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Pictures at an Exhibition

Roberto Sierra (b. Vega Baja, Puerto Rico 1953)


Full of vital energy and lush textures, this work is based on an eighteenth century piece by the Spanish composer Padre Antonio Soler, called Fandango for Harpsichord. Sierra uses several contemporary Latin-American styles to update Soler's original, creating a blend of tradition and modern Latin American flare.  Written for Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra, Fandangos takes Soler's original dance and passes it repeatedly, almost like Ravel's famous Bolero, through the prism of twentieth-century harmonies and electrifying rhythmic variations to create a work of great beauty.  The composer describes the work as "a tour de force for the orchestra;" and Timothy Ball of The Classical Source  hails it as "ÖA contemporary composition that is surely destined to become a popular orchestral display piece." 

Gabriel Faurť (b. Pamiers AriŤge, France May 12, 1845; d. Paris, France November 4, 1924)

Elťgie for 'Cello and Orchestra in C minor, Opus 24ó1883

Gabriel Faurť is known for his organ, vocal and choral music.  He assisted at several churches, working under both Charles-Marie Widor and Camille Saint-SaŽns before becoming assistant organist and choirmaster at the Madeleine church in Paris in 1877. Faurť resisted following the musical vogues in France throughout his life, and instead sought clarity, simplicity, and elegantly tuneful formality.  All three can be found in this lovely memorial miniature. 

An elťgie is a lamentation, typically written as one short movement.  Faurť had a gift for writing poignant, soulful melodies augmented by accompaniments that support but never overpower the main theme.  The piece was given its official premiere on December 15, 1883 at the Sociťtiť Nationale with cellist Jules LoŽb, to whom the work is dedicated.  In 1896 Faurť became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught such notable composers as Maurice Ravel, Charles Koechlin, and Nadia Boulanger. There he orchestrated Elťgie, which was originally written for 'cello and piano; and the orchestrated version was published in 1901.

Faurť's preference for light orchestral scoring is the ideal envelope for the rich, resonant tone of the 'cello, and in this beautiful work the solo voice controls the situation from the first moment to the last.  Over steady chords reminiscent of a dirge, the 'cello melody leads the listener through a rapturous lament that begins dramatically and gradually becomes more quiet and resigned.  The orchestra speaks alone for a time in a contrasting melody and is eventually joined by the 'cello, which takes over in a magnificent cadenza before the return of the original funereal section.  Eventually the 'cello seems to sing itself into silence.  The result of this tiny work is an impeccable moment of pure musical poetry. 

Camille Saint-SaŽns (b. Paris, France October 9, 1835; d. Algiers, Algeria December 16, 1921)

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 33ó1872

One of the best known and most loved 'cello concertos in the repertoire, this work by Camille Saint-SaŽns is a brilliant tour de force. Premiered on January 19, 1873 at the Paris Conservatoire, it melds ground-breaking structural innovation with exquisite writing for the soloist.

Saint-SaŽns loved both tradition and innovation. His divergent interests helped him telescope the traditional three-movement form of the concerto into a fluid, integrated whole -- one overall sonata form. Like many French musicians of his day, Saint-SaŽns was greatly influenced by Franz Liszt's ideas about the cyclic transformation of themes. These involved taking one melody and reshaping it into several different melodies over the course of the composition; and Saint-SaŽns' use of the technique in his 'Cello Concerto was distinctly modern. At the same time, as an organist Saint-SaŽns was devoted to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and at moments in the Concerto, he seems to use the orchestra to imitate the sound of a gigantic Bachian organ. 

While musical pundits marvel at the Concerto's inventive structural format, most listeners simply revel in Saint-SaŽns' extraordinary talent at exploiting the unique singing tone of the 'cello. It shines through the overall orchestral texture, particularly during the beautifully subdued second movement section.  Along with his focus on melody, he also demands the most of the cellist's technical dexterity, including double stops and quick, rippling triplet runs that include the entire range of the instrument.  

