Opening Night Program Notes

Saturday, November 4, 2017

  • Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute
  • Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
  • Ravel: La Valse
  • Vignieri: Sonus Lux (World Premiere)
  • Respighi: Pines of Rome

Overture to The Magic Flute
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

This piece was performed at the Melrose Symphony’s first concert on December 10, 1918.
 
During the last months of Mozart’s short life, he received several major commissions: a mysterious, anonymous request to compose a Requiem, and another to compose an Italian opera for the upcoming coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia.  And in a very different genre, he was commissioned to write a Singspiel (a German musical drama now known as opera which includes spoken dialogue as well as various forms of music) which was to become The Magic Flute.
 
In the opera, the Queen of the Night persuades Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from captivity by the high priest Sarastro; Tamino learns the high ideals of Sarastro’s community and seeks to join it. Separately, then together, Tamino instead and Pamina undergo severe trials of initiation, which end in triumph, with the Queen and her cohorts vanquished. The earthy Papageno, who accompanies Tamino on his quest, fails the trials but is rewarded anyway with the hand of his ideal female companion Papagena.
 
The libretto, or words, of the opera were written by Emanuel Schikaneder and have been both praised and criticized.  Although enigmatic, the story continues to charm audiences after more than two centuries.  There is a clear struggle between light and dark, day and night, and the refined Sarastro and the evil Queen of the Night. During the course of the opera, which side is right changes between the first and second act.
 
The work has also been described as an allegory of Mozart’s Masonic beliefs.  The Overture begins with three chords, a direct tribute to three Masonic themes. . The Great Lights of Masonry are the Holy Bible (Sacred Law), the Square (honesty) and the Compass (skill and knowledge) as seen in many of their ancient crafts. In the opera, Mozart uses three ladies, three boys, three slaves and the masonic key of three flats.  Other masonic symbolism includes the notion of brotherhood, the ritual trials by fire and water, the child of nature (Papageno), and the invocation of the Egyptian gods. 
 
Mozart completed the opera just months before his death.  He saw it successfully staged, but never came to know how lasting and important the work would  become. The first performance took place on September 30, 1791 at Schikaneder’s Theater in Vienna with Mozart conducting. It was a triumphant success and received a little over 100 performances in the first year. After Mozart’s death the opera received over 200 performances and became popular throughout the world.


Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

 
Leonard Bernstein was the first American composer to achieve the sort of fame and stardom usually associated with pop, rock singers, and movie legends. As a conductor, he was known for his dramatic, flamboyant manner.  As an educator, he brought classical music to a whole new generation through his televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.  As a composer, he made his mark in concert and ballet halls, in the movies, and on stage.
 
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. 
 
The story takes place in an Upper West Side ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood in New York City in the mid-1950’s. (Interestingly, in the early 1960’s much of the neighborhood would be cleared in an urban renewal project for the Lincoln Center, changing the neighborhood’s character).  The musical explored the rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, the Sharks from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, a white gang. A member of the Jets falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. The production of the musical proved extremely difficult.  Bernstein is quoted:

Everyone told us that [West Side Story] was an impossible project ... And we were told no one was going to be able to sing augmented fourths, as with “Ma-ri-a” ... Also, they said the score was too rangy for pop music ... Besides, who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on the stage?... And then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the characters had to be able not only to sing but dance and act and be taken for teenagers. Ultimately, some of the cast were teenagers, some were 21, some were 30 but looked 16. Some were wonderful singers but couldn’t dance very well, or vice versa ... and if they could do both, they couldn’t act.

While critics were skeptical, audiences were captivated.  The musical premiered in Washington, DC in August of 1957 and was followed by a production in New York that lasted over two years. National and international tours followed and the production had been revived several times in 1980 and 2009. 
 
In 1961 a musical film was produced of the same name. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won ten, including Best Picture. In the same year Bernstein prepared a suite of orchestral music from the show titled Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  


La Valse
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

 
Maurice Ravel was a French composer and pianist born to a musical family.  While not wealthy, his family was comfortable and enjoyed rich, cultural activities such as music.  Later in life, Ravel recalled, “Throughout my childhood I was sensitive to music. My father, much better educated in this art than most amateurs are, knew how to develop my taste and to stimulate my enthusiasm at an early age.”
 
He began playing the piano at age 7 and was encouraged by his parents to attend the preparatory classes at the Paris Conservatory. By 1891 he won first prize in the Conservatory’s piano competition. However, his piano career was stopped short when he was expelled in 1895.  He wasn’t progressing in a fashion acceptable to the conservatory faculty and was labeled as ‘only being teachable on his own terms.’  It was clear that his ambition to compose overrode his desire to be a pianist and from this point forward he concentrated on composition.
 
19th-century Vienna was considered the “city of music” with its bustling publishing houses, instrument makers, opera and theater, the first professional orchestra in 1842, and the home of the waltz aficionados’ Strauss I and II.  Since 1906, Ravel entertained the idea of creating a waltz to pay homage to the work of Johann Strauss Jr. after hearing Le rom manger lei written by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. 
 
