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Inside the Music

Vänskä Conducts Romeo and Juliet: Program Notes

As we dedicate this week's concerts to the generous donors at the heart of this Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä leads a program that reaches into the soul.

Transformative music calls for unity in Valerie Coleman’s Umoja and speaks of the wonders of a bird in flight in a flute concerto by Kaija Saariaho, performed by Lorna McGhee. Then, the Orchestra retells the tale of star-crossed lovers through Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite.

Valerie Coleman
Umoja, Anthem of Unity for Orchestra

Valerie Coleman’s Umoja, which exists in several versions for vocal and instrumental ensembles, is a stirring anthem that draws its title from the Swahili word for “unity.” The composer states: “Now more than ever, Umoja has to ring as a strong and beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”


Born in 1970 and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, in the same neighborhood as Muhammad Ali, Valerie Coleman was introduced to classical music by her mother very early—in fact, before her birth. (Coleman’s mother would often play classical music, especially Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, for her unborn child.)

By her teenage years, Coleman was composing complete symphonies and studying flute performance. Today, she is Grammy Award-nominated, was named the 2020 Classical Woman of the Year by the radio program Performance Today and was named one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music” by the Washington Post. She has performed with numerous orchestras, is the founder of the highly influential Imani Winds ensemble, and is active as a composer, arranger, performer, educator and adjudicator. She is also the creator of the Imani Winds Chamber Festival, an annual event in New York City that brings artists from around the world together for chamber music training and performances.

a signature work with many versions

Coleman’s Umoja first began as a work for women’s choir, composed in 1997, and then revised for woodwind quintet in 1999, becoming one of the Imani Winds’ signature works over the last two decades. A few years ago the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned Coleman to expand and re-orchestrate Umoja for a full symphonic ensemble; the work as you hear it this weekend was premiered just two years ago on September 19, 2019.

Coleman’s musical visions often stem from inspiration she finds in poetry, paintings, and biographies about unique individuals and cultures throughout history. Umoja, a Swahili word meaning “unity,” is also the first principle of Kwanzaa—encouraging people to strive for and maintain unity in family, community, nation and race. Coleman explains: “This work is through a traditional call-and-response, and the call-and-response tradition was a way of passing on history, messages, stories, whatever it may be. As a composer, I’m a storyteller, so Umoja is going to take the listener on a story about unity.”

Coleman’s introductory note in the Umoja score also includes the following lyrics:

Listen my people,
Children of ALL
It’s time for Unity
Hear the Winds call.
Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah.
Oh a-hum, a-hum Nkosi ah.

“the meaning of freedom and unity”

What started as a short, yet mighty anthem for choir has been expanded into a 10-minute orchestral poem that grows beautifully out of a sustained, songful introduction. Vivid patterns and rhythms dance throughout the winds and strings, and aggressive musical gestures represent conflict and clashes of injustice, racism and hate throughout history and into our modern day. Woven throughout the piece is the constant reminder of the value of unity, through gentle brass chorales and shared melodies across the ensemble.

With the orchestral arrangement, Coleman shares that this music “...honors the simple melody that ever was, but is now a full exploration into the meaning of freedom and unity. Now more than ever, Umoja has to ring as a strong and beautiful anthem for the world we live in today.”

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, ride cymbal, suspended cymbal, tambourine, temple blocks, triangle, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, harp, piano and strings

Program note by Emma Plehal.

Kaija Saariaho
Aile du songe, Concerto for Flute and Orchestra

Kaija Saariaho’s Flute Concerto speaks musically of shadows, landscapes and the wonders of a bird in flight. It has five sections—the first three falling under the heading Aérienne (Aerial) and the last two under Terrestre (Earthly).


This week’s program includes the Minnesota Orchestra’s first performances of Aile du songe, a flute concerto composed in 2001 by renowned contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Saariaho’s work Asteroid 4179: Toutatis was part of the Orchestra’s Symphony Ball in 2019, but this week’s program marks the ensemble’s initial performances of her music on its main Classical series.

