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Program Notes: March 7, 2004

"Let's Play!"

Two Latino Sketches

Thomas Benjamin (born 1940)

Composer's note:

I wrote "Two Latino Sketches" in May, 2003 for the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. My interest in African and Afro-Cuban music was reawakened recently by a renewed interest in jazz and ethnic drumming, and by my church choir, which has been exploring choral/drummed versions of this marvelous music.

The first movement, marked "Very sustained; quietly ecstatic; religioso; mysterioso," is perhaps more Spanish than African in flavor, but contains both rhythmic and thematic elements that serve to set up the second movement.

The second movement, "Conga Mambo," is a boisterous, high-energy romp through fields plowed by such figures as Xavier Cugat and Stan Kenton (with nods, just for fun, to Leonard Bernstein).

It has been a great pleasure to experience the expansion and substantial improvement of the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra over the last few years under Jed Gaylin, and a pleasure and honor to write this little piece for them.

—Thomas Benjamin

Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Opus 19

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofiev's childhood was idyllic and somewhat privileged. As his musical talents grew, he ventured forth into a Russia that was forging wildly new artistic paths. His career, however, took him away from Russia during the 1920's, to Paris, Japan, and the United States. Though during this period his works almost always met with sharp criticism from some critics, Prokofiev seemed to rise above it. In fact, he seemed to draw creative energy out of shocking the critics. As one of his colleagues described him, Prokofiev seemed always to hold a naïveté about the world, and his confidence in himself was unshakable.

While Prokofiev was away, his homeland was changing drastically. He was not destined for expatriotism, for in 1933 the Soviet Union called him home. Sponsored by the State and living in comfort, he was treated to an extended homecoming, numerous commissions, and continuing success. Yet outrages such as Stalin's Great Purges, an increasingly stifling political atmosphere, and the exile and execution of colleagues and countrymen, were taking their toll on every nuance of Soviet life. After World War II, political favor turned against Prokofiev. A series of Party dictates accusing him (and many others) of anti-Party leanings briefly caused him public humiliation. Though Stalin's abuses are well-known, their effects on Prokofiev are difficult to quantify. Certainly, his compositional output was challenged, and some musicologists assert that the dictates broke his creative spirit. Ironically, he died on the same day as Stalin, in 1953. In the tumult surrounding Stalin's death, for several days Prokofiev's went unnoticed.

Prokofiev wrote his first violin concerto in 1916-17, just before the Bolshevik Revolution, in a serene setting outside St. Petersburg. The Concerto's structure is the opposite of the traditional concerto. In Prokofiev's work, two tranquil movements frame a robust middle scherzo. He wrote the concerto at the same time as his First (Classical) Symphony—his two first attempts to compose away from the keyboard. For the concerto, this freed him to write grander, more sweeping phrases and themes. The concerto already bears the hallmarks of his lifelong musical voice: frenetic sections that are more rhythmically than melodically driven, bouts of sarcasm and austerity, wanderings into dream-like landscapes, and a lovely lyricism. Prokofiev conceived the concerto as a concertino piece featuring the violin, rather than as a vehicle for soloistic virtuosity. The result defies the norm. It is full of invention and tonal surprises, and is great fun to hear.

Jeux d'Enfants:  Petite Suite d'Orchestre

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

The child of musicians, Georges Bizet's early musical talents won him entry into the Paris Conservatoire just before his tenth birthday. There he mastered the piano and wrote several excellent compositions, most notably his Symphony in C.

Bizet arrived in Rome in 1857 as the recipient of the coveted Prix de Rome for composition. Only 19, he was already considered a brilliant musician and composer. During his three years in Rome, he planned and started to write many works, but only four pieces survive. He returned to Paris and dedicated himself to composing.

From then until his early death at age 36, Bizet led a troubled life. During the Franco-Prussian War, he enlisted in the National Guard. He suffered from ill health, depression, and lack of success by his own standards. Though he composed many wonderful instrumental works, such as Jeux d'Enfants (Children's Games), he dedicated most of his attention to opera and stage works. Shortly before his death, he completed Carmen. Although its initial reception was not entirely enthusiastic, it has long been recognized as the most popular opera ever written.

Bizet first wrote Jeux d'Enfants as a set of 12 vignettes for piano, four hands. Soon afterward, he orchestrated vignettes number 2, 3, 6, 11, and 12 and called them a Petite Suite d'Orchestre (Little Suite for Orchestra). This lovely work is a small but genuine masterpiece, filled with lyrical melody and magical orchestration. Witty and urbane in the best French tradition, the music transports us into a world at play, where we make a top spin fast, need a nap, and march giddily in a make-believe procession. It is a delight to hear the warmth and sincerity of this homage to childhood.

Till Eulenspiegel's Lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks), Op. 28

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

German composer Richard Strauss (no relation to the Viennese waltz family) possessed an extraordinary talent for composing lush, extravagant music. It might be said that Strauss both perfected and ended the late Romantic style in the tone poems and operas for which he is best known, by pushing their musical and dramatic elements to--and past--their limits.

His tone poems, such as Also Sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, and Don Juan, are firmly entrenched in the concert repertoire and are recorded endlessly. Strauss mastered this genre first and it brought him early fame. His tone poems display his advanced harmonic language, grand orchestration, dramatic intensity, and inspiration drawn from literary themes.

Completed in 1895, Till Eulenspiegel was Strauss' first and greatest international success. In rondo form, the piece tells the boisterous tale of a rogue's misadventures, which ultimately lead him to the gallows. Probably the most famous theme is the opening horn call. Its rhythmic scheme is, cleverly, exactly like the declamation of the name "Till Eulenspie-gel." (Incidentally, the opening melody of Thelonius Monk's 1967 jazz classic "Straight, No Chaser" is identical to Strauss'.)

Strauss depicts Till's misdeeds and their consequences. At first Till lurks about, seeking opportunities to misbehave. He turns over women's market baskets, making them shriek. He pretends to be a pious parson. He fears retribution. He falls in love and woos a beautiful woman; he's scorned and swears to get even. All along the way, he delights in causing other people grief. When Till is finally caught, "perriwigged men of science in academic robes" (judges of the court) demand that he explain himself. In the voice of a peeping clarinet, Till futilely offers ridiculous excuses. In low, menacing brass tones, the judges boom out their disapproval and sentence Till to hang. His last gasp sounds in a high flute pitch. But Strauss lets us feel that Till's spirit lives on as his opening theme is played in the brilliant closing.

— Max Derrickson