It is a tradition to begin a concert with an overture, and overtures to Rossini’s operas, such as The Barber of Seville, William Tell, Otello, and Semiramide, are iconic staples of orchestral repertoire. While many Rossini operas are performed, La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”) is rarely programmed in full. The Overture to La gazza ladra, however, is a beloved opening piece, and provides virtually all of the orchestral instruments soloistic moments within the texture. This was in large part my motivation to choose this piece as we begin our 70th Season, an exciting time of transition for the orchestra.
The overture alludes to the opera’s plot rather broadly. In brief, the opera, a semiseria (a sometimes serious, but sentimental comedy) concerns a maid who is to be executed for stealing a silver spoon. The real thief, however, turns out to be a magpie attracted to bright objects, and she is ultimately spared when the “thief” is caught in a tower. Purportedly this was based on a true story. Rossini himself seems to have also been caught in something of a tower: frightened that he would not finish writing the overture in time for the opera’s première, the theatre manager locked him in a room and threatened to defenestrate him if he did not complete the work on time. As the anecdote goes, Rossini supposedly dropped each completed page of manuscript out the window to a copyist to extract the parts for the orchestra while he worked on the next page of music.
The overture begins with offstage snare drums preceding a march, which segues into a contrasting tense section in the minor. Following this, a whimsical theme is introduced by the oboe and passed between the woodwinds and the strings in alternation—this theme evokes the craftiness of the magpie. Making use of several repetitions of this material, a gradual layering of instruments occurs as the orchestra begins to increase in volume and speed. This is characteristic of most Rossini overtures, as is the Italianate leap to piu mosso (“more motion”) for the final rousing minute of the piece.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, opus 15 (1858)
by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
The music of Johannes Brahms is often characterized as visceral while being formally restrained—and though it comes across as organic, it is meticulously constructed through the brilliant machinations of small musical materials. This is wholly Brahms’ genius, and I know of no other composer who achieves this coexistence. Yet the success of Brahms’ music is due in large part to several mentors and friends, who helped the composer in various ways throughout his career. Chief among these were the composers Robert and Clara Schumann, as well as Brahms’ close friend, the renowned violinist-conductor-composer-teacher Joseph Joachim, to whom Brahms would later dedicate his Violin Concerto.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, opus 15, began its life as a sonata for two pianos, then was re-cast as a symphony in four movements before becoming the three- movement piano concerto as it is now known. Brahms, primarily a pianist, had mostly written piano, chamber, and vocal music prior to 1854, when he began work on the concerto in its early “sonata for two pianos” incarnation. After deciding it should be a symphony, he consulted his friend Julius Otto Grimm for orchestration suggestions, and ultimately sent a draft of the orchestrated first movement to Joseph Joachim. It became apparent after Brahms drafted piano scores for two further movements that the piece would become a piano concerto. Over the course of more than twenty detailed letters, Joachim thoughtfully critiqued Brahms’ work as it progressed and went so far as to offer larger scale orchestrational revisions just several months before the première. Brahms decided to keep the first movement, and somewhat expeditiously wrote two more, which became the second and third movements we hear tonight. The Concerto was completed in 1858; Brahms would not, for a variety of musical-personal reasons, complete his first symphony for another eighteen years.
Brahms premièred the concerto in 1859 in Hanover, followed by a performance in Leipzig. Both were poorly received. Despite a receptive audience in Hamburg two months later, the majority of the early performances of the concerto were not successes in the public eye. It was not until 1882, when conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow chose to perform the piece in Aachen, that the concerto began to grow in popularity.
As a composer of “absolute music” (i.e. music that does not follow a program of events or aim to evoke an extra-musical narrative, such as that of Wagner), Brahms faced the challenge that symphonists since Beethoven had of reconciling new developments in harmony and texture with the conservative formal structures he advocated. To me, throughout the Piano Concerto No. 1, there is a self-awareness of this struggle. The first movement, marked Maestoso, is a long sonata form complete with traditional contrasting principal and secondary themes, a rigorous development section, and a powerful recapitulation and coda. Cast in 6/4 time, through only subtle tempo changes, the music can easily move between thunderous “vertical” music (listen here for the timpani!) and long, lyrical passages that feel nearly timeless in their expansion. The Adagio inner movement is dreamy but very carefully measured, and features a small consort of woodwinds in what is likely a nod to Mozart, with which the piano is integrated as an equal voice. The finale, Rondo: Allegro non troppo, looks further back—to baroque counterpoint—not only in its principal theme, but in the extensive fugato section in the movement’s center. The propulsiveness of the movement and order of the thematic repetitions may have been inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Following a meditative cadenza, Brahms concludes the finale with a virtuosic resolution from D minor to the warmth of D Major.
