Program Notes for March Concert

Dances from Oprichnik

Peter Illich Tchaikovsky

Born – May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia

Died – November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Tchaikovsky’s opera Oprichnik was debuted at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Eduard Nápravník on April 24, 1874. 

Written early in his career, Tchaikovsky’s third opera, Oprichnik, was the first of them to receive moderate acclaim.  Work on the opera stretched over two years and was “sluggish and lazy.” The finished product didn’t give Tchaikovsky much joy either – “No movement, no style, no inspiration! I could see my elementary blunders, which I shall certainly not commit when writing my next operas.” Despite his best efforts to bury the opera by denying publication rights, Oprichnik gained momentum in Russia and bolstered the composer’s early career.

Based on an 1843 historical drama by Ivan Lazhechnikov, the opera is set during the rule of Ivan the Terrible and his bodyguards, the Oprichniks. In a rather grim plot – for which Tchaikovsky wrote his own libretto – a young man becomes a member of the Oprichniks and is later executed for loyalty to his wife.  Critics agree that although not Tchaikovsky’s finest opera, the quality of music and orchestration shines with folk songs and dances.

Cello Concerto, Op. 129, A minor

Robert Schumann

Born – June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Germany

Died – July 29, 1856, in Endenich, Germany

This concerto was premiered on June 9, 1860 with cellist, Ludwig Ebert, and Julius Rietz conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the Leipzig Conservatory.  

In Schumann’s time it was unusual for the cello to be used as a solo instrument, as its tone was considered too dark and the timbre too low to be heard over an orchestra.  The intimate nature of this piece, with its continuous cantabile melodies, provided little incentive for virtuoso cellists of the day to perform it. Nonetheless, this concerto was very dear to the composer and it is now a staple of the cello repertoire. 

The concerto was one of the last pieces Schumann was able to send to publication.

His continuous editing of it kept his mental illness and hallucinations at bay; but only a few days after its completion, he was rescued from the Rhine river and spent the rest of his life in an asylum. 

As Schumann disliked applause between movements, there are no breaks; but in the second movement, aduet between the soloist and the principle cellist of the orchestra creates a lovely texture likened to a conversation between Schumann and his wife, Clara. And despite his aversion to empty technical displays, Schumann indulged the soloist in the third movement with a lighter rondo theme and an accompanied cadenza. 

Petrushka

Igor Stravinsky

Born – June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia

Died – April 6, 1971 in New York City

The ballet, Petrushka, premiered on June 13, 1911, with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and conducted by Pierre Monteux at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. 

After his great success with The Firebird, 28-year-old Stravinsky began to prepare for a much bigger project,The Rite of Spring.  Meanwhile, he sketched a concert piece for orchestra which featured the piano, and the Ballets Russes in Paris requested a full ballet.  Overwhelmingly modern with pure orchestral colors and bold contrasts, the ballet was a triumph.  

The orchestral arrangement consists of four tableaus. The first is set in the 1830’s St. Petersburg Shrovestide Fair, three days before Lent. Among carnival barkers and acrobats, a charlatan entertains the crowd by performing a story with three puppets – mischievous Petrushka, vapid Ballerina, and vain Moor. Russian folk songs and dances accompany the various street performers.  

In the second tableau, Petrushka rebels against his puppet-master, falls madly in love with the Ballerina, and performing a wild display of jumps for her, causes her to run away in fear.  Stravinsky’s signature “Petrushka chord” of clashing black and white piano keys signifies the duality of good versus evil.  

The third tableau features the handsome but brutish Moor; the Ballerina falls in love with him, distracts him with a saucy trumpet tune and they dance an Austrian waltz.  A jealous Petrushka rushes to the scene, but the Moor chases him away.  

More circus acts – including a bear dance – appear in the fourth tableau.  Suddenly, Petrushka and the armed Moor run on stage and Petrushka is slain with a single sword stroke.  The charlatan takes the lifeless puppet, disperses the crowd and walks away.  

Trumpet dialogues reprise the duality of Petrushka and question the conclusion: is Petrushka just a broken puppet or is his “ghost” alive and the entire ballet was merely a scene?   

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