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Program Notes
By Missy Mahon

Your Alpharetta Symphony Orchestra is proud to serve up the following "musical tapas", an assortment of hearty appetizers, each one a bite of cultural flavor.  Although most of the program is influenced by Spanish music and culture, each piece is deeply nationalistic in its own way, exuding pride in the composer's homeland, or curiosity for other exotic lands.  Through his most famous work, Smetana forever captured the essence of his Bohemian heritage in a musical ode full of love and pride for his country.  Similarly, Marquez captured the unique spirit of the Mexican people with his Danzón No. 2, so much so that Mexicans consider it to be their second national anthem.  Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the most Russian of Russian composers, explores the distant land of Spain in his Capriccio-Espagnole masterfully utilizing the orchestra in the form of an Italian capriccio.  And the French composer Bizet, created perhaps the most ironically "Spanish" music with his opera, Carmen, while still maintaining traces that remain distinctively French.

Má Vlast: Vltava (The Moldau)

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)


Written between 1874 and 1879, Má Vlast (My Country) is an orchestral suite comprised of six symphonic poems that celebrate Smetana's homeland of Bohemia in the Austrian Empire (modern day Czech Republic).  Although unified with strong nationalistic pride, the different movements can stand alone as they each tell a different story; however, there are threads that tie some movements to others as they vividly paint Bohemia's beloved landscapes, and scenes of well-known Bohemian legends.  The first poem/movement Vyšehrad (The High Castle) depicts the glorious rise and subsequent fall into ruins of the medieval castle that was once the seat of the Czech kings.  The movement ends with the sounds of the Vltava River, which the castle overlooks.  When played as a full six movement suite, this ending introduces the second movement, Vltava, which follows the Vltava River's path, beginning at its source and ending at the Vyšehrad castle before flowing into the Elbe River.  The third movement is named for legendary heroine, Šárka, of the Maiden's War, and tells the story of how she tricked the knight Ctirad so that her fellow uprisen women could overpower the men.  The fourth movement Z c̆eských luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Wood and Fields) quite simply depicts the Czech people and the beauty of the countryside along the Elbe River.  The fifth movement, Tábor, is the name of a town founded by the Hussites who were steadfast "warriors of God".  And finally, Blanik, the sixth movement is named for the mountain in which the legendary army led by St. Wenceslaus sleeps, waiting to awaken and serve the country in its darkest hour.  This last movement shares the Hussite theme that is the basis of Tábor; and it also restates snippets of the Vyšehrad and the Vltava.


Featured on tonight's program, the second movement is more commonly known as Die Moldau, the German name for the Vltava River.  Smetana was a firm believer that in the case of symphonic poems, the title of a piece should be sufficient to spark the imagination of the listener.  However, publishers of the time wanted written descriptions to help drive sales.  And, although the following description of the second movement is not written directly by the composer, it is effectively authorized by him.  The description by Czech writer Václav Vladimír Zelený, reads as such, "The work depicts the course of the river Vltava, beginning with its first two sources, the cold and warm Vltava, and the confluence of the two streams that join to form a single river then the course of the Vltava through forests and meadows, and through open countryside where a peasant wedding is being celebrated; water-nymphs dance by the light of the moon; on the nearby cliffs castles, mansions and ruins rise proudly into the air; the Vltava eddies in the St. John’s Rapids, then flows in a broad stream as it continues its course towards Prague, where the Vyšehrad appears, before the river finally disappears into the distance as it flows majestically into the Elbe.” 


The opening sound of the river is illuminated by the rippling flute duet; one flute representing the cold spring that feeds the river, the other flute representing the warm spring.  As the orchestration builds, the springs join to form a single powerful river with a thematic identity that is repeated throughout, unifying the various scenes with the image of the river.  Symbolic of hunters and pastoral landscape, a horn melody is heard as the stream passes the forest and meadows.  Lively polka music is heard as the river passes a peasant wedding along its shores.  As the water-nymphs appear in the moonlight, the flutes return to ripple under serene melodies.  The river's thematic identity returns as dawn shines a new light on the majestic river before it is dissonantly jostled through the St. John's Rapids.  Once again, the main theme returns, broadly and calmly post rapids, as the Vyšehrad castle comes into view, tying the majesty of the river to the country's glorious history.


