A rare chance to hear the fantastic principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra in a pared-down chamber orchestra, lending their virtuosity and finely honed ensemble skills to this recording of the timeless Stravinsky tribute to J.S. Bach.
Concerto in E-flat major for Chamber Orchestra (“Dumbarton Oaks”) Composed from 1937-38
Igor Stravinsky - Born in Lomonosov, Russia, June 17, 1882 Died in New York City, April 6, 1971
It was only natural that Igor Stravinsky, after composing some of the most startlingly revolutionary music of this century, should have looked backward in history for inspiration. A decade after The Rite of Spring and Petrushka he was a celebrity in Paris, exiled from his native Russia, teeming with an enormous creativity—and looking for a new musical direction. What critics later termed his “neo-Classical” period actually began with J.S. Bach (“whose universal and enormous grasp upon musical art has never been transcended,” he wrote in 1925), but it also ultimately embraced the music of the Viennese Classicists and even that of Brahms. Yet the relationship of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical music to the works of earlier composers is complex and easily misunderstood. The sometimes conventional-sounding harmonies of these works, beginning with the ballet Pulcinella and including such works as the Octet and the Concerto for Piano and Winds, do not function in traditional ways, and often result from the almost coincidental juxtaposition of pitches that arise from contrapuntal lines. In the Concerto, for example, it is the driving rhythms and spun-out melodic lines that recall a Baroque concerto, as much as it is any harmonic elements. Nevertheless the work’s connection to the past is unmistakable. In any event this process of continued homage to the past continued to the end of Stravinsky’s life, and the music and example of Bach inspired many of the composer’s most celebrated works, including the three orchestral symphonies; Oedipus Rex; the Serenade for piano; ballets such as Apollon musagète, The Fairy’s Kiss, and Jeu de cartes; the opera The Rake’s Progress; the Symphony of Psalms; and several concertos. As late as the 1950s, Stravinsky was still writing homages to Bach, as attested by the Chorale-variations on Bach’s setting of the Christmas song “Vom Himmel hoch.” Each of these works took an individualistic approach to what Stravinsky himself (writing of Pulcinella) called his “discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.” Stravinsky had called Pulcinella “a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but … a look in the mirror, too.” The Music Among the seven concertos that Stravinsky composed in the neo-Classical vein is an inspired Concerto in E-flat, which has come to be called “Dumbarton Oaks” after the Washington, D.C., estate of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, who commissioned the piece. The Blisses were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in 1938, and a piece by Stravinsky seemed like just the thing for such an occasion. During the work’s conception the composer visited the estate—a venue known for vital social functions of the city’s cultural life—and was delighted with its lavish gardens. Some critics have speculated that the structure of the gardens might have found reflection in formal aspects of the Concerto. Composed in Arnemasse, Switzerland, and Paris from the spring of 1937 to March 1938, the “little concerto in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos” (as the composer called it) received its premiere at the Blisses’ estate on May 8, 1938, under the baton of no less a figure than teacher-conductor Nadia Boulanger. A Closer Look Stravinsky’s statement about Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos is telling, for in fact each of the 15 instruments of “Dumbarton Oaks” is treated as an independent solo voice; the resulting texture of propulsive “busyness” alludes to the distinctively vibrant nature of Bach’s originals. “I played Bach very regularly during the composition of the Concerto,” Stravinksy wrote later, “and was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my first movement [Tempo giusto] is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know. “What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to have loaned it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do himself.” The clean lines of the second movement (Allegretto) produce a striking sense of clarity and repose—the same sorts of words, in fact, that are often applied to the neo-Classicism of Gluck and his contemporaries in 18th-century France. The finale (Con moto) is an energetic march filled with a lively contrapuntal gaiety, the likes of which old Johann Sebastian Bach would certainly have approved. —Paul J. Horsley Program note © 2008. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. ABOUT THE ARTIST At the time of this recording Robert Spano was in his seventh season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony. Mr. Spano has appeared with the leading American orchestras, including those in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Internationally, he has led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala; the Czech, New Japan, and Oslo philharmonics; and the Berlin Radio, BBC Scottish, BBC, and City of Birmingham symphonies. Mr. Spano has conducted the opera companies of Chicago, Seattle, and Houston, as well as the Santa Fe Opera, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, and the Welsh National Opera. He served as director of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood in 2003 and 2004, and from 1996 to 2004 he was the music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Mr. Spano made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 1991. Highlights of Mr. Spano’s 2007-08 season with the Atlanta Symphony include a festival celebrating Paris; world premiere performances of works by Wynton Marsalis, Gonzalo Grau, and Behzad Ranjbaran; and a Carnegie Hall concert featuring the New York premiere of Christopher Theofanidis's The Here and Now, commissioned and recorded by the Atlanta Symphony. Mr. Spano's other 2007-08 engagements include appearances with Chicago Lyric Opera, the City of Birmingham Symphony, the Oslo Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and at London’s Barbican Centre. Under Mr. Spano’s direction, the Atlanta Symphony has made a series of Grammy Award-winning recordings for the Telarc and Deutsche Grammophon labels, including Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, Berlioz's Requiem, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. Other releases for Telarc include a disc of commissioned works by David Del Tredici and Mr. Theofanidis, a recording of works by Jennifer Higdon, and a disc of Vaughan Williams's orchestral music, named CD of the Month in September 2007 by Gramophone magazine. Born in 1961 in Conneaut, Ohio, and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, Mr. Spano grew up in a musical family. He is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, where he currently serves as a professor of conducting; he continued his studies at the Curtis Institute with Max Rudolf. Mr. Spano was head of the conducting fellowship program at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1998 to 2002 and was music director of the 2006 Ojai Festival. He also appears frequently at the Aspen Music Festival. Mr. Spano has been featured on Late Night with David Letterman, CBS’ Sunday Morning, A&E's Breakfast with the Arts, and PBS' City Arts. He makes his home in Atlanta. 2/2008 PRODUCTION CREDITS Producer: Charles Gagnon Balance Engineer: Charles Gagnon Recording Engineer: Charles Gagnon Editor: Charles Gagnon Assistant Editor: Ryan Miller