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Three comedic selections will lighten your mood: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Overture, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, containing a starring role for John Raschella, Symphoria’s principal trumpet, and Igor Stravinsky’s clownish Pulcinella Suite.

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PROGRAM

MOZART: Nozze di Figaro, Overture, K. 492
SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, op.35
STRAVINSKY: Pulcinella: Suite


PROGRAM NOTES

The weather in Central New York may be unpredictable, but when we scheduled this concert last year, we felt sure that a jolt of good cheer would be welcome in late February. So we put together a program of lighter fare by three composers who have already appeared, in more serious moods, earlier this season.

Our central work is the 1933 Piano Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)—and it’s hard to imagine it comes from the same composer whose darkly anguished Cello Concerto No. 1 we offered on the second Masterworks concert. The Cello Concerto was written by a ...
The weather in Central New York may be unpredictable, but when we scheduled this concert last year, we felt sure that a jolt of good cheer would be welcome in late February. So we put together a program of lighter fare by three composers who have already appeared, in more serious moods, earlier this season.

Our central work is the 1933 Piano Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)—and it’s hard to imagine it comes from the same composer whose darkly anguished Cello Concerto No. 1 we offered on the second Masterworks concert. The Cello Concerto was written by a composer prematurely aged by having lived through both the Stalin repression and the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The cheeky First Piano Concerto, in contrast, was written by a brash youngster on the cusp of international fame. Although the fury of the Soviet bureaucracy came down on him less than three years later, there was no forewarning, and Shostakovich had every reason to anticipate a bright future. In its self-confident flirtation with popular music of the time, this afternoon’s work has a lot in common with the Gershwin Rhapsodies and the Ravel Concerto in G that appeared on our two most recent Masterworks concerts. Shostakovich, however, takes less from jazz and Tin Pan Alley than from ragtime and the silent-movie pit where, as a teenager, he had played the piano to earn money.

It’s a deliriously neo-classical work, although it tramples classical conventions more than it leans on them. How? Here are three representative disruptions you might want to look out for. First: Canonical solo concertos, certainly from Vivaldi on, have three movements. This concerto has four—or, more accurately, three and a half. The slow movement (not surprisingly, the deepest part of the work) slides without pause into a Moderato. But barely two dozen measures pass before the music, again without pause, leaps into a bright finale, as if the composer had suddenly realized that the third movement wasn’t supposed to be there.

Second: That finale, full of Keystone Kops twists, reaches its climax at the concerto’s loudest moment—at which point, the piano launches into a cadenza. Traditionally, cadenzas end with trills; this cadenza thumbs its nose by starting out with one, giving the whole passage a deliciously lopsided flavor. It’s made wilder still by its reference to “Rage over a Lost Penny,” one of Beethoven’s most comical creations, a reference that, in turn, looks back to the parody of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata that starts the concerto off. Keep you ears peeled, by the way, for other quotations throughout the piece, too—you might notice references to Haydn, folk songs, and more.

Third, toward the end, the piano seems ready to launch into yet another cadenza (starting out, perhaps, with a parody of “California, Here I Come”). The trumpet interrupts in order to urge a stop to the piece. The piano and orchestra capitulate with a resounding C-Major chord—which is repeated…and repeated…and repeated. See if you can guess precisely when it’s going to end.

And what’s a solo trumpet doing in a work for piano and strings anyway? Shostakovich started out writing a trumpet concerto. It morphed into a double concerto and then into a piano concerto to showcase his own piano-playing skills, but with the trumpet still trying to edge into the limelight. When Symphoria’s principal trumpet Raschella was asked how he saw the part—whether the trumpet was a partner, an antagonist, or a general troublemaker—he replied, “I think all of those are good. In the slow movement, the pianist and I are singing along together on this very somber, sad, beautiful melody. The rest of the time, we’re just kind of fooling around.” John is especially excited by the instrument he’ll be using today. Because of how low the part goes, you need to play the concerto on a B-flat instrument—and in this concerto, he prefers “playing a solo instrument, rather than a big orchestral one.” Luckily, “Jeff Stockham, the jazz trumpeter and collector, found a 1952 F. E. Olds ‘Special’ trumpet in a garage sale. It looks all beat up; obviously some kid had it. The lacquer’s all kind of grungy. But it’s absolutely amazing. It’s got a soul to it.”