Years passed, however, and Ravel was continuously distracted by other projects.  Ravel still maintained his admiration for the waltz and finally composed La Valse in 1920.  It was intended to be a ballet and although considered a masterpiece, it was rejected as a ballet and premiered on December 12, 1920 in Paris as a poem for orchestra.  It was finally danced in Antwerp in 1926 and in Paris in 1928, although it is more often heard as a concert work. Ravel provided a brief scenario in the conductor’s score:

Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd. The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.

Sonus Lux (World Premiere) (Composer's Note)
Tom Vignieri (b. 1961)

I was thrilled and deeply honored to be asked to contribute a new piece for the 100th Anniversary Season of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. After a number of discussions with Maestro Udagawa about opening night and the forces available, ideas quickly began to emerge as to what kind of piece it should be. I wanted it to be ecstatic in nature, something both luminous and reflective - music that hinted at the orchestra’s past as well as the promise of the future. 

As a result, there are two principal ideas at work. The outer sections represent the present - the excitement of the moment and the modern world in which we live. The music tries to achieve a certain ecstatic brilliance and in fact the title, Sonus Lux, which translates from the Latin as “Sound Light,” is an effort to put that idea into words: the sound of light or light of sound. The orchestral forces are considerable, featuring an array of auxiliary winds, brass, percussion, harps, piano and strings, all centered around the presence of a symphonic concert organ.

The inner, quieter section harkens back to the orchestra’s origins. I borrow fragments of a melody written around the time the orchestra was founded in 1918 and which itself was based on a hymn from the 1800’s. As it happens, both pieces of music were written by composers from New England, thereby creating a link to the present. The original hymn, Dorrance, is by Isaac B. Woodbury from Beverly, Massachusetts. Woodbury was a 19th-century composer and publisher of church music. Later, in the 1910’s, renowned composer Charles Ives used Woodbury’s hymn as the basis for his own piece The Housatonic at Stockbridge from “Three Places in New England.” Fragments of Ives’ music emerge and disappear in a slow, dreamy reverie that features various members of the orchestra in solo roles. We later hear Woodbury’s hymn quoted by the brass in its entirety, placing the listener in yet another time and perhaps giving cause for further reflection. We’re then brought back to the present by the return of the opening music, only this time bigger and brighter, which hopefully fills Memorial Hall with “sonus lux” and with hope for the future.

Though a New England resident for over 30 years, I now live in “Old” England and couldn’t be happier to return to Melrose for the anniversary. In 2001 I wrote my very first orchestral piece for the MSO called An American Hymn. That would have been the 83th season and the piece has had quite a life since. It’s been recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston, and performed by orchestras from Buffalo, NY to Tokyo, Japan, and by an ensemble 800 strong. It’s also been made into a wind symphony arrangement performed by schools and colleges in the Midwest and by the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol building.

And now, 17 years later, and in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Melrose Symphony, Yoichi has asked me to write another piece for orchestra. A lot of time has passed and a lot of musical ground covered, but one thing remains the same: the Melrose Symphony Orchestra continues to make great music by a number of dedicated, talented musicians. I look forward to the premiere and I wish the orchestra another 100 years of wonderful music making. – Tom Vignieri

About Composer Tom Vignieri
Trained as a pianist and composer, Tom has also enjoyed a career in arts management which has included positions at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, at the Handel and Haydn Society, a chorus and period instrument orchestra founded in 1815, and with From the Top, a nationally distributed NPR program that celebrates America’s best young classical musicians. Tom and his family currently reside in Devon, England where he has been happily fulfilling a number of composing commissions.


Pines of Rome
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Composing under the shadows of the more well-known Italian opera composers such as Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi, Respighi is credited as being the first Italian composer to gain popularity strictly for his orchestral works.  His three most famous works are the tone poems (a piece of orchestral music meant to illustrate or depict the content of a poem, story, painting, landscape or other non-musical source) Fountains of Rome (1917), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1929). 

The American premiere of the Pines of Rome was in 1926 performed by the New York Philharmonic with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Respighi (referring to himself in the third person) wrote the following program note:

While in his preceding work, Fountains of Rome, the composer sought to reproduce by means of tone an impression of Nature, in Pines of Rome he uses Nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and vision. The centuries-old trees which so characteristically dominate the Roman landscape become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.

From the opening bars, the listener is surrounded by Respighi’s dazzling orchestrations. Each of the four movements portrays the celebrated pines in different locations at different times of the day. 

The Pines of Villa Borghese portrays children playing in the pine grove of the Villa Borghese gardens. The great Villa Borghese is a monument to the patronage of the Borghese family who dominated the city in the early 17th-century. The children are singing nursery rhymes and playing soldiers in the sunny morning. 

Pines Near a Catacomb is a majestic lament depicting a solitary chapel in the open lands near Rome with a few pine trees silhouetted against the sky. A hymn, rising and falling, is heard by an offstage trumpet.  The lower orchestra instruments represent the secrecy of the catacombs while the trombones and horns represent the chanting priests.

In the Pines of the Janiculum, the second tallest hill in contemporary Rome, there is a tremor in the air.  These pines are profiled in the full moon and here, the composer specifies a live recording of a nightingale be played over the music at the conclusion of the movement.

The Pines of the Appian Way depict a misty dawn along one the earliest and strategically most important roads in the ancient republic of Rome. Solitary pines stand guard as the triumphant Roman army marches along the Appian Way.

– Notes by Rosemarie Hinkle