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PROGRAM NOTES: Opening Night: Fiddles vs. Pianos

Sonata in C Major for Two Violins, Opus 56

SERGEI PROKOFIEV
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

Like many Russian composers, Prokofiev made his home in the West in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and he spent the 1920s in Paris, which at that time–with Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin, Les Six, and many other composers–was the musical capital of the world. In Paris Prokofiev composed a number of colorful and sometimes outrageous works, including the opera The Fiery Angel and the “Bolshevik ballet” Le Pas d’Acier. By the early 1930s, however, the homesick composer had begun a series of visits to Russia that would culminate in his return in 1933.

In 1932, the year before his return, Prokofiev joined a group of composers dedicated to the performance of contemporary chamber music. This group–which included Honegger, Milhaud, and Poulenc–took the name “Triton,” and their first performance was presented in Paris on December 16, 1932. It was for this concert that Prokofiev composed his Sonata for Two Violins, and he found himself with a pleasant problem for a composer–simultaneous premières: on that same night, in a hall across the street, the first performance of his ballet On the Dnieper was scheduled. Prokofiev described his solution: “Fortunately the ballet came on half an hour later, and so immediately after the sonata we dashed over to the Grand Opera–musicians, critics, author all together.”

On his return to Russia, Prokofiev would relax his style in response to the demands of Socialist Realism for art accessible to the masses, but this lyric vein had begun to appear in his music even before the move, and the Sonata for Two Violins combines a bittersweet lyricism with the more acerbic manner of his Parisian works. Sonatas for two solo violins are rare, and in them a composer must solve the problem of writing for two linear instruments without the harmonic resources of the piano. Though each movement of Prokofiev’s sonata remains firmly centered in a specific key, there are enough “wrong” notes here to stretch the concept of tonality considerably.

This sonata is in the slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of movements of the baroque violin sonata, but that may be its only relation to baroque music. The very brief (36-measure) Andante cantabile is built on the first violin’s opening melody. Much of the writing in this movement is very high, and the opening theme returns in the second violin just before the quiet close. By sharp contrast, the Allegro opens with huge, gritty chords from both violins and never slows down. The music features rapid exchanges between the two instruments (in the score Prokofiev stresses: con precisione) and such violinistic razzle-dazzle as left-handed pizzicatos.

Prokofiev gives the players the option of performing the third movement with or without mutes. He marks the music “tender and simple,” and much of the writing in this lyric music is chordal, depending on multiple-stopping from both players. The finale opens with a light-hearted theme marked energico that returns throughout the movement, much like a rondo tune. This is the longest of the four movements, with several secondary themes, and at the very end–over swirling accompaniment from the second violin–the first violin sings the opening melody from the first movement. A blistering Più presto coda brings the sonata to its exciting close.

Navarra, Opus 33

PABLO DE SARASATE
Born March 10, 1844, Pamplona, Spain
Died September 20, 1908, Biarritz, France
Approximate Duration: 5 minutes

Slim, elegant, and refined, Pablo de Sarasate played the violin as impeccably as he dressed. Sarasate was admired particularly for the sweetness of his sound, the smoothness of his bow-stroke, and a fabulous technique; these are still very much in evidence in the handful of recordings he made in 1904, when he was 60. Like so many virtuosos of his day, Sarasate also composed, and it should come as no surprise that his 54 published works are almost exclusively violin music.

Though it was widely popular a generation or two ago, most of Sarasate’s music has disappeared from the active repertory today, and we remember him for virtuoso pieces like Zigeunerweisen or for opera paraphrases like his Carmen Fantasy. But Sarasate was also attracted to the music of his native country, and among his works are four sets of Spanish Dances, based on popular tunes, and a Caprice Basque (Sarasate was born in Pamplona, almost on the border between Spain and France). Navarra, Sarasate’s only work for two violins, was published in Berlin in 1889. That title suggests that this music is an evocation of the province of Navarre, the region on the border with France famous for its mountains and its Basque heritage, but in fact this music seems only remotely connected with Navarre. Instead, it is a showpiece that offers two first-class violinists a chance to dazzle audiences with some violinistic fireworks based on Spanish popular music. An opening flourish accelerates into the brisk main body of the piece, which alternates Spanish material with blistering runs, passages in harmonics, and left-handed pizzicato sequences, all played as duets.

This may not be profound music, but it’s a lot of fun.

