Monday, April 11, 2011

Program notes: April 30 Masterworks Series Finale

To have the most famous classical musician in the world on stage with us at the Flynn is a dream come true! The legendary Yo-Yo Ma (who is not only the ultimate artist but also a U.N. Messenger of Peace) joins his good friend Jaime Laredo and the VSO for two popular showpieces. The program opens with Poulenc’s delightfully satirical Sinfonietta, and also includes Ravel’s charming Pavane. Be sure to arrive by 7 p.m. for Musically Speaking, our pre-concert talks. Keep reading for the complete program notes for this exciting evening.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Poulenc’s mother was a talented amateur pianist (which may account for the composer’s predilection for that instrument)—he absorbed his first musical influences from a vantage point underneath his mother’s grand piano. At age fourteen, he heard the eminent pianist Eduard Risler play Chabrier’s Dix pieces pittoresques, and from that point there was no turning back: he knew he wanted to be a composer. Poulenc also favored wind instruments over strings, in general, calling his Sextuor for piano and wind quintet “an homage to the wind instruments which I have loved from the moment I began composing.”

The first piece of Poulenc’s to be performed, Rapsodie nègre, for baritone and chamber ensemble, brought him to the attention of Stravinsky, whose music clearly influenced the younger composer. In 1920 the critic Henri Collet coined the soubriquet “Les Six” for a group of six avant-garde composers, formed by Eric Satie, which included Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honneger, Georges Auric, and two others whom we challenge you to name! Although the members disavowed a communal musical aim, there were more similarities than differences. For the most part, their writing was clear, light-hearted, and entertaining.

Composed in 1947, Sinfonietta was premiered in London the next year, under the baton of Roger Desormière. The music is light, even at times satirical, and overflowing with popular turns and dance rhythms. (Ravel is said to have admitted to Poulenc that he envied his ability to “write his own folksongs.”) It is in four movements: Allegro con fuoco, Molto vivace, Andante cantabile, Très vite et très gai (“very fast and very gay”). Scholars (or nitpickers) may notice some structural weaknesses in the work, but to quote the composer, “Don’t analyze my music—love it!” Sinfonietta was written as a result of a commission from the BBC, to celebrate the opening of the Third Programme (now Radio 3). Sinfonietta is his only symphonic work, and is as close as Poulenc ever got to writing a symphony. It is full of his trademark charm and wit, and deserves to be heard more often.

Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky had the greatest love and respect for Mozart, even going so far as to call him "the Christ of Music." Tchaikovsky worshipped Mozart's works as an example of the perfection of a past age, compared to which his own era seemed debased and vulgar. The Rococo Variations, written in 1876, pays tribute to the eighteenth-century manner in a charmingly antique theme beautifully suited to variation. Dedicated to his good friend, the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen, this is Tchaikovsky's one great work for solo cello with orchestral accompaniment.

The formal shape is that of a theme with seven variations. The work begins with an orchestral introduction. After the initial dialogue between strings and winds, a romantic horn melody leads to the theme, presented by the solo cello. The variations are separated by orchestral interludes and solo cadenzas.

In his biography of Tchaikovsky, Edwin Evans describes the Variations as " of the finest display pieces in existence. Each variation has a charm and piquancy of its own, and is accompanied by orchestration of that lucid, dainty type of which Tchaikovsky was such a master when it suited his purpose." Serenely lyrical phrases alternate with passages of extreme virtuosity. The English musicologist Eric Blom writes: "The cello's abnormally, almost freakishly wide range is exploited here to the full with the greatest vivacity and brilliance."

One of the joys for the listener is hearing the delightful blend of old and "new." The rich contrasts between soloist and orchestra inspire awe for the orchestration as well as the solo performance.

Pavane for a Dead Princess (Pavane pour une infante defunte)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

In 1898, ten years after he had entered the Paris Conservatory, Ravel wrote the “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” a brief work for piano solo. First performed in 1902, it was not until 1910 that the composer scored the work for small orchestra. It became his artistic albatross long before Bolero took its place as his most often performed work, and like Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata or Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, it was played widely but not well.

Ravel was quick to disavow any meaning in his title. HE chose the title simply because he enjoyed the alliteration, and offered this caveat: “Do not attach to the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess (Infanta) as painted by Velasquez at the Spanish court.”

