Program Notes: Josefowicz Performs John Adams

Program Notes: Josefowicz Performs John Adams

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Full program notes:

Hector Berlioz
Born: December 11, 1803, Grenoble, France
Died: March 8, 1869, Paris, France

Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Opus 23
Premiered: September 10, 1838


Berlioz based his first opera on the life of Benvenuto Cellini. The French composer recognized a kindred spirit in Cellini—a goldsmith, sculptor, musician, soldier, lover, duellist, rogue, adventurer and autobiographer who lived from 1500 to 1571—but the opera was a crashing failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. Burdened with a libretto that manages to be both complex and undramatic at the same time, Benvenuto Cellini ran for only three performances. Parisian audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted (with typical detachment) that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.” Liszt led a revival at Weimar in 1852, but a further production in London in 1855 was a failure, and Benvenuto Cellini has not held the stage.

The only part of Benvenuto Cellini to have any success was its rousing overture. Everything after that may have been hissed, but Berlioz observed that the overture drew “exaggerated applause,” and it has enjoyed a long life in the concert hall. As well it should– the overture blazes with all the fiery energy of Cellini himself.

Berlioz wrote the overture after the opera itself was complete, and he incorporated a certain amount of material from the opera in the overture, but the explosive opening was composed specifically for the overture, and it appears to be a portrait of the hero. Marked Allegro deciso con impetuo, this opening rushes forward on a main theme full of rhythmic snap, but quickly this energy subsides and the music slows to a Larghetto. Over pizzicato accompaniment, woodwinds sing themes from Cardinal Salviati’s “A tous péchés pleine indulgence” and the “Arriete d’Arlequin” from a vapid show that takes place during carnival season in Rome. The opening Allegro returns, but once again Berlioz interrupts this with more lyric music, this time from the love-duet sung by Cellini and his 17-year-old lover Teresa. Back comes the blazing opening material, and the overture reaches its climax as Berlioz presents several of its themes simultaneously. It is a very exciting (and very loud) moment, and the overture whips to a grand conclusion. If only the rest of the opera were as good as this overture!

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe
Premiered: April 30, 1914

In 1909 the impresario Serge Diaghilev brought the Ballets Russes to Paris as part of his ongoing presentation of things Russian (art, sculpture, icons, opera and ballet) in the City of Lights, and that summer Diaghilev approached Ravel and asked him for a score. The French composer, then 34, could not have had more distinguished collaborators: Diaghilev oversaw the project, Mikhail Fokine was choreographer, Leon Bakst designed the sets, and Vaclav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina would dance the lead roles.

gentle story, stormy collaboration
But it proved a stormy collaboration. For the subject, Diaghilev proposed the gentle love story of Daphnis and Chloe, a pastoral by the Greek Longus (fourth or fifth century B.C.). A young man and woman, abandoned as infants by their respective parents and raised by a shepherd and a goatherd, meet and fall in love. She is kidnapped by pirates but rescued by the intercession of the god Pan, and the ballet concludes with general rejoicing.

The story seems simple enough, but quickly the collaborators were at odds. Part of the problem was that while Bakst had conceived an opulent oriental setting for the ballet, Ravel imagined “a vast musical fresco, less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies quite willingly with that imagined and depicted by late 18th-century French artists.” Paintings of the verdant sets suggest that Ravel’s conception— described by Madeline Goss as “a typically 18th-century atmosphere of Watteau shepherdesses”—finally prevailed.

“into our hearts like a comet”
The Daphnis premiere was conducted by Pierre Monteux at the Châtelet Théâtre on June 8, 1912. The ballet had an overwhelming impact. Poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau, then only 23, asserted: “Daphnis and Chloe is one of the creations which fell into our hearts like a comet coming from a planet, the laws of which will remain to us forever mysterious and forbidden.”