Saint-SaŽns had one of the longest and most productive careers on record in Western music.  The act of composition was for him a work of minutes, and his fluency has led some of his works to be regarded as glib or shallow.  At his best, though, as with this Concerto, Saint-SaŽns is a formidable innovator and a superb master of his craft.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (b. Karevo Pskov, Russia March 21 1839; d. St. Petersburg, Russia March 28, 1881)

Pictures at an Exhibitionó1874, orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel

This work is, in part, Mussorgsky's musical homage to a talented friend: Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann, who died in 1873.  Primarily an architect, Hartmann also designed metal and woodwork and costumes for the theater, and was an avid watercolorist, focusing on images of architectural monuments and scenes from everyday life.  In the spring of 1874, a memorial exhibition of Hartman's works was held in St. Petersburg. Mussorgsky attended, and was inspired to write a set of piano miniatures based on what he had seen.  One of Mussorgsky's great gifts was the ability to capture the essence of a character, mood, or scene in brief, striking musical imagery.  His imagination goes far beyond the immediate visual stimulus of the paintings, and yet each musical sketch exactly distills the mood of its original.

There are many parallels between the lives of the two men. Both died young, Hartman at 39, Mussorgsky at 42.  Hartmann represented a movement in Russian art and architecture that rejected classical models, advocating a new style based on peasant handicrafts and medieval Slavonic traditions.  These ideals were shared by Mussorgsky and the other great Russian musical nationalists, whose compositions drew on folk song and dance, the ancient Russian church chant, and glorification of Russian history and legends.   

The friends also shared a degree of bad luck.  Hartmann won many awards, medals, and prizes for his architectural projects, yet few were ever built.  For Mussorgsky's part, he wrote the suite of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, but it was not published until 1886, five years after the composer's death.  Even then, it did not win widespread popularity until it was orchestrated by Ravel at the request of Serge Koussevitzky in 1922.  For a half a century there had seemed no special reason to preserve the 400-plus works in the original Hartman exhibition, and they were long thought to be lost.  Finally, late in the 20th century, about one quarter of Hartmann's artworks were found, including just six of the works portrayed in Mussorgsky's now-beloved composition. 

    Most editions of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition have the original descriptive notes attached to each movement.  In the first few moments of the work, called Promenade, we hear a trumpet theme that seems both noble and a bit comical.  One of the most important trumpet excerpts in all of orchestral literature, this theme recurs four times, and is the only part of the music not meant to represent anything in Hartmann's exhibition.  Instead, it suggests the composer himself, strolling from picture to picture in the gallery.  Mussorgsky was very precise in his description of the theme's tempo, writing Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenueto, or "Not too fast, in the Russian style, without lightness, but a little sustained."  The theme has a distinctive rhythm that shifts back and forth between two meters, creating a curiously awkward effect.  Mussorgsky was rather portly, and this metrical waddle contrasts with the theme's general elegance in a humorous musical depiction of his own gait. 

The Promenade theme links the representations of each picture like a framing device.  It is always recognizable, yet each recurrence is slightly different.  After beginning in the solo trumpet, it is given to different instruments, is harmonized differently, or is taken up by the orchestra as a whole.  We might chalk up this variety uniquely to Ravel's brilliance at orchestration, but in fact Mussorgsky had treated the theme differently each time in his original piano suite.  We are given the sense that the composer sometimes moves directly from one painting to the next, sometimes wanders lost in thought, and sometimes gets distracted by a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye.  After the movement entitled "Cum Mortuis" the Promenade theme suggests the composer's reflections on mortality.  Most striking, the theme is absorbed into the music for the final painting, as if the composer walked directly into the image.  Pictures at an Exhibition might have been a loose collection of pieces based on unrelated artistic inspirations. Instead, Mussorgsky creates something far more complex and interesting by using this unique theme to weave a compelling, continuous story.