JULIAN MILONE ARRANGEMENTS

Julian Milone studied composition and violin at the Royal College of Music, then joined the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1983 at the age of 25. Milone remains in the Philharmonia and is also a Professor of Violin at the Kent Academy of Music, but he has made his reputation as an arranger, recasting works from the classical repertory as arrangements for groups of violins (their number can run as high as twelve) over the harmonic foundation of a doublebass. Milone has made arrangements of a variety of music, ranging from Paganini to Gershwin, from opera to jazz, from popular tunes to tangos, and SummerFest audiences have enjoyed several of these during the last few festivals. On this concert we hear Milone’s arrangements for four violins and doublebass of music by Shostakovich and Bizet.

It should be noted that Milone’s “arrangements” are not simply straightforward transcriptions of other pieces but instead original compositions by Milone, based on the music of others. These arrangements recall a form popular in the nineteenth century, the virtuoso extension of themes from familiar operas, and those arrangements went under a variety of names: fantasy, paraphrase, transcription, and others. Liszt was the form’s most notable practitioner, but the approach was popular with many performers and composers and produced some memorable music. It was music composed specifically to delight audiences and to give performers a chance to demonstrate their skill.

Galop from Moskva, Cheryomushki, Opus 105

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH
Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow
Approximate Duration: 2 minutes

We remember Shostakovich for his fifteen monumental symphonies and his fifteen (often wrenching) string quartets, but there was a lighter side to this composer, and it found expression in his Moskva, Cheryomushki. In 1957 Shostakovich was asked to provide the music for a musical comedy about– of all things–the chronic housing shortage that afflicted Moscow during the 1950s (Cheryomushki is a neighborhood in southwest Moscow where a number of new housing projects were built in the 1950s). Working from a libretto provided by two Russian satirists, Shostakovich composed most of the music in 1958, shortly after completing his Eleventh Symphony, and Moskva, Cheryomushki opened on January 24, 1959, in the Moscow Operetta Theater. By far the most famous music from Moskva, Cheryomushki is the Galop, which accompanies a housewarming party put on in Act II by the young protagonists, Sasha and Masha. Only two minutes long, it is full of non-stop energy and has been heard in countless arrangements. Most of these have been for concert band, an ensemble well-suited to the Galop’s hard-charging vitality, but there have been many others, including one–by Julian Milone–for the 48 violas of major London orchestras. The Galop is heard on this concert in Milone’s arrangement (and slight re-composition) for four violins and doublebass.

Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen for Four Violins and Doublebass

GEORGES BIZET
Born October 25, 1838, Paris
Died June 3, 1875, Bougival
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

Carmen–Bizet’s opera of passion, jealousy, and murder– was a failure at its first performance in Paris in March 1875; the audience seemed outraged at the idea of a loose woman and murder onstage at the Opéra-Comique. Bizet died three months later at age 37, never knowing that he had written what would become one of the most popular operas ever composed. The music from Carmen has everything going for it–excitement, color, and (best of all) instantly-recognizable tunes. From today’s vantage point, it seems impossible that this opera could have been anything but a smash success from the first instant.

The operative word in Milone’s title is “Fantasy”: his arrangement is based on many of the great tunes from the opera, but this music should be understood as Milone’s own composition based on those tunes, rather than simply a transcription of them. Milone conceived this piece for four first-class performers–this piece is fun not just for what Milone does with Bizet’s great melodies but also for the violinistic display we hear along the way. Listeners can sit back and enjoy such favorite moments as the Fate Motif, Seguedilla, Danse bohème, and the Habanera. There will be a surprise guest artist as part of this performance.

Boogie for Piano, Four-Hands

PAUL SCHOENFIELD
Born January 24, 1947, Detroit
Approximate Duration: 4 minutes

Originally from Detroit, Paul Schoenfield studied piano with Rudolf Serkin and composition with Robert Muczynski and received his DMA from the University of Arizona at age 23. Presently a Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, he divides his time between Michigan and Israel. Schoenfield has been particularly interested in combining quite different styles and traditions: his music can simultaneously be derived from jazz, classical music, klezmer music, popular songs (and many other styles), and these are combined with a great deal of energy and skill. Boogie is the final movement of Schoenfield’s Five Days from the Life of a Manic Depressive, a set of five pieces for piano four-hands published in 2006. This music boils over with energy across its four-minute span. The lower voice often lays down a furious ostinato as the upper contributes a wild melodic energy of its own; at other times the melodic line moves easily between the two players as Boogie rushes to an almost breathless close.

