Concert Notes

VSO BC Tour 2017

William Tell: Overture
Gioachino Rossini
b. Pesaro, Italy / February 29, 1792
d. Passy, France / November, 13 1868

By the time Rossini set to work on Guillaume Tell in 1828 (this original title reflects the fact that the libretto he set was in French), he had already announced that it would be his final opera. Premièring in Paris in August 1829, this four-hour spectacle proved to be a suitably monumental farewell to the stage.

The source of the libretto was a play by German author Friedrich Schiller. Based on historical fact, it told the story of the thirteenth-century Swiss patriot who led his countrymen in a heroic struggle against their Austrian oppressors.

Rossini introduced the opera with an expansive overture. In the opening section, five solo cellos take the spotlight for a gently lyrical meditation. Rossini next marshals the full orchestra to vividly depict an Alpine storm. From its wake emerges a gentle pastoral scene, a duet between the throaty, expressive voice of the English horn, and the silvery, fluttering sound of the flute. The brass abruptly announce the vigorous galop of the concluding section. Rossini intended it to portray the daring charge and victory of William Tell’s patriotic followers. Several generations of listeners will instantly associate it with a different setting: the American West. It was the theme for The Lone Ranger, a long-running, mid-twentieth-century radio and television series. It accompanied a heroic masked avenger as he set out to do battle on behalf of truth and justice — a character firmly in the tradition of the original William Tell.

Ancestral Voices
Bramwell Tovey
b. Essex, England / July 11, 1953

Preparing for the Canada150 celebrations, Bramwell Tovey chose to mark the occasion with a musical gift. For the final concert of the VSO’s 2016/2017 season, he created a four movement song cycle, titled Ancestral Voices, which could in some way address both the commemoration of the 1867 Confederation of the “Dominion of Canada,” as well as the impact of that proclamation on people who had already been living on those same lands for hundreds, if not thousands of years. With this work, Tovey offers his thoughts on a complicated part of our shared Canadian legacy: the fraught relationship between First Nations and subsequent arrivals.

Before the première performance of the work, Bramwell Tovey spoke with David Gordon Duke of the Vancouver Sun, and explained, “I was very moved by the reconciliation commission that took place a few years ago. As a fairly new Canadian I didn’t live here when the residential schools existed, but I got interested in the politics, and what a terrible thing they were. I don’t like it when artists bang political drums, but I thought I might be able to create something that reflects, if you like, the shame of it all. I don’t want to get into the controversy of cultural appropriation, so there’s no replication of First Nations music — which I’m not even qualified to attempt anyway. I’ve decide to stick entirely with non-aboriginal language; everything is actually from my own cultural tradition, if you like.”

While the music and texts stem from non-aboriginal sources, Tovey was careful to seek out the perspective and advice of someone with First Nations heritage. The songs were created for and written in consultation with mezzo-soprano soloist Marion Newman, who has Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations roots.

The text of the first song is drawn from a work of the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), and describes Arcady, a pastoral paradise. It was written in 1819, when the western frontier of what would become Canada was just being opened up.

…In the dales of Arcady,  / what men or gods are these? / What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? / What struggle to escape?...

The next selection is from a longer poem, The Song of the Last Bison by Charles Mair (1838-1927). The son of Scottish immigrants in Lanark, Upper Canada, he became a crusading Canada First nationalist, a journalist and poet. His imperialist stance might cast Mair in a negative light, except for his success as an advocate of peaceful settlement of the West (as a bulwark against American expansion) and his well-meaning praise for the dignity of the native peoples. Mair is also recognized as an early conservationist, for his part in promoting a sanctuary for bison.

…Strange men, who ravaged our domain  /  and ringed us around with fire.  /  Pale enemies who slew with equal mirth  /  the harmless or the hurtful things of earth…

The texts then turn away from the poetic to the bureaucratic, with the third text simply called The Letter. The ‘Dear Sir…’ instruction was discovered in the colonial archives, specifically setting out the kind of advice that led to the disastrous policies of the residential schools.

Sow the seeds  /  and separate, isolate, educate, assimilate  /  and forcibly, effectively  /  kill the Indian in the child.

The fourth song is taken from texts by two Canadian Prime Ministers - Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau - about the legacy of the schools, and from a United Nations text on the rights of aboriginal peoples.

