Concert Fantasy on Russian Themes

Both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ralph Vaughan-Williams were intensely interested in the folk music of their native soil. Each composer attempted to create a distinctive national style by incorporating local folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies into their art.

The two works that we are to hear today are excellent examples of this process. “The Lark Ascending” draws its inspiration from the mysticism of the English countryside, setting several folk tunes in a quiet manner, conveying a calm, peaceful and transcendent mood to the listener, with the solo violin observing and commenting on the scene from afar. The work begins and ends with meditative reveries from the solo violin.

The “Fantasy on Russian Themes” sets the solo violin in an active mode, with the brilliance and power to compete directly with an exuberant orchestra. Here, too, the violin is given solo moments of an improvisational nature, but rather than the inward-looking ruminations of the “Lark,” we are presented with what are merely lyric interruptions in an otherwise boisterous, robust scene of a country gathering. Here joyous peasants participate in the highly social activities of dancing, singing and drinking among family and friends.

The two works together are an interesting study in contrast, and provide an enchanting view into two artistic minds as they envision a showcase for the solo violin.

The Lark Ascending

Both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ralph Vaughan-Williams were intensely interested in the folk music of their native soil. Each composer attempted to create a distinctive national style by incorporating local folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies into their art.

The two works that we are to hear today are excellent examples of this process. “The Lark Ascending” draws its inspiration from the mysticism of the English countryside, setting several folk tunes in a quiet manner, conveying a calm, peaceful and transcendent mood to the listener, with the solo violin observing and commenting on the scene from afar. The work begins and ends with meditative reveries from the solo violin.

The “Fantasy on Russian Themes” sets the solo violin in an active mode, with the brilliance and power to compete directly with an exuberant orchestra. Here, too, the violin is given solo moments of an improvisational nature, but rather than the inward-looking ruminations of the “Lark,” we are presented with what are merely lyric interruptions in an otherwise boisterous, robust scene of a country gathering. Here joyous peasants participate in the highly social activities of dancing, singing and drinking among family and friends.

The two works together are an interesting study in contrast, and provide an enchanting view into two artistic minds as they envision a showcase for the solo violin.

Histoire du Tango

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was one of Argentina’s most gifted and prolific composers. He was a self-taught composer and an accomplished player on the bandoneon, the Argentine version of the accordion. Piazzolla is inextricably associated with the tango, which he was largely responsible for re-energizing and modernizing in his numerous compositions.

In his Histoire du Tango, Piazzolla sought to trace the evolution of the tango itself from an erotic, “not quite respectable” dance to its modern form, which is still very much alive and well in today’s Buenos Aires.

The Histoire is a series of four pieces – “Bordel 1900, Café 1930, Nightclub 1960, and Concert d’aujourd’hui” – which he composed originally for flute and guitar. We are performing the third piece in this series, in an arrangement for soprano saxophone and orchestra by Mark Spede.

Like all tangos, the music is full of wistful melody, with abrupt rhythms alternating with hints of sadness and languor.

Scaramouche Suite

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was one of France’s most intriguing 20th-century composers. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he secured a position in 1917 as a cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Brazil, where he received much exposure to Brazilian music. Upon returning to Paris in 1919, he became associated with the circle of famous early 20th-Century French composers known as “Les Six.”

The author of numerous symphonic and chamber works, Milhaud originally composed the music for Scaramouche in 1937 as incidental music for saxophone to accompany a children’s play. He was then asked to transcribe the music for two pianos, which he did as a three-movement suite. The transcription proved so popular that he then re-orchestrated the suite for saxophone and orchestra in 1940, when it was premiered by the famous French saxophonist Marcel Mule.

The music is in three movements – Vif , Modéré, and Brazileira. The first movement is a witty dialogue between the solo saxophone and orchestra, with some motifs loosely based on an English folk song. The second movement is more reflective, with the soloist initially juxtaposed against a sonorous muted chorus of trumpets, trombones, bassoons and basses. The last movement, based on samba rhythms, is one of his most recognizable works and clearly shows the influence of his early Brazilian interlude.

Concertino No. 5 in Bb Major

This is one of 6 famous concertini originally attributed to the Italian composer Pergolesi. These works were first published in Holland in 1740, but without mention of a composer. Recent scholarship has discovered that all of these works, far from being the work of an Italian, were actually composed by a Dutch nobleman, Unico Wilhelem Graf Van Wassenaer. He had permitted his court violinist, Carlo Ricciotti, to publish them, but only on condition that he (Van Wassenaer) was not associated with them. (Perhaps he did not wish his noble reputation to suffer by being so closely associated with the music profession.)

This concertino, like all of the others, is Italianate in style, with richly worked-out counterpoint and lush 7-part string writing (including 4 separate violin parts in Neapolitan style). The movements are alternately slow and fast, with a stately introduction, a fast alla breve second movement, followed by a slow third movement in “sicilienne” style.

Stravinsky adapted the last movement, in fast 6/8 time, as the basis for the “Tarantella” movement in his Pulcinella Suite.

Pastorale d’Eté

Pastorale d’Eté (Summer Pastoral), written in 1920 during a vacation in the Swiss Alps and subtitled “Poème Symphonique,” was inspired by a quotation from Arthur Rimbaud: J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été (“I’ve embraced the dawn of the summer”).

Honegger expresses his impression of this summery idyll in Switzerland with pastoral and shepherd airs that often recall Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”. The happiness is never disturbed. The three parts – calm, lively and gay, calm – merge into one another, the third combining and superimposing the musical elements of the first two.