Performance Wednesday, October 5, 2011 | 7 PM

Mariinsky Orchestra
Opening Night Gala


Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Yo-Yo Ma has provided Carnegie Hall with some of its most memorable concerts ever, and an appearance by Valery Gergiev and his orchestra is always a one-of-a-kind event. Together, they perform a showstopper by Tchaikovsky—the guest of honor at the very first Opening Night in 1891—as part of this all-Russian program.

Program to be performed without intermission.
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The Program

Festive Overture in A Major, Op. 96

The Rising Curtain

The imposing fanfares in Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1954, were originally meant to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. Shostakovich wrote this overture as a purely functional exercise, dashing it off in less than two days under political pressure. Since there is no constituency for a Soviet political celebration anymore, the piece should have disappeared, but its irresistible energy and splendor have made it a popular vehicle for other celebrations and openings. It is impossible to hear this overture (one of the few that Shostakovich wrote) without imagining a big curtain going up.

Since commentators have compared the main tune to both Glinka and Bernstein, this is an ideal overture for a festival celebrating the special place of Russian music in the history of Carnegie Hall. Though rapidly composed, the piece manages to develop three strong, catchy themes, playing two of them together in counterpoint and delivering virtuosic riffs for all sections of the orchestra.

Most of Shostakovich’s lighter pieces (the First Symphony, for example, which the Mariinsky Orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall on October 11) come from his youth, so the Festive Overture is unusual in that Shostakovich composed it during his mature period, when he labored over such lugubrious epics as the 10th Symphony. Perhaps having the latter just behind him triggered the overture’s palpable sense of jollity and release.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33

Tchaikovsky and Carnegie Hall

At the invitation of Walter Damrosch, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky opened Carnegie Hall in May 1891, leading a series of concerts so jammed with fans that the Hall’s architects worried about the structure’s ability to contain them all. Damrosch was one of the founders of Carnegie Hall (originally known as Music Hall) and a passionate champion of Tchaikovsky and his works. (He conducted the US premieres of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth symphonies.) Six months after the opening, Damrosch programmed Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme at the Hall with cellist Anton Hekking and the New York Symphony Orchestra, now the New York Philharmonic.

This was 13 years after the work’s Moscow premiere, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting and German cellist-professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen playing the treacherous solo part. By the time of the Carnegie Hall performance, audiences were hearing not Tchaikovsky’s original work, but Fitzenhagen’s “arrangement,” in which he reshuffled the work’s eight variations (with cuts and splices) for maximum virtuoso display, eliminating one altogether.

Tchaikovsky’s publisher warned him that Fitzenhagen had taken his cannily constructed neoclassical piece and “celloed it up” for his own grandstanding purposes. Later, Fitzenhagen’s own son asked Tchaikovsky if he wanted to go back to his original, but Tchaikovsky, full of his usual self-doubts, said, “To hell with it,” and let it stand. Listeners did not get to hear the original until a half-century later.

Pour the Champagne, Hold the Vodka

The closest Tchaikovsky came to writing a cello concerto, the Rococo Variations are one of several works (the Serenade for Strings being the most beloved) that celebrate 18th-century masters. We think of Tchaikovsky as a Romantic avatar of angst and subjectivity, but he was also, in James Huneker’s words, “a polished, charming man of the world, … many sided in his tastes,” who revered Mozart as his favorite composer. (Damrosch described him as gentle, broad-minded, and modest to the point of “diffidence.”) This is a work of delicacy and transparency, Champagne rather than vodka, scored for a reduced orchestra that Mozart might have recognized and for the brighter sonorities of the cello as well as the usual dusky ones.

A Closer Listen

And yet, as reminiscent of the 18th century as it is in concision and spirit, the piece could only have been written by Tchaikovsky. The “rococo theme” is the composer’s own—not one he cribbed—and he subverts its initial daintiness until it has real soul, then races it over the finish line in breathless 32nd-notes. The transitional wind tune has unmistakable Tchaikovskian color and harmony, like an outtake from a Tchaikovsky ballet. Virtuoso display melts into introspection and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous melody in the Andante variation. In an earlier, less stuffy concert era, this big tune—we always look for at least one in Tchaikovsky—inspired spontaneous applause.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Scheherazade, Op. 35

