Italian Opera Fest
Opera had its beginnings in 16th century Florence, a city celebrated as the birthplace of the Renaissance.
The earliest known opera is Dafne was written by Jacopo Peri in 1597, who recreated a form of Greek tragedy. He collaborated with poet Ottavio Rinuccini to write the lyrics and create the trend of composers and lyricists partnering to produce opera and eventually musical theatre. Claudio Monteverdi was integral in moving the art form forward from the Renaissance into the Baroque era with his first opera, The Fable of Orpheus. Composed in 1613, it was the first incorporation orchestra with opera, not to mention luxurious costumes, sets, and a more dramatic vocal style.
As the art form grew in popularity, Italian opera was the dominate style and language used well into the times of Handel, Gluck, and Mozart. Through the mid-1700’s Opera Seria (serious opera) was the rule of the day which featured simple style, classical (Greek and Roman) themes, ideals and values. Around that time Opera buffa (comedic opera) began to appear and was played more to local towns and peoples. Opera buffa featured small casts and orchestras, the local language, plays on words, action, and humor. It was the first time that audiences, even those with different dialects within Italy, could hear opera in their own language albeit more tongue and cheek or farcical including the widely popular Commedia dell’arte.
Composers like Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi all greatly advanced the opera in their respective time, composing some of the most popular operas that live on to today. Operas like The Magic Flute, Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville, Othello, and Madame Butterfly are all still widely performed. Opera and its composers have greatly impacted and grown the orchestra repertoire both in their operatic works and through sacred and instrumental pieces outside of the genre. To illustrate, the WSO performed Puccini’s I Crisantemi for strings during our 49th season.
Although many people think of opera from the standpoint of singers, sets, costumes, and perhaps some Viking horns, the orchestra plays an equally important role to those on stage. They all exist in a codependent state, relying as much on the orchestra to fill out beautiful melodies as the opera diva is belting out a lovely note high up in the stratosphere. Opera requires musicians to approach the music in a different sense than a traditional symphonic concert. It requires both endurance and focus. Although mostly unseen by the audience, the orchestra adds to the storyline while heightening the mood and feel of a scene.
Tonight, we feature our WSO Chamber Singers, including members of the Westmoreland Choral Society, local universities, and members of the Pittsburgh Opera. We will explore several beautiful opera choruses, arias, and solos as we conclude our 51st season.
Charles Stanford (1852-1924)
Irish Rhapsody No. 1
To say that Sir Stanford was a proud and devoted Irishman would be an understatement. From 1876 to 1900 he published approximately 250 arrangements of Irish melodies for solo voice and piano, including some of the best-known Irish works. Renowned for his choral works in the Anglican tradition, he was also a prolific opera and instrumental composer. He became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London in 1883 and professor of music at Cambridge in 1887. Among his most famous pupils were Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Stanford’s first Irish Rhapsody enshrines Ireland’s best-loved melody Danny Boy. It was no mistake that he chose to open the first of six rhapsodies with this stirring melody. In fact, he caps his last piece with a thoughtful rendering of what it means to be Irish, similar to how he opens his first with Danny Boy. He was very careful to use traditional Irish melodies, unlike his counterpart Bedrich Smetana’s six symphonic poems that carried the ideal of nationalistic music through the use of original melodies to depict aspects of his Bohemian homeland’s history and legends. Smetana’s work is sometimes compared to Stanford’s rhapsody.
Although his music is not common in orchestral catalogs, Stanford truly was a prolific composer. He composed masters-level technical command in how to shape the sound of the orchestra through his compositions. In our opinion, Stanford’s charming works deserve more recognition.
CPE Bach (1714-1788)
Flute Concerto n D minor
The three sons of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach were all accomplished musicians, composers and some would say geniuses. However Carl Phillip Emmanuel (CPE) is the most accomplished and well-regarded. As a composer, CPE was very involved in the transition from Baroque to the newer classical style. He is noted for his compositional style of empfindsamer Sill (or sensitive style) full of long melodic lines and sometimes turbulent converging lines. CPE was sometimes referred to as “Berlin Bach” during his time in the city as his half-brother Johann Christian, from his father’s second marriage, was known as “London Bach,” due to his position as music master to Queen Charlotte of England.
His flute concerto was originally written for Princess Anna-Amalie of Prussia and sisters Zippora Wulff and Sara Levy. Bach was in the princess’s favor while in Berlin. His flute concertos are rumored to have begun as harpsichord concertos but were transcribed most likely by flautist Johann Quantz. Quantz is well known for his decorative and virtuosic playing with a well-defined solo flute part. These concertos have many of CPE’s hallmarks including the furious drive and shock constrasts in the finale of his D minor concerto. This hallmark is best known as Sturm und Drang (storm and passion) movement.