Ravel drew two suites from the ballet for concert performance. The familiar Suite No. 2 constitutes the closing celebration of the ballet. Rippling flutes and clarinets echo the sound of rivulets as Daphnis awakes and the sun comes up. This glorious music is derived from the soaring horn melody heard at the very beginning of the ballet. Chloe appears, and the joyful lovers are united. Told that Pan had saved her in memory of the nymph Syrinx, Daphnis and Chloe now act out that tale in pantomime, and Daphnis mimes playing on reeds, a part taken in the orchestra by an opulent flute solo. The two collapse into each other’s arms and pledge their love. The stage is filled with happy youths, whose Danse générale brings the ballet to a thrilling conclusion.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, celeste, 2 harps and strings.

John Adams
Born: Februry 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts; now living in Berkeley, California

Scheherazade.2, Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra
Premiered: March 26, 2015

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on Arabian Nights, has always been one of the most popular pieces ever written, and its sumptuous sound, exotic atmosphere, and wonderful part for solo violin have made it the entry point into classical music for many people. Yet beneath the shining surface of RimskyKorsakov’s score lurks an ugly story: the Sultan Schahriah marries a new wife every day, takes her for one night, and then—fearing that no woman can remain faithful—has her strangled the following morning. Only the wily Scheherazade escapes that fate, spinning a series of tales so entrancing that the Sultan cannot bring himself to order her execution. 

It was to the dark underside of this tale that John Adams turned when he took up the subject of Scheherazade in 2014. Instead of seeing it as an opulent, exotic experience, he was more struck by the brutality at the heart of the tale, particularly the objectification of women and the violence directed at them. Now he re-imagined “a contemporary Scheherazade…an empowered woman, a Scheherazade who could talk back to authority,” and to make clear that this is a re-telling, he titled his piece Scheherazade.2. He subtitled it “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra,” emphasizing that he wanted to create a “symphony that told a story.” Adams has described his conception of this music.

“I was suddenly struck by the idea of a ‘dramatic symphony’ in which the principal character role is taken by the solo violin— and she would be Scheherazade. While not having an actual story line or plot, the symphony follows a set of provocative images: a beautiful young woman with grit and personal power; a pursuit by ‘true believers’; a love scene which is both violent and tender; a scene in which she is tried by a court of religious zealots (Scheherazade and the Men with Beards), during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations; and a final ‘escape, flight and sanctuary’ which must be the archetypal dream of any woman importuned by a man or men.”

Listeners may approach Scheherazade.2 as a re-imagining of Rimsky’s classic tale, but they should not think of it as tone-painting à la Richard Strauss, in which specific incidents would be described minutely in sound. In this sense, Adams’ approach is exactly the same as that of Rimsky, who said of composing Scheherazade: “I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each listener. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders…” In exactly the same way, Adams notes that he wanted to write “a symphony that told a story,” and he gave each movement an evocative title (Tale of the Wise Young Woman and Pursuit by the True Believers; A Long Desire [Love Scene]; Scheherazade and the Men with Beards; Escape, Flight, Sanctuary) and traced a general progression of events, but to the listener he specifies: “I leave the details of the narrative to your imagination.”

Adams conceived his Scheherazade as an extraordinary woman, and it should be noted that it takes an extraordinary violinist to master this music. Adams wrote it specifically for Leila Josefowicz, a champion of contemporary music in general and of Adams’ music in particular—the two worked together as he composed Scheherazade.2, and Adams dedicated it to Josefowicz.

This is not a virtuoso concerto, though it is more difficult than many violin concertos. Instead, it is a dramatic symphony that has a solo violin as its protagonist. Adams sets that violinist against a big, often violent orchestra, and the violinist must not only master the fiendishly-difficult solo part but must also struggle and prevail in that tumultuous world. Some sense of the range of expression Adams requires may be seen in his many performance instructions to the violinist, who by turns is instructed to be misterioso, brutale, manic, struggling, furioso, savage, but who must also play gently, playfully, intimately, delicately and freely. Listeners may follow the progression of the movements that Adams describes above, always remembering that he leaves “the details of the narrative to your imagination.” After so much violence, Scheherazade.2 ends not in triumph but in the “escape, flight and sanctuary” that finally brings her peace.

Scheherazade. 2 was jointly commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Leila Josefowicz gave the first performance on March 26, 2015, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, regular and large bass drums, suspended cymbal, tamtam, tuned gongs, whip, vibraphone, xylophone, cimbalom, celeste, 2 harps and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.