Performance Thursday, January 17, 2013 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in his first year as music director, leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in Ravel’s La valse and Shostakovich’s intense, politically charged Symphony No. 5. Leonidas Kavakos, arguably “the most deeply satisfying violinist performing today” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), joins them for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, infused with euphoric sounds from the composer’s native Poland.
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The Program

La valse

Deeply moved by works of Claude Debussy from the 1890s, Maurice Ravel began to find his own answers to the questions about harmony, color, and instrumental texture that the late-19th century had left unresolved. As a new century dawned, so did hopes of a "new music," and this impulse found expression in the music of composers as diverse as Elgar and Schoenberg, Puccini and Debussy. At the beginning of the decade, Ravel's music began to appear in print for the first time with elegiac pieces (such as the Pavane pour une infante défunt) and revolutionary ones (such as Jeux d'eau). Buoyed by these successes, in 1904 the composer began writing Miroirs, a remarkable set of "impressionistic" piano pieces that some would later compare to the paintings of Monet or Van Gogh. After this, he was destined to join Debussy in writing a new chapter in the history of French music.

There is a popular element in the work we hear tonight that was inspired by the past and that conveys both nostalgia and shrewd critique. Ravel conceived La valse as an "apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which is entangled in my mind with the idea of the whirl of destiny." He completed the piece, which he had first called Wien (Vienna), at the end of World War I, when Vienna's destinyas the former center of the empire that the war dissolvedhad indeed determined a new course for the Western world. As such, it became a sort of "Death and Transfiguration" for the very concept of the waltz, as it had been defined through two centuries and perfected by the Strauss family a quarter-century earlier. If the piece contains a dark and even somewhat sinister element, this is in keeping with the time and place of its inception. World War I had, after all, altered the shape of the world as no war ever had.

Composed originally as a dance score for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, La valse used material sketched years earlier-some of which had already appeared, in fact, near the end of the 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales. Diaghilev found the piece untenable as a ballet, claiming that it would be too expensive to produce. Thus it was first performed as a concert piece on a program of the Concert Lamoureux in Paris on December 12, 1920; Camille Chevillard was the conductor. Not until October 1926 was La valse presented as a ballet in a production by the Royal Flemish Ballet in Antwerp with the great Ida Rubinstein.

Ravel described the piece thus: "Eddying clouds allow glimpses of waltzing couples. The clouds gradually disperse, revealing a vast hall filled with a whirling throng. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of chandeliers blazes out: an imperial court around 1855." This brilliantly orchestrated work conveys both the gaiety of the waltz and, as a reflection of Vienna's somewhat paralytic new destiny, a level of seriousness that is ultimately disquieting.

Paul J. Horsley


Program notes © 2013. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.


Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61

Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882, the same year as Igor Stravinsky and just one after Belá Bartók. Along with the older Czech Leoš Janáček, these composers carved out a special space in early-20th-century music. All four hailed from places somewhat afield from the "center" of the European musical tradition, but they traveled to France and Germany and were influenced by compositional currents in those countries, whether initiated by Mahler or Strauss, Debussy or Ravel. They were also at various times inspired by, and drew from, the musical traditions of their native lands, particularly folk music.

Of the four, Stravinsky went on to enjoy the most celebrated international career, while Bartók is especially recognized for the brilliant incorporation of his ethnomusicological explorations into his own music. Janáček's reputation has risen steadily in recent decades, spurred on in large part by the appreciation of his operas. Szymanowski remains the least known. Undoubtedly the leading Polish composer of his eraindeed, the greatest between Chopin and Lutosławskihe awaits appropriately broad rediscovery.

