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PROGRAM NOTES - Tchaikovsky & Saint-Saë ns
April 21 & 22, 2018


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Vivian Fung, b. 1975

String Sinfonietta

Canadian composer Vivian Fung received her Doctorate in Music from Juilliard, and spent eight years on the faculty. She currently lives in San Francisco. Her compositional style samples non-Western folk music, Indonesian gamelan, Tibetan chant and tango, often combined into a global mix. In 2012, she traveled to Yunnan province in southwest China to study the local minorities’ music cultures.

Fung writes about the four-movement Sinfonietta, composed in 2008 and revised in 2011: “As with many of my works, influences from Chinese and Indonesian folk music can be heard in String Sinfonietta. It is essentially a reworking of my String Quartet No. 1 for string orchestra, with revisions that include the addition of double basses. The third movement was composed first, and was originally thought of as stand-alone piece. However, inspired by the success of Pizzicato, I composed the first, second, and fourth movements over the next two years, using similar scale patterns found in Pizzicato.”

People tend to think of Asian music as overwhelmingly pentatonic, but Fung’s score is highly chromatic and dissonant. Her ethnomusicological travels bring to mind the work of Béla Bartók as he collected and recorded indigenous music from Eastern Europe and North Africa, and her chromatic language and energetic syncopation are analogous to his transformations into the Western Classical idiom. Fung’s Pizzicato movement does indeed suggest folk modes and rhythms, and the use of pizzicato and col legno writing may have been inspired – consciously or not – by the parallel movement in Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet.

Fung continues to discuss the work: “The first movement, Animato, is lively with frequent use of interlocking and syncopated rhythms under long, flowing, melodic lines. Next, Interludium, the only slow movement, has hints of a folk melody, superimposed over alternating chords that appear and disappear to create an atmospheric mood.

As the title suggests, Pizzicato requires the string players to pluck the strings of their instruments, with few added surprises towards the end. The final movement, Moto Perpetuo, includes a virtuosic display of constantly swirling sixteenth notes that drives the work to an explosive conclusion.”

Camille Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22

A child prodigy who grew to become a phenomenal polymath, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote articles and books on many scientific topics, including astronomy, biology and archaeology in addition to his composing and musicological studies.

In his youth Saint-Saëns was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition, conventional forms and harmony in France. As an accomplished organist and pianist – he premiered his five piano concertos – he sported elegant, effortless technique. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-Saëns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.” Saint-Saëns was supportive of some younger composers, but his visceral dislike of Debussy actually engendered endless headlines in the tabloid press.

Saint-Saëns composed the Second Piano Concerto in 1868 at the request of the famed Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein, who wanted to use it to advance his conducting career. The composer gave the first performance with Rubinstein conducting, to general acclaim. A showy piece, recalling Liszt at his most bombastic and Chopin at his most lyrical, the Concerto is particularly popular among pianists with outstanding technique.

The first movement opens with a lengthy Andante sostenuto introduction, a massive and splashy solo fantasia in and of itself. There follows a thunderous introduction by the whole orchestra. The piano introduces the leisurely first theme, which develops as interplay between the soloist and the woodwinds, especially the flute. The second theme belongs to the piano with occasional upper woodwind accompaniment. The movement becomes a display of brilliant pianistic virtuosity, concluding with a reprise of the introductory material of both piano and orchestra.

The second movement, Allegro scherzando, opens with a rhythmic ostinato on the timpani that provides the pulse for the entire movement. The piano theme sparkles whimsically and is paired with a catchy melody in the orchestra. The movement concludes with a whisper.

The Presto, alla breve finale is a tarantella, too fast for human feet by far. It is a pure bravura piece, full of crashing chords and glittering runs, which received – not unexpectedly – the warmest praise from Franz Liszt.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Throughout his creative career, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s inspiration went through extreme cycles, tied to his frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt. In mid-May 1888 he wrote to his brother Modest that he was convinced that he had written himself out and that he now felt neither the impulse nor the inclination to compose. By the end of the month, however, he set about “...getting a symphony out of my dulled brain, with difficulty.” Inspiration must have started to flow, for by the end of August, the massive Fifth Symphony was finished.

As was the case with most of Tchaikovsky’s compositions, the premiere of the Symphony – in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting – earned mixed reactions. The audience liked it, critics panned it and fellow-composers were envious. Modest believed that the problem with the critics lay with his brother’s lack of confidence as a conductor. Tchaikovsky himself, however, was never at ease with the Symphony, and wrote to his benefactress, Nadeja von Meck: “Having played my symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some exaggerated color, some insincerity of construction, which the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations were not for this but for other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public.” For the rest of his life he felt ambivalent about its merits, although after a concert in Germany, where the musicians were enthusiastic, he felt more positive.

The mood of the entire Symphony is set by the introduction, a somber motto in the clarinets that reappears throughout the work and hints at some hidden extra-musical agenda. Perhaps the motto reflects the melancholy and self-doubt Tchaikovsky experienced when he started composing the Symphony; certainly its mood is maintained throughout most of the work, where it casts a pall over whatever it touches. After the Introduction, the first movement continues Andante con anima with a resolute march theme, almost a grim procession through adversity. A second beautifully orchestrated theme reveals how many ways there are to represent a sigh in music. Even the idyllic ambience of the second movement, Andante cantabile, its main theme one of the repertory's great horn solos, followed by a more animated theme for solo oboe, opens with ponderous introductory measures for the double basses and cellos, playing the underlying harmony of the motto. Later, the movement is interrupted by the sudden recurrence of the motto blasted out by a solo trumpet over the threatening rumble of the timpani.

The third movement is a waltz based on a street melody the composer had heard in Florence ten years before. It also has an undertone of sadness, and towards the end the somber motto is again heard, the mood continuing into the Finale.

The last movement presents the motto as the focal point of a final struggle between darkness and light, symbolized by the vacillation between its original E minor and E major. The stately introduction mirrors the opening of the piece, although in an ambiguous mood and mode.  With the Allegro, the key returns decidedly to the minor, but the tempo picks up into a spirited Trepak, a Russian folkdance. Finally, following a grand pause, the key switches definitively to E major – with great pomp and fanfare – for a majestic coda based on the motto and a final trumpet blast of a version in E major of the first movement march.


Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017