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Classical 101

Columbus Symphony Plays Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Ravel

[I'VE DONE SOME LIGHT EDITING; NEEDS TO BE BROKEN UP] The Columbus Symphony performs Igor Stravinsky's Jeu de cartes, Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1, Olivier Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques and Maurice Ravel's Bolero, March 26 and 27 in the Ohio Theatre. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts; Katherine Chi plays piano.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Prokofiev was prodigiously gifted as a young man. Even the elderly Rimsky-Korsakov was heard to say, "I have nothing to teach this boy." The young man had every intention of wowing 'em at his graduation exams at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the occasion for which he was inspired to write his Piano Concerto No. 1. The opportunity to perform came earlier than expected, and Prokofiev made a double debut: a pianist and composer at an outdoor concert in Moscow. He gave them a fifteen minute work, playing all three movements without a break.

Piano Concerto No. 1

He followed the classical style of fast-slow-fast in each movement. But there the similarities end. This concerto is filled with joy, arrogance and drama. It's the work of a young composer in love with orchestral sonority. The outdoor, "Picnic with the Pops" audience liked the piece, the critics shrugged and grumbled. A year later, Prokofiev decided to enter a competition. The first prize for the pianist involved money and concerts. What did he play? Mozart? Chopin? Beethoven? No. He played his very own Piano Concerto No. 1. The composer describes his motivation for competing with his own work: "The judges would not be able to decide if I were playing it well ... If I played my own concerto and did not win the prize, the defeat would be less mortifying because no on else would be able to decide whether I had forfeited the prize because my concerto was bad in itself or because I played it badly." The judges didn't appreciate the young man's nerve. Alexander Glazunov called Prokofiev a rebel and an upstart, but his was the only dissenting vote. Prokofiev won the competition. He next came to the attention of Serge Diaghilev who remarked, "this young Prokofiev is a wild beast."  Now that's approbation. If the first concerto is less heard than the five following it's, perhaps, because it was his first -- a great benchmark for the development of a young composer who made good use of arrogance, wit and sophistication in his music.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Prokofiev admired Igor Stravinsky, his compatriot and close contemporary. Some people do the Bruckner-Mahler paring of these two Russians, but their music has little in common. Apples and oranges. Yet, Prokofiev, as an ambitious young man, must have envied Stravinsky's notoriety. The Stravinsky ballets had been scandals and sensations in Paris -- and there's no such thing as bad publicity. Stravinsky, who went into a neo-classical period in the 1920s, turned his back, somewhat, on the driving rhythms and the jazzy sonorities Prokofiev had liked. His palette was more level, if not always more accessible. The ballet Apollon musagete was Stravinsky's first collaboration with George Balanchine.

Jeu de cartes ("Card game")

Then came Jeu de cartes, a ballet in three deals, which Stravinsky wrote in 1936 in collaboration with M. Malaieff. There are three deals, and the principal cards are the Joker, the Queen and the Ace. From this music I infer that Stravinsky enjoyed working with dance more than with opera. I always sensed that words got in the composer's way. This ballet gave Stravinsky unlimited outlet for drama, and his collaborations with Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky and Balanchine were a "perfect storm," boosting both, the profile of the composer and the music he wrote for the dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sn0Juu1gHL4

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

What do you say about Ravel's Bolero? Here's what I didn't know, having taken this piece for granted for so long: It, too, was written for the dance. The Russian born Ida Rubinstein was a mediocre ballerina, but a strong actress and a personality with a good head on her shoulders. Rubinstein also had money. She commissioned The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a musical play written by Gabriele D'Annunzio and Claude Debussy, and also, later, Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher ("Joan of Arc at the Stake").


In 1928, she commissioned Maurice Ravel's, Bolero, a fifteen minute work for dance. Rubinstein danced the premiere with her own company at the Paris Opera on November 22, 1928. And the rest, as they say, is history. Ravel took a humdrum assignment and used the entire orchestra as one instrument: "I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting 17 minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral tissue without music of one long, very gradual crescendo.  There are no contrasts, and there is practically no invention ..." As with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Ravel 's Bolero is about sound, not the meaning of sound. Here is a clip of Maurice Bejart's interpretation of  Bolero -- maybe not what Ida Rubinstein had in mind! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnSh-KPV7QQ