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Scheherazade - Tales from the East

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Overture to La gazza ladra  (1817)


In July, 1815, a soon-to-be-married household cook, Eliza Henning, age 22, was hanged in London for murder, wearing her wedding dress.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she had been convicted on circumstantial evidence by an all-male jury of attempting to murder her employers, the pregnant Charlotte Turner and her husband, by putting arsenic into some dumplings she served them. Eliza's case became headline news before and after her execution. Ten thousand Londoners attended her funeral.


That same summer, La pie voleuse, a comedy by JMT Badouin d'Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez that ends by saving an innocent girl from the gallows when it is discovered that the real thief is a magpie, was playing in London. The irony was not lost on either press or public. (One William Hone wrote a major piece of investigative journalism—one of the first—based on a thorough analysis of the forensic evidence that convicted her. "The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Eliza Fenning," demolished the prosecution's case—there was no arsenic—but, alas, too late to save Eliza.) With nothing more than the coincidental timing of the play's success and the infamous execution of the hapless young woman, a legend was born, and survives, that Rossini's opera was "based on a true story."


In writing the libretto for La gazza ladra, after La pie voleuse, librettist Giovanni Gherardini combined comedy and melodrama. Rossini chose to herald the "new style" with two snare-drum rolls at the start of the overture, a toss-off innovation that offended some among the strait-laced. But the premiere at La Scala in 1817 put to rest any earlier anxieties the composer had had about Milanese opera lovers. Yet again, Rossini had accurately gauged his audience.


As invited by its drum roll fanfares, the overture begins with a robust march. (Rossini's overtures had a powerful influence on American march composers, notably John Philip Sousa, who absorbed several of Rossini's tricks.) Keeping its military bearing, the piece then switches to a sparkling little dance in ¾ time that, in turn, leads into a splendid crescendo. Next comes the solo oboe and a cheeky descending chromatic figure on the strings. A new tune enters on the horns, moving directly into one of Rossini's trademarks, the accretion of more instruments plus crescendo over a repeating passage pursuant to another climax. (You hear exactly the same effect in Sousa's Semper Fidelis.)


Unfortunately, the opera that goes with the overture has long since faded from sight. Francis Toye, in his Rossini biography, writes, "La gazza ladra is an exceedingly interesting work, with a real dramatic unity between words and music. Its weaknesses and incongruities are few; its merits remarkable…Of all the forgotten operas by Rossini, it is one of the most likely…to repay the trouble of resuscitation." (Recordings of it are available.)

Program note by Scott MacClelland


Gordon Lee (b. Xie Tan. Beijing, 1953)

Young Impressions of the Old City

Symphonic Suite for Erhu, Pipa & Sheng (2010) (world premiere)

Notes about a new work

Each time the Symphony commissions a work, there is both mystery and excitement about what we will hear at the end of the process.  At this performance, you will share with us the discovery of Young Impressions of an Old City.

Our Valley's high-tech innovators have made it possible to hear a rendition of a work in 'midi' format before any musician has seen the score.  The electronic sound hardly replaces the quality of live instruments, but it does give some indication of what is going to come next, how it fits together.

Ah, but globalization is not quite so complete as we might think. One can get a good sense of an orchestra with western instruments in the midi format; but add a sheng, an erhu and a pipa and the magic stops. These three instruments are part of China's long heritage of classical music, quite different to the western ear and yet intoxicating to hear.  But the midi format is not yet equipped to meld these sounds into the mix.

Gordon Lee had a significant musical career in China before emigrating to the U.S, where he founded Firebird Chinese Youth Orchestra to train Chinese American students on the classical Chinese instruments.  Each spring Symphony Silicon Valley works with Firebird on their annual recitals, which always draw large crowds to the California Theatre.   Lee wished to share his compositions with an even broader audience, and we agreed together that a concerto for three Chinese instruments with a Western orchestra would be an exciting challenge.

After several years of experimentation, Gordon found the basis for Young Impressions in his memories of his venerable city, Beijing, as he had seen it through the prism of childhood. Lee grew up in a time of great want, upheaval, and change, living near one of the nine gates that protected the walled city -- intimidating fortresses with high walls.  Yet despite ever-present poverty and power, each episode that he recalled from his youth was colored by a child's wonder.  To a child, those looming walls were challenges to be climbed.  The protective moat outside the walls became a frozen ice rink in winter.  The trundling water carts traversing rough terrain provided good sport for the children who helped the old men push and maneuver them. Life was full of hope and excitement and mystery.

