Russian star Olga Kern demonstrates her keyboard prowess in Rachmaninoff's most enduringly popular piano concerto, full of Romantic passion and sublime melody. Kern is a perfect embodiment of the sensibility Maestro Ferrandis intended with a program that spans Russia's best—from Mussorgsky's operatic tone poem to the unmatched magnificence and incandescent power of Shostakovich's towering 10th. Of his 15 symphonies, many feel that this one, completed shortly after Stalin's death, is the greatest.
*The Discovery Open Rehearsal has been rescheduled due to Sonoma State University graduation ceremonies. Discovery tickets already purchased are valid for May 10.
Note: Due to Sonoma State University's commencement, patrons of the Santa Rosa Symphony who plan to arrive between 5:00 and 6:30 on Saturday May 11 may enter the campus on Redowws Drive via WESTBOUND Rohnert Park Expressway (from Petaluma Hill Road) OR by way of Laurel Drive via Petaluma Hill Road. Eastbound Rhonert Park Expressway will be closed at Snyder Lane during this time. A map of the Sonoma State University campus can be found here.
Weill Concert Hall, Green Music Center
Corner of Petaluma Hill Road and Rohnert Park Expressway
1801 East Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
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Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Prelude to Khovanshchina, Dawn on the Moscow River (Shostakovich orchestration)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born at Karevo, district of Pskov, on March 21, 1839, and died in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1881. He worked on his opera Khovanshchina on and off over the last years of his life, from 1872, and composed the Prelude in September 1874; the work as a whole remained unfinished at his death. It was put into performable shape by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the premiere took place in St. Petersburg on February 21, 1886. Rimsky’s version called for double woodwinds. In the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich reorchestrated the opera for a somewhat larger orchestra. In his version, to be performed here, the score calls for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two timpani, chimes, tam-tam, two harps, piano/celesta, and strings.
Duration is about five minutes.
The greatest musical dramatist of nineteenth-century Russia died at the age of forty-two, leaving almost as many major works unfinished as finished. Both his early death and the body of projected operas that remained drafts or torsos came about because of his extremely unstable life, largely the result of an addiction to the bottle. Yet Mussorgsky is far and away the most original composer of his age, certainly the greatest in setting to music the Russian language, whether in songs or opera. Though he had a lyrical strain that shines in all his music, his most characteristic work is in the naturalistic vein, capturing the rhythms and the natural melody of spoken Russian in his settings. This was regarded by many musicians at the time as “unmusical”; Tchaikovsky, for example, regarded Mussorgsky’s music as little more than amateurish. Yet his songs and operas, more than any vocal works by any Russian composer, have taught later Russian musicians how to approach their own language in music (much as Henry Purcell’s work taught Benjamin Britten a great deal about setting English texts).
Of Mussorgsky’s large works, only Boris Godunov was completed and performed in his lifetime—and that work was heard in two different versions. Of his earlier operas, Salammbô, based on Flaubert, remained an early fragment, and The Marriage, after Gogol, was finished only through its first act. The two major operas of his later years were a serious opera on a historical theme, Khovanshchina, and a lyric comedy, Sorochintsky Fair. He worked on both of them, more or less simultaneously in alternation, from the early 1870s until he entered his final decline at the end of 1880. During the last month of the composer’s life, when he was confined to a hospital, with occasional bouts of delirium and a paralysis taking over his respiratory system, his friends—including Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov—visited him daily. When they arrived on March 16, 1881, they were informed that Modest Petrovich had died at 5 a.m. Vladimir Stasov, the writer who had been much involved with the work of all the nationalist Russian composers, later recalled:
In the first moments following his death, N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov declared to all the rest of his comrades that he would prepare for publication all of Mussorgsky’s compositions which still remained unpublished, and that he would put Khovanshchina in order, finish it, and orchestrate it.
At that time Khovanshchina was almost fully composed in piano score, except for the finale. Rimsky finished and orchestrated the score, bringing it to performance for the first time in 1886. (Most modern performances of Khovanshchina, though, including the production currently in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera, use a 1958 orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich, who returned to the composer’s piano-vocal score with the aim of being more faithful to the peculiarities of Mussorgsky’s style, which Rimsky always tended to smooth over. It is the Shostakovich version of the prelude that will be performed here. The title of the opera, a mouthful for any non-speaker of Russian, is virtually untranslatable. The story is set in the late seventeenth century, when the leader of the military police, or Streltsy, is one Prince Ivan Khovansky, who is determined to get the tsar’s throne for his son Andrei, wresting it from the three co‑regents, Ivan, Peter, and Sophia. When he hears of this, Peter derisively labels it Khovanshchina—something like “Khovansky-ism.” Perhaps the easiest way to express it in English (taking a stylistic cue from the titles of Robert Ludlum thrillers) would be “The Khovansky Plot.”
The notebook that contains Mussorgsky’s piano score for the entire first act of Khovanshchina begins with the opera’s Prelude. It is dated “2 September 74 in Petrograd.” Unlike many operatic preludes of the nineteenth century, this one does not summarize the plot or principal characters of the opera; it is a genre painting pure and simple, sometimes known as “Dawn on the River Moskva.” It is imbued with the spirit of folk song, elaborated progressively as if from singer to singer, presented in the wonderfully delicate colors of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral dress.
Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 18
Sergei Vissilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Oneg, district of Novgorod, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1900-1901; it was first performed in Moscow on October 27, 1901, with the composer as soloist. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 33 minutes.
As the nineteenth century was drawing to its close, Sergei Rachmaninoff was already coming to be regarded as one of the greatest pianists of his generation. But, although he had already composed a one-act opera, Aleko, a piano concerto, several orchestral pieces including a symphony, a number of short piano pieces, and about two dozen songs, his career as a composer was on the rocks. His vocation had been seriously undermined by the premiere of the First Symphony, composed in 1895 and first performed in St. Petersburg under the direction of Glazunov. The performance, by all accounts, was appalling. Rachmaninoff considered it “the most agonizing hour of my life,” and the vicious pen of composer-critic César Cui gave it the coup de grâce:
If there was a conservatory in Hell and if one of the talented pupils there was commissioned to compose a symphony based on the story of the “Seven Egyptian Executions,” and if he composed one resembling that of Rachmaninoff, he would have brilliantly accomplished his task and would have brought ecstasy to the inhabitants of Hell.
After that, Rachmaninoff just wasn’t in the mood to compose. For three years he wrote virtually nothing and concentrated on performing. He promised a second piano concerto for a London tour, but when he tried to write it, nothing would come. At the beginning of 1900 he was persuaded to see Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a psychiatrist whose specialty was the cure of alcoholism through hypnosis (he was also a competent amateur violinist and a lover of music); Dr. Dahl was probably suggested to Rachmaninoff because the composer had taken to drinking heavily. But the choice was a good one. The psychiatrist worked with him for some four months and succeeded in strengthening his self-confidence to the point that he began composing again. In daily sessions the composer would sit in an armchair while the doctor repeated over and over the suggestion, “You will begin to write your concerto... You will work with great facility... The concerto will be of excellent quality.”
By July 1900 he was busy composing, completing the last two movements first. A favorable reception at a benefit performance on December 2, 1900 gave Rachmaninoff the courage to move on to the opening movement. The premiere in October 1901 marked the appearance of a work that rapidly one of the favorite concertos in the entire repertory. Appropriately, the composer dedicated the work to his therapist.
Rachmaninoff’s opening gambit is a soft tolling in the solo piano that grows from almost nothing to a fortissimo cadence ushering in the somber march-like tread of the first theme, presented with dark colors in the low strings and clarinet. At first the melody is closed in on itself, returning again and again to the opening C (a characteristically Russian trait), but it opens up in a long ascent culminating in the first display of pianistic fireworks, which leads in turn to a sudden modulation and the big tune of the first movement, stated at some length by the soloist. The development is based largely on the first theme and a new rhythmic figure that grows progressively in importance until, at the recapitulation, the soloist plays a full-scale version of the new idea in counterpoint to the main theme, realizing fortissimo the implication of the march-like first theme, rather in the manner of Liszt. Having presented the lyrical second theme in extenso earlier, Rachmaninoff is now content with a single, brief but atmospheric statement in the solo horn.
The Adagio is in the distant key of E major, but the composer links the two movements with an imaginative short modulation that brings in the soloist, who presents an aural sleight-of-hand: what sounds for all the world like 3/4 time turns out to be an unusual way of articulating triplets in 4/4, but this does not become clear until the flute and later clarinet sneak in with their comments in the official meter. A faster middle section suggests a scherzo movement and gives the pianist the opportunity for a brief cadenza before returning to the adagio for the close.
Again, at the beginning of the third movement, Rachmaninoff provides a modulation linking the E major of the middle movement and the C minor with which the finale opens. The soloist’s cadenza builds up to the energy of the first real theme, but everyone who has ever heard the concerto is really waiting for the modulation and the next melody, one of the most famous Rachmaninoff ever wrote (it was famous long before being cannibalized for a popular song—Full Moon and Empty Arms—in the 1940s, when the lack of a copyright agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union songwriters to ransack the works of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff for lucrative material.) Rachmaninoff does not stint with this tune; we hear several statements (orchestral followed by solo) before it finally settles in the home key of C just before the ringing coda ends things with a grand rush in the major mode.
