The Symphony sets the stage on fire to open our 58th Season of orchestral wonders. We visit the many faces of musical Russia, as we showcase an impressive young artist who is sure to transport our audience, just like the magical fairytale our narrator will tell. Explore the hidden treasures of Lethbridge as you enjoy local talent, and get swept away by your orchestra!

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Series 1 – Russian Inferno

Today Russia’s great tradition of national music is one of the riches of the western world. However, unlike in Germany, Italy and France, with their long histories of distinct national styles, classical music with a clearly Russian character only emerged in Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But this period of intense creation produced some of the most engaging and colourful works in the concert repertoire. We will be hearing three landmarks in the development of Russian classical music, each of which contributed something vital to this vibrant tradition.

The earliest composer on our programme, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), is considered the father of the Russian nationalist school. When he was young in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the musical landscape in Russia was dominated by western European composers and there were no native music schools of any stature. He thus had little formal training, but, coming from a wealthy landholding family, he could freely indulge his lively interest in music as an amateur. The first musical influence he experienced was Russian folksong, which left a lasting imprint on his own style.

A second important influence was his uncle’s serf orchestra which Glinka was allowed to conduct, an activity that taught him a great deal about orchestration. His intention to “write something in the Russian manner” first emerged during a tour of Europe he undertook for his health from 1828 to 1833 and was realised shortly afterwards in his opera, A Life for the Czar, which laid the foundation for the Russian nationalist school in its convincing setting of the Russian language and its use of contrasting national styles (here Russian and Polish) as an essential aspect of the drama.

In his second, and unfortunately final, opera Glinka turned to the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and his fairy tale epic Russlan and Ludmilla, in which the heroine Ludmilla is abducted on her wedding night by the evil sorcerer Chernomor, whom her lover Russlan must confront and defeat to regain her. Glinka’s setting became a model for later fairy tale operas, while elements of the story echoed across the century in new musical and literary works.

The opera’s overture is justly famous. It is built upon the contrast between two themes. The first, an explosion of joy, returns in the opera’s finale to accompany the celebration of Ludmilla’s awakening from her enchanted sleep. The second suggests the resolve of Russlan in his quest for his beloved. Glinka’s music exerted a strong influence on a younger group of nationalist composers, consisting of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev, who became collectively known as “the Five” or “the Mighty Handful”.

Early in his career Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) also entered the sphere of this group, especially through his brief association with Balakirev, but then he turned away towards the more Western-oriented stream of Russian music, led by the brothers Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, who founded the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories, respectively. Although Tchaikovsky wrote in the established forms of European music, his own music is still firmly Russian in character. In fact, the finale of the Violin Concerto in D Major on our programme was attacked at its Vienna premiere in 1881 by the critic Eduard Hanslick for its “Cossack” character.

This Concerto was written in 1878 at Clarens, Switzerland, towards the end of a European tour Tchaikovsky undertook to recover from his disastrous, short-lived marriage to a former student – a situation he fell into despite his secret homosexuality. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s most relaxed and optimistic works. The first movement begins with a brief orchestral introduction, the main idea of which is taken up immediately in the noble initial melody of the violin, which comes to dominate the movement as a whole. The slow movement, marked Canzonetta, is more restrained, somewhat darker and tinged with melancholy and regret. It moves directly into the high-spirited finale (Allegro vivacissimo).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the rift between the Russian nationalist school and the Westernisers largely disappeared. Rimsky-Korsakov, of the Mighty Handful, actually became a teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his greatest student was none other than Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird represents the culmination of the Russian fairy tale tradition initiated by Russlan and Ludmilla. It is the first of three great Stravinsky ballets commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his famous Ballets Russes and premiered in Paris in the early twentieth century.

Stravinsky, then 28 and relatively unknown, was the third composer Diaghilev approached to write a ballet on the story of how Prince Ivan with the help of the Firebird overcomes the evil demon Katschei the Immortal and frees thirteen enchanted princesses and the knights who tried to save them. It was the hit of the Ballets Russes’ 1910 Season in Paris and has remained a favourite both in the concert hall and on stage ever since. We will be hearing the second suite Stravinsky drew from the ballet.

The introduction paints the darkness and foreboding of Katschei’s enchanted garden, followed by the brilliant entrance and dance of the Firebird. The sixth movement, Khorovode, is the round dance of the enchanted princesses after Ivan has fallen in love with the Thirteenth Princess. This movement is followed by the Infernal Dance of Katschei in which he and his minions struggle against the Firebird. In the lullaby, the Firebird puts Katschei and his subjects to sleep, allowing Prince Ivan to discover the egg containing Katschei’s life force and smash it. The princesses are then freed from their enchantment and are brought together with their knights under the new reign of Prince Ivan and his consort, the Thirteenth Princess, as the dawn spreads throughout the kingdom.

Dr Brian Black