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Program Notes – Metheny and More

Maurice Ravel inclined musically towards the exotic, and he wrote a number of works with specifically Iberian flair: Bolero, Rhapsodie espagnole, even an opera, L’Heure espagnole. Alborada del gracioso is one of these. It was originally one of five works for solo piano contained in a landmark suite, Miroirs, two of which he later orchestrated. If you’re a young Spanish lover who’s sneaked into your paramour’s chamber for a night of whispering sweet nothings, and you’ve stationed your jester outside the chamber door with instructions to let you know when dawn is breaking so you can make your escape, the piece of music to suit this purpose is called an alborado. Ravel’s somewhat mysterious addition of the words del gracioso indicate that this is a dawn song of a buffoon. From the relatively constrained timbral world of the solo piano original, Ravel—one of humankind’s greatest orchestrators—calls forth the most brilliant instrumental colors. The work opens and closes with a strumming motif, decorated with castanets and in the end, trombone glissandi. In the middle of the work is the dawn-song itself, sung at first by the bassoon and later doubled by violas and cellos in octaves.

Pat Metheny is, in the words of Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Percussionist and arranger Chris Deviney, “an important figure in the development of music generally.” Best known for his jazz guitar recordings and performances, Metheny has twenty Grammy awards in ten different categories. The Pat Metheny Group’s 1997 album Imaginary Day, the third in a trilogy of albums, inspired Deviney to arrange a suite of three selections for two percussionists and orchestra. Metheny (with considerable contributions from keyboardist/composer Lyle Mays) forged an unmistakable harmonic idiom out of the language of jazz and world fusion, as evident in the first selection,The Awakening. Across the Sky features one of Metheny’s signature long-lined guitar improvisations colorfully recast as a virtuoso vibraphone solo, around which the orchestra adds increasingly rich accompaniment. The final selection, The Heat of the Day, featuring middle-eastern modalities, drives towards a hypnotic and burly climax.

Berlioz composed the Symphonie fantastique in 1830 and it was first performed in December of that year. Before the premiere, Berlioz had a “program” for the symphony published in the newspaper. This was a completely novel occurrence, and caused critical furor even before a note of the work had been heard. At the same time, there was a real-life situation that made Berlioz’s manipulation of the media seem uncannily twenty-first century.

Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in September of 1827 and developed a foolish romantic obsession with the leading lady, Harriet Smithson. Over the next few years he attempted in vain to make himself known to her, meanwhile composing the Symphonie and its famous program. In it, Berlioz tells the story of a young artist who falls madly in love with a young woman who becomes the object of – sound familiar? – his psychotic fixation. She is represented by a melody (he calls it the idée fixe), which is heard in each of the Symphonie’s five movements. After the introduction, the idée is presented as a vision of noble beauty by flute together with the first violins while the rest of the string section play increasingly agitated heart-throbs in the background. The next movement is a scene at a ball, with yards of silk swirling about the room. Berlioz takes care to introduce the scene in a completely theatrical way, each detail coming into focus as the picture becomes complete. The beloved’s presence is made known. The artist then finds himself out in the countryside, finding solace in the sound of piping shepherds, but his thoughts turn panicked when he remembers the beloved. Having convinced himself that he is being jilted (by a woman he’s never actually met), the author kicks off the rest of the Symphonie by dosing himself with opium. In the delirium which follows, he imagines that he has murdered the object of his affections and is marched off to the scaffold for a beheading. Yet this does not end his hallucinations—there is one movement to go. He finds himself witness to a midnight gathering of witches. Amid their unholy rituals the beloved appears, wretched and grotesque. The crowning, blasphemous bars of the Symphonie feature a fugue, which takes as its subject a quote of the chant melody from a section of the Catholic Mass for the dead, Dies irae (Day of Wrath).

 

© Jamey Lamar 2018