Tonight’s PSO season finale presents an international mix of music by Italian, American, Russian and French composers.
The concert opens with Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868), the greatest Italian composer of his generation. Rossini achieved what other composers only dream of: he won great fame and wealth early in his career, he retired at 39, and he spent his old age living in luxury in Paris, enjoying repeated productions of his operas and holding court as an international celebrity to receive the greatest musicians of the day. A gourmand as well as a gourmet, he was the inspiration for Tournedos Rossini, a French dish that in its richness perfectly characterizes the composer’s zest for life: filet mignon, served on toast, topped with pâté de foie gras fried in butter, covered with a Madeira demi-glace sauce and garnished with slices of black truffles. His music, likewise, deliciously gratifies the senses: bubbling over with wit, brimming with catchy tunes and always topped off with his irresistible, signature musical buildups that earned him the nickname, “Il Signor Crescendo.”
Rossini wrote his opera The Barber of Seville (1816)at the age of 24. Based on the Beaumarchais play of the same name, it is one of the masterpieces of operatic comedy. It takes its musical inspiration from Mozart’s earlier and even greater treatment of another Beaumarchais play, The Marriage of Figaro, earning Rossini another title: “The Italian Mozart.” The sparkling overture, however, was not written for The Barber of Seville. Rossini pulled it out of his closet, having already used it in two earlier operas: Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, neither of them a comedy.
The concert continues with short works by two American movie composers. First is the Theme from Avatar (2009) by James Horner (born 1953). Horner has won has won two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and his soundtrack for Titanic (1997) remains the best-selling of all orchestral film CDs. Next is the Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by John Williams (born 1932). Williams is even more commercially successful, with hits that include the Star Wars saga, E.T., Jaws, Superman, the Indiana Jones films, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and the first three Harry Potter films. He has won five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, 21 Grammy Awards, and he was a recipient of Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most original and influential composers who ever lived. The achievements of Stravinsky, Bartók, Satie, Gershwin, Messiaen, Ligeti, Crumb and every succeeding generation of modernists, including jazz and film composers, would have been impossible without Debussy’s revolutionary approach to melody and harmony. Along with his contemporary Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Debussy was known as an Impressionist. He created evocative new sounds by taking complex chord structures previously regarded as dissonances and treating them as coloristic musical building blocks that required no resolution. Instead, the chords move in parallel motion, often accompanying simple chant-like melodies. Debussy also embodied the lush and expressive Romantic tradition of Wagner and Liszt, but he handled it in an elegantly restrained French style, sensuously orchestrated and sometimes incorporating such disparate elements as Eastern gamelan techniques and American ragtime.
Debussy’s Sirènes (Sirens) is the last of Three Nocturnes (1899). Like the more famous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun ( 1894) and many of Debussy’s other works, Sirènes takes its inspiration from literature. The score includes women’s voices to represent the beautiful sirens from Homer’s epic Odyssey who seductively call to sailors to lure them to crash their ships on the hidden rocks between the sea and the shore. Odysseus (or Ulysses in the Roman version), sailing by the sirens, has his men stuff their ears with wax and tie him to the mast so that he alone can hear the sirens’ song as the ship sails on to safety.
The first half concludes with music by the Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), who was one of the famous “Russian Five,” along with César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. “The Five,” along with the earlier Mikhail Glinka advocated a nationalistic, actively Russian approach to music instead of the international, German-influenced style favored by Tchaikovsky. Like the American composer Charles Ives, who sold insurance for a living, Borodin was not a professional musician. He had a day job as a prominent chemist and wrote music only as a hobby.
Borodin is represented by the colorful and exotic Polovtsian Dances from his opera Prince Igor (1890). (In Russian, “Igor” is not pronounced “Eegore”; it sounds more like “Eager.”) The opera was not finished at the composer’s death, so the score was brilliantly completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who was one of the greatest of orchestrators. The dances are in eight sections, in contrasting tempos and characters: sometimes lyrical, sometimes pulsating with energy. They were choreographed as a separate ballet in 1909 by Mikhail Folkine, who later worked with Stravinsky. The music is best known through its use in the American musical Kismet (1953), based on Borodin’s music, especially the popular song “Stranger in Paradise.”
French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) gained international recognition as a pianist, organist and conductor and composed a large body of works in all the major forms of his day. He is one of the Plano Symphony’s most often-performed composers, with tonight’s Symphony No. 3 following last season’s performance of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra and performances earlier this season of Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) and Danse Macabre. Saint-Saëns began his career as a child genius who became famous for playing all 52 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory at the age of 10. As an adult, Saint-Saëns became a musical conservative who got on the wrong side of history by turning his back on the modernism that developed in his lifetime. He is reported to have stormed out of the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s revolutionary Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) in 1913, and he was particularly at odds with his progressive contemporary Claude Debussy, who stated, "I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns."
Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C-Minor, Op. 76 (1886) is often called the “Organ Symphony,” but its actual title is “Symphony With Organ,” which is a more apt description, since the organ only plays in two of the four sections. It was a predecessor of the greatest masterpiece of the genre, Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), written for the American debut of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Saint-Saëns’ symphony was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, which had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer conducted the premiere.
Like the music of Saint-Saëns’ older contemporaries Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and César Franck (1822-1890), the symphony is cyclical, with themes recurring throughout the work and gradually transformed according to the model of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Saint-Saëns intended to dedicate it to Liszt, but Liszt died before the work could be performed, so Saint-Saëns, instead, dedicated the score “À la mémoire de Franz Liszt.” It is scored for a large orchestra consisting of woodwinds by threes, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano (two-hands and four-hands), organ and strings. Even though the music is technically in only two movements, each movement has two sections, with the entrance of the organ in the latter part of each. As Saint-Saëns stated, “This Symphony, divided into two parts, nevertheless includes practically the traditional four movements: the first, checked in development, serves as an introduction to the Adagio, and the scherzo is connected after the same manner with the finale. The composer has thus sought to shun in a certain measure the interminable repetitions which are more and more disappearing from instrumental music.”