Mariposa Symphony Orchestra

 

The Mariposa Symphony Orchestra performing at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park for their Our Nation's Nature Tour Finale. Photograph by Al Golub - courtesy of the National Park Service.

The Mariposa Symphony Orchestra performing at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park for Our Nation’s Nature Tour Finale. August 21, 2016. Photograph by Al Golub – courtesy of the National Park Service.


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Notes by MSO Founding Music Director and Conductor Les Marsden
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Yes, we’re back! – or to be more accurate: I’m back following the initial stage of my recovery from two unexpected emergency spinal surgeries in August and September.  Full recovery will take a year or more, but – I’ve been cleared by my surgeons to return to the podium, so here we are!

In my absence, and in lieu of our 17th Season-Opening Concert in October which had to be canceled: stalwart members of the MSO organized and performed a weekend of THREE terrific chamber music concerts on October 26-28, ensuring our audiences weren’t deprived of the opportunity of hearing great classical music performed live, right here in Mariposa County.  And for that, I’m extremely grateful. This IS a magnificent group of musicians, isn’t it? And I appreciate every single one of them – and hope you do, too.

And now, on to our December 15th MSO Festive Holiday Concert:


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Symphony #7 in A, op. 92 (composed 1811-12; premiered December 8, 1813) Why Beethoven – at this time of year, on THIS concert?  Easy answer! His birthday is (by our best available documentation) December 16, so: Happy Birthday, Ludwig!

That – and the fact this symphony had its premiere exactly 205 years and one week before our December 15th MSO Festive Holiday Concert.   Plus: it’s a wonderfully enjoyable symphony – and despite the great fame of (particularly) Beethoven’s 9th, 5th, 3rd and 6th symphonies: the 7th rates as the special favorite of many music lovers and musicians.  This incredibly vibrant piece of music is so full of excitement and life – well, it seems as though its ink might have dried only yesterday.

Okay: Beethoven’s life is so well-known we only need a quick recap: he was born PROBABLY on December 16 of 1770 in Bonn into a middle-class family; like Mozart, he was extremely close to his mother and had a difficult father. Beethoven’s mother died when he was 16—and his father (a raging alcoholic) – just as Mozart’s father had: saw his incredibly talented musical prodigy son as a piggy bank and trotted him out to perform everywhere.  Beethoven’s father frequently beat him: from all accounts it was not a great childhood. And it was all made much worse when his mother—the only person who gave him unconditional love, nurturing and support—as well as a great respect for moral wisdom: died as noted above when he was 16. Again, this life experience bears great similarity to that of Mozart, whose mother died in 1778 when HER son was 22 and incredibly attached to HIS mother.   By the age of 26 Beethoven noticed his hearing was just beginning to go, which caused him incredible grief. A composer who had been attracting notice for his original talent, a stunning virtuoso pianist: and he was becoming deaf. He had studied with “Papa” (Franz Joseph) Haydn, who had virtually invented the “modern” classical form of the symphony and the string quartet and yet this young Beethoven was already chafing at the bit, eager to move beyond the then-accepted norms. Beethoven’s early compositions were very much in the “classical” mode, following the Haydn/Mozart examples—but even in his 1st symphony (in the key of C Major,) still modeled on the classical ideals of balance and restraint, he starts with a C7 chord: outlandish!  From that very first note Beethoven throws us a chord which technically must resolve itself AWAY from that symphony’s chosen key! By 1802, the 31-year-old Beethoven had become so tortured by his hearing loss—which had become more and more pronounced—that he became devastated. The increasingly depressed Beethoven went away to the town of Heiligenstadt in the spring of 1802 (only at the insistence of friends) for rest. There, that autumn, he wrote an amazing document which he kept hidden for the remaining 25 years of his life. Not discovered until after his 1827 death, the “Heiligenstadt Testament” was addressed to his two brothers but never sent. In it, the at-times suicidal 31-year-old called his hearing loss a “lasting malady” which was cutting him off from the world, from the nature he loved deeply and from his friends.  He confesses to suicidal plans in a document that reads like a will (and in this moving document, he leaves his belongings to his brothers, neither of whom he could stand.) It’s a testament—it’s nearly a final farewell: by a man on the brink of death. But that document then changes in tone to rail against fate as Beethoven defiantly writes of his art sustaining him—keeping him alive in the face of his terrible hearing loss. Art, his music: is claimed by Beethoven as his salvation in an amazing document. Very much a representation of the mercurial, defiant personality of the composer himself. That period would give birth to Beethoven’s first sketches for what was to become his Third (“Eroica”) Symphony – which the MSO has previously performed for you. And in that third symphony, the then-middle-aged Beethoven (he had only 26 more years to live) essentially reinvents himself: he’s reborn.  He takes a huge leap forward in his art and approach to music—and begins what is to be known as his “middle period.” And he does so in the way that most revolutionaries always do: by running roughshod over all that has come to represent convention, and by challenging all that has come before. Including all the lessons of his teachers and the examples of past masters—after all, Mozart was dead and Haydn’s final symphony was composed in 1795, though HE’D live another 14 years. And so to hell with them—is what Beethoven seemed to say.

