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Frank, Sierra, Mozart & Ravel

Three Latin-American Dances
Gabriela Lena Frank
b. Berkeley, Calif., / September 1972

First performance by the RPO.

Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank’s music. Born to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry, and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, she explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Béla Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, she is something of a musical anthropologist. She has traveled extensively throughout South America, and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin-American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a Western classical framework that is uniquely her own. She writes challenging idiomatic parts for solo instrumentalists, vocalists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras.

She composed the dynamic and super-colorful Three Latin-American Dances in 2003. Keith Lockhart conducted the Utah Symphony Orchestra in the premiere performance on April 23, 2004. Here is the composer’s own introduction to the music:

I. Introduction: Jungle Jaunt
“This introductory scherzo opens in an unabashed tribute to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, before turning to harmonies and rhythms derived from various pan-Amazonian dance forms. These jungle references are sped through (so as to be largely hidden) while echoing the energy of the Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera who was long fascinated with indigenous Latin-American cultures.”

II. Highland Harawi
“This movement is the heart of Three Latin-American Dances, and evokes the Andean harawi, a melancholy adagio traditionally sung by a single bamboo quena flute so as to accompany a single dancer. As mountain music, the ambiance of mystery, vastness, and echo is evoked. The fast middle section simulates what I imagine to be the ‘zumballyu’ of Illapa, a great spinning top belonging to Illapa, the Peruvian-Inca weather deity of thunder, lightning, and rain. Illapa spins his great top in the highland valleys of the Andes before allowing a return to the more staid harawi. The music of the Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, is alluded to.”

III. The Mestizo Waltz
“As if in relief to the gravity of the previous movement, this final movement is a light-hearted tribute to the ‘mestizo’ or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. In particular, it evokes the ‘romancero’ tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands.”

Sinfonia No. 4

Roberto Sierra
Born Vega Baja, Puerto Rico / October 9, 1953

First performance by the RPO.

For more than three decades, the works of American composer Roberto Sierra have been part of the repertoire of many of the leading orchestras, ensembles, and festivals in the U.S. and Europe. His numerous commissions include works for many of the major American and European orchestras, among them the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. In 2003, he received the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award states: “Roberto Sierra writes brilliant music, mixing fresh and personal melodic lines with sparkling lines and striking rhythms…” He has served as composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, among others. In 2010, he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He composed Sinfonia No. 4 in 2009, on commission from the 12 American orchestras that founded the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, an organization dedicated to bringing more music by Latino and African-American composers to concert halls. Giancarlo Guerrero conducted the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the premiere on October 1, 2009. One week later, on October 8, Arild Remmereit conducted the same piece with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

The first movement is dramatic and monumental in character, the textures regularly sparked with percussion. The second movement has the character of a scherzo, although rather than the traditional fast-slow-fast structure, it offers fast and slow sections in alteration. Sierra has peppered it with many beguiling touches of colorful orchestration. According to the composer, the languorous third movement “evokes the slow Latin ballads, called boléros, that became very popular in the 1950s…The first fast digression is reminiscent of the ‘scherzo’ material and provides a contrasting musical idea that becomes contrapuntal accompaniment when the boléro resumes. The two ideas are then superimposed, forming a complex polyphonic structure. Eventually the boléro idea returns just as it was introduced at the start of the movement…The main idea of the finale is the vibrant Latin clave rhythm, which supports from beginning to end all the melodic and harmonic materials.”

Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

First performed by the RPO on December 4, 1931; Fritz Reiner, conductor; George McNabb, piano.  Last performed by the RPO on March 4, 2006; Christopher Seaman, conductor; Alexander Kobrin, piano.

Liberated from the suffocating and unappreciative employ of the Archbishop of his home city, Salzburg, Mozart relocated to the bustling, music-loving metropolis of Vienna in 1781. He quickly found himself in tremendous demand as a composer, performer, and teacher.

Viennese audiences came to love him for his piano playing above all. One way through which he responded to this preference was to compose 12 superlative piano concertos, Nos. 14 to 25, between February 1784 and December 1786. They are deeper in feeling, broader in scope, and richer in color than any which he or any other composer had written before.

The Concerto in D Minor was first heard on February 11, 1785. Mozart’s few works in minor keys present his most troubled and most personal thoughts. In them may be detected those darker feelings which lay below his façade of cheerful professionalism. The somber mood sustained throughout much of this concerto inevitably made it a favorite of audiences during the 19th century, the era of Romanticism.

The first movement is dominated by the mysterious opening subject, creating a mood of agitation and pathos which the mellower second theme can do little to lighten. The second section is a tender Romance; it was used most effectively over the closing titles of Amadeus, the Oscar-winning film biography of Mozart. The concerto’s sense of drama intrudes here, as well, as an agitated central panel interrupts the exquisite sense of repose. The finale contrasts a defiant opening idea with a playful second. It is the latter that wins through triumphantly, creating a victorious state of affairs that is all the more satisfying for being won against such heavy odds.

Maurice Ravel
b. Ciboure, France / March 7, 1875
d. Paris, France / December 28, 1937

First performed by the RPO on January 10, 1930; Eugene Goossens, conductor.  Last performed on January 26,2008; Christopher Seaman, conductor.

In 1928, dancer Ida Rubinstein commissioned a new ballet score from Ravel. He used the opportunity to conduct an experiment. As he put it, the score would be “uniform throughout in its melody, harmony, and rhythm, the latter being tapped out continuously on the drum. The only element of variety is supplied by the orchestral crescendo.” Instrumental coloring plays a major role as well, an area in which Ravel had attained supreme mastery. After its premiere as a ballet, Boléro quickly won even greater success in the concert hall. Ravel found its overwhelming popularity somewhat embarrassing. Composer Arthur Honegger recalled that “Ravel said to me, ‘I’ve written only one masterpiece, Boléro. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.’” Audiences beg to differ. It may not be wise to hear it too often, but when everything falls into place, it has the power to mesmerize the senses and quicken the pulse more effectively than any other piece of music.

© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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