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Prokofiev & Sinfonietta

Overture for Orchestra, H. 345 (1953)
Bohuslav Martinů (Polička, Bohemia, 1890 – Liestal, Switzerland, 1959)

Upon his return to Europe after a twelve-year sojourn in the United States, Bohuslav Martinů and his French-born wife, Charlotte, settled in Nice.  With the present overture, however, the composer was looking back to America, to honor the Mannes School in New York City, where he had previously taught.  In 1953, Mannes became a degree-granting institution and changed its name to Mannes College of Music, but Martinů’s score was actually dedicated to the Parent Association of the High School of Music and Art in New York.
    It took Martinů all of five days to compose this eight-minute overture, a truly celebratory piece in a bright and exuberant C major.  Baroque music had long provided inspiration to Martinů, who had revived the concerto grosso tradition in several works composed in the 1930s.  He returned to this idea in the  overture, which has not one but two groups of soloists, set against the large orchestra.  One group consists of a flute, a violin and a cello, the other of an oboe, a second violin, a viola and a second cello.  The two concertinos alterate with the full ensemble as the vibrant fast tempo is temporarily interrupted by a lyrical slow section. The initial melody returns and is subjected to a brief contrapuntal development before the festive and grandiose ending.


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1921)
Sergei Prokofiev (Sontsovka, Ukraine, 1891 – Moscow, 1953)

Six months after the outbreak of the October Revolution of 1917, 27-year-old Sergei Prokofiev left Russia for the United States.  Already famous in his homeland as the enfant terrible of modern music, a controversial composer and a pianist of dazzling virtuosity, he was eager to make a name for himself in the West as well.
    His efforts to succeed in America, however, were only half successful.  His first New York recital, on November 20, 1918, had positive reviews, but his opera The Love of Three Oranges, premiered in Chicago, had a mixed reception at best, with critics treating Prokofiev as a Bolshevist barbarian let loose on the peaceful American shores.  As a result, Prokofiev soon decided to transfer his home base to Western Europe, although his concert tours in the United States continued until 1938.
    In the summer of 1921, Prokofiev retreated to a small village on the coast of Brittany in Northern France to work on what in his autobiography he called “a large virtuoso concerto.”  His first two concertos, written in Russia, had been highly iconoclastic works giving rise to heated debates.  This time, Prokofiev created a more Classical piece, one that he hoped would help establish him in the West.  Most of the concerto’s thematic material derives from earlier works and sketches that had accumulated over a ten-year period; yet in its final form the concerto is remarkably unified in style and mood.  The work contains many examples of that supreme musical humor that has always been one of Prokofiev’s hallmarks; it combines melodic richness with a spectacular virtuosity and interesting harmonic innovations in a most attractive way.
    The first movement opens with a short Andante introduction whose melody is stated by an unaccompanied clarinet.  The Allegro section is based on a motif of quick sixteenth-notes, played by the violins, and a quirky piano motif (it is actually derived from the Andante theme) that is elaborated upon at some length.  A new theme is soon introduced by the oboe; all this melodic material is then treated in a free sonata form.
    Next comes a theme with five variations that stands as the concerto's slow movement, although three of the five variations are rather fast in tempo.  These three (variations nos. 2, 3, and 5) exploit the beautiful lyrical theme more for its rhythmic than for its melodic potential.  The other two, in which the piano plays the leading role, are more delicate, and filled with exciting chromatic harmonies.  The last variation turns the theme into a march of sorts, but the coda suddenly reverts to the lyrical ambiance of the slow variations.
    The third-movement finale is brisk and vigorous.  It has an extended middle section in a slower tempo that abounds in special orchestration effects (oboes doubling the clarinets below, not above as usual; the cello section playing the melody in an extremely high register, etc.)  The middle section has its own middle section where the piano, suddenly switching from 3/4 to 4/4 time, plays a simple melody based on a single note.  The dynamic material that opened the movement returns for a vivacious ending.


Suite from The Love for Three Oranges (1919)