Saariaho has recently drawn wide acclaim, including highly favorable notices in The New Yorker and The New York Times, for the world premiere this past July of her newest opera, Innocence—one of the first premieres of an opera by a major composer in the COVID-19 pandemic era. It premiered at the Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in southern France, and future stagings are planned by the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera.

Born in 1952 in Helsinki, Saariaho studied composition in Helsinki, Freiburg and Paris, where she has lived since 1982. Although many of her works are for chamber ensembles, in the past three decades she has produced several works for larger forces, including the operas L’Amour de Loin, Adriana Mater, Emilie and Only The Sound Remains, as well as the oratorio La Passion de Simone, portraying the life and death of the philosopher Simone Weil. In 2003 she was awarded one of the highest honors for classical composers, the Grawemeyer Award, one of her many awards. She is also an active educator, including a recent residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Wing of the Dream”

Saariaho has composed some 15 works for soloist and orchestra, all of which bear programmatic titles rather than simply being labeled concertos—though the word sometimes appears in a subtitle. The work on this week’s program is the flute concerto Aile du songe, French for “Wing of the Dream.” It was composed in 2001 and premiered on October 12 of that year at the Flanders Festival by the Vlaams Radio Orchestra, with Camilla Hoitenga as the soloist and Marin Alsop conducting. The score bears the dedication “For Camilla” on its opening page—appropriately as Saariaho worked with Hoitenga on many details in the concerto’s solo part.

Aile du songe is structured in two parts, the first of which is Aérienne (Aerial) and the latter Terrestre (Earthly). The first section is further divided into three sections, while the second part comprises two sections. The work, which spans about 18 minutes, is scored for a unique combination of instruments. Alongside the flute soloist and a typical string section, it calls for timpani, harp, celesta and three percussionists playing a battery of 19 different pitched and non-pitched instruments. Other than the soloist, no wind players take the stage; brass are also absent.

a note from the composer

Saariaho describes her composition in the following program note:

“I have been very familiar with the flute since my earliest pieces. I like the sound in which breathing is ever present and with timbral possibilities that befit my musical language: the instrument’s body makes it possible to write phrases that go through grinding textures colored with phonemes whispered by the flutist which gradually go towards pure and smooth sounds.

“The concerto’s title and the general mood of the piece derive from Saint-John Perse’s collection of poems ‘Oiseaux: Aile falquée du songe, vous nous retrouverez ce soir sur d’autres rives!’ This is not the first time I combine my music with Saint-John Perse’s verses. In these poems, Saint-John Perse does not describe the singing of the birds. He rather speaks of their flight and uses the rich metaphor of the birds to describe life’s mysteries through an abstract and multidimensional language.

“The concerto is composed of two main parts: Aérienne and Terrestre.

Aérienne. “The three sections of Aérienne describe three different concerted situations. In Prélude the flute gradually pervades space and generates the orchestra’s music. In Jardin des oiseaux the flute interacts with individual instruments of the orchestra, while D’autres rives compares the flute to a lone, high flying bird whose shadow forms different images played by the strings over the unchanged landscape of the harp, celesta and percussion.

Terrestre. “The first section of Terrestre introduces a deep contrast with the other material of the concerto. It refers to an Aboriginal tale in which a virtuosic dancing bird teaches a whole village how to dance. While writing this section, I was especially thinking of Camilla Hoitenga and her personality as a flutist. The finale—the second section of Terrestre—is a synthesis of all the previous aspects, then the sound of the flute slowly fades away.”

Instrumentation: solo flute with orchestra comprising timpani, bass drum, claves, crotales, Chinese cymbal, 3 suspended cymbals, frame drum, small gong, guiro, maracas, sandpaper blocks, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, wind chimes (glass, metal and shell), xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Sergei Prokofiev
Suite from Romeo and Juliet, Ballet Music, Opus 64

These Romeo and Juliet selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, chosen by Osmo Vänskä in the story’s chronological order rather than in one of Prokofiev’s more standard concerts suites, summon vivid images, from a masked ball to a violent duel to a blissful wedding night. The somber closing music reflects the star-crossed lovers’ tragic end.


