PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION

Thursday, February 23, 2017                    8:00 PM       Jones Hall
Saturday, February 25, 2017                     8:00 PM       Jones Hall
Sunday, February 26, 2017                       2:30 PM       Jones Hall

 

STRAVINSKY

 

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947)

[9]

J. ADAMS

 

Saxophone Concerto

I. Animato—Moderato—Tranquillo, suave

II. Molto vivo (a hard, driving pulse)

[29]

 

 

INTERMISSION

 

MUSSORGSKY/RAVEL

 

Tableaux d’une exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition)

Introduction:  Promenade:  Allegro giusto, nel modo russico—

I. Gnomus:  Vivo

Promenade:  [Moderato comodo assai e con delicatezza]--

II. Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle):  Andante

Promenade:  Moderato non tanto, pesamente—

III. Tuileries:  Allegretto non troppo, capriccioso

IV. Bydlo:  Sempre moderato pesante

Promenade:  Tranquillo—

V. Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques (Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells):  Scherzino, Vivo leggiero

VI. Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle:  Andante

VII. Limoges, Le marché (The Marketplace):  Allegretto vivo, sempre scherzando—

VIII. Catacombæ:  Largo—

Cum mortuis in lingua mortua:  Andante non troppo, con lamento

IX. La cabane sur des pattes de poules (The Hut on Fowl’s Legs):  Allegro con brio feroce—

X. La grande porte de Kiev (The Great Gate of Kiev):  Allegro alla brève, Maestoso, Con grandezza

[30]

 

Notes

 

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Claude Debussy’s death in 1918 was a momentous event in his French homeland. A music magazine invited leading composers to create short pieces it would publish in a memorial issue, and Igor Stravinsky contributed a work reminiscent of a hymn. That vignette grew into a second homage to Debussy: Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which closes with that elegiac theme.

Stravinsky’s title Symphonies harks back to the word’s ancient origin, meaning simply that instruments sound together. The nine-minute piece features a series of vivid, pithy themes, and it switches so quickly among them that it might be the musical equivalent of a collage. Stravinsky described the work as “an austere ritual” with diverse groups of instruments contributing “short litanies.” 

Flutes and oboes ring out at the beginning. The other motifs include a sinuous melody for solo flute; quiet, sober chords for trumpets and trombones; and a couple of dances for woodwinds. The crossplay gradually dies down, and the piece ends with the hymn’s quiet, dignified chords.

The Houston Symphony returns to Stravinsky in March, playing his colorful Petrouchka

The Instruments: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba.

 

Saxophone Concerto

John Adams (1947–)

Classical composers have rarely embraced the saxophone. The instrument makes only a handful of appearances in well-known works, including one coming up in this weekend’s program, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But the saxophone has always belonged to John Adams’ world. His father played the alto sax in swing bands, and recordings of great jazz artists made up a healthy part of the family LP collection. 

It’s no wonder, then, that he brings the instrument into his music. His opera, Nixon in China, which premiered in Houston in 1987, gets part of its flavor from the saxophone quartet in the orchestra. Saxophone solos evoke the sultriness of 1950s Hollywood in Adams’ City Noir, which he conducted with the Houston Symphony in 2014.

Those juicy saxophone parts brought Adams together with Timothy McAllister, one of today’s leading virtuosos—and a Houston resident in his youth. “When one evening during a dinner conversation, Tim mentioned that during high school he had been a champion stunt bicycle rider, I knew that I must compose a concerto for this fearless musician and risk-taker,” Adams recalls on earbox.com, the Web site devoted to his music. “His exceptional musical personality had been the key ingredients in performances and recordings of City Noir, and I felt that I’d only begun to scratch the surface of his capacities.”

Adams’ concerto, which premiered in 2013, puts any soloist’s capacities to the test. A jab from the strings and a fortissimo chord raise the curtain quickly, and the saxophone sprints into action. For the next half-hour, the soloist never stops for longer than a few moments. The concerto has two movements, and the first, which last about 20 minutes, gradually throttles down from that initial, dashing pace to calmer ones. The music never relaxes for long, though.

Though the concerto isn’t overtly jazzy, Adams says undercurrents of jazz flow just beneath the surface. Even when the pace is unhurried, the saxophone part may soar and plunge like a jazz musician’s riffs, and the orchestra’s murmurs and punctuations sometimes add a tinge of restlessness. The glimpse of serenity toward the first movement’s close come mainly from the orchestra’s shimmering sonorities. 

The saxophone launches the second and last movement’s vigorous, angular dance. At one point, the bustle stops, and the strings jump into the silence with a brusque two-note phrase. That gives the music a new springboard, and the concerto drives to a finish that’s all impact—no frills.

The Houston Symphony will play another powerful contemporary piece, John Corigliano’s The Red Violin Concerto, in April.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 clarinets, harp, celesta, piano and strings

 

Tableaux d’une exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) 

Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Modest Mussorgsky relished the stimulation he gained from his fellow artists, including perceptive non-musicians. His circle included Viktor Hartmann, a painter and architect who became Mussorgsky’s close friend. Evidencing their mutual esteem, Mussorgsky dedicated a song to Hartmann, and Hartmann gave two of his sketches to Mussorgsky. 

Hartmann died at only 39. A few months later, another friend organized an exhibition of his works, from architectural renderings to paintings depicting his international travels. Mussorgsky responded with a musical tribute: Pictures at an Exhibition, a set of tone-paintings for piano inspired by Hartmann’s images. Mussorgsky worked himself into it through a series of linking movements titled “Promenade,” describing the viewer’s steps through the gallery. 

Maurice Ravel, France’s master of musical color, unveiled a scintillating arrangement for orchestra in 1922.

The first “Promenade,” led off solo trumpet and gleaming brasses, provides a festive opening, introducing the melody that will change guises as Pictures unfolds. Mussorgsky told a friend that this promenade described him; he must have had a sturdy gait. “Gnomus” depicts a malevolent dwarf in action—sometimes charging ahead ferociously, sometimes quiet and sinister. Lyrical woodwinds make the second “Promenade” more introspective than the first, helping set up the lyrical “The Old Castle.” Hartmann’s painting included a troubadour, and a saxophone sings his plaintive tune. The next “Promenade” moves along resolutely, then the breezy “Tuileries” evokes children at play in the Paris park. 

In “Bydlo,” the weighty tuba and lumbering strings describe an ox-cart in motion. The last “Promenade” begins delicately, then gains fullness and leads directly into “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells,” in which twittering woodwinds bring life to Hartmann’s design for a dance production. In “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” inspired by the two drawings Hartmann gave Mussorgsky, sonorous strings describe the prosperous Goldenberg, while a wheedling trumpet represents the beggar Schmuyle.

“Catacombs” take us into Roman tombs, and the stark contrast between glaring brasses and dead silence conjures up their chill. In the hushed “With the Dead in a Dead Language,” the promenade theme again becomes Mussorgsky’s alter ego. The music, he said, depicts Hartmann’s spirit leading him to skulls, which begin to glow. The orchestra then tears into “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” which describes a witch from Russian folklore on a rampage. And the majestic hymn of “The Great Gate of Kiev” ends Pictures in blazing sunshine.

The Houston Symphony will play two more sonic showpieces, Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome, in April.

The Instruments: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones (1 doubling euphonium), tuba, timpani, percussion and strings

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