Saturday, October 7, 2023 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)
Harmonia Orchestra & Chorus
William White, conductor
Serena Eduljee, soprano
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Festive Overture, Op. 96
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Gloria, FP 177
— intermission —
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)
orch. Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Pictures at an Exhibition
About the Concert
Join Harmonia for a festive season opener featuring some of the most lively, colorful works in the repertoire! Plan to arrive early for a pre-concert talk by music director William White, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
This concert is dedicated to the memory of Jim Hattori (1955–2023), Harmonia trombonist, board member and dear friend.
- full concert program (PDF)
Welcome to Harmonia’s 2023–2024 season! We’re kicking things off in a grand — some might say glorious — fashion with three of the most colorful works ever composed, and I’m so happy you’re here to join in the fun.
Tonight’s program revolves around Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, a piece which perfectly encapsulates the two most prominent sides of its composer’s personality. First and foremost, Poulenc was a musical sensualist who was never happier than when reveling in one of his delicious sonorities. (Few other composers would linger on a seductive major-seventh chord for quite so many measures at a time.)
But Poulenc was also a deeply spiritual person, raised with a healthy respect for the mysteries of the Catholic faith. In his Gloria, he clothes the sacred core of his soul in the secular delight of cabaret tunes. This piece immediately became ensconced in the choral-orchestral repertoire after its 1961 premiere, and it has been on my personal Conducting Bucket List for as long as I can remember.
If you’re curious to know where Poulenc gained his penchant for sensuous orchestration, look no further than the example set by his slightly older countryman, Maurice Ravel. Ravel is known among musicians as the all-time master of orchestration, and if there is one work in which he displayed his gifts as an orchestrator to their greatest advantage (divorced, as it were, from his equally exceptional talents for composition), it is his re-imagination of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Pictures began life as a suite for solo piano but, to my way of thinking, Mussorgsky’s original version is caught between the keyboard and a grander symphonic vision: much of it seems to be crying out for orchestral treatment. Mussorgsky was as original a composer as the 19th century produced, considered something of a raw, elemental talent. Ravel was just the opposite, a subtle technician with a refined sensibility. The enduring popularity of Pictures is a testament to the success of this collaboration across time.
We open the program tonight with the whiz-bang Festive Overture of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich knocked this piece out in just three days, and you can hear the manic energy that propelled him toward his deadline. I have always thought that Shostakovich shared a certain sonic fingerprint with Poulenc, a mix of sardonicism and classical sparkle, so it makes for the perfect opener to this concert — and in fact to this whole season.
Speaking of which, glorious things are yet to come from Harmonia between now and May. You’ll find details on the back cover of this program book and (should you not already be among the exalted ranks of our 2023–2024 subscribers) I urge you to take heed of them and get yourself subscribed to the rest of our season while you can. It’s the best deal in town!
— Will White
About the Soloist
Soprano Serena Eduljee’s soaring, rich, precise coloratura and “magnetic” acting (Entertainment News Northwest) has made her one of the Pacific Northwest’s most in-demand singers, and a favorite of opera audiences everywhere. Last season she sang the roles of Lisa (La Sonnambula) and Nanetta (Falstaff) with Puget Sound Concert Opera, Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) with Pacfic Northwest Opera, and Violetta and Norina in (The Drunken Tenor’s Operapalooza Spectacular Shindig) with Tacoma Opera. Ms. Eduljee made her Seattle Symphony debut performing the iconic role of Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte) and has recently performed Orff’s Carmina Burana and Bach’s Magnificat with the Kirkland Choral Society. A frequent singer with Seattle Opera, her performance as Amore in Seattle Opera’s highly acclaimed production of O+E earned much praise. Ms. Eduljee holds a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where she studied under Carol Vaness. Upcoming performances include the roles of Stella/Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) with Tacoma Opera in April 2024.
- Learn more: serenaeduljee.com
Festive Overture, Op. 96
Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He composed this overture during the week preceding its November 6, 1954, premiere, scoring it for triple woodwinds (including piccolo and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion and strings.
After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet musical establishment relaxed its disapproval of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, allowing the Bolshoi Theater to hire him as an artistic consultant. Each autumn, in commemoration of the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolshoi mounted a performance featuring a newly commissioned work. Mere days before the 1954 concert, a Bolshoi official arrived at Shostakovich’s residence, pleading with him to write an overture on very short notice.
Shostakovich acquiesced, inviting his friend Lev Lebedinsk to keep him company as he composed. Lebedinsk later recalled: “The speed with which he wrote was truly astounding. Moreover, when he wrote light music he was able to talk, make jokes and compose simultaneously, like the legendary Mozart. He laughed and chuckled, and in the meanwhile work was under way and the music was being written down. Two days later the dress rehearsal took place. I hurried down to the [Bolshoi] and I heard this brilliant, effervescent work, with its vivacious energy spilling over like uncorked champagne.”
