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Dances at an Opening

Alberto Ginastera (b. Buenos Aires, 11 April 1916; d. Geneva, 25 June 1983)

Four Dances from the ballet Estancia, Op. 8a—1943

1. Los trabadores agricolas (The land workers)
2. Danza del trigo (Wheat dance)
3. Los peones de hacienda (The Cattle Men)
4. Danza final (Malambo) (Final Dance—Malambo)

    An estancia is a large cattle ranch on the pampas in Argentina, and Alberto Ginastera envisioned his ballet as a depiction of the busy activities on an estancia from one dawn to the next.  The story of the ballet is built around a love triangle.  A city boy meets a beautiful ranch girl and is entranced. She however considers him a weakling in comparison to the manly gauchos (horsemen) who work on her father's estancia.  The city boy follows her to the ranch, determined to win her heart away from the gauchos. 
    Ginastera wrote this ballet very early in his career, barely three years after his graduation from the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires.  Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan which was traveling in South America, heard Ginastera's graduation piece and was so impressed that he commissioned a ballet for his company to perform the following year.  Estancia was the happy result.
    During these early years Ginastera was fascinated with Argentinean folk song, and Estancia's score is filled with near quotes of actual folk tunes.  Argentinean – in fact, South American  -- folk music is marked by great rhythmic energy, created by shifts from one type of triple meter to another (for instance, from 3/4 to 6/8) in quick succession. These characteristic rhythms, originally imported from Europe by the 16th-century conquistadores, give the music a strong sense of location.
    National identity is also established by the story itself, featuring the guitar-carrying gaucho, an enduring, idealized national emblem in Argentina. Most of the chords and textures in Estancia imitate the open tunings of the guitar strings and the characteristic ways a gaucho's guitar is played.  We hear harmonies based on thirds and exotic mixtures of more than one traditional tonality occurring at one time. 
In the first movement,Ginastera uses a colorful orchestra with a large and varied percussion section to paint the burly, bustling life of a land worker. Here the shifting triple rhythms are wild and fierce, musically suggesting the machismo of the estancia's workers and the rough and tumble nature of their everyday work life. 
    The second dance displays a sensuous use of brilliant orchestration.  This movement is calm, lyrical and almost impressionistic because of the transparent ways Ginastera combines the individual color of each orchestral sound.  It eloquently suggests the joy of blossoming intimacy in a scene of natural beauty.
    The third movement emphasizes rhythm once again, but rhythm that is less predictable, more asymmetrical.  The brass and percussion sections are prominent.  The main theme is introduced by the French horns playing in unison. The last few moments of this movement are dominated by an extended timpani solo in a competitive conversation with the low brass section playing fragments of the original theme.  Finally, the timpani and brass come together and restate the entire theme to end the movement in triumphant unity.
    A Malambo is a quick and vigorous Argentinean folk dance in which men compete to demonstrate their agility and machismo. The dance itself is a series of justas or competitive "anything you can do, I can do better" moments.  The "winner" is the last man to remain standing. In the final movement of his suite, Ginastera uses the Malambo format to show the city man competing with the  gauchos  for the heart of his ranch girl.  The movement begins with high piccolo flutterings; then the guitar-like strum of the piccolo line struggles with the underlying accompaniment. and one meter is set against another.  The same theme repeats over and over, culminating with a breathless, frenzied, wickedly fast trumpet solo.  Each time the trumpet theme is heard, the accompanying music is slightly varied, so that the web of sound becomes increasingly complex. 
    Listen for the characteristic sounds of nature that occur throughout this dance, which is ideally performed at night by firelight in an open setting. A masterful thumb roll on the tambourine mimics an insistent cicada; the entire horn section interjects a flurry of elephant peals; the flutes interrupt the melody with the unmistakable twitter of birds.
    Ginastera finished his ballet Estancia on time in 1942, but Kirstein's group had disbanded.  The composer had to wait until 1952 to see the work staged as a ballet.  Meanwhile, to save the music from extinction, Ginastera extracted this suite from the ballet, creating an invigorating orchestral piece that has won its own popularity.

Duke Ellington (b. Washington D.C., 29 April 1899; d. New York, 24 May 1974)

Orchestral Suite from the ballet The River—1970
1.Spring
2.Meander
3.Giggling Rapids
4.Lake
5.Vortex
6.Riba
7.Village Virgins

