Petrushka Program Notes

Petrushka Program Notes

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Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave. In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the third Brandenburg concerto
This concerto has no players specifically and consistently designated as soloists, but Bach can arrange his seven voices— three violins and three violas, with everybody else working on the bass line—to get more different combinations than any orthodox solo concertino could provide. All the violin and viola parts become soloistic at some point, and all contribute to the tutti in what is texturally the most inventive of the Brandenburgs.

Bach’s concertos normally have three movements. This one is an exception in that it lacks a slow movement. Between the two Allegros, there is only a pair of chords marked “adagio.” We cannot know for sure what Bach intended, and many solutions (including some absurd ones) have been tried. The simplest, most elegant and most sensible is to have the first violinist play a flourish over the first (or both) of the two chords.

Instrumentation: three violins, three violas, three cellos, bass and harpsichord

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.


Jennifer Higdon
Born: December 31, 1962, Brooklyn, New York; now living in Philadelphia

Viola Concerto

It’s no exaggeration to affirm that Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s best-known, most frequently-performed, and most highly-acclaimed living composers. The statistics are impressive. Her best-known work, blue cathedral, has received more than 600 performances since its premiere in 2000. There are more than 60 CDs of her music, and her music can be heard around the world in several hundred performances every year. Minnesota Orchestra audiences encountered Higdon’s music most recently in 2009, when the Orchestra was one of three ensembles to co-commission and premiere The Singing Rooms, her moving concerto for the rarely-paired forces of solo violin, choir and orchestra.

Higdon’s Percussion Concerto won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2010, the same year her Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Commissions have poured in from major orchestras across the country: Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas and Pittsburgh—plus many others overseas from London and Lucerne to Melbourne and Auckland, to name a few.

Unlike many famous composers, Higdon was not a child prodigy, nor even a precocious talent. She was 15 before she began teaching herself how to read music and to play the flute. She grew up in a household where the musical diet consisted of bluegrass, folk music, and rock and roll. Higdon did eventually get her first college degree in music, a bachelor of arts in performance (flute) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She went on to acquire an artist diploma in composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, then a master’s degree and doctorate in composition from the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with George Crumb. Higdon has returned to Curtis, now as a faculty member, holding the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies. Among recent works of note, her first opera, Cold Mountain, was given its premiere last year at the Santa Fe Opera in six sold-out performances.

a unique joint commission
Higdon’s Viola Concerto was commissioned jointly by the Library of Congress, Nashville Symphony, Curtis Institute and Aspen Music Festival. As with so many concertos down through history, this one was conceived with a particular soloist in mind: Roberto Díaz, formerly principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra— and a former member of the Minnesota Orchestra’s viola section—and current President of the Curtis Institute. In a further twist, the concerto was composed with not just a soloist in mind, but with a particular instrument as well. The Library of Congress, the lead commissioner, wanted a new work as a vehicle to show off its Tuscan-Medici Stradivarius viola, one of a quartet of instruments created for Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici in 1690.

Díaz played the concerto on this instrument at the work’s premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in March 2015, when Robert Spano conducted the Curtis Chamber Orchestra. For subsequent performances (including tonight’s), he uses his own instrument, a 400-year-old Amati that formerly belonged to William Primrose. The stage of the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium could accommodate only about 40 musicians—essentially a chamber orchestra—and this worked to Higdon’s advantage, ensuring that the solo instrument is never overwhelmed by the orchestral mass.

the music: gentle and yearning
Higdon’s concerto unfolds over the course of three untitled movements. The first opens with the soloist alone playing a single tone. This begins to throb, then moves to adjacent pitches. Wide leaps begin to appear. The viola will play almost constantly throughout this movement (indeed, throughout the entire 22-minute work) in melodic lines of yearning lyricism and elegiac gentleness. Along the way it will engage in short dialogues with other instruments: clarinet, flute, violin, trumpet, horn and others. An improvisatory feeling pervades the music.