And now a little more about his personal traits – which were part of the man himself, and which he retained to his final days.  It’s no secret: Beethoven was a man with a short fuse who was also absent-minded, notoriously greedy, ignored personal hygiene and was nearly dangerously paranoid. He got along consistently with no one.  He was also a dedicated anti-monarchist who defied convention, believing in the equality of all men. He scoffed even in the faces of those wealthy nobles whose patronage kept Beethoven alive. He once tried to brain one of those patrons—Prince Lichnowsky: with a chair. And his most important patron Prince Lobkowitz—in whose palaces the “Eroica” Symphony would receive its first private and public performances—and under whose grace the Seventh Symphony would first be performed: was the recipient of one of Beethoven’s worst tirades, as the composer brayed loudly from the door of one of those palaces to those outside—a growing crowd who heard Beethoven repeatedly yell: “Lobkowitz is a jackass!”  Beethoven – man-of-the-people, product of the Age of Enlightenment: passionately embraced the rise of perceived-populist Napoleon while also strongly identifying personally with that man. It’s probably how and also WHY Beethoven saw himself in Bonaparte: Napoleon, after all, was a common-born hero who—Beethoven believed, would first free France and then ALL Europe from the oppressive monarchy, before graciously bowing from the scene in order that true democratic republicanism could arise, with the self-rule of, by and for the people. Beethoven’s Third (“Eroica”) Symphony was a colossus dedicated to Napoleon – until Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France. Beethoven of course: took it personally.  Outraged at this betrayal, the distraught, irate Beethoven believed Napoleon was just like the monarchy. Greedy and power-hungry like all monarchs. So Beethoven famously furiously scratched out the inscription on the manuscript’s title page—it was no longer the “Bonaparte Symphony” but instead merely the “Eroica” – dedicated: “To the Memory of a Great Man.” In Beethoven’s eyes, Napoleon’s greatness was now only a memory and nothing more. And Napoleon had done the worst thing possible. He had PERSONALLY betrayed the true hero: Beethoven. And that period of his life says much about the man Beethoven. Revolutionary, defender of the common man – and passionate romantic.

After the Third symphony, Beethoven’s Fourth (1806) was a return – but only slightly – to classical form and style; that magnificent (1808) Fifth (which the MSO has also performed) with its “fate-knocking-at-the-door motif” recognized literally everywhere on the planet followed, as well as the “Pastoral” Sixth (which, yes – we’ve ALSO performed.)   Those three symphonies are intertwined: Beethoven interrupted his work on the Fifth (1804-1808) to write the Fifth; the Fifth AND the Sixth were actually premiered on the same marathon concert together, just about 210 years ago on December 22, 1808. But wait, there’s more: in addition to those two huge, lasting landmarks of modern symphonism, that concert ALSO featured Beethoven as soloist in his Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy – and many other works!  Truly, an astonishing amount of music for ANY concert – and all of it: was by Beethoven.

Which now brings us to the Seventh Symphony (in A Major, op. 92) – written in 1811-1812 and premiered – as noted at the beginning: on December 8, 1813 – exactly 205 years and one week ago.  Considered to be one of the greatest examples of the mature art of Beethoven, he began composing the 7th in the autumn of 1811 at the age of 40 – and would continue to work on it through the middle part of the following year.   On May 8, 1812 he wrote to his lawyer friend Joseph von Varena in Graz (Austria) “for the future Ursuline College, I promise you very soon a new symphony.”  It’s believed he actually did finish writing the Seventh on May 13, 1812. And not long thereafter, he wrote that the orchestral parts for his new symphony had been copied out under the aegis of Archduke Rudolf – so the piece was ready to go by June.   (And in one of his fastest turn-arounds, Beethoven completed his Eighth symphony just five months later.)

The Seventh Symphony wasn’t premiered for another 18 months, though – finally having its day on December 8, 1813 during a charity concert to raise funds for the wounded veterans of the recent Battle of Hanau, fought just five weeks previously.  It was conducted by the composer. The concert also marked the premiere of the orchestral version of Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” (see more below) – a piece the MSO has performed on more than one occasion. But at that concert on December 8, 1813, this brand-new Beethoven symphony – four years in the making – was received by an overwhelmingly enthusiastic Viennese audience – a first for him.  Previous premieres of his earlier symphonies were not always unanimously positive. Critics at the time wrote of the new symphony as “the richest in melody, the most satisfying and understandable of all Beethoven’s symphonies.” The work soon achieved a growing number of performances but brought Beethoven to a whole new level of fame when it was performed before an assembly of European princes and diplomats during the 1814 Congress of Vienna.

Before I walk you briefly through the entire symphony: about that second movement.  Perhaps the standout of the whole work; at the symphony’s premiere, and at many subsequent performances, the audiences demanded an encore of that second movement.

It’s something of a funeral march – and the second of the two Beethoven composed for a symphony (the other being in the Third (“Eroica”) Symphony.)  But here’s the tricky part: Beethoven loved the metronome. He was on very good terms with Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who is credited with inventing the metronome.   Their friendship may have become close when Maelzel invented a dandy new and improved ear-trumpet in 1808, and of course we’re all familiar with the pictures of Beethoven with one of THOSE jammed into his ear.  In any event, they were good friends until they had a typically-Beethovenian falling-out over the composer’s “Wellington’s Victory” – and that incident actually went so far as to result in a lawsuit in 1814; so much for their earlier friendship.   Beethoven described Maelzel in this deposition as “a rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation.” However: by 1817, they seemed to have overcome that little legal hurdle and were once again on good terms. That MAY have had something to do with Maelzel’s little invention, first manufactured the previous year: the metronome.

Beethoven thought it a magnificent invention; imagine: being able to record on paper precisely how fast or slow a movement or work was intended (by its composer) to be played – and not merely in subjective terms like “Allegro” or “Adagio.”   And so Beethoven painstakingly amended all his earlier works with precise metronome markings – claiming in 1817 he would never use those (and other) tempo terms – at least not without writing precisely how many beats per second he demanded in all subsequent performances of all his works.   So: from the horse’s mouth (or pen) we now know exactly how fast Beethoven wanted all his works to be played.

BUT: for decades upon decades, it was generally thought that Beethoven’s tempo markings couldn’t possibly correct – being, for the most part: far too fast.   And for a good century after his death, conductors and performers took their OWN speeds – instinctual speeds, speeds which they felt: made more sense that Beethoven’s own.

