Saturday, December 3, 2022 - 7:30 p.m.
Shakespeare's tale of ancient rivalries and youthful passion inspired Prokofiev to pen one of his most dramatic and moving scores. Balancing the dark with the light, the amazing Holly Jenkins brings Tchaikovsky's lyrical and ebullient concerto to life. Inspired by the giant colorful figures carried in Brazilian parades, Clarice Assad's Bonecos de Olinda starts the program off with the thrill of a carnival!
Watch a video podcast by Bill Scanlan Murphy about the concert!
Premiered: Boston, MA, 2019
Clarice Vasconcelos da Cunha Assad Simão, more concisely known as Clarice Assad, is a Brazilian-American musical dynamo whose work covers a bewildering range of styles from jazz and folk to classical orchestral, not only as a composer but as a keyboardist and (especially) a singer; at the first performance of Bonecos de Olinda she appeared on stage alongside the conductor and sang and danced to her own music. All of this has been achieved despite Assad suffering from a serious debilitating congenital condition that has destroyed or shortened the lives of many.
“Bonecos” are the huge statues of saints, movie stars, politicians and assorted celebrities that are carried through the streets during the annual carnival in Olinda, in the northern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Despite their solid appearance, they are usually made of fabric and paper stretched over a light wooden or aluminum frame, light enough to be carried – or even danced – through the streets, carried on a wave of celebratory noise and music. Assad’s overture conveys the atmosphere of this unique event through ferocious rhythms and glimpses of melody – the very sound that would overwhelm a listener right at the center of the parade. Jump up, and the crowd is so tightly crushed together that you’ll stay in the air!
Premiered: Brno, Czechoslovakia, 1938
Montagues and Capulets; The Young Juliet; Minuet; Masks; Death of Tybalt; Romeo and Juliet Before Parting; Dance of the Five Couples; Romeo at the Grave of Juliet
The mid-1930s were a difficult time to be a composer in the Soviet Union. In 1935, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was condemned on Stalin’s direct orders as “muddle instead of music,” and banned for forty years; the composer was denounced in Pravda the following year and only just missed being sent to Siberia. Sergei Prokofiev, who was living abroad, mostly in France, was thought to be even more suspicious, steeped as he was in politically unreliable Western European influences. However, Prokofiev was desperately homesick; the ballet Romeo and Juliet was one of the bridges he built to return to his homeland. He finally moved to Moscow in 1936.
The story of the ballet is taken, of course, from Shakespeare, with a significant alteration: Prokofiev changed the ending. In his version, Juliet revives before Romeo can kill himself, and the two dance off to (presumably) marital bliss in the luminous finale. Prokofiev may have done this for fear that the Commissars would think the original ending too dark for the mass audience, so it is ironic that he was told to restore the death of both lovers by the Censor. His relationship with the State’s cultural guardians would never be easy. He genuinely tried to be a good Communist – his best-known work, Peter and the Wolf, is a Party-approved parable – and Romeo and Juliet sees him (mostly) at his least challenging, and a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky.
In Romeo and Juliet, we see Prokofiev setting out his stall for his new Soviet audience. The extreme simplicity of some of the musical material is remarkable – stomping, leaping E minor arpeggios in Montagues and Capulets and C major scales to represent the young Juliet. The Minuet could be dropped unnoticed into Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, while Masks could easily be mistaken for the very famous Three Oranges march. Masks sounds so much like Shostakovich that parody is not out of the question, while much of the Death of Tybalt sounds like Khachaturian trying out for Hollywood (count those stabs!) – and Prokofiev would soon show himself to be a superb composer for the screen. The great love scene and Romeo’s final solo see him reaching unashamedly into the world of Tchaikovsky, with only the occasional trademark tonal side-slips giving him away. It’s actually the conflict between Prokofiev’s traditional and radical tendencies that makes the music as exciting as it is – but it also makes us wonder: why, exactly, did he go back?
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1881
I: Allegro moderato
II: Canzonetta: Andante
III: Finale: Allegro vivacissimo
It’s often forgotten that Tchaikovsky was Russia’s one and only professional composer in the 1880s; all the others had day jobs, from Mussorgsky the customs official to Rimsky-Korsakov the naval officer. Others taught, but only Tchaikovsky made his living entirely as a composer. He did this, at least in his earlier years, by having a wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who paid his domestic bills and bankrolled his compositions. Weirdly, he only met her once, and that by accident. Tchaikovsky was placed on her payroll, however, by a young violinist, Iosif Kotek, who began as his lover but proved to be serially and publically unfaithful in ways that could have landed them both in prison (same-sex relationships were very illegal in Tsarist Russia). It was Kotek who asked Tchaikovsky to write a violin concerto, taking account of a mangled finger on his left hand (which explains some of the oddities surviving in the violin writing). The work was to have been dedicated to Kotek, but Kotek thought it beneath him by then, and died soon after in any case at 28. Tchaikovsky offered the dedication to the great Hungarian violinist Auer, obviously hoping for a high-profile premiere, but Auer, incredibly, also turned this down after a brief perusal – a judgment he soon came to regret. The final dedicatee was Adolph Brodsky, who played the premiere. The work was a huge success from then on.
The first movement is in a sonata form that seems to contain wreckage from an earlier version; the opening theme is an obvious candidate for first subject, but is never heard again once the violin enters with a near-cadenza followed by the now very famous actual first subject. This large expanse of undeveloped material is very unusual for the usually musically economical Tchaikovsky. The second subject is in a no-nonsense A major, and the rest of the movement follows the textbook, apart from a strangely Prokofiev-ish dip into C major (and even F) in the development. An oddity of the cadenza is that it contains three of the highest notes ever written down for the violin up to that time.
The second movement is actually a substitution for an earlier version that Tchaikovsky excised, but recycled as a chamber work. It lives up entirely to its title (Canzonetta = “little song”), built around an unassuming melody that wanders no further than E flat from its comfortable home in the unsurprising key of G minor. This makes the no-break crash into the finale all the more surprising. The finale is Tchaikovsky at his most self-consciously Russian, though he is careful to avoid the rough-hewn “excesses” of his more overtly Nationalist contemporaries: he settles for a drone accompaniment and steadily increasing tempo to state his cultural credentials, combined with a lyrical section that sounds like, but is not, a folksong. All that remains is the frantic dash to the finish line in grand Romantic D-major, terrifyingly-difficult style.