Concert Prep

Concert Prep: Albany Symphony Orchestra plays Bolero & Wagner

Bolero & Wagner

Albany Symphony Orchestra

David Allan Miller, Music Director

Greg Spiridopoulos, Trombone

Palace Theater, Albany New York

Richard Wagner – Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Christopher Rouse – Trombone Concerto

Maurice Ravel – Mother Goose Suite

Maurice Ravel – Bolero

Things to watch for in this concert –

  • New friends! This concert features a large wind complement to the typical symphonic orchestra, including a few saxophones, several varieties of clarinet, an oboe d’amoure, and even a rare appearance for the contrabassoon.
  • Wait, what sound was that? I watched an interview with Itzhak Perlman recently in which the violinist proposed the idea that color and expressiveness in music were to be found most in the harmony, and the highlighting of that harmony within the melodic line. If you subscribe to such a theory, get ready for one of the biggest displays of color you’ll see in a single evening. The very first chord heard this evening will be the chord that many theorists credit with kicking off a post-romantic conception of harmony, and Ravel was known for his imaginative instrumental combinations, non-functional harmony, and clever use of alternate tonalities.

Most striking in Wagner’s famous overture to Tristan und Isolde is the so called “Tristan Chord” – it’s the first chord heard in the opera. What makes the chord so important? Well without befuddling you with a whole bunch of theory mumbo-jumbo, that question can be answered with another question – when do you get that feeling of knowing that you’ve arrived to where you’re going? You can’t find it, can you? Think of the musical rhyme “shave and a haircut – two bits!” When you sing “haircut,” you know that “two bits” is coming; it’s like a giant, neon sign saying “this way home!” The Tristan chord gives no such indications about where it’s going. Wagner was famous for this – his music very rarely puts a neat little cap on a phrase – his music just continues on and on like an elaborately connected highway system where each exit is really just a route to the next phrase.

In rehearsal, David Alan Miller relayed Mr. Rouse’s thought that this was the most difficult work to perform that he’s ever written. What do you think?

My wife, upon seeing this: "Now why would you do that to a musician?"

My wife, upon seeing this: “Now why would you do that to a musician?”

Yes. This is difficult. Just for the record. Get ready for a dark and stormy ride – the trombone has long been associated with both regality and morbidity. Whether in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony has a harbinger of war and mourning, or Mozart’s use of them in the cemetery scene in Don Giovanni, trombones just have a gravitas that no other instrument can match. This work has a mood appropriate to such an instrument. This work takes you all over the place – you’ll hear an intimidating bass-line kick things off close to the opening, an angelic chorale by the horns near the end, and all hell breaks loose in the middle. You’ll even get to hear the demonic side of the harp! The work is a tad on the long side for a concerto, but the journey it takes us on necessitates the length. You’ll really feel accomplished at the end!

Whether color is related more to harmony or to orchestration,  Maurice Ravel must have been working with a different set of crayons than the rest of his colleagues. Ravel is famed for both his harmonic ingenuity and for his prowess as an imaginative orchestrator. You’ll hear plenty of exotic instruments in here – mallet instruments, and unique pairing of wind and string instruments especially. However, it’s Ravel’s use of exotic harmonies that makes this piece of music especially striking. The second movement, for example, starts by outlining a pentatonic scale – traditionally associated with music from the Far East. The penultimate chord in the fourth movement is one of the most mystical that I’ve ever heard.

Whereas the Mother Goose Suite was all about color through chords, and highlighted by instrumentation, Bolero is the opposite – the harmony almost never changes (that’s not hyperbole – except for the final 30 seconds or so, the harmony is virtually static throughout the whole work), stepping aside so that his skills as an orchestrator can shine through. You’ll hear all kinds of  instrumental combinations, as well as a few instruments that almost never get to share the stage with a symphony orchestra. At one point, a few woodwinds and the celesta combine to imitate the sound of an organ. Which orchestration is your favorite?


  • Many musicians who sit close to the low brass or percussion choose to wear earplugs – sometimes those instruments just get too loud. I’ve never personally done that, but that will likely change Saturday night. Get ready to be blasted into the back of your seats by the trombones – they’re bringing their A-game!
  • It might get easy to confuse Tristan with Mother Goose. It’s easy for it to all sound like a bunch of mushy, slow music, if played inattentively. Pay attention to Maestro Miller’s handling of the music. While the Wagner features a lot of rubato – stretchy time – Maestro Miller’s opinion is that one of the things that most distinguishes Ravel’s music is his use of time – that it must be consistent.
  • Whenever orchestra personnel stereotypes get tossed around, it’s generally agreed upon that trombones are among the most self-assured individuals in the orchestra. It should come as no surprise, then, that the trombones took every last opportunity in rehearsal to whistle and applaud their approval of the soloist, their section leader. They are clearly in no need of encouragement from the rest of us. Nevertheless, it would probably be polite to applaud at the end of the concerto, even though they know their own magnificence.

2 thoughts on “Concert Prep: Albany Symphony Orchestra plays Bolero & Wagner

  1. Pingback: Symphonic Sunday | Many Worlds From Many Minds

  2. Pingback: YouTube: Debussy’s Nocturnes | Dana Huyge

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