The second movement of the Seventh Symphony is a case in point.   It’s a funeral march. It’s SUPPOSED to go slowly. But his tempo (metronomic) marking was a fairly brisk Allegretto with the designation of = 76.   So most conductors ignored his markings and took that movement at a much slower, gut-wrenching tempo – redolent of a true tragic dirge.   And so it went. Until – for the most part, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini in the 1930s began taking Beethoven (and his tempi) at the composer’s word, with near-metronomic precision from the start to finish of each movement, each symphony, even sometimes at breakneck speed in the movements marked with particularly fast tempi: and people began to see that second movement of the Seventh (particularly) in a new light.   At the time, Toscanini’s approach didn’t really catch on – and conductors continued to take the movement at a funereal = 60 or even much slower.   Over the past thirty or so years, with the “historically-informed-performance” trend (complete with authentic early instruments) taking hold, some still do slow that movement down, but nowadays most conductors take it at least at a tempo of = 66 or thereabouts.   Or, sometimes: as Beethoven precisely dictated: = 76

But then, just when you think we know what we’re doing – a final word: we have the claim of “absolute authority” that Beethoven had his OWN doubts when it came to THAT particular metronome marking – according to the musicologist Martin Gustav Nottebohm (1817-1882.)   Nottebohm claimed that (though he didn’t actually KNOW the composer) he had rock-solid documentary evidence that Beethoven regretted that tempo later in life, and that the “anxious” composer had expressed the wish that the movement not be taken “too fast” and that he would have preferred to change the tempo marking from the “Allegretto” (moderately fast) with that metronome marking he left of = 76 to instead: “Andante quasi Allegretto” (moderately slow, though feeling moderately fast.)  Though Nottebohm doesn’t have an actual metronome marking from Beethoven – or much, other than word of mouth from after the TIME of Beethoven: to back up his claim.   That’s where musicianship comes into play; that’s where a conductor must do his or her homework. It is, after all: about carrying out the intent of the composer. As best as that intent can be confirmed.

The Seventh begins with a slow, lengthy introduction featuring full-orchestral tutti chords in the home key of A Major, while oboe, clarinets, horns and then all woodwinds add their simple comments.   Ascending scales – quietly at first, but soon in full-orchestral fortissimo: add to the tension and building excitement before it all settles down in an air of anticipation with a little of Beethoven’s usual (deliberate) impish misdirection.  Incidentally – and despite that second movement’s serious tone, this symphony is, overall: one of Beethoven’s most upbeat – and humorous…especially if you appreciate the composer’s propensity for musical leg-pulling. The introduction eventually gives way to a lilting, dance-like 6/8 rhythm in a very quick Vivace (fast!) tempo.   Beethoven throws in his sudden harmonic shifts – never going where he leads you, but instead surprising the listener by going THERE instead; romping through several key changes while developing his material. It’s classic sonata-form, though interpreted through the hands of a master at the top of his game. The development section is in two of the brightest, sunniest keys – C and F Major – and after the recapitulation, we end up at the coda, in which one of my favorite features of ALL Beethoven’s works is heard (it’ll reappear in the final movement, too) – and that’s a wonderfully funny, unsettling repetitive deep twirling on and around the pedal point – chromatically.   There’s something just do – audacious, deliberately nose-tweaking – and flat-out fun about Beethoven’s inventiveness in throwing that motif at the listener. And then – cyclically doing something very similar in the final movement.

The second movement: I’ve already written far too much about THAT one!   But suffice it to say it’s a set of variations upon two simple tunes, but in the hands of a master it becomes far more than described.   Predominantly in the key of a minor, with a central section shifting to A Major before returning to a minor. Listen – and hear why that movement received demands for a second hearing at its premiere, and at many concerts to follow.

The third movement is a Beethovenian Scherzo (in Italian, scherzo means a “joke”) which is a form he really developed far beyond the landler origins Haydn imbued in the predecessor movement’s place in symphonic form.   This scherzo moves quickly – it’s in ¾ time, though beaten in a fairly fast One. It’s mostly in the key of F Major, and – like most scherzi, has not one but two trio sections; trios were originally played by three instruments/groups – and thus the not-so-accurate title that stuck with subsequent musical works’ “trio” sections isn’t a strict one.   In this symphony, as he did in others: Beethoven uses the same trio twice, rather than creating a new second (or in some composers’ rarer case: a THIRD trio) – and he does it to great effect. The trio(s) are based upon an old Austrian pilgrim hymn; Beethoven places the trio in the key of D Major. But we always return to the scherzo’s main section in F.  And typically for Beethoven: he DOES return to the trio a final time – and just when we think we’re in for yet another repetition, he pulls a switch on us before the trio really gets going – and with a wink, an abrupt, humorous ending linked to the initial material ends the movement nearly before we realize what has just happened.

The finale!  As I’ve told the members of the orchestra in rehearsal, this movement has ALWAYS felt to me as though it begins with a rolling-up of shirtsleeves and a resolved determination to – what?  Begin a good battle? Go to work? Immediately plunge into action? All that and much more, and it feels inexorable, in the best sense of that word. It’s a real workout, and begins with two attention-getting thunderbolts, hurled by Beethoven right at the listener.  This is just amazing writing – and while it may really take a lot out of the musicians, many of ours have told me this is their personal favorite of all Beethoven’s nine. Me? I love them all equally – though I give the edge to whatever of the nine I might be hearing or conducting at the time!  Listen especially near the end for that repeat of the bending, unsettling chromatic wandering pattern of the tonic bass. Prior to Beethoven, no one would have dared such a thing – but it is, simply: wonderful. But do it, he does – before, in a remarkably wound-up movement: bringing it all to a sudden, knowing – and satisfying end

The overwhelming reason (I feel) this symphony has become one of Beethoven’s most popular, and was so from its first performance?   It’s a symphony filled with the rhythms of dance – from beginning to end. And deliberately so. It’s a positive, upbeat (aside from that funeral march!) symphony – with the mischievousness of Beethoven brimming over.   It’s impossible to not like this symphony – and Beethoven makes it very easy indeed simply to love it.

