Eight of Prokofiev’s Quirkiest Ballet Melodies

Last week, the Richmond Symphony returned to the orchestra pit for five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s shimmering and comic 1944 ballet, Cinderella. Bringing off Prokofiev’s music, both technically and musically, often feels like solving a puzzle. Hovering somewhere between austere twentieth century Neoclassicism and moments of sudden lush Romanticism, this music is always keeping us off guard. We never know exactly how to take it. It is simultaneously humorous and sarcastic, cool and calculating (like …

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Dvořák’s Cello Concerto: Three Great Performance Clips

Following a youthful attempt at a Cello Concerto in 1865, Antonín Dvořák believed that the instrument was ill-suited to the concerto form. “High up it sounds nasal, and low down it growls,” the composer commented. Dvořák’s attitude changed in a flash on the evening of March 9, 1894 when the New York Philharmonic premiered Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto. Herbert, remembered for frothy Viennese operettas like Babes in Toyland (1903), was on the faculty of New York’s National Conservatory of …

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Remembering Sanford Sylvan

The renowned American baritone Sanford Sylvan passed away suddenly last week. He was 65. Sylvan’s career on the opera stage included premieres of works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Peter Maxwell Davies and Christopher Rouse. He was the first to perform the role of Chou En-lai in Nixon in China (1987) and Leon Klinghoffer in The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). In addition, he premiered Adams’ haunting setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, The Wound Dresser. He was an …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony: Freedom in Exile

Sergei Rachmaninov spent much of his life in exile, both literally and as a composer. In December of 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his wife, Natalia, fled Russia, eventually building their Villa Senar on the idyllic shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Symphony No. 3 in A minor during the summers of 1935 and 1936. His work on this final symphony was interrupted by an …

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New Release: Ian Bostridge Joins the Seattle Symphony for Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy

Song cycles by three French composers- Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy- come to life spectacularly on a newly-released album featuring the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The recording appears on Seattle Symphony Media, the orchestra’s innovative, Grammy-winning, in-house record label. Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été was recorded at a live concert at Benaroya Hall in November 2017. Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Le livre de Baudelaire, orchestrated by John Adams in 1994, are studio recordings. Here are a few excerpts: …

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Stravinsky’s “The Firebird”: A Shimmering Musical Fairy Tale

Igor Stravinsky almost didn’t compose The Firebird.  In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev, founder and director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, commissioned the 27-year-old Stravinsky to write the ballet score after offering the job unsuccessfully to four established Russian composers (Nikolai Tcherepnin, Anatoly Liadov, Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Sokolov). The result was one of the twentieth century’s most monumental works- a piece which glances backwards at the colorful Romanticism of Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, while moving forward in …

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György Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna”: The Ethereal Land of Micropolyphony

Lux Aeterna for sixteen-part mixed choir, written in 1966 by the Hungarian-Austrian avant-garde composer György Ligeti (1923-2006), is simultaneously haunting, mysterious, unsettling, and serenely beautiful. Unfolding gradually in shimmering layers of sound, it forces us to confront our perceptions of time and space. Its dimensions are cosmic. The term micropolyphony has been used to explain the clusters of sound which emerge and develop in Lux Aeterna and other music by Ligeti. It’s a word which might bring to …

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