Russian Dreams

Saturday, October 12, 2019 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

Ivan Stefanovic

Pieces

Sofia Gubaidulina - Concerto for Orchestra and Jazz Band
Program Notes

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA (born 1931)

CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA AND JAZZ BAND

Composed: 1976
Premiered: Moscow, Russia, 1978

Sofia Gubaidulina is an ethnic Tatar, born the grand-daughter of a mullah whose family had abandoned Islam for Christianity, then abandoned both religions for Communism; she reversed the trend and became a closet pan-Christian at a time when any open religious affiliation attracted the attentions of Stalin’s KGB. Having to turn her own personality into a nest of spiritual Russian dolls as a matter of survival made Gubaidulina a composer of dizzying complexity and contradictions, though she was sent off in this direction by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich. After hearing one of her early compositions, he said that he hoped she would continue on her “incorrect path” – incorrect, that is, as far as the Commissars were concerned. Her adoption of just about every western musical “sin” from serialism to alternate tunings via electronics and jazz would eventually result in her being formally blacklisted by the government in 1979 for unapproved participation in foreign music festivals. However, she was then so well-known abroad that this had little effect; not much later, the system that had tried to persecute her collapsed.

The Concerto for Orchestra and Jazz Band touched on a world that was not officially supposed to exist – Soviet Jazz. This astonishing work veers from the semi-improvisatory world of Lutosławski to the intergalactic jazz of Sun Ra via the wah-wah guitar of Shaft and what sounds occasionally like the James Bond movie score from Hell. Three wordless solo sopranos add an unreal whiff of the cinematic vermouth commercial. If Frank Zappa had edited a Brandenburg Concerto, it would probably have sounded something like this. But underneath the alarming multi-faceted surface is an astonishingly simple A-B-A arch form of the kind that Bach brought to bear on what was once similarly disparate material. For the record, the original title of the work was Revue Music for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band. A revue is a series of satirical sketches – but is Gubaidulina laughing?

— Program notes by Bill Scanlan Murphy

Sergei Prokofiev - Violin Concerto No. 2
Program Notes

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

VIOLIN CONCERTO No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63

Composed: 1935
Premiered: Madrid, Spain, 1935

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante assai
  3. Allegro, ben marcato

While Sofia Gubaidulina dealt mostly with the post-Stalin version of Soviet artistic repression, Prokofiev had to deal with the real thing, coming grimly close to residence in the Gulag (or worse) on several occasions. Fortunately, in his other role as a world-famous pianist, he could spend long periods out of the country. One of the products of this nomadic existence was the Second Violin Concerto, which he wrote for the French violinist Robert Soetens while they both toured Europe in 1935.

The concerto follows an absolutely orthodox Classical structure; Prokofiev was not quite the enfant terrible that he was widely thought to be. The first movement begins with the violin alone in its lowest register, almost threatening some Slavic Lark Ascending, but the soloist is soon joined by muted strings, with the rest of the orchestra throwing in progressively more color as the tempo picks up, until we are in familiar Prokofiev country – classical texture with a modern edge. The central movement, with the orchestra ticking behind the quietly floating violin, seems almost like mechanized Vivaldi – the Four Seasons for a less settled age. The finale, a slightly fierce rondo, occasionally seems to force its cheerfulness, but the almost incongruous castanets remind us that this music first saw the light in Spain. Only a year later, the Civil War would erupt, and Prokofiev would look eastwards for a permanent – if no less grim – home as the lights of Europe lights started to dim.

— Program notes by Bill Scanlan Murphy

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, "Pathetique"
Program Notes

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

SYMPHONY No. 6 in B minor, Op.74

Composed: 1893
Premiered: Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1893

  1. Adagio – Allegro non troppo
  2. Allegro con grazia
  3. Allegro molto vivace
  4. Adagio lamentoso

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the first performance of this grief-stricken symphony, leaving many to wonder if it is the world’s first symphonic suicide note. The symphony’s famous French “title” – Pathétique – is misleading. Tchaikovsky called it Pateticheskaya – "emotional” – which has little to do with the French word, with its overtones of “pitiable.” He also considered calling it “Program Symphony,” but decided he would never reveal the story that the work told – thus inaugurating a 150-year industry of speculative program notes (like this one).

The opening of the symphony was the Rite of Spring of its time – a bassoon solo asking the near-impossible feat of playing ppppp just before the first subject finally appears. The second subject is one of the most famous “big tunes” of all time, and the basis of many pop songs of varying degrees of taste. The lyrical nature of both themes is severely challenged in the development, and the recapitulation presents both in a far darker light than their first appearance. A brief quotation from the Russian Orthodox Requiem appears at the climax of the development – but why?

The second movement is by far the strangest of the whole work. Written in the then very unusual 5/4 meter, it is essentially a waltz that misses a beat every other measure, creating an unmistakable feeling of unease.

The last two movements seem to be the wrong way round. The Allegro scurries along in almost bracing optimism – especially the jaunty second subject, given to the clarinet – before finally giving way to a martial variant of the clarinet melody that we somehow know is not as cheerful as it sounds. It is by far Tchaikovsky’s most stirring and convincing symphonic finale. Except it isn’t the finale.

Uniquely for its entire century, the symphony ends with a slow movement, based on a simple falling minor-scale melody buried in counterpoint among the violins. The very B-minor opening gives way to a D major section that feels like the trio of a funeral march; only the triple meter prevents the whole scenario turning into a cortège, and the sensation of doom is undeniable. The brass intone what sounds like a eulogy for the departed before the D major material returns in full minor-key mourning. The symphony ends in the minor – the only one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies to do so. But it doesn’t “end” – it fades away. Days after the world first heard this astonishing music, Tchaikovsky did very much the opposite, without explanation (like the symphony); the world was simply told that he was dead.

— Program notes by Bill Scanlan Murphy

About the Concert

Excitement and passion are at the heart of this all-Russian season opener!

Hailed as "deftly virtuosic and musically compelling", Baltimore Symphony Violinist Ivan Stefanovic brings his amazing talents to a lyrical concerto that digs deep into Prokofiev's Russian musical roots. Tchaikovsky poured his whole heart and soul into his final work that sums up all the joys and sorrows of life. It’s an emotional masterpiece that has to be experienced live!

Sofia Gubaidulina brings Russian spirit to the American jazz scene of the 1970s in a work that will combine the talents of the Orchestra and members of our partner organization, the Columbia Jazz Band.

Free pre-concert lecture at 6:30pm!