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MTT leads a special evening dedicated to the magnificence and power of the Russian masters. Witches, princes, curses and princesses are at the heart of the fairy tale that inspired Sergei Prokofiev’s satirical opera, and its Suite captures all the action-packed adventure. From high-stakes card games and grotesque marches, to love duets and a final trap door demise, the drama unfolds with each fantastic phrase. Since its riot-inducing premiere over 100 years ago, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has become one of classical music’s greatest hits. Primal, raucous and awe-inspiring, don’t miss what MTT calls “a burst of creative power that shook music to its foundations.”
Approx. Duration: 15 minutes
Suite from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33bis
(1919; revised 1924)
The Ridiculous Ones
The Magician Tchelio and Fata Morgana Play Cards
The Prince and Princess
Approx. Duration: 32 minutes
The Rite of Spring
(1911-13; 1947 version)
Part I: The Adoration of the Earth
Part II: The Sacrifice
Suite from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33bis
(1919; revised 1924)
Approximate duration: 15 minutes
Prokofiev, like so many other Russian artists and intellectuals, left his homeland in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With World War I raging to the west, he traveled east through Siberia, Tokyo and Honolulu before entering the United States in San Francisco, where he was briefly suspected of being a spy. He struggled to restart his career in New York, but he did have some luck in Chicago, where he secured a commission with the Chicago Opera Association.
Prokofiev already had a libretto in mind when he began developing his new opera. Back in Russia, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold had given Prokofiev an adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s 1761 play L’amore delle tre melarance, an example of the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte. Prokofiev composed the opera, known in English as The Love for Three Oranges, in 1919. The death of the opera company’s artistic director derailed the premiere, and it was not until 1921 that a new manager agreed to move forward with the expensive production (perhaps unwisely, since the company went bankrupt at the end of the season). Prokofiev meanwhile extracted an orchestral suite in 1919 and revised it in 1924.
The Love for Three Oranges unfolds as a play within a play. Before the true action begins, opposing camps—Comedians, Tragedians, Lyricists and Empty Heads—argue about the virtues of their preferred theatrical forms, a debate rendered in the Suite’s opening number, The Ridiculous Ones.
The inner story occurs in an imaginary kingdom, where a prince, sick from consuming too much tragedy, can only be cured by laughter. When he chuckles at the expense of a witch, she curses him with a “love for three oranges.”
In the opera’s second act, a playful March introduces the outdoor entertainment staged to try to make the prince laugh (thus a play within a play within a play).
The Scherzo, from the third act, closes the scene in which the prince treks through the desert, cloaked by a storm, on his way to find the oranges.
The three oranges turn out to conceal fairy princesses. Two die, but the prince saves the third and falls in love with her, as heard in the romantic strains of The Prince and Princess.
The thrilling perpetual motion themes of The Flight represent the escape of the witch and her evil conspirators, leaving the prince and princess free to enjoy their own happily ever after.
The Rite of Spring
(1911-13; 1947 version)
Approximate duration: 32 minutes
Serge Diaghilev, the impresario behind the Ballets Russes (a company of top Russian dancers and choreographers), singlehandedly launched Igor Stravinsky onto the international stage. For the company’s 1910 Paris season, the composer originally tapped for The Firebird fell through, so on short notice Diaghilev took a chance on the 27-year-old Stravinsky, a late bloomer whose only credentials to that point were a few years of lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a couple of short orchestral pieces and some orchestrations contributed to an earlier Diaghilev ballet.
After The Firebird made Stravinsky a household name, he began plotting ambitious new projects for the Ballets Russes. He thought of a ballet based on prehistoric pagan sacrifice, but shelved that idea temporarily to write the puppet-themed ballet Petrushka. He then returned to his pagan concept, working out the scenario with the artist Nikolai Roerich, who would provide the costume and set designs. The composition of The Rite of Spring stretched into 1912, and the orchestration was completed early in 1913, in time for the premiere in Paris on May 29.
The riot that ensued that night at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées is now legendary. Grumbling from the audience began as soon as they heard the opening bassoon melody in the uncharted top range of the instrument.
Somehow, conductor Pierre Monteux steered the orchestra through the entire score despite increasing clamor from the audience, while the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, stood on a chair backstage shouting numbers at the dancers to help them negotiate the jarring, shifting rhythms. In truth, the audience might have been more disturbed by Nijinsky’s wild, ritualistic choreography than the unfamiliar musical language, considering that the same Parisian public embraced The Rite of Spring at a concert performance (i.e. without dancing) the next year.