The composer derived the work’s opening fanfare from a simple piano piece he had written for his daughter a decade earlier — his ability to work so quickly may have been aided by similar borrowings from unpublished sketches. Early the next year he drew inspiration from the overture for a cue in his film score for The Gadfly.
Gloria, FP 177
Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc was born in Paris on January 7, 1899, and died there on January 30, 1963. He composed his Gloria between May 1959 and June 1960 on a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. Charles Munch conducted the premiere in Boston on January 20, 1961, leading the Boston Symphony and Chorus Pro Musica. In addition to solo soprano and SATB chorus, the work requires 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.
Two years before becoming music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition featured on tonight’s concert. During his quarter century helming the BSO, Koussevitzky was responsible for a number of other 20th-century masterpieces (among them Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Britten’s Peter Grimes), many of them resulting from grants by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, established in 1942 in conjunction with the Library of Congress, which has continued its work after the conductor’s 1951 death to this day.
In 1959 the foundation asked French composer Francis Poulenc for a symphony, but Poulenc responded that a symphony was “not my sort of thing.” They next proposed an organ concerto, but Poulenc replied that he had already written one. On July 7, 1959, the foundation told Poulenc he could write a work of his own choosing in exchange for $2,000. Poulenc accepted a month later, informing them that he had already started writing a Gloria. In fact, he had been working on the piece since at least mid-April, when he wrote to a friend that he had “just begun a Gloria for chorus, soloist and orchestra in the Vivaldi style.”
Poulenc’s father had been a successful pharmaceutical manufacturer and a devout Roman Catholic, while his mother came from an artistic background. Francis Poulenc gravitated to musical pursuits favored by his mother, but his father expected him to take over the family business and forbade him to study at a conservatory. After his parents’ deaths during his late teens, Poulenc was steered toward a career in composition by his piano teacher and “spritual mentor” Ricardo Viñes, who introduced him to Georges Auric and Erik Satie. Being largely self-taught, Poulenc counted Roussel, Massenet and Chabrier among those French composers he most admired, but listed his musical “gods” as “Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Chopin, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky. You may say, what a concoction! But that’s how I like music: taking my models everywhere, from what pleases me.”
One of Poulenc’s first great successes was the ballet Les biches, written for Sergei Diaghilev and premiered by the Ballets Russes in January 1924. Around this time he composed a number of notable chamber works involving wind instruments and several concertos (including one for two pianos and orchestra that would also be featured — with Poulenc himself as one of the soloists — on the concert at which the Gloria received its premiere).
On a 1936 holiday, Poulenc visited the religious commune at Rocamadour. “A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague,” he wrote, referring to his near-contemporary Pierre-Octave Ferroud, who had perished in a car crash. “As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.” That very evening “I began my Litanies à la Vierge noire for female voices and organ. In that work I tried to get across the atmosphere of ‘peasant devotion’ that had struck me so forcibly in that lofty chapel.”
Over the next two decades, more religious works would follow, including the Mass in G, various motets, a Stabat Mater (1950) and the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957). Of all of Poulenc’s sacred works, however, none straddled the divide between the “sacred” and “profane” sides of his personality more so than the Gloria. Reviewing its premiere, Boston Globe critic Cyrus Durgin called it “one of the composer’s major scores and an exceedingly fine work. The cheers that Poulenc received were thoroughly merited.” Although it “is a setting of liturgical text,” the Gloria “would not be heard in a church. Its manner is bright and joyous, a heartfelt uttering of Glory to God. Its musical style is varied toward to the point of eclecticism, characterized by those two qualities found in all of Poulenc’s music that I know: real diatonic melody that sometimes approaches a tune, and tonal harmony spiked with effective dissonance.” The success of the premiere inspired conductor Charles Munch to reconfigure the BSO’s April 1961 Carnegie Hall program to include the Gloria. Harold Schonberg’s New York Times review noted a “sharp division in mood between choruses and solos. The former are jaunty and even jolly; the latter are introspective, heartfelt and subdued.”
Poulenc’s Gloria, which its composer called a “large choral symphony,” opens with regal fanfares. Here and elsewhere, Poulenc has the chorus accent the Latin text in what he called “macaronic” fashion (stressing “the wrong syl-LA-ble,” as Harmonia founder George Shangrow was fond of saying). Poulenc claimed the playful second movement (marked Très vite et joyeux) was inspired by watching Benedictine monks playing soccer. The introspective “Domine Deus” features a solo soprano and quotes a melody from Poulenc’s 1926 trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (for the repeated phrase “Pater omnipotens”). After another jaunty (but quite brief) choral episode, the soprano returns for the ethereal fifth movement. The sixth and final section opens in declamatory fashion, reprising some material from the first movement before concluding with a contemplative, yet harmonically unresolved, “Amen.”
Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Maurice Ravel)
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born March 21, 1839, in the Pskov region of Russia, and died March 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg. He composed Pictures at an Exhibition for solo piano during June 1874. Ravel orchestrated the work during the summer of 1922 at the request of Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the premiere in Paris on October 22 of that year. Ravel’s version calls for 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, bells, triangle, tam-tam, rattle, whip, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, xylophone, celesta, harp and strings.
