Classical IV: A Brave New World

A Brave New World: Tonight’s concert features works by three of the best orchestral composers in the 20th century, and a 21st-century work by a new, up-and-coming composer who is also a member of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss
(June 11, 1864-September 8, 1949)
“Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome, op. 54
(1905)

The “Dance of the Seven Veils” is part of the biblical story of John the Baptist. Matthew 14: 3-6 (NASB) says:

For when Herod had John arrested, he bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. For John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Although Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded John as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.

The assigning of the “Seven Veils” to this dance originates with Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome which includes the stage direction “Salome dances the dance of the seven veils.” Wilde’s choice has been linked to the popularity of orientalist “veil dances” and to the emergence of striptease acts at the time. Scholars suggest that Wilde’s intent was to equate Salome’s stripping naked to reaching ultimate truth, a symbolic descent to the depths of the unconscious.

In Strauss’s opera, the dance comes near the climax of the work. At about seven minutes long, the scene has been staged many different ways. Strauss himself stipulated that the dance should be “thoroughly decent, as if it were being done on a prayer mat.” Nevertheless, many productions make it explicitly erotic. However it is interpreted, the musical textures and timbres create a sensuousness that is undeniable, and a sense of pacing that fits the imagery and its dramatic placement. As might be expected, this dance has resulted in varying responses, including having the opera censored or banned at different times and places, but today the opera is considered a standard work.

Jean Sibelius
(December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47
 (1904/1905)

One of the top violin concertos in history, Jean Sibelius’s only concerto is a classic example of late Romantic style, with soloist and orchestra as equal participants. The premiere took place in Helsinki in February of 1904. Sibelius apparently barely finished the piece in time, and the performance was a disaster. A new, revised version was premiered in October 1905 in Berlin, conducted by Richard Strauss.

The piece begins mysteriously, with the soloist leading a long introduction that unfolds freely, eventually arriving at a dramatic contrasting idea in the orchestra. When the soloist returns, it is for an extended cadenza that is a dazzling technical display. Eventually, the musical material recaps, bringing the first movement to a dramatic conclusion. Even with a short uplifting ending, the overall mood is dark and foreboding, as if the soloist is searching for something in the universe depicted by the orchestra.

The second movement is a lyrical respite to the first. A short introduction by clarinets and oboes leads into a lovely solo part over pizzicato strings. Dark harmonies and textures support the solo part as it gets more emotionally charged and technically involved. Gradually the movement peaks and settles. The finale begins dramatically with a flurry of activity by the soloist. The effect is an almost folk dance-like quality, reinforced by the subsequent orchestral tutti and solo accompaniment. Finally, the orchestra takes charge, changing the mood in a positive direction, and the soloist responds almost immediately with more fireworks. The remainder of the work is an amazing display of technique and musical expression, leading to a very satisfying ending.

While the majority of the concerto has dark, ruminating moods that create a sense of trying to work out one’s problems, the process of working them out to arrive at a triumphant solution is definitely appealing.

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky
(June 17, 1882-April 6, 1971)
Petrushka
(1947)

Igor Stravinsky’s three famous primitivist/nationalist ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, are landmark works in the orchestral repertoire. Petrushka was first performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in June of 1911. The story is the Russian version of the Punch and Judy puppet traditions that were part of the pre-Lenten Carnival festivities in St. Petersburg of the 1830s. The first movement (or tableau) takes place in the St. Petersburg town square, with music that befits the festive and exotic atmosphere of a carnival. After a variety of acts, the puppets are brought to life. The second tableau takes place in Petrushka’s Room, as he contends with his love for the Ballerina and his hate for the Magician. The Ballerina sneaks into his room, but once he notices her he only succeeds in frightening her. The third tableau takes place in the Moor’s Room. The Ballerina is sent by the Magician to the Moor, who begins to seduce her. Petrushka interrupts them and attacks the Moor, who chases him from the room. The fourth tableau returns to the town square that evening, with a variety of dances and antics, including a variety of performers and even a dancing bear. Petrushka comes racing in, chased by the Moor, who catches him and kills him, to the horror of the Ballerina and the crowd. The police question the Magician, and eventually the crowd disperses, leaving him alone with Petrushka’s body. Suddenly, Petrushka’s ghost appears, chastising the Magician and frightening him away, closing the ballet on a somewhat unsettling note.

Like The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, Petrushka successfully combines a last look at Russian Romanticism with burgeoning modernism, foreshadowing Stravinsky’s remarkable influence on twentieth-century music.

Angelique Poteat
(b. January 8, 1986)
Beyond Much Difference for large orchestra
(2014)

YSO Principal Clarinetist Angelique Poteat is a native of the Pacific Northwest. Poteat has been principal clarinetist of the YSO since 2012, and she also performs frequently with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, the Seattle Chamber Players and the Seattle Symphony, among other groups. As a composer, her music has been performed and recorded in Australia, Germany, Lithuania, and all over the US by groups like the Seattle Symphony, Enso Quartet, Saratoga Orchestra and the New York New Music Ensemble. Poteat earned a Bachelor of Music at Rice University and a Master of Music from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She has studied composition with Samuel Adler, Joel Hoffman, Mara Helmuth, Anthony Brandt, Arthur Gottschalk, and Samuel Jones. Poteat was designated a 2015 CityArtist by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. 

Beyond Much Difference was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered in January 2015. In his notes for the premiere, Aaron Grad wrote, “Poteat notes that her inspiration came from ‘a multiplicity of things involving Pearl Jam.’ Besides reacting to the music of that iconic Seattle band, she credits ‘the band’s activism on a variety of stages, from standing up to Ticketmaster to planting trees in Discovery Park in order to offset their carbon footprint created during tours.’ Her title comes from the Pearl Jam song Indifference, in which the refrain asks, ‘How much difference does it make?’” Poteat herself says, “The primary direction of my piece aims to create that change, or difference, against forces offering resistance, misdirection, and complacency.”

This piece received the 2015 American Prize in Composition. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times said, “This engaging, restless piece reflects both the environs of Seattle and the music of Pearl Jam.”