Overture Magazine - 2018-19 Season BSO_Overture_JanFeb_19 | Page 32

RAVEL BOLERO 19 th -century musicians. The greatest pianist of his — and perhaps of any — time, he was also an accomplished conductor and a daring composer who pushed the technique of piano playing and the elements of musical construction beyond anything imagined before. Surprisingly, Liszt did not create his concerto works until after he had retired from his dazzling career as a touring virtuoso. Settling in Weimar from 1848 to 1860, he devoted much of his time there to prolific composition. The First Piano Concerto dates from between 1848 and 1853 and was premiered in Weimar by Liszt in February 1855 with Hector Berlioz on the podium. The First Piano Concerto demonstrates Liszt’s ceaseless exploration of new sound colors both for the piano and the orchestra with an emphasis on the heroic abilities of the pianist as both technician and dramatist. In layout, it is four compact movements—dramatic opening, singing slow movement, pert scherzo and energetic finale— stitched together without pause. Highlights to listen for include the stormy opening theme in the strings that forms the basis for the first movement and recurs as a motto theme later; the piano’s rhapsodic flights of fancy in response; the lovely lyrical theme for solo clarinet and piano; and the beautiful slow movement with two bewitching themes: a brief scherzo of sparkling fireflies assisted by a busy triangle and the return of the opening motto theme. The finale thriftily transforms the slow movement’s delicate themes into a forceful conclusion. Instrumentation: Two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, the piece that won him an international reputation. Until then, he had been known primarily as a composer for piano with an experimental ear for color. When he finally turned that ear to the variegated sound world of the orchestra, he swiftly became one of the greatest orchestrators of the 20 th century. Like Bolero, Rapsodie espagnole belongs among Ravel’s many Spanish-flavored works. His birthplace, Ciboure, was only ten miles from the Spanish border and his mother was of Basque origin, so it is not surprising that he should join such other French composers as Debussy, Bizet and Chabrier in exploring this neighboring culture. Rhythm and color shape the Rapsodie. Its first movement, “Prélude à la nuit,” opens with a descending motive by muted strings; its four-note pattern contradicts the three-beat meter, blurring the bar line. It swells in and out of the foreground of this movement and recurs prominently in the second and fourth movements as well. Against it, Ravel projects a nocturnal atmosphere of diaphanous instrumental colors with a melody for divided strings. “Malagueña” immediately follows —a dance from Málaga in southern Spain. Guitar-like plucked strings, castanets, muted trumpet and a Moorish- flavored English horn solo conjure the Mediterranean atmosphere. The “Habanera,” a dance adopted from Cuba, presents its characteristic rhythm in various instruments. Finally, Ravel lets out all the stops in “Feria,” a dazzling portrait of a Spanish street festival. A languid middle section suggests a break for siesta and brings back the descending motive and the voluptuous string melody of “Prélude à la nuit.” percussion and strings. RAPSODIE ESPAGNOLE BOLERO Maurice Ravel Born in Ciboure, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, France, December 28, 1937 Composed in 1907, Rapsodie espagnole was Ravel’s first major orchestral work and 30 OV E R T U R E / BSOmusic.org two themes of exotic Arabic coloration and built from them a 15-minute piece of hypnotic power. Starting with just a snare drum, plucked low strings and a solo flute, it builds the longest, most inexorable and most cathartic crescendo in classical music. Bolero was composed in 1928 as a short ballet for Ida Rubinstein, a fascinatingly sensual dancer and Ravel’s close friend. During a vacation that summer on the Spanish border, he played the undulating theme of Bolero on the piano for a friend. “Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality?” he asked. “I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” Ravel achieved this goal with ease. A snare drum taps the unvarying bolero rhythm throughout, but it is enhanced by a changing ensemble of wind and eventually string instruments. An equally varied palette of instruments—strings, harp, even brass—imitate the strumming of a guitar marking out the three beats. The two melodies—sung by various solo wind instruments; exotic combinations like two piccolos, horn and celesta; and eventually the full orchestra—alternate over constant C-major harmonies. The ballet scenario takes place in a smoky Spanish cafe where a group of men are avidly watching a beautiful woman dance provocatively on a tabletop. At the cataclysmic conclusion, their lust has been so enflamed that knives are drawn and a bloody battle ensues. Rapsodie espagnole—instrumentation: Two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, four bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta and strings. “I’ve written only one masterpiece— Bolero,” said Ravel. “Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.” Ravel was speaking tongue in cheek here. He was astonished that a piece he called “an experiment in a very special and limited direction” should become the most popular of all his works. For with Bolero he took one propulsive rhythm —loosely based on the three-beat Spanish dance of the same name—and Bolero—instrumentation: Two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes including oboe d'amore, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two saxophones, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta and strings. Notes by Janet E. Bedell, © 2019