From Darkness to Light

Event details

  • October 21, 2017
  • 8:00 pm
  • Marietta Performing Arts Center
  • 770-429-2390

The GSO begins the season in darkness and progresses towards a mighty light! Joining the orchestra is special guest artist Stanislav Khristenko, winner of the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition. The Georgia Symphony Orchestra Chorus will perform selections from Haydn’s Creation, conducted by GSO Chorus Director Bryan Black and featuring guest vocalists Arietha Lockhart, Nathan Munson, and Shawn Keswani.

Program

Ludwig van Beethoven Overture to Coriolan

Maurice Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Stanislav Khristenko, Piano

Joseph Haydn selections from The Creation
Arietha Lockhart, Soprano
Nathan Munson, Tenor
Shawn Keswani, Bass
Bryan Black, Conductor

In 1802, Austrian dramatist Heinrich von Collin presented his tragic play Coriolan, which remained popular in Vienna for three years. Its one-night revival in 1807 seems to have been for the sole purpose of presenting the Overture to Coriolan by his friend, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), inspired by accounts of the exiled Roman general in writings from Plutarch to Shakespeare. Unlike most overtures to plays or operas, this piece is not programmatic. Rather than describing the story – Coriolan’s joining his enemies to march against his own people, his yielding to his mother’s and wife’s pleas to stop the Roman siege, the hatred of fellow Romans which triggers his suicide – it describes in musical terms the conflict between Coriolan’s rebellious nature and his mother’s gentle humanity. These are represented in the overture by two themes, one impulsive and one lyrical, with a quiet ending which signifies the hero’s death. Beethoven no doubt identified with Coriolan’s emotional struggle. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French army occupied Vienna, once in 1805 and again in 1809; thus he experienced first-hand the humiliation of a population under siege.

Joseph Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was enamored with the exotic, incorporating Spanish styles, gamelan music, non-western scales and modes into his music, at the same time remaining loyal to the use of Baroque and Classical musical forms in his sonatas, concertos, pavanes, and minuets. Many of his works might be described as “leisurely elegant,” implying a lightness of character, but Ravel’s attention to detail, the complexity of his music, and his insistence on perfection caused contemporaries to view his work as restrained and lacking in spontaneity; Stravinsky called him a “Swiss watchmaker.” During World War I, unable to serve in the military, yet anxious to serve, he saw duty at the front as part of the ambulance corps. In the 1920s, he conducted and performed in several countries, the United States among them, and in 1928 received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Around 1930, he developed symptoms of a cerebral malady, though there was no definitive diagnosis, and he died shortly after surgery in 1937.

Ravel’s Concerto for Piano in D Major (Left Hand Alone) (1930) was written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, while serving in the Austrian army during World War I, was wounded and captured on the Russian front, his right arm amputated during his captivity. Not one to be daunted by this setback, after the War he commissioned several composers – among them Britten, Strauss, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Ravel – to write music for the left hand alone. Wittgenstein premiered Ravel’s Concerto in 1932 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra; in 1933, he performed the Paris premiere with Ravel conducting.

Wrote Ravel: “The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects….. The concerto for left hand alone is very different….. the writing is not so light. In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands. For the same reason, I resorted to a style that is much nearer to that of the more solemn kind of traditional concerto.” And solemn it is, the orchestra’s entrance emphasizing its rich lower registers, reflecting the lower range of the piano as naturally played by the left hand.

The Concerto for the Left Hand is essentially a pastiche of several sections in various tempos and moods, from somber to march-like to jazzy to playful. Following a dramatic slow introduction and much orchestral fanfare is a virtuosic cadenza, seemingly improvisational but, as with all of Ravel’s music, meticulously notated. In this cadenza, the piano presents the concerto’s principal themes. A four-note theme, similar to the Dies Irae chant, is introduced early on by the orchestra and re-appears throughout the one-movement work.

Ravel knew that he would never understand jazz as did his American contemporaries, though he had recently been to the United States, where he visited Harlem jazz clubs with George Gershwin. He nevertheless felt compelled to reference this “noble heritage” in his own music. In the second section of the Concerto for the Left Hand, jazz influences are heard in the simultaneous sounding of raised and lowered versions of the same scale notes, flatted sevenths, and a blues-inspired tune played by solo bassoon, its upper register sounding almost like a saxophone; this by itself would have been enough to evoke the flavor of jazz for Ravel’s audiences.

Heard in every cadenza of the Concerto are melodies accompanied by arpeggiated forays into the piano’s upper registers, such passages reminiscent of Debussy’s, Liszt’s and Ravel’s own solo piano works. Lest one be overwhelmed by the sheer physicality of this difficult work, best to simply sit back and enjoy the music, as well as Ravel’s superb orchestration!