Carmen Suite No. 1 and No. 2 

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)


Best known for his Opéra-Comique, Carmen, the former 1857 Prix de Rome winner struggled throughout his short career to find success with his other works.  Failing to capture the attention of the French audiences who favored established repertoire to new music, he turned his attention to theatrical productions hoping to have better luck.  However, his first three operas were not very successful either.  After cancelling Bizet's third opera after only 11 performances, the Opéra-Comique unexpectedly commissioned him to write another.  Bizet suggested an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's novella Carmen.  The story takes place in southern Spain where a naïve soldier, Don José, is seduced by Carmen, a rather fiery gypsy.  Imagining himself in love, José abandons his childhood sweetheart and his military duties, giving up everything only to be tossed aside by Carmen in favor of the glamorous matador Escamillo who has caught her eye.  In a jealous rage, Don José murders Carmen for her betrayal.  The title character dying onstage would be new and quite shocking to audiences of the time.  Production for the opera was difficult due to these shocking and potentially offensive themes of murder and betrayal throughout the story.  Bizet also had to search out appropriate ethnic material, dance and folk songs, to create a somewhat authentic Spanish atmosphere since he had never visited Spain himself.  Despite these complications, Carmen premiered in March of 1875; unfortunately, to critical reviews and an indifferent public.  After a few months and 33 performances, Bizet died suddenly from a heart attack.  He died thinking that he had written another failure; he would never enjoy the international acclaim that his opera achieved within the following 10 years.  Today, it is still one of the most famous and most frequently performed operas, with the "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song" being two of the most well-known arias in the entire canon.  The score has been acclaimed for melodic brilliance, harmony, and orchestration; as well as for how skillfully Bizet musically captures the emotional suffering of his characters.  After his death, Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud compiled Carmen Suite No. 1 and No. 2, using selections from the opera, and maintaining most of Bizet's original orchestration.


Carmen Suite No. 1

"No. 5 Les Toreadors" appears in both the opera's prelude as well as Act IV; its shimmering fanfare accompanies the entry of the matadors to the bullfight arena.  "No.1 Prelude" introduces a foreboding motif that dually represents Carmen as well as the fate she personifies.  "No.1a Argonaise" appears as interlude music before Act IV, utilizing a dance style from the Aragon region in northern Spain; the dance is felt in three and is accompanied by castanets.


Carmen Suite No. 2

"No.2 Habanera" also known as "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" ("Love is a rebellious bird"), is the famous aria that Carmen sings as she flirts with, and effectively seduces Don José in Act I. "No.4 Chanson de toréador" occurs in Act II with the entrance of Escamillo as he describes the thrill of bullfighting, the cheering crowds, and the glorious victories.  "No. 6 Danse Bohême" opens Act II as Carmen and her friends perform a gypsy dance for the army officers.


Danzón No. 2

Arturo Márquez (b. 1950)


Oozing in passion, elegance, and sophistication Danzón No. 2 captures the essence of the culturally significant danzón of Márquez's homeland.  This Mexican form of partner dance is similar to the more widely known tango, as they both contain syncopated rhythms, passionate exchanges, and sultry or melancholy lines.  Although popular in Mexico beginning in the 20th century, the Danzón originates from Cuba and has its roots in the Habanera, also from Cuba, but brought back to Spain by sailors.  Although Danzón No. 2 is a passionate piece, it has less seductive passion and more passion for, as Márquez puts it, "sensuality, nostalgia, and a jubilant escape".  The composer wrote a total of eight Danzón pieces for various instrumentation after a trip to Malinalco with friends in 1993, where they introduced him to the dance form.  He then visited the dance halls in Mexico City to further absorb the culture of the dance. In this piece, he sought to pay homage to the complex multi-cultural heritage of the dance that so accurately captures the spirit of his people.  In his program notes for the piece, he describes it as, "a tribute to the environment that nourishes the genre. It is a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music."


