Program notes: Opening night: Orli Shaham and Delights & Dances

Sunday, July 30, 2023 , 6:30 PM

John Stafford Smith (arr. John Philip Sousa): The Star-Spangled Banner

Gioacchino Rossini: Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

Michael Abels: Delights & Dances

Maurice Ravel: Concerto in G Major for Piano

Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Composed: 1813
Length: c. 8 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (bass drum), and strings

Rossini composed his comic opera The Barber of Seville, which included an overture based on Spanish themes, in three short weeks in 1816 for production in Rome. Over the course of some years, the original overture was apparently lost, and Rossini substituted an overture he had used for two previous operas (Aurelian in Palmyra and Elizabeth, Queen of England)—this one written in 1813. This lively, up-tempo number, which sets up the opera buffa to follow perfectly, became inextricably linked to Barber.

There is a hesitancy to the beginning of the overture that lends it irresistible charm. The initial burst is followed not by a sweeping melody, but instead by a sneaky exchange between the winds and strings, followed by an understated violin melody accompanied by a creeping pizzicato. The familiar bold Barber melody finally arrives nearly a third of the way into the overture, with the detached accompaniment intact. From here, the music takes off, building excitement through the rest of the piece. Listen for the characteristic “Rossini crescendos,” created by repeating the same melodic fragment multiple times in a row, each iteration increasing in volume and in number of instruments.

Delights & Dances

Michael Abels (b. 1962)

Composed: 2007
Length: c. 16 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo string quartet and string orchestra

Composer Michael Abels grew up as a musical prodigy on his grandparents’ farm in South Dakota. Since his graduation from the University of Southern California, his works—including his frequently programmed 1991 piece Global Warming—have been performed by major symphonies and opera companies around the world. Living in the Los Angeles area, Abels sought opportunities to compose for film, but none materialized until he was contacted out of the blue by filmmaker Jordan Peele in the mid-2010s. Impressed upon hearing a piece by Abels, Peele asked if Abels was interested in scoring a little movie he was making, titled Get Out. Abels jumped at the chance, and the film was a huge success. After seeing it, Steven Spielberg called Peele to congratulate him, saying of Abels, “You’ve got to use him again. It’s like me and John Williams.” Abels has gone on to provide the evocative (and creepy) scores for Peele’s Us (2019) and Nope (2022).

Delights & Dances was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization in honor of their 10th anniversary supporting and celebrating diversity in the classical concert hall. Abels wrote the piece for the Harlem Quartet, which features award-winning Sphinx players. Played in one continuous movement, Delights & Dances is a dazzling showpiece for the solo quartet, backed up by the string orchestra, and features rhythms and tunes infused by elements of American folk, bluegrass, blues, and Latin music.

What to listen for

  • The piece is in two main sections. After the slow introduction, each quartet member is given at least one moment to shine as they solo over a repeated 16-bar blues progression, colored with catchy syncopated and pizzicato-repeated phrases.
  • Hold on to your hat for the second section, which is a joyously charged hoedown, like Copland with a bluesy (and sometimes exotic) inflection.

Concerto in G Major for Piano

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Composed: 1929-1931
Length: c. 23 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo piano, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, e-flat clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, triangle, whip, woodblock), harp, and strings

Ravel aimed to establish a “French” style that was set apart from the dominant 19th-century Germanic sound, which he considered to be overwrought and heavy. At the same time, he was open to influences from elsewhere, contributing to his own evolving compositional style and leading to new techniques of tone coloring to evoke moods and scenes. For inspiration for his Piano Concerto in G, Ravel turned back to 18th-century Vienna and forward to 20th-century America.

Rhythmic, melodic, and formal clarity characterized Ravel’s style throughout his career, and with the concerto genre, he distanced himself from the Romantic conception of the work as a battleground for the soloist and orchestra. He described his Piano Concerto as:

…a concerto in the strict sense, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. I believe that a concerto can be gay and brilliant, and that there is no necessity for it to aim at profundity or big dramatic effects. It has been said that the concertos of some great classical composers were written not for but against the piano, and I think that this criticism is quite justified.

American jazz harmonies and rhythms were a prime source of new material for Ravel, as he acknowledged in a speech delivered during a trip he made to America just before beginning to write his piano concerto:

To my mind, the “blues” is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American…. While I adopted this popular form of your music, I venture to say that nevertheless it is French music, Ravel’s music that I have written…. I wish to say how very happy I am in visiting your country, and all the more so because my journey is enabling me to become still more conversant with those elements which are contributing to the gradual formation of a veritable school of American music.

Combining Classical clarity and formal balance with the melodic/harmonic innovations of American jazz, the Concerto in G is a work of sparkling originality.

What to listen for

  • After the rousing introduction, listen for the new theme given to the piano, written in a minor scale harmonized by a major chord, creating a “bluesy” feel (A-sharp against the blue note A-natural).
  • The captivating second movement opens with a long, unaccompanied solo passage, but listen for the repetition of the melody in the English horn, now with the shimmering piano accompaniment seamlessly integrated into the texture.
  • Jazz effects such as trombone glissandi (sliding notes) and the periodic appearances of the opening rhythm in various instrumental combinations serve as points of reference in the perpetual motion of the finale, an animated showstopper.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi