Program Notes: Pines of Rome

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Program Notes: Pines of Rome

Halekulani Masterworks | September 26 & 27
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2015

Overture to Semiramide
Gioachino Rossini
Born 29 February, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy
Died 13 November, 1868 in Passy, near Paris, France
Approximate duration 12 minutes
First HSO performance 1992

The Rossini Overture is a genre unto itself. Few other composers have had so many operatic overtures find a second home in the concert hall. Rossini’s melodies are irresistible and his sense of orchestration impeccable. Further, he has a signature: the Rossini crescendo. Virtually all audiences recognize it and respond to it. Yet his overtures are flexible in approach, and not at all formulaic. Rossini sculpts his material differently in each one. Biographer Richard Osborne has written:

In its stabilized form, the Rossini overture involves a slow introduction, first and second subjects, a recapitulation, and a coda. The whole thing is a functionally elegant scaling down of a classical sonata form movement which Rossini proceeds to transform by the outstanding quality of his invention.

Semiramide (pronounced Seh-mee-RAH-mee-deh) is one of Rossini’s lengthier overtures. Its scope corresponds to the size and spaciousness of the opera it introduces. Characteristically, Rossini uses several themes from the opera as the basis for his instrumental prelude.

The libretto is based on the French philosopher Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis (1748). It deals with episodes in the life of the Queen of Assyria. The two-act score was first performed at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1823. It proved to be the last opera Rossini wrote in his native Italy. After a brief sojourn in London, he moved to Paris the following year, settling there permanently.

This overture became extremely popular in Rossini’s day and was transcribed for numerous other instruments and ensembles. Its most distinctive feature is the rich andantino passage for four horns that dominates the slow introduction, after an opening flourish from timpani and strings. The composer’s essentially sunny temperament shines through this segment – and in the sprightly repeated note theme that anchors the body of the overture. Divorced from the opera, Semiramide’s overture seems far removed from dramatic tragedy. A military crispness to the rhythmic motives helps to infuse the music with vigor and vitality.

Rossini scored his overture for piccolo, woodwinds in pairs, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, cymbals, timpani, bass drum and strings.

Las cuatro estaciones porteñas [The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires]
Astor Piazzolla
Born 11 March, 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina
Died 5 July, 1992 in Buenos Aires
Arranged for Violin and Orchestra by Leonid Desyatnikov
Born 16 October 1955 in Kharkiv, USSR [now Russia]
Approximate duration 29 minutes
These performances are the HSO premiere

Since the 1930s, bandoneón has been central to Argentinian tango’s characteristic sound. Though sometimes misidentified as an accordion, bandoneón is a closer relative of the concertina [or button accordion], a bellows-blown free reed instrument with buttons on both sides. The instrument originated in Germany in the 1840s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bandoneón became standard in popular orchestras of Uruguay and Argentina. Brazilian orchestras favored the accordion. Although tango’s original instruments were guitar, violin, clarinet, and flute, the bandoneón has developed a strong association with Argentinian tango. Astor Piazzolla, arguably Argentina’s most celebrated 20th-century composer, was a major factor in that process.

Piazzolla had an unusually international upbringing and education. His family moved to New York when he was three. He soon became a virtuoso on the bandoneón, and by his mid-teens had moved back to Buenos Aires to launch a performing career. By 1944 he had formed his own orchestra to promote his original music. A 1954 symphony earned him a national scholarship that enabled him to study composition in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

After returning to Buenos Aires in the late 1950s, Piazzolla organized a band, then founded the Quinteto Nuevo Tango in 1960. He recorded extensively with the Quinteto, playing both piano and bandoneón. Piazzolla’s music soon garnered a wide audience that stretched far beyond the nuevo tango milongas of Buenos Aires. Between 1949 and 1988 he composed music for more than fifty films, which did much to add to his international renown.
In the 1980s he composed works for artists as diverse as the pathbreaking Kronos Quartet and superstar cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Other musicians began to adapt and arrange his compositions for jazz, classical, popular, and nuevo tango ensembles. The songs he wrote with the poet Horacio Ferrer became particularly popular. In Argentina, Piazzolla was known as the “king of the tango.” He was very much a citizen of the world, dividing his time between and among Paris, New York, Uruguay, and Argentina. Tango is the common thread running through his compositions.