    The second movement begins the musical characterizations of Hartmann's artwork.  Gnomus was inspired by a drawing of a little gnome with deformed legs, a design for a carved wooden nutcracker, comical but valiant.  Musssorgsky's music is twitchy and jumpy, half sinister, half poignant and entirely humorous.  After a pensive reprise of the Promenade theme, Mussorgsky then takes us to Italy.  Victor Hartmann had toured Western Europe on a fellowship to study great works of architecture, and had painted watercolors to document his observations.  His Il Vecchio Castello portrayed a medieval castle, and Mussorgsky evokes it  by adding a troubadour to sing a serenade to an unrequited love inside.  The music is full of longing, and Ravel's choice of a solo saxophone to represent the singer's voice gives the beautiful main theme a particularly exotic presence.
    A vigorous reprise of the Promenade leads to Tuileries. In the painting children play and quarrel in the famous gardens in Paris.  Here Mussorgsky gives us music that is capricious and almost shrill, musically imitating the animated squabbles of schoolchildren at play.  A plangent middle section interrupts, followed by what is an obvious reorganization of the games toward the end of the movement.  Bydlo, a Polish word meaning "cattle," is the title of the next section, based on a painting of an ox cart. Through Mussorgsky, we hear the cart approach, pass, and struggle laboriously into the distance.  At first a solo tuba represents the heavy, sagging wagon; later other instruments take over the melody to share the load and eventually it is the horn that offers the last trace of the tune as it fades.

    Once again the Promenade theme leads us to another painting.  This time the theme jogs along with great energy until toward the end we hear a brief foreshadowing of the following movement, as the composer has caught a passing glimpse of a painting that stops him for a better viewing.  Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells is filled with a fanciful, frenetic energy that is instantly engaging.  Next Mussorgsky portrays two separate Hartmann paintings in one movement, entitled Two Polish Jews, One Rich, The Other Poor.  First we hear the powerful plutocrat, proud of the contents of his purse.  Next, in a stuttering trumpet solo that demands extreme virtuosity to perform, we hear Schmuyle the beggar asking "please, just a kopyeck!"  Finally the two themes occur simultaneously, and the listener must decide if poor Schmuyle's plea is ultimately successful.

    Marketplace at Limoges is a musical portrait of women bantering and bartering in a busy market.  The women gossip and quarrel with gusto, and we hear the ensuing chaos. The next movement, Catacombs, abruptly transforms the mood. Hartmann's painting of himself and two friends in the Catacombs below Paris was somber, even sinister; and Mussorgsky skillfully conveys that eerie feeling.  In the following movement, Cum mortuis in lingua morta, Mussorgsky imagines the skulls in the Catacombs glowing from within, and the music takes an even more surreal turn.  The final free-standing return to the Promenade theme shows the composer musically contemplating mortality.

He and we now reach Baba yaga, based on Hartman's drawing for a fantastical clock. Baba yaga is a witch in Russian folklore whose hut in a forest clearing has no windows or doors, and twirls about on chicken legs. She travels in a magical flying mortar, using the pestle as an oar to propel her through the air, and uses the mortar and pestle to grind her victims' bones into a fine paste. Mussorgsky's music captures the legend and brings it to gruesome musical life. 

From this, we move directly into the final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev, and a total shift of mood and character.  The movement was inspired by Hartman's drawing for a design contest for a gate commemorating Tsar Aleksandr's escape from assassins.  In his design, one side of the triumphal gate is a tall bell tower.  Bells were omnipresent in Russian society, used for celebration, commemoration, warning, or public mourning, and Mussorgsky incorporates bell sounds into this movement to represent that national custom.  The arch of the gate, drawn in the shape of an historical Russian military helmet, prompts the imposing military style of the music. In it we also hear a flamboyant extension of the Promenade theme, as though the composer himself is striding through the mighty gate, into the painting and so into Russian history.  The music rises to a magnificent furor, punctuated by bass drum, tubular bells, and tam tam, and the work comes to a victorious close.

Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming



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