Suite from The Firebird (1919)
by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
Igor Stravinsky’s compositional life is typically divided by historians into four periods, rather than the conventional “three” that characterize the output of most other composers. This was due not least to his move from Europe to the United States after the outbreak of World War II. He settled in West Hollywood following brief stints in New York and Boston, and his engagement with the growing musical community of Los Angeles, of which he remained an integral part until his death in 1971, played a role in his compositional evolution. Stravinsky’s first period, known simply as his Russian Period, brought the young composer into international focus through three extraordinary collaborations with impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes in Paris. The ballets—The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913)—were each groundbreaking in various ways, though the latter is most notorious for causing something of a riot at its première. Among the dancers who worked at the Ballet Russes were Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and later, the choreographer George Balanchine, who went on to commission several ballets later in Stravinsky’s life for the New York City Ballet. Stravinsky’s Firebird was something of luck—the previous composer, Anatoly Lyadov, was found by Diaghilev to be “unreliable,” and Stravinsky, an essentially unknown figure of twenty-seven years, received the job. The story of the ballet centers on a Russian legend of the “Firebird,” a mythical good spirit with feathers that bring safety and beauty to humankind. Prince Ivan, on a hunt, spares the Firebird, who in turn saves Ivan from the evil Katschei, a sorcerer, allowing Ivan to marry a princess at the ballet’s conclusion.
Stravinsky extracted several suites from the full ballet following its première, and the second of these, the “1919 Suite,” is the most frequently performed by orchestras in concert hall settings. (After receiving his US citizenship in 1945, Stravinsky created a “new” Suite from The Firebird in order to attain US copyright for his music; his European copyrights were not recognized in America at the time. In reality, as with his “new” version of Petrushka, he changed very few elements from the original publication, such as minor notational attributes and token modifications to the orchestra’s size.) The 1919 Suite is considered public domain in the US, enabling its performance by a wider range of orchestras than the 1945 version.
The Suite opens with a murky introduction, followed by intricate variations on a nimble theme characterizing the Firebird. A khorovod (a traditional Slavic round dance) follows, featuring solo woodwinds passing the melody from one to another. A terrifying fast movement follows, whose title translates as “The Infernal Dance of the Katschei,” culminating in a series of orchestral surges that give way to a delicate cloud of pianissimo woodwinds, piano, and harp. A berceuse follows, which showcases the bassoon as a complex melodic soloist, leading into finale, introduced by an iconic horn solo. The Suite triumphantly culminates with rhythmic excitement created by asymmetrical beat groupings, a harbinger of Stravinsky’s work to come.
Geoffrey Pope has been recognized through numerous appointments and commissions as a conductor and composer throughout the United States and Europe. Winner of the prestigious Walter Hagen Conducting Prize at the Eastman School of Music, he is the Founder and Music Director of the Émigré Composers Orchestra, a new professional ensemble dedicated to performing works of exiled composers who fled to Los Angeles in the 1930s and ‘40s.
An active conductor of contemporary music and opera, Dr. Pope has recently conducted John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony for the composer at UCLA’s symposium Inside the (G)Earbox: John Adams @ 70; the first English-language production of Sweeney Todd in Budapest; Opera UCLA’s production of Così fan tutte; the première of Jason Barabba’s Lettere da Triggiano oratorio with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale; and a doctoral lecture-recital featuring his own music and that of Wagner and Bernard Herrmann. Earlier work includes leading performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with the Experimental Playground Ensemble throughout the Denver Metropolitan Area.
At Eastman, Dr. Pope prepared ensembles for eminent conductors Brad Lubman, Jeffrey Milarsky, and Alan Pierson, in addition to working with resident composers Oliver Knussen, Steven Stucky, Hilary Tann, and Tristan Murail. His scholarly interests include Viennese music of the early twentieth century, and the role of diegetic music in the evolution of sonic spatialization in concert and film music. His dissertation addresses the evolving role of instrumental music written to be performed onstage in German language opera, and the coordination issues involved in its execution and synchronization with the orchestra pit. His recordings have been published internationally, and his work has also been featured on radio stations including Classical KUSC, Colorado Public Radio, and Southern California Public Radio. He was a 2013 American Prize awardee for his chamber orchestra work Votive. His current compositional project is an opera, Sarajevo Vespers, set in Bosnia in 1993.
Dr. Pope received his undergraduate degree in composition and theory from the University of Southern California, master’s degrees in conducting and composition from the Eastman School of Music, and his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he led ensembles including the UCLA Symphony. He was recently a sabbatical replacement professor at the UC Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts, conducting the UCI Symphony Orchestra and Opera.
Born into a family of concert pianists, Georgi Slavchev has received musical guidance from some of the most respected musicians in the world today. He was conferred degrees with honors from Idyllwild Arts Academy, Rice University, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the University of Southern California.
Dr. Slavchev is an active soloist, chamber musician, and educator. Winner of numerous national, international and concerto piano competitions, he has performed at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and been a soloist with orchestras in Europe, Asia, and the United States. In recognition of his sustained international acclaim, the U.S. government acknowledged his “extraordinary ability in the arts,” granting him residency and citizenship. Dr. Slavchev lives in Los Angeles and has served as the co-president of the MTAC-West Los Angeles branch. He is the composer of the city anthem of his native Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and he composes music for the concert stage and motion pictures using conventional acoustic instruments as well as the latest innovations in the electro-acoustic medium. He also actively performs his own piano compositions. Eurocom Classics has released two CDs of his solo piano performances, and he recently toured and recorded a CD with his own arrangements of the music of Edith Piaf. This is his third appearance with our orchestra; in March, 2007, he was the soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, and in November, 2016, he soloed in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.