PROGRAM NOTES: Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
by Eric Bromberger
Jeux: poème dansé (1912)
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Died March 25, 1918, Paris
A garden, at night: Bushes and brambles ducking in and out of the harsh light and deep shadows cast by an outdoor electric floodlight. A stray tennis ball bounces onto stage, chased by a frolicking young boy and two girls. As they search for the ball, they tease, laugh and play with each other, eventually falling into a furtive embrace. Such was the choreographic scenario to which Debussy composed Jeux for the Ballets Russes in 1912, though Sergei Diaghilev had originally imagined three boys in the main roles. With Vaslav Nijinsky in the principal role, the work premièred at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in May 1913, only two weeks before the same dancer would set the gossiping classes atwitter with his controversial choreography to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Nijinsky’s choreography for Jeux, which drew more heavily on postures from golf, tennis and jazz dance than it did from classical ballet, was not a great success. Even Debussy was non-committal, commenting only a couple of weeks later, “Among recent pointless goings-on I must include the staging of Jeux, which gave Nijinsky’s perverse genius a chance of indulging in a peculiar kind of mathematics.” But the music lived on independent of the dance, and is now universally praised as an important 20th century work in line with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. As in that earlier piece, tone colour and orchestral texture take centre-stage. Inconclusive harmonies suggest atonality, while never fully taking the plunge. The musical themes are short, following quickly one upon the other, and the liberal use of woodwinds in various combinations makes for a character-driven and playful atmosphere.
Piano Concerto, No. 3 in C Major, Opus 26 (1921)
Andante – Allegro
Tema con variazioni
Allegro, ma non troppo
Born April 23, 1891, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
As a child growing up in the Ukrainian countryside, Sergei Prokofiev was naturally experimental when it came to piano playing. His juvenile compositions were often written in a different key for each hand, creating a jarringly novel effect. This rogue instinct would follow the young composer to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he began his sketches for his Piano Concerto No. 3 while still a student. Completing the work in 1921, Prokofiev performed the solo part himself in the première that same year in Chicago. He also performed in the first recording of the work in 1932, proving for all posterity that the herculean technical challenges in the score grew at least partly out of his own aptitude as an exceptionally talented pianist. Prokofiev’s five essays in the piano concerto genre are significant for their total integration of soloist and orchestra, where each part is an active contributor to the essential character of the work. The lyrical opening clarinet theme of the first movement floats somewhere between tentative and serene, as it is joined by meandering harmonies in the strings. When the orchestra suddenly takes off with the locomotive rhythm of a speeding train, and the piano bursts into the texture with a joyful yelp, the first three notes of the clarinet melody are reversed in substance and effect, becoming motivic material for the ensuing figurations. A second theme is more sarcastic in nature, but the movement ultimately builds toward a romantic climax, recalling the opening melody in a grandiose tutti near the end. The second movement is a theme and variations, allowing for a full exploration of Prokofiev’s unique ability to bring out opposing characters in the same musical material – from lush and lyrical to grotesquely terrifying and exuberantly joyful. The final movement begins with a humorous topic in the orchestra, taken up and expanded by the piano, soon building to a great romantic climax. The hair-raising coda increases in energy, as piano and orchestra join in a janissary-like clamouring in the upper registers, insistent rhythms and hand-over-hand flourishes bringing the work to a powerful close in C major.
The Rite of Spring (1913)
Part I: The Adoration of the Earth
Part II: The Sacrifice
by © Marc Wieser
Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum
Died April 6, 1971, New York
Paris, May 29, 1913: a date that lives on in musical notoriety. That night, the capacity audience at the newly built Théâtre des Champs-Élysées collectively participated in the birth of a new era – or the violent death of an old one, depending on whom you asked. The trio of enfants terribles at the centre of the scandal were Sergei Diaghilev, the daring founder of Les Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky, his unruly choreographer, and Igor Stravinsky, Russian darling of the Parisian avant-garde; the work, The Rite of Spring.
A week after the première, a headline from The New York Times trumpeted “Parisians Hiss New Ballet,” going on to report that the house lights had to be turned up to quell “hostile demonstrations” in the audience, while at one point the ruckus was so loud that the dancers on stage could no longer hear the orchestra, Nijinsky himself shouting out the choreography from the wings. Popular myth remembers Stravinsky’s shocking new music as the cause of the riots, while the American scholar Richard Taruskin places the blame squarely on the “ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” But principal dancer Lydia Sokolova recalled, “they had prepared in Paris for a riot… they had got themselves all ready.” On the eve of a great war, in a continent still grappling with class disparity, the people seemed primed to manifest: a row was inevitable.
Stravinsky’s frenetically propulsive score unfolds as a series of tableaux depicting imagined scenes of ancient Pagan rituals around the coming of spring. A young girl is chosen by elders and forced to dance herself to death in an act of sacrifice to the land. Fragments of Russian folk tunes are evidence of the composer’s efforts to express the elemental character of his homeland, while incessant motor-rhythms and terrifyingly unpredictable accented off-beats lend an aspect of mechanization to the essentially folkloric subject matter – an ominous contradiction at the heart of the work. In fact, this revolutionary ballet score, with its violent juxtapositions of rival tonalities, may be one of the most apt and profound expressions of the clash of the old world with an impending mechanical age.
The Rite of Spring holds a special place in the OSM repertoire. First performed in Montréal in 1957 under the direction of Igor Markevitch, Rite would go on to become a signature work for the Orchestra during the directorship of Charles Dutoit, representing the confluence of Russian and French influences at the heart of the OSM’s traditional programming. In 1984 it featured prominently on a tour of Canada, USA and Europe, and a recording made that same year was honoured with a Félix award in Quebec. Most recently, Kent Nagano led the OSM in Stravinsky’s masterpiece in 2012 and 2016 in performances at Maison symphonique de Montréal.