And now, speaking of the nine Beethoven symphonies – shall I tell you my little dream?   In two years – on December 16th, 2020: we’ll celebrate the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.  And I would love to have a very special performance right here in Mariposa: of Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony to pay our respects.   You know: the one with the “Ode to Joy” Finale?   We’re ready; the MSO can handle it. I believe the Mariposa Community Chorus could step up for that choral finale, and I’d bring in four professional vocal soloists for THOSE very demanding parts.   The ONLY stumbling block? We just don’t have an appropriately-large-enough or suitable concert hall. The Fiester can barely hold the MSO – let alone a chorus of 25 – 30 and room for the soloists downstage.

So for now, I can only dream – and hope that somewhere, somehow: a suitable concert venue will arise, though that ISN’T going to happen in time for Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Party on December 16, 2020…

 


JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825–1899): Overture to the operetta “Die Fledermaus” (1874)

Think twice before telling your children what to do.  Johann Strauss (the father) was an accomplished musician and composer who gained fame and fortune with his dance orchestra in Vienna – but was a strict disciplinarian who laid down the law: none of his six children were to have anything to do with music – and he decreed future non-musical careers for each of his sons, whether they were interested or not.

Well, of course Johann Jr. was captivated by music, studying the violin in secret with the concertmaster of the father’s own orchestra. But Pop caught the kid practicing the violin one day and punished him violently for it (now THERE’S a new one: a parent punishing a kid for actually practicing an instrument) with father claiming he would “beat the music out of” his son.  He was probably only trying to spare his kids the uncertainly and inconstancy of the music profession, but it had the opposite effect. When Father abandoned his family for his mistress in 1844, Strauss (Jr) was free to pursue music and probably did so vindictively after the betrayal he must have felt by that rotten father of his. He was a better musician and businessman than his father and was hired as his father’s equal – if not his better. The son composed music like his father, but unlike Dad, Junior really made the Viennese Waltz which his father had pioneered into a far more musically sophisticated art form. After Dad’s early death in 1849 – the surviving 24-year-old Johann Strauss consolidated his orchestra with musicians from his father’s and soon became literally the toast of the international music world. A great friend of Johannes Brahms (who on more than one occasion noted that he would have given anything to have written the “Blue Danube” Waltz and who once signed Strauss’ wife Adele’s fan by transcribing on it a couple bars from her husband’s “Blue Danube,” and then “alas, not by Johannes Brahms!”) Strauss eventually composed some 500 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, marches and galops, as well as at least 17 operettas.  

His most famous operetta by far – is “Die Fledermaus” – the German word for “flying/flitter mouse” – or more directly, “bat.”   Though sometimes the operetta is also known in the plural as “Die Fledermause” or even as “The Bat’s Revenge.” Whatever the case, it’s a frothy Viennese party, with a detailed yet inconsequential plot to serve as the structure to hold all the fun together.  

Written in an astonishing 42 days (this is a work that CAN run nearly two-and-a-half hours, mind you!) the operetta was an instant smash hit from its first performance.  The plot? In a nutshell, we open at the mansion of wealthy Eisenstein – whose household is in a tizzy. Chambermaid Adele has been invited to a big-deal ball at Prince Orlofsky’s palace – she needs that night off, but when she tells a lie about her Aunt being sick, she’s not believed.   THEN we hear (outside) Alfred singing a serenade for Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde, with who he once dallied. She realizes that in order to have a rendez-vous with her old lover, Rosalinde needs to clear out the house, so she ends up giving Adele the night off to go to the party at Orlofsky’s.  Eisenstein? He’s been sentence to a brief jail term for a minor infraction; at the prompting of his friend Falke, he plans to go to Orlofsky’s shindig WITHOUT Rosalinde knowing – just so he can have one last fling before the pokey doors swing shut. Okay! All set! Eisenstein leaves for Orlofsky’s, Alfred comes in ready for HIS dalliance with Rosalinde and puts on Eisenstein’s robe.  But – the Prison Governor Frank shows up to arrest Eisenstein – and assumes Alfred is Eisenstein! So as not to compromise Rosalinde, Alfred claims that yes, he’s Eisenstein and is led off for jail.

Act II takes place at Orlofsky’s ball and a farce is underway plotted by Falke for the guests’ enjoyment – but for another reason as well; Chambermaid Adele shows up in Rosalinde’s ball gown and claims to be a great actress; Eisenstein is nobly introduced as the Marquis Renard.   But then – that Prison Governor Frank is introduced as Chevalier Chagrin; he’s suspicious when the disguised Eisenstein doesn’t speak French. And then, none other than Rosalinde shows up as a Hungarian countess. Eisenstein is SO flustered when he recognizes the great actress as actually being his wife’s chambermaid that he doesn’t even recognize his own wife – who’s masquerading as that Hungarian Countess!  There’s payment for a past prank to be had: Eisenstein once got Falke drunk at another ball and then dressed him as a bat, at which point he was mocked by everyone. The ball goes on and on, as the guests become drunker and drunker – nearly to the point of a frenzy. It’s during this fun, giddy drunken ball scene that tradition has it that celebrities – even non-singing ones – make cameo appearances, and it’s another reason the entire operetta can sometimes make for a VERY long evening!   The act ends as the clock (incorrectly – deliberately tampered with by Falke) chimes the hour and off goes Eisenstein and Governor Frank on their separate paths to the city.

The final act?  Prison. Alfred’s singing away in a cell while still wearing the robe of – and masquerading as: Eisenstein.   Adele shows up – now convinced she wants to actually become an actress, and she calls on the hung-over Governor Frank, asking for his patronage.   Eisenstein arrives to turn himself in, but discovers he (as portrayed by Alfred) already DID – and now suspects his wife’s infidelity. Rosalinde and Eisenstein now swear revenge upon each other and both offer proof of the others’ infidelity.  But now, of course: the happy ending! All the ball guests arrive and the entire ball scheme is revealed as Falke’s mischief; all is forgiven, Rosalinde and Eisenstein make up – of course, it was the evening’s CHAMPAGNE that was to blame!

