Print this page

Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Sergei Rachmaninov

Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in C Minor, Opus 18
Sergei Rachmaninov
(b. Oneg [near Novgorod]), Russia, 1873; d. Beverly Hills, California, 1943)

Composed in 1900-1901.
Premiered on October 14, 1901 in Moscow, conducted by Alexander Siloti with the composer as soloist.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum and strings.
Duration: approximately 35 minutes.

When he was old and as mellow as he would ever get, Rachmaninov wrote these words about his early years: "Although I had to fight for recognition, as most younger men must, although I have experienced all the troubles and sorrow which precede success, and although I know how important it is for an artist to be spared such troubles, I realize, when I look back on my early life, that it was enjoyable, in spite of all its vexations and bitterness." The greatest "bitterness" of Rachmaninov's career was brought about by his Symphony No. 1, a work that had such a disastrous premiere he forbade any other performances of the piece while he was alive. The total failure of the Symphony at its premiere in 1897 was a traumatic disappointment to him, one that thrust him into such a mental depression that he suffered a complete nervous collapse.

Such a hyper-emotional attitude was not unusual at the turn of the 20th century for the Russian aristocracy of which Rachmaninov was a member. Melancholia was virtually a way of upper-class life at the time, as the Russian critic and composer Leonid Sabaneiev described: "The famous Moscow restaurants, the no-less famous Gypsy choruses, the atmosphere of continuing dissipation in which perhaps there was no merriment at all, but on the contrary, the most genuine, bitter and impenetrable pessimism — this was the milieu. Music there was a terrible narcosis, a sort of intoxication and oblivion, a going-off into irrational places.... It was not form or harmoniousness or Apollonic vision that was demanded of music, but passion, feeling, languor, heartache. Such was Tchaikovsky's music, and such also the music of Rachmaninov developed into." After the failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninov was mired in exactly such an emotional abyss as Sabaneiev described, and he showed little inclination of ever climbing out. His family, alarmed at the prospect of the brilliant young musician wasting his prodigious talents, expended their own capabilities to help him, and then sought out professional psychiatric counsel.

An aunt of Rachmaninov, Varvara Satina, had recently been successfully treated for an emotional disturbance by a certain Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a Moscow physician who was familiar with the latest psychiatric discoveries in France and Vienna, and it was arranged that Rachmaninov should visit him. Years later, in his memoirs, the composer recalled the malady and the treatment: "[Following the performance of the First Symphony,] something within me snapped. All my self-confidence broke down. A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch sighing over my ruined life. My only occupation consisted in giving a few piano lessons to keep myself alive." For more than a year, Rachmaninov's condition persisted. He began his daily visits to Dr. Dahl in January 1900. "My relatives had informed Dr. Dahl that he must by all means cure me of my apathetic condition and bring about such results that I would again be able to compose. Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was desired of me, and he was informed 'a concerto for pianoforte,' which I had given up in despair of ever writing. In consequence, I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula, as I lay half somnolent in an armchair in Dr. Dahl's consulting room: 'You will start to compose a concerto — You will work with the greatest of ease — The composition will be of excellent quality.' Always it was the same, without interruption." Almost like a movie script from the Hollywood where Rachmaninoff eventually settled, the good doctor's unusual cure worked. "Although it may seem impossible to believe," Rachmaninov continued, "this treatment really helped me. I started to compose again at the beginning of the summer." In gratitude, he dedicated the new Concerto in C Minor to Dr. Dahl.

Rachmaninov wrote the second and third movements of his rehabilitative Concerto in the summer and early autumn of 1900 in Italy, Novgorod and Moscow; this incomplete version was heard at a charity concert in Moscow on October 14th, with the composer at the keyboard and Alexander Siloti conducting. The opening movement was composed by the following spring, and the premiere of the finished work was given on October 14, 1901 with the same two principals and the orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. The C minor Concerto was the first orchestral work to carry the name of Rachmaninoff into the world's concert halls. (His ubiquitous C-sharp minor Prelude of 1892 had been a piano-bench and recital favorite for a decade.) Other advances in Rachmaninov's life soon followed — many successful musical compositions, an appointment as the opera conductor of the Moscow Grand Theater, and a triumphant career as a concert pianist. There always remained buried away in his innermost thoughts, however, those ghosts of self-doubt and insecurity that Nicholas Dahl could never have totally exorcised from the dour composer's psychological constitution.

