Thursday, January 13, 2011

Erin Freeman's Preview of "An Evening at the Opera"

Voice and the Orchestra
Sneak preview of "An Evening at the Opera"
By Erin R. Freeman

It's me again, Erin Freeman!  I am Associate Conductor and Director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus!

What a unique treat we have with this weekend’s masterworks program – all music inspired by the original instrument – the human voice (again, I’m biased). On the first half, we have Benjamin Britten’s, “Four Sea Interludes” (orchestra only) from the opera Peter Grimes and Maurice Ravel’s Sheherazade* for soprano and orchestra; and after intermission, we’ll perform selections from great operas by Bizet, Beethoven, Verdi, and more!

You will probably recognize much of the second half, with music such as the Triumphal March from Aida (sorry…no elephants), the languid Cigarette Girls Chorus from Carmen, and “Va Pensiero” from Nabucco. Plus, you’ll get to hear one of my favorite all time opera choruses – the Prisoner’s Chorus from Fidelio. Those of you who think Beethoven’s vocal writing is all about shouting as loudly as possible will come away from this stunningly internal portrayal of freedom thinking that maybe Beethoven did know how to write for singers after all! Check out this YouTube of a Metropolitan Opera production from 2000.

As for the first half, you may not be familiar with this music. These are two underplayed but strikingly beautiful and powerful representatives of the orchestral repertoire. In these pieces, there is a lot to which you, your soul, and your intellect can connect. For example….

You will love the Britten “Four Sea Interludes” if you like…

Lush harmonies: Like those in Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.
Clean lines: Like those found in Britten’s other operas (my favorites are the chamber operas: Albert Herring and Rape of Lucretia)
Big, romantic, fiery, full orchestral sound: As in Strauss’ Don Juan or Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet (boy…the last movement of the Britten will knock your orchestral socks off!)
Storm Scenes: Beethoven Symphony 6 “Pastoral”, Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony, Debussy La Mer
Peaceful moments of inner beauty: The third movement (“Moonlight”) is truly one of the more beautiful pieces for orchestra I’ve heard. It reminds me of the most serene moments of a Mahler symphony – perhaps the choral entrance in his “Resurrection” symphony (no. 2) or moments of simplicity in Kindertotenlieder.
Creative Orchestration: If you love the gratifying orchestral colors in works by Ravel (Daphnis et Chloe, perhaps), you will be enchanted by Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes”.

Guest Artist Kelley Nassief, Soprano
Speaking of Ravel, you may love Scheherazade, if you love:

French Flute Solos: The second movement is basically a duet for Flute and Soprano. Think Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faune with a bit more action.
Pieces for Soprano and Orchestra: Although from different countries, pieces such as Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs and the final movement of Mahler’s 4th symphony have a kinship to this work by Ravel. The soprano is more than just a soloist - she becomes a part of the orchestra.
Impressionist music: Like the Ravel orchestration of the Debussy Sarabande (performed earlier this year on Masterworks 2).
Exotic orchestral colors: During Ravel’s time, there was a fascination with “The East,” a fairly unknown region of the world. This fascination was often misguided and filled with stereotypes, but it led to the inclusion of some harmonies and orchestral colors that were new to “Western” ears at the time. Another example of what is called “Orientalism” is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, written 5 years before the Ravel. You’ll definitely hear some similarities. (Want to know more about “Orientalism”? Check out the scholar Edward Said.)
Stories related to Sheherazade: Okay – so Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade is an entirely different musical bird, as is Nielsen’s Aladdin, but if you are a folk tale buff and have an affinity for anything related to the stories that kept the King Shahryar from killing his new bride Scheherazade night after night for, well, 1001 Nights, then this piece may be for you! Poetry is by Tristan Klingsor, who lived around the same time as Ravel.
* By the way, Ravel spelled it Sheherazade, while we usually spell the Rimsky-Korsakov version with a C: Scheherazade.


  1. Dr. Freeman really is both exceedingly knowledgeable and accessible in her historico-musical explications - she should be handling the program notes.

    Should be a good concert anyway - you can't go wrong with a name as Wagnerian as "Tristan Klingsor."

    Side note - it's unfortunate that Ed Said's name is also the first one to spring to my mind as an association with the word "orientalism," since he was wrong about, well, almost everything.

  2. Yes! Said was a controversial fellow for sure. I had to read many of his writings in a class on musical symbolism at Northwestern.

    Thanks for the note. I hope you enjoy the concert!