Concert Progamme Noltes
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Hungarian March
Berlioz relates in his Memoires how, in 1846, just before he left to conduct two concerts of his music in Budapest (in those days Pest-Buda), a friend lent him a book of old Hungarian airs. ‘If you want the Hungarians to like you’ he said ‘write a piece on one of their national tunes. They will be delighted.’ Berlioz chose the Rákóczi tune, named after the leader of the uprisings against Hapsburg oppression in the early 1700s. Once in Budapest ‘The Hungarians speculated as to how I had treated the famous, nay the sacred melody which for so long had set their hearts aflame with a holy passion for liberty and glory.’
The audience remained calm at first ‘but when a long crescendo ensued…the whole place began to stir and hum with excitement; and when the orchestra unleashed its full fury…a tumult of shouting and stamping shook the theatre; the accumulated pressure of all that seething mass of emotion exploded with a violence that sent a thrill of fear right through me. We had to repeat the piece, of course.’
Nat King Cole (1917-1965): Nature Boy - Soloist: Eleanor Austin
Born in Alabama, Nat King Cole began his career as a jazz pianist who introduced vocal interludes into his act. In Chicago he had his own orchestra and later formed the King Cole Trio (guitar-bass-piano) which performed until 1951 by which time singing had taken over as his prime activity. A best-selling record of 1947 was the turning point. A critic has written: ‘Cole’s diction and phrasing were a match for any of his peers, including Sinatra’s, although his emotional compass was narrower’. Among his most popular recordings were Answer me and Nature Boy.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor - Soloist: Sam Carr
Felix Mendelssohn grew up to be a handsome and charming young man and a most brilliant pianist. When he embarked on a Grand Tour planned by his wealthy father that was to last for several years, he wrote letters home that were as brilliant as his playing and were later collected and published. He enjoyed himself immensely at parties, at aristocratic dinners, balls, and sausage shops: ’Things toss and whirl about me as if I were in a vortex, and I am whirled along with them’ he wrote.
By 1831 he had reached Munich and met the sixteen-year-old pianist Delphine von Schauroth. ‘We flirted dreadfully but there isn’t any danger because I’m already in love with a young Scottish girl whose name I don’t know’. His Piano Concerto No.1 was dedicated to Delphine but he performed the piece himself for the first time in a concert at Munich that included his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture.
His friend Hector Berlioz, also a composer, wrote a regular column in a Paris newspaper. Some years later he entertained his readers with the description of the fate of an Erard piano on which the concerto was played so often it learned to play it by itself and wouldn’t stop:
‘They take the keyboard out of the instrument – the keys are still moving up and down by themselves – and they throw it into the middle of the factory yard. There M. Erard, now in a fury, has it chopped up with an axe. You think that did it? It made matters worse. Each piece danced, jumped, frisked about separately – on the pavement, between our legs, against the wall, in all directions, until the warehouseman picked up this bedevilled mechanism in one armful and flung it into the fire, finally putting an end to it.’
Mendelssohn has been called ‘one of the Sunshine Composers who wrote optimistic music effortlessly’ and surely nothing could exceed the gaiety of the third, final movement of this concerto.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): O mio babbino caro - Soloist: Eleanor Austin
‘Oh my beloved father, I love him, yes I do.’ So sings Lauretta, pleading with her father who is forbidding the match with Rinuccio. The scene is Florence in the middle ages in the one-act opera Gianni Schicchi which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918.
Hostility between Lauretta’s father, Schicchi, and Rinuccio’s family has reached breaking point and in desperation she threatens: ‘And if you still say no I’ll go to Ponte Vecchio and throw myself below!’
Puccini was one of the greatest opera composers. Born in Lucca in Italy, his first opera was staged when he was 26 and he went on to compose many that are still in the repertory today, among them: Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.
Claude-Michel Schönberg (b1944): Selection from Les Misérables
How many tunes can you hum from Les Miz? Cited as one of the greatest musicals ever, this powerful and popular show, based on the massive, 365-chapter novel by Victor Hugo, was the work of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel who wrote the words and Claude-Michel Schönberg who wrote the music. Their original French production premiered in Paris in 1980. Initially reluctant, London producer Cameron Mackintosh was persuaded to stage Les Misérables in a version for English audiences. He worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company to make the adaption and after two years of development the show opened in London at the Barbican Centre five years after the Paris premiere. The London production played over 13,000 performances making it the longest-running musical in the West End.
The story of the musical follows the fortunes of a French peasant, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing bread for a starving child. Released but on parole he can find neither work nor shelter until a bishop takes him in for the night. Valjean, irresistibly tempted, steals the bishop’s silver and is caught by the police but rather than turn him in the bishop lies that the silver was a gift and, in addition, gives him a pair of silver candlesticks, telling him to use the silver to become an honest man.
How Valjean achieves this and how the police inspector, Javert, recognises the prosperous factory owner as the prisoner he once guarded is the story of the musical. It culminates at a street barricade during the 1832 Paris Uprising.
Schönberg was born at Vannes in Brittany where his father repaired organs and his mother taught piano. He worked as a singer and record producer and collaborated with others in writing musicals. In 2003 he married the English ballerina Charlotte Talbot. He maintains strong links with England, writing two ballets for Northern Ballet and in 2016 serving as Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. He is also a Guest Professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Pictures at an Exhibition
In 1874, the architect Victor Hartmann died aged only 39 and his friends, among them Mussorgsky, mounted a memorial exhibition of four hundred of his designs and paintings. This led Mussorgsky to compose his Pictures at an Exhibition, a set of ten piano pieces each suggested by one of the exhibits. Linking them are short interludes he called Promenades depicting the visitor walking to the next picture. This evening we hear four of the ten pieces in orchestral arrangements.
The Gnome: An old man with enormous ‘nutcracker’ teeth.
The Old Castle: A medieval castle with a troubadour singing in the foreground.
Bydlo: A cart with enormous wheels drawn by a team of oxen. It approaches, lumbering over the stony track. The music swells as it draws near and thunders past, then fades away into the distance.
The Great Gate of Kiev: Hartmann’s design for a massive city gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander’s narrow escape from assassination. The design won the national competition but was never built. Mussorgsky’s music equals the design in grandeur and for his second theme he quotes a solemn chant sung at baptisms in the Russian Orthodox Church.