The historical debt owed to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is immense. Not only did he develop the forms and formats of orchestral and chamber music of the Classic period, but he also produced a staggering amount of music, including 104 symphonies and 84 string quartets. Such productivity can be attributed not only to the demands of his employer, Prince Nicholas Esterházy, who required a steady stream of works to meet the musical requirements of his household, but also to Haydn’s own fertile imagination and creativity.

Haydn spent most of his adult life in service to Prince Nicholas, living on the Esterházy estate outside Vienna. His “retirement” to Vienna upon the Prince’s death in 1790 was short-lived when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon persuaded him to present a series of concerts in London, beginning in 1791. In the course of an eighteenth-month visit, Haydn received an honorary doctorate in music from Oxford University and was honored to have his concerts attended by King George III, who even offered him a summer residence. A second visit sponsored by Salomon began in 1794, and the twelve symphonies written during these two residencies are appropriately referred to as the “Salomon Symphonies.”

With the rise of a large English middle class in the 18th century, the oratorio became popular as a respectable musical alternative to the “frivolous” Italianate opera favored by what was perceived to be a morally loose aristocracy. With arias, recitatives, and choruses, the oratorio is much like opera, but without costumes and scenery, and with a religious or contemplative theme. No love interests, bawdy parties or murderous intentions here! The oratorio was perfected by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), a German composer claimed by England as its own, and who is buried in Westminster Abbey. Having heard Handel’s The Messiah during his first London visit, Haydn burst into tears and declared, “He is the master of us all!” This discovery of The Messiah sparked a second phase of Haydn’s retirement and now, as a freelancer with a popular following, he could write what he pleased. During this period, he wrote the Seven Last Words of Christ (1796), the Mass in Time of War (1796), the Lord Nelson Mass (1798), and two oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801).

Hoping to parlay the appeal of the oratorio and Haydn’s personal popularity into yet another lucrative London venture, Salomon presented Haydn with a draft libretto of The Creation in 1795. Not altogether comfortable with setting English, Haydn had the libretto revised and translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The Viennese premiere of the new oratorio - in German, Die Schöpfung - with texts from Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, took place in April of 1798, the London premiere in 1800. Though Haydn set texts in both languages, altering the melody in places to fit the rhythms of each language, it is most often sung in German.

The three parts of Haydn’s The Creation recount the seven days of the Creation as described in the Bible. Part I covers the first four days of Creation; Part II describes the appearance of life; Part III, which begins with an evocation of dawn, introduces Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Most of the selections heard on this concert are taken from Part I.

Tone-painting abounds in The Creation, beginning with “The Representation of Chaos” and into the first recitative, with unsettling dissonances and unresolved harmonies depicting a tumultuous void. As Haydn explained to a friend, “there is no form in anything yet.” Even more apropos is the wall of sound which accompanies the chorus on the words “And there was light,” a moment that remains stunning even today. At one performance, so emotionally moved and overwhelmed was the composer himself at this point in the music that he had to be taken home at intermission. More notable instances of tone-painting include the music on the plunge of “The ghastly ghosts of hell” into the abyss in the first aria, “Now vanish before the holy beams,” and a move to the minor key in the Trio, “The heavens are telling,” at the mention of night.

Amateurs and professionals alike were both taken by the quality of The Creation when it as was first presented. After a public performance of this oratorio in 1808, Beethoven, not always on the best of terms with Haydn, knelt before him and kissed his hand. As regards the oratorio, Haydn proved himself to be more than a worthy successor to Handel: The Creation is a fitting and masterful depiction of the “mighty light” which concludes this concert.

 

Bibliography:

Melvin Berger, Guide to Choral Masterpieces: A Listener’s Guide, Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New York, 1993.

Jonathan Kramer, Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour through the Orchestral Repertoire, Schirmer Books, a Division of Macmillan, Inc., New York, New York, and Collier Macmillan Publishers, London, 1988.

Ravel Concertos pour Piano, Debussy Fantaisie pour Piano et Orchestra, unaccredited notes translated by Fred Baker, Erato BMG Classics CD, Collection Bonsai, ECD 55041

Ravel: Complete Music for Piano Solo, Complete Piano Concertos, Werner Haas, Orchestre National de l’Opera de Mante-Carlo, Philips Classic Productions, 438 353-2, 1993.

LAPHIL, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel, program notes by Kathy Henkel, https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/piano-concerto-for-left-hand-maurice-ravel

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Maurice Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Program Notes by Phillip Huscher, https://cso.org/uploadedfiles/1_tickets_and_events/2009-2010/program_notes/programnotes_ravel_pianoconcerto.pdf

Haydn: The Creation, St Nicholas Mass, Little Organ Mass, liner notes by Bernard Jacobson, Phillips CD 446 175-2, 1995.

Haydn: The Creation, liner notes by Richard Wigmore, BBC Music CD MM212 DDD, 2001.