The central fast movement is written as a rollercoaster ride up and down the range of the viola, while the orchestra serves as a supporting chorus of excited chatter. The effect is nearly that of a perpetual-motion machine, though with more than a few bumps and tripwires along the way. Higdon thinks of it as a scherzo: “It has a very American swing to it. It’s very tuneful, has a very clear pulse, a lot of color in the orchestra backing up the viola. I wanted it to sound joyful. It’s not something you always associate with the viola, but that’s what I was going for.”

The final movement perhaps comes closest to what Higdon calls the “American” sound in her work. To some listeners, once past the somber opening pages, the outdoorsy freshness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Billy the Kid may come to mind, to others the orchestral scores of William Schuman. Rhythmic asymmetry, rapid-fire dovetailing of instrumental lines, and jazzy inflections keep the momentum going to the final flourish.

Instrumentation: solo viola with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, 2 bundle sticks, cowbell, floor tom, woodblock and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.


Igor Stravinsky
Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia 
Died: April 6, 1971, New York City

Petrushka (1947 revision)

Petrushka, Stravinsky’s ballet about puppets at a Russian Shrovetide carnival, began life as a sort of piano concerto.

In the summer of 1910, shortly after the successful premiere of The Firebird, Stravinsky started work on a ballet about a pagan ritual sacrifice in ancient Russia. But he set aside the manuscript to The Rite of Spring when he was consumed by a new idea: “I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet-blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”

“the immortal and unhappy hero”
When impresario Serge Diaghilev visited Stravinsky that summer in Switzerland to see how the pagan-sacrifice ballet was progressing, he was horrified to learn that Stravinsky was doing nothing with it. But when Stravinsky played some of his new music, Diaghilev was charmed and saw possibilities for another ballet. With Alexander Benois, they created a story-line around the tale of Petrushka, “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries.” The ballet was first performed in Paris on June 13, 1911, with Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role. In 1947 Stravinsky revised the score, partly to give greater importance to the piano, which had been the music’s original inspiration; that version is performed here.

Petrushka has always been one of Stravinsky’s most popular scores, combining an appealing tale of puppets with authentic Russian folktunes, street songs and brilliant writing for orchestra. The music is remarkable for Stravinsky’s sudden development beyond the Rimsky-inspired Firebird, particularly in matters of rhythm and orchestral sound. One of those most impressed by Petrushka was Claude Debussy, who spoke with wonder of this music’s “sonorous magic.”

the four tableaux
Drum rolls separate the work’s four parts:

The Shrovetide Fair. Swirling music introduces a carnival scene in 1830 St. Petersburg. The crowd mills about, full of organ grinders, dancers and drunkards.

An aged magician appears and—like a snake charmer—spins a spell with a flute solo. He brings up the curtain in his small booth to reveal three puppets: Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina. At the touch of his wand, all three spring to life and, before the astonished crowd, move to the powerful Russian Dance.

Petrushka’s Cell. Petrushka, locked in his room, tries desperately to escape and despairs when he cannot. Stravinsky depicts his anguish with clarinets, in C and F-sharp major: their bitonal clash has become famous as the “Petrushka chord.” The trapped puppet is distracted by the appearance of the Ballerina, who enters to a tinkly little tune.

The Moor’s Cell. Brutal chords take us into the Moor’s opulent room, where the Ballerina dances to the accompaniment of cornet and snare drum. She and the Moor waltz together, Petrushka enters, and he fights with the Moor over the Ballerina, who chases him out.

The Fair (toward evening). At the scene of the opening tableau, a festive crowd swirls past. We hear a number of ballet set-pieces: Dance of the Nurse-Maids, The Peasant and the Bear, Dance of the Gypsy Women, Dance of the Coachmen, and Grooms and Masqueraders. At the very end, poor Petrushka rushes in, pursued by the Moor, who kills him with a slash of his scimitar. The magician appears and reassures all that it is make-believe by holding up Petrushka’s body to show it dripping sawdust. The ghost of Petrushka appears above the rooftops, railing defiantly at the terrified magician, who flees. The strings’ quiet pizzicato strokes bring the music to an ambiguous end.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, snare drum, tambourine, xylophone, harp, celesta, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

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