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PROGRAM NOTES: The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

by Eric Bromberger

Journey to the End of the Millennium,
symphonic poem

JOSEF BARDANASHVILI
Born November 23, 1948, Batumi, Georgia

Josef Bardanashvili’s fourth opera, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, was commissioned by the Israel Opera Tel Aviv-Yafo and composed in 2004-05 on a libretto by the Israeli novelist and playwright A.B. Yehoshua, based on his novel of the same name. The opera tells a thoughtful but dark tale. In the year 998, Ben Attar–a Jewish merchant from Tangiers–has taken a second wife. He makes a business trip to Paris, where he runs afoul of local laws that prohibit polygamy. The issue brings not just legal problems for Ben Attar but also tensions with his nephew Abulafia, who is his business partner. The case is heard by an arbitrator, and matters reach a climax when Ben Attar’s second wife suggests that women should be free to have two husbands. The shocked arbitrator rules that Ben Attar and his party should be excommunicated, the despairing second wife drowns herself, and the excommunication is annulled.

The opera demands a substantial production: Bardanashvili scores it for fifteen soloists, a mixed chorus, and various non-vocal roles, and the staging is elaborate. The première of A Journey to the End of the Millennium took place on May 21, 2005, under the direction of David Stern, and the opera was produced again in 2008.

The Israel Symphony Orchestra and Rishon LeZion commissioned Bardanashvili to draw an orchestral work from his music for the opera. This concert opens with that piece completed in 2005, lasting slightly more than twenty minutes, scored for a large orchestra that includes harp, piano, and synthesizer.

The composer has prepared a program note for this work:

The original idea behind this work was to create a symphonic poem from the music I composed for the opera A Journey to the End of the Millennium, based on A. B. Yehoshua’s book by the same name. As I was working on it, I came to feel that the new composition is closer to works based on impression from written texts or philosophical thoughts, which were common in the nineteenth century. Examples of this genre include Liszt’s symphonic poems, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande.

The symphonic poem Journey to the End of the Millennium is a new perspective “post reading” or “post watching” the opera. The symphonic medium presented me with entirely different challenges than the operatic medium. The clearest and most fundamental difference is that while the opera progresses through sung text, symphonic music has to be self-explanatory. This is the case with the works by Liszt and Tchaikovsky and also with this work. In order to let the symphonic music speak its own language, I borrowed mere fragments of ideas from the opera, at times two or three notes, to which I added series of new sounds. The symphonic poem is, therefore, a new composition, based on the opera but distinctly different from the customary suites fashioned from operas or ballets. The symphonic poem, which reveals a new viewpoint of one of the heroines in the opera (the second wife), consists of two parts. In the first part, the story goes back in time: the work opens with the last day of this heroine’s life and unfolds towards the climax of her life, her wedding day. When she is on the verge of death, the most important events of her life pass before her eyes as a series of brief cinematic shots. The second part, depicting a love story, is seemingly a longer, calmer retrospection, built as a single “shot”. The hurried cinematic pace is replaced by a clearer sense of form. The musical material is comprised of the love scenes in the opera.

The symphonic poem is built as a musical journey of the Jewish people from the very first (theoretical) days to the twentieth century. It ends with the music of the wedding prayer from Act I of the opera, to which the chorus intones a poem by Ibn Gabirol: “The gate which is closed, arise and open it / and the hind that fled, send unto me / For the day of your coming to lie between my breasts / where his fair fragrance rests upon me”, after which a viola is heard playing a single tone.
-Josef Bardanashvili

La valse, poème chorégraphique

MAURICE RAVEL
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris

Though Ravel, like many French composers, was profoundly wary of German music, there was one German form for which he felt undiluted affection–the waltz. As a young piano student in Paris, Ravel fell under the spell of Schubert’s waltzes for piano, and this led him in 1911 to compose his own Valses nobles et sentimentales, a set of charming waltzes modeled on the Schubert dances he loved so much. Somewhat earlier–in 1906–Ravel had planned a great waltz for orchestra. His working title for this orchestral waltz was Wien (Vienna), but the piece was delayed and Ravel did not return to it until the fall of 1919. This was the year after the conclusion of World War I (Ravel had served as an ambulance driver in the French army during the war), and the French vision of the Germanic world was quite different now than it had been when Ravel originally conceived the piece. Nevertheless, he still felt the appeal of the project, and by December he was madly at work. To a friend he wrote: “I’m working again on Wien. It’s going great guns. I was able to take off at last, and in high gear.” The orchestration was completed the following March, and the first performance took place in Paris on December 12, 1920. By this time, perhaps wary of wartime associations, Ravel had renamed the piece La valse.

If La valse is one of Ravel’s most opulent and exciting scores, it is also one of his most troubling. Certainly the original conception was clear enough, and the composer left an exact description of what he was getting at: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.” The music gives us this scene exactly: out of the murky, misty beginning, we hear bits of waltz rhythms; gradually these come together and plunge into an animated waltz in D major. La valse offers dazzling writing for orchestra. Some of this is the result of the music’s rhythmic energy, some the result of Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental color–the waltzes can glide along the most delicate writing for solo strings, then suddenly rocket ahead on important solo parts for such unlikely instruments as trumpet and tuba. If La valse concluded with all this elegant vitality, our sense of the music might be clear, but instead it drives to an ending full of frenzied violence, and we come away not so much exhilarated as shaken. Ravel made a telling comment about this conclusion: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.”