The Adagio, a long-limbed nocturne with a running commentary of sweeping figurations from the piano, contains some beautiful concerted instrumental writing. The finale resumes the marching rhythmic motion of the first movement with its introduction and bold main theme. Standing in bold relief to this vigorous music is the lyrical second theme, one of the best-loved melodies in the entire orchestral literature, a grand inspiration in the ripest Romantic tradition. (Years ago, this melody was lifted from the Concerto by the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley and fitted with sufficiently maudlin phrases to become the popular hit Full Moon and Empty Arms.) These two themes, the martial and the romantic, alternate for the remainder of the movement. The coda rises through a finely crafted line of mounting tension to bring this work to an electrifying close.

Rachmaninov once wrote, "I try to make music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious." The heart of a true Romantic beat beneath the stern exterior of this man; his music is a direct link to the great traditions of the 19th-century masters.

Adam Schoenberg

Go
Adam Schoenberg
(b. Northampton, Massachusetts, 1980)

Composed in 2015-2016.
World Premiere.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds, horns, trumpets and trombones, timpani, percussion, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 7 minutes.

Adam Schoenberg, born in the western Massachusetts town of Northampton in 1980, grew up in a musical environment, improvising and playing piano from age three. Schoenberg received his baccalaureate in music composition from Oberlin (2002) and his master's degree (2005) and doctorate (2010) from Juilliard, where he was a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow; his teachers have included John Corigliano, Robert Beaser, Jeffrey Mumford, Lewis Nielson and George Tsontakis. Schoenberg has taught at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and lectured at Juilliard, Oberlin, Aspen and other noted schools and conservatories, and in 2015 was appointed to the faculty Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he teaches composition and film scoring.

Schoenberg has received awards and grants from ASCAP, Meet the Composer, International Brass Chamber Music Festival, Southern Arts Federation and Society for New Music, as well as the prestigious Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. He was a MacDowell Colony Fellow in 2009 and 2010, Guest Composer at the Aspen Music Festival and School in 2010 and 2011, and 2012 BMI Composer-in-Residence at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University; he has also held residencies with the Kansas City Symphony and Lexington Philharmonic, and served as Composer-in-Residence with the Fort Worth Symphony during the 2015-2016 season. His commissions include those from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, New West Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, IRIS Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival and School, Blakemore Trio and New Juilliard Ensemble. In 2012 Schoenberg became the first American classical composer to sign with Universal Music Publishing Classical Group and Ricordi London. An accomplished film composer, Adam Schoenberg has scored two feature-length movies and several shorts.

Schoenberg wrote, "Go, commissioned to honor the 20th Anniversary of the New West Symphony in 2015, is a high-energy, groove-oriented, single-movement work inspired by the idea of racing. The piece begins as if each member of the orchestra is at the starting line of a race. Using string and brass glissando techniques to create a revving effect, the work opens with a series of roaring engines that increase in intensity before locking into a groove that becomes the foundation of the piece. Several different grooves and rhythmic patterns develop as the members of the orchestra continue to round the track. The piece ends with a 'sprint to the finish.'"

Igor Stravinsky

Suite from The Firebird (1919 Version)
Igor Stravinsky
(b. Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, 1882; d. New York City, 1971)

Composed in 1909-1910.
Premiered on June 25, 1910 in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 30 minutes.

Fireworks. There could not have been a more appropriate title for the work that launched the meteoric career of Igor Stravinsky. He wrote this glittering orchestral miniature in 1908, while still under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and it shows all the dazzling instrumental technique that the student acquired from his teacher. Though the reception of Fireworks was cool when it was first performed at the Siloti Concerts in St. Petersburg on February 6, 1909, there was one member of the audience who listened with heightened interest. Serge Diaghilev was forming his Ballet Russe company at just that time, and he recognized in Stravinsky a talent to be watched. He approached the 27-year-old Stravinsky, and requested orchestral transcriptions of short pieces by Chopin and Grieg that would be used in the first Parisian season of the Ballet Russe. Stravinsky did his work well and on time.

