Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra Fall Concert 2018

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor,   Op. 33
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

“Not so very long ago,” wrote Saint-Saëns in the early 1870s, “a French composer who was daring enough to venture on to the terrain of instrumental music had no other means of getting his work performed than to give a concert himself and invite his friends and the critics. As for the general public, it was hopeless even to think about them. The name of a composer who was French and still alive had only to appear on a poster to frighten everybody away.”

In an attempt to remedy the situation, Saint-Saëns and other musicians, including César Franck, Gabriel Fauré and Édouard Lalo, founded the National Society of Music on February 25, 1871. The purposes of the Society were to “favor the production and diffusion of all serious musical works, published or unpublished, by French composers; and to encourage and bring to light, so far as lies in its power, all musical experiments, whatever their form may be, provided they reveal high and artistic ambitions on the part of the composer.”

One measure of the success of the organization is the case of Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto. The work was introduced, not at a National Society of Music concert, but at the Paris Conservatory, usually a bastion of programs by long-dead composers. August Tolbecque, the principal cellist of the Conservatory Orchestra, was the soloist at the première, on January 19, 1873.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey wrote: “The worldly wisdom of Saint-Saëns is at its best and kindliest in the opusculum, which is pure and brilliant without putting on chastity as a garment, and without calling attention to its jewelry at a banquet of poor relations. Here, for once, is a cello concerto in which the solo instrument displays every register throughout its compass without the slightest difficulty in penetrating the orchestral accompaniment. All the adroitness of Saint-Saëns is shown herein, and also in the compact form of the work.”

Overture to Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Rheims)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

One of Rossini’s first duties as director of the Italian Opera in Paris was to compose a ceremonial opera for Charles X’s coronation in Rheims. The text for Il Viaggio a Reims by Luigi Balocchi has not survived intact, nor has the music, though parts of it were used in later Rossini works, especially Count Ory.

The premiere, on June 19, 1825, lasted over three hours, which would make it the longest one-act opera ever. The king was bored by it, even though the finale featured a collection of national anthems, including God Save the King. One critic complained of its “noise, crescendos, and the other culminating forms that now are used and abused to satiety.”

Other writers were more forgiving. “Rossini possessed in supreme degree the knowledge of voices and the art of grouping them so as to produce the most splendid and picturesque result,” wrote Castil-Blaze. “One should not judge Rossini by this first work; it is an occasional piece written in a few days. The text is without action and without interest…. The lack of action makes it seem even longer than it really is.”

Castil-Blaze’s review mentioned that the work had no overture. This is not true: among the Rossini papers at the Liceo at Pesaro is a manuscript titled “Grand Sinfonia…Un Voyage à Reims.” Though Rossini withdrew the score and recycled parts of it, the overture has survived. It is vastly more interesting than most of what followed it at the premiere.

The Firebird Suite No. 2
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

When the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev needed a new piece for his Russian Ballet, he turned to his former teacher Anatol Liadov, a notorious procrastinator. The subject was to be the Russian folk tale of the Firebird. Liadov estimated the composition would take a year. By mutual consent, the task was given to the twenty-seven-year-old Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky finished The Firebird music on May 18, 1910. At one of the rehearsals, Diaghilev observed: “Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Stravinsky’s celebrity was assured at the first performance, at the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910. Gabriel Pierné conducted. “The first Firebird!” Stravinsky recalled. “I stood in the dark of the Opera through eight orchestra rehearsals…. The stage and the whole theatre glittered at the première and that is all I remember.”

Tamara Karsavina danced the title role. The choreography was by Mikhail Fokine, “easily the most disagreeable man I have ever worked with,” said Stravinsky, who was modest about the work’s success. “The performance was warmly applauded by the Paris public,” he said. “I am, of course, far from attributing this success solely to the score.” After the first performance, he went out to dinner with Debussy.

Stravinsky made three orchestral suites from The Firebird music. The first, in 1916, was followed by a version for smaller orchestra in 1919. A third suite appeared in 1945.

The story of the ballet concerns the young Prince Ivan hot in pursuit of the Firebird, finally capturing her in the garden of the ogre Kashchei. She begs him to set her free and gives him a magic feather when he does so. Ivan observes the dances of the captive princesses and is himself captured by the ogre, who tries to turn Ivan into a stone. Ivan waves the magic feather, summoning the Firebird, who then reveals how to kill the ogre.  This done, the princesses are freed and Ivan marries their leader, with the blessing of the Firebird. According to Stravinsky, Ivan succeeds “because he yielded to pity, a wholly Christian notion which dominates the imagination and the ideas of the Russian people.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2018.