Had it not been for composer Modest Mussorgsky, Victor Hartmann, a Russian-born architect and artist of French ancestry, would be little remembered today. The two met around 1870 and formed a fast friendship that lasted until Hartmann’s unexpected death at age 39 a mere three years later. Their mutual friend Vladimir Stasov, a noted art critic, organized an exhibit of Hartmann’s works — to which Mussorgsky loaned pieces from his own collection — in St. Petersburg during February and March of 1874. (Only about 100 of the more than 400 works of art from this exhibition survive.) Mussorgsky’s visit to the memorial exhibit inspired him to compose a suite of piano pieces the following June. Surprisingly, there is no record of a performance during the composer’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky’s death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov edited Pictures at an Exhibition (polishing some of the rough edges, as he was wont to do, and inserting a few ideas of his own), publishing it in 1886. One of Rimsky’s students, Mikhail Tushmalov, subsequently orchestrated several movements, perhaps with guidance from Rimsky-Korsakov himself, who conducted the premiere in 1891. In 1915, the British conductor Henry Wood created his own orchestral version, and subsequent generations of composers and arrangers have scored Mussorgsky’s music for all manner of ensembles, but Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration quickly cemented itself as the transcription most widely performed around the world.
Not only had Ravel orchestrated a number of his own piano works, he had previously transcribed the piano music of others, including Robert Schumann’s Carnaval (now mostly lost), so the task proved to be relatively straightforward. Ravel attempted to track down Mussorgsky’s original score (which remained unpublished until 1930), but made do with the Rimsky-Korsakov edition.
Mussorgsky opens his suite with a Promenade — cast in alternating bars of 5/4 and 6/4 to suggest a museum visitor wandering about from painting to painting — which returns in various guises to link subsequent movements. The first “picture” we encounter is Gnomus, inspired by a drawing for a Christmas ornament that Stasov described as “a gnome into whose mouth you put a nut to crack.” Mussorgsky’s music evokes a much more enormous figure, proceeding in stops and starts with violent outbursts; a menacing central episode recalls the composer’s Night on Bare Mountain.
A quieter promenade (which Ravel scores for solo horn and woodwinds) leads to The Old Castle, inspired by a Hartmann painting of a medieval Italian edifice. Solo saxophone assumes the role of a troubador singing in the foreground. Another promenade introduces Tuileries, based on a watercolor of the Parisian park with which Ravel was no doubt more familiar than Mussorgsky. Scurrying woodwind passages evoke quarreling children at play.
In Bydło (the Polish word for “cattle”), Ravel employs a solo tenor tuba to represent an oxcart traveling along a muddy road, following Rimsky-Korsakov’s dynamic markings that begin the movement very quietly, reach an enormous climax and then recede, to suggest the cart approaching and then moving into the distance. Another promenade leads directly to Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, a brilliant scherzo inspired by several watercolors that Hartmann had made to suggest costumes for an 1871 ballet (Trilbi, with music by Yuli Gerber) in which “a group of little boys and girls, pupils of the Theater School, dressed as canaries, scam- pered on the stage. Some of the little birds were wearing over their dresses big eggshells resembling breastplates.”
Mussorgsky used two portraits (“A Rich Jew in a Fur Hat” and “A Poor Jew”) that Hartmann had presented to him as a gift as the basis for Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. (When Hartmann visited southern Poland in 1868, he painted these works as well as Bydło.) The first man speaks with great authority while Ravel uses muted trumpet to characterize the second man’s complaining tone.
During an 1866 visit to Limoges, France, Hartmann painted over 100 watercolors, including a depiction of the bustling activity in the city’s marketplace. Mussorgsky initially wrote in the score (before ultimately crossing it out): “Important news! M. de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow Fugitive. But the good ladies of Limoges don’t care, because Mme. de Remboursac has acquired handsome new porcelain dentures, while M. de Panta-Pantaléon is still troubled by his big red nose.” This leads directly to Catacombs, a remarkable evocation of underground Paris, inspired by a watercolor showing Hartmann, a friend and a guide illuminated by gaslight. The somber atmosphere continues into the following promenade, marked Cum mortuis in lingua mortua: “With the dead in a dead language.”
The Hut on Hen’s Legs involves the Slavic legend of Baba-Yaga, who lives in a hut supported by giant chicken legs. Hartmann had created a bronze clock depicting the child-eating witch and her bizarre abode.
On April 4, 1866, Tsar Alexander II escaped an assassination attempt while visiting Kyiv. Hartmann entered a competition (subsequently called off, perhaps due to lack of funds) to design a gateway to the city in commemoration of the event. Mussorgsky recasts the promenade theme (now in a regular meter) to create a celebratory splendor, contrasting it with a quieter chorale theme based on a Russian hymn. Ravel’s blazing brass and tolling bells evoke the grand ceremony that might have taken place to unveil The Great Gate at Kyiv, had it actually been built.
— Jeff Eldridge