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Program Notes: April 22, 2006

Russian Easter Festival Overture, Opus 36

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the dean of 19th Century Russian composers. His championing of Russian composers (indeed, he is mostly responsible for Mussorgsky's best-loved works achieving lasting popularity), his advocacy of the Nationalist movement to foster uniquely Russian classical music, his influence as a composer and teacher to virtually every Russian composer of the time, and the high quality of his own compositions together captured the spirit and influenced the direction of Russian music more than any other musician.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed the Russian Easter Festival Overture in 1888, when his powers of form and orchestration were at their height. This mature period produced most of his greatest works, not just this overture but also Scheherazade and the Capriccio espagnol. Having taught composition, harmony, and orchestration for some years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov achieved in these late works a masterful lucidity and uniqueness of form, exquisite melodies, and intoxicatingly rich orchestration.

The Overture depicts a moment that the composer wished his listeners to experience. Here is how he described it: “Mass on the morning of Easter Sunday, in a large church crammed with people of all social classes, where several popes are celebrating the office simultaneously ... this change of mood from the somber mystery of Good Friday to the uninhibited rejoicing of Easter Day ...”

Perhaps better than any musical picture piece, the Overture describes this event brilliantly. The sobriety of the opening theme evokes Good Friday's death and burial with a song that brings us palpably into that cavernous church of Rimsky-Korsakov's memory, filled with mystery, incense, and expectation. Then comes a sinister, forward-moving rustle of pizzicato strings that presages Easter's great proclamation. Of the several themes that Rimsky-Korsakov created here, gritty in their Russian-ness and Eastern Orthodoxy, two are exceptional. One opens the Overture and is later repeated by the trombone—throaty and beseeching, mirroring the pope's chanting, growing in power throughout the work. A second theme, rhythmic and driving, cleverly introduced by the timpani and spreading contagiously to the other instruments, echoes the “heathen jollity” and Christian ecstasy of the Russian Easter. Woven into these themes are climaxes that only the master Rimsky-Korsakov could create, moments that seem to split the atmosphere apart as they rise to epiphany.

Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra in D Minor, Opus 75

Moise Vainberg (1919-1996)

Russian composer Moise Vainberg, now just 10 years deceased, created an enormous catalog of works during his long life. A partial list would include 26 symphonies, 7 concertos, 17 string quartets, 28 sonatas for various instruments, 7 operas, several ballets, incidental music for 65 films, and a Requiem. Arguably, he is one of the best and most prolific composers from Soviet Russia. How is it that we have never heard his music?

Vainberg's life, and neglect, are in part a story of the worst of 20th Century Europe. Born in Warsaw to a father who worked as a composer and musician in a traveling Jewish theater, Vainberg debuted as a pianist at the age of 10. Plans for him to study in the United States were thwarted by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He became a refugee, immigrating first to Minsk and then to Tashkent in advance of the invading Nazis. In 1943 his entire family was burned to death during the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. In Tashkent Vainberg married the daughter of the famous Russian Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, but the Soviet purges ordered Mikhoels' execution. Eventually, the Soviets imprisoned Vainberg on ludicrous charges that he was starting up a Jewish state in Crimea. He was freed only in 1953, after Stalin died. Vainberg worked as a freelance composer and musician for the rest of his life, but political currents rarely allowed his works to shine.

Musically, Vainberg described himself as the “flesh and blood” of his close friend Dmitri Shostakovich. In the early 1940's, Vainberg sent a copy of his first symphony to Shostakovich, who was so impressed that he formally invited Vainberg to meet him in Moscow. The two composers quickly became close friends and neighbors, and Vainberg's musical ideologies shifted dramatically. Soon Vainberg and Shostakovich were influencing one another's compositions. Of Shostakovich's influence, Vainberg said, “It was as if I had been born anew.... although I took no lessons from him, Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” For his part, Shostakovich bragged to a friend that he had just caught up with, and surpassed, the number of string quartets that Vainberg had written.