This concerto presents a lively contrast between tempos and emotions. The piece puts all flutists to the test with rather quick tempos and very involved passages as the flutist explores the ranges of their instrument. This concerto is deeply felt and full of passionate expressions of music. Above all, it expands the role of the soloist beyond that of equal to orchestra yet in a single voice, to feature with the orchestra filling in the gaps of the harmony and tempo.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 “Spring”
Composed in 1841
The last name Schumann and the piano are forever intertwined. Robert and Clara Schumann’s piano works are undoubtedly their most popular and frequently played. In 1840, Robert had the itch to try his hand at composing a symphony but it wasn’t until the urging of his wife in 1841 that he dedicated his time to composition. She has been noted for saying, “it would be best if he composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano… His compositions are all orchestral in feeling…My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra…May I succeed in bringing him to it!”
Once motivated, Schumann mapped out his symphony in only four days and completed the orchestration (filling out the voices of the orchestra) in roughly one month. The title is attributed to Adolf Böttger’s poem Frühlingsgedicht citing the famous line “Spring blooms forth!” When speaking with composer colleague Louis Spohr, Schumann said: “I wrote the symphony in that rush of spring which carries a man away even in his old age and comes over him anew every year.”
Schumann opens his symphony with a trumpet call, heralding the arrival of Spring and the joyful end to the winter doldrums. The symphony is spirited without pause from the second into a third movement containing lovely melodic lines. He is credited with significantly expanding the use of timpani with this symphony, which adds to the richness of the many harmonies.
He was the first to incorporate the big sound of three kettle drums, ultimately becoming the traditional four or five of today. This elevated the tuned drums above the traditional “boom-boom” role they played at the end of many pre-romantic compositions.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Composed in 1922
Pulcinella Suite is a one-act ballet based on the character Pulcinella from the Italian Commedia dell’arte (an early form of Italian theatre). Pulcinella is a notably an odd fellow with a humpback, large nose, and gangly legs, not to mention a round potbelly. Pulcinella is a two-sided character, we find him acting dumb although he is very aware of what is going on, or he acts superior and competent despite his ignorance. Above all, he is a schemer and he ultimately manages to sort out the problem at hand. As Commedia dell’arte was performed in different countries and regions the character eventually morphed into Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy fame in England.
The suite was derived in 1922 from the larger Pucinella one-act ballet with vocals which premiered in 1920 in Paris marking Stravinsky’s second phase as a composer. He said, “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look of course, the first of many love affairs in that direction but it was a look in the mirror, too.”
Pulcinella takes us through a story of love and friendship. Pulcinella, his girlfriend Pimpinella and two other couples ride the waves of wooing, misunderstanding and ultimately, the winning back of true love and happy marriages for all.
The concert suite was written in 1922, featuring eight of the 21 original movements and no vocalists. The suite prominently features the principals of the string sections and was revised by Stravinsky twice in 1949 and 1965. The work is a common piece of repertoire for chamber orchestras.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Composed in 1868
We are all familiar with the pressure of a deadline. Saint-Saëns wrote Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, his second piano concerto, in only three weeks! Conductor Anton Rubinstein wanted to collaborate with Saint-Saëns but was in Paris for a very short time. Under this tight schedule, the piece was completed in just 17 days, which left little time to refine, practice, and prepare.
Unlike traditional form, the piece starts slow and builds in tempo as the movement progresses. The first movement features the pianist performing a long cadenza (improvisational solo moment, not unlike someone scatting in jazz), then the orchestra enters playing a theme from Saint-Saëns’ pupil Fauré. It repeats in a louder motif again giving the pianist a long cadenza. The second movement fills in where the first movement would have traditionally been penned as an up-tempo scherzo. This movement can be compared with a movement and drive like his composition of Carnival of the Animals.
The third movement picks up from the second movement in a very fast saltarella (a very quick Italian dance, usually faster than a tarantella). Both the orchestra and soloist move along a breakneck speed until they finally meld together in a whirlwind of sonorous splendor. Although not widely known for his piano playing, like colleagues Franz Liszt or Robert Schumann, it was Saint-Saëns piano playing which was the impetus of this composition was described by Hector Berlioz as “an absolutely shattering master pianist.”
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Composed in 1788
One of only two extant minor key symphonies that Mozart ever composed, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor stands out as a truly unconventional and deeply moving composition – even for the truly unconventional Herr Mozart! Finished on July 25, 1778, it is one of Mozart’s most performed, recorded and admired works.