Typical of danzón music, Danzón No. 2 starts slowly and quietly, but builds to a fiery conclusion of unity as the dance partners become one.  The piece begins with an alluring and sultry clarinet solo, emphasized by the rhythmic claves in the percussion.  Soon, the clarinet is joined in duet by the oboe; the two instruments representing the dance partners as they circle each other.  The melody is taken over by the flutes and strings as they seem to float above the dancing oboe and clarinet duet.  Suddenly, the mood shifts with sharp accents in the brass and forceful bowing in the strings driving a passionate exchange.  Rhythms layer and seem confused until they unify in a driving rhythmic section, leaving the violins to swirl forward.  Then, a pause.  (In the danzón, the dancers hold elegant positions before returning to their passionate exchange.)  Márquez utilizes the petite sound of the solo piccolo to pause the swirling orchestra, almost in a moment of pure bliss, before it once again builds as it passes a lively melody around the orchestra, driven by sharp trumpet accents as the trombones dig in their heels to ground the growing excitement.  With that, it transitions to an intimate lyrical section where the solo violin reminisces on the opening theme.  The orchestra joins in as the main theme seems to float along as if in a dream.  The clarinet returns as it partners with the violin and then the flute.  With a heavy downbeat, the strings begin a passionate section, perhaps jealous that the clarinet was dancing with different partners?  A solo trumpet seems to make a rather accusatory declaration, backed by the rest of the brass, as it leads the orchestra back to a previous rhythmic section.  Reminded of what came before, the strings swirl with exciting passion once again.  The piccolo pauses the action once more before the orchestra, full of previous ideas, moves forward in seeming total chaos until they unite in a driving rhythm to the conclusion.


Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)


It might seem odd that a leading Russian composer, who had never even set foot in Spain, could conjure up such dazzling images of the Spanish countryside; however, his skilled mastery of orchestration (how the instruments are used and combined) brings Spanish folk songs to new life.


Recognized as the leader of the Russian "Mighty Handful" or "The Five" that included Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov had little formal music training, especially regarding composition.  He spent his teen years at the naval college in St. Petersburg, during which he began to take piano and rudimentary composition lessons.  In his last year at the college, he met the older composer Mily Balakirev, who helped to guide Rimsky-Korsakov as he began work on his first symphony.  He graduated the following year and was soon assigned to a 3-year naval voyage that made port in New York, Brazil, and various European countries; working on his symphony in his spare time.  Soon after his return to Russia in 1865, at the age of 21, He premiered his completed symphony with great success.  A few years later, in 1871, he was appointed to composition professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, having relied on his instincts and experimentation while composing, he felt woefully undereducated for the position and confessed to having, “never written a single contrapuntal exercise in [his] life and that he didn’t even know the names of the augmented and diminished intervals or chords”.  In 1873, he began an ambitious course of study on music theory and composition.  Two years later, as a sort of final exam, he sent Tchaikovsky, to whom he often turned for professional advice, ten fugues (intricate musical puzzles, requiring a high level of musical theory and counterpoint understanding); Tchaikovsky declared them to be "impeccable".  Rimsky-Korsakov became a prolific composer, conductor, editor, and teacher; most notably, he exclusively taught private composition lessons to Igor Stravinsky, as well as wrote a textbook on the use of instruments in the orchestra.


It was soon after his initial successes in the late 1860's, that he and his compatriots were declared to be Russia's "Mighty Handful", a group of skilled composers who would build a Russian musical identity apart from the European west, an essential goal at the height of nationalism.  Ironically, nationalism involved depictions of other nationalities as much as one's own.  Capriccio Espagnol started out as a work for solo violin in the style of the Italian Capriccio which showcases the soloist's skill through a series of special effects and difficulty.  In the final version, Rimsky-Korsakov scatters virtuosic solos throughout the orchestra; but it is his use of the whole orchestra to achieve the capriccio's special effects that displays his true mastery of orchestration as he conjures images of the Spanish countryside.  The work was an instant success, proclaimed by Tchaikovsky to be a masterpiece of orchestration.


The five movements are performed attacca, or without pauses in between.  The first and third movements are based on the alborada (morning song); these would have been performed with bagpipes and a hand drum.  Therefore, the orchestra drones away with a full battery of percussion as the clarinet and violin exchange their jubilant solos in both movements.  The second movement begins with a romantic theme introduced by the horns; the orchestra takes the theme through five variations ending with chromatic runs and a low trill in the flute before returning to the fanfare-like alborada of the third movement, this time led by the solo violin.  The fourth movement Scena e canto gitano (Scene and Gypsy Song) begins with virtuosic cadenzas first in the brass, then the violin, followed by the flute, clarinet, oboe, and finally the harp.  The following gypsy song uses fragments of these cadenzas.  The gypsies give way as a little fanfare introduces the fandango asturina (a type of Andalusian dance) marked by the castanets.  The dance is propelled into a recapitulation of the albarada that acts like a coda for a furious and brilliant finish.

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