Is this music a celebration of the waltz–or is it an exploration of the darker spirit behind the culture that created it? Many have opted for the latter explanation, hearing in La valse not a Rosenkavalier-like evocation of a more graceful era, but the snarling menace behind that elegance. Ravel himself was evasive about the ending. He was aware of the implications of the violent close, but in a letter to a friend he explained them quite differently: “Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others that it was postwar Vienna. They are wrong. Certainly, La valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.”

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55 “Eroica”

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

In May 1803, Beethoven moved to the village of Oberdöbling, a few miles north of Vienna. At age 32, he had just come through a devastating experience–the realization that he was going deaf had driven him to the verge of suicide–but now he resumed work, and life. To his friend Wenzel Krumpholz, Beethoven confided: “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.” At Oberdöbling over the next six months, Beethoven sketched a massive new symphony, his third.

Everyone knows the story of how Beethoven had intended to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, whose reforms in France had seemed to signal a new age of egalitarian justice. But when the news reached Beethoven in May 1804 that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, the composer ripped the title page off the score of the symphony and blotted out Napoleon’s name, angrily crying: “Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!” (This sounds like one of those stories too good to be true, but it is quite true: that title page–with Napoleon’s name obliterated–has survived.) Countless historians have used this episode to demonstrate Beethoven’s democratic sympathies, though there is evidence that just a few months later Beethoven intended to restore the symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, and late in life he spoke of Napoleon with grudging admiration. When the symphony was published in 1806, though, the title page bore only the cryptic inscription: “Sinfonia eroica–dedicated to the memory of a great man.”

The new symphony was given several private performances before the public première on April 7, 1805. Early audiences were dumbfounded. Wrote one reviewer: “This long composition, extremely difficult of performance, is in reality a tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia. It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized; but often it loses itself in lawlessness . . . The reviewer belongs to Herr Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” Legend has it that at the end of the first movement, one outraged member of the audience screamed out: “I’ll give another kreutzer [a small coin] if the thing will but stop!” It is easy now to smile at such reactions, but those honest sentiments reflect the confusion of listeners in the presence of a genuinely revolutionary work of art.

There had never been a symphony like this, and Beethoven’s “new directions” are evident from the first instant. The music explodes to life with two whipcracks in E-flat major, followed immediately by the main idea in the cellos. This slightly-swung theme is simply built on the notes of an E-flat major chord, but the theme settles on a “wrong” note–C#–and the resulting harmonic complications will be resolved only after much violence. Another striking feature of this movement is Beethoven’s choice of 3/4 instead of the duple meter customary in symphonic first movements; 3/4, the minuet meter, had been thought essentially lightweight, unworthy of serious music. Beethoven destroys that notion instantly–this is not simply serious music, it is music of the greatest violence and uncertainty. In it, what Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon has called “hostile energy” is admitted for the first time into what had been the polite world of the classical symphony. This huge movement (longer by itself than some complete Haydn and Mozart symphonies) introduces a variety of themes and develops them with a furious energy. It is no accident that the development is the longest section of this movement. The energy pent up in those themes is unleashed here, and the development–much of it fugal in structure–is full of grand gestures, stinging dissonances, and tremendous forward thrust. The lengthy recapitulation (in which the music continues to develop) drives to a powerful coda: the main theme repeats four times, growing more powerful on each appearance, and finally it is shouted out in triumph. This truly is a “heroic” movement–it raises serious issues, and in music of unparalleled drama and scope it resolves them.

The second movement brings another surprise–it is a funeral march, something else entirely new in symphonic music. Beethoven moves to dark C minor as violins announce the grieving main idea over growling basses, and the movement makes its somber way on the tread of this dark theme. The C-major central interlude sounds almost bright by comparison–the hero’s memory is ennobled here–but when the opening material and tonality return Beethoven ratchets up tensions by treating his material fugally. At the end, the march theme disintegrates in front of us, and the movement ends on muttering fragments of that theme.

Out of this silence, the propulsive scherzo springs to life, then explodes. For all its revolutionary features, the Eroica employs what was essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra: pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings. Beethoven makes only one change–he adds a third horn, which is now featured prominently in the trio section’s hunting-horn calls. But that one change, seemingly small by itself, is yet another signal of the originality of this symphony: the virtuosity of the writing for horns, the sweep of their brassy sonority–all these are new in music.

The finale is a theme-and-variation movement, a form originally intended to show off the imagination of the composer and the skill of the performer. Here Beethoven transforms this old form into a grand conclusion worthy of a heroic symphony. After an opening flourish, he presents not the theme but the bass line of that theme, played by pizzicato strings, and offers several variations on this line before the melodic theme itself is heard in the woodwinds, now accompanied by the same pizzicato line. This tune had special appeal for Beethoven, and he had already used it in three other works, including his ballet Prometheus. Was Beethoven thinking of Prometheus–stealer of fire and champion of mankind–when he used this theme for the climactic movement of this utterly original symphony? He puts the theme through a series of dazzling variations, including complex fugal treatment, before reaching a moment of poise on a stately slow variation for woodwinds. The music pauses expectantly, and then a powerful Presto coda hurls the Eroica to its close.

The Eroica may have stunned its first audiences, but audiences today run the greater risk of forgetting how revolutionary this music is. What seemed “lawlessness” to early audiences must now be seen as an extraordinary leap to an entirely new conception of what music might be. Freed from the restraint of courtly good manners, Beethoven found in the symphony the means to express the most serious and important of human emotions. It is no surprise the composers over the next century would make full use of this freedom. Nor is it a surprise to learn that late in life–at a time when he had written eight symphonies–Beethoven named the Eroica as his own favorite among his symphonies.            

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gratefully acknowledges
Milton and Tamar Maltz for their generous underwriting
of the Orchestra’s United States touring program, and
American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
as the principal underwriter of this tour.

meridia