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Andrews University
Symphony Orchestra Fall Concert
October 27, 2012

Dvorák: Slavonic Rhapsody No. 1 in D major, Op. 45Stravinsky: Berceuse and Finale from "Firebird"Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18

Antonin Dvorák (1840-1904)
Slavonic Rhapsody No. 1 in D major Op. 45

Antonín Dvořák was meant to follow in his father’s footsteps and help him in the innkeeping business in the small Czech village of Nelahozeves north of Prague. During his childhood, his musical proclivities were fostered as he played fiddle in the village band, absorbing the musical lifeblood of the land as naturally as breathing. As music was considered a pastime, not an occupation, the thirteen-year-old was sent off to Zlonice to learn the German language, a skill that a good innkeeper would need. Young Antonín’s Zlonice schoolmaster was also an organist, who, recognizing his talent, taught him organ, piano, viola and music theory, and for the first time introduced him to the world of the Viennese classics. Angering his father (who cut him off financially), Antonín’s uncle Zdeněk made it possible for the young man to follow his passion for music and study in Prague. To help support himself he played in café bands and took various orchestral jobs. During an eleven year stint playing in the National Opera Orchestra, years of “hard study, occasional composing, much revision, a great deal of thinking, and very little eating,” he had the good fortune to work with Smetana on the premiere of his folk opera The Bartered Bride. While Dvořák’s early compositions were heavily imitative of German composers, particularly Wagner, it was in the nationalistic style encouraged by Smetana that he found his own voice and his greatest success.

Through his friendship with Brahms, that composer’s German publisher, Simrock, commissioned Dvořák to write a group of Slavonic Dances, that, upon publication earned the publisher a lot of money, and for the composer an international reputation. During the same time period as the composition of the Slavonic Dances, Dvořák was also working on a set of three Slavonic Rhapsodies. These pieces loosely followed the model of the symphonic poems of Liszt, while without a specific program, recollect the Bohemian landscape, songs, dances, ceremonies and feast days of a bygone age. The Slavonic Rhapsody No. 1 evokes a world of mythological shepherds and peasants through a pastorale opening that grows into a march, various peasant dances full of graceful melodies and exuberant orchestral color. After a full-orchestra statement of the main theme, the piece returns to the opening pastorale mood as the country folk to steal back into the landscape.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Berceuse and Finale from "Firebird"

One of the most widely influential and multifaceted composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky moved through neo-nationalism, neo-classicism, neo-primitism, serialism, and various other experimental styles. The son of a preeminent Russian opera singer, Igor grew up in privilege in a household exposed to the great musicians, artists and writers of the day. He  received the typical musical education for a member of the gentry, but at his father’s insistence he studied law, receiving his diploma in 1905. Although unenthusiastic about it at the time, in later years he grew to appreciate his law experience in that it had prepared him to more effectively deal with business matters, music proved to be his real calling. In 1902 he gained entry to the circle of Rimsky-Korsakov through his school friend, that composer’s son. Not only did Stravinsky gain from Rimsky-Korsakov’s tutelage (one of the greatest masters of orchestration of all time) but in the weekly gatherings, his music was heard and critiqued and he heard new music of others. In 1908 the Russian impresario Diaghilev began organizing concerts of Russian music, ballet and opera in Paris. In the process he established the famous Ballets Russes, a group that came to transform the world of ballet. For the second season he sought a new work based on the Russian folk legend of the Firebird and the evil sorcerer, Kastchei. The composers Tcherepnin and Liadov had been considered for this commission, but neither followed through. Diaghilev and his choreographer Folkine had recently heard two works by a young, unknown composer, Igor Stravinsky, and had been greatly impressed by them. Stravinsky gladly dropped work on his opera The Nightingale to take up the commission. What was produced was a wildly successful ballet, and the makings of a legendary career. While Stravinsky later regretted the popularity of Firebird (he really didn’t care to write descriptive music), the commission and fame that came with this ballet and the subsequent Petrushka established him in the musical world before he had challenged the ears of his listeners, as he was to do with his next major undertaking, Rite of Spring.

