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NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
January 19-20-21, 2018
92nd Season / Subscription Concert No.5
Michael Allsen

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The Madison Symphony Orchestra is proud to welcome violinist Gil Shaham for this program—an all-Russian concert in which he will perform the great Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  Two lesser-known works begin and end the program.  Prokofiev’s absurdist opera The Love for Three Oranges clearly bewildered American audiences when it was first performed in 1921.  The suite heard here contains several of the opera’s most outrageous moments and its most wonderfully satirical music.   Rachmaninoff composed his Symphony No.3—heard for the first time at these concerts—near the end of his career, and it is a masterful work that may be a pleasantly surprising discovery for many of our audience members.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Suite from The Love for Three Oranges, Op.33bis


Prokofiev composed his opera The Love for Three Oranges in 1919, and it was first produced in Chicago on December 31, 1921.  Prokofiev himself conducted the premiere.  In 1924, he extracted a six-movement suite from the opera. We previously play this working 1979.  Duration 15:00.


In 1918, Prokofiev left Russia for the United States, beginning nearly 20 years away from his homeland.  One of his first large compositions in America was The Love for Three Oranges.  Before he left Russia, the playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold had given him his adaptation of an 18th-century Commedia dell'arte story by Carlo Gozzi.  Prokofiev was immediately taken with this modernist and somewhat surreal take on Gozzi's satire, and wrote his own libretto, doing most of the work during the long cruise across the Pacific to Los Angeles.  After a few delays and complicated financial wrangling, the opera was produced in Chicago in 1921, where it was received politely by a somewhat confused audience. The Chicago critics were brutal, however—the Chicago Tribune’s reviewer wrote that The Love of Three Oranges was “...too much for this generation.  After intensive study and close observation at rehearsal and performance, I detected the beginnings of two tunes... For the rest of it, Mr. Prokofiev might well have loaded up a shotgun with several thousand notes of varying lengths and discharged them against the side of a blank wall.”  A second production two months later in New York was a complete flop.  Prokofiev later wrote: “It was as though a pack of dogs had broken loose and were tearing my trousers to shreds.”  The poor response to Three Oranges and other works by Prokofiev led him to leave America shortly afterwards.


The opera’s plot is deliberately absurd, and its subtext is a parody of several turn-of-the-century avant garde theatrical movements.   There is an onstage “Audience” that comments on the action of the opera, but which also gets involved in odd ways, and falls into factions that fight among themselves.  A hypochondriac Prince is physically unable to laugh until the sorceress Fata Morgana takes a fall, and he is cured.  Laughing at an evil sorceress is always a bad idea, and she lays an unusual curse on him.  He must go on a quest for three oranges, guarded by a female giant (sung by a bass in drag).  When he finds them, each of the oranges turns out to contain a princess, two of whom promptly die of thirst.  The third is saved, and after a few more misfortunes—she is turned briefly into a rat—the opera ends happily.


The suite’s opening music—Prelude: The Ridiculous Fellows—is associated with a group of Cynics (or “oddballs” in a direct translation from Russian) from the Audience who try unsuccessfully to make the Prince laugh.  It alternates between outright slapstick and a series of droll marchlike themes.  The Infernal Scene accompanies a card game between Fata Morgana and the King’s Magician, played with ridiculously outsized playing cards, as the Audience eggs them on.  This is dark and stormy music...and obviously not meant to be taken too seriously.  The March comes from a procession scene in Act II—a large festival scene.  It is filled with manic energy and a rather sarcastic tone.  (Despite this, it became Prokofiev’s best-known work in America, as the theme for a long-running radio series of the 1940s and 1950s, The FBI, imparting a touch of irony that the radio producers certainly never intended!)  The Scherzo accompanies the Prince’s quest for the three oranges.  It is underlaid with a frantic tarantella rhythm, as it flits from idea to idea, eventually speeding up and coming to an abrupt ending.  Even the pretty, lyrical love-theme (Nocturne: The Prince and the Princess) has touches of humor among a series of lovely melodies for solo violin and woodwinds.  The final movement, Flight, is a frantic chase scene from the end of the opera. 