As its title implies, Las cuatro estaciones porteñas is a suite of four movements. Because Buenos Aires is a port, its citizens are called porteños, thus these segments are portraits of Piazzolla’s friends and neighbors, and of his beloved city, in each of the four seasons. Like much of his music, they combine jazz, classical, and specifically Argentinian elements.

Curiously, these four pieces did not originate as a group. The first to be written was Verano porteño [Buenos Aires Summer], composed in 1965 as part of incidental music for a play by Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz. In 1969 and 1970, Piazzolla added the other three movements. He did not consider them a unified cycle, and his Quinteto Nuevo Tango rarely performed them as such, though they did so in 1970 during the ensemble’s 10th anniversary season.

After Piazzolla’s death in 1992, the Latvian violinist and conductor Gidon Kremer commissioned an arrangement for violin and string orchestra of The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. His choice for the project was Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, best known for his film scores and music for theatre. Kremer’s idea was a companion piece to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, whose influence is a subtle presence in Piazzolla’s original.

By matching the instrumentation of the Vivaldi – violin and strings – Desyatnikov had ample opportunity to emphasize links between the 18th-century Italian and the 20th-century Argentinian composers. Piazzolla was no purist about the instrumentation of his music; he recorded many of his own works in multiple versions for various ensembles. He would surely have been pleased by the broader audience Desyatnikov’s arrangement has brought to these pieces.

Each movement functions as an independent concert piece, and individual seasons from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons frequently appear on programs. This weekend we have a rare opportunity to hear the complete set, featuring HSO concertmaster Iggy Jang in the flashy, stylish solos.

Piazzolla’s original score matched his quintet: bandoneón, piano, guitar, bass, and violin. Desyatnikov’s orchestral arrangement calls for solo violin and strings.

The Fountains of Rome
Ottorino Respighi
Born 9 July, 1879 in Bologna, Italy
Died 18 April, 1936 in Rome
Approximate duration 15 minutes
First HSO performance 1961


One of Italy’s most prominent composers in the early 20th century, Ottorino Respighi is closely associated with the triptych of symphonic poems inspired by his adopted city, Rome. The Fountains of Rome (1914-16), The Pines of Rome (1923-24) and Roman Festivals (1928) have helped to entrench Respighi’s name in the repertoire books. All three celebrate the mystery and rich heritage of the Eternal City, while also viewing it from a modern perspective. In their opulent style, brilliant orchestration, and frankly personal mode of expression, Respighi’s orchestral masterpieces never fail to delight.

Fountains came first, in 1916, and is in many ways the freshest of the three. Anyone who has visited Rome knows that fountains abound: beautiful sculptural jewels that adorn virtually every public square, street corner, and private courtyard. The composer included the following note in the published score:

In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.
He spaces his musical observations throughout the day, describing in music the Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn, the Triton Fountain at morn, the Trevi Fountain at midday, and the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset. Thus we not only glimpse of four different locations, but also four ways the sunlight can play upon the spray of water in the fountains and the surrounding cityscape.

Always a master at impression, Respighi paints vividly colored pictures: the languid calm of water splashing gently as the sun breaks, followed by the brilliant, flirtatious spray of the Triton. Each musical image prompts thoughts of another facet of Roman life. These fountains are a practical source of water as well as tourist attractions and works of sculptural art. Only Rome boasts so many that are so beautiful; only Rome has inspired such glorious music for her fountains.

The score calls for three flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), three oboes (3rd doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, piano, optional organ and strings.

The Pines of Rome
Ottorino Respighi
Approximate duration 23 minutes
First HSO performance 1973

Respighi was part of a great Italian tradition in music. Though his operas Belfagor (1923), La fiamma (1934), and Lucrezia (1937) have never known the success of his Roman Trilogy, they connect him to the operatic heritage of Verdi, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Mascagni, and particularly Puccini. Respighi’s rich orchestral palette, the ease and plenitude of the melodies, and the forthright text-painting all relate The Pines of Rome to the great theatrical masterpieces of the Italian operatic stage.

