July 26th, 2009 by Anna
On September 13th 2009, at 6PM, Anna von Urbans and Maria D. will perform 2 very different pieces, yet both based on Shakespeare’s plays; for the Mendelssohn anniversary year – composer’s own 4-hand arrangement of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”; and arranged for two pianos – Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” – a modern adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”. This Shakespearean extravaganza will take place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) during the “Sundays live” series, broadcast live on the radio KCSN 88.5FM.
Felix Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Felix Mendelssohn completed his famous Overture in 1826. Originally the Overture was written and performed privately as a piano duet, when it was suggested that Mendelssohn should orchestrate it.
A passionate literary scholar, Mendelssohn was bewitched by the works of Shakespeare, whose collected plays had been translated into German 25 years earlier. The Overture, written when he was only seventeen years old, exemplifies Mendelssohn’s ability to create extraordinarily imaginative and atmospheric music within the context of traditional harmonic and formal structure.
Filled with delicacy, the masterful use of instrumental colors in the Overture translates the three worlds of the comedy’s universe into music of singular distinction. It is not necessary to know the story of Shakespeare’s play to enjoy Mendelssohn’s colorful music. The abode of Titania and Oberon is introduced by gossamer, almost breathless, violin figures, which have an ethereal quality to them that defines the fairy world. With a facility fully equal to Shakespeare’s, Mendelssohn moves back and forth from the fairy kingdom to the realm of humanity, mainly by contrasting minor keys with major key areas. The earthy world of Bottom and his primitive cohorts is depicted by a comical drone of open fifths, along with realistic representations of sounds such as a donkey’s braying.
Seventeen years after the composition of the Overture, Mendelssohn rounded out the entire incidental score. For a production of the play at the Royal Theater in Berlin in 1842 for William IV of Prussia, he added the sprightly Scherzo, the Intermezzo, Nocturne, and the celebrated Wedding March. Although composed only four years before Mendelssohn’s death, these numbers emanate a truly youthful energy, complementing the Overture’s musical narrative with scenes of exceptional charm. Mendelssohn, it is said, lived a life of perennial youth. Certainly he was able to complete something begun long before without losing the sense of wonder and delight.
The Nocturne and Scherzo are only two of the final thirteen pieces of music that Mendelssohn wrote to accompany the play. The Nocturne is meant to occur at the end of third act, when sleep has quietly descended upon all in the drama; and it embodies one of the loveliest passages for the horn in all music. This music is written to evoke the warmth and drowsiness of a lazy, mid-summer night.
In contrast, the Scherzo brings Mendelssohn’s score to a climax of infinite delicacy, playfulness, and grace. This music serves as a type of prelude to the play’s second act, and the fairy world depicted in the play, with its chattering elves and their mischievous exploits, inspires music with a kind of fierce, other-worldly yet subtle energy. Mendelssohn led something of a charmed and privileged life, and as a result he had the integrity and confidence in his own work that made him dare to be original. His music, for the most part, reflects his own cheerful, successful, contented existence. His joy in all that was refined, aristocratic, and sophisticated is clearly reflected in this selection of his works.
Leonard Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
West Side Story, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that plays out in the New York slums, was called a “social music drama” by its creators, composer Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The musical added a whole new layer of meaning to the Bard’s tale of tragic lovers with its portrayal of the rival gangs the Jets (streetwise white New York teens) and the Sharks (tough Puerto Rican immigrants).
Although social themes have always been a part of theater, West Side Story brought the idea of social consciousness to the American musical, leading the way for later works such as Les Miserables and Rent.
The play premiered in Washington DC in August, 1957, and was followed by a production in New York that ran for two years, and a national tour. A motion picture version was released in 1961, and in 1960, while advising the arrangers for the film score, Bernstein created the orchestral suite of dances. The New York Philharmonic premiered the dances at a fund-raiser for the orchestra’s pension fund, a “Valentine for Leonard Bernstein” gala concert, on February 13, 1961, under the baton of Lukas Foss.
The dances–and the score of the musical–revolve around a tritone figure of C–F-sharp–G, the well-known opening of the song “Maria.” As Bernstein later wrote: “The three notes pervade the whole piece, inverted, done backwards. I didn’t do all this on purpose. It seemed to come out in ‘Cool’ and as the gang whistle [in the Prologue]. The same three notes.” Melodic and rhythmic influences include everything from jazz syncopations to Latin-American dance, treated with classical techniques such as fugue. Like all of Bernstein’s works the music is rhythmically challenging, yet it is also eminently danceable; as ballet dancer Lady Diana Menuhin once said of Bernstein, “I know no contemporary composer who so well writes for movement, understands so well the movement of the body.”
The suite opens with the Prologue, the famous opening confrontation of the Jets and the Sharks. The haunting strains of “Somewhere,” the play’s anthem to the dream of a better life, contrast with the lively Latin dances of the “Mambo” and “Cha-cha.” The “Cool” fugue features a 12-tone scale, and segues into the final, deadly fight between the gangs in “Rumble.” A solo flute plays “I Had a Love” to close the suite, which ends, like the musical, on a haunting, unresolved tritone chord.