The operetta has become a fixture of the holiday season, and the music of Strauss has become linked with the New Years celebrations in Vienna and subsequently, the world over.   The glorious overture to “Die Fledermaus” contains hit numbers from the entire operetta – each one a gem. But perhaps the most famous of all is the “Fledermaus Waltz” with its stop-start nature.   Classic waltz; classic operetta – and this, is a very classic comic operetta overture!

 

 

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893): Waltz from the Ballet “The Sleeping Beauty” (1889-90)  

We now come to that famed waltz from the middle of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets – “The Sleeping Beauty” – a work by composed by one of the greatest melodists ever.  And not surprisingly, one of the world’s most beloved composers, hands down. Period.

Now I may sound a bit biased, and well: I am.  To me, great music touches our hearts as well as our minds – not merely our intellect alone.  Sure – one can admire the architecture or technique of a composition, even if it’s conceived along flat-out academic or theoretical lines alone.  But it’s tough to love such music if it doesn’t also stir passion, or touch the soul, or make one chuckle or feel sadness or giddiness or melancholy or any other of the myriad emotions which we all share and which ultimately make us HUMAN.  Which may help to explain why the composers that rank among my favorites are those who could do just that. And Tchaikovsky is high in that pantheon. Few composers could so brilliantly tap into the universal emotions we all experience and then – miraculously: share those emotions so clearly through their music.  Even those listeners not conditioned to or raised with the sound of so-called Western music recognize human emotions in well-written music.

Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in the Votkinsk region of Russia, a largely metallurgically-important industrial area even to this day.  Fortunately, the boy’s father (Ilya Petrovich) was the government bureaucrat in charge of mine inspections in the region and the family was quite well-off.   Tchaikovsky’s mother Alexandra (d’Assier) – to whom the boy was utterly devoted: was some 18 years younger than her husband and of French ancestry. All five Tchaikovsky boys (besides Pyotr, there were Nikolai, Ippolit and twins Anatoly and Modest – the last of whom would prove to be closest to Pyotr and ultimately, his librettist, biographer and chronicler) and the one girl (also named) Alexandra were raised with the best education possible with emphasis on the arts, which both parents valued highly.   The young Pyotr was high-strung and highly sensitive and as well, he was a Francophile not only due to his maternal ancestry but also because of the children’s French governess Fanny Dürbach, who was only Pyotr’s senior by 19 years and to whom Pyotr would remain close until his death. He demonstrated great love and very high aptitude for music at the earliest age but was also plagued at times by music he heard in his head – and wasn’t able to stop hearing: it would at times prevent him even from sleeping.  It was determined the child would have a career in law, and at age ten he was summarily packed off to the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg: moving abruptly, and alone: from the sticks far west of Moscow all the way to imperial Russia’s grandest, most European city. The loneliness was devastating to the boy, but his parents thought it the best thing for him as music at that time was not fathomable as a career other than as a professor or instructor, which was deemed to be nearly as low on the societal totem pole as it was to be a serf or peasant.  When the boy was age 14, his mother suddenly died of cholera back home and the young Pyotr was hugely devastated – it was a pain he would carry to the end of his life, noting to the end that even remembering the event of nearly 40 years earlier was just as fresh an painful to him as it had been at the time. Perhaps as consolation, in 1855 Tchaikovsky’s father did establish private music lessons for his son while he studied at the School of Jurisprudence; his teacher pronounced him (in a letter to his father) as not possessing any traits or talents which (in his eyes) could see a future in music for the boy.  All I can say about that is: hah – history is littered with so many incorrect pronouncements.

Pyotr graduated from the School of Jurisprudence at 19 and immediately began a career as an assistant in the Ministry of Justice – during which (at age 21) he began to continue his musical studies on the side at the recently established Russian Musical Society.  The RMS was the creation of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (Tsar Alexander II’s aunt) and the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was to play a pivotally important role in Tchaikovsky’s training and future. Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai was also to become an important proponent, advisor and at times, critic of Tchaikovsky’s music – but Tchaikovsky was in the right place at the right time.  The Russian government had decided to train its own and emphasize the Russian arts and as well, to raise the esteem of the arts in the country and in 1862 the St. Petersburg Conservatory was opened, and there Tchaikovsky continued his studies. The arts were blooming all over Russia – and this was also the time during which the “Mighty Five” were planting their own “anti-conservatory” musical seed – as I’ve noted in past programs when we’ve presented the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin (the other members of that cadre were Cui and Balakirev.)  To make a long story short, Tchaikovsky quickly distinguished himself as a student, was hired to teach harmony and theory at the conservatory upon his graduation – and by 1862 had left the Ministry of Justice for good following his three year career there: at the age of 22 he finally became a musician for life. He continued to teach at the conservatory while also serving as a music critic for many years; (late in his career as a critic, he notably attended and reviewed the first performance of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen from August 13 – 17, 1876 in Bayreuth, Germany.  He was not terribly amused.)

But back to the 1860s: his music received its first professional public performance on September 11, 1865 when his “Characteristic Dances” was conducted by none other than the visiting famed Johann Strauss (II) at a concert in Pavlovsk Park – yes, THAT Johann Strauss, represented at our December 15 Festive Holiday Concert via his “Die Fledermaus” Overture.  

Money woes were to plague Tchaikovsky to the end of his life; he had no concept of living frugally.  But as his music became better known through the years and his admirers grew in numbers, he was contacted in 1876 by the rich railroad widow Nadezhda von Meck – who was enamored of his music, absolutely enraptured by it.  She offered him an annual income which would allow him to focus on composing music; his fourth symphony was dedicated to von Meck “to my dearest friend” and their relationship was one of the strangest in all history: his income was contingent upon their never meeting in person.  And aside from one brief, uncomfortable, wordless encounter during which Tchaikovsky nervously tipped his hat and they moved on without missing a step; (at a distance, mind you!) on the grounds of her estate (an estate that included the young Claude Debussy as resident pianist!), they never did.  But they corresponded constantly, leaving volumes throughout their 14 year association. Their 1,200+ letters (which I’ve read in their entirety) reveal a remarkable portrait of the man and his (as they referenced each other:) “Beloved Friend.”