    Duke Ellington is best known for the thousands of big band jazz tunes he penned during the 1930's. His greatest gift as a composer, however, may have been his ability to turn the unique sound qualities of each individual in his band into a coherent and ingenious whole.  Ellington was an exquisite pianist, but his most important instrument was his  orchestra.  He taught himself orchestration by experimenting with the band, coming up with tonal effects and unusual voicings of chords to create a highly distinctive soundscape. 
    Widely regarded as the most important composer in jazz history, he was also one of the first jazz composers to concern himself with writing down compositions and utilizing recognizable musical forms in jazz.  Around 1940, as big band and swing music dwindled in public favor, Ellington began to devote more time to composing extended, multi-movement concert suites.  In these longer works, his goal was to marry the spontaneity and characteristic rhythms of jazz with the lush instrumentation and extended classical forms of traditional symphonic music. 
    By 1970 Ellington was well known for championing the combination of jazz and symphonic idioms.  Early that year he was commissioned to create a ballet score in collaboration with the acclaimed choreographer, Alvin Ailey.  The two artists greatly admired each other – Ailey considered Ellington a "real genius," commenting that the composer was "like Stravinsky, there's an inner rhythm and always great feeling…" to his music. However, coordinating the schedules of two famous, busy men was not easy.  Ellington's band traveled all around the country and performed two or three sets an evening. His preferred work time was from 4:30 am to 7:00 am. Alvin Ailey was at the height of his popularity as well and had his own complicated schedule.  When ballet rehearsal began at Lincoln Center, with just three weeks to opening, only six of the ballet's eleven principal sections were finished and available.  Ellington walked in at the last minute with a recording of the other sections of the ballet, but it was too late. The work premiered at Lincoln Center on June 25, 1970 as "Seven Dances from a work in progress entitled The River".
    Ellington's intention was that the work would "celebrate birth, life, and rebirth."  The story of the ballet traces the flow of a river from its source to the sea and uses the transit of this river as a metaphor for the ways human beings change over the course of their lifetimes.  The work achieved immediate popular and critical success.  Clive Barnes in the New York Times said the work was "totally marvelous—it sings out—it is that rare thing among classic scores, something that is contemporary, moving, yet totally unsentimental—I was very impressed by it." 
While Alvin Ailey's choreography successfully bridged the gap between modern dance and classical ballet, Duke Ellington's music demonstrated that the divergent idioms of jazz and classical music could merge into a cohesive, elegant work of art.  The Duke's only ballet quickly became a staple of American Ballet Theater's repertoire, and in 1971, The River was chosen to be one of the works performed to celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center,
    Duke Ellington wrote a memoir of sorts entitled Music is My Mistress, which includes a description of the creative idea behind the movements in The River

The Spring, which is like a newborn baby, He's in his cradle…spouting, spinning, wiggling, gurgling, squirming, squealing, making faces, reaching for his nipple or bottle, turning, tossing, and tinkling all over the place
Meander where he is undecided whether to go back to the cradle or pursue his quest.  There he is, rolling around from one side to the other on the floor, up and down, back and forth, until he sees the kitchen door, and looks out into that big backyard. "This must be the biggest world in the world," he says ...So he dashes out of the door and now he is into the
Giggling rapids and he races and runs and dances and skips and trips all over the backyard until, exhausted, he relaxes and rolls down to…
Lake.  The lake is beautiful and serene.  ...people come—people who are God-made and terribly touched by the beauty of the lake They, in their admiration for it, begin to discover new facets of compatibility in each other, and as a romantic viewpoint develops, they indulge themselves.  The whole situation compounds itself into an emotional violence ...until, suddenly, they are over the top and down…
Vortex.  A whirlpool, itself an experience in which of course, you must really immerse yourself to appreciate the hazards.  From the whirlpool we get into the main train of…
Riba, which ...broadens and loses some of its adolescence.  Becoming ever more mature, even noble, ...it moves on with rhythmic authority.  At the delta, there are two cities, one on each side, and there is always something on one side of the river that you cannot get on the other.  Sometimes it's bootleg booze, or hot automobiles, or many other things.
Village Virgins. One of two cities the river passes through before plunging into the mother, her majesty, the sea.
    Spring includes an improvisatory piano solo that playfully uses interesting, varied scale patterns that keep the listener suspended between major and minor tonalities.  Meander begins with a long, lush flute cadenza and then uses blue notes and chromatic harmonies to suggest the child venturing into the vast outside world.  In Giggling Rapids the child's exploration is represented by the syncopated rhythms of a jazz waltz.  Lyrical melody above an easy, lazy accompaniment in Latin rhythms represents the child's slow maturing in Lake, while storm-like, heavy xylophone and low brass runs suggest the hazards of life each man must face in his own private Vortex. Riba is a standard blues, while Village Virgins presents a variation on that blues, symbolizing the choices to be made in any life.
    Praising The River, the Saturday Review wrote that it is "flooded with the glow of humanity, the beacon of brotherhood, carefree, frolic, both reverence and irreverence and mass moments of great architectural splendor."  The audience at its premiere gave the work a standing ovation, and the jazz idiom entered the concert hall at last as a welcome and distinguished equal. In 1965, Duke Ellington was denied a Pulitzer Prize because jazz compositions were not considered  'serious' music. In 1999, the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded him a posthumous citation to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.    
   
