Kick off our year of Stravinsky with his first breakaway hit, The Firebird. The compelling story and music capture the listener and catapulted the composer to international fame. Violinist Danielle Belen joins the strings and percussion sections in Leonard Bernstein's only violin concerto, the heady "Serenade," right after we open the season with the pageantry of Glinka's festive overture.
GLINKA: Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture
Danielle Belen, violin
STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite
Program Notes by Beryl McHenry
Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila
Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Young Glinka was from an aristocratic family, trained for government service in his native Russia at his father's insistence. The idea of becoming a composer would not have been considered. In fact, Glinka did work several years in the government system, all the time longing to indulge his artistic leanings. It was at this time he formed a friendship with the poet Alexander Pushkin, who encouraged Glinka in his ambitions. His musical education was informal, gleaned from piano and violin lessons as a child and participation in amateur musical productions in Saint Petersburg. He had also been immersed in Russian church music and folk songs from an early age. On his own he studied orchestral scores and opera, and traveled to Europe to find instruction wherever he could. It was on a trip to Italy, where he attended the new operas of Donizetti and Bellini, conducted by their composers, that he determined to do the same. He returned to Russia upon his father's death in 1834 and began composing in earnest. His first opera, A Life for the Tsar, premiered in 1836 to massive enthusiasm. He quickly composed a second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, He had hoped that his friend Pushkin would compose the libretto, but, Pushkin, age 38, was killed in a duel in 1837. Glinka turned to other writers to add the text.
The second opera was not as successful as the first and is rarely performed today outside of Russia - except for its overture. About 5 minutes long, it is enormously popular because of its energy, which is evident from the very beginning of the work. There is no gentle introduction. Instead the work bursts immediately into brass, winds and timpani, while strings run alongside. After this the theme is introduced, leading to a more lyrical passage for cellos and violins. The energy never wanes, however, and the final coda is just as energetic as the opening. There is a particularly memorable passage near the end where strings, bassoons, and trombones play a dramatic descending scale, a very Russian device to suggest danger. Many listeners have suggested that Rossini was this overture's "spiritual ancestor."
Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)
Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990)
Leonard Bernstein always wrote for the theater. Even when composing concertos and orchestral suites, it appears that there was a theatrical component running through his head. By the time in 1954 when the Serenade was premiered, he had already had an extremely busy few years and had a number of new commissions looming. He had composed for the Broadway stage (Wonderful Town), contributed to the opera repertoire (Trouble in Tahiti), and written for Hollywood films (On the Waterfront), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He was also building a reputation as an orchestral conductor during this time. And while finishing up the Serenade, he was completing Candide, an operetta.
Serenade was in fact one of those looming commissions, accepted from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and premiered in Venice, Italy with Isaac Stern as soloist. Stern was also the violinist when the work had its American premier in 1955.
Bernstein himself explained that the work "resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium." Symposium in ancient Greece was apparently a euphemistic term for a party at which great quantities of food was eaten and wine consumed. Bernstein tells us "there is no literal program for this Serenade. The music, like Plato’s dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love. The relatedness of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one… The music, like the dialogue…, generally follows the Platonic model through the succession of speakers at the banquet."
The solo violin presents the opening theme and then constantly reappears in an altered form throughout the work. There are five speakers at the banquet: Phaedrus, who is praising Eros, the god of love, Aristophanes, who represents the fairy tale mythology of love, Erixymachus, a physician, who very briefly speaks of "bodily harmony," Agathon, who sings a three-part song about love’s power and functions, and Socrates, lending the only sober note in a speech about love as a demon.
Bernstein asks us to note that there is a "hint of jazz in the celebration," and his hope that "it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party."
The Firebird Suite
Igor Stravinski (1882 - 1971)
Igor Stravinski’s appeal to world audiences rested upon his works for ballet. His big breakthrough came in 1909 from a series of collaborations with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. He began by orchestrating two Chopin works for a ballet called Les Sylphides, and, while the ballet was a success, some critics said that the conservative musical score was not up to the novelty of the choreography. Diaghilev and Stravinski set out to remedy this by creating new ballet scores. The first of these was The Firebird, which premiered in 1910. Stravinski conducted it more that a thousand times, and it was the piece he chose as the subject of his last recording as a conductor. He was 85, and the work was nearly 60 years old.
The plot of The Firebird is drawn from a collection of Russian fairy tales, arranged as an expression of Russian nationalism. In it, the czar’s son, Prince Ivan, meets "a fabulous bird with plumage of fire" while on a hunting trip. Prince Ivan and the bird strike a deal, agreeing that the prince would allow the bird to be free and not hunt for it, in exchange for a magic feather which would protect him from harm. When the sun rises, Prince Ivan finds himself in the garden of an enchanted castle where thirteen beautiful princesses are playing. After they dance for him, they warn him that he is in the domain of the evil sorcerer, Kashchei, who is holding the princesses captive. Prince Ivan decides to free the princesses. He breaks into the castle, setting off an alarm of bells. He is captured by monsters and Kashchei appears. Just as Kashchei is about to turn the prince to stone, Ivan waves his magic feather. The firebird appears. He makes the monsters dance madly until they and the sorcerer fall asleep to the strains of a lullaby. The firebird leads Ivan to a giant egg which holds the soul of Kashchei. Ivan smashes the egg and Kashchei, the monsters and the castle vanish. The spell is broken, the princesses are released and all those previously turned to stone are restored. Ivan wins the hand of a lovely princess and everyone celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
The music follows the action and the audience is able to follow the story through the fairy tale setting. Most notable are the firebird’s theme, the dancing princesses, Kashchei’s infernal dance, the lullaby which lulls the monsters to sleep, and the finale, in which the mood changes from wonder, to triumph, to jubilation. The piece concludes with majestic chords, leaving the audience with a feeling of "happily ever after."
About the Guest Artist
Danielle Belen, violin
As part of the violin faculty at The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in Ann Arbor as well as The Colburn School in Los Angeles, Danielle Belen is already making a name for herself as a seasoned pedagogue with a strong studio of young artists. Her students have won major prizes in national and international competitions including the Menuhin, Stulberg and Klein competitions, as well as being accepted into major conservatories and universities across the country.
Winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition and the 2014 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, Ms. Belen has appeared as a soloist with major symphonies across the U.S., including the Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Nashville and San Francisco Symphonies, the Boston Pops, and the Florida and Cleveland Orchestras.
A graduate of the USC Thornton School of Music and the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, she studied with Robert Lipsett and acted as his primary teaching assistant for a number of years. In 2008 she joined the Colburn faculty at the age of twenty-five.
In 2010, Ms. Belen founded Center Stage Strings, a summer camp and performance festival for gifted young musicians. After gaining national attention, CSS moved to the campus of The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as part of MPulse, a summer program run by the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
Ms. Belen plays on a violin made in Mantua, Italy by Stefano Scarampella.