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Spring Rhapsody

DEBUSSY: Printemps 

RACHMANINOFF Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring


Discovery Open Rehearsal - Saturday, May 3, 2014 - 2pm
Saturday, May 3, 2014 – 8 pm
Sunday, May 4, 2014 – 3 pm
Monday, May 5, 2014 – 8 pm

Our season finale celebrates the blossoming and rapturous rebirth into new life that is spring, beginning with Debussy’s impressionistic Printemps. Back to our stage where he has earned standing ovations, Jon Kimura Parker once more displays his prodigious talent and dexterity in Rachmaninoff’s final, and perhaps most perfect of his piano concertos. To conclude a year of glorious sounds in a glorious hall, Maestro Ferrandis has chosen Stravinsky’s wildly vivid ballet, The Rite of Spring, recognized as one of the most influential compositions in 20th century music.  


Performances sponsored by Judith and Joseph Gappa
Jon Kimura Parker underwritten by Linda Castiglioni

“Parker gave a performance that was so fresh, so scintillating and so technically dazzling that the only possible response was a standing ovation.” (The Seattle Times)



Performances at:
Weill Concert Hall, Green Music Center
Corner of Petaluma Hill Road and Rohnert Park Expressway
1801 East Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA 94928

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Program Notes  by Steven Ledbetter


CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Printemps, Symphonic Suite for Orchestra
Achille‑Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain‑en‑Laye on August 22, 1862, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He composed Printemps (Spring) while in Rome in 1887. The original version has long been lost (and was never performed), but in 1913 Debussy supervised his friend Henri Büsser in preparing a new orchestral version from a surviving piano score, and it was performed at that time. The surviving score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets three trombones, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, harp, piano four-hands, and strings. Duration is about 15 minutes.

In 1884 Debussy won the coveted Prix de Rome, the most sought after prize for a young composer in the Paris Conservatory. It provided room and board and a government stipend for a period of years at the Villa Medici in Rome. The intent was to give a talented young musician the time to compose a few substantial works without having to worry too much about where his next meal was coming from. The location in Rome was supposed to instill a certain degree of culture into the young artist. The only requirements were that the winner had to stay in Rome for a certain minimum time (extensions were possible) and that he had to send at least four substantial compositions (each referred to as an envoi) back to Paris for official evaluation of his progress by the Académie des Beaux Arts.

Now, Rome is a splendid place for a painter or sculpture to study, but in the nineteenth century it offered few advantages to a musician. Debussy chafed under the requirements. He disliked the architecture of the Villa Medici and found the other prize winners obnoxiously pretentious. He was also irritated by the necessity of proving himself with the repeated envois of his works to Paris, particularly since these had to be academically “correct,” which did not appeal to him at all. Nor was there the stimulation he found so necessary from forward‑looking musicians, artists, and poets. In the end he stayed only the minimum allowable time, two years. And only two of the required four works were actually composed in Rome. The second of these was Printemps.

When he sent it to the Académie for its judgment, he had only the piano score, since he reported that the full score had burned up in a fire at the binders. The judges were not happy with the music, which contained many ninth chords, and they criticized “its vague impressionism, one of the most dangerous enemies of works of art.” (Since Debussy despised academic pedantry, it is actually possible that he destroyed the work himself as a sign of his disdain.)
As composed in Rome, the work called for an orchestra plus a chorus of women’s voices, which was to hum wordlessly (an effect that he later used brilliantly in Daphnis and Chloe) A quarter-century later he apparently decided to give it another go—with minimum effort. He still had a piano copy (probably his working score when he was composing). He supervised his friend Henri Büsser as he orchestrated it, now without women’s chorus, but with a part for piano, four-hands.

At one point Debussy described his aim in writing this score to express a “slow laborious birth” of nature in the spring, finally breaking forth in rebirth. Though the judges at the Académie found the music problematic, modern listeners find delight in its sweet colors and harmonies, which lull one along in two gentle tempos—Very moderate and Moderate—inviting the listener to dream of the soft lushness of the oncoming spring, then welcome its breaking forth.


Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 43
Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. He composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in July and August 1934 and gave the first performance, in Baltimore on November 7 that year with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, side drum, triangle, cymbals and bass drum, harp, and strings. Duration is about 22 minutes.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is one of those rare works that impresses even the snobbish types who customarily turn up their noses at the compositions of this Russian émigré who wrote such unabashedly romantic, heart-on-sleeve music. Generally regarded as a reactionary in a world dominated by the new ideas of Stravinsky’s neo-Classicism on the one hand and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique on the other, Rachmaninoff has, until recent years, been largely written off by the musical intelligentsia. Times have changed, though, and his star has risen again.