Serge Prokofiev (b. Sontsovka, Russia April 23, 1891; d. Moscow, Russia March 5, 1953)

Excerpts from the Orchestral Suites from the ballet Romeo and Juliet

  The Montagues and Capulets from Suite 2, Op. 64ter, No. 1
  The Child Juliet from Suite 2, Op. 64ter, No. 2
  Dance from Suite 2, Op. 64ter, No. 4
  Romeo at Juliet's before Parting from Suite 2, Op. 64ter, No. 5
  Romeo at the Grave of Juliet from Suite 2, Op. 64ter, No. 7
  Morning Dance from Suite 3, Op. 101, No. 2
  Aubade from Suite 3, Op. 101, No. 5
  Folk Dance from Suite 1, Op. 64 bis, No. 1
  Tableau from Suite 1, Op. 64bis
  Death of Tybalt from Suite 1, Op. 64bis, No. 7

Just as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet tells the story of star-crossed lovers, the history of Prokofiev's ballet of the same title involves intrigue and an element of star-crossed destiny.
 In 1934 Prokofiev began discussions with the Kirov Ballet about composing a lyrical ballet for them.  The Kirov requested that he use Romeo and Juliet as his subject matter, but before the work was completed, the company backed out, citing the "overwhelming complexity" of Prokofiev's music.  The next year Prokofiev began discussions with Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet to produce the work, and  completed the composition that summer.  However, true to the plot of  its story, troubles continued to plague the work   Most  controversial, according to the traditional story, was Prokofiev's determination to retain the story's tragic ending. The choreographers protested, until finally the Bolshoi refused to perform the work, calling the composer's music 'impossible to dance to.'   Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet seemed destined to remain unknown.  (Recently, additional music has been found that suggests a different history, with Prokofiev first writing a happy ending.)
   The composer nevertheless persisted, opening discussions with  the Leningrad ballet school and later the Brno Opera in Czechoslovakia.  Ultimately the ballet opened in Brno in 1938, and the work was not staged in Russia until 1940. Rehearsals at the Kirov were marked by shouting matches with the choreographer and curses from the dancers, baffled by the score's tricky changes of meter. Audiences,  however, recognized the power of the music and the work was an instant success. 
Meanwhile, Prokofiev had decided to arrange some orchestral suites from the ballet to help disseminate the music.  All three orchestral suites, concert pieces performed with a large orchestra, were created by Prokofiev himself, Suites 1 and 2 in 1936, Suite 3 in 1947.  The movements in each were arranged into well-balanced sequences with no attempt to retain the order of the ballet's story.  Some of the movements are heavily edited and some include elements of two or three different scenes from the ballet, with newly composed transitions.  For today's performance our conductor has chosen to incorporate movements from all three suites.
    Prokofiev was particularly good at composing music to portray character.  The Montagues and the Capulets comes from Suite 2 and portrays the feuding between two powerful families.  The music, danced by the knights and ladies of the two families, is imposing, almost intimidating. Its big, bold musical gestures are interrupted only by a short interlude of quiet grace where Juliet Capulet dances with her betrothed amidst the mayhem. 
    In The Child Juliet from Suite 2, Juliet begins as a shy, naïve youngster depicted with playful, skitterish scales, and develops through a pensive solo for the flute into a young woman in love. The broad, expansive melody for the strings suggests a more complex woman, capable of tragic depth of character. The next movement, a Dance from Suite 2, is taken from the music played during the arrival of the guests at the Capulet's party. 
    Next we hear Romeo at Juliet's before Parting from Suite 2.  For this movement of the orchestral suite, Prokofiev combined several segments of the ballet,  encapsulating the music heard after Romeo and Juliet wake from a night spent together, their farewells before Romeo leaves, and the melancholy scene in which Juliet takes the poisonous potion.
    Romeo at Juliet's Grave from Suite 2 follows, taken from the Epilogue.  Romeo, ignorant of the Friar's plot and believing his true love to be dead, secretly visits the Capulet family tomb and sees Juliet's seemingly lifeless body.  In despair, he commits suicide.  This is followed in today's performance by several more scene-setting movements taken from the three suites. The performance ends with a particularly powerful moment, The Death of Tybalt from Suite 1. In a shattering crescendo of dramatic tension, Prokofiev portrays Romeo avenging the death of his friend Mercutio by killing Juliet's brother Tybalt.  Romeo is sentenced to exile while Tybalt is carried off in a solemn funeral procession. 
    Star-crossed though it was in the beginning, Prokofiev's version of Romeo and Juliet has remained a huge favorite with audiences as  both a ballet and an orchestral concert piece since it finally and triumphantly entered the repertoire.  

Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming  

 

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