PROGRAM NOTES by Wojciech Milewski
Overture to Zampa by Ferdinand Hérold
French composer Ferdinand Hérold’s overture to Zampa has a distinctly Italian flavor, and sounds like it could easily have been written by Gioachino Rossini. This is no coincidence as Hérold studied and worked in Italy following his studies at the Paris Conservatory where he won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1812. Winners of the award got to study and learn from Italian composers in Rome for two years following their schooling, and for many composers (even on tonight’s program), it greatly affected their compositional output. Hérold was no different as he quickly adapted his compositional style to incorporate many elements of popular Italian opera, specifically that of Rossini. Thanks to this influence, many critics praised some of his later music. Speaking about Zampa, one critic even praised Hérold for “the spirit of Italian music that unites the depth of the German school and the elegance of the French school.” It is no surprise then that Zampa quickly became a huge success, with more than 500 staged performances through 1877, and international productions in such exotic places as South Africa! Its success was certainly spurred by its eccentricity – not only in its music, but also its unique plotline. Zampa tells the story of the Count of Monza who leaves his family fortune and fiancé to become a pirate, and the subsequent love triangle that develops when he comes back to steal his long-lost brother’s fiancé, Camille, for himself. The opera’s heaviest scene occurs towards the end of the opera when the statue of his first fiancé comes to life on his wedding night to Camille and subsequently pulls him into hell for his transgressions. A clear homage to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and German “singspiel,” Zampa was then often referred to as “the French Don Giovanni.” However, the whole piece could not equal Mozart’s, and the absurdity of the plot eventually led the opera to fall out of the repertory once “verismo” and late-Romantic opera took the world by storm. That being said, much of its music is praised for its light, fun, and charming character, particularly in the overture heard tonight, which was a favorite of Leonard Bernstein’s to conduct.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
The overture is written in the style and form of Italian overtures, meaning it begins fast, has a slow and lyrical middle section, and ends with another energetic, fast section. The transition into the slow and lyrical section is signaled by blasts from the brass section, signaling a lighthouse – a definite nod to the opera’s nautical theme. The lyrical themes are presented by the woodwinds, the clarinet in particular, before gradually accelerating into another fun, jaunty section. The lightness of these fast sections, the length of crescendos, and layering of orchestration is very reminiscent of Rossini’s music.
Pavane pour une infante défunte by Maurice Ravel
One of Maurice Ravel’s most popular works, this elegant and lyrical pavane began as a piano piece in 1899 after a commission from Princess Winnaretta de Polignac. The Pavane was published in 1900 and was immediately well received by Ravel’s patron and composition teacher, Gabriel Fauré. This positive reception continued following its public premiere in 1902 by Ravel’s friend Ricardo Viñes, and the press regarded it as “charming and elegant.” In fact, it was one of the first works to receive such high praise from the public sphere, which undoubtedly gave Ravel the necessary attention of society that would bring about the acceptance of his more difficult and demanding works. Apart from its obviously lyrical and simple texture, part of its charm was its evocative title, which literally translates to “Pavane for a dead princess.” However, this does not have any dark connotations as is sometimes perceived, as Ravel himself said shortly after the piece’s premiere: “It is not a dirge for a recently deceased princess, but evokes a pavane that such a young princess might once have danced at the court of Spain.” As such, the piece is really an homage to a specific time and place in music history. Ravel composes the pavane in the style of the slow and stately processional dance from the Baroque era of Italo-Spanish origin. This use of Spanish themes was no coincidence as Ravel himself had Basque roots, and it would greatly influence many of his works including Boléro, L’heure espagnole, Rapsodie espagnole, and others.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
To evoke the imagery of the Renaissance/Baroque court, Ravel used open parallel fifths in the Pavane to illustrate archaic harmony. These can usually be heard at the spots where the music gets slower and fuller in texture. Additionally, there are many elements of Impressionism that we can hear, such as the use of whole-tone scales (as made popular by Debussy), and specific colors that are written to blend together through different sections of the orchestra. These certainly include all of the various directions to the string sections, including the use of mutes and false harmonics to achieve a thinner sound, and unique pairings with other instruments.
