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Program notes by Vincent Osborn
JONATHAN LESHNOFF Starburst (2010)
BORN: September 8, 1973, in New Brunswick, New Jersey
WORK COMPOSED: 2010
WORLD PREMIERE: April 29-30, 2010, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore; Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Leshnoff is one of the leading composers bringing new creations into the classical music world of the 21st century. His undergraduate studies were in anthropology and music at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory. He did his graduate studies in music at Peabody Conservatory and was awarded a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Maryland. His composition, Starburst, was an instant success and cemented Leshnoff’s reputation. His works are being performed by more than 65 orchestras worldwide in hundreds of concerts.
Starburst was completed in 2010 for a commission from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with a co-commission from the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and the Fundación Orquestra de Extremadura in western Spain. Janet E. Bedell, the annotator for the Baltimore Symphony, interviewed Leshnoff for the premiere of Starburst and provided the following note:
Leshnoff chose the name Starburst because ‘the word has a lot of energy to it and I like the image of light.’ He adds that the piece has ‘lots of orchestral shimmer’ with its emphasis on fast patterns in the upper woodwinds and strings. Starburst is structured in two parts. Two important motives are developed at the beginning: a running or ‘fleeting’ motive in the woodwinds and a rhythmically crisper, more detached idea in the strings. The music climbs to a big outburst, and then a clarinet cadenza in a much slower tempo leads to the second phase. The fleeting motive returns in a march-like, repetitive guise. From then on, the piece gets bigger and bigger until it explodes at the end—just like its name.
Tim Smith reviewed the premiere in the Baltimore Sun calling Starburst “a curtain-raiser in the best sense of the word, full of energy and anticipation. The composer’s most distinctive talent may be for creating deeply lyrical themes, but here, his focus is on propulsion and creating a sense of almost frantic searching…”
Tonight’s performance of this work is the first by the DSSO. Three other works by Jonathan Leshnoff have previously been played by the Orchestra. Concerto for Violin and Viola was given on May 3, 2008 with Markand Thakar and soloists Charles Wetherbee and Victoria Chiang (Mr. Thakar’s wife). Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto was performed on May 19, 2012 with Mr. Thakar and Mr. Wetherbee. On January 19, 2013 the Concerto for Orchestra and Two Percussionists was given by Dirk Meyer and the Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins Duo.
Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, crotales, snare drum, chimes, glockenspiel, marimba, xylophone, bass drum) and strings.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
BORN: May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg
WORK COMPOSED: 1876
WORLD PREMIERE: March 9, 1877, at the Russian Musical Society in Moscow; Nicolai Rubinstein conducting
Tchaikovsky initially envisioned Francesca da Rimini as an opera using a pre-existing libretto by Konstantin Zvantsyev. However, Zvantsyev was a ‘rabid Wagnerite’ and he began making some musical demands that Tchaikovsky did not enthusiastically receive. In August of 1876 Tchaikovsky attended the world premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle as a critic for the Russian press. The experience of the four-opera saga was ‘tedious and oppressive’ for Tchaikovsky and he welcomed the conclusion: “Finally on Thursday it was all over, and with the last chords of Götterdämmerung I felt as though I had been released from captivity.” After his return home he began the sketches for Francesca da Rimini in October and finished it in November. The irony of this story is that while Tchaikovsky found Wagner’s music ‘tedious and oppressive,’ it stuck in Tchaikovsky’s brain enough to find its way into Francesca! Tchaikovsky was the first to acknowledge the influence, “Isn’t it strange that I should have fallen under the influence of a work of art for which I feel, on the whole, a marked antipathy?”
Perhaps more than in any of his other works, Francesca shows influences of Franz Liszt (1811-1886) in both musical and subject matter. A number of Liszt’s works are based on a diabolical nature: Totentanz (1849), Sonata Après une lecture de Dante (1856), Dante Symphony (1857) and others. The major influencing factor in these works, and in Francesca, comes from the writings of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321).
Francesca da Rimini (or Francesca da Polenta) (1255-c1285) was the daughter of Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna. Around 1275 she was wedded to the crippled Giovanni Malatesta, son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini. The Polenta family had been at war with the Malatesta family and the marriage was a way for them to secure peace (Hatfields and McCoys?). But while Francesca is in Rimini she falls in love with Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo, who was also married (by the way, Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss (1888) was originally titled Francesca da Rimini). They managed an affair for ten years or so until Giovanni surprised them in Francesca’s bedroom and violently killed them both. If you are now thinking this would make a great opera synopsis… so did twenty-seven other composers, even Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1906 with a libretto by none other than Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest!
Readers of Dante’s Inferno meet Francesca and Paolo (as well as Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, and you can probably name quite a few newer inductees) in the second circle of hell, reserved for the lustful. Their souls are buffeted back and forth incessantly by the winds of a violent storm, symbolizing the power of lust to blow needlessly and aimlessly: “as the lovers drifted into self-indulgence and were carried away by their passions, so now they drift for ever. … a howling darkness of helpless discomfort.” The most famous quote from Dante is the inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and probably the second most famous is when Francesca mournfully muses, “There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery”.