Mozart wrote three symphonies in the very productive summer of 1778 and Symphony No. 40 has come to stand out as a source of inspiration and great enjoyment to audiences and musicians ever since. Beethoven and Schubert looked to it for inspiration for their own masterpieces, and Johannes Brahms even purchased the autographed scores of both versions in the 1860s. Weaving waves of intensity, darkness, softness, and light, No. 40 is unquestionably one of Mozart’s most intense and emotional pieces. Historians have speculated that he was influenced by the recent Sturm and Drang (Storm and Stress) artistic movement in Europe, or perhaps by the loss of his infant daughter Therese.
It has been suggested that Mozart composed Symphony No. 40 as the central piece of an intended performance trio because it has no introduction, as Symphony No. 39 does, nor does it have a finale of the scale of Symphony No. 41. However, with no documentation as to performance dates or reviews, and with no reference to Symphony No. 40 ever appearing in printed material of any kind, it is all just juicy rumors! Some have even suggested that perhaps Mozart never heard it performed, which would truly be a tragedy.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin: Polonaise
Composed in 1878
When one thinks of Tchaikovsky it can be hard not to picture one of his famous symphonies or ballets. Tchaikovsky was also a noted operatic composer. His first opera, which premiered in 1869, has unfortunately been lost to time. Eugene Onegin, arguably his most popular opera, echoes familiar themes of life today and love trysts. Spoiler alert, the main theme involves a self-absorbed young hero who lives to regret his nonchalant rejection of a young lady’s love. Likewise, he carelessly incites a fatal duel with his best friend. At the suggestion of a local opera singer, Tchaikovsky wrote his opera based on the plot Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin.
Although sounding rather tropical, a Polonaise is a Polish dance. The dance was popular at carnival-type parties and affairs. As one of the five historic national dances of Poland, it has been performed since the 15th century.
Written in three-quarter time and played at a brisk pace the Polonaise was meant to be jovial and quick. In fact, U.S. President Chester Arthur asked John Phillip Sousa to compose a “Presidential” Polonaise so Arthur could speed up the receiving line and not spend all night greeting guests at the White House.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 2
Composed in 1935
Violin Concerto No. 2 was the last Western commission Prokofiev wrote before returning to his native Russia. Caught between two worlds at the time of this composition, he enjoyed the lifestyle and creative freedom of the West but missed home, despite the strict rules of Stalin intensifying daily.
In Western Pennsylvania, we can almost compare this split in local Amish teenagers, who leave home for “rumspringa” to experience first-hand what the outside world has to offer, yet over 90% of Amish teens ultimately decide to return and remain in their traditional community.
Although this piece has a definite dark tone to it, the second movement is uplifting through its sheer beauty.
This concerto was written to accomplish a tone of simplicity, opening only with the solo violin. The unadorned theme slowly gets picked up by the woodwind section, growing into silence once a new lyric idea is introduced. The second and slow movement embraces the same chord progression but takes the theme into a beautiful, floating, tranquil state. The movement forces the solo instrument to soar up to the highest range of the violin before passing the melody back to the orchestra.
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Although the chords and melodies are full, they never deviate from a single simple reinstatement of the main theme.
Prokofiev composed this piece over time and in different locations. This led to different movements having completely different styles. For example, the first two movements were penned in Paris and have a different feel than the third movement as it builds in tempo to a motoring coda. The movement drives forward with a duet of the solo violin paired with a thudding bass drum. The third movement of the piece was composed in Madrid and contains a raucous dance theme outfitted with castanets. Each time the theme is reintroduced in the third movement it is always accompanied by the festive clicking of the castanets.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5
Composed in 1937
“Deep, meaningful, gripping music, classical in the integrity of its conception, perfect in form and the mastery of orchestral writing—music striking for its novelty and originality, but at the same time somehow hauntingly familiar, so truly and sincerely does it recount human feelings.” – Heinrich Neuhaus (1975)
Mr. Neuhaus had high praise for one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. After attending the 1975 Moscow Philharmonic performance of Shostakovich’s 5th he had no doubt as to the genius of this Russian Master.
During the artistic purges under the reign of Joseph Stalin, many of the traditional composer’s works were declared decadent and outlawed. Shostakovich was at the center of these attacks and persecution after Stalin attended Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin declared that the work corrupted the Soviet spirit.
Living in fear, Shostakovich was sleeping in a stairwell and even scrapped his fourth symphony while in rehearsal for fear that it was not “Soviet-embracing” enough.
Subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” the work was styled after Beethoven, one of the only composers approved by Stalin. The opening feels tentative and abrupt with a sense of repetition. He was able to integrate folk songs that many in the U.S.S.R. would recognize with stirring march sections that appealed to the heart of the republic.
Symphony No. 5 concludes with swift march themes that end abruptly, only to be resurrected in a triumphant ending composed in a minor scale, thus embodying a sadder tone. Many were unsure of the work after it premiered, but after Stalin heard the work he found the music acceptable.