…Bring light to the truth.  /  What happened and why.  /  They had no right to dignity.  /  No right to live.  /  To live in freedom,  /  in peace and security.  /  The right to life…

The Vancouver Sun summed up the emotional trajectory of the cycle, saying “we go from a misty vision of an earthly paradise, through a lament for degradation of the natural world, a bitter scherzo to a text of bureaucratic weasel words, then on to an ambiguous conclusion acknowledging past wrongs, longing and hoping for the possibility of reconciliation.”

(VSO, with notes from The Vancouver Sun)

Ancestral Voices

I. In Arcady
Text from John Keats (1795-1821)
In Arcady
In the dales of Arcady,
what men or gods are these?
What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?
What struggle to escape?
What pipes? What timbrels?
What wild, wild ecstasy?
So happy, happy melodist
unwearied, forever piping.
Ye soft pipes play on,
forever and ever piping,
piping, piping.
In the dales of Arcady
what men or gods are these?

II. The Last Bison
Text from Charles Mair (1838-1927)
Strange men, who ravaged our domain
and ringed us around with fire.
Pale enemies who slew with equal mirth
the harmless or the hurtful things of earth.
So yielded our vast multitude
and scattered to barren wastes
for still the spoiler sought
and still he slew us there.
My spirit fain would rise and prophesy.
My vision sweeps the prairies wide.
Naught but vacant wilderness is seen
and grassy mounds where cities once had been.
The earth smiles as of yore,
the skies are bright,
cattle graze and bellow on
the plain.
And nations roam o’er native wilds again.
My burden ceased
and now, with head bowed down,
midst the gath’ring shadows
I die.

III. The Letter
Text from Canadian government archives
Dear Sir,
Sow the seeds
and separate, isolate, educate, assimilate
and separate, isolate, educate, dominate, assimilate
Sow the seeds
and forcibly, effectively
kill the Indian in the child.
Yours respectfully,

IV. Bring Light to the Truth
Text from Canadian government sources and the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples
Bring light to the truth.
What happened to you?
What happened and why?
The burden,
the burden has been on your shoulders for much too long.
A sad and terrible legacy.
Who died?
How did they die?
Where are they buried?
Why did they die at all?
Bring light to the truth.
What happened and why.
They had no right to dignity.
No right to live.
To live in freedom,
in peace and security.
The right to life.
Bring light to the truth.
In Arcady,
what men or gods are these?

(texts for Ancestral Voices -  Music by Bramwell Tovey)
Premiered June 10, 11 & 12, 2017, by mezzo-soprano Marion Newman and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey, conductor. 

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840;
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

Ten years passed between the creation of Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies. He completed No. 5 in August 1888. It earned little favour at first but it quickly found great success.

As he had done with Symphony No. 4, he based No. 5 on a recurring musical theme that represented his outlook on life at that time. By then, his attitude to fate had softened somewhat, possibly due to a rebirth in religious feeling. He now referred to it by the less intimidating name “providence.” Reflecting this shift, the Fifth Symphony’s “providence” theme is much less aggressive than its counterpart in Symphony No. 4. It appears in the opening bars, intoned quietly and soberly by the clarinets.

Where the Fourth Symphony’s “fate” theme is heard only in the first and last movements, and remains unchanged from one appearance to the next, the Fifth’s “providence” theme plays a role in each of the four movements. Its character also evolves to match the emotional progress of the music.

After the introduction, the opening movement contrasts restless striving, represented in the first theme, a march-like variant of the motto, with a second subject whose heartfelt yearning is expressed with maximum eloquence by the strings. The second movement can only be described as a passionate love-idyll. Its sweeping, swelling raptures are twice interrupted, with a newly developed sense of forcefulness, by the “providence” theme.

Next comes a typically elegant Tchaikovsky waltz. The sole blemish on its courtly façade is provided by a brief, almost casual appearance of “providence,” just before the end.

The theme stands proudly on display in the slow-tempo introduction to the finale, where it is heard in a major key for the first time. The finale proper emerges swiftly out of the final bars of this passage. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s most joyous and energetic symphonic movements, strongly coloured with the hearty flavours and dancing rhythms of Russian folk music. Brass fanfares and a thunderous timpani roll herald a pause for breath. Its transformation complete, “providence” passes by in a sturdy processional, before a whirlwind coda brings the symphony home.

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
1. Andante – Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
3. Valse: Allegