Pictures at an Exhibition
Pictures at an Exhibition exquisitely captures the many characters found in Victor Hartmann’s artwork, from delicate movements to powerful statements such as the work's finale, The Great Gate of Kiev. This composition has secured Hartmann a place in history, and an unforgettable conclusion to this season!
Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner - 2014 Gilmore Young Artist
Described as “absolutely beautiful” and “utterly satisfying” the works of Chinese-born American composer Zhou Tian have been performed by leading orchestras and performers in the United States and abroad.
Born in 1981 in Hangzhou, China, Zhou holds music degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School, and USC Thornton School of Music. He studied composition with Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Rouse, Stephen Hartke, Richard Danielpour, and Donald Crockett. He taught at Colgate University and joined the Michigan State University College of Music as associate professor of composition in 2016.
Trace was commissioned by The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and was originally titled Poem from a Vanished Time. Dr. Zhou has provided the following explanation of Trace:
The inspiration of the piece came from my experience of witnessing the disappearance of many old cities and traditional values in China due to the industrialization of the country in the last two decades.
Before coming to the US, I grew up in China during a special time. Since the early 80s (the post-Mao period and under the direction of reformer Deng Xiaoping), China has opened up to the rest of the world and has been growing economically at an extraordinary pace in order to adapt to the modern world. Although the result is what many call one of the greatest modernizations in the recorded history, the price of such growth in such a short period of time is exceedingly high: many small, ancient cities and landmarks have been destroyed (a vast city wall that can be traced back 2,000 years in my hometown, Hangzhou, was gone), the environment severely damaged, and many traditional cultural values lost.
As a composer, I have always wanted to create pieces that reflect my own personal experiences. After coming to the US a little more than 10 years ago, composing this piece felt like a glance back at a blurry past, as I was picking up the lost tunes and reconnecting them into new melodies. Trace is a fusion of Chinese musical elements and influences from Western culture. It uses a modern symphony orchestra to convey a sense of traditional Chinese romanticism and energy.
The work contains two contrasting parts, each introduced by an aria that features the solo violin – a musical narrator of the piece. Followed by a light opening that introduces many of the piece’s basic elements, the first aria is simple and melodic, with frequent, parallel key changes – as if bending time. The music slowly grows larger in orchestration and eventually reaches a full soundscape with increasingly expansive melody line and harmony. A second aria follows. Still and chorale-like, it is first supported by plush strings and then darkens dramatically with a cadenza-like violin solo and some dissonant brass chords. The opening melody returns in the solo violin, which ignites a contrasting, fast toccata. Built upon a short motif inspired by a traditional Chinese tune, the toccata highlights different players and groups in the orchestra (solos, pairs, trios and entire sections) to constantly refresh the timbre of sound. After reaching a climactic point, the work closes with a simple, airy coda, which grows more and more distant measure by measure, until it vanishes with a sigh.
©2017 Zhou Tan and John P. Varineau
Piano Concerto No. 2
Even though Sergei Rachmaninoff was considered the rising star (both as pianist and composer) in Russia, that didn’t spare him from disaster at the premiere of his first symphony. The critic Ceasar Cui called it “a program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt” with the potential of giving “acute delight to the inhabitants of Hell.” (It wasn’t necessarily the symphony itself; it was the performance. The conductor, Alexander Glazunov, wasdrunk!) Rachmaninoff went into a severe depression, unable to compose. Among the various suggested cures was a visit to Leo Tolstoy for inspiration. Tolstoy’s remarks didn’t help: “You must work. Do you think that I am pleased with myself? Work. I work every day.” And when he heard Rachmaninoff play his own music, the great man replied, “Tell me, do you really think anybody needs such music? I must tell you how much I dislike it.”
Finally, Rachmaninoff sought help from the hypnotist Dr. Nikolay Dahl. Rachmaninoff would lie half-asleep in the doctor’s study while Dahl would repeat “You will begin to write your concerto…You will work with great facility… The concerto will be of excellent quality…” It worked. “Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me,” Rachmaninoff wrote. Soon he had more than enough material for a concerto. He wrote the second and third movements first and performed them at a benefit concert. It was an instant success. Cured of his depression, he completed the first movement and premiered the entire work in 1901. Since then, it has become one of the most-loved piano concertos.
