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Program Notes – April 9, 2011

Prelude to Act I, from the opera “La Traviata”

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

Giuseppe Verdi is clearly the most performed Italian operatist, and probably the most revered by audiences. He composed twenty-eight major operas, of which at least twenty are still performed regularly. His significant symphonic output includes only four major works, one of which – the Requiem for chorus and orchestra – is almost operatic in its dramatic intensity. Only Wagner and Mozart have composed as many operas that have been as accepted into the permanent repertoire as those of Verdi. Yet, strangely, it is only in the last half of the twentieth century that musical scholars have finally accorded him the same esteem as audiences have given him from the beginning. For a long while, his music was dismissed by critics. The influential Alfred Noyes once reviewed a singer, making the doubly-disparaging remark that the performance he had witnessed had been “shallow” but that it was, after all, “only Verdi”.

La Traviata is a unique work, Verdi’s only opera to focus on a contemporary setting rather than historical or fictional representations of other eras. However, he decided to set the opera in Paris rather than Italy, and chose as his subject the heroine of the play The Lady of the Camelias, by his friend Alexandre Dumas II (son of the famed author of The Three Musketeers). Violetta was a courtesan who was dying of consumption (almost a hybrid between the two characters Mimi and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème). Even though dying, she pursued the exuberant lifestyle of the upper-crust of the times. The prelude begins by establishing a melancholic atmosphere, foreshadowing Violetta’s tragic end.

However, Verdi’s preludes (in contrast to his full-blown overtures) seldom try to capture the substance of the entire opera. Rather, they simply set the stage for the action of Act I, which follows immediately after the prelude. Thus, he ends the prelude to La Traviata with a gently wistful dance tune, perfectly presenting Violetta’s carefree persona, as she appears at the beginning of her tragic journey.

Piano Concerto No. 3, op. 26

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Prokofiev is arguably one of the two most important Russian composers of the modern era (the other being Shostakovich). His immense output includes operas, symphonies, ballets, film scores, concerti, solo instrumental, chamber and vocal works. He began his career as an unruly student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (he was in residence for ten full years before graduating), where he was known as a “bad boy”. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, but found his mentor’s conservative approach to be “boring”. Nevertheless, he clearly picked up Korsakov’s ear for brilliant orchestral coloration. Fortunately, the few progressives on the conservatory faculty protected him from the ire of the conservative establishment, which allowed him to develop his own style. While still a student he produced several fully mature works which foreshadowed his genius. Nearly all were “modernist” compositions. They were difficult for musicians to understand and interpret, and puzzling to audiences.

His early works after graduation were even more astringent, but they earned him a reputation for innovation and creativity. This was in spite of how difficult they might be for conservative audiences to listen to. However, the civil war that arose in Russia after the end of the First World War made composition difficult. Further, the unrest ruined his prospects for getting new works easily before the public. Prokofiev emigrated to America, but couldn’t establish a foothold and eventually moved to Paris. While there his music – originally ironic, willful and unconventional – mellowed gradually into a more settled and approachable style.

During the summer of 1921, shortly after completing his first symphony, he took a vacation on the coast of Brittany. Here, amidst the peaceful surroundings, he spent some time adapting music he had sketched out over the previous decade, employing his new style. The original themes were “modernist”, but their new treatment was aimed towards a style that would be more listenable (hence more popular with the average audience). The result was a piano concerto that was destined to become his most popular solo work for any instrument. It presents the soloist with enormous technical difficulties. When properly overcome, though, they become music whose flow and personality transcends its individual elements. It becomes easy to overlook the virtuosity of the performer because of the fascinating color, as well as the strange beauty of the interplay between themes.

Bringing the concerto back to America, he himself performed it in Chicago and New York, with mixed results. Prokofiev himself wrote: “In Chicago there was less understanding than support … in New York there was neither understanding nor support. I had to face the truth: the American season, which had begun so promisingly, fizzled out completely for me … I was left with a thousand dollars and an ache in the head”. Fortunately, since that time American audiences have come to appreciate the work and have made it his most frequently performed and popular concerto.