The music of Firebird is extraordinarily colorful, employing what the composer called a “wastefully large” orchestra and makes use of a number of innovative techniques including natural-harmonic string glissandi. Over the years Stravinsky extracted several orchestral suites from the full ballet. Tonight’s concert features the final two movements of the 1909 suite for smaller orchestra. The story of the Firebird is set in the kingdom of Kaschei who keeps his subjects captive through the power of the magic egg. Prince Ivan happens upon Kaschei’s garden and the Firebird, who he captures for sport. In exchange for her life, the Firebird leaves Ivan with a magic tailfeather. In further exploration of the garden, Ivan finds thirteen enchanted princesses, and falls in love with one of them. As he is about to be put under Kaschei’s spell the magic tailfeather brings the Firebird to his aid and she explains how to destroy the egg and with it, Kaschei. The music for Berceuse (Lullaby) describes the Firebird and the spell she places on Kaschei and his minions. The harp plays a hypnotic ostinato, the bassoon sings the magic lullaby with answers from the oboe, while upper strings create a veil of sound. A horn solo emerges from the dreamscape to announce the breaking of the power of Kaschei and the awakening of all the enchanted princes and princesses. The theme piles sound upon sound as the celebration preparations commence. A sudden, brief musical appearance of the Firebird leads to the nuptials of the prince and princess through the grandest of brass and all orchestral forces opening the gates of hope to all.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op.18

Adagio sostenuto
Allegro scherzando

Rachmaninoff, Russian by birth, was not a nationalist or particularly innovative composer, but in the tradition of the romantics of the West he created beautiful, yet architecturally impressive works that continue to delight and enthrall.  The composer was a man burning with music, compelled to write, study, perform.  He wrote in a number of genres, but, being one of the outstanding piano virtuosi of his day, much of his creative output is centered around that instrument. In addition to his vocal and orchestral works, he produced  five concerted works for piano and orchestra, chamber music that includes the piano, eleven sets of solo piano music, four large works for piano duet, and numerous songs with piano.  Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954 edition) snarkily predicted: "The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor."  Nothing could be farther from the truth today.  Rachmaninoff's music is greatly loved by pianists and audiences alike.  We of the twenty-first century love our piano concertos–that great dialoging/dueling of piano and orchestra--and there is rarely a lack of enthusiasm for another hearing of "Rach II" or of pianists who relish the chance to respond to its challenges for them.

Composed ten years after his first piano concerto, the  Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18 nearly didn’t come to be.  In 1897, the twenty-four year old Rachmaninoff suffered a severe blow to his creative confidence.  The premiere of his first symphony had been a total fiasco–the orchestra was badly prepared and the critics were merciless.  Fellow composer and critic César Cui wrote, "If there were a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his Symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us."  These events caused the composer to fall into such a black depression that he was unable to compose for two years.  He even went so far as to destroy the score of the symphony (fortunately the piece survived through the preservation of manuscript parts). Rachmaninoff had promised to write a second piano concerto for the people of London who had so appreciated his first, but his melancholia prevented it. Fortunately, friends put him in touch with a Dr. Dahl, a psychologist who sought to restore the composer's self-confidence through hypnosis. The treatment was no doubt enhanced by the fact the doctor was also an amateur musician. In a darkened room he would repeat over and over such phrases as "You will begin your will work with great facility...the concerto will be of excellent quality." The treatment was a success and by the fall of 1900 the composer's creativity was reignited. The second and third movements were completed and he performed them to great acclaim at a Moscow concert. This gave him the confidence to complete the first movement by the next spring. In gratitude to Dr. Dahl, the work was dedicated to him.

After an unconventional introduction of a series of increasingly intense chords from the piano, the work unfolds in a most gratifying way, full of wonderful dialog between piano and orchestra (no dueling here), soaring melodies, and refined turns of harmonies. After the reflective second movement, the finale brings us to the triumphant last statement in C major. Although the concerto essentially conveys a melancholic atmosphere, it concludes with a statement of affirmation.


Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2012.
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