Selections from “Gigi” by Frederick Loewe, arr. Robert Russell Bennett
The story of Gigi first appeared as a novella by French writer Colette in 1945. It quickly became adapted into a movie in 1948, and a few years later it was adapted for the Broadway stage starring Audrey Hepburn in her first stage role. These many adaptations led to a feature film in 1958 that won nine Academy awards, including Best Picture! Frederick Loewe composed the film score, and it was this music that became the basis of Loewe’s score for the 1973 Broadway musical. Tonight’s medley features the musical highlights from the film, as the song “The Parisians” was not in the 1973 Broadway score. In addition to the music from the movie, Loewe added four new songs and a ballet into the musical, which was certainly a tribute to French grand opera of the nineteenth century. Tonight’s charming arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett features: “The Night They Invented Champagne,” “Gigi,” “Waltz at Maxim’s,” “I’m Glad I’m not Young Anymore,” “The Parisians,” “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight,” and “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” The work was revived in 2015 at the Kennedy Center with Vanessa Hudgens (from “High School Musical” fame) in the title role, and later went on to become a successful National Tour.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
The opening song “The Night They Invented Champagne” is given the direction “A La Française” by Loewe in the original score. This direction refers to playing it in the manner of a fast, French, folk dance in duple meter (2/4 or 4/4) and was also known as the “contredanse,” or “country dance.” Usually very simple in form, it was built on the idea of repeated notes and simple motifs and textures. It was widely used in French baroque opera and court music; a well thought-out addition by Loewe into a score about a girl who slowly turns into a sophisticated lady in the show. Loewe uses a lot of quickly-changing harmonies in the score, which is another tribute to French baroque opera. Finally, the jazz influence and use of chromaticism point to the influence of early twentieth century Impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel. It is obvious to see how thoughtfully Loewe crafted the music to “Gigi,” and it is undoubtedly for this reason that the score received critical acclaim. It is a charming and elegant score, and a fitting tribute to French music old and new.
“Barcarolle” from Tales of Hoffmann by Jules Offenbach
Jules Offenbach’s 1881 opera Tales of Hoffmann is based on a play by writers Jules Barbier, who wrote the opera’s libretto, and Michel Carre. The play takes real life German poet, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and makes him a character in some of his own fanciful stories. Offenbach’s opera follows the same scheme as the play, placing the title character into three fanciful stories of failed love. The opera’s production went through budgetary issues and venue changes in the late 1870s, and Offenbach died before the piece could be completed and premiered. In fact, scholars continued to find manuscripts for the opera that were left behind all the way through the 1980s, and many different versions of the score have been assembled. However, one piece that is consistently present in every score of Offenbach’s opera (and rightfully so) is the Barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from the opening of Act 3. This beautifully lyrical piece about the pleasure of love is one of the most famous and popular operatic melodies ever written. It is not only heard on concert stages around the world, but also features in TV and cinema in such works as: “Life Is Beautiful” (1997), “Midnight in Paris” (2011), “Gilligan’s Island,” and others.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
The form of the piece is perfectly fitting, as Act 3 is set in Venice. A barcarolle is a traditional folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers, or at least it is a piece that is written in that style. The rhythmically repetitive and swaying accompaniment and melody in 6/8 or 12/8 evoke the motion of a boat on the waves. See if you can hear this in the woodwind and lower string figures throughout the piece. The initial motif of the melody in small fragments is actually introduced to us in the introduction of the piece by the woodwinds. Once the melody comes in, they continue this motif along with the harp. In the opera, the piece is a duet sung by a soprano and mezzo-soprano, yet in this charming arrangement these voices have now become our first and second violin sections. See if you can hear how the melody shifts and evolves from one section to the next as the piece grows.