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op.35                                    


This work was written in March and April of 1878.  Adolf Brodky was the soloist at the premiere performance in Vienna, in December 1881.   The concerto has appeared six times on these concerts, played by soloists George Szpinalski (1939), Won-Mo Kim (1964), Kyung-Wha Chung (1978), Miriam Fried (1986), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (2001), and Henning Kraggerud (2011).   Duration: 38:00.


Like Tchaikovsky, the violinist Yosif Yosifevitch Kotek received patronage from Nadezdha von Meck—Kotek was also a former student of Tchaikovsky’s, and had been instrumental in orchestrating the strange affair between the composer and his patroness.  Madame von Meck was an enormously wealthy widow who became attracted to Tchaikovsky’s music and began to write to him in 1877.  Tchaikovsky eagerly seized upon this relationship, and for the next fourteen years they carried on a deeply personal correspondence, each sharing their innermost thoughts with the other.  They purposely never met one another in person—it is reported that they did run into one another by chance on at least two occasions, but never spoke. 


At von Meck’s urging, Kotek visited Tchaikovsky in Switzerland in March of 1878.  The composer was obviously glad to see a familiar and friendly face, but he was also inspired by their informal performances together, most particularly Lalo’s virtuoso showpiece Capriccio Espagnol.  On March 17, he began to work on a violin concerto.  He composed at a furious pace, with advice from Kotek on technical details, and completed a sketch version in only 11 days.  The complete score was finished just two weeks later, on April 11. 


Though it seems hard to believe in these days, when the Tchaikovsky concerto stands as one of the often-played Romantic violin works, this was a work that seemed bound for oblivion as soon as it was completed.  Tchaikovsky had intended this as a work for Leopold Auer, then the reigning violin virtuoso in Russia, but when Auer examined the score, he pronounced it “unplayable.”  His opinion seems to have scared off every other Russian virtuoso until Adolf Brodsky finally volunteered to play the concerto—not in Moscow or St. Petersburg but a safe distance away in Vienna.  The performance was a debacle, complete with an under-rehearsed orchestra.  The conservative Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick gave the piece a truly savage review, ending with “...Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”  Even Madame von Meck was critical, which wounded Tchaikovsky deeply.  He responded with a hurt letter that concluded: “...I shall not give up hope that in time the piece will give you greater pleasure.”


Brodsky remained a staunch champion of the concerto, however, and performed it a few months later—to a much warmer reception—in London, and eventually in Moscow.  The concerto slowly began to gain acceptance among other players.  Years later, even Auer began to praise the work, and his student Jascha Heifetz became one of the great 20th-century exponents of the concerto.  One reason this work was so slow to catch on is obvious: it is very hard to play!    Even with Kotek’s expert help, Tchaikovsky had produced a work that was beyond the technical capabilities of most 19th-century players.  In some sense, though, works like this create their own players—as it began to become an established cornerstone of the repertoire, younger violinists like Heifetz faced its technical challenges as part of their musical training.


The concerto begins with a brief orchestral introduction (Allegro moderato) and a short cadenza before the violin introduces the first of two main themes.  There is little contrast in character between these: ideas both come from same lyrical mold, and both serve as springboards for fiery elaboration by the soloist in an extended development section and lengthy cadenza.    The second movement (Canzonetta: Andante) was not Tchaikovsky’s original conception—he composed and quickly discarded an entirely different movement (which reappeared as the Méditation for violin and piano, Op.41 No.1) before working out this lovely and melancholy piece.  It begins with a quiet woodwind chorale, supporting a sad songlike melody from the solo.  The mood brightens at the center of this brief movement, and when the opening material returns it is a direct bridge to the final movement (Allegro vivacissimo).  This blazingly fast rondo begins with a folk-fiddle cadenza and rustic Russian dance, and has several contrasting episodes, all of which have a distinctly rustic feel.  Above it all sails the violin, performing a brilliant counterpoint—those “unplayable” runs and jumps.  The closing passage is one of Tchaikovsky’s most exciting codas.


Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44


Rachmaninoff composed this symphony in 1935-36.  Its first performance was by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, on November 6, 1936. This is our first performance of the work. Duration 39:00.