Early successes by Tchaikovsky included his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture and his First and Second Symphonies (the latter subtitled the “Little Russian”) – all of which the MSO has performed over the past few years.   As his fame grew, the works he composed were to become world-famous; from the eventual six symphonies to the Festival Overture “1812,” the three piano concertos (the first of which is probably the best-known and loved piano concerto ever written) as well as the violin concerto (ditto re: best loved/known for THAT genre,) innumerable orchestral works, the string quartets and much more chamber music, all the solo piano music, the Swan Lake and later Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker ballets, the 10 operas including Eugene Onegin and the Queen of Spades: he was a master nearly from the start.  In 1892, he was named a member of France’s distinguished Académie des Beaux-Arts, only the second Russian to be so honored. By the end of his life, he had received honorary degrees from (among others) Cambridge University in England – and was truly an honored and respected composer of the first rank in his own lifetime.

By 1891, he was so celebrated throughout the world that he became the star attraction when Carnegie Hall opened in Manhattan and he was feted there like the legend he had become, conducting his own music at the opening.   But at that time – at the age of 50: he looked and sounded more like a man of 70. He no longer smiled for photographs because – as he wrote: he had lost some of his teeth and he declined from public speaking as well. His hair was starkly white and he felt old and tired.  He also felt himself (incorrectly, of course) to be “written-out” – to have no more music in him. How wrong he was; some of his greatest, most accomplished music was to come in those final couple of years. He was commissioned to compose a two-act ballet and a one-act opera – both to premiere on the same evening’s bill at the Mariinsky Theatre on December 18, 1892.   The subjects of both works were to be of Tchaikovsky’s own selection, and he opted for two stories he’d always enjoyed and thought would be appropriate for Christmastime performances. The ballet was to be The Nutcracker (based upon the E.T.A. Hoffman tale of the Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King) and the opera was Iolanthe, based upon Kong Renés Datter (King René’s Daughter) – a Dutch play by Henrik Hertz, with the opera’s Russian libretto written by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest.   Tchaikovsky wrote after the premiere performance: “Apparently the opera gave some pleasure but the ballet not really and as a matter of fact despite all the sumptuousness it turned out to be somewhat boring.” And as I hope you know from our past performances of the Suite from that Nutcracker Ballet, he wrote some of his most exquisite music FOR that work.

Tchaikovsky was to die on November 6, 1893 – less than a year after the premiere of The Nutcracker and shortly after conducting the premiere of his final symphony: the Sixth, which he and Modest subtitled “Pathétique” – and which stands as (probably) my favorite work of music – and not just of Tchaikovsky’s music, but of all music.   The cause of his death? Cholera – the very same water-borne disease he had despised and feared since the age of 14 when it took his beloved mother away. In 1893, in those final months Tchaikovsky had left him, he went from the unbridled, wide-eyed youthful joy of The Nutcracker to (ultimately) that final, brilliant masterpiece – the Pathétique.  What might he have produced had he lived beyond 53? He was at the absolute height of his creative powers, of fame, of mastery of music – what else might he have had in him? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Tchaikovsky was by nature a somber man, even for a Russian in the waning decades of the Tsarist regime. But he could—and frequently did write music that is uproariously happy, even when his personal life was in devastated turmoil.  Just between us: he was far more than a penner of great tunes. Though he broke down few doors in the manner of a Beethoven, he truly knew what to do with those tunes, with form, with harmony.

As for Nadezhda von Meck: in 1890 she suddenly, with no warning, painfully cut Tchaikovsky off from further endowments, claiming bankruptcy.  She wasn’t, though her empire was suffering fiscal loss. She was, however—at age 59: dying of tuberculosis and knew it. The 49-year old composer was devastated, wondering why?  Had he had offended her? Though by now world-famous and able to support himself, he never knew the true reason for the break. They were rumored to be reconciling (vicariously) in late 1893, though not back in communication, when Tchaikovsky succumbed to cholera at the age of 53 just nine days after the premiere of his final, brilliant Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique.”  And von Meck followed him to the grave some six weeks later from her terminal TB—as her daughter wrote: unable to survive the death of her “Beloved Friend” – the man she never met.

Though the Tchaikovsky ballet most associated with the Christmas season is, of course “The Nutcracker” – which we’ve performed with some frequency in the past, this year I wanted to present a representative of one of Tchaikovsky’s other beloved ballets: the Act I Valse (Waltz) (#6) from 1888-89’s “The Sleeping Beauty.”   Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, the 1876-77 “Swan Lake” was not a great success at its premiere or two brief revivals during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime and in fact, wouldn’t achieve the admiration and respect it truly deserved until its 1895 revival two years after the composer’s death. Nor really, did 1891’s “The Nutcracker” – his third and final ballet: raise the roof.   Again – it had to wait until well after Tchaikovsky’s death to achieve true renown.

But “The Sleeping Beauty” was a different story.   Commissioned for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre by theatre director Ivan Vsevolozhsky – who in 1881 had secured royal patronage from Tsar Alexander III to raise the standards in all St. Petersburg’s theatres – as well as sufficient funding to present productions properly (bad sets, choreography and other problems had been part of “Swan Lake’s” inability to wow its audiences) and of course, the securing of Russia’s leading composer of the day – Tchaikovsky: would make all the difference in the world.   Vsevolozhsky asked Tchaikovsky for a ballet with both feet literally set in the baroque AND rococo periods and he specifically expressed his interest in the tale “La Belle au bois dormant” by the sixteenth-century write Charles Perrault. Vsevolozhsky outlined specifics – all of which apparently aroused Tchaikovsky’s interest as he wrote back “It’s impossible for me to tell you how charmed and captivated I am.” But it was apparently the great range of expression – including the dark side of the timeless tale – that appealed to Tchaikovsky.   He responded with another great full-length score – this one running over two-and-a-half hours. He claimed to have spent only forty days composing this ballet, which he completed on June 7, 1889 – though the ensuing orchestration was apparently problematic for Tchaikovsky. The premiere on January 15, 1890 was an unqualified success – though Tchaikovsky DID register his dismay following the public rehearsal on January 14, with these words he penned into his diary:

“Rehearsal of the ballet attended by the Tsar.
‘Very nice’!!!!!  His majesty was very
haughty with me.  Shame about him.”

The plot is far too well-known for me to recount here – and especially as the 1959 Walt Disney animated film brought the famous story to an even broader audience – with the assistance of long-dead Tchaikovsky’s score, liberally “borrowed” from the composer for use throughout the film.

Tchaikovsky was a master of the waltz form – as he was of all dance forms.   Some of his more famous waltzes are those found in the Fifth Symphony, in the “Serenade for Strings,” in all three ballets (perhaps most strikingly in “The Nutcracker’s” “Waltz of the Flowers,” Waltz of the Snowflakes,” the stunning “Final Waltz and Apotheosis,” etc) as well as the operas – with the Waltz from “Eugene Onegin” winning special honors – and even the deliberately limping, off-kilter waltz movement of his final symphony – the Sixth (“Pathetique”) – in which the waltz isn’t in 3/4, but is actually, brilliantly: in 5/4 time.   The “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” is immediately recognizable – it’s one of those rare pieces that’s well-known not only for its use in commercials, cartoons, popular culture including films (beyond the Disney “Sleeping Beauty”) but simply because it comes from one of the most famous, oft-played ballets itself.

 

 

ÉMILE WALDTEUFEL (1837-1915): Les Patineurs (or “Skaters’”) Waltz(es) (1882)

Émile Waldteufel came from a French border area.   Born Charles Émile Lévy in Strasbourg in the heavily German-influenced Alsace region into a family of Jewish musicians (Bavarian mother, Alsatian father,) young Émile’s life story bears certain similarities to that of Johann Strauss II.  Both had fathers who were composers, both fathers were also leaders of their own orchestras, both sons far outpaced their fathers in popularity, fame and sheer talent – although the relationship enjoyed by père et fils Waldteufel was definitely far more cordial than that of the Strausses.   Young Émile was found to have considerable musical talent at a young age and began his studies (on piano, as well as other musical disciplines) at 15 after he was accepted for study at the famed (again, see Lalo!) Paris Conservatoire – that venerable institution established by the French government in 1795 and still going strong today.   The family had already moved to Paris lock, stock and barrel when Émile’s elder brother Léon was accepted by the Conservatoire (on violin,) helping to pave the way for Émile when the younger frère applied. But in the meanwhile, father Louis’ orchestra became all the rage in Paris and Émile came to conduct the orchestra at certain state events when his father was indisposed; Émile also was appointed court pianist to Empress Eugénie – thus establishing a connection to the French imperial government at the very highest levels.   

Fortunately, the end of the monarchy in 1870 France was hardly a hiccup on the road of fame to the Waldteufels: with the fall of the Second Empire, the musicians transitioned easily to the new third republic, serving presidents now instead of a monarchy.  Somewhat ironically, with the end of the Franco-Prussian war, the Waldteufels’ Alsace-Lorraine native region was annexed from France to the German Empire. Strasbourg became Strassburg. But – the Waldteufels had become Parisians and Émile’s fame began to spread far afield.  

In October of 1874 he played (piano) for the future King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, who was smitten by 30-year-old Émile’s talent – and particularly by the Frenchman’s original compositions.  The path was immediately smoothed for Waldteufel’s music to be performed in England, and a British publisher contracted with Waldteufel to print and market his music in the UK, further disseminating the music including through its very own in-house dance orchestra.  Before long, Waldteufel’s music was played at Buckingham Palace, where none other than Queen Victoria herself WAS amused.

Waldteufel’s music spread like wildfire, and he was persuaded to present concerts all over Europe, enhancing his fame further.  A highly prolific composer of more than 300 light waltzes, marches, polkas, gallops, mazurkas and other dance-oriented music, his best-known, best-loved waltz was written in 1882 as “Les Patineurs” or “The Skaters” and is celebrated for his languid, long lines and graceful tune-leading.  Far less hectic than Strauss (II)’s music can be at times, and more elegant too, arguably. You’ll of course recognize this hugely-familiar piece – and it’s easy enough, while listening: to imagine a winter scene at a frozen pond, with ice skaters gracefully maneuvering in singles and pairs, with the occasional sleigh bell passage; this is an old-fashioned, snowy holiday scene in the best possible aural interpretation imaginable.       

 

 


LES MARSDEN (1957-):
Sierra Christmas Party (2002+)

The less said about this (thankfully) final piece on our concert program the better: but I will say that Sierra Christmas Party has closed each MSO December concert since our very first concert sixteen years ago – on December 21, 2002.  This piece was quickly (or recklessly?) composed by a certain unfortunate individual whose name-must-not-be-spoken.   It was written at the instigation of local legend Miriam Costello, so please blame her. Over the last decade the piece has had additions from time to time until it got so out of hand I decided to cut it back down to what I considered to be its optimal length and froze it there!   There’s really very little else to be said about this, my errant musical child – other than the fact that we do wish you the best sentiment, as is contained in the spoken line just before the piece’s conclusion. And in any case, we do offer to you sincerely – with this concert: a wonderfully Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Winter Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Pancha Ganapati, Jolly Yule.  As noted at the start of these notes: from the MSO’s very beginning, I wanted our annual Festive Holiday Concert to be an evening during which we might all come together under the finest of circumstances for a little good old-fashioned musical Holiday joy—best summed up by that (spoken) final line of Sierra Christmas Party.  No matter what holiday you celebrate, the line works for ’em all and so please: if you do remember that line, feel free to jump right in and shout it out with this, YOUR very own symphony orchestra!