“Farandole” from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 by Georges Bizet
Our first half comes to an end with a wonderfully fun and light piece from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2. The Music comes to us from Bizet’s incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 play based on his own short story about a young man, Fréderi, who struggles with news of his fiancé’s infidelity prior to their marriage. The story and play were not successful in their runs, but Bizet’s music has endured the test of time as both suites of his incidental music from the play are frequently heard in concert halls around the world today. The most famous piece from these suites is certainly the “Farandole.” So, what exactly is a farandole? It is an open chain, community dance popular in the Provence region of France. This is quite fitting as the title of the story literally means “girl from Arles,” and Arles is a town found in Provence. Bizet’s farandole is based on a popular Christmas carol from the Provence region entitled “Le Marche des Rois” (or “The March of the Kings”), which is a song about the three Wise men and the Epiphany. In fact, the melody is nearly identical. Bizet’s fusion of a popular French carol along with its setting in a typical dance easily transported the play’s audience members to Provence, and its light and fun character meant it became instantly popular with audiences and concertgoers alike after the publication of the two orchestral suites in 1872 and 1875. The piece remains very popular today, and it was even used by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as the basis of their own song “The March of the Kings/Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Petite Suite by Claude Debussy
Although perhaps not the most popular or recognizable of Claude Debussy’s pieces, the Petite Suite is certainly one of his most charming and lyrical. In fact, the Petite Suite’s overall simplicity in form and harmony was not common at all for Debussy at the time of its composition in the late 1880s. This may be thanks to a request, potentially from a publisher at the time Jacques Durand, for a piece that would be accessible to skilled amateurs. The suite has four movements, all with some programmatic or descriptive element attached to them. The first two movements are settings of Paul Verlaine’s poems of the same name from “Fêtes Galantes.” Debussy’s most famous setting of a Verlaine poem from “Fêtes” is certainly “Clair de Lune,” but these two movements are just as charming. In general, the suite is not only wonderfully written, but Debussy also highlights many other French composers and styles in the suite as can be seen below.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
Movement 1: “En Bateau” (or “Sailing”/”On a Boat”) is set in 6/8 time and has a similar character to Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” from the first half. The accompaniment has wave-like rhythmic patterns, and the melody in the winds is wonderfully lyrical. The way Debussy sets the melody atop the accompaniment that features the harp seems to recall the music of Fauré. Finally, Debussy uses the whole-tone scale several times in this movement, and often masks it by transforming it into the next harmonic change. Can you hear any unique scales in this movement?
Movement 2: “Cortège” (or “Procession”) is nobler in character. It simulates a procession into the court of a young woman who is then met by others throughout the music. Several times in this movement, the listener can almost distinctly hear Bizet’s “Farandole,” which is no coincidence as the two pieces are related in character and theme. The middle section here is marked “scherzando,” or “jokingly,” and is a literal musical depiction of court members chatting and flirting with the young woman. The noble section then returns in a rich and full texture.
Movement 3: The “Minuet” opens with what sounds like obvious bird calls reminiscent of programmatic music of the time. It then transforms almost seamlessly into a lyrical, Baroque-style minuet, which is then heard in different variations in the different woodwind instruments (bassoon, English horn, oboe, and clarinet).
Movement 4: A lively, festive “Ballet” ends the suite. It varies between a country-dance and a waltz, which means Debussy certainly thought the movement should have general dance character to it. In this movement, he seems to evoke the compositional styles of two great predecessors of French music – Leo Délibes, who was a master craftsman of ballet music, and Emmanuel Chabrier, who was known for his optimistic clarity in his lyric themes.
“April in Paris” by Vernon Duke, arr. Chuck Sayre
The title of our concert tonight is both fitting and literal, and it is also the name of our next piece. Written by Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg, “April in Paris” is actually from the 1932 musical “Walk a Little Faster.” Today, we know “April in Paris” thanks to countless recordings by artists such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and others. In fact, many listeners often attribute this piece to the Basie Orchestra because of their famous 1955 recording of the piece that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (this is the recording with trumpeter Thad Jones playing his famous “Pop Goes the Weasel” solo). However, even before Count Basie recorded it in 1955, “April in Paris” was already such a popular standard that it became the title of a 1952 feature film of the same title starring Doris Day as Ethel “Dynamite” Jackson. It has continued to be a staple of pop culture to this day, being featured in the 1974 film “Blazing Saddles,” and even more recently on the soundtrack to the video game Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008. The recognizable, rhythmic main theme is easily identified, but Chuck Sayre’s arrangement throws listeners off. It is not the typical heavy swing associated with this piece, but rather set in “bossa nova” style. A truly unique arrangement of the piece, and certainly one of the more unique pieces on our program tonight!