By the 1930s Rachmaninoff was one of the leading pianists of his age, and spent much of his time touring successfully in Europe and America.  In 1930 he visited Switzerland and decided to build a villa in the village of Hertenstein, on the shore of Lake Lucerne. This would remain his home until the Rachmaninoffs sought refuge in the United States at the beginning of World War II.  (The name of the house, “Senar,” was derived from the names “Sergei,” his wife “Natalia,” and “Rachmaninoff.”)  Rachmaninoff’s touring schedule left him a little time for composition, and aside from the 1926 Piano Concerto No.4, he composed almost nothing during the 1920s, but with Senar as a retreat, he returned to composing in the early 1930s.  In 1931 he wrote what would be his last large solo piano work, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, and in the next few years completed two of his final orchestral works: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and the Symphony No.3 (1936).


Rachmaninoff had a long and friendly relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor Leopold Stokowski, and he was particularly pleased with the orchestra’s premiere of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934.  In early 1935, he began work on his third symphony, with an eye towards having it performed in Philadelphia during me 1936-37 season.  Work on the symphony took nearly a year, with intense bouts of composition sandwiched into breaks in his touring schedule.  By April 1936, he was able to send a complete score to Stokowski,  and Rachmaninoff arrived in Philadelphia in November in time for rehearsals.  Critical and audience reaction to the new symphony was tepid at best—the Symphony No.3 was not as lushly romantic as his popular second symphony or his piano concertos, nor did it seem to break particularly new ground for the composer. A few years later Rachmaninoff joked to a friend that he only needed to use three fingers to count the people who loved the work—though in another letter, he noted that “Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work.”  Rachmaninoff himself conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first recording in 1939.  Stokowski’s successor in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy, remained a champion of the work, but it was rarely performed until the 1960s and 1970s, when it began to be recognized for what it is: a profound and finely-crafted work by a mature composer. 


In comparison to the sprawling hour-long second symphony, the Symphony No.3 is concise and economical, with three movements lasting under 40 minutes.  However Rachmaninoff uses similar devices in both works, particularly the use of a musical motto that appears throughout the symphony.  In the third symphony, this is a chantlike three-note motive heard in hushed tones the very beginning of the first movement (Lento).  The mood shifts abruptly (Allegro moderato), and the long flowing main theme appears, eventually interrupted by a dancing triplet figure that will become important later in the movement.  A brief dark statement by the trombones leads into a second theme, a placid but rhythmically complicated melody introduced by the cellos.  A solemn bassoon duet opens an intensely chromatic development section, which is dominated by the triplet figure from the opening.  The motto appears again, now in the full orchestra, and Rachmaninoff inserts an almost humorous little passage for the high woodwinds and a strident brass moment, before the music relaxes into a return of the opening material.  The motto makes one last return, now in subdued strings, at the very end of the movement.


The second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) combines the traditional symphonic slow movement and scherzo into a single piece.  It opens with a statement of the motto by solo horn and harp.  Solo violin introduces a new theme, which is soon expanded by the whole string section, and further explored by the woodwinds. There is a sudden shift in tempo (Allegro vivace), and the scherzo begins: energetic and sometimes grotesque music filled with oddly-placed accents.  The scherzo subsides gradually and the opening mood returns. Like the first movement, this ends with a quiet reference to the motto.


The finale (Allegro) begins with a boisterous, offbeat main theme that seems just a little too hesitant to be fully triumphant.  There is a lovely lyrical contrasting idea, and then after a few false starts, Rachmaninoff launches a brilliant fugue on the main theme.  Solemn, rather funereal music brings this fugue to a close, and there is quick “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” reference to the Dies irae. This Gregorian chant tune, drawn from the Latin Mass for the Dead, was something of an obsession for Rachmaninoff, and appears in several of his large works. In the case of the Symphony No.3, it seems to be almost a tongue-in-cheek reference rather than anything serious. And in fact, the rest of the movement—a recapitulation of the opening material and an accelerating brassy coda (one last transformation of the motto) is generally bright and upbeat. 


program notes ©2017 by J. Michael Allsen