Written by Ronald Comber

Entr’actes (2015)
Michael Oesterle 

Michael Oesterle writes:

Intermission: under-dressed, upper tier crowd shuffle across and down, engaged in eager spurts of artistic speculation, programs rolled tightly in fists, ready for signatures should the opportunity arise – mementos of an evening well spent. Striding up the aisles: special guests, casually elegant season-pass holders. Five-inch heels on carpet runners perform a muted staccato. Thrumming with excitement, the shining, sparkling, rustling, mass move toward the pleasures of red or white. Clinking glasses sound from the stairs as box-ticket holders descend. Huddled to one side, critics bask in their complimentary status and watch the colourful spectacle unfold. A grand entrance! A scene erupts in one corner. Conversations sputter, and then gain momentum. Raucous laughter sends a chain reaction through the crowd. Spontaneous waltzing? Not entirely out of the question.

“Entr’acte” invokes the lively theatre that ensues between the scenes. The title is lifted from the interlude (Intermezzo to Act III) of the same name in Bizet’s Carmen and is inspired by my personal enthusiasm for the instantly memorable overtures of Rossini and the vibrant orchestrations of Henry Brant. This piece is the final work of a three-year residency with the Victoria Symphony.

Concerto in A Minor for Piano &Orchestra, Op. 16
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Though German trained, Edvard Grieg always knew that the spiritual basis for his composition was diametrically opposed to the tenets of German Romanticism. He worked throughout his career to create a perfect amalgam of German technique and Norwegian sensibility, and he became an international star on the strength of his efforts.

The A minor Piano Concerto is quite a youthful work. Written in 1868 when Grieg was only twenty-five, it is an almost flawless blend of Romantic formal construction and of Norwegian melody and harmony. Interestingly, a cornerstone of his Leipzig training was the Mendelssohn style of orchestration, which Grieg used out of necessity at first. Even here, he was determined to be original, and avoided publication of the Concerto until shortly before his death, achieving, through constant revision, a type of orchestration all his own.

In spite of having its only existence in manuscript for the first thirty-five years of its life, the A Minor Concerto proved to be both immediately popular (outside of Germany) and extremely durable. The first performance took place in Copenhagen on April 3rd, 1869. The soloist Edmund Neupert wrote Grieg several days later, “On Saturday, your divine Concerto resounded in the great hall of the Casino. The triumph I achieved was tremendous. Even as early as the cadenza in the first part, the public broke into a real storm. The three dangerous critics, Gade, Rubinstein and Hartmann, sat in the stalls and applauded with all their might.”

The Concerto is formally derived from the equally famous concerto of Robert Schumann, achieving both a sense of newness and the inherent rightness of Schumann’s masterful construction. It is a work of vision and of powerful evocation. The first movement, marked Allegro molto moderato, starts with a bold piano flight, leading to a magical interplay between soloist and orchestra. Making use of markedly contrasting themes, the music ranges from pellucid lyricism to martial rigour. A Lisztian cadenza is the real climax of the movement, demonstrating Grieg’s profound love and understanding for the piano.

The second movement, an Adagio, is more idyllic. Scored with real subtlety, the music presents a carefully balanced duet between piano and orchestra, using the profoundly evocative thematic material for which Grieg has become so renowned. The last movement, marked Allegro moderato molto e marcato – Quasi Presto – Andante maestoso, is even more richly evocative. Using the rhythms of the Norwegian dance, the Halling, it moves with real dash, transforming itself into a Springdans in 3/4 on its way into the coda. Darker, more dramatic episodes give added lustre to the movement, as does a tranquil central section of transcendent beauty.

Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland  (1900-1990)

Of Copland’s many important works, it could be said that the Appalachian Spring was initially, and still remains, the most successful. It was composed in 1943-1944, on a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation on behalf of Martha Graham. Copland started working on the ballet score in June of 1943 in Hollywood, where he was completing the film score for North Star, but other projects kept him from Appalachian Spring until June, 1944; by which time he was lecturing at Harvard. In the summer, when the ballet was in rehearsal, Copland was in Mexico, working on his third symphony – a peripatetic career!

Appalachian Spring was first performed on October 30th, 1944, by Martha Graham and her company in the new Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. The composer rushed back from Mexico to hear it, and soon found himself acclaimed on all sides for his wonderful score. New York audiences were even more enthusiastic some time later, and Copland soon became the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music and of the Music Critics Circle of New York Award for the outstanding theatrical work of the 1944-45 season.

The ballet suite is justly famous for its strong aura of the Shaker spirit, brought about through Copland’s perfect assimilation of their musical idioms. In fact, it is hard on first hearing to tell where the Shaker melodies stop and Copland starts! But close examination reveals that it is all Copland, with one great exception – the noble hymn “Simple Gifts”.

Appalachian Spring is divided into eight sections, played without interruption. The music depicts a pioneer celebration of a new farmhouse in the early 1800’s. The slow first section introduces the characters of the ballet, and a hymn-like theme brings out their religious natures. The second section is much faster – conveying a sort of religious elation. The third section is both ardent and tender, bringing the bride and groom to the fore. The fourth section is a dance for the revivalist and his flock leading into the still faster fifth section; the dance of the bride. Section six restores the calm of the beginning. The seventh section is made up of five variations on the hymn “Simple Gifts”, during which the bride and groom enact scenes from their daily life. The final section shows the bride taking her place with her neighbours, who soon leave the young couple alone in their new farmhouse.

The Firebird (Ballet Suite, 1919)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Throughout his career, Igor Stravinsky was justly famous for being a composer who not only developed new trends in music, but also was pleased to master other developments in Modernism that had caught his attention.  He was often the target of articles scorning his latest work while praising his last composition but one – a sure sign of innovative success. Revered by younger composers and by many musicians, Stravinsky achieved great things in his long and busy lifetime.

The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first big hit, and it was the making of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe.  The impresario Diaghilev had been toying with the idea of bringing true Russian art to Paris when he heard one of Stravinsky’s earliest compositions, “Fireworks.” Diaghilev was so impressed that he immediately commissioned Stravinsky to do the orchestration for some Chopin he was adding to Les Sylphides. Those pieces successfully completed, Diaghliev next commissioned the music for The Firebird – a Fokine adaptation of a Russian folk-tale. Stravinsky started working on it in the early winter of 1909, completing his final draft score by mid-April 1910. The first performance took place on June 25th at the Opera in Paris; it was an immediate success. Stravinsky, Diaghliev and the Ballets Russe acquired instant fame.

The magical story of The Firebird begins with the young Knight Ivan capturing the Firebird, but hearing her pleas, releasing her. Ivan’s peregrinations lead him to the castle of King Katschei, a giant with green fingers who turns people into stone. Ivan is surrounded by a ring of dancing princesses, the fairest of whom falls in love with him. Katschei appears, however, and in the course of his Danse Infernale prepares to turn Ivan into stone. In the nick of time, the Firebird comes to Ivan’s rescue, singing a magic Berceuse that sends everyone into a deep sleep. While Katschei is thus immobilized, Ivan breaks the eggshell wherein the King’s immortal soul is hid. Katschei expires, and Ivan and the princess live happily ever after.

The Firebird is a dazzling composition in which exciting melodies, adventurous harmonies and brilliant orchestrations combine to create a scintillating whole. Exotic but never unpalatable, it is Stravinsky’s first masterpiece.