Selections from “La Cage aux Folles” by Jerry Herman, arr. Philip J. Lang
Around the same time that “Gigi” was getting ready for its Broadway debut, French actor and playwright Jean Poiret crafted a unique piece of theater that is still popular and relevant today. The plot of “La Cage aux Folles” (literally translated: “The Cage of Mad Women”) is a farce that centers on the confusion that ensues when Laurent, the son of a Saint Tropez nighclub owner and his gay lover, brings his fiancée’s ultraconservative parents over for dinner. The show quickly became a success and was made into a film in 1978 that originally cast author Jean Poiret in the main role of Albin. The show’s cultural relevance at the height of the AIDS epidemic and homophobia scare of the 1970s led a US creative team in the early 1980s to craft a charming, colorful and great-looking musical comedy modeled on old-fashioned entertainment. The original idea was to create a heavier, polemic diatribe on gay rights, but the creative team chose to pursue a lighter and more positive message that would appeal to mainstream audiences. This proved to be a stroke of genius as the original 1983 Broadway production received nine Tony nominations, winning six, including Best Score, Best Musical and Best Book. It sparked numerous productions throughout the US and abroad. More recently, it was revived twice on Broadway in 2004 and 2010, winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical both times – the first show ever to accomplish this feat. Additionally, the 1978 French film was re-made in 1996 as “The Birdcage,” with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the main roles. The original play, film, musical and recent revivals have all helped play a huge part in establishing the mainstream acceptance of homosexuality. Tonight’s medley features music from the original Broadway production, including: “La Cage aux Folles,” “We Are What We Are,” “With You On My Arms,” “Song on the Sand,” and “The Best of Times.”
Berceuse and Finale from “The Firebird” (1919) by Igor Stravinsky
Tonight’s program ends in a highly dramatic fashion with the final two movements of Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 concert suite of “The Firebird.” The piece came into existence after impresario and producer Serge Diaghilev came up with an idea to create a brand new Russian nationalist ballet in Paris. This would now take the place of staging productions of large-scale operas, which were more expensive to produce, and the idea of a ballet greatly appealed to French passions for Russian dance. Diaghilev wanted a distinctly twentieth-century style and was looking for fresh talent for this undertaking, which led to the commissioning of twenty-eight-year-old Igor Stravinsky as composer for the endeavor. Diaghilev had heard Stravinsky’s Feu d’Artifice in St. Petersburg in 1909, and sensed he could provide the necessary style he was seeking. Stravinsky’s score to the “Firebird” borrows extensively from Russian folk tunes and compositions, including several by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, but also features Stravinsky’s unique treatment of Russian and French harmony and rhythms that would later shock the music world in “The Rite of Spring.” The original “Firebird” premiered in 1910 in Paris at the Ballets Russes and was undoubtedly Stravinsky’s breakthrough that led to numerous commissions, including “Petrushka” (1911) and the monumental “The Rite of Spring” (1913). Following the success of the ballet, Stravinsky arranged several concert suites in 1911, 1919 and 1945, with the 1919 suite being most popular due to its smaller orchestra and shorter length. Tonight’s final two movements (which are nearly always performed together) have been featured extensively in pop culture and society since their premiere. They are the setting to the final scene of Fantasia 2000, and the Berceuse (or Lullaby) can be heard on Frank Zappa’s 1967 album Absolutely Free in the “Duke of Prunes” suite. The Finale was used by band “Yes” as their walk-on music during concerts in the 1970s, and was featured in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games.