The history of 20th-century opera is not overly rich in great comedies—the times, it seems, have been more favorable to high drama.  Among the few exceptions, pride of place belongs to The Love for Three Oranges, a “remake” of an 18th-century play with a definite modern (and sometimes even “post-modern”) touch.
    The Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi (who also wrote Turandot) was drawn to the world of fairytales; in this he differed from his contemporary and rival Goldoni, who cultivated more realistic, earthy subjects.  First performed in 1761, L’amore delle tre melarance featured witches and wizards, mysterious transformations and more; yet Gozzi did not neglect to include some satirical jabs at his literary opponents.  In 1914, the work was adapted in Russian by the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who published it in the inaugural issue of a journal named after the play.  It was Meyerhold who enlarged the cast with “Tragicals,” “Comicals,” and “Lyricals,” as well as the “Eccentrics” and the “Empty-heads”—figures caricaturing the choruses of ancient Greek drama and offering a running commentary on the plot. 
    Prokofiev took a copy of the journal with him as he took a long train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok in 1918, continuing his journey by boat via Tokyo to the United States.  This extended voyage gave him time to start composing an opera on the subject, which he offered to the Chicago Opera Company the following year.  Because of the death of company director Cleofonte Campanini, the premiere of Three Oranges was delayed, and finally took place under the new director, who was none other than Mary Garden, the great soprano who had been Debussy’s first Mélisande some years earlier.
    A young Prince is suffering from deep depression and the only cure is laughter.  His father, the King of Clubs, orders all manner of entertainment to make the Prince laugh; in the meantime, an evil Princess plots with an evil minister to kill the Prince, so that the Princess can inherit the throne.  Both sides have supernatural help from the good magician Celio and the witch Fata Morgana, respectively.  The witch, whose task is to prevent the Prince from laughing, achieves the opposite when she inadvertently trips and falls over.  In her rage, she curses the now-healthy Prince:  he shall fall in love with three oranges, guarded by an even more fearsome witch in a distant country!  Yet the Prince overcomes all obstacles and wins the three giant oranges.  Despite warnings that the oranges should not be opened unless water is near, the Prince’s sidekick Truffaldino opens the first one.  Out comes a beautiful princess dressed in white, only to die of thirst a few moments later.  Having repeated the fateful mistake a second time, Truffaldino flees the scene.  The Prince opens the third orange, but before the third and last Princess also dies of thirst, the chorus comes to the rescue with a big bucket of water.  In a last desperate attempt at vengeance, Fata Morgana turns the beautiful Princess into a rat, but Celio breaks the spell.  All the evil characters vanish, and the Prince marries his Princess, to live happily ever after.
    The suite drawn from the score consists of six movements.  The opening movement, ‟The Eccentrics,” is based on music from the opera’s prologue.  The second movement, the two wizards, Celio and Fata Morgana play cards; the wicked witch wins, getting a chance to plot against the Prince.  This is followed by he most famous excerpt from the opera, the March, which is part as the royal entertainment that is supposed to cure the Prince from his melancholy.  It is full of those delicious harmonic shifts that Prokofiev was so fond of.  The subsequent Scherzo, which occurs as the Prince and Truffaldino go on their quest for the oranges, is a brilliantly orchestrated miniature based on a simple rhythmic idea.  Movement 5 takes us to the desert where the Prince finds the three oranges.   The suite closes with the “Flight” from the opera’s final scene, where the villains are trying to escape punishment, only to fall into a trap which engulfs them amidst a blast of fire and smoke.


Sinfonietta (1926)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Are you ready for a bit of musical trivia?  Name an orchestral composition whose score calls for twelve trumpets (as opposed to the usual two or three).  It would probably be hard to find a second piece that shares this distinction with Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, one in a whole group of masterpieces written by the Czech master during the last years of his life.
    In his sixties and seventies, Janáček was younger at heart than many people half his age as he entered the most creative period of his entire career.  This late efflorescence had a lot to do with an encounter in the summer of 1917 that forever changed his life.  The composer, who had just begun to emerge from many years of neglect with the sensational Prague premiere of his opera Jenůfa, met a young woman named Kamila Stösslová at a spa in Moravia.  He was 63, she 26.  They were both married; she had two young children.  Janáček fell passionately in love.  His feelings for Kamila inspired directly such works as the Second String Quartet (“Intimate Letters”), but they must also be behind the four operas, the Glagolitic Mass, two piano concertos and the brilliant Sinfonietta that Janáček composed during the final years of his life.
    The Sinfonietta—one of Janáček’s best-known works today—originated in an experience the composer had shared with Kamila as the two of them heard a military band give a concert in the park at Písek, the small Czech town where Kamila lived.  The lively brass music enjoyed in the beloved woman’s company was the starting point.  An external stimulus was provided just at the right moment by a commission to write a festive piece for Sokol, an influential youth organization promoting nationalism and athletics.
    At the first performance. the work was called “Military Sinfonietta”; the adjective was dropped when the score was published.  Janáček had also jotted down tentative titles for the individual movements (“Fanfares”—“The Castle”—“The Convent”—“The Street”—“Town Hall”), but these were not retained in the end.
    The fanfares inspired by that memorable day in the park may be heard in the first movement, as well as at the end of the last one.  It is unlikely that there are any direct quotes from what the band may have played as the melodies bear the unmistakable imprint of Janáček’s personal style:  short folk-like fragments recombined in most ingenious ways, repeated and varied in massive blocks of sound.  This technique prevails not only in the fanfare-filled first movement but in the rest of the piece as well, even though the melodic style and the tone colors change considerably.
    The second movement consists of a string of quasi-folk melodies, some of them lyrical and some dance-like, all colorfully harmonized and orchestrated.  Towards the end, we hear more trumpet fanfares, derived this time from the first theme of the movement.  Janáček’s Czech biographer Jaroslav Vogel described these fanfares as “fluttering....above in a ‘flag-over-the-castle-ramparts’ manner.”  Some of the earlier themes are then repeated in a more subdued tone, but the movement ends with plenty of momentum as the first dance theme is brought back in full vigor.
    The third movement begins and ends with a sweet romantic melody, but there is a much more active central episode, dominated by the trombones, in turn menacing and humorous.  Finally, the romantic melody returns as a wistful epilog.
    The fourth-movement scherzo marks a return to the “fanfare” style.  Its striking trumpet melody is repeated in identical form over and over again (though not always in the trumpets), only occasionally interrupted by short sections where the tempo surprisingly, and teasingly, slows down to Adagio, only to bounce back to Presto with even more energy than before.
    The last movement expands on the folk-music vein of earlier movements.  The same simple melody is presented in a number of variations.  The, the exuberant fanfares of the first movement return in their entirety, but in an even richer orchestration (with brilliant string and woodwind trills added).  The work ends in the full splendor of the “military” brass, complete with twelve trumpets (and that’s without counting the two bass trumpets).

Peter Laki



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