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NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the authorlast update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
February 12-13-14, 2016
90th Season / Subscription Concert No. 5
Michael Allsen

We are delighted to welcome back guest conductor Daniel Hege to lead this program: longtime audience and orchestra members will remember the fine programs he led in 2005 and 2008.  The concert opens with a grand Romantic overture, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.  Next is an Impressionistic ballet score, Ravel’s Suite No.2 from Daphnis et Chloé.  Making her Madison Symphony Orchestra debut is the exciting young Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet


Tchaikovsky composed this work in 1869, and revised it extensively in 1870 and 1880.  The first performance took place in Moscow in March 1870. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played it six times at our subscription concerts between 1946 and 2005.  Duration 21:00.


The works of Shakespeare were the basis for dozens of Romantic operas and large instrumental pieces that have survived in today’s concert repertoire, but the most popular of these is probably Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.  The idea of a large orchestral work based on Shakespeare’s most famous drama and suggestions about the work’s form came from Tchaikovsky’s contemporary Mily Balakirev.  Tchaikovsky was just beginning his career in the 1860s, and Balikirev was the leader of an influential group of Russian nationalist composers known as the “Mighty Five.”  In 1868, he dedicated an overture titled Fate to Balikirev.  While Fate was a complete flop—Tchaikovsky later destroyed the score—it was the beginning of a close friendship, and Balakirev encouraged him to take Romeo and Juliet as a subject, even suggesting the programmatic structure of the overture.  The subject of a tragic love affair may in fact have been on Tchaikovsky’s mind at the time.  He had been infatuated with a soprano named Désirée Artôt, who had just married someone else, and his brother later suggested that the overture grew out of unresolved feelings for Vladimir Gerard, a friend from several years earlier.  Tchaikovsky was typically insecure during the overture’s composition, writing at one point that: “I’m beginning to fear that my muse has flown off.” Balikirev reviewed the work at every stage in its composition, and after some initial criticisms, wrote of his enthusiastic approval: “I am impatient to receive the entire score so that I may get a just impression of your clever overture, which is—so far—your best work.  That you have dedicated it to me gives me the greatest pleasure.”  The first performance in 1870 was unsuccessful, and Tchaikovsky revised the work, incorporating several of Balikirev’s suggestions.  He revised it once more a decade later—the version that is familiar today—in particular reworking the dramatic ending.


Though Romeo and Juliet has a conventional sonata form, Tchaikovsky clearly intended it to be understood in programmatic terms. The solemn theme of the introduction represents Friar Lawrence, whose good-hearted efforts at matchmaking are swept away by the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.  The introduction becomes gradually more intense until it finally explodes into the first main theme, an agitated figure that vividly recalls the bloody vendetta between the families of the two lovers.  The sweeping second theme, first hinted at by the English horn, represents the lovers themselves and their passion.  (This melody has, of course, become a virtual musical cliché for romantic love: picture two lovers running towards one another—in slow motion—across a field of flowers!)  These two themes are placed in opposition throughout the overture, with occasional mediation by the “Friar Lawrence” theme, mediation that will be to no avail—the lovers are destined to die a tragic death.  In the coda, there is a funeral benediction by Friar Lawrence and a last dirgelike version of the love theme, before the overture comes to an abrupt and strident ending.


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2


Ravel composed the ballet score Daphis et Chloé in 1910, and the first production, by the Ballet Russe, took place in Paris on June 8, 1912. We have previously performed the Suite No.2 in 1965, 1982, 1993, and 2004.  Duration 17:00. 


The impresario Serge Diaghilev was one of the primary artistic forces in early 20th-century Paris.  The most successful of his artistic ventures was his Ballet Russe, the most important ballet company of its day.  Not only did the company’s choreographers, especially Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, push ballet from a tradition-bound style to a truly avant garde form, Diaghilev also hired the most forward-thinking set designers and composers for his productions.  He brought a young Igor Stravinsky to Paris, and also commissioned scores from Frenchmen Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Ravel.  Diaghilev approached Ravel in 1910, asking him to provide music for a production based on a familiar Greek pastoral story, the love affair of Daphnis and Chloé.  Ravel was hesitant at first, but eventually produced what he described as a “choreographic symphony,” based on Fokine’s scenario.  Years later, he explained his intentions: “My aim was to compose a vast musical fresco, less concerned with archaic fidelity as such, but faithful to the Greece of my dreams, which is related essentially to the Greece imagined and depicted by French painters at the end of the 18th century.”


