Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra’s Fall Concert

Overture to Nabucco
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)

After the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi decided to abandon his career as an opera composer. One day the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli insisted that he take a look at a libretto by Temistocle Solera. “At home I threw the manuscript with a violent gesture on the table and stood rigid before it,” Verdi recalled. “The libretto, falling on the table, opened itself and without my quite realizing it my eyes fixed on the page before me at one particular line: ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate’ (Go, thought, on golden wings). I glanced through the verses following and was deeply moved…. Nabucco kept running in my head, and sleep would not come.” Indeed, his resolve to forsake music evaporated.

The plot concerns the Babylonian king Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar), who defeats the Hebrews and takes them into captivity. He goes mad, and his illegitimate daughter Abigaille seizes power. Imprisoned and about to witness the execution of his legitimate daughter Fenena, Nabucco prays to Jehovah and coverts. He recovers his mind, saves Fenena and is restored to the throne. Abigaille commits suicide.

The first performance, at La Scala in Milan on March 9, 1842, was a sensation, especially the chorus, “Va, pensiero,” which Italian nationalists embraced as a patriotic anthem. The overture begins with a theme not found in the rest of the opera, a chorale for brass symbolizing the resolve of the Hebrews in the face of persecution. Then comes a procession of melodies from the opera, including the chorus of Hebrews cursing the High Priest’s nephew Ismaele in Act II (“Il maledetto”), the rhythm of “Va, pensiero” from Act III, the chorus of Assyrian priests from Act II (“Noi già sparso abbiamo fama”) and the Nabucco- Abigaille duet from Act III (“Donna, chi sei?”).

Nigun” from Baal Shem Suite
ERNEST BLOCH (1880-1959)

Baal Shem was an actual historical figure, born Israel of Miedziboz in Poland about 1698. He died in 1759. He acquired the name of Baal Shem, “The Wonderworker by Means of Invocations in the Name of God,” for co-founding the Jewish mystical movement known as Chassidism. Opposed to the rationalism of German-Polish Judaism, the movement was characterized by ablutions, miracle cures, white garments and revelations through song and dance.

In 1923, Bloch wrote a suite for violin and piano called Baal Shem, subtitled “Three Pictures of Chassidic Life.” The middle movement, “Nigun” (Improvisation), is actually a wordless hymn, of the kind that Chassidic holy men used to achieve prophetic visions. At the request of his publisher, Bloch made a version for violin and orchestra.

Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a

During the summer of 1960, Shostakovich was in Dresden working on a joint Soviet-East German film called Five Days and Five Nights, about the rescue of art treasures from the Dresden Art Gallery during World War II. “The horrors of the air-raids suffered by the people of Dresden, whose stories we heard, suggested the theme for my Eighth Quartet,” he said. “In only a few days, under the impression of the film we were making about what happened, I wrote the score of my new quartet.

“I dedicated it to the victims of the war and fascism.” The work was first played by the Beethoven Quartet on October 2, 1960, in Leningrad. Shostakovich was unable to attend due to a broken leg suffered at his son Maksim’s wedding in September. In 1967 Rudolf Barshai, with the composer’s approval, arranged the quartet for string orchestra and introduced this version, titled Chamber Symphony, with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

The five movements, played without pause, are based on the composer’s musical monogram, “D.Sch.” (the notes D, E-flat, C and B natural in German notation). Quotations from other works by Shostakovich appear throughout the quartet: the first and fifth symphonies in the first movement, the “Jewish theme” from the Piano Trio, Op. 67, in the second movement, the First Cello Concerto in the third and fourth movements. References are also made to the tenth and eleventh symphonies, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Young Guard. The finale is a fugue based on the monogram notes.

Selections from Romeo and Juliet

In 1916, a Russian critic referring to Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite complained: “To each his own: to one it is given to sing of the love of Romeo and Juliet, to another to depict the frenzied screeches and comical capers of monkeys.” Less than twenty years later, Prokofiev would write a full-length ballet on Shakespeare’s famous lovers. Prokofiev’s seventh ballet was commissioned by the Kirov Theater in Leningrad during the autumn of 1934. According to the composer, the music was composed “at top speed” during the following summer.

“I have taken special pains,” he said, “to achieve a simplicity which will, I hope, reach the hearts of all listeners. If people find no melody and no emotion in this work, I shall be very sorry—but I feel sure that sooner or later they will.” It was to be later. The Kirov shelved the work and so did the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, which rejected the music as “impossible to dance to.” Undeterred by these developments, Prokofiev put together two orchestral suites from the ballet. The complete ballet finally reached the stage on December 30, 1938, when a company in Brno, Czechoslovakia, performed it without consulting the composer. Prokofiev did not attend. Meanwhile, the Kirov Theater had changed its mind.

When the choreographer suggested changes in the score, Prokofiev was adamant: “I have written the exact amount of music that is necessary. And I am not going to do anything more. It is done. The piece is ready. If you want to produce it—there it is, if not—then not.”

The dancers at the Kirov were confused. Galina Ulanova, who portrayed Juliet, remembered: “We simply did not understand his music. We were disturbed by his weird orchestration, the frequent changes in rhythm, which made it difficult to dance. We were not used to such music and we were afraid of it.”

After much negotiation and delay, Romeo and Juliet was finally given in Leningrad on January 11, 1940. The Bolshoi Theater followed suit on December 22, 1946.

~Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2015.