Tickets for the MSO’s Saturday, December 15th Festive Holiday Concert are now available at the following prices:

General Admission: $10 Adults, $6 Students.  Special prices for Mariposa County Arts Council Members: $8 Adults, $5 Students. Tickets are now available online via our MCACI Shop page http://tinyurl.com/MSOTickets   Tickets are also available in person at the Mariposa County Arts Council’s office and Treetop Gallery on the top floor of the Chocolate Soup store at the southern entrance to the town of Mariposa.  Call (209) 966-3155 for tickets and information. Information is available at http://tinyurl.com/MariposaSO .   

E-mail MSO@sti.net  and ask to be added to the private, exclusive “Friends of the MSO” e-list.

 


Take a look at the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra’s mini-documentary!

For the full story behind “Our Nation’s Nature” and for program notes, please click here.

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About the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra

mso1In 2002, Mariposa County Arts Council Board Director Les Marsden proposed creating a modest Mariposa chamber music ensemble. The idea was considered outlandish in this rural, sparsely populated region, but ten players became 19 by the first rehearsal in September of 2002 before growing to 31 musicians by the December 21, 2002 premiere concert. The newly-named Mariposa Symphony Orchestra’s very first piece of music performed founder/conductor Marsden’s ‘Mariposa Festival Overture’ composed for and dedicated to the MSO’s founding musicians. In the ensuing years, the orchestra has grown to 60 musicians and boasts an impressive history of performances in three counties, as well as an annual performance in Yosemite National Park, the only symphony orchestra afforded that opportunity in the park’s history. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Pachelbel, Bizet, Bach, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Barber, Hanson, Mussorgsky, Copland, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Joplin, Dvořák and many more great mso2composers are now heard live, regularly, symphonically in these mountains. MSO audiences have enjoyed guest soloists including cellist Ira Lehn, violinist Ann Miller, pianist Patrice Stribling Donald, classical saxophonist Dr. Lawrence Gwozdz of the University of Southern Mississippi, trombone virtuoso Dr. Tom Ashworth of U-Minn, Dr. Lewis Wong of New York and even Tim Johnson and the Sierra Cowboy Riders. In 2005 the annual MSO ‘Young Composers Celebration’ began with performances of 8-18 year-old students’ compositions (orchestrated by Marsden) as well as the introduction of Marsden’s “Welcome to Classical Music” programs in every school campus in Mariposa County.

mso3The MSO is a member of the League of American Symphony Orchestras and an ASCAP and BMI signatory. The orchestra is an partner in the four American Anniversary celebrations from 2014-16 relevant to Yosemite National Park, with the premieres of “American Anniversaries,” a new large-scale dedicated symphonic cycle composed by Les Marsden rolling out from 2013-16.

Mariposa celebrates a proud distinction: it’s considered the smallest town in all America with its own symphony orchestra: the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra.
(All photo credits: Brent Gilstrap.)

About Les Marsden, Founder and Conductor of the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra

lmA thoroughly annoying, musically precocious child, Marsden began piano lessons at age 4 and was credentialed to teach piano by age 11. He added trumpet in elementary school and as a pre-teen/teen performed in recitals and with chamber ensembles as pianist/harpsichordist, becoming proficient on other brass, strings and woodwinds, as well as the concert grand harp. He composed his first symphony at 13; as a teen was principal trumpet of ensembles including the California Honor Orchestra and the Fresno Junior Philharmonic for many years. His composing and conducting interests were nurtured by (the late) Maestro Guy Taylor, conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Taylor’s tutelage, Marsden conducted the FJP in performances of his own works. As a teen he acted in local theatre; upon entering college (CSU Fresno) Marsden settled on a theatre career. While a college student he wrote, produced and starred in his one-man show “A Night at Harpo’s” with the cooperation of Harpo Marx’s widow Susan and children. The show was professionally booked directly from college and served as the young man’s entrée into show business. Well acquainted with the elderly Groucho Marx, he performed as that Marx Brother for years in various theatrical presentations. Groucho’s son Arthur Marx wrote the play Groucho: A Life in Revue and in it created the DUAL role of Harpo and Chico Marx specifically for Marsden who in addition to playing both brothers in and out of their well-known film personae also stunned audiences by actually playing lengthy piano and harp solos in each brother’s distinctive style. Highly successful in New York, the show then played London’s West End to great acclaim; Marsden was nominated in the U.K. for London’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for “Comedy Performance of the Year”—the equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Award. He also received the London Critics Award and many others for his work on the London stage. The Marx Brothers were carefully maintained only a sideline to his mainstream theatrical career, however: Marsden was seen nationally and internationally in innumerable dramas, comedies and musicals from Shakespeare to Neil Simon, Chekhov to Cole Porter, with countless appearances on film, TV and in commercials. He worked with greats such as Robert Redford, the late Charles Nelson Reilly (one of this country’s finest stage directors,) Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Burt Reynolds and Jeremy Irons to name only a few. While starring in a play at the famed Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 1999, Marsden had an onstage accident which resulted in a career-ending permanent injury to his left leg. Disabled, he retired at age 42; with no further need to maintain an East Coast professional base, Marsden, wife Diane and young son Maxfield moved back to their native California to live near their beloved Yosemite National Park. In addition to the MSO and affiliated MCACI programs, he offered his ‘Acting in Mariposa’ (AIM) program; as Master Acting Teacher, his (rare) adult acting classes in Mariposa fill beyond capacity. He was honored to receive the “Golden Apple Award” from the Madera-Mariposa Charter of the Association of California School Administrators for his work as a volunteer arts presenter in all Mariposa County schools. A member of The Conductors Guild, aspects of his former theatrical career may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/ygpj7og

(All photography credits: Brent Gilstrap.)

 Mariposa Symphony Orchestra Archive

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