The premiere in 1912 was only slightly less than a disaster, marked by a rather shoddy performance by the dancers—who reportedly had a great deal of trouble with Ravel’s use of 5/4 meter at the end.  There was also constant bickering amongst all of the principals: Ravel, Fokine, Diaghilev, the set designer Léon Bakst, and all of the lead dancers.  While most reviews of the production were lukewarm at best, most reviewers were taken by Ravel’s picturesque and colorful music.  Later productions fared a little better, but Ravel sought a wider audience for his score by preparing two orchestral concert suites.  The Suite No.2—by far the more commonly heard of the two—includes Ravel’s music for the third section of the ballet.  Though there are no breaks in the music, it falls into three large sections, following Fokine’s scenario: Lever du jour (“the day awakes”), Pantomime, and Danse général.  The music is lightly-scored and impressionistic throughout, even during the “joyous tumult” of the ending.  One of the most striking movements in the Suite No.2 is an elaborate and graceful flute solo in the second section representing Pan’s serenade of Syrinx.  Fokine’s stage directions for the ballet provides the perfect program for Ravel’s music:


“No sound but the murmur of rivulets fed by the dew that trickles from the rocks.  Daphnis lies stretched out before the cave of the nymphs.  Little by little the day dawns with the sound of birds.  Far away a shepherd leads his flock.  Another shepherd crosses the back of the stage.  Herdsmen enter, seeking Daphnis and Chloé.  When they find Daphnis and awaken him, he looks anxiously about for Chloé.  At last she appears, surrounded by shepherdesses.  The two rush into each other’s arms.  The old shepherd Lammon explains that the god Pan saved Chloé in memory of Pan’s beloved Syrinx.


“Daphnis and Chloé pantomime the story of Pan and Syrinx. Chloé impersonates the young nymph wandering across the meadow.  Daphnis, in the role of Pan, appears, but is rejected.  In desperation, he plucks some reeds, makes a flute, and plays a melancholy tune on it. Chloé emerges and imitates the sound of the flute in her dance.


“The dance becomes more and more animated until, whirling madly, Chloé falls into Daphnis’s arms.  Before the nymphs’ altar he swears his fidelity.  Young girls, dressed as worshippers of Bacchus, enter shaking tambourines.  Daphnis and Chloé embrace tenderly.  A group of young men come on to the stage.  Joyous tumult.   A general dance and then a dance by Daphnis and Chloé.”


Ludwig van Beethoven  (1770-1827)

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op.61


Beethoven composed this concerto in 1806, and it was first performed on December 23, 1806, at the Theatrer-an-der-Wien in Vienna, with Franz Clement as soloist.  The concerto has been performed at these concerts nine times: with Gilbert Ross (1928), Marie Endres (1937), Roman Totenberg (1945), André de Ribaupierre (1951), Sidney Harth (1968 and 1988), Ruggiero Ricci (1980), Elmar Oliveira (1999), and Cho-Liang Lin (2008). Duration 39:00.

Beethoven completed his only concerto for violin in 1806, during a burst of creativity that also produced the three “Razumovsky” quartets, the fourth symphony, the “Appassionata” sonata, and the fourth piano concerto.  The concerto was written for Franz Clement, a violinist whose association with Beethoven went back to 1794, when Clement was a 14-year-old Wunderkind.  The title page dedicates the work to Clement, while noting his “clemency” towards the composer.  (Beethoven’s puns were even worse than the normal lot.)  The concerto was premiered at a concert that apparently included some pretty flamboyant showmanship.  According to a review of the concert in the Wiener Theater-Zeitung, Clement inserted one of his own violin sonatas between the first and second movements of the concerto—a sonata played on one string, with the violin held upside-down!  Perhaps because of this blatant showstopper, reviews of the performance were generally disdainful.  (The fact that Clement was reportedly sight-reading the concerto may not have helped, either...) 


This was not a work that caught on quickly—it certainly didn’t follow the fashion of the time.  By 1806, audiences were beginning to demand works that displayed astonishing feats of speed and agility: flash over substance.   Even as late as 1855, when a young Joseph Joachim played Beethoven’s concerto for the virtuoso Louis Spohr, Spohr’s reaction was: “This is all very nice, but now I’d like you to play a real violin work.”  Beethoven’s concerto is more symphonic in scope, focussing on careful development of his broad and profound themes, and brilliant orchestration, instead of empty virtuosity.  The concerto finally came into its own in the later 19th century, as players like Joachim confronted the special challenges of Beethoven’s work: thoughtfulness and musical expression.


The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) begins in a striking fashion: five unaccompanied timpani notes that usher in the woodwinds.  The orchestral introduction presents the themes that will provide the raw material for the solo violin’s more extensive treatment.  At the close of the introduction, the orchestra hushes and allows the opening violin line to burst forth—a flourish that spans the entire range of the instrument. The body of this movement is based on a set of beautiful hymn-like themes.  The violin’s expansion of these melodies is never merely flashy decoration, but instead careful development.  A lengthy cadenza leads to a final statement of the second main theme.


The Larghetto is certainly one of the most intriguing and expressive of Beethoven’s compositions.  Its form has variously been described as “theme and variations,” “semi-variations” and even “strophic.” In a classic essay, Beethoven scholar Owen Jander suggested that the deliberate ambiguities in the overall theme and variations form of the Larghetto reflect a burgeoning Romanticism—that the slow movement is a musical rendering of a poetic dialogue.  In fact, the movement proceeds in a gentle by passionate dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, culminating in a dramatic cadenza that leads directly into the final movement.


The last movement is more typical of Classical style—a spirited 6/8 Rondo.  Here, it seems, Beethoven made a slight bow to audience demand and gave the violinist some flashier technical passages.  There is a brief minor-key episode at the center, but otherwise the mood of this concerto is exuberant throughout.  The concerto closes with an extended coda that gives the violinist one more chance to show off with some soloistic fireworks.


program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen