Classical III: Symphonic Dances

This concert features three dance works for orchestra, including Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet suite and two collections of symphonic dances by American Gabriela Frank and Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(April 25/May 7, 1840—October 25/November 6, 1893)
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a
(1882)
     Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake was commissioned by Vladimir Begichev for the Bolshoi Ballet, composed in 1875-1876, and premiered in 1877. The story is based on an old folk tale of a beautiful princess turned into a swan by a magician’s curse to prevent her from marrying a prince. Tchaikovsky admired ballet composers of the time but was hesitant to try his hand. Eventually, the temptation and opportunity proved too much, and Swan Lake became his first complete ballet. Despite initial lukewarm reviews, this ballet has become one of the most popular in history.
     A few years later, Tchaikovsky considered creating a concert suite, including versions for orchestra and for two pianos, but there is no record of the composer completing or authorizing such a suite. In 1900, his publisher, Jurgenson, released a suite of six numbers from the ballet. It is not known who chose the numbers to be included. The eight numbers included in the suite performed tonight, with original placements in the ballet, are: Scène [Act II, No. 10], Valse [Act I, No. 2], Dance of the Swans [Waltz; Act II, No. 13, part 4], Scène [Pas d’action; Act II, No. 13, part 5], Czardas (Hungarian Dance), Spanish Dance (Tempo di bolero), Neapolitan Dance, and Mazurka [Act III, Nos. 20-23].
     The earliest known performance of the suite was in London in September 1901. Tchaikovsky’s marvelous melodies and lush orchestrations show that the composer was in his prime when the original appeared, and the combination of the music and story is timeless.

Gabriela Lena Frank
(b. September 26, 1972)
Three Latin-American Dances for Orchestra
(2003)
     Gabriela Lena Frank was born in Berkeley, California. Cultural identity is at the center of her music as a result of her upbringing: her father is of Lithuanian/Jewish descent and met her mother, who is Peruvian of Chinese descent, in the 1960s while working for the Peace Corps in Peru. Her music combines traditional South American musical elements with classical styles. Frank has received numerous commissions from individuals, chamber groups and orchestras, including Yo Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony, and she has served as composer-in-residence for the Aspen Music Festival, the Seattle Symphony, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Houston Symphony, among many others.
     In 2004, the Utah Symphony and conductor Keith Lockhart premiered and then recorded her Three Latin-American Dances for Orchestra. Of the first movement, “Jungle Jaunt,” Frank writes: (www.musicsalesclassical.com):

This introductory scherzo opens in an unabashed tribute to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein before turning to harmonies and rhythms derived from various pan-Amazonian dance forms. These jungle references are sped through (so as to be largely hidden) while echoing the energy of the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera who was long fascinated with indigenous Latin American cultures.

Of “Highland Harawi,” she says:

This movement…evokes the Andean harawi, a melancholy adagio traditionally sung by a single bamboo quena flute so as to accompany a single dancer. As mountain music, the ambiance of mystery, vastness, and echo is evoked. The fast middle section simulates what I imagine to be the ‘zumballyu’ of Illapa—a great spinning top belonging to Illapa, the Peruvian-Inca weather deity of thunder, lightning, and rain. Illapa spins his great top in the highland valleys of the Andes before allowing a return to the more staid harawi. The music of the Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok, is alluded to.

Of “The Mestizo Waltz,” she says:

As if in relief to the gravity of the previous movement, this final movement is a lighthearted tribute to the ‘mestizo’ or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. In particular, it evokes the ‘romancero’ tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands.

     In 2017, Frank was included in the Washington Post’s list of the 35 most significant women composers in history. She is a member of the Silk Road Ensemble under the direction of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(April 1, 1873-March 28, 1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
(1940)
     Showing great promise as a child, Rachmaninoff entered the Moscow Conservatory at age 12 to study both piano and composition. Upon graduation, he achieved success writing piano pieces, songs, and orchestral music, until a disastrous performance of his first symphony in 1897 put him into an emotional tailspin lasting several years. He eventually recovered and in the early 1900s arrived at a personal style that stayed with him for the rest of his career as a composer—broad, lyrical melodies, full-bodied, large-scale orchestration, and consistently melancholy and sentimental moods brought him widespread success on both sides of the Atlantic. He left Russia during the Revolution and wound up settling in New York by 1918.
     The Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff’s last composition. Its original title was Fantastic Dances, with movements titled “Noon,” “Twilight” and “Midnight.” It was premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to whom it is dedicated, on January 3, 1941. Rachmaninoff also wrote an arrangement for two pianos. There were also discussions of the music being used for a ballet, but this was never realized.
     The first movement begins as a sinister march with some surprising harmonic twists. The oboe announces the second theme, one that is gentler yet more mysterious, further enhanced by the use of solo alto saxophone. This section continues unhurriedly, gradually becoming more lush and full, with a soaring melody in the strings, and finally settling down quietly. The march re-emerges from this quiet, re-asserting itself. At the end of the movement, he quotes his First Symphony (1897). At this time, the First Symphony was still being withheld from public performance by Rachmaninoff; its second performance would not take place until 1945, two years after his death.
     The second movement is a waltz, also presented in an unsettled character, with various starts and stops, harmonic instability, and interesting combinations of timbres elicited from the orchestra. The strings finally seem to settle the tempo, but melancholy and mystery pervade the movement even at its most expressive moments.
     Scholars have described the final dance as a struggle between two themes, the Dies irae melody from the Requiem mass, representing Death, and a quotation of the chant “Blessed be the Lord” from the ninth movement of his All-Night Vigil (1915), representing Resurrection. The Resurrection theme proves victorious in the end—he even wrote the word “Hallelujah” in the score where this victory is achieved. This is the longest movement, and it goes through a number of emotions, from sadness to nostalgia to conflict and finally to triumphant resolution.
     With the various moods and occasional quotations, the composition can be regarded as a summing-up of his career as a composer. Michael Steinberg, program notes author for the San Francisco Symphony sums up this piece as follows (www.sfsymphony.org)::

Given what we know of Rachmaninoff’s state of mind in 1940, it is likely that he thought of this as his last composition. We see him then taking leave of his craft with a hymn of thanks and praise. Perhaps it is not too much to imagine that the symbolic victory of the exultant theme over the Dies irae is Rachmaninoff’s own affirmation of the faith that ‘Death shall be swallowed up in Victory.’

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019