Season Finale with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
James Ackley, trumpet
For centuries, composers have brought stories to life through music. As far as stories go, it's hard to top Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade—a story about one of history's greatest storytellers and the tales she weaves.
TCHAIKOVSKY The Tempest
ARUTIUNIAN Trumpet Concerto
featuring James Ackley, trumpet
The Tempest, Op. 18
Symphonic Fantasia after Shakespeare
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The plays of William Shakespeare were the major literary influences on the composers of the Romantic era, from Mendelssohn to Tchaikovsky. The latter wrote works based on three of them. The first, Romeo and Juliet, has become one of the most popular orchestral compositions in the classical repertory, while the other two, The Tempest and Hamlet, are infrequently heard today.
Tchaikovsky composed The Tempest in the summer of 1873, based on a suggested outline by the critic Vladimir Stasov, which also was printed in the original publication:
“The sea. Ariel, spirit of the air, raising a tempest at the bidding of the magician Prospero. Ferdinand’s ship sinks. The enchanted island. The first shy awakening of love between Miranda and Ferdinand. Ariel. Caliban. The young couple’s love grows to overwhelming passion. Prospero renounces his magic powers and quits the island. The sea.”
Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy follows Stasov’s outline – although not in order, and more or less within the structural confines of sonata form. His adherence to the plot is even more vague. The composer, in fact, lacked self-confidence regarding how to approach the music, asking Stasov at one point whether there had to be a storm and, if so, where he should put it. His goal was to depict the most colorful aspects of the plot and characters: Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand and Miranda. And, of course, he abided by Stasov’s insistence that, yes, he must include a tempest, even though it occurs offstage in the play. Tchaikovsky did not, however, follow his mentor’s advice by creating a sudden storm out of nowhere; like Beethoven and Rossini before him, he built up the tension.
The music for each element unfolds transparently.
Although Tchaikovsky was initially satisfied with The Tempest, he was rattled by one negative review of the premiere in St. Petersburg and five years later, was condemning the entire work.
Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major
Armenian composer and pianist Aleksander Arutiunian spent a lifetime furthering the artistic life of his native country. He studied at the Conservatories in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, and subsequently in Moscow. In contrast to his famous Armenian compatriot, Aram Khachaturian, he did not remain in Moscow but spent 36 years as Director of the Armenian Philharmonic Society and as Professor of Composition at the Yerevan Conservatory.
Arutiunian has composed extensively, for all media, including opera and film. He incorporated the folk music traditions of his native country into classical musical structures, wedding them with the late-Romantic sound favored by the Soviet authorities, who controlled the artistic output of its citizens well into the 1950s and ‘60s
The Trumpet Concerto, composed in 1950, is a virtuoso piece. Arutiunian wrote it for Timofey Dokshitser (1921-2005), trumpeter with the Bolshoy theater from 1945 to 1983. Dokshitser also toured extensively around the world as a soloist, thus introducing Arutiunian’s Concerto to the West.
The Concerto is in a single continuous movement but is made up of three sections, fast-slow-fast, corresponding to the standard arrangement of tempi in this genre. Right from the opening fanfare for the soloist, listeners familiar with the works of Khachaturian will feel at home with Arutiunian’s modal Armenian melodies. The jaunty Allegro that follows shifts to the major key of the Concerto, but it is soon interrupted by a long moody interlude returning to the “native” sonorities and slow tempo. Often in concertos, the composer chooses an orchestral instrument with which the soloist has a special relationship. In this one it is the clarinet, featured here in the slow interlude. In the conclusion to this section, the slower themes pick up speed and are intertwined with the allegro theme
The slow middle section for muted trumpet is a gentle, slightly melancholy cantilena. The final section, which includes a sparkling cadenza, returns to the themes from the first section, thereby creating an overall ABA structure.
Scheherazade, Op. 35
In the tradition of Russian national music, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov holds a place of honor. Musically self-taught, he originally trained as a naval officer, serving in that capacity from 1862 to 1873. Throughout his naval career he studied music on the side until 1871 when he won a faculty position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in spite of the fact that he had little formal training. Until his death he taught and encouraged nearly every young Russian composer from Alexander Glazunov and Anton Arensky to Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s inspiration derived from the operas of Mikhail Glinka, whose music combined Russian melodies with the oriental modes of Russia’s vast Eastern provinces. Together with César Cui, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky, he formed the group called “The mighty five,” whose aim was to promote Russian national music. Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov was by far the best-trained musician among them. His use of instrumental color and masterly orchestration was so famous that any Russian composer with serious aspirations made the pilgrimage to his orchestration and composition classes, even occasional foreigners, like Ottorino Respighi who came from Italy. After the deaths of Borodin and Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov edited and completed their manuscripts – especially their operas – and had them published. Unfortunately, he had a habit of “correcting” everything that he considered over the top, from harmonic progressions to the order of scenes.
The symphonic poem Scheherazade, based on A Thousand Nights and One Night (commonly called the Arabian Nights) was composed in 1888 and premiered in November of that year. It is among the most colorful works in the orchestral repertoire, glowing with brilliant orchestration and lush solos. The frame story of A Thousand Nights and One Night tells of a Khalif who was in the habit of killing his wives after a single night of lovemaking. His latest bride, Scheherazade, avoids that fate by telling him suspenseful stories, concluding each evening with a cliffhanger. After years of such nightly entertainment, the Khalif finally decides to keep her.
The Suite comprises four tableaux, in which the yarn-spinning Scheherazade “speaks” through virtuoso passages for solo violin. Her theme ties the tableaux together and is occasionally incorporated into a story. None of the four tableaux, however, is a musical setting for any of Scheherazade’s tales; rather, they allude to the character types and incidents that make up the vast body of stories. The tone poem begins with the low brasses blasting out the theme representing the Khalif, followed by a passage that Rimsky snitched – although he modified it harmonically – from Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, denoting the world of fairytales.
The first tableau, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” includes a combination of rhythms and changing dynamics that imitate the motion of the waves by means of two principal themes: the second one is a transformation of the Khalif's theme while Scheherazade's theme is transformed to fit the rocking of the waves.
“The Tale of the Kalendar Prince” changes the pace to reflect a number of loosely bound battle episodes, including a main theme introduced in an English horn solo, and virtuosic fanfare passages for solo trumpet.
The third tableau, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” is the most romantic. The violins introduce the first intimate theme, followed by an Oriental dance
The final tableau is a passionate conversation between the Khalif and Scheherazade, as she readies herself for her last chance at survival. The tableau actually recalls a number of episodes from her repertory of stories; marked in the score are: “The Festival at Baghdad;” “The Sea” (reprise of the theme from the first tableau); “The ship founders on a rock topped by the bronze statue of a warrior;” and “Conclusion.” The music is fiery and exciting until the end, when Scheherazade’s stories come to a quiet and plaintive end as she awaits the fatal verdict of the Khalif, whose theme finally moderates to a gentle section solo for the cellos.
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