After intermission, we move from the Keystone Kops to commedia dell’arte with Pulcinella, composed in 1920 by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Pulcinella was commissioned by the Ballet russes, as were Firebird (heard on our January Masterworks concert), Petrushka, and Rite of Spring. Each of those earlier ballets was more radical than the last—the Rite used unparalleled weight, violence, and rhythmic force to shock its listeners into the era of musical modernism. Listeners showing up for the premiere of Pulcinella may have been shocked, too, but for very different reasons. Instead of the huge orchestra demanded by The Rite, Pulcinella called on a modest ensemble that, except for the presence of a single trombone, could well have been used by Mozart. Instead of Russian folk melodies, it relied on eighteenth-century Italian sources. Instead of jolting its listeners, it cajoled them. Stravinsky was moving in a new direction: the neo-classicism that pre-occupied him for the next few decades.

Pulcinella, though, is neo-classicism with a vengeance. Stravinsky didn’t simply borrow old musical procedures. Like the Shostakovich—but in a more radical way—the score filches actual musical material. At the time, everyone involved in the project thought that Stravinsky was recasting music by the short-lived Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). It turns out, though, most of it was falsely attributed to Pergolesi in the eighteenth century (probably for financial reasons), having in fact been written by minor composers like Domenico Gallo and Carlo Ignazio Monza who didn’t have Pergolesi’s name recognition. In fact, at our “Baroque Brilliance” Casual almost precisely a year ago we performed one of these movements, the Tarantella, in its original guise—part of a concerto by Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. Just to add a twist to this already complex game of falsifications, it’s probable that one piece Stravinsky borrowed was a conscious counterfeit by late nineteenth-century composer Alessandro Parisotti.

What’s the difference between the originals and Stravinsky’s revisions? As the composer himself put it, “I knew that I could not produce a ‘forgery’ of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent.” And that accent, even though it’s often subtle, makes all the difference. Most of the source material is sufficiently unremarkable that it was long forgotten; Stravinsky’s re-imagining has produced one of the 20th century’s gems. Check out the delightful duet between double bass and trombone in the Vivo, which produces a sparkle that the original composer (in this case, apparently Pergolesi himself) could never have imagined.

Conductor Larry Loh has a fondness for modern reconsiderations of Renaissance and Baroque music (in fact, the First Suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances helped introduce us to his artistry at his first Symphoria concert, just nine years ago)—and he has a particular fondness for Pulcinella. That’s partly due to personal associations: It was one of the first works he conducted as a student. But it’s also due to its “beauties of its construction.” He points, for instance, to the way Stravinsky uses concerto grosso techniques (in this case, a larger orchestral group played off against a smaller group of strings) to create color shifts, as well as to the more general way “everything fits perfectly together, like a puzzle.” It’s a superb opportunity to show off the orchestra, too, both from an “ensemble, technical angle”—and for the star turns it gives to the soloists.

The original ballet included several vocal movements; Stravinsky later made a condensed suite for orchestra alone. That’s the version that’s most often encountered, and the one being offered this afternoon.

The Marriage of Figaro, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) in 1786, isn’t quite as consistently giddy: Like the Beaumarchais play on which it’s based, it confronts both class and gender politics—sufficiently strongly that the opera, like the play, created shock waves. At the same time, those serious issues are cushioned by plenty of slapstick, including disguises, mistaken identities, and narrow escapes. The Overture, which opens this afternoon’s concert, centers on the opera’s lighter side—and, like the 39th Symphony featured earlier the season, it’s rightly one of Mozart’s most beloved orchestral compositions.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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