Late in 1934 the Kirov Theater in Leningrad approached Sergei Prokofiev with the proposal that they collaborate on a ballet based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev completed the massive score by the end of the summer of 1935, but the project came to seem nearly as star-crossed as Shakespeare’s young lovers. The Kirov Ballet backed out, and the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow took over the project. Prokofiev’s first plan had been to give the story a happy ending in which Romeo would rescue Juliet before her suicide—because, as he explained, “living people can dance, the dying cannot.” Fortunately, this idea was scrapped, but when the Bolshoi finally saw Prokofiev’s score, they called it “undanceable” and refused to produce it.

While Romeo and Juliet languished in limbo, Prokofiev transformed excerpts from the ballet’s 52 numbers into a series of orchestral suites. The first two suites were premiered in 1936 and 1937—thus much of the music from the ballet was familiar to audiences long before it was produced on the stage. The third suite was compiled in 1946.

a tale of woe?

The premiere of the ballet itself took place not in Russia but in Brno in 1938. Preparations for the first Russian performance brought more trouble, including a fight between Prokofiev and the choreographer, disputes with the dancers and a threatened walk-out by the orchestra. When the Russian premiere finally took place in Leningrad on January 11, 1940, it was a triumph for all involved. Still, ballerina Galina Ulanova, who danced the part of Juliet, touched on the ballet’s difficult birth when she paraphrased the play’s final lines in her toast to the composer after the opening performance:

Never was a tale of greater woe,
Than Prokofiev’s music to Romeo. 

For these concerts, Osmo Vänskä has opted to create his own suite rather than present one of the three assembled by Prokofiev, because they do not follow the chronological order of the story. The 12 movements Vänskä has selected from the ballet show the plot as it unfolds—conjuring in sound, to magical effect, the characters, actions and moods of the drama.

music tender and dramatic

The Introduction, set in the early morning on the quiet streets of Verona, pulls us into this tale of young love and tragedy with themes that hint at what is to come. The Duke’s Decree, commanding the Montagues and Capulets to put down their swords and live in peace, is expressed in grinding dissonances that alternate with quiet but eerie string chords. The Young Girl Juliet captures the girl’s sprightly energy with racing violins and teasing motifs, though wistful interludes also suggest a depth to her character.

In the witty Masks, Mercutio and Benvolio have talked Romeo, a fellow Montague, into crashing the ball at the Capulets, and this music accompanies their stealthy entrance. Dance of the Knights (often titled The Montagues and the Capulets) is one of the most famous excerpts from the ballet, forging ahead powerfully as it depicts the swagger of the rival families; its quiet central episode features several striking sounds, including a tenor saxophone solo and wispy glissandos for muted violas. The People Make Merry (also familiar as Dance) accompanies a scene from the ball. The violence that triggers the concluding tragedy explodes in the next three movements: Romeo and Mercutio encounter Tybalt, a Capulet, on the street; Tybalt kills Mercutio, and Romeo, once the voice of calm, becomes furious and kills Tybalt. These excerpts offer some of the most dramatic and most often heard music from the ballet. The Duel between Tybalt and Mercutio, marked Precipitato, is full of tense, driven music. Romeo Resolves to Avenge Mercutio’s Death brings the terrific swordfight between Romeo and Tybalt, which rips along a furious perpetual motion from the violins. In Tybalt’s Funeral Cortege, cellos and horns sing the funeral song above rolling drums.

With Juliet’s Bedroom (also known as Romeo and Juliet before Parting), Prokofiev depicts in extraordinarily moving music the final meeting of the young lovers, before Romeo, because he killed Tybalt, must flee Verona. When the young couple’s plan goes awry, Romeo, believing Juliet dead, kills himself, represented in the soaring, intense music of Juliet’s Funeral and Death of Romeo, marked Adagio funebre. In the final scene, The Death of Juliet, the heroine finds her lover dead, and distraught, she kills herself with a dagger. In the aftermath of all this tragedy, the rival families pledge to live in peace.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, chimes, 2 harps, piano (doubling celesta) and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


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