PROGRAM NOTES

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527
Composed 1787
Duration ca. 6 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is, in the words of the English critic and opera authority William Mann, “an opera of ambivalences.” Though descended from a straightforward morality tale — the centuries-old story of Don Juan, that seducer extraordinaire whose refusal to abandon his libertine ways brings about his doom — the opera walks an uncertain line between comedy and tragic drama. Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, recalled in his memoirs that the composer was intent on a serious approach to the story, while he, Da Ponte, preferred a humorous one. In the end, their opera fused both points of view. Certainly, a dark tone underlies the work as a whole, and Mozart’s setting of the final scene, in which the title character is dragged to the underworld by the ghostly statue of a virtuous man he has killed, is genuinely chilling, thanks largely to its hair-raising music. But much of Don Giovanni sparkles with comic gaiety and its score features ingratiating arias, witty banter, and winsome dance tunes.

The ambiguous mixture of gravity and playfulness that marks the opera as a whole is a prime characteristic of the overture Mozart wrote the night before the dress rehearsal for the first performance of Don Giovanni, in 1787. This piece begins with an introduction in slow tempo. Here menacing chords, restless melodic lines made more so by their sharply syncopated rhythms, and inexorably rising and falling scale figures combine to convey an ominous atmosphere. Mozart used the same music in the opera’s climactic scene, the confrontation between the unrepentant Don Giovanni and the supernatural statue.

These dark sounds give way, however, to the main body of the overture, a buoyant aAlegro in which Mozart presents a succession of attractive melodies. Both the pleasing quality of these themes and the skill with which Mozart develops them are such that, despite other well-known instances of his high-speed composing, we can only marvel at this piece having been written during the course of a single night.

 

MASON BATES
Garages of the Valley
Composed: 2014
Duration ca. 17 minutes
Scored for 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, percussion, and strings

The American composer Mason Bates is at home in two musical worlds. Having studied at The Juilliard School and earned a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, Bates is a well-trained composer of contemporary classical music. But he also performs as a DJ in clubs around the country, blending rhythm tracks and other diverse sounds in a very up-to-date fashion.

More remarkably, Bates has managed to bring these disparate musical realms together. His orchestral compositions sometimes feature the kinds of electronic sounds that are the signature of “techno” music, and he has created hybrid classical/techno events in which he DJs with orchestral players. Even without DJ equipment, Bates often transposes the rhythms and aural textures of techno dance music to acoustic instruments in his own pieces. The results have made him one of the most widely performed composers of his generation.

In light of his embrace of the electronic resources at the heart of techno music, it is not surprising that Bates might compose a work celebrating the digital age itself. Completed in 2014, Garages of the Valley resulted from a commission tendered jointly by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Toronto and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras. Edo de Waart, who leads this evening’s concert, was involved in the commission from the start, and it was his illustrious tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, in the 1980s, that turned Bates’s thinking to the early days of the computer revolution, which occurred at that time in the nearby Silicon Valley. “Much of the Digital Age,” Bates observes, “was dreamed up in the most low-tech of spaces. The garages that dot the landscape of Silicon Valley housed the visionaries behind Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Google. Within the bright Valley’s dark garages, the great inventors of our time conjured new worlds ... All this in a windowless cube without insulation: that’s where imagination steps in.”

Imagining in sonic terms the workshops of the early computer visionaries, Bates says, “challenged me to write vigorous and visceral music that would also be filled with a kind of digital exoticism.” He adds, “I also wanted energy: lots of it. We all have an image of zillions of lines of computer code whizzing down a screen, and I needed a way to bring that to life in a fresh and evocative way.”

That Garages of the Valley indeed bristles with energy is evident from its opening moments, in which woodwinds give out bustling figures with sharp percussion accents. Initially the phrases are brief, asymmetrical in length, and separated by silence. Bates soon counters these running lines with their opposite: sustained sonorities pulled into tight, elongated strands of sound. The tension between these diametrically different musical materials animates the whole of Garages of the Valley, even as the two types of sounds evolve over time.

Though written as a single movement, the piece unfolds in four sections that approximate the form of a classical symphony. The strong opening introduces and develops the contrasting animated and static modes of musical expression. The latter dominate the second portion of the piece, which is largely given over to a series of sustained tones and chords that emerge and recede in slow succession. This stately music gives way to a third section with the playful character of a Scherzo. The energy of the finale reflects, Bates says, the infectious optimism of those Silicon Valley seers whose creations have so remarkably transformed our world.

 

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27
Composed: 1907
Duration ca. 58 minutes

Scoring: 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings

The year 1907 saw a turning point, really the turning point, in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s career as a composer. Rachmaninoff had already established his reputation as a pianist of exceptional virtuosity, and he had also enjoyed success as a conductor. But Rachmaninoff’s artistic progress came to an abrupt standstill in 1897 with the disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1. The reception of that work, on which Rachmaninoff had pinned much hope, could not have been harsher. César Cui, a respected composer and critic, likened the piece to the product of “a con­servatory in Hell.” Other commentators were scarcely more kind. This unmitigated public failure plunged the composer into a prolonged state of depression, self-doubt, and inactivity. During the next three years he composed nothing, and only after undertaking a course of therapeutic hypnosis, in 1900, did he regain the confidence to begin writing music again. Still, he pointedly avoided symphonic composition and continued to subordinate his creative work to his career as a performer.

By 1906, however, the life of a part-time composer was no longer satisfactory. Rachmaninoff’s confidence and ambition had recovered considerably, and he now wished to establish himself as a major creative figure. Above all he needed to prove himself in the field of orchestral music, and for this he required time to work out his ideas on a large scale. Resigning the conducting post he held at the Bolshoi Opera, Rachmaninoff moved to Germany and in Dresden rented a secluded house where he could devote his energies fully to composition. 

The first work Rachmaninoff completed in his Dresden retreat was his Second Symphony. A piano draft of the music was finished in early 1907 and orchestrated during the summer. Audiences greeted the new work enthusiastically at its first performances in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, in February of 1908, and its success encouraged Rachmaninov to proceed with one of his most famous works, the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, completed later that year.

Although its very immediate emotional appeal constitutes its most obvious and winning quality, we can admire the Second Symphony also for its thoughtful construction, evidenced in the close relationships among its themes. We find this particularly in the first movement, whose introductory Largo is based entirely on a brief “motto” figure — a thematic idea that recurs conspicuously at different points over the course of the composition — presented in the opening measures by the cellos and basses. Rachmaninoff builds this section with care, restraint, and a skilled use of counterpoint, making it one of the most satisfying passages in his symphonic output. The main body of the first movement, which follows in a quicker tempo, also issues from the motto theme. Its principal melody, heard in the violins over a plaintive clarinet accompaniment, begins with an almost literal rephrasing of the motto, and the graceful second theme develops the motto’s tail of descending eighth-notes.

Rachmaninoff replaces the melancholy tone of the first movement with a distinctively Russian vigor in the ensuing scherzo. Here a brash opening gives way to a more lyrical second subject and a lively, rhythmic central episode. Rachmaninoff plays his strong suit in the ensuing Adagio, spinning out the kind of voluptuous, romantic melodies at which he excelled.  

The finale presents a succession of contrasting themes: a playful opening subject, a march-like figure, and a warmly expressive melody for the violins. As the movement progresses towards its conclusion, the composer recalls ideas heard earlier in the symphony, most notably the motto theme and the principal subject of the Adagio.