The Conservatory Orchestra opens its season on an exuberant note with a beloved pastoral symphony and the world premiere of a work inspired by John Muir. In his debut as the Orchestra's new music director, Scott Sandmeier conducts Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 and Tree Ride by graduate student Justin Ralls '14, winner of the Conservatory's Highsmith Award. Ravel's fairy-tale inspired Ma mère l'oye rounds out the program. To hear Maestro Sandmeier in action with the Conservatory Orchestra and Mendelssohn, click here.
Ma mère l'oye
Justin Ralls (Highsmith Award winner)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Scott Sandmeier, conductor
Ravel Ma mère l'Oye
In the years leading up to World War I, Paris was a place where the mundane world could be transformed into something exceptional. Elite clubs met in dark corners where they developed ideas that would influence minds for the rest of time. It was in this energetic and heady atmosphere that Ravel's career flourished. He saw beauty in simple things, and was able to turn them into something from a fantasy world, filled with exoticism and mystery. Ravel's interest in fantasy was the perfect foundation for a whimsical portrayal of children's fairy tales.
From his birth on March 7, 1875, Maurice Joseph Ravel was immersed in an artistic and cultivated environment. Following his schooling at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel acquired a reputation for revolutionary talent and radical technique in composition, thanks in part to a public scandal: on his third attempt at the Prix de Rome, he was rejected for non-conformity. In 1910, Ravel wrote Ma mère l'Oye as a piano suite for four hands for the children of one of his closest friends. Despite the piece's innate simplicity, Ravel's orchestration of the work in 1911 met his reputation for revolutionary orchestrations. He was inspired by Charles Perrault's Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose Tales) and wished to represent them in a fashion that was simple but with elements of fun and fantasy––the foundation for the poetry of childhood.
In the first movement, "Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant" (Pavane of Sleeping Beauty), Ravel writes 20 measures showcasing one principle theme that is passed throughout the orchestra. Beginning in the flutes, the theme is manipulated and inverted, but always remains in the Aeolian mode. The extremely slow tempo and the haunting melody truly set the tone for the rest of the orchestral work.
"Petit Poucet" (Tom Thumb) is based on a well-known tale in which Tom Thumb, surprised that the birds have eaten his trail of crumbs, finds himself lost in the forest. The wandering melody traces Tom Thumb's path through increasingly foreboding surroundings and expresses his uncertainty in parallel thirds. Instruments join the texture in layers, heightening the anxiety until finally the bird's call, played by the flutes, leads Tom out of the forest.
Based on a text by Comtesse d'Aulnoy, "Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes" (Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas) portrays a tiny, ugly Empress who was sent away by her family to a beautiful castle in seclusion. Her only solace was playing music, and while she took baths, she had music play all around her. Ravel's music contains elements of orientalism, a very influential aesthetic of the time. The flutes and other wind instruments use the pentatonic scale, epitomizing eastern harmony. We also hear orientalist fantasy in the percussion parts which mimic the bells of East Asian pagodas.
"Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête" (The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) is Ravel's representation of the climax of the story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. The Beast asks Belle to marry him and upon her agreement, he is magically changed into a handsome prince. Musically, we are given a simple conversation between the clarinets, which grows in sentiment as other instruments join in. The Beast enters with a dissonant and minor voice in the low winds, brass and percussion. Belle's reply is portrayed by a flute and strings. They continue to converse until the climax, and then the music stops. Next we hear in the harp that the beast has changed to a handsome prince. In passages played by a violin and other strings, we hear Beauty and the Beast revel in their love and fortune.
"Le Jardin féerique" (The Fairy Garden) provides the grandiose ending that audiences of the time expected from Ravel's sophisticated techniques. Beginning with a pseudo sarabande, Ravel writes a slow and solemn tune, adding gradual layers. The violin solo illuminates the arrival of the fairies, and we are shown the beauty and mystique of the garden. With a crescendo, more fairies appear and the piece concludes with a brilliant and beautiful fanfare.
-Notes by Maggie Thompson
Justin Ralls Tree Ride
"I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,-Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,-and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,-singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,-manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen."
- John Muir, published in The Mountains of California
Tree Ride was inspired by John Muir's famous essay "Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba." The first time Muir consciously chose to make himself the subject of his writing, he recounts the ecstasy of climbing a douglas fir to "obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles." Muir's prose uses music as a persistent metaphor to relate his experience of listening to the wind. He describes the "profound bass" of branches and "boles booming like waterfalls; the quick tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur."