Some of the most exciting new sounds were the chords that Stravinsky constructed by superimposing clashing triads, especially one signature chord—composed of an E-flat dominant seventh stacked over an E triad—that first appear in Augurs of Spring, foretelling the ritual sacrifice to come. The ferocity comes as much from the pounding, unpredictable accents as from the jagged chord itself.
At the same time, the score exudes a rustic, Russian attitude, even if Stravinsky did not quote any folksongs verbatim. The section titled Spring Rounds, for instance, incorporates the traditional Khorovod or circle dance.
Those scenes come in Part I of the ballet, The Adoration of the Earth, which depicts a springtime celebration filled with games, dances and blessings. The fateful second part, The Sacrifice, builds to the selection of a virgin who dances herself to death. The brutal Sacrificial Dance that ends the ballet plunges listener into all the intensity and horror of the imagined ancient ritual.
PDF score from the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library
Guide to The Rite of Spring made by Keeping Score, created by Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony
Video of Stravinsky playing the all-important chord on the piano
-- Copyright © 2016 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
Audio clips provided by Naxos of America, Inc.
Michael Tilson Thomas is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy; Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony; and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these posts, he maintains an active presence guest conducting with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Tilson Thomas is the third generation of his family to follow an artistic career. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America. His father, Ted Thomas, was a producer in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television. His mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures.
Mr. Tilson Thomas began his formal studies at the University of Southern California where he studied piano with John Crown and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. At age 19 he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. He worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts. During this same period he was the pianist and conductor for Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz.
In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1974. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
His recorded repertoire of more than 120 discs includes works by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev and Stravinsky as well as his pioneering work with the music of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. He also recorded the complete orchestral works of Gustav Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony.
Mr. Tilson Thomas’ television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS’ Great Performances. Mr. Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony produced a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, radio programs and programs in schools.
In 1990 Mr. Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Mr. Tilson Thomas and commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. In August 1995 he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Showa/Shoah, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Thomas Hampson premiered his settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, Renée Fleming premiered his settings of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the San Francisco Symphony premiered his concerto for contrabassoon entitled Urban Legend. As a Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist from 2003 to 2005, he had an evening devoted to his own compositions which included Island Music for four marimbas and percussion, Notturno for solo flute and strings and a new setting of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Other compositions include Street Song for brass instruments and Agnegram, an overture for orchestra.
Among his many honors and awards, Mr. Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, was Musical America’s Musician of the Year and Conductor of the Year, Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. He has won 11 Grammy Awards for his recordings. In 2008 he received the Peabody Award for his radio series for SFS Media, The MTT Files. In 2010 President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.
Dean Whiteside was born in New York City and trained in Vienna at the University of Music and Performing Arts. He is in his second season as the New World Symphony’s Conducting Fellow, where he leads a variety of performances and serves as assistant to Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Whiteside is founder and director of the Nashville Sinfonietta, hailed by The Tennessean as “a virtuoso band.” He opened the Blair School of Music’s 2013-14 season directing a multimedia realization of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross called “innovative” by The Tennessean and “deeply meditative and satisfyingly original” by ArtsNash.
Mr. Whiteside’s European debut came in 2011 after winning the Jorma Panula Blue Danube Masterclass and Competition. As guest conductor he has led the Juilliard Orchestra, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, Orlando Philharmonic, Polish Baltic Philharmonic, Rousse State Opera Orchestra, Sibiu Philharmonic, Wiener Kammerorchester and Zagreb Philharmonic, as well as the Vanderbilt Orchestra on a five-city tour of China. He has served as Cover Conductor to MTT and the San Francisco Symphony.
Mr. Whiteside’s awards include the 2017 Mahler Conducting Fellowship, Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Conducting Scholarship, David Effron Conducting Fellowship, Bayreuth Festival Scholarship, David Rabin Performance Prize, and Second Prize and the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra Prize at the Sixth International Competition of Young Conductors Lovro von Matačić. He has received fellowships from the Aspen Music Festival, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Castleton Festival and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.
Mr. Whiteside has worked closely with such conductors as Bertrand de Billy, Fabio Luisi, Lorin Maazel, Jun Märkl, Kurt Masur, Jorma Panula, Leonard Slatkin and Robert Spano. He began his conducting studies with Robin Fountain at Vanderbilt University.