Although Vainberg's music is unmistakably like Shostakovich's, Vainberg often explores the horrors of war and oppression. He wrote, “Many of my works are related to the theme of war. This, alas, was not my choice. It was dictated by my fate, by the tragic fate of my relatives. I regard it as my moral duty to write about the war, about the horrors that befell mankind in our century.” Others might have written of such tragedies in bitterness, but Vainberg's music possesses an intimacy and kindness, a haunting yet spiritual equanimity of a man of deep wisdom and hope.

He completed the Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra in 1961. It is a remarkable work, both thematically and in its exceptional (and difficult) flute writing. The first movement, Allegro, is frenetic and sharp-witted. Though full of a Russian ethos and modernism that have become familiar to us through Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the movement also shows Vainberg's particular fondness for tonality. The flute introduces the basic theme, a complex, staccato, jumpy tune running its phrases over measures. The movement is essentially a long variation upon itself. It is like a tapestry of little things woven together into a large picture. In variation, the orchestration under the flute theme is often cleverly mixed up, with the solo flute darting above it like a chattering bird.

The Largo movement is exquisitely expressive, sad, and beautiful. It is a passacaglia, a set of variations built on a constantly repeated harmonized bass line (a “ground”). The string orchestra plays the ground, setting a somber, nigh devastated, mood. Together with the dark, low-registered lyricism of the flute solo, it paints a tragic picture. Vainberg was nimble at composing music for film, and this movement is expressly visual. Whether it evokes the burning ghetto in Warsaw where his family died, or another equally hideous scene, its expansive anguish is potent but beautifully emotive. At the end, the ground rises in volume and then, all alone, hesitating, subsides darkly, as the solo flute pines on a harmonically unresolved note.

The last movement, Allegro comodo (“comfortably fast”), begins without pause after the Largo. This finale presents us with another tapestry of themes woven together in variation of color and addled-ness. It is somewhat more light-hearted than its predecessors, moving from edginess and busy-ness to more tender agitation. The sound is generally capricious, but with a flinted edge. Still, Vainberg's humaneness comes through. He sounds as though he might have been depicting the mood of a loving and doting yet weary mother, attending to her too-active young children on a Saturday afternoon.

Vainberg's music must be heard to be appreciated. We are grateful to Eugenia Zukerman for introducing us to this extraordinary concerto.

Poem for Flute and Orchestra

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)

Of the distinctive early 20th Century American composers, Charles Griffes' music is infrequently programmed today, despite its growing popularity with audiences and critics during his lifetime. His early death of pneumonia at age 36 clipped the musical vibrancy and recognition that he was just achieving. One can only speculate what might have been.

Born in Elmira, New York, Griffes began piano studies early and left for Berlin by 1903 to train as a concert pianist. His good fortune to work briefly with the beloved composer Engelbert Humperdinck, however, steered him toward composing, and Griffes' natural talent quickly blossomed. In 1907, he returned to the United States to help support his widowed mother. He took a post as music director of the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York, and remained there until his death. Although the job left him uninspired and in a slow-paced rural setting, it also afforded him time to compose and remain comfortable. As Griffes told his sister, he was not the kind of artist who would play for his food. But even tucked away in Tarrytown, Griffes had contacts with the best conductors and musicians of the day. Most of his works were strongly influenced by the late Romantics and Impressionists, and, eventually, by the exoticism of Oriental music. Passionate about verse, Griffes drew on literary themes in many of his works. He based his best-known piece, The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Kahn (1912-16), on Samuel Coleridge Taylor's poem, creating a brilliant blend of literature and Orientalism. His legacy of a considerable body of songs shows his remarkable gifts for lyricism and voice writing.

