Program Notes

Scheherazade and the Sounds of the Middle East

Program Notes

Symphonic Suite (World Premier)

Amir ElSaffar

For this evening’s program with the Amarillo Symphony, ElSaffar brings his acclaimed six-piece Two Rivers ensemble and Iraqi Maqam reciter Hamid Al-Saadi, to perform new arrangements of pieces from ElSaffar’s longer works. The first three movements come from the Crisis suite, which premiered in 2013 at the Newport Jazz Festival. The final movement is from Not Two, composed in 2015 for ElSaffar’s 17-member Rivers of Sound Orchestra.

The first movement of the Symphonic suite, “From the Ashes,” begins with a drum solo suddenly interrupted by wailing horns and strings with a descending four note motif. After three repetitions the orchestra prevails and finally completes the theme.

The Second Movement, “The Great Dictator,” was inspired by ElSaffar’s  travels to the Middle East, his musical ruminations on the archetype of the dictator, reflecting the traits common to this cult of personality.

An interlude follows consisting of a solemn unaccompanied trumpet solo, dedicated to martyrs and victims of war and tyranny. Al-Saadi enters with Maqam Saba, sung in an ancient  folk melody commonly heard in the funerals and mourning rituals of Iraq. Al-Saadi is accompanied by strings and harp, creating an ethereal sound of compassion. The Harp is heard playing a reminiscence of the  the wail of the first movement.

Movement III, El-Shaab (The People) is also in the Saba mode, but now transformed into a revolutionary spirit. Its bright, driving rhythm and main theme express resilience and determination. The countermelody is yet another variation on the “wail” motif. The piece builds but the rhythm stays constant. Meanwhile improvised solos from the Two Rivers musicians interact with the accompaniment of the brass and woodwinds. The strings are heard with percussion-like bowing, playing rhythmic figures borrowed from the drum. Orchestral voices – strings, woodwinds, brass – combine with the Two Rivers players in a revolutionary cry.

Movement IV, Layl (Night) is based on the mode Hijaz Kar which, with its multiple major and augmented triads, has a feeling of transcendence and light. This section, composed for the Rivers of Sound Orchestra in 2015, has a stature beyond the paradigm set by the previous three movements. Even so it seems to be of the same basic nature. The unison strings enter mysteriously, softly breaking the silence, then returning to silence, then fracturing into polyphony. Eventually, an ostinato leads to a vocal entrance evoking an enlightened spiritual state, with texts inspired by Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. Again we have the “wail” motif, but this time transformed into something victorious, triumphant, and transcendent.

The work closes with the song, “Min Gaylek Tishree Sha’eer” (Who told you to buy barley”), a humorous lyric written by the great singer, Muhammad Al-Gubbenchi (1901-1989), about a failed investment in the Baghdad markets in the 1920s.

Hamid Al-Saadi is in the United States as an Artist Protection Fund Fellow, hosted by Rutgers University and Sarah Lawrence College.

Notes by Amir ElSaffar

Scheherazade, Op. 35
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

In the tradition of Russian national music, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov holds a place of honor. Musically self-taught, he originally trained as a naval officer, serving in that capacity from 1862 to 1873. Throughout his naval career he studied music on the side until 1871 when he won a faculty position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in spite of the fact that he had little formal training. Until his death he taught and encouraged nearly every young Russian composer from Alexander Glazunov and Anton Arensky to Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s inspiration derived from the operas of Mikhail Glinka, whose music combined Russian melodies with the oriental modes of Russia’s vast Eastern provinces. Together with César Cui, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky, he formed the group called “The mighty five,” whose aim was to promote Russian national music. Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov was by far the best-trained musician among them. His use of instrumental color and masterly orchestration was so famous that any Russian composer with serious aspirations made the pilgrimage to his orchestration and composition classes, even occasional foreigners, like Ottorino Respighi who came from Italy. After the deaths of Borodin and Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov edited and completed their manuscripts – especially their operas – and had them published. Unfortunately, he had a habit of “correcting” everything that he considered over the top, from harmonic progressions to the order of scenes. A side-by-side evaluation of Musorgsky’s original score of A Night on Bald Mountain with Rimsky’s changes is quite a revelation; it raises the moral question: Which is worse, completely changing someone else’s work and leaving his name on it, or borrowing someone else’s work under ones own name?

The symphonic poem Scheherazade, based on A Thousand Nights and One Night (commonly called the Arabian Nights) was composed in 1888 and premiered in November of that year. It is among the most colorful works in the orchestral repertoire, glowing with brilliant orchestration and lush solos. The frame story of A Thousand Nights and One Night tells of a Khalif who was in the habit of killing his wives after a single night of lovemaking. His latest bride, Scheherazade, avoids that fate by telling him suspenseful stories, concluding each evening with a cliffhanger. After years of such nightly entertainment, the Khalif finally decides to keep her.

The Suite comprises four tableaux, in which the yarn-spinning Scheherazade “speaks” through virtuoso passages for solo violin. Her theme ties the tableaux together and is occasionally incorporated into a story. None of the four tableaux, however, is a musical setting for any of Scheherazade’s tales; rather, they allude to the character types and incidents that make up the vast body of stories. The tone poem begins with the low brasses blasting out the theme representing the Khalif, followed by a passage that Rimsky snitched – although he modified it harmonically – from Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, denoting the world of fairytales.

The first tableau, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” includes a combination of rhythms and changing dynamics that imitate the motion of the waves by means of two principal themes: the second one is a transformation of the Khalif’s theme while Scheherazade’s theme is transformed to fit the rocking of the waves.

“The Tale of the Kalendar Prince” changes the pace to reflect a number of loosely bound battle episodes, including a main theme introduced in an English horn solo, and virtuosic fanfare passages for solo trumpet.

The third tableau, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” is the most romantic. The violins introduce the first intimate theme, followed by an Oriental dance

The final tableau is a passionate conversation between the Khalif and Scheherazade, as she readies herself for her last chance at survival. The tableau actually recalls a number of episodes from her repertory of stories; marked in the score are: “The Festival at Baghdad;” “The Sea” (reprise of the theme from the first tableau); “The ship founders on a rock topped by the bronze statue of a warrior;” and “Conclusion.”  The music is fiery and exciting until the end, when Scheherazade’s stories come to a quiet and plaintive end as she awaits the fatal verdict of the Khalif, whose theme finally moderates to a gentle section solo for the cellos.

Program notes by:

Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn

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