ROSSINI Overture to The Barber of Seville Vilde Frang, violin
PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 Vilde Frang, violin
RACHMANINOFF Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

Program notes by Shanon Zusman

This evening’s concert features three well known composers in the prime of their careers: Gioachino Rossini, Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Each work presented—an opera overture, a violin concerto, and a symphony—reveals the composer’s own personal artistry, as well as his ability to challenge, entertain, and ultimately, win over the audience.

Overture to The Barber of Seville

Gioacchino Rossini
Born February 29, 1792, Pesaro, Italy
Died November 13, 1868, Paris

We begin with Rossini and one of the composer’s most popular instrumental numbers. Rossini composed Il barbiere di Siviglia (originally titled Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione, in order to distinguish it from Giovanni Paisiello’s opera which, incidentally, was premièred at the Imperial Court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg in 1782) for the Teatro Argentina in Rome. Over the course of three weeks (!), Rossini penned the opera which, like Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, is based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s play.

Considered “the archetypical Rossini overture” by Italian opera scholar Philip Gossett, the Overture to The Barber of Seville represents a “composite vision of Rossini’s art” in its clarity of design. With 38 operas to his name, written over an 18-year period, one wonders, had Rossini devised a “formula” to his overtures? In an amusing letter published in Il Folletto in October 1848, Rossini replied to an anonymous gentleman who was asking for the “recipe” to composing an opera overture. He writes, “First general and invariable rule: Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work, or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.” With tongue-in-cheek, Rossini continues to offer six more tips in crafting the perfect overture, one of which is á propos to this evening’s performance: “Fourth recipe: I did better with The Barber. I did not compose an overture, but selected for it one that was meant for a semi-serious opera called Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra. The public was completely satisfied.” (This is not far from the truth; Rossini in fact recycled the overture from the one introducing Elisabetta, which itself was originally for his opera seria Aureliano in Palmira.)

But in all seriousness, this Overture is a quite a clever creation. In presenting his ideas in a clear, intelligible form that was immediately pleasing to his audience (then and now), Rossini was on his way to establishing a model upon which future overtures would be critiqued. Bernard Shaw, writing for the Illustrated London News in March 1892, describes Rossini’s “formula” in detail, which we might aptly apply to tonight’s featured work: “First came a majestic and often beautiful exordium… Then he fell to business with an irresistibly piquant ‘first subject,’ usually a galop more or less thinly disguised, working up in to the conventional tutti, with the strings rushing up and down the scales and the brass blaring vigorously. Then a striking half-close, announcing a fresh treat in the shape of a ‘second subject,’ not a galop this time, but a spirited little march tune, leading to the celebrated Rossini crescendo, in which one of the arabesques of the march pattern would be repeated and repeated, with the pace of the accompaniment doubling and redoubling, and the orchestration thickening and warming, until finally the big drum and the trombones were in full play, and every true Italian was ready to shout Viva il gran’ maestro! in wild enthusiasm. And then, since everybody wanted to hear it all again, the whole affair, except, of course, the introduction, was repeated note-for-note, and finished off with a Pelion of a coda piled on the Ossa of the crescendo, the last flourish being always a rush up the scale by the fiddles, and final thump and crash for the whole band.” The effect is exhilarating, and no doubt an excellent way to start the evening.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 63

Sergei Prokofiev
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

Composed in 1935 while the Russian maestro was living in Paris, the concerto was intended for the French violinist Robert Soëtens. This work was Prokofiev’s last western European commission, before he moved back to Moscow in 1936. Prokofiev had spent the past 17 years traveling throughout Europe and America, leaving Russia in 1918 with exit visa in hand, granted by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of Public Education within the newly formed Bolshevik regime.

During those years of complete artistic freedom abroad, Prokofiev developed a style that was uniquely his own, one that would not entirely be welcomed upon his return to the Soviet Union. In his unfinished Autobiography (which was originally published as two chapters in Sovetskaya Muzyka in 1941 and 1946, covering his pre-Conservatory years, as well as years abroad through 1936), Prokofiev delves into his own development as a composer, describing four “lines” of his style: “The first was the classical line… [which] takes sometimes a neo-classical form (sonatas, concertos)… The second line, the modern trend, … took the form of a search for my own harmonic language, developing later into a search for a language in which to express powerful emotions… The third line is the toccata, or the ‘motor’ line… [which features] the repetitive intensity of the melodic figures… The fourth line is lyrical: it appears first as a thoughtful and meditative mood… For a long time I was given no credit for any lyrical gift whatever, and for want of encouragement it developed slowly. But as time went on I gave more and more attention to this aspect of my work.” He goes on to address what some French critics had coined the “grotesque,” suggesting it should be translated as the “Scherzo-ish” quality (“whimsicality, laughter, mockery”) of his music and may be seen as a “deviation from the other lines.” With this is mind, we can begin to approach his Second Violin Concerto.

In three movements, keeping with the traditional outline of the concerto, the soloist opens the Allegro moderato alone with a meandering line, as the orchestra enters on an unexpected harmony, signaling the first of many bold harmonic shifts throughout the work. The lyricism of this movement, as well as the inspired melody in the coming Andante, demonstrates Prokofiev’s preoccupation with writing simple, direct melodies. As his sketchbooks show, Prokofiev was writing this concerto while working on themes for his ballet score Romeo and Juliet, which is replete with innovative melodies. The final movement, unlike the first two, does not shy away from dissonance, but rather welcomes it with castanets in a spirited rondo.

