Concert Prep

Concert Prep: Albany Symphony Plays Sheherezade

Albany Symphony Orchestra

David Alan Miller, Music Director

Palace Theater; Albany, NY

Saturday, April 12th 7:30PM (Preconcert Lecture at 6:30)

Chen Yi: Caramoor’s Summer

Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, Op.14

                Simone Porter, Violin

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherezade, Op.35

Symphonic music can often have a mechanistic feeling to it. Listening to the great works of the 20th century, it’s easy to forget that instrumental music initially came about to support the sung word. Every once in a while, though, a work comes along with such a songful quality, that it forcibly reminds us of the origin of instrumental music. Chen Yi’s Caramoor Summer is one such work. David Alan Miller reportedly had a two hour long conversation with Chen Yi the night before our first rehearsal, where they talked through the work. As a part of their conversation, Chen Yi sang the songs embedded in the work, in traditional Chinese fashion. Our goal tonight is to imitate the traditional songs and sounds of China, with our modernized Western orchestra – to hear one world through the ears of another.

Similarly, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto is one of the most songful concertos in the whole repertoire – perhaps the most, at least since Mozart. This concerto is unique in the genre, in that it seems to care neither to display virtuosity of the soloist (in the first two movements, at least), nor to showcase great creativity of thematic development. This concerto is perfectly comfortable in its own skin – warm and summery in the first movement, heart rending and compassionate in the second. Then the third movement comes in like a bolt of lightning – stunning when it hits, over in a dazzling flash.

For more background information on the creation of Barber’s concerto, and why the above quality made it undesirable to some, see my post from earlier this week.

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most important teachers of his generation, especially of orchestration. The list of important musicians he influenced is very long indeed, and includes Sergei Prokofiev, Gustav Holst, and Ottorino Respighi. Unlike others famous for their instrumentation, Rimsky-Korsakov did not need to bring in a huge extra complement of players to showcase his creativity; his brilliance lies in his knowledge of how to judiciously use his forces. The first movement of Sheherezade along features a great variety of instrumental combinations; everything from sweeping orchestral gestures, to intimate chamber pieces with clarinet, cello, and a reduced violin section. This work is known as an orchestral showpiece – nearly every instrument gets a solo, or section solo, and there are many opportunities for the individual members of the orchestra to strut their stuff.

Sheherezade is program music (which means that it’s music that’s designed to tell a story), but only loosely so. You’ll hear the big, scary king enter in the very opening, then a series of chords which set the stage for the stories to be told, and then the solo violin representing Sheherezade herself. The concertmaster will serve as the narrator through our stories, but that’s the only clue that we’ll have that we’re still in the stories until those characteristic chords reappear at the end, letting us know that this story is coming to a close. Everything that happens in between is not strictly represented; what I mean to say, is that there are very few instances in which you’ll hear a musical event and say “oh, that must mean that something has happened in the story!” That part of the story telling is left up to the listener to fill in.

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