In an exasperated aside to an aspiring pianist performing very seriously and very under tempo, Ravel remarked, “The next time remember that I have written a pavane for a deceased princess, not a deceased pavane for a princess.”

--Hilary Hatch

Cello Concerto No. 1 in a minor, Op. 33
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Saint-Saëns wrote ten concertos, among them two for violoncello, over the course of a long and productive composing career. Famous during his lifetime as a brilliant organist, concert pianist, music critic, and composer of operas and ballets, Saint-Saëns is remembered today mainly for his instrumental works. Although he championed the radical “new music” of Liszt, Berlioz, and Wagner, his own compositions are remarkable for their conservative and classic restraint.

The Cello Concerto No. 1, written in 1872 for the distinguished first cellist of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, August Tolbecque, is a modest work: engagingly unpretentious, yet far from frivolous and equally far from being academic. It is in three contrasting movements that are played continuously. The orchestra has a large share in the piece, but Saint-Saëns prevents it from overshadowing the solo part with consummate skill.

The concerto starts with a terse, controlled opening tune in the cello which presages the economical and understated nature of the entire work. The middle movement begins with a soft dance-like interlude in the strings which is then embroidered upon by the solo cello. A cadenza capped by a series of rising trills leads into the final allegro, where the original theme is developed in a vigorous dialogue between orchestra and cello, with greater and greater virtuosity demanded of the soloist.

Yo-Yo Ma, Cello

For his latest album, Songs of Joy & Peace, the multiple Grammy award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma invited many of his favorite artists from the worlds of popular and classical music to collaborate on a selection of songs--some sacred, some secular, some traditionally seasonal, some simply beloved--connected in their sense of wonder and appreciation of the holiday season. Yo-Yo Ma conceived of Songs of Joy & Peace as a universal holiday house party of music "uniting different forms of joy" with the idea of combining familiar material with songs that would offer the listener the gift of discovery performed by old friends and new. Songs of Joy & Peace celebrates the universal hopes, dreams and good cheer animating seasonal festivals--Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa, Yuletide, Winter Solstice, New Year's, Ramadan--the world over.

Celebrating his 30th anniversary with Sony Classical and Sony Masterworks, Yo-Yo Ma is an exclusive Sony Classical artist, and his discography of over 75 albums (including 15 Grammy Award winners) reflects his wide-ranging interests. He has made several successful recordings that defy categorization, among them Hush with Bobby McFerrin, Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey with Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer and two Grammy-winning tributes to the music of Brazil: Obrigado Brazil and Obrigado Brazil - Live in Concert. Yo-Yo Ma's most recent recordings include Paris: La Belle Époque, with pianist Kathryn Stott; Appassionato, which contains some of the world’s most romantic music; and New Impossibilities, a live album recorded with the Silk Road Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also appears on John Williams' soundtrack for Rob Marshall's film Memoirs of a Geisha. Across this full range of releases, Yo-Yo Ma remains one of the best-selling recording artists in the classical field. All of his recent albums have quickly entered the Billboard chart of classical best sellers, remaining in the Top 15 for extended periods, often with as many as four titles simultaneously on the list.

Yo-Yo Ma is strongly committed to educational programs that not only bring young audiences into contact with music but also allow them to participate in its creation. While touring, he takes time whenever possible to conduct master classes as well as more informal programs for students--musicians and non-musicians alike. At the same time, he continues to develop new concert programs for family audiences (helping, for instance, to inaugurate the family series at Carnegie Hall). In each of these undertakings, he works to connect music to students' daily surroundings and activities with the goal of making music and creativity a vital part of children's lives from an early age. He has also reached young audiences through appearances on Arthur, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 to Chinese parents living in Paris. He began to study the cello with his father at age four and soon came with his family to New York, where he spent most of his formative years. Later, his principal teacher was Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. He sought out a traditional liberal arts education to expand upon his conservatory training, graduating from Harvard University in 1976. He has received numerous awards, including the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the Glenn Gould Prize (1999), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Dan David Prize (2006), the Sonning Prize (2006), and the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award (2008). Appointed a CultureConnect Ambassador by the United States Department of State in 2002, Yo-Yo Ma has met with, trained and mentored thousands of students worldwide, including Lithuania, Korea, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and China. He has performed with and conducted master classes for members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. In 2006, Secretary General Kofi Annan named him a U.N. Messenger of Peace and in 2007 Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon extended his appointment.