The raucousness of the finale in some ways foreshadows the coming decade of Prokofiev’s life, upon returning to his motherland. The years following the “Chaos instead of Music” chastisement (1936), in which Soviet composers in general—and Dmitri Shostakovich, in particular—were punished for not upholding the ideal of “social realism,” were challenging years for Prokofiev. Soviet criticism and censorship of his works, which pushed the boundary in terms of their dissonance and atonality, took a toll on him. Years later, in 1948 in response to the resolution issued by Andrei Zhdanov, representing the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Prokofiev made clear his commitment to writing music free of formalist tendencies (i.e., the preoccupation with form and technique over programmatic, Soviet content). Under duress, Prokofiev confessed to writing music that was “over-refined and complicated, and departs from simplicity,” and vowed to focus on writing melodies which are “instantly understandable even to the uninitiated listener, and at the same time original.” But the damage was already done. By this time, his creative spirit had been broken, and Prokofiev ceased to compose in the revolutionary way which had become his hallmark.

Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Opus 27

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born April 1, 1873, Semyonova, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

In all likelihood, Sergei Rachmaninoff may have been the last “triple threat,” musically-speaking, of the twentieth century, wearing more than one hat as a musician. He once confessed: “I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to which was my true calling—that of composer, pianist, or conductor… There are times when I consider myself nothing but a composer; others when I believe myself capable only of playing the piano.” In America, we tend to think of Rachmaninoff as a concertizing pianist, as this was his primary occupation after emigrating from Russia in 1917; in truth, he was equally gifted as a composer and conductor of orchestral music, as well as opera, while he lived in Moscow, working for the Moscow Private Russian Opera and Bolshoi Theatre.

However satisfying it may have been to lead an orchestra or be the featured soloist on stage, it seems that composing was what fed his soul the most. In an interview with David Ewen, entitled “Music should speak from the heart,” published in The Étude in December 1941, Rachmaninoff remarked that “Composing is an essential part of my being as breathing or eating; it is one of the necessary functions of living. My constant desire to compose music is actually the urge within me to give tonal expression to my feelings, just as I speak to give utterance to my thoughts.”

Noted musicologist Richard Taruskin points out that “There were many, during the 1920s and 1930s, who regarded him as the great living composer, precisely because he was the only one who seemed capable of successfully maintaining the familiar and prestigious style of the nineteenth-century ‘classics’ into the twentieth century.” There were just as many, if not more, critics of Rachmaninoff, who claimed his compositions were archaic, too conservative, and overly sentimental. In the same interview cited above, Rachmaninoff defended his personal style: “It is my own pet belief that, if you have something important to say, you don’t need a new language in which to say it. The old language is sufficiently rich and resourceful. The young composers make the mistake of believing that you achieve originality through technique. Actually, the only originality worth achieving is that which comes from substance. A composer can use all the accepted tools of composition and produce a work far different in style and subject matter from any ever produced, because he has put into music his own personality and experiences.”

If we are to take Rachmaninoff literally, then his Second Symphony may be seen as a reflection of his own life, ideals, and struggles. What stands out first and foremost is his respect for the past, in the traditional forms encountered in this symphony (sonata-allegro and scherzo forms, especially) as well as the compositional technique of developing a motive throughout all four movements. This is his way of paying homage to Tchaikovsky (as well as his teacher Sergei Taneyev, to whom this symphony is dedicated), and before the great Russian cosmopolitan, who else but Beethoven. The opening motto in the Largo, which appears in the cellos and basses, is the kernel in which a number of other themes are based, including the main theme of the following Allegro moderato. The motto—in its stepwise, limited range, and repetitive simplicity—may have been derived from a Russian Orthodox Church chant, one of Rachmaninoff’s childhood influences (as is the dramatic “church bells” effect in the final Allegro vivace before the recapitulation).

Such a religious connection might suggest a deeper, spiritual side to Rachmaninoff’s symphony, which makes even more sense, given the soul-searching period which preceded the composition of this work. It took Rachmaninoff three years to recover from the devastating première of his First Symphony (1897), in which a drunken Glazunov fumbled his way through the piece to the detriment of the young composer’s career. Fortunately, toward the beginning of 1900, Rachmaninoff became close to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who was trained in hypnosis, as well as a talented string player. Daily meetings with Dahl bolstered Rachmaninoff’s self-confidence, and by April 1901, he had completed the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which is dedicated to Dahl). Moreover, it was six more years after the success his Second Piano Concerto before Rachmaninoff felt ready to compose his next symphony, or at least put other projects aside and find the time to complete it.

In 1906, at age 33, Rachmaninoff took his wife and two daughters to Dresden, where he focused on composing a new symphony for the next eight months, escaping his duties as conductor and touring pianist. During this time of relative isolation, he found himself, as a composer, once again. Perhaps the beautiful Adagio which serves as the symphony’s third movement—and surely the heart of this work—is the clearest reflection of the composer’s introspective, tender side. Coming out of this poignant moment, Rachmaninoff dives into a lively Allegro vivace, where previous themes return freely and are transformed. Energized, we arrive in E Major, a clear affirmation that the composer, while not wholly letting go of the past, is ready to move forward.

Program notes by Shanon P. Zusman