His opening section, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” shares the insouciance of Puccini’s Act II in La Bohème. And who will not be reminded, at least momentarily, of the great Te Deum scene at the close of Tosca’s first act, when hearing the magnificent, hair-raising crescendo of “The Pines of the Appian Way”?

As a young man in Bologna, Respighi secured an early foundation in orchestration studying with Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909), a disciple of Wagner. Respighi’s experience as an orchestral violinist and violist served him especially well in his handling of the strings. For two winters – 1901/2 and 1902/3 – he worked in St. Petersburg as a violist in the opera orchestra. He took advantage of those sojourns to seek out lessons with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The legendary Russian composer honed Respighi’s instinctive sense of orchestral color, and the young Italian started to come into his own.

Four snapshots of Rome, then and now
Respighi begins The Pines of Rome at the Villa Borghese, a 17th century palace with elegant pleasure gardens. Today the building houses masterpieces of Italian painting and sculpture, and the Villa’s expansive grounds are one of Rome’s most popular public parks. In Respighi’s exhilarating opening, we hear children playing, running this way and that, singing children’s ditties. (Respighi asked his wife Elsa, who was fifteen years his junior, to sing him the nursery songs she had grown up with; he incorporated some of these Italian tunes into the movement.)

The inner movements have their own magic, drawing on the timelessness and variety of Rome itself. “Pine Trees near a Catacomb” evokes the somber atmosphere of underground Christian burial chambers from the 2nd and 3rd-centuries. It is a brilliant dramatic stroke: total contrast after the exuberant young life depicted in the first movement. Respighi’s music proceeds in a long, slow crescendo, sedate, serious, march-like, as if we were auditing the prayers of those early Christians.

From this sober section, Respighi moves to the serenity of the great outdoors. The Janiculum is one of Rome’s seven hills. A rhapsodic piano introduction and a clarinet theme establish the scene, far from the hubbub of the central city on a moonlit night. At the end of the movement, we hear the song of a nightingale. In Respighi’s day, this interpolation of birdsong was wildly controversial.

The steady build of “Pines of the Appian Way” is one of music’s great crescendos, suggesting the approach of Roman legions that tramped those stones two millennia earlier. Respighi’s triumphant closing chords, dominated by brass, affirm the might of the Roman empire.

A momentous premiere
Elsa Respighi, the composer’s widow, attended the premiere on 14 December 1924 at Rome’s Teatro Augusteo, with Bernardo Molinari on the podium. In her biography of her husband, she recalled:

“The hall was packed, the atmosphere electric. At the end of the first part there were protests in the form of booing and hissing which subsided with the sudden pianissimo of the second section. The audience was gripped by the second and third parts, while frantic applause such as had never before been heard in the Augusteo drowned the last bars of the poem.
According to Elsa Respighi, The Pines of Rome was one of the compositions in which her husband was most emotionally involved. His success in immersing us in the beauty of his beloved city is compelling testimony to that involvement.”

Respighi’s orchestra includes 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, timpani, triangle, finger cymbals, Basque tambourine, maracas, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, harp, glockenspiel, celeste, gramophone, piano, organ, 6 buccine (Roman trumpets), and strings. For The Pine Trees of the Janiculum, the HSO uses a recording of a nightingale that Respighi specified.

The score to The Pines of Rome includes Respighi’s descriptive programme for the four sections of his tone poem.

The Pine Trees of the Villa Borghese. Children are at play in the pine groves of Villa Borghese; they dance round in circles, they play at soldiers, marching and fighting, they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening, they come and go in swarms. Suddenly the scene changes to

Pine Trees near a catacomb. We see the shades of the pine trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depth rises the sound of mournful psalm-singing, floating through the air like a solemn hymn, gradually and mysteriously dispersing.

The Pine Trees of the JaniculumA quiver runs through the air: the pine trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of a full moon. A nightingale is singing.

The Pine Trees of the Appian Way. Misty dawn on the Appian Way; solitary pine trees guarding the magic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories. Trumpets sound and, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.