The variation form was not one to which Rachmaninoff had shown any particular predilection, though he had in 1931 written a set of variations on a theme of Corelli for solo piano. But the idea of variations was clearly churning in his mind when he arrived at his Swiss summer residence in 1934, because he began to compose with extraordinary energy and imagination the work that is surely his finest essay in the medium of piano and orchestra.

It was a bold step to choose a theme so thoroughly treated by earlier composers. Paganini himself had started the tradition by varying the theme of his twenty-fourth caprice for solo violin eleven times; later in the nineteenth century both Liszt and Brahms had a go at it. And following Rachmaninoff in the 20th century, Witold Lutoslawski and Boris Blacher continued the tradition. Yet Rachmaninoff came up with fresh treatments presented in a score that is dashing, brilliant, romantic and witty by turns.

The first variation actually precedes the formal statement of the full theme; it is a kind of bare‑bones, stripped‑down version, tense, bony, hushed, but with a sardonic touch of wit. The theme itself is first given (appropriately) to the violins, immediately evoking echoes of Paganini’s original.

The title “Rhapsody” might lead us to expect great freedom in the treatment of the Paganini material, but ironically Rachmaninoff here gives us the most classically shaped of all his compositions. Each variation is complete in itself; each has a marked, evident connection to the Paganini theme. As a whole, the treatment becomes freer as the work progresses, but that is entirely normal in classical practice. The first six variations maintain strict tempo, stay in the same key (A minor) as Paganini’s caprice, and even hint at Paganini’s own variations. The first major change in character comes with the seventh variation, in which Rachmaninoff introduces one of his favorite musical ideas as a second thematic idea. This is the old plainchant melody Dies irae from the Mass for the Dead, a tune widely used by romantic composers since Berlioz. We hear it first in sustained chords in the piano against thematic segments in bassoon and cellos. It will play a large role in the score, possibly designed to suggest Paganini’s supposed bargain with the devil (just as it was used to suggest diabolical activities in the “Dream of the Witch’s Sabbath” in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique). Rachmaninoff plans its several reappearances in his Rhapsody with a keen sense of telling effect.

By the ninth variation, Rachmaninoff is no longer so much playing with the thematic outline or its harmonic pattern as he is exploiting the colors and the rhythms of its diabolic character with special coloristic effects in the orchestration. A grotesque march presents the Dies irae like a slow tolling of funeral bells.

The eleventh variation, a reflective solo cadenza with a mysterious accompaniment, leads off to a new key and the beginning of a middle part in which the tonality is freer. The modulations end in the lush, romantic key of D‑flat major for the most famous variation in the set, the eighteenth. This sounds, at first hearing, as if Rachmaninoff had thrown Paganini to the winds and invented the kind of rich Russian melody that had made his Second and Third piano concertos so popular. And yet this theme, in Rachmaninoff’s most popular style, is derived from Paganini by the simple device of turning the notes upside‑down and playing them more slowly and lyrically. The result is an outpouring of lyric melody that soars climactically and then dies gently away.

The remaining five variations return to the home key to provide a finale of great brilliance à la Paganini, then turning to intimations of the satanic, with a dark march erupting in a piano cadenza and a variation (No. 23) in which the soloist begins in the unlikely key of A‑flat; the orchestra promptly takes matters into its own hands by jerking the soloist up to A and continuing into the last variation, with a kaleidoscopic outburst of fireworks and a final reference in the brass to the Dies irae. Finally, just as Rachmaninoff seems to be building up to his mightiest peroration, the score ends with the wittiest touch of all—one last quiet reference to Paganini.


Le Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring] for Orchestra
Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on June 5 (old style) or June 17 (new style) in 1882 and died in New York City on April 6, 1971. Le Sacre du printemps was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev in 1911. Stravinsky finished Part I by early January 1912 and completed the sketch score on November 17. The work was produced in Paris by Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet under the musical direction of Pierre Monteux on May 29, 1913. The score calls for an enormous orchestra that includes two piccolos, two flutes and alto flute in G, four oboes (one doubling second English horn), English horn, three clarinets (one doubling second bass clarinet), high clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet, three bassoons (one doubling second contrabassoon), contrabassoon, eight horns, (two doubling Wagner tubas), four trumpets, high trumpet in D, bass trumpet, three trombones, two tubas, five timpani (divided between two players), bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, antique cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, rape guero, and strings. Duration is about 33 minutes.

