned to write a series of five concertos for the wind players of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, but only completed the two for flute and clarinet before he died. This inspiration is important for understanding the spirit of the piece, since Nielsen hoped not only to provide repertoire for his friends, but also to reflect their characters in the music. His dedicatee for this work, clarinetist Aage Oxenvad, was by all accounts a mercurial person—“a kind and genial man,” says Kolsky, “but with a volatile temper.” The resulting concerto is full of dazzling personality. As Kolsky puts it, “In presenting a musical ‘portrait’ of his clarinetist friend, Nielsen evokes an astonishing series of emotions: in the space of just a few seconds, the concerto can move from friendly folk tunes to shrieking, psychotic fury, or from delicate, poignant intimacy to elegant waltzes or broad slapstick comedy. It’s like a constantly shifting emotional kaleidoscope! That wide musical variety and those rapidly changing characters are features I hope that any listener can appreciate—even on first hearing.”

As you listen, though, you might notice what seems to be a second soloist—the snare-drummer—trying to elbow the clarinet aside. Nielsen’s music, like that of his near contemporary Charles Ives, often involves conversations among players—conversations that can turn contentious. And in contrast to the snare drum in Ravel’s Bolero (which serves to ground the music), the snare drum here (as in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony) is a disruptive force. In the words of Michael Bull, who will be playing the snare this evening, it’s both a “dual concerto and a duel concerto.” Bull is just as excited about this opportunity as Kolsky is. Since the Nielsen concerto is standard on percussion audition lists, he’s been practicing it all his life; but he’s never had a chance to play it with an orchestra. Furthermore, it gives him a special chance to collaborate. He considers himself an “ensemble musician” and he has a special affinity for chamber music; and this concerto, scored for a small orchestra, is actually very close to chamber music. “It’s an intimate setting,” says Bull, “and it’s a collaboration with your colleagues. Hopefully, I’ll feed off what Allan in doing and he can respond to what I’m doing.”

The Symphony No. 6 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is just as extreme. It has become such a frequent visitor to our concert halls, however—and it has influenced so many later composers (especially Mahler and Shostakovich)—that familiarity may have dulled our sense of how experimental its rhetoric really is. But its resistance to convention certainly stretched the ears of its listeners when new. No one else in that period dared end a symphony with a lacerating Adagio (much less one that ends quietly)—and if anyone had, they would hardly have preceded it with a third movement march that builds to such furious brilliance that it tricks you into thinking the symphony is over (in fact, even the best-behaved audiences are liable to burst into applause). The second movement is disorienting, too: it has many of the trappings of a waltz, but before you can get comfortable, its five-beat structure throws you off. Then there are the dynamics. It’s easy to figure out what Tchaikovsky means when he marks a climax quadruple forte (ffff)—knock the audience out. But what about that chorale-like moment near the end of the finale where he asks his trombones and tuba to play quintuple piano (ppppp)—a marking so quiet that you’re apt to wonder what kind of ghostly whisper he was expecting his brass to produce. Then there are the frequent dizzying changes in tempo in the outer movements….

It’s tempting to explain these features with romantic stories about Tchaikovsky’s premonitions of his death (similar to the stories surrounding the Mozart Requiem, to be performed on March 28, 2015). Tchaikovsky died less than two weeks after the premiere of the Sixth—a death that, for a while in the 1980s, was shrouded in conspiracy theories about a suicide forced on him by former schoolmates scandalized by his homosexuality. Given the bleakness of the symphony’s finale, such stories seem to fit. But this interpretation dishonors Tchaikovsky in two ways. First, it ignores the way his output, especially in his final years, intertwines high spirits and gloom: Sleeping Beauty (1889) was followed the next year by the grim Queen of Spades, which was in turn soon followed by the sunny Souvenir of Florence; The Nutcracker was composed just before the Sixth. More important, this interpretation suggests that Tchaikovsky was, if not a kind of idiot savant, then a composer whose work is an unmediated reflection of his raw emotions. As we saw with The Russian Easter Overture, however, musical communication is more a matter of art than of autobiography. The emotions of the Tchaikovsky may be extreme, but they are presented with a control that reveals Tchaikovsky at his artistic peak.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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