Andante et Allegro Brillant in A Major for Piano, Four-Hands, Opus 92

FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg
November 4, 1847, Leipzig
Approximate Duration: 11 minutes

Mendelssohn took his first piano lessons from his mother when he was a tiny child, and the family quickly brought in the best professional teachers available as the extent of the boy’s talent became clear. He soon became a virtuoso pianist who played throughout Europe, dazzling London audiences by doing something they had never seen before: he performed concertos from memory rather than having the music in front of him. Mendelssohn’s works for piano remain popular with performers and audiences today, showing his virtues as a composer: appealing melodies, a nice sense of form, rhythmic vitality, and a technical brilliance that demonstrates a performer’s familiarity with the instrument at every instant.

Mendelssohn wrote a great deal of solo piano music, but he wrote very little for piano-four hands: a few juvenile pieces, some arrangements, and only two major works (and one of these, the Variations in B-flat Major, is simply an arrangement for four-hands of a piece originally written for solo piano). That leaves the Allegro Brillant in A Major, Opus 92, completed on March 23, 1841, during a period when the 32-year-old composer was writing a number of works for piano; later that year he would complete one of his finest piano works, the Variations sérieuses, Opus 54, and then go on to compose his “Scottish” Symphony. As its name suggests, the brief Allegro Brillant sets out to be brilliant music, and in this it succeeds completely. This is a display piece for two very skillful pianists, polished in its techniques and full of attractive tunes. The themes–there are a progression of them–are generally introduced by the upper hands, but the lower hands play an extraordinary accompaniment, full of very rapid runs and requiring the utmost skill to project these clearly without obscuring the upper line.

Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Opus 17

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
Approximate Duration: 23 minutes

The critical response to Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897 had been so vicious that the young composer was left shaken and unable to compose. His family finally convinced him to see a psychologist, who treated him through hypnotic suggestion. Rachmaninoff spent the summer of 1900 in Italy, then returned to Russia and that fall composed the second and third movements of his Second Piano Concerto. The triumphant première of those two movements in Moscow on December 2 seemed to restore his confidence: between December 1900 and April 1901 Rachmaninoff composed the present Suite for Two Pianos, then completed the first movement of the concerto and his Cello Sonata. Rachmaninoff and Alexander Ziloti gave the first performance of the Suite in Moscow on November 24, 1901.

This is big music–ebullient and powerful–and its good tunes and rich sonority have made it a favorite with duo-pianists. The four movements rest on some unusual key progressions, and harmonically the Suite concludes far from its beginning. Each of the movements has a title as well as an Italian tempo indication. The Introduction, in heroic C major, has a firm, declarative opening that gives way to a more poised (but still quite animated) second subject. Its propulsive rhythms continue throughout, even as the movement draws to a quiet close. The second movement, a Waltz in G major, opens with a burst of shining energy from which the broad waltz melody gradually emerges and then develops at length. The Romance, in A-flat major, is based on one of those wonderful Rachmaninoff melodies– deep and dark–that eventually grows to a ringing climax before the movement concludes peacefully. The finale, a Tarantella in the unexpected key of C minor, is based on a theme Rachmaninoff is said to have found in a collection of old tunes during his visit to Genoa and Milan the summer before composing the Suite. The energy that has characterized the entire work returns here with a vengeance, eventually driving this movement to a thunderous conclusion that remains unremittingly in C minor.

Rachmaninoff recorded many of his own works, but never this Suite. He did, however, continue to perform it–and under some unusual circumstances. Late in life, Rachmaninoff became good friends with Vladimir Horowitz and greatly respected the younger man’s abilities. Occasionally–and for family members only–they would perform two-piano music together, and the Second Suite was one of the works they would play. Rachmaninoff’s biographer Sergei Bertensson was present at the composer’s home in Beverly Hills in June 1942, only nine months before his death, and left this account of a Rachmaninoff- Horowitz performance of this Suite: “It is impossible to word my impression of this event. ‘Power’ and ‘joy’ are the two words that come first to mind–expressive power, and joy experienced by the two players, each fully aware of the other’s greatness. After the last note no one spoke–time seemed to have stopped.”

It is our loss that no one thought to record that performance, now gone forever.