The first image for the single most influential composition of the 20th century came to Stravinsky while he was composing The Firebird for Serge Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet, which was enjoying a great success in Paris. Diaghilev was on the lookout for fresh material from Russia with which to follow up his first successes. He had heard a short orchestral work by the young Stravinsky (who was still in his mid-twenties) and took a chance on him. The results were sensational. Not only was The Firebird the greatest hit the Russians had yet enjoyed, it was the first step to The Rite of Spring, which, when it was produced in 1913, changed everything.

At the time, most listeners—whether they were shocked or enthralled by the piece—would probably have said that it was notorious for its new and dissonant harmonies. And, indeed, Stravinsky dared to offer complicated combinations of pitches never heard before. And both listeners and theorists often argued about harmony, both because of the great amount of dissonance and the fact that pieces often ended without unwinding to a more relaxing consonant final sound.

Today, a century later, we are more likely to feel that the real revolution in The Rite of Spring was the rhythm. Harmonies have turned harsher or sweeter at various times over the years. But few composers have been unchanged after hearing Stravinsky’s rhythms—varied, flexible, and often completely unpredictable. (Even when they seem to be “straight,” you just know that there is a surprise lurking around the next measure.)

While he was composing The Firebird, Stravinsky had a sudden visual idea, a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death. Naturally such an image invites the creation of a ballet to bring the dance to life. Diaghilev loved the idea and told Stravinsky to go ahead.

As it happened, his composition was interrupted by another image, about a sassy yet sad little puppet from Russian street fairs—Petrushka.  But once the puppet had been made into a ballet and it had been premiered (with great success), Stravinsky turned back to him images of ancient Russia.

Stravinsky invented the ritual that he presents in The Rite of Spring. There was no ancient tradition in which a young maiden would be chosen to dance to her death. But there is no question that the idea makes for a lively stage picture!

When he started composing, Stravinsky worked at the piano and played the music as it came to him, working it out in his head and his fingers. But it was so unusual, so irregular in its rhythms that at first he could not even figure out how to write it down! It was so different from his earlier work that he told a friend, “It was as if twenty and not two years had passed since The Firebird was composed.”

The dancers and the orchestra both had to learn how to perform this daring, incomprehensible new work. And the first paying audience evidently hated it, for the premiere was one of the greatest scandals in the history of music. At the dress rehearsal, attended by a large crowd of invited musicians (including Debussy and Ravel) and critics, everything had gone smoothly. But at the performance, the noise in the audience began almost as soon as the music started—a few catcalls, then more and more. Stravinsky left the hall early, in a rage “I have never again been that angry. The music was so familiar to me; I loved it, and I could not understand why people who had not heard it wanted to protest in advance.”

After the performance, Stravinsky related, they were “excited, angry, disgusted, and...happy.” Years later Stravinsky suspected Diaghilev of having foreseen the possibility of such a scandal—and perhaps even have helped it along. A riot like that was worth more than any paid advertising.

Probably no single work written in the twentieth century so profoundly affected the art of music as The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s advanced, dissonant harmonies attract the most attention at first, but it is the rhythms that continue to challenge and inspire. In one blow, Stravinsky destroyed the “tyranny of the bar line” that had locked so much romantic music into a rhythmic straitjacket. From 1913 on, new rhythmic possibilities were developed by composers of all types, and the results are apparent in a large part of the music of the last ninety-five years. Some of the big moments in Le Sacre are built up from simultaneous ostinato patterns, overlapping in different lengths, piled one on top of the other (these contrasting but simultaneous rhythms were choreographed, in the original production, by different groups of dancers, bringing a correspondence between aural and visual elements). The “Procession of the wise elder” is such an example—an overwhelming maelstrom of sound coming to a sudden stop at the soft, subdued chords accompanying the “Adoration of the earth.” The musical “primitivism” cultivated by many composers ranging from Prokofiev (in his Scythian Suite) to the congenial simplicities of Carl Orff would be unthinkable without Le Sacre.

Stravinsky insisted that this work was created with no system, no analytic framework. “I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.”
Stravinsky himself wrote an outline of the ballet, which is here slightly abbreviated:


The Rite of Spring represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of creative power of Spring. The piece has no plot, but the choreographic succession is as follows:

The spring celebration. The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes. An old woman enters; she knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the spring dance. Games start. The Spring Khorovod [a stately round dance]. The people divide into two groups opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise elders. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games. The people pause trembling as the old men bless the earth. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is chosen as the victim, being caught twice in the perpetual circle. The virgins honor her with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men. She performs the great sacrificial dance in the presence of the elders until she collapses.

Today, over a century later, The Rite of Spring remains one of the most exciting and vivid musical creations of all time—and surely the single most influential score of the 20th century. It no longer scandalizes us, but few listeners can avoid being carried away in its glorious sonic whirlwind.


© Steven Ledbetter (

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