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Program Notes - Juliana Plays Prokofiev

Dance Rhythms, Op. 58
Wallingford Riegger

b. Albany, Ga., April 29, 1885
d. New York, N.Y., April 2, 1961

 

After graduating from the Institute of Musical Art in New York in 1910, Riegger continued his studies in Germany. He divided his early career between conducting and playing the cello, then after the First World War economic necessity resulted in a switch to teaching. Composition became his central occupation only during the mid-1920s. Initially he won a reputation as a fierce modernist, one who also supported other like-minded composers by organizing concerts of their music. Some of his later pieces moved closer to traditional models. Symphony No. 3 (1948) won particular acclaim, including the New York Music Critics’ Award and the advocacy of renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski. During the 1930s Riegger composed regularly for modern dance, before shifting his main focus to absolute music. The final decade of his life brought a steady stream of commissions and performances. He composed the brief concert work Dance Rhythms in 1954. In contrast to his earlier pieces, it displays a charming, light-hearted mood and considerable skill at a colorful style of orchestration.


Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Sergey Prokofiev

b. Sontsovka, Ukraine / April 27, 1891
d. Moscow, Russia / March 5, 1953

Prokofiev’s life and music were closely intertwined with the history of the Soviet Union. The brash young composer/pianist left the newly founded country in 1918, lured by the west and its promises of greater creative freedom and wealth. By the mid-1930s, his dissatisfaction with his reception in Europe and America, and twinges of homesickness, led him to return. The music he composed during the remainder of his career is less daring and irreverent than the works of his youth. This mellowing in style wasn’t solely the result of political pressure from the by-then ultra-conservative Soviet authorities. It also mirrored his own maturation.

His two violin concertos bookend his years away from the USSR. The light, whimsical Concerto No. 1 dates from the summer of 1917, the same period as the similarly delightful Classical Symphony. He composed Concerto No. 2 in 1935, just before his permanent resettlement. It is warmer and more substantial than No. 1. It was commissioned by admirers of French violinist Robert Soëtans. He gave the first performance, in Barcelona, Spain, on December 1, 1935.

The concerto begins with the solo violin, unaccompanied, playing a rather melancholy theme with the distinct flavor of Russian folk music. The second subject is also rather subdued. The slow second movement offers sweetness without saccharine. The finale is bright in spirit and highly rhythmic. It is virtually a satire, complete with castanets, of the gypsy-flavored rondos featured in violin concertos by composers such as Brahms and Bruch.


Symphony No. 4 in A major, "Italian," Op. 90
Felix Mendelssohn

b. Hamburg, Germany / February 3, 1809
d. Leipzig, Germany / November 4, 1847

You might call Mendelssohn a Romantic Classicist (or a Classical Romantic). He staked out a middle ground between these two schools, combining them into a style distinctively and persuasively his own. His enormous musical gifts, which had shown themselves at a very early age, prepared him for an adult career packed with activity. He was in constant demand as composer, conductor, pianist, organ soloist and musical administrator.

He had long wanted to visit Italy, the cradle of so much European culture. After his way was finally cleared in late 1830, he spent the following 18 months there. Visiting Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice and Naples, he basked in the sunny climate and enjoyed the scenery and art treasures every bit as much as he had hoped he would. On the down side, he occasionally found the people distant and the music second-rate, but that didn’t stop him generally having a grand time.

As the journey progressed, ideas for a symphony reflecting his impressions and experiences came rushing to him. He worked on it as he went, neglecting the sketches for another symphony, eventually known as the “Scottish,” which he had begun on a trip to that country in 1829, and was carrying with him. “The loveliest time of the year in Italy is the period from April 15 to May 15,” he wrote home from Rome in 1831. “Who then can blame me for not being able to return to the mists of Scotland?”

Referring to his newest symphony, he wrote to his sisters that “It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.” He finished the “Italian” Symphony (he coined the nickname himself) in March, 1833, after his return to Berlin. His immediate inspiration for doing so was a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere himself, in London on May 13, with the orchestra maintained by that organization.

Although the first performance was a success, he withdrew the symphony for revision less than a year later. Never fully satisfied with it, he refused to allow either its performance in Germany or its publication. It saw print, complete with his most recent revisions, in 1851, four years after his death. Its designation Symphony No. 4 springs from its order of publication, not composition; its place within an accurate chronological listing of the five symphonies he composed as an adult would be No. 3 (the “Scottish” would be No. 5, since it was the last to be completed).

Only an overdeveloped sense of self criticism can be blamed for his attitude toward the “Italian” symphony, since it is as polished and appealing a gem as ever he created. The outer movements sparkle with energy and joy. The first is not specifically Italian in the folk-music sense, but it joyfully evokes the country’s sunshine and high spirits. The inner two sections – the processional second and the minuet-like third – offer more reserved but equally affecting evocations of the same landscape. The finale is the only section with an unmistakably Italian flavor. It is a breathtaking symphonic version of the saltarello (first cousin of the tarantella), a lively Neapolitan leaping dance which Mendelssohn witnessed during his travels.


On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Waltz, Op. 314
Johann Strauss, Jr.

b. Vienna, Austria / October 25, 1825
d. Vienna / June 3, 1899

This is Johann, Jr.’s most beloved composition. Its first version (1867) featuring a male chorus singing a feeble text (“Viennese, be joyful! Oho! How so?”) was a flop. It was only some time later, after its debut in Paris in purely orchestral form, that it began its triumphant career. It became so popular that the publisher wore out numerous sets of printing plates trying to keep up with the demand, and it has long been considered a second Austrian national anthem. Part of its popularity flows from the poetic nature of the opening and closing sections, the first like a shimmering sunrise over a peaceful river valley. It traditionally appears as the second to last item at the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Concert. Film director Stanley Kubrick gave it a new, entirely different lease on life by using it to accompany the graceful flight of spaceships in his visionary movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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