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Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
October 14, 2000
Russian Fireworks

Prokofiev: Sinfonia concertante, Op. 125 | Borodin: V sredney Azii (In the Steppes of Central Asia) | Tchaikovsky: Capriccio Italien, Op. 45

Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125

Allegro giusto
Andante con moto

The 1938 premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto, Op 58 was a “complete fiasco.” The cellist engaged for the performance didn’t understand Prokofiev’s style. By the composer’s own admission, the music was wanting.  After making some perfunctory changes to the work, he lost interest in it.  Nine years later, Prokofiev attended a performance of the concerto with piano accompaniment at a small hall in the Moscow conservatory. Because of this enthusiastic revival by the young Mstislav Rostropovich, the composer was determined to revise the piece again, but this time completely. A few weeks later the Soviet Central Committee denounced Prokofiev’s compositions as “marked with formalistic perversions... alien to the Soviet people.” His first wife Lina was arrested and sent to a labor camp,  performances of many of his earlier compositions were banned, and severe restrictions were placed on any future activities. Prokofiev lived under constant threat of arrest.  His already fragile health deteriorated rapidly. Only his enormous determination enabled him to continue composing the last five years of his life. Work with Rostropovich on the concerto took place during the summer of 1951 at Prokofiev’s country house “Nikolina Gora”. The composer took the best music from the Op. 58 concerto, but the changes were so extensive that he began to speak of it as the Second Cello Concerto, Op. 125. The work’s premiere took place February 18, 1952.  It was dedicated to and played by Rostropovich. Following the premiere, and more revisions, it was given its final name Symphony-Concerto or Sinfonia Concertante. Motivated by the collaboration with Rostropovich, Prokofiev began two more major works for cello, but they remained unfinished at his death, March 5, 1953.

Rather than the fast-slow-fast movement configuration typical of most concertos, this piece begins with an andante (with a fast middle section). The middle movement is fast (with a slow middle section). The finale is andante con moto, ending with allegro. Each movement displays expansive, lyrical melodies as well as the strong rhythms and dissonant harmonies one expects from Prokofiev. Rostropovich once asked the composer if he would be willing to simplify some passages of the solo part, not for himself, but for some colleagues. To his surprise, the composer agreed, but with the proviso that they not be marked ossia (alternate), but facilitatione (simplified). His reason: no self respecting musician would stoop to playing a simplified version.  In the end, the cello part is varied, challenging, startling, and rewarding and truly worthy of a concerto and of all cello virtuosi.

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Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
V sredney Azii (In the Steppes of Central Asia)

“No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering. Yet if there be, indeed, immortalities in music, his claim is incontestable.” These comments by noted British musicologist Sir William Hadow about Alexander Borodin reflect the amazing fact that, despite the composer’s relatively short life and small amount of time spent with music, what he did write endures and is beloved by people the world over. His musical efforts were constantly eclipsed by his professional activities, as he was a research chemist and professor at the Medico-Surgical Academy Laboratory in St. Petersburg. Summer vacations and other spare moments were the only time he had for music. In a letter to his wife, his frustration is evident on the difficulty of balancing being “scientist, artist, government official, philanthropist, father of other people’s children, doctor and invalid... You end by becoming only the last.”

More than any of his other works, the delightful musical picture V sredney Azii (In Central Asia) established Borodin’s fame. In 1880 he was one of twelve composers commissioned to contribute music for a theatrical pageant honoring the 25th anniversary of Czar Alexander II’s reign. Borodin’s assignment was to portray a  caravan passing through the steppes (arid lands) of Turkestan (which the Czar had conquered) escorted by a guard of Russian soldiers. This gave him the opportunity to combine a Russian melody with an Oriental one.   The pageant never took place, but as a tone poem V sredney Azii received its successful premiere at a St. Petersburg concert, April 8, 1880 and has remained immensely popular in Russia as well as abroad. The following inscription appeared in the first concert program:

In the silence of the monotonous deserts of Central Asia are heard for the first time the strains of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the melancholy notes of an Oriental melody. A caravan emerges out of the boundless steppe, escorted by Russian soldiers and continues safely and fearlessly on its long way, protected by the formidable military power of the conquerors. It slowly disappears. The tranquil songs of conquerors and conquered merge in harmony, echoes of which linger on as the caravan disappears in the distance.

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Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45

During a three month stay in Rome in the winter of 1880, Tchaikovsky set out to write a piece inspired by his impressions of Italy. A lover of folk melodies of his native land as well as those of other countries, the composer wrote his patroness, Madame von Meck: “Thanks to the charming themes, some of which come from collections and some of which I have heard in the streets, this work will be effective.” A musical tourist guidebook to Italy of symphonic proportions was the result, a guidebook popular with concert audiences ever since its premiere in December of 1880. The first audience, in the dead of a Moscow winter, must have been cheered by the sunny melodies and warm orchestration. The Capriccio Italien is an ingenious string of unrelated contrasting themes endowed with orchestral brilliance. It begins with a trumpet call inspired by the nightly bugle heard from Tchaikovsky’s room at the Hotel Constanzi, which overlooked the barracks of the Royal Cuirassiers. With occasional returns to material from the introduction, the various themes proceed: a melancholy melody first heard in the lower strings, a gently swaying folk song presented in thirds, a march.  The tarantella, known in Italy as the Ciccuzza, brings the piece to a dazzling finale.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2000.
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