Though not perhaps as intricately constructed as the Third Piano Concerto, which was to follow some years later, the Second earned its popularity through the warmth of its melodies and the carefully calculated layout that includes both energy and lyricism, granting and withholding each as necessary. Its success spurred Rachmaninoff to renewed composition—to such a degree, in fact, that the major portion of his work was composed between 1900 and 1917, the year he left Russia for good.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He began the Tenth Symphony in July 1953 and completed it on October 27 of that year. It received its first performance less than two months later, on December 17, in Leningrad, under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky. The symphony is scored for two flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and E-flat clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, and strings. Duration is about 57 minutes.
Shostakovich made his impressive debut as a symphonic composer at the age of nineteen with a talented work that established him overnight as a new Russian composer of significance. But in the following years he suffered vicissitudes of dealing with the artistic politics. Like all Soviet artists, Shostakovich was expected to produce works that served to educate or enlighten the proletariat, to generate enthusiasm for the revolution or the state, to serve, in short, a propagandistic function over and above the purely musical one.
By 1932 the Soviet government had grown wary of artistic modernism and demanded that composers write specifically “Soviet music.” The hard-line regimentation of the arts lasted until the death of Stalin in 1953 (and even after that). No composer—at least none who survived Stalin’s purges—was more affected by it than Shostakovich. Stalin was not musical, but he recognized the value of artistic propaganda and sought glorification in works of art.
After years of criticism (and fear that he might be one of the next to lose his life to Stalin’s unpredictable moods, Shostakovich completely gave up writing symphonies after his Ninth, in 1945. Until the death of Stalin in 1953, he limited himself to smaller works for the most part—string quartets and piano pieces that were harder to “interpret” politically.
In July 1953, four months after Stalin’s death, Shostakovich began the composition of his Tenth Symphony, finishing the work in September. It is now widely regarded as Shostakovich’s finest symphony, with a successful union of expressive qualities and technical means. It also represents the long tradition of the four-movement symphony for orchestra alone, to which Shostakovich did not return againuntil his Fifteenth (and last) Symphony of 1971, the intervening works all having vocal elements as well. The appearance of the Tenth Symphony aroused a heated debate among Soviet musicians. Its manifestly personal expression raised once again the issue of the artist’s role: could he express himself subjectively as an individual rather than objectively as one element of a collective group? Shostakovich’s Tenth ran dangerously close to the border of the unacceptable.
Before a debate in the Composer’s Union, Shostakovich spoke of the symphony with a modesty that seems overdone, probably with the aim of disarming attacks by “confessing” certain faults in the piece (some sections too short, some too long), but he did not reveal anything about the immediate impetus for writing what many felt to be a highly personal work. When asked whether the symphony had a program, he responded evasively with a smile, “No, let them listen and guess for themselves.” Even in the relative liberation of late 1953 it would not be safe to reveal what many now feel to be the case: that the Tenth Symphony is his reaction to the Stalinist period.
The first three movements are unified by a motive consisting of the first three steps of the minor scale. After an opening paragraph for strings alone, the solo clarinet introduces a lyrical melody that gradually expands outward and then contracts again to the note on which it began. These materials are used to build up the first orchestral tutti, which then dissolves into individual sections: strings, followed by brass, followed by solo clarinet expanding on its first statement before leading to a new motive, introduced by the solo flute in a low register: a hovering, rocking figure in eighth-notes that keeps moving away from the first pitch and then returning to it. The rest of the movement is developed with great imagination and economy of means from these three motives.
The second movement has been variously interpreted, but its perpetual motion, built on a single motive, is exhilarating and threatening at the same time, with an evident parodistic intent. It is now widely believed that the movement is Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin, wily and brutal.
The third movement, which begins as a pensive waltz, is an early example of Shostakovich’s practice of composing his personal motto DSCH into his music. (DSCH stands for the German transliteration of the composer’s initials, Dmitri Shostakovich, which is then translated into musical pitches according to German terminology: D, S (= Es, or E-flat), C, H (= B natural); the resulting four-note motive fits naturally into the key of C minor or its near relations.
The finale consists of a long, slow introduction followed by a vigorous Allegro, fundamentally outgoing, despite frequent reminders of the DSCH motto. That reference to the third movement, along with the slow introduction, helps prevent the sheer youthful energy of the Allegro from allowing us to forget the very different character of the first three movements. Here, as throughout the work, Shostakovich kept his own counsel, telling us things by way of melody, harmony, and rhythm that he could not say in words.