Kibou (Hope): Requiem for the victims of the earthquake of March 11, 2011

Daisuke Soga (b. 1965)

Daisuke Soga is the conductor and Music Director of the Osaka Symphony. He studied conducting at the Toho Gakuen School of Music, and later at the Ciprian Polumbescu Musical Academy in Bucharest, Romania. He has been part of many advanced programs ranging from music academies in Vienna and Sienna to the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. His mentors include such conducting luminaries as Giuseppe Sinopoli, Bernard Haitink, and Seiji Ozawa, and he is regarded as at the top of the new generation of rising musical stars in Japan, where he has been cited as “bringing a new trend to Osaka”. He is also active as a composer, and his recent work “A Mad Woman’s Diary” (for soprano and chamber orchestra) has been recorded and is available on CD.

Soga has widely disseminated requests to play this work throughout the world, hoping to create a “musician’s campaign” through this piece to mourn all of the victims of the disaster. The work was composed in an incredibly short time span, and was originally scheduled to be performed by the Tokyo New City Orchestra, but the performance was cancelled because of the overwhelming scope of the disaster. The world premiere was given just a few weeks ago by the Romanian National Radio Symphony. We believe that tonight’s performance may be the American premiere of this intensely-felt work.

Symphony in d-minor

César Franck (1822 – 1890)

As a composer, Cesar Franck’s story is one of the most unusual in musical history. Although a prodigy, he composed few major works until well past age forty. He was born in Liege (which was to become part of Belgium but was ruled by France at the time). His ethnic heritage was German, and he spent most of his childhood in Liège. As an adult, he eventually moved to Paris, became a French citizen and went on to become one of the most influential French composers of the nineteenth century.

Franck’s father recognized musical talent in his son, and suspected that the public taste for prodigies would be worth exploiting. So he enrolled the eight-year old Cesar in the Liège Conservatory, where he would soon win the prestigious First Prize for Piano Performance at age twelve. The elder Franck took advantage of the event to publicize his son’s performing debut the next year. Although he was an immediate success, his true skills were not yet fully developed. Dad therefore sent him off to the Paris Conservatory, where he learned music theory while honing his keyboard virtuosity. He then returned to the concert stage as a teenage prodigy, once again becoming a public sensation.

However, his brilliant early career waned as he aged from a prodigious teenager into a merely gifted young pianist, and he grew disillusioned. He eventually broke ties with his father, left home and gave up public performance. During this period he wrote a few minor piano works, none of which predicted the genius that would later emerge. For the next dozen years he supported himself and his wife as a church organist. Finally, at age thirty-five, he was appointed Music Director and organist of a major Parisian cathedral. Over the next dozen years or so he became one of the most influential musicians in Paris, and numbered among his friends many of the greatest French composers of the era.

He was eventually appointed Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory, and his master classes in organ became de facto classes in composition and theory for his circle of friends, who are even now known as “the Franckists”. This stability and maturity led to a change in his outlook. He resumed composing, primarily organ, choral and sacred works. The last dozen years of his life were intensely creative and he wrote several great orchestral works, including his only symphony, near the end of his career.

This symphony is very different in structure and harmonic approach from any other work of his time. Rather than developing a theme by expansion and modification, he frequently chose simply to repeat it (modulating to a new key or using different instrumentation and tonal colors). Like most symphonies, it is “absolute music”, compared to tone poems and the like which frequently present a detailed story. However, it may be said to be programmatic music in the sense that it presents a “psychological programme“. Metaphorically, the first movement asks a question. Built around a three-note fragment reminiscent of the Fate motif of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen operas, Franck establishes a mood: perhaps questioning the “why” of the universe. Throughout the movement various musical answers are proposed, but none is satisfying. At its end, the question remains unanswered.

The second movement “ponders the question”, alternately exploring serenity, nervous anticipation and tranquil repose as possible solutions to the puzzle. Once again, the movement ends quietly with no sense of resolution. At last, the answer appears in the finale: a joyous, energetic melody that rises above and overwhelms the prior possibilities. Near the end, the question is repeated one last time and the immediate answering melody leads to a triumphal climax.

Of course, this crude philosophical and psychological analysis greatly oversimplifies the genius of the work. Any composer with a moderately spiritual predisposition could have come up with this scenario. What makes Franck’s symphonic essay so great is that it works! The first movement induces a feeling of unfulfilled expectation, and the finale leaves the listener sure that some sort of triumph is cosmically ordained – it is inevitable. In between: ponder, develop, grow, mature. What better way to view the past, present and future of the universe?

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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