As if Muir was already describing an orchestra (which in a sense he was), I sought to compose a piece to Muir's program. Tree Ride begins smack dab in the tumultuous exuberance of the storm; perhaps Muir is already swinging in his tree. This opening sound world abruptly shifts, morphing into an elegiac and lyric orchestral crescendo-Muir and the listener swaying from the purely elemental realm and into the imaginative. The shifting textures work much like the wind, keeping the listener's experience always in flux. The use of color and orchestration are both derivative of natural process and an homage to the descriptive legacy of pastoral orchestral tone poems.
The storm continues in perpetual motion, pushing the listener through several climaxes only to finally pass over, fading into the distance, with the trees, as Muir states, "hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, 'My peace I give unto you.'"
I find Muir's translation of experience using poetic metaphor deeply captivating as I too strive to translate the experience of natural beauty through music, recounting my own time spent enjoying a proud thunderstorm, high in the Yosemite backcountry. Theodore Roosevelt said "conservation is the great moral dilemma of our time," and if we are to spiritually engage this dilemma and achieve harmony with our environment we must listen to what nature has to say-whether it is bird song or the prescient wisdom of storms. By listening in this way, we can, perhaps like Muir, transform our relationship with the natural world.
-Notes by the composer
Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
It is clear from the opening measures of the second symphony why Johannes Brahms referred to it as his "happy symphony." Yet, the composer famously teased his friends who had not heard the work, declaring it to be "so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it" and declared that the score must appear in mourning. Brahms was deeply conscious of both capacities in his own temperament. In a letter to a friend about the "happy" symphony, he wrote, "I would have to acknowledge that I am in addition a deeply melancholic person, that the black wings flutter continually over us…" The fluttering of the dark wings is certainly felt in the use of low brass throughout the symphony. Brahms suggested that they "throw the necessary shadow over the happy symphony." Brahms struggled to compose his first symphony for about twenty years. His second symphony, begun almost immediately after completion of the first, was written in only a few months in 1877.
The first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, opens in a joyfully pastoral mood, but within a minute the shadow of the trombones and kettledrums passes over. The technique of developing variation is overlaid on sonata form in this movement. The opening motive is transformed in a scherzo-like episode before the appearance of the second theme, recognizable as a minor-inflected variant of the iconic Brahms cradle song. This familiar melody is itself treated to variation, and the two main themes combine in an energetic fugato in the development. Prepared by a section marked sempre tranquillo, the coda is an almost comical whirl of variations: the opening theme reappears as a waltz, the scherzo-like material is even funnier, and Brahms inserts a quotation from his own euphorically joyful song Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze!
In the second movement, Adagio non troppo, the cellos introduce the main theme and are answered by the bassoons with a counter melody. A moment of tranquility is disturbed by a passing storm. Here again, Brahms achieves contrast of atmosphere between serenity of strings and sinister brass.
The third movement, a scherzo marked Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino), most delighted the audience at the symphony's first performance in 1877 under the direction of Hans Richter. Themes related to the motives of earlier movements flow through variations of minuet, waltz, music hall gallop and march in an almost giddy whirl. In a letter to his friend, the critic Eduard Hanslick, Brahms wrote, "you will say: this is not a serious work of art, Brahms has been sly…" And perhaps it was the whiff of the music hall and the reference to popular dance forms that brought the audience to their feet demanding an encore of this movement.
Quiet strings introduce the final movement, Allegro con spirito, but the serenity is shattered by an unexpected outburst of the full orchestra. The dark clouds associated throughout the symphony with low brass are resolved into glorious light. The tranquillo section in the middle of the movement reminds the listener of earlier moments of melancholy before the epic build to the finale. The final moment of this symphony leaves the audience in a triumphant and jubilant mood.
-Notes by Candace Whang and Susan Harvey
The Conservatory kicks off its orchestral season with a sidewalk celebration: a free Pop-Up Concert featuring the International Low Brass Trio. The trio serves up tunes from the Renaissance to contemporary pop in arrangements that boost the low-end, a great prelude to an evening of Brahms and Ravel performed by the Orchestra and new music director Scott Sandmeier. The music begins at 6:45 p.m. just outside the Conservatory entrance at 50 Oak Street. Donations will be accepted in support of local charities through Pop-Up Concerts for a Cause, a series sponsored by Hear it Local SF. The event is co-hosted by Street Stage, creators of mobile venues for performance art.
Café menu available from Café Crème two hours before orchestra performance and during intermission. www.sfcm.edu/cafe-creme. Order in advance at 415.503.6295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Performances are on September 28, 8 p.m. and 29, 2 p.m.
San Francisco, CA 94131
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