NOVEMBER PROGRAM NOTES
Busoni: Eine Lustspielouvertüre (Comedy Overture) Op. 38 [8 minutes]
Ferruccio Busoni achieved great fame as a pianist and composer during his lifetime. Born in Empoli, near Florence, he began composing at an early age writing for the piano, and later, chamber pieces, vocal and orchestral works, and operas. According to Busoni, the Lustspiel Overture was written in a single night in the summer of 1897. Some revisions followed in 1904. The cheerful main theme introduced by the strings is followed by a lyrical second subject from the clarinet. With sparkling orchestral writing, the piece energetically develops then restates its main theme, ending with a lively conclusion.
Strauss: Serenade in E-flat major, Op.7 [10 minutes]
This incredible serenade is a work from a young, but a very seasoned, 17 year old composer. Aside from his father, Franz Strauss, an influential horn player in Munich music circles, Richard Strauss received thorough training at home and from his father’s colleagues. Since the premier of the work on 27 November 1882, the Serenade has enjoyed a secure position in the wind repertoire. In a single movement, this piece, cast in a classical sonata form, displays the influences of Schubert, Schumann, and Mozart, of whom he idolized all through his lifetime. With masterful handling of the wind instruments, Strauss creates warm and vivid colors and dramatic and tender moments that belies his age.
Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 [10 minutes]
In 1879, the University of Breslau awarded Brahms an honorary Doctor of Philosophy as ‘the foremost composer of serious music in Germany today.’ Initially Brahms, ever wary of celebrity and attention, had sent a simple hand-written thank you note to acknowledge the honor. But his friend Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, made it clear that the university expected him to express his gratitude in musical form. ‘Compose a fine symphony for us!’ Schloz said in a letter to Brahms, ‘but well-orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!’
During the summer of 1880, Brahms composed not exactly what the university directors were likely hoping for, but what Brahms described as a ‘very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs.’ The serious appearance of the piece belies the humor of the work. Shortly after the opening measures, the trumpets present the first of the traditional students’ song: ‘Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus’ (We Have Built a Stately House), a song that advocated for the unification of German principalities. The next college tune, known as the Hochfeierlicher Landesvater (Most Solemn Song to the Founder of the Country), occurs as a flowing melody in the violins. Then the piece shifts with the bassoon’s infamous Fuchsenritt (Fox Song), a freshman hazing song. In the conclusion of the piece, Brahms gives the full orchestral treatment of that best known of all college songs, Gaudeamus igitur (Let Us Now Enjoy Ourselves), which had characterized the carefree student life since the late Middle Ages.
The first performance of the overture was conducted by Brahms himself at Breslau in 1881 at a ceremony filled with much solemnity. But from a report of the event, the dignity of the occasion was interrupted as students burst spontaneously into song when they heard the familiar drinking songs. In the end, Brahms received his Doctorate of Philosophy and gave us a masterpiece which freshly resonates today.
Shakarian: Whimsy [7 minutes]
As the title suggests, Whimsy is a lighthearted piece that serves as an homage to Richard Strauss, whose music I encountered in my early days of music studies. The opening trumpet material sets up the entire work for some diversions and variations. It lent itself to add musical quotes not only from Strauss, but from Wagner, Beethoven, and even Schoenberg. I had fun applying Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositional techniques to the main theme: in the lyrical section the theme is played simultaneously with its retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion; a product of my impish spirit. In a sort of Rondo form, the theme is played in various moods and colors and closes once more with the lone trumpet before the orchestra’s final chord.
Saint-Säens: Suite algérienne [20 minutes]
Prolific composer, pianist, organist, writer, and a polymath, Saint-Säens was considered by many to be a second Mozart. Mathematics and natural science aroused his curiosity, as well astronomy, archaeology and philosophy, subjects on which he was to write with enthusiasm. Later in life, he travelled widely, but Algeria and Egypt were his favorite resorts.
The suite is a musical postcard with each movement being a description from Saint-Säens’s visits. Short written notes before each movement reveal the musical origins of each scene:
I. Prelude - Algiers in View
From the deck of the ship still buffeted by a long swell, one hears various voices and make out the cry ‘Ali Allah! Mohammed rasoul Allah’. With a final rocking of the ship it is anchored in the port.
II. Moorish Rhapsody
In one of the many Moorish cafes in the old town, the Arabs perform their traditional dances, by turns sensual and frenzied, to the sound of flutes, rebabs, and tambourines.
III. Reverie of the Night at Blidah, (near Algiers)
Under the palm trees of the oasis, in the perfumed night, one hears from a distance a love song and the tender refrain from a flute.
IV. French Military March
Return to Algiers. Among the picturesque bazaars and the Moorish cafes, we hear the French Regiment, whose militaristic accents contrast with the curious rhythms and languorous melodies of the East.
Though the March is part of the repertoire today, in 1911 Saint-Säens denounced the French occupation of Algeria.
-written by Roupen Shakarian
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