Tchaikovsky’s tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, evokes all the turbulence and ferocity that Dante’s description of hell presents. The wild ride through the whirlwind storm that Francesca and Paolo endure through eternity seems so real that you may actually experience a sensation of disorientation and even vertigo. The storm Tchaikovsky presents has its quiet moments and, as only he can do, Tchaikovsky gives us one of his most beautiful and lamenting melodies. But, hang on, the wild ride comes back with a vengeance.
Tonight marks the fifth DSSO performance of this tone poem. It was also played in 1943, 1950, 1962, and on March 6, 2004.
Three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam) and strings.
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191
BORN: September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, near Prague, Czech Republic (then Bohemia)
DIED: May 1, 1904, in Prague
WORK COMPOSED: 1895
WORLD PREMIERE: March 19, 1896, in London at Queen’s Hall; Leo Stern, soloist; Dvořák conducting
Dvořák refused to write a solo concerto for the cello despite being asked by, among others, Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), who was considered the greatest cellist of his time. Dvořák claimed that he felt the cello was a fine orchestral instrument, but “totally insufficient for a solo concerto.” He apparently thought the bass register was akin to mumbling and the higher register had a nasal quality, though he was fond of the middle register. Finally relenting, Dvořák wrote to a friend that probably no one was more surprised than he himself that, despite his long held reservations, he had decided to write a cello concerto. (Most cellists know that Dvořák did write a concerto in 1865 for the cello and piano, but it was never orchestrated and now mostly exists with heavy editing from other composers and cellists).
In 1894 Dvořák was in his third term as Director of the National Conservatory in New York and Victor Herbert, who was teaching at the conservatory (and was also principal cellist at the premiere of Dvořák’s New World Symphony), had finished and premiered his Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 30. After hearing at least a couple of performances of Herbert’s concerto, Dvořák was inspired to finally honor Wihan’s request to write a concerto. Although much of the concerto was written while Dvořák was in the United States, it does not have the American influence that is so prevalent in his American String Quartet or Symphony No. 9 From the New World.
Wihan made suggestions for improvement after seeing the score, including two cadenzas, one at the end of the third movement. Dvořák rejected the cadenzas and accepted only a few minor changes. Indeed, Dvořák was quite protective of his concerto and wrote to his publishers:
I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.
Dvořák also insisted that the finale should have a diminuendo and close gradually “… like a breath… then there is a crescendo, and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily. That was my idea, and from it I cannot recede.”
In November 1895 Dvořák received a letter from Francesco Berger, the Secretary of the London Philharmonic Society, inviting him to conduct a concert of some of his works in London. Dvořák agreed and proposed to premiere his Cello Concerto with Wihan as soloist. Berger suggested March 19, 1896, for the date of the concert, but Wihan was unavailable. The Philharmonic Society nevertheless insisted on the date and, without consulting Dvořák, hired the English cellist Leo Stern. Dvořák was incensed and initially refused to come for the concert; he had promised the premiere to Wihan. Whatever may have happened it is now left to conjecture. What we do know is that Stern traveled to Prague to prepare the concerto under Dvořák’s supervision and by early March everything was settled. Dvořák conducted the premiere on March 19 in Queen’s Hall with Stern as soloist. The cello played by Stern was made by Antonio Stradivari, the 1684 “General Kyd”, which now belongs to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The first movement is a large-scale sonata form with a lengthy introduction stating both themes and allowing the soloist to expand on each. The first theme is heard throughout the movement, giving it a cyclic structure. The second and third movements are a tribute to the memory of Josefina Kounicová, née Čermáková, Dvořák’s sister-in-law, who had recently died. Within these two movements he quotes his song Lasst mich allein (Op. 82, No. 1), which was her favorite. Although Dvořák was initially very resistant to composing a cello concerto, it became one of his most personal works.
The Orchestra’s seven previous Masterworks Series performances of this concerto have featured solo cellists Joseph Schuster (1954), Raya Garbousova (1958), Janos Starker (1969), Ronald Leonard (1983), Jian Wang (1997, with Yong-yan Hu conducting and also performed the same weekend in Minneapolis at the Ted Mann Auditorium at the University of Minnesota), Hae-Ye Ni (2003), and Suren Bagratuni (April 18, 2015 with Dirk Meyer conducting). (The Young People’s Concerts in 1963 featured student cellist Mary Drawz in the second movement.)
Tonight’s soloist Lynn Harrell has appeared with the DSSO on two previous concerts: on April 6, 1979 (in Couperin’s Pieces de Concert and Bloch’s Schelomo), and on March 10, 1984 (in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations). Both concerts were led by Taavo Virkhaus.
Two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle and strings.