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Program Notes: February 28, 2010

Fireworks, Opus 4

Igor Stravinsky

(born Lomonosov, Russia, 1882; died New York, 1971)

Born into a bourgeois family in Russia, Igor Stravinsky began his adult life studying law. Out of an interest in music passed along to him by his father, a bass singer in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky also began studying composition privately with Rimsky-Korsakov at age 20. Although he was talented enough, by some reckonings Stravinsky’s early compositions were the stuff of an impish rich boy. He was completely unknown outside Russia, and in St. Petersburg, he was considered just one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students.

All that changed in 1908, when he wrote Fireworks as a wedding gift for Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter. In the audience at the premiere was Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris and a man always seeking new musical talent. In Stravinsky, Diaghilev thought he had found someone who might orchestrate short works for his ballets. What he got instead, between 1909 and 1913, were three great ballets that changed the course of Western music and made Stravinsky a household name: The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring.

Fireworks may have gotten lost in the hubbub, but in this 4-minute gem we hear the genesis of the extraordinary compositional style that was soon to bring Stravinsky such fame – and notoriety: incessant and driving rhythms, exquisite orchestral colorings, a boldness of spirit, and the dizzying effect of layers upon layers of sound. Listen to how the piece begins: The winds create a kind of mechanical ostinato. Layered on top are the harp and strings twittering on the off-beats. And on top of this come quippish brass fanfares that first echo each other and then begin to tumble over each other. The excitement mounts even further when the percussion joins in. But just as the orchestra seems about to explode into chaos, the music breaks off to a surreal, magical section full of cloud-like wisps and nuanced colors. Soon the fast music returns, with even more explosions and brashness than before. In short, it’s the Firebird and The Rite of Spring without the fairy tale or bloody sacrifice. And we have Sergei Diaghilev to thank for noticing the potential distilled within this tiny masterpiece.

—Max Derrickson

she comes to shore: a journey for piano and orchestra
(World Premiere)

Lee Pui Ming
(born 1956)

Composer’s Note

she comes to shore is birthed from a year in subconscious immersion, and another year of active participation in the creation process. she is the result of listening to and being a vehicle for energetic forces coming to form. For over half a year from day to day, I listened with my body as to where the piece wanted to move next, what space the energetic forces wanted to open to next. It was indeed a journey, and a very satisfying one, as when she was finished, just like a newborn, I could see that she was whole, coming together in a way I could not have conceived of in the beginning.

And with every performance, as the piano part is improvised, who she is and how she moves and weaves, will always be new and present. So, shall we...embark on this journey together as she unfolds....

—Lee Pui Ming

The composition of she comes to shore was supported by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67

Ludwig van Beethoven

(born Bonn, 1770; died Vienna, 1827)

“Music is the mediator between the intellectual and the sensual life … the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” Thus Beethoven tried to express in words what music expresses in sound. If anyone could come close to articulating how music speaks to us, it should be Beethoven himself, the composer of the incomparable Symphony No. 5. This is the symphony that changed music more than any other (even Beethoven’s own ninth symphony), and it did so by wrestling the very intangibles of music, almost to guarantee how listeners would respond.

Music’s elusive nature guarantees little when a composer calculates how his work will affect listeners. One may feel terror while another feels excitement. But through Herculean effort, through a focused genius that the music world hasn’t known before or since, Beethoven in his fifth symphony leads us on a journey that is an undeniable expression of universal understanding. Call it what you will – the symphony begins in struggle and ends in triumph, emerges from darkness into light, dispels fear for joy --every listener experiences an emotional transformation along Beethoven’s calculated path. This symphony was the first abstract musical work to truly communicate such understanding, and its impact has echoed ever since. The fifth symphony bridged the gap between Classical and Romantic music, and established the link between the intellectual abstract and the sensual experience, giving both their due.

With a work as powerful as this, it’s easy to assign the music an underlying story – a script narrating causes and effects. True, not long before Beethoven started writing the symphony, he had learned the awful truth that his deafness was incurable. He had been plunged into despair by several unrequited love interests. And there’s the unproven remark attributed to Beethoven that the first four notes, the famous “tah-tah-tah-daaaaaaaa,” symbolize “Fate knocking at the door.” But even if Beethoven actually said this, the long-held notion that the symphony gives a play-by-play account of his struggle against his own fate is clearly not true. That sort of romantic tale was the stuff of later composers, to whom Beethoven’s fifth ultimately opened the door. We know this because when Beethoven wrote his sixth (Pastoral) symphony and ascribed a kind of script to it, he went to extreme lengths to guard against people interpreting the work as anything more than experience-inspired art.

Though the fifth symphony is a work of inspired genius, Beethoven’s sketchbooks show him slaving over the details, probably with a certain torment. He said little about writing the work other than that he had the entire symphonic concept in his mind, and his realization of it never wavered.

The opening bars have stamped their imprint on the world like no others. The force of those four notes. Then the silence. They leave the listener at a precipice. What might follow? Those four notes prove to be the opening of the first theme, which sweeps us into a mighty current. Those notes and their stabbing rhythm punctuate nearly every bar of the movement, with staggering impact.

In another stroke of genius, the second movement calms the relentless power and agitation of the first, with a lovely theme and variations that move from tender and fluid, to noble and majestic. One could easily get lost in these beauties, but Beethoven includes enough moments of mystery and meandering to suggest that he has not fully resolved the first movement’s struggle.

It was also genius for Beethoven to meld the third movement scherzo and the fourth movement finale into a single movement. His sketchbooks show that this blending of the two very different movements gave him considerable trouble, but the result is magic.

The first nine notes of the scherzo are the same as those of Mozart’s finale to his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, though with a different rhythm. Mozart’s music had a profound impact on Beethoven. He especially explored Mozart’s works in a minor key, which he saw greatly extending the emotional range that music could convey. Beethoven wrote the fifth symphony in the Classical format set down by Mozart, even quoting the old Master, while changing the entire paradigm of what a symphony is.

With those Mozart-borrowed notes as its theme, Beethoven leaves the standard scherzo (“joke”) far behind. His is more of a “cruel joke,” starting with sinister-sounding celli and basses, the notes flying by, even tailing into a small fugue. Early on, the French horns blast us with that awe-inspiring four-note rhythm from the first movement. Here Beethoven has done something revolutionary. He has overtly linked themes across movements, thereby making all four movements an organic whole.

As the sinister scherzo dies down, the strings sustain a dark, murky sound bed as the timpani tap out, slowly, the four-note rhythm. The drum rhythms accelerate and the orchestra begins charging headlong toward the resolution that we have sought since the first movement. There is little in all of music to match the breathtaking moment of anticipation before the finale breaks from the shadows into the blazing light. This glorious C Major statement of triumph is so powerful that it means to blot out all that came before. Here Beethoven achieves his path-changing musical concept, and we were powerless to resist.

—Max Derrickson