If there is a single characteristic of this concerto, it is its long unfolding melodies. It is also distinctive by how often the orchestra gets the melody and the piano only theaccompaniment. In each of the movements, the orchestra gets the first utterance of the tune. And in the last movement, the orchestra gets the last grand statement of the melody—later exploited by Frank Sinatra as “Full Moon and Empty Arms.” The first and second movements have faster middle sections that serve to expand on the content of the main melodies. The third movement begins quickly but has slower inner sections to accommodate the expansive melodies. Igor Stravinsky said that Rachmaninoff was the only pianist he had ever seen who did not grimace. Hearing Rachmaninoff’s melodies in this concerto, you can understand whyProgram notes by John Varineau
Pictures at an Exhibition
In the latter half of the nineteenth century a group of young, self-taught Russian composers consciously set out to invent a distinctly Russian style of music. It was an interesting collection of individuals. The leader of the group was the pianist Mily Balakirev. The others were Alexander Borodin (a doctor and chemist), César Cui (a military engineer), Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov (a naval officer) and Modest Mussorgsky (who worked in the Ministry of Communications). The music critic Vladimir Stassov dubbed this group “The Mighty Handful” (or “The Five”).
Modest Mussorgsky was the most individual composer of the lot. He was undisciplined, had a drinking problem, and rarely finished any of the many compositions he started. When he met the artist Viktor Hartmann, they soon became good friends. After Hartmann’s death at the age of 39, Mussorgsky decided to compose a tribute to his friend. It is a series of vignettes representing various works by Hartmann that were displayed at his commemorative retrospective. Mussorgsky originally wrote Pictures at an Exhibition as a monumental showpiece for solo piano. Its current blockbuster reputation is a result of the French composer Maurice Ravel, who recast it for orchestra.
Pictures at an Exhibition begins with a Promenade, a short bit of music that returns several times between the various movements. Its constantly shifting beat patterns, back and forth from six to five, portray Mussorgsky himself at the Exhibition. Stassov describes it as “moving now to the left, now to the right, now wandering about aimlessly, now eagerly making for one of the pictures.” Gnomus is Hartmann’s design for a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome with huge jaws. In Il vecchio castello, a troubadour stands singing in front of an old Italian castle. In Ravel’s orchestration, the troubadour is a saxophonist! Mussorgsky gave Tuileries a subtitle: “Children Quarreling After Play.” Here nurses observe the children in the gardens of Tuileries in Paris. The lumbering two-beat rhythm and extended tuba solo of Bydlo depicts an ox-drawn cart.
The exhibition catalogue described the Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells as a costume sketch for the play Trilby, produced by the Bolshoi Theater in 1871: “ Canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor. Instead of a headdress, canary heads put on like helmets down to the neck.” Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle is based upon two portraits owned by Mussorgsky and lent to the exhibition. The string sections depict Goldenberg sumptuously dressed in fur. The nervous trumpet is the poorly-dressed Schmuyle. The Marketplace in Limoges shows women in lively conversation in front of the cathedral of Limoges. Hartmann painted himself with a friend in a catacomb looking at a pile of skulls in Catacombae: Sepulchrum Romanum, and Mussorgsky himself explained the next movement Cum mortuis in lingau mortua: (With the Dead in a Dead Language): “Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls, calls out to them, and the skulls begin to glow dimly from within.”
The Hut of Baba-Yaga on Fowl’s Legs is about the famed Russian witch Baba Yaga, who ground up her captive’s bones and flew through the air on a huge pestle. Hartmann’s drawing is of a clock in the shape of the witch’s hut that stood on four chicken feet. This grotesque movement leads directly into the majestic Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann’s picture was an entry into a competition for a new gate in Kiev commemorating Czar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. Full of grandeur, this final movement also contains the seeds of the opening promenade.Program notes by John Varineau
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