Born on his Polish family's estate in the Ukraine, Szymanowski received his earliest musical training at home before moving in his late teens to Warsaw for formal study, and then on to Berlin and Vienna. Wagner and Strauss were his models at the time, but the influences broadened as he developed an interest in Eastern cultures and traveled to North Africa. His musical allegiances turned to the French Impressionism of Debussy and the modernism of Stravinsky, as well as to the Russian mysticism of Scriabin. This wide range of influences would later merge with his explorations of Polish folk music, especially from the region of the imposing Tatra Mountains. The folk element came to the fore in his late large-scale works, the ballet Harnasie (1923-1932), the Symphonie concertante (Symphony No. 4, 1932), and the Second Violin Concerto we hear tonight. While the ballet explicitly uses folk material, the other two subtly adapt gestures, modes, and rhythms of indigenous sources. In the last interview he gave, Szymanowski called himself "opposed to confining oneself to folklore," which for him was significant as a "fertilizing agent."

A Great Last Collaboration

Szymanowski wrote the Symphonie concertante, in essence a piano concerto, primarily for his own use in performance. During his final years, he toured with it far and wide-much to the detriment of his fragile health-in order to supplement his meager income. The Second Violin Concerto was his last major orchestral work. Like the First Concerto from 1916, and a series of remarkable pieces for violin and piano, Szymanowski composed it for his good friend Paweł Kochański.

The two formed a great musical partnership. As with the eminent 19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim before himwho collaborated with Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, and many othersKochański functioned in many respects as co-creator in Szymanowski's violin compositions. (He also worked closely with Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and other leading composers of the time.) Szymanowski acknowledged in a memorial address that he was "indebted to him alone for imparting to me his profoundly penetrating 'secret knowledge of the violin.'" The published score to the Second Violin Concerto generously states: "The violin part composed in collaboration with P. Kochański."

In the early 1920s, Kochański had moved to America, where he taught at Juilliard, but maintained his ties to Europe. At his urging, as Szymanowski wrote in a letter, the Second Violin Concerto was "squeezed out of me, as out of a dessicated tube of toothpaste." Turning even further from his earlier modernist style, Szymanowski half seriously said the work was "horribly sentimental … beating all records of sentimentality … I am almost ashamed of myself!!" He wrote the work quickly with Kochański's help, and the violinist, who was terminally ill at the time, gave the first performance with the Warsaw Philharmonic on October 6, 1933.

A Closer Listen

Both of Szymanowski's violin concertos are continuous works consisting of two large sections separated by an extensive cadenza composed (and credited to) Kochański. Although one still finds the colorful orchestral palette of the composer's earlier Impressionism, the Tatra folk element now plays an important role, especially in the second half of the piece. The violin presents the long, haunting opening melody that generates many of the musical ideas to come. Following the startling chord that ends the cadenza, the second half of the piece begins with a lively march that leads to a tranquil andantino. The final part looks back to the opening of the concerto, with the principal theme boldly returning to end the piece.

Christopher H. Gibbs

Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

The life and career of Dmitri Shostakovich were in a perilous state when he began writing his Fifth Symphony in April 1937. The 30-year-old composer had recently experienced a precipitous fall from the acclaim he had enjoyed throughout his 20s, ever since he burst on the musical scene at age 19 with his brash and brilliant First Symphony. That work won him overnight fame and extended his renown far beyond the Soviet Union. Shostakovich also received considerable attention for his contributions to the screen and stage, including film scores, ballets, incidental music, and two full-scale operas: The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The latter enjoyed particular popular and critical success in the Soviet Union and abroad after its premiere in January 1934, so much so that a new production was presented at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow two years later.

And that is when the serious troubles began that changed the course of Shostakovich's life. Stalin attended LadyMacbeth on January 26, 1936, and left before the end of the performance. A few days later, an article entitled "Muddle Instead of Music" appeared in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party. The anonymous critic wrote that the opera "is a leftist bedlam instead of human music. The inspiring quality of good music is sacrificed in favor of petty-bourgeois formalist celebration, with pretense at originality by cheap clowning. This game may end badly."

Those terrifying last words were life-threatening; this was not just a bad review that could hamper a thriving career. The article was soon followed by another in Pravda that attacked his ballet The Limpid Stream, and then by yet another. The musical establishment, with a few brave exceptions, lined up in opposition to Shostakovich. He was working at the time on a massive Fourth Symphony, which went into rehearsals in December 1936. At the last moment, just before the premiere, the work was withdrawn, most likely at the insistence of the authorities. The impressive symphony would have to wait 25 years for unveiling in 1961.