The capacity of children to cope with what is around them, finding joy in family and wonder in discovery, is a powerful influence on this piece.


Notes on the featured instruments:

The sheng  is a free-reed instrument consisting of tuned vertical pipes - a mouth organ.

The erhu is a two-stringed bowed instrument and is often referred to as a Chinese violin or fiddle.

The pipa is a four-stringed plucked instrument.  It is sometimes called a Chinese lute with its pear-shaped body, but it does not have a lute's neck, and the soundboard spans the strings to the head of the instrument, making it more of a  handheld zither.


Notes on Young Impressions of an Old City, a prelude plus seven episodes

by Gordon Lee


The Prelude presents the specter of the great Citadel gate and its walls, an introduction to old Beijing's formality and great weight of history.


1: Water Cart Toils  As the old men haul their casks of water into the City, the children help them over the rough roads of the poor outlying neighborhoods.

2: Sliding on an Icy Moat  In winter,  the moat outside the City walls freezes into an ice sheet ready for play, with a bit of danger always lurking.

3: Barber in the Courtyard  Many families share  a block and the inner courtyard of each block serves as the barbershop for the traveling barber. Few children want the barber to take his scissors to their heads.

4: Back Alley Expeditions   What discoveries are made each day in the streets and alleys near the old walls? What awaits just around the corner and down the next lane?

5: Climbing the City Wall   The children take on the biggest dare of all: to climb the tall walls one brick at a time, as high as they can get, only to slide back down generally a bit bruised for their effort.

6: Afterlife Shop   A stolen adventure: a secret visit to a shop filled with giant horses and carriages and other finery all made of paper, intended to ease the passage of the dead to whatever comes next.

7: Marching in the City  Children feel the first hint of the fragility of their world, as marching  bands converge on the central city, only to have their music interrupted by political turmoil.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Scheherazade   (1888)

I. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship (Largo e maestoso — Allegro non troppo)

II. The Kalendar Prince (Lento — Andantino — Allegro molto — Con moto)

III. The Young Prince and The Young Princess (Andantino quasi allegretto —    Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato)

IV. Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman. (Allegro molto — Vivo — Allegro non troppo maestoso)


In one way or another, program music has probably been around as long as music itself. Vivaldi in The Four Seasons and Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony paid call on the country folk, Berlioz toured Italy and explored his own opium-induced fantasies, Liszt turned poetry into "tone poems" and celebrated urban gypsies in his Hungarian rhapsodies, Glinka captured the color and rhythms of Spain, Smetana took a photogenic boat ride down the Vltava from its source to Prague, and Mussorgsky produced a guided tour of pictures at an exhibition. But none of them actually sought to tell stories. At least not the way Rimsky-Korsakov did in this, his orchestral masterpiece. As his pupil, Stravinsky found a yearned-after father figure in Rimsky and a story-telling example to emulate in The Firebird.


By the time Rimsky became inspired to compose tales from the Arabian Nights, the stories themselves, dating back centuries if not millennia and collected across the Middle East from North Africa to India, including a large body of them from Persia, had been framed into the Arabic narrative known as A Thousand and One Nights. For the premiere, which he conducted in late 1888 at St. Petersburg, the composer prefaced the score, "The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely."


But there is more to the story than that. The fanciful and complex titles to the movements, inspired like the music itself by A Thousand and One Nights, were an afterthought suggested by Anatol Liadov (and others) to replace Rimsky's original Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. Moreover, Rimsky and his fellow "nationalist" composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui) had long since mined the rich "Oriental" folklore that, for them, meant the tribes and cultures of the wild Caucasus mountain ranges. These offered them an antidote to the dominance by European music in Russian concert halls, the more exotic, opulent and modal the better. 


The stern opening statement stands for Schariar. The solo violin represents Scheherazade, mysterious, beguiling and seductive. She also introduces the second movement, but declines to interrupt the love scene of the Kalendar prince and princess until three quarters through the third movement, when she reminds Schariar who's in charge. He forcefully reasserts himself at the start of the last movement, but Scheherazade keeps control. She undermines his resolve with an exotic "Persian" dance and recollections of themes from earlier movements. Schariar makes a final futile effort to assert his dominance, but Scheherazade wins her ultimate deliverance from her husband's wrath first by crashing Sinbad's boat against the rocks, then, in her solo violin voice, quietly uttering the final words to her tales, punctuated with sustained high E harmonics, throughout the peaceful final page of the colorful score.




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