During that same winter, plans were beginning to stir in the creative wing of the Ballet Russe for a Russian folk ballet — something filled with legend and magic and fantasy. The composer Nikolai Tcherepnin was associated with the Ballet Russe, and it was assumed that he would compose the music for a plot derived from several traditional Russian sources. However, Tcherepnin was given to inexplicable changes of mood, and was losing interest in ballet at the time, so he withdrew from the project. Diaghilev then wrote to his old harmony professor, Anatoly Liadov, and asked him to consider taking on the task, informing him that the date for the premiere of the new work was firmly set for less than a year away. After too many weeks with no word from the dilatory composer, Diaghilev paid him a visit, and was greeted with Liadov's report on his progress: "It won't be long now," Diaghilev was told. "It's well on its way. I have just today bought the manuscript paper." Realizing that The Firebird would never get off the ground at such a rate, Diaghilev inquired whether Stravinsky had any interest in taking over for Liadov. Though involved in another project (he had just completed the first act of the opera The Nightingale), he was eager to work with the wonderful talent that had assembled under Diaghilev's banner, and he agreed. After some delicate negotiations with Liadov, Stravinsky was officially awarded the commission in December, though his eagerness was so great that he had begun composing the music a month earlier.

It is well that Stravinsky had a head start, because he had less than six months to complete the score. In his Chronicles, he wrote, "Although alarmed by the fact that this was a commission with a fixed date, and afraid that I should fail to complete the work in time — I was still unaware of my own capabilities — I accepted the order. It was highly flattering to me to be chosen from among musicians of my generation, and to be allowed to collaborate in so important an enterprise side by side with personages who were generally recognized as masters in their own spheres." It soon became clear that Stravinsky belonged to that company of masters. During one rehearsal, Diaghilev whispered into the ear of the prima ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, "Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity." Diaghilev was as good a prophet as an impresario. The Firebird, which Stravinsky regarded as his first mature composition, was a stunning success at its premiere. With this score, and the epochal Petrushka of the following year and The Rite of Spring of 1913, Stravinsky went in just five short years from an obscure student composer in Russia to one of the most famous musicians in the world. With somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, he said, "The Firebird radically altered my life."

The story of the ballet deals with the glittering Firebird and the evil ogre Kashchei, who captures maidens and turns men to stone if they enter his domain. Kashchei is immortal as long as his soul, which is preserved in the form of an egg in a casket, remains intact. The plot shows how Prince Ivan wanders into Kashchei's garden in pursuit of the Firebird; he captures it and exacts a feather before letting it go. Ivan meets a group of Kashchei's captive maidens and falls in love with one of them. The princesses return to Kashchei's palace. Ivan breaks open the gates to follow them inside, but he is captured by the ogre's guardian monsters. He waves the magic feather, and the Firebird reappears to help him smash Kashchei's vital egg; the ogre immediately expires. All the captives are freed, and Ivan and his Tsarevna are wed.

Stravinsky drew three concert suites from The Firebird. The 1919 suite includes six scenes from the complete score. The first two, Introduction and The Dance of the Firebird, accompany the appearance of the magical creature. The Introduction includes two important musical motifs: the lugubrious low strings and trombones depicting the sinister atmosphere of Kashchei's court in a winding melody outlining tritones; and the fluttering chirps of the Firebird portrayed by snapping woodwind figures. The brilliant Dance that follows without interruption is characterized by quivering trills and scintillating little rockets of tone color exploding in every section of the orchestra. The Round Dance of the Princesses uses the rhythm and style of an ancient Russian dance called the Khorovod. Its simple, plaintive theme is delicately scored to accompany the entrance of the maidens, while the hero looks on enraptured from the cover of a bush. The Infernal Dance of King Kashchei is the most modern portion of the score. Its feverish rhythmic energy, tritone-based themes, daring instrumental procedures and thunderclap ferocity all look forward to The Rite of Spring. This is the music depicting the madness engendered by the appearance of the Firebird at Kashchei's court after the revelation to Ivan of the evil ogre's vulnerability.

The haunting Berceuse is heard when the thirteenth princess, the one of whom Ivan is enamored, succumbs to a sleep-charm which saves her from the terrible King while Ivan destroys Kashchei's malevolent power. The bassoon begins the dolorous strain and passes it to the oboe before it is caught up by the muted strings. The Berceuse is connected to the Finale by one of the most wondrous passages in all of Stravinsky's works. Tremolo strings give out a series of glistening harmonies, as though the whole world were holding its breath for the climax of the story — the defeat of evil; the triumph of good. The Finale, initiated by the solo horn, confirms the life-force that had been threatened by Kashchei. It builds and soars, rising higher and broader and more confidently through the orchestra. Three final gestures bring the suite to an unforgettable close: majestic chords in uneven meters hurled forth by the brass; these same harmonies played again, but twice as slowly and more richly scored; and, finally, a heroic peroration by the brass over a sustained string tremolo.

Back to Top

©2016 Dr. Richard E. Rodda