Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: persian treasure

Saturday November 3, 2007
Sunday November 4, 2007

Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 in D major, “Classical,” Op. 25 (1917)

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Vali Toward that Endless Plain, concerto for the Persian ney

orchestration: solo ney; 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1tuba; percussion; piano; harp; strings

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 in D major, “Reformation,” Op. 107 (1832)

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1tuba; timpani; strings

Sergei Prokofiev’s formative years as a young student were spent at the St. Petersburg Conservatory during considerable political turmoil. The anti-government sentiments of certain teachers, like Rimsky-Korsakov (whose style Prokofiev felt was outmoded), were of great concern to the authorities while Prokofiev attended the conservatory. At the tender age of 17, he played his first compositions in public, and his music was perceived as avant-garde and difficult to understand, an opinion that suited the arrogant Prokofiev just fine. He was more than willing to trade on the image of himself as something of a musical renegade. The premieres of his First and Second Piano Concertos also caused a scandal in his homeland because of the bold, virtuosic writing, as well as dissonances that some critics deemed frightening. His reputation as a forward-looking composer was sealed.

It is intriguing, then, that one of his most famous works is his Symphony No. 1, a piece that looks back to the older style of Haydn and is known by the nickname “Classical.” Prokofiev wrote his “Classical” Symphony in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. The composer traveled quite extensively in this year, partly as a result of trying to escape the turmoil in Russia. It was a fertile time for him creatively, and he wrote and premiered many works on his tour.

In the time between Prokofiev’s graduation from the Conservatory and the premiere of the “Classical” Symphony, the composer had traveled to London and met many of the musical figures who were shaping modern music in Europe. The idea of using 20th-century harmonies and resources in the service of a classical form, like the symphony, was one that many composers would address in the first decades of the 20th century and beyond. Neo-classicism, as it is called, occupied much of fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky’s second period. Prokofiev, however, did not see the “Classical” Symphony as part of a neo-classical streak in his style. Instead, it was an isolated experiment, and he disliked Stravinsky’s preoccupation with neo-classicism, famously calling it “Bach on the wrong notes.”

The “Classical” Symphony is an extremely interesting work that meshes the tradition of clarity and formality with the renegade spirit of Prokofiev’s early works. Classicism was attractive to the unsentimental Prokofiev because it eschewed the overwrought emotion of Romanticism. There are Haydn-esque qualities in the “Classical” Symphony, like the sudden loudness we experience in works such as his “Surprise” Symphony. There is also reference to the Classical practice of alternating opposites: loud and soft, high and low, gravity and levity. But over and above this, there is a 20th-century sensibility, especially in Prokofiev’s harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness. This experiment, juxtaposing a modern style with the traditional four-movement formality of the Classical- era symphony, allows for moments of parody and humor. Prokofiev claimed that the “Classical” Symphony is what Haydn might have written had he lived another century, and any fan of Haydn knows that the older composer would have appreciated the humor and the craftsmanship of Prokofiev’s work.

Reza Vali, an Iranian composer, studied music in Tehran and Austria before coming to the US for his PhD in the 1980s. Although his music has a distinctly Iranian flavor, it appeals to audiences all around the world. Toward that Endless Plain is a concerto for orchestra and Persian ney. The ney is a wooden or cane flute of ancient Middle Eastern origins with a performance tradition of nearly 5,000 years. Ney players hold the instrument to one side against the teeth, blowing over the rim to produce the sound. The ney is considered one of the most important instruments in the classical musical traditions of the Islamic world and is also a forerunner of the European orchestral flute.

Vali wanted to write a piece that featured this instrument from his native land, and his decision to juxtapose the ney with the classical Western orchestra has meaningful repercussions. It is a representation of East meeting West. History has shown that this meeting may be difficult, uncomfortable, even violent, yet Vali has tried to personify the ney as a character who seeks to escape from the conflict into a transcendent state of peace. The journey from conflict to serenity is played out in the music.

Toward that Endless Plain was co-commissioned by LACO and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Vali took as his inspiration a poem by the Persian mystic Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980). The poem is written from the point of view of a seeker who wishes to depart from conflict and chaos to a peaceful place of mythical trees.

I must depart tonight.
Taking a suitcase,
(the size of my loneliness),
I must go,
where the mythical trees are in sight.
Toward that endless plain,
that always,
is calling me to itself.

There are three movements in the piece to symbolize the seeker’s journey. The prelude to the first movement is dissonant cacophony that seems to represent the confusion of the soul in troubled times. The seeker reaches a state of happiness by the second movement, called “Ecstatic Dance.” This dance is interrupted by the unrest of the prelude, but the third movement, “Descent and Dissolve,” follows the seeker into the endless plain and, presumably, peace. Toward that Endless Plain is a work that follows a tradition of using music to respond to or memorialize difficult events. The conflicts of World War I and the Russian Revolution, for example, inspired composers like Stravinsky to write music that rejected dissonance and sentimentality. Instead, the chaos of the world helped give birth to neo-classicism, an orderly but modern style, as in Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was another period of great turmoil. After the supreme authority of the Catholic Church was called into question by Martin Luther and others, the Holy Roman Emperor requested a statement of religious beliefs from German leaders. The resulting document, the Augsburg Confession, was the object of a national celebration 300 years later in 1830. Felix Mendelssohn composed the work known as his Symphony No. 5 for the occasion. A number of complications prevented the symphony’s inclusion in the festivities; however, its nickname of “Reformation” stuck.

Written around the same time as his more famous Hebrides Overture, the “Reformation” is numbered as Mendelssohn’s Fifth, but he actually composed the music for it before he wrote his Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies. He completed the piece in 1832, two years after the celebration, but the work was not published until after Mendelssohn’s death. There were difficulties with the timing, not the least of which was Mendelssohn’s bout with the measles, but there might have also been some political opposition to using his music at the celebration. Though Mendelssohn was raised Lutheran, he had Jewish roots, and anti-Semitism was unfortunately common in Berlin during his lifetime. There must also have been some who opposed Mendelssohn stylistically, as his Romantic and programmatic works may have seemed too forward-looking to suit a conservative Lutheran celebration.

Once he completed the symphony, Mendelssohn attempted to play his latest composition on a tour, but it was not received well. Audiences, players and publishers complained about Mendelssohn’s emphasis on counterpoint-perhaps an homage to Bach’s chorale settings-at the expense of melody. Seen in the larger picture of Mendelssohn’s work from this time, the “Reformation” Symphony is now a much more popular piece. There are four movements. The first, in sonata form, recalls the “Dresden Amen,” a tune that also appears as the “Grail Theme” in Wagner’s Parsifal. After its introduction, this theme provides musical material for the entire symphony. The second movement uses the Amen in a scherzo form, and the third weaves an imitative texture that allows parts of the theme to emerge as the movement develops. Further underlining the theme of the Augsburg Confession anniversary celebration, the fourth movement has a first theme based on the well-known Lutheran chorale Ein’ Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). This chorale is simply, and very powerfully, stated by the orchestra at the conclusion of the movement.

- Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history
Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony is considered one of the signature works of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s repertoire. The Orchestra first performed it December 6, 1980 with then-music director Gerard Schwarz and has subsequently played the work on five more occasions, most recently with Jeffrey Kahane on May 24, 2001. In March 2008, LACO will also perform the “Classical” Symphony as part of our eight-city concert tour of Europe. Tonight we will give the West Coast premiere of Reza Vali’s Toward that Endless Plain and will play Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony for the first time in the Orchestra’s history.

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