Scheherazade’s Spreading Magic

More than just a crowd-pleasing anthology of musical fairy tales, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a landmark in both classical and popular culture. Its mystery and magic resonate in the harmonies and colors of numerous modern composers, notably Ravel, who wrote his own Shéhérazade, and Stravinsky, whose Firebird pushed his mentor’s effects in daring new directions. Since first being played at Carnegie Hall in 1900, Scheherazade has provided tropes for everything from Broadway musicals with “oriental” themes to such Hollywood scores as Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia and John Williams’s music for the Indiana Jones films.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s reach goes well beyond contrived orientalism. The sound of the modern orchestra owes a great deal to this 1888 work and to the miniatures in its immediate orbit, Capriccio espagnol and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. (Important earlier pieces like the haunting Antar were rarely performed in the West and thus made little impact.) Rimsky-Korsakov repealed the thick, square sound of the standard 19th-century orchestra, liberating the brass and percussion, inaugurating a new shimmer and transparency in the strings, and creating coloristic “effects” often inseparable from themes. As with Debussy and Ravel, one can’t imagine the ideas without the orchestration, the music without the atmosphere.

Hints and Cliffhangers

Not surprisingly, Rimsky-Korsakov admired Hector Berlioz, another largely self-taught innovator; indeed, it is possible to see Scheherazade as a Russian Symphonie fantastique, another work with fantastical references that is really about the wonders of a symphony orchestra. Like Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov was ambivalent about the piece’s “program,” though he certainly had a good one: Arabian Nights, which tells of a Sultan whose idea of keeping his women faithful was to marry them in the evening and behead them in the morning—until Scheherazade outlasted him by telling a fabulous story with a cliffhanger for 1,001 nights. Rimsky-Korsakov conceived the piece as a witty riff on this idea—each movement is one of the Sultan’s tales, and the finale recaps the themes from them all in a blazing apotheosis—but he never meant the work to be a literal narrative.

Indeed, he insisted that the musical “design” was the point of the piece and that even the basic motifs—the Sultan’s growling trombone, Scheherazade’s sensual violin, the Kalender’s gypsy-like woodwind cadenzas—were not Wagnerian markers “linked unbrokenly” with specific characters. The Sultan’s sinister theme, for example, soon becomes associated with a heaving sea in the first movement’s tale of Sinbad the sailor, and the Kalendar Prince’s motif in the second becomes the shipwreck idea in the finale. (Before becoming a composer, Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, and the sea haunts many of his works.) The movement titles were meant as “hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy,” leaving an impression of “numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”

A Symphonic Kaleidoscope

Recent commentators view Scheherazade as a mosaic in which themes repeat, contrast, and collide rather than develop in conventional sonata form. Rimsky-Korsakov himself regarded the work as a “kaleidoscope” of “virtuosity,” and indeed, the soaring strings in the opening movement, the Eastern-tinted bassoon and clarinet cadenzas in the second, the spine-tingling percussion in the third, and the massed fireworks in the finale created a new standard for brilliant color. This is a “concerto for orchestra” long before Bartók, where practically everyone gets a difficult solo, and small chamber ensembles shine against massive tutti. What most rivets our attention are Scheherazade’s seductive violin solos—the “unifying thread” as the composer put it—introducing all movements but the third and concluding the piece on a rapturous high over the Sultan’s now-subdued rumblings. Scheherazade sings some of the sexiest music ever conceived: No wonder the Sultan can’t bear to kill her.

Based on free variation form, the piece often sounds spontaneous and improvised (it was written in less than a month), but is cunningly calculated. The sensuous melody for the Prince in the third movement, for example, is deftly balanced between the freewheeling cadenzas in the previous movement and the fragmented violence in the finale. Many composers would be tempted to showcase such a luscious tune early on, but Rimsky-Korsakov waits until the perfect moment. The piece gradually accumulates more percussion as each movement unfolds, so there is always somewhere to go in the next crashing climax. Yet otherwise the orchestra is not especially large, indeed not much bigger than Brahms’s; Rimsky-Korsakov knew how to use each instrument to maximum effect, individually and in idiosyncratic combinations, and didn’t need to pile on extra players. Indeed, some of the best touches are astonishingly simple, such as the three harp chords that caress the Sultan’s violin solo, seductively setting up each narrative. The enchanter in the narrative is Scheherazade, but the real wizard is Rimsky-Korsakov.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Opening Night Gala benefit tickets directly support Carnegie Hall’s artistic and education programs.


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