The Return of Shostakovich

Shostakovich, whose first child had just been born, was well aware of the show trials and mounting purges, as friends, family, and colleagues disappeared or were killed. He faced terrifying challenges in how to proceed after the sustained attacks on his music. He composed the first three movements of the Fifth Symphony with incredible speed, although the finale slowed him down. The completion of his new symphony is usually dated July 29, 1937, but the most recent investigation for a new critical edition indicates that composition continued well into the fall.

The notable premiere took place on November 21 with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky. In the words of Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay: "The significance of the occasion was apparent to everyone. Shostakovich's fate was at stake. The Fifth Symphony, a non-programmatic, four-movement work in a traditional, accessible symphonic style, its essence extrapolated in the brief program note as 'a lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory,' scored an absolute, unforgettable triumph with the listeners."

The funereal third movement, the Largo, moved many listeners to tears. According to one account, members of the audience, one by one, began to stand during the extravagant finale. Composer Maximilian Steinberg, a former teacher of Shostakovich, wrote in his diary: "The ovation was stupendous. I don't remember anything like it in about the last 10 years." Yet the enormous enthusiasm from musicians and non-musicians alike-the ovations reportedly lasted nearly a half hour-could well have been viewed as a statement against the Soviet authorities' rebukes of the composer-artistic triumphs could spell political doom. Two officials were sent to monitor subsequent performances and concluded that the audience had been selected to support the composer-a false charge made even less tenable by the fact that every performance elicited tremendous ovations.

The Importance of Art

It may be difficult for contemporary American audiences to appreciate how seriously art was taken in the Soviet Union. The attention and passions, the criticism and debates it evokeddozens of articles, hours of official panels at congresses, and abundant commentaryraised the stakes for art and for artists. For his part, Shostakovich remained silent at the time about the Fifth Symphony. He eventually stated that the quasi-autobiographical work was about the "suffering of man and all-conquering optimism. I wanted to convey in the Symphony how, through a series of tragic conflicts of great inner spiritual turmoil, optimism asserts itself as a world view."

The best-known remark about the work is often misunderstood. In connection with the Moscow premiere of the symphony, Shostakovich noted that among all the attention it had received, one interpretation gave him "special pleasure, where it was said that the Fifth Symphony is the practical creative response of a Soviet artist to just criticism." This last phrase was subsequently attributed to the composer as a general subtitle for the Fifth Symphony. Yet as Fay has observed, Shostakovich never agreed with what he considered the unjust criticism of his earlier work, nor did he write the Fifth along the lines he had been told to do. Most important, he gave no program or title to it at any time. The work, which reportedly was one the composer thought particularly highly of in later years, went on to be one of his most popular and successful compositions and a staple of the symphonic repertory.

A Closer Listen

The first movement (Moderato) opens with the lower strings intoning a striking, jagged theme, which is immediately imitated by the violins and gradually winds down to become an accompaniment to an eerie theme that floats high above in the upper reaches of the violins. The tempo eventually speeds up (Allegro non troppo), presenting a theme that will appear in different guises elsewhere in the symphony, most notably transformed in the triumphant conclusion.

The brief scherzo-like Allegretto shows Shostakovich's increasing interest at the time in the music of Mahler, in this case the Fourth Symphony, which also includes a grotesque violin solo. The Largo, the movement that so moved audiences at the first performances, projects a tragic mood of enormous intensity. The brass instruments do not play at all in the movement, but return in full force to dominate the finale (Allegro non troppo). The "over the top" exuberance of this last movement has long been debated, beginning just after the first performances. Especially following the effect of the preceding lament, some have found the optimistic triumphalism of the ending forced and ultimately false. Perhaps it is the ambiguity still surrounding the work that partly accounts for its continued appeal and prominence.

Christopher H. Gibbs


Program notes © 2013. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.


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