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Program Notes November 20, 2022 MCO Concert

Pyotr’s Dream – Andrew Balfour  

Andrew Balfour wrote Pyotr’s Dream in 2019 as a commission for Tafelmusik in Toronto – a commission that was his dream. It premiered in Toronto in September of the same year. The work is based on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Hymn of the Cherubim, a choral work that is part of Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John’s Chrysostom, written in 1878. 

In a 2022 interview, Balfour stated, “I was drawn to the deep mystical emotion of the work, with its origins in the Orthodox ritual and liturgy. I wanted to approach the commission from a choral perspective, even though I was writing for string orchestra.” The wordlessness of Balfour’s work leaves his piece more open-ended than Tchaikovsky’s. “I feel that Pytor’s Dream displays a certain mystical uncertainty, an unknown element to a very old ritual. Almost like clouds of incense rising up, carrying our spiritual, collective hopes and dreams.”   

Though Balfour has been composing in a classical style for over 25 years, he recently began bridging this style with Indigenous themes – something for which he has become known . Of Cree descent, he often finds himself in the middle of two worlds and has made it a goal to forge connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. His passions also include musical and Indigenous education, which culminated in a Gold Medal awarded by the Senate of Canada for his work in Canada’s Indigenous and music communities. The area of this work includes northern reserves and Winnipeg’s inner-city schools. Andrew now resides in Toronto where he continues composing and working with Indigenous voices. 

Ellen Toews, CMU student in third year of a Bachelor of Music (Education) program

Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor   Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

One may well be astounded upon first encountering Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, for it encapsulates the virtuosity of the genre and sensitivity of Romanticism, while offering an authentic musical personality.  It is a work more significant than the sum of its parts.  From its premiere the popular concerto was acclaimed as the “most splendid success of the season.”  

From his early years Felix Mendelssohn received substantial musical instruction, emerging a prodigy as both pianist and composer.  In 1830 Mendelssohn began composing this piano concerto, dedicating it to Delphine von Schaurath, a young woman and accomplished pianist from Munich whom he considered marrying.  In a letter to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he mentioned that von Schaurath had even composed a passage of the concerto that “makes a startling effect,” although he never revealed which one.  

Perhaps she influenced the beginning of the first movement where Mendelssohn, following Romantic practice, has the piano entering earlier than usually expected, launching from the orchestral build-up in a virtuosic octave-scales passage.  Or possibly the rapid figurations which build like waves and culminate in a fortissimo descending scale with both orchestra and piano?  Or perhaps it was the contrast when the intensity of theme one is abandoned for the elegance and lyricism of the second theme.  Could he be alluding to the sections where the orchestra plays theme one or two supported by the piano’s virtuosic accompaniment and support?  Maybe the end of the movement, growing from a quiet dynamic to a breathtaking, fortissimo arpeggio passage, the powerful tremolo over left-hand octaves, and finally a perfect cadence?  

Becoming more incredible in light of his being but twenty-two when he composed and first performed it, this compelling and captivating concerto offers listeners a glimpse into Mendelssohn’s musical intentionality, passion, and depth.

Anne Grace Kelm, CMU student in final year of Bachelor of Music (Performance) program

Pavane pour une infante défunte                     Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The melancholy of nostalgia lies in its longing for the unobtainable past. Pavane pour une infante défunte seems to permeate this wistfulness, ebbing and flowing like a dream you wish to remember though its details are fading. For Ravel, Pavane was meant to evoke a daydreamed memory of an anonymous young princess dancing in a forgotten Spanish court. Though stylistically shrouded in fog, the piece remains one of Ravel’s most melodically focused and accessible works.

Premiered in Paris on April 5, 1902, Pavane was immediately successful. Surprised, Ravel feared the piece was overly simple and perhaps derivative of Emmanuel Chabrier, one of the composer’s primary influences. Ravel’s personal misgivings aside, the piece exemplifies a refined French sensibility, balancing the composer’s fascination with the past and a determination to explore new harmonic possibilities. Perhaps Ravel’s parents, his mother of the historically rich Basque region and his father, a Swiss-born engineer-inventor, are partly responsible for this confluence of nostalgia and progress.

Throughout Pavane, Ravel’s mastery of texture is on full display. Its melodic theme is first introduced by French horns, accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings and suspended bassoon lines. Soon flutes and harp emerge, fluttering as if carried on a warm breeze. The strings are only permitted to carry the melody nearly two minutes into the piece. In the B and C sections, listen for the interwoven chromaticism between instruments and their densely tangled harmonic gestures, exemplifying a burgeoning impressionistic style and, at times, betraying Ravel’s fondness for American jazz music.

Levi Penner, CMU student in second year of Bachelor of Music program 

Farmer’s Symphony                            John Estacio (b. 1966)

Composer John Estacio found inspiration for Farmer’s Symphony in his childhood on a vegetable farm. “[…] It always amazed me how one small box of seeds sitting in the corner of my dad’s storage shed could fill up the entire barn five fold in the autumn.” 

This piece beautifully depicts the type of love that nurtures, that cares for others and encourages growth. The farmers tend their fields day after day, and in turn, the crops flourish and provide them with a bountiful harvest. It’s part of the give and take nature of the world, and the very thing that sustains us all.

In the same way one seed can produce a large harvest, the first movement, “Seeds of Spring” begins with a single note that grows into a full, collaborative orchestral sound. Flute tremolos and percussion evoke sounds of wind and leaves rustling: the earth waking up after winter, farmers working in the fields, the grass regaining its green, and the trees growing back their leaves. At the end, the instrumentation returns to relative inactivity; now that the farmers have done their work, all they can do is wait for the next day.

Movement two, “Summer Nocturne” begins with the repetitive drone of strings and lower woodwinds, representing the heat and stillness of the summer. Partway through the section, the harp takes the lead with a flourish; the hard work is paying off, and the plants are growing. The strings and woodwinds come back to provide movement, contrasting the earlier lull.

The fast pace of the final movement, “The Harvesters”, depicts the hectic energy of harvest, where the work isn’t as repetitive but there’s more of it. Triumphant motives reveal feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. While an effective and satisfying conclusion to the symphony, this movement will not be performed tonight.

Beth Dillabough, CMU student in 4th year of Bachelor of Arts program (Music Major) 

Leonore Overture No. 3                         Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is about love and bravery during a time of political upset. Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named Fidelio, sets out to save her husband from prison and imminent death. Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s libretto was inspired by an incident from the French Revolution, where an aristocrat was saved from jail by his wife.

The creation of the opera was an extensive process; Beethoven performed many revisions on the music before he got it just right. The original version was first performed in Vienna on November 20, 1805. At the time, Vienna was under French military operation, so the audience was primarily filled with officers who had little to no interest in German opera. Beethoven was later advised to shorten the opera from three acts to two, which he did, and the second version premiered six months later to greater success. For this version he also wrote a new overture, his third attempt for the show, called “Leonore No. 3”. While too long and detailed as an opening, it was an excellent musical synopsis of the opera, and is often played by orchestras as a stand alone selection.

The final version premiered in 1814, with a partially revised libretto. The revisions reoriented the piece to the idea of love and bravery overcoming injustice and strife, themes that struck a chord with Viennese audiences weary of war and occupation.

It’s never made clear in Fidelio what the situation is that causes such strife for the characters, but ultimately that’s not the point. The story of someone putting themselves in harm’s way for the person they love during a fraught time is meaningful regardless of the circumstances. And perhaps that is what Viennese audiences thought when they saw that final version in 1814. 

Beth Dillabough, CMU student in 4th year of Bachelor of Arts program (Music Major)