Written in 1918, the Poem for Flute and Orchestra was premiered by the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch in 1919, with the solo part played by one of the world's great flutists, George Barrere. This is one of Griffes' rare non-literary compositions, inspired instead by Barrere's exquisite playing. Its essence, however, is quintessential Griffes: impressionistic and full of lush yet fleeting musical themes. The ethereal string bass opening and the sumptuous flute passage that follows set the Poem's tone—glimpses of mist-covered landscapes painted with opulent intensity. The structure of the work is song-like, with the opening theme acting as a sort of anchoring chorus, alternating with several flute “verses” in changing moods of differing colors and lights. The solo part is in turn lyrical and frenetic, woven with some breath-catching dialogues between the flute and various solo strings. The ending, stirring about in the sultry, low registers of the flute, is like fading twilight.

La Mer (The Sea): Three Symphonic Sketches

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Composing usually came with painstaking effort to the brilliantly talented and thoughtful Claude Debussy. Wisps of La Mer had been washing through his head for years, during which time he debuted his Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (1897) and completed his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). The success and acclaim of these works set Debussy the challenge of finding an even freer kind of musical language. He met that challenge in La Mer (The Sea), the piece that has become, arguably, his best-loved orchestral work.

The very idea of writing a work called The Sea gives one some idea of what to expect. The subtitles to the movements lead us even further: From dawn to noon on the sea, Play of waves, and Dialogue of the wind and the sea. La Mer is the most accessible of Debussy's important orchestral works, and the only one to retain links with conventional structural forms, in that he called them “sketches” and they follow roughly the thematic intent of their titles. But the work reflects Debussy's musical Impressionism, the school of which he was the undisputed champion. Pedal points over which thick chords grow and melt, whole-tone scales and melodies, transparencies and effects, glimmers of musical ideas flashing before our ears—all these techniques help achieve the expressive “freedom” for which Debussy strove. In La Mer he cradles the listener between memory and reality, distance and presence. While he uses different compositional approaches for each of the movements, all are thematically organic to each other and the impression of the sea.

The first movement is a collection of vignettes of the sea in its vastness. Debussy is at first unwilling to freeze their motifs, as they appear and then subside, ebbing and flowing, like waves upon the shore; only gradually do they gain their strength. The music rises out of the misty morning seascape, deeply surging, lapping against the shore and mingling with the sky. Then, gently, the horns and winds beckon out to the endless horizon. Debussy explores the different plays of light measure by measure, expanding the picture. One of the quintessential sea-like moments in this movement is the surging of a great wave, powerfully building, pausing, then cresting with the smashing of cymbal and gong, brass and wind.

The second movement, Play of the Waves, is like rocking in a boat and letting the currents and swells do as they please. Compositionally, it is a lovely balance to the other movements, capricious and frisky, meandering and light, tying the three sketches together thematically. Its ending is remarkably beautiful and clever, floating us in our little boat, quickly and quietly out to sea.

The last movement is, as its subtitle suggests, a dialogue. This is a dialogue not only of musical motifs but also compositionally between musical spontaneity and cohesion of the whole. In its orchestration Debussy gives us some of his most charming and exotic colors, such as the passage for celeste, a toy piano that sounds like bells, reminiscent of a playful breeze. And he gives some of his most powerful moments, like the stuttering trumpets whirling amidst the orchestra's sea-surge that climaxes to the ending. This emphatic ending is also unusual for Debussy, as his works normally bid a quiet farewell. The movement's style of continually renewing moments anticipates Debussy's last great orchestral work, Jeux, which would set the tone for the next generation of French composers.

Upon La Mer's first performance in 1905, music critic Pierre Lalo complained that it did not make him either see or smell the sea. Indeed, Debussy composed the work in Burgundy, far from the actual sea. He wrote from memory and impressions, not present experience. As he explained to his friend, composer André Messager: “I have innumerable memories of the sea, and those, in my view, are worth more than a reality which, charming as it may be, tends to weigh too heavily on the imagination.” There is, however, no end of imagination in this exquisite piece.

— Max Derrickson