Magic of Chopin: Program Notes cover

Magic of Chopin: Program Notes


Two of Canada’s brightest classical music stars perform a program that celebrates the spirit of France. Mozart composed his Symphony No. 31 specifically to please and impress Parisian audiences. Chopin called “The City of Lights” home for most of his adult life, and Debussy and Ravel are two of France’s greatest composers. BBC Music Magazine commented on Louis Lortie’s gifts as an interpreter of Chopin: “Lortie is a model Chopinist: eloquent but never sentimental, elegant, harmonically luminous, structurally immaculate—and surprising.”
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
To continue on with tonight's Guest Artists, please click here
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.

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Magic of Chopin: Program Notes



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K. 297 (300a) (Paris)

Allegro assai



Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21



Allegro vivace

Louis Lortie


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Ibéria from Images*

Par les rues et par les chemins (In the Streets and Byways)

Les parfums de la nuit (The Fragrances of the Night)

Le matin d'un jour de fête (The Morning of a Festival Day)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

La Valse

The 2016-17 Piano Soloists are generously sponsored by The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianists Fund.

The Thursday night concert is generously sponsored by Judith Posnikoff.

The Saturday night concert is generously sponsored by Symphony 100.

Symphony No. 31, "Paris"


Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, strings, percussion

Performance time: 17 minutes


When it comes to Mozart, it's not easy to surprise today's listeners. Program annotators often resort to quoting the composer's letters, which can be charming, funny and even shocking by turns.

His Symphony No. 31 fairly begs for this approach: Mozart was living in Paris in 1778 when he composed it, but his father, who usually traveled with him, was detained at home. Mozart stayed in Paris for six months competing with other composers for commissions, and on all such trips he griped freely about the failure of potential patrons to recognize his superiority over other composers. His letters to Leopold casually flaunt his disdain for the concertgoers of Paris, who even then credited themselves as listeners of elegant refinement; to Mozart they were for the most part "asses" and ignoramuses.

Letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart, dated March 3, 1770. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

But such frankness can be misleading, and was never intended for reading outside the family. And behind his words we can see the hope for popular success and further commissions.

What to Listen For

By this time Mozart was 21 and well into the period of symphonies that musicologists term "great" (generally any Mozart symphony numbered higher than 25). In fact, there had been a lapse of almost four years since he'd produced his previous symphony, No. 30, in Salzburg.

In incorporating some of the new orchestral techniques that had been introduced in Paris, Mozart gave his contemporary listeners-and us-a symphony of unusual energy and detail scored for a larger orchestra than was usual for him. The symphony is notable for Mozart's assiduous showcasing of the then-new French string technique known as premier coup d'archet (first strike of the bow), a dramatic effect characterized by crisp attacks and forceful bowing.

---The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Video 18 minutes.

Mozart suspected his audiences would like what they heard and he was right; the symphony was a hit with listeners and widely praised in the French press.


Portrait of Frédéric Chopin by Eugène Delacroix, 1838

Piano Concerto No. 2*


Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, strings, percussion

Performance time: 32 minutes


Can a concert featuring a concerto by a Polish nationalist and a symphony by an Austrian immortal be called "all-French"? Yes, if the symphony is Mozart's "Paris" symphony and the concerto is by Chopin, alongside two featured French works.

The ardently patriotic Chopin was described as "more Polish than Poland" by his lover, George Sand, the aggressively nonconformist writer equally known for her cross-dressing and her novels. But if Poland was Chopin's fatherland, Paris was his home.

Born in 1810, Chopin displayed all the signs of a music prodigy early on. When he was 7 his first teacher notated one of his improvisations and had it published; his next teacher taught young Chopin to notate music himself. His first rondo for solo piano was published in 1825.

Five years later, Chopin unveiled his fabulously beautiful piano concerto in F minor, now known as No. 2. With its success in Warsaw, Chopin gained a place as a national hero of Poland.

As with Beethoven and some other great composers, his concerto now known as No. 1, in E minor, was actually composed later, though in that same year. From then on Chopin was not just famous but a national hero, a figure whose brilliance and standing in music history remain central to Polish national identity. He arrived in Paris at age 21 with a goblet of Polish soil in his effects.

What to Listen For

No other great classical composer is identified so closely with a single instrument; every work that Chopin composed features the piano, and the concertos are his largest-scale works that engage the orchestra. But he preferred to write and play unaccompanied works, and even during his lifetime, some listeners noted that Chopin's handling of musical materials lacked the novelty and complexity expected in the orchestration of large-scale compositions.

These quibbles miss the point: Chopin was unparalleled in his ability to make the piano sing in a way that more closely resembled the heartfelt melodies of bel canto operas than other piano compositions. In fact, his ability to bend bittersweet harmonies far surpassed that of most opera composers who inspired him.

His piano concertos set up a predictable exchange between solo and accompanying lines rather than a dialogue between equals. But this creates a closer identification between the listener and the pianist that makes the solo voice all the more thrilling. Besides, the charge of minimally engaging the orchestra hardly stands up to this concerto's introduction, which follows the rules of orchestration and structure Chopin learned in his years studying composition in Warsaw.

Almost three minutes long, it seems highly formal and almost Beethovenian, building suspense and duly introducing thematic material in the orchestra before the piano plays a note. But once the piano enters, it is clearly dominant, and suddenly the melodies that sounded merely felicitous in the orchestra have the expressive sweetness of Chopin.

---Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21: II. Larghetto · Louis Lortie. Video: 9 minutes

In the lush larghetto we hear Chopin at his most romantic-music inspired, as he confessed to a friend, by his unspoken longing for a singer named Constantia Gladkowska. The high-energy finale of this concerto, like that of his first, incorporates Chopin's beloved Polish dance rhythms—in this case, a mazurka.



CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, strings, percussion

Performance time: 20 minutes


Debussy’s musical imagination was especially sensitive to the visual world around him, and to the painter’s image. He was an informed enthusiast who knew such artists as Whistler, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin personally. He also shared the attraction of French composers such as Ravel, Lalo and Bizet to the sunlit sensuality of Spain.

Composed between 1905 and 1912, Iberia is the second section of the suite Images pour Orchestre, which Debussy originally conceived as a work for two pianos. He soon realized that for the full range of coloristic effects he had in mind, only an orchestra-and a sizable one, at that-would do.

Debussy tried unsuccessfully to fend off the term "Impressionist." But given the title and its sound of Images, we can hardly blame listeners for connecting it to the painters of translucency, light and joy-especially the shimmering Iberia section.

But the curmudgeonly Debussy, in describing his aims, called them "…what some imbeciles call 'Impressionism,' a term that is utterly misapplied, especially by the critics."

What to Listen For

Regular listeners to Pacific Symphony-or to any ranked orchestra, for that matter-will be well aware of the musical magnetism that Spain seemed to exert on French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries; we've heard it in Lalo, Ravel and Bizet. Debussy was no exception, and like Saint-Saens wrote tangy duets in the Spanish style.

But in Iberia we hear something different. Here, more than in his compatriots' music, Debussy evokes customary Spanish fire and spice with Gallic elegance. His harmonies can even be described as cool-carved out of the seven-note "perfect" scale that Debussy pioneered. They wander freely rather than resolving in pre-Wagnerian style.

Debussy asserted that Wagner's murky, suspended harmonies were glorious, but not really applicable to other composers—a claim that seems odd as we listen to his own rambling progressions. Always, with Debussy, the best way to listen is without a map or plan in mind.

Here, despite the unusually complex braiding of voices, the effect is simple to hear: glinting impressions of light and color that achieve, in the composer's words, "an effect of reality." The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla validated his success, crediting Ibéria with "echoes from the villages, a kind of Sevillana…which seems to float in a clear atmosphere of scintillating light; the intoxicating spell of Andalusian nights, the festive gaiety of people dancing…"

---Orquesta Sinfónica Simon Bolivar de Venezuela

Director: Jesús López Cobos Video: 19 minutes

We hear (and see) these scenes in three movements that lead us in a typically Spanish chronology, from afternoon to morning of the following day.


Portrait de Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937) au piano, 1914. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

La Valse

MAURICE RAVEL (1875–1937)

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion Performance time: 12 minutes


For all its beauty and aura of swooning romance, a sense of foreboding surrounds La Valse, which gives us a vivid account of European civilization's luxurious refinements and the specter of their destruction.

That's a lot to pour into a 13-minute dance score, but Ravel had been an ambulance driver on the front lines of World War I, and like everyone else in Europe, he was deeply scarred by the most horrific apocalypse that humanity had ever created. The downfall of beauty and order was on his mind.

Ravel was also fascinated by the waltz form. As early as 1911, he had composed his suite Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and the seductive pulse of the waltz preoccupied him even earlier than that: at least as far back as 1906, when he intended to orchestrate a concert waltz as a tribute to Johann Strauss II.

As his ideas for La Valse germinated, Ravel intended to name it with the French word for Vienna, "Vienne," and then the German, "Wien." He famously described the effect he desired as "dancing on the edge of a volcano."

What to Listen For

As composed in 1919 and 1920, the waltz theme in La Valse is irresistible, but tinged with a sense of decadence that grows and grows. The sound draws us in with its gorgeous seductiveness, yet somehow it also menaces us.

Ravel had described this dangerous beauty as "a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with, in my mind, the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling." In his preface to the score, he notes: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: One sees…an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth…Set in an imperial court, about 1855."

---Ravel: La Valse / Bernstein · Orchestre National de France. Video 13 minutes.

Many other artists have taken Ravel's cue in hearing the hint of an apocalypse in the beauty of a waltz-for example, the great American painter Jack Levine, who explores the same theme in his painting "The Last Waltz" and in the selection of that same title by the rock group The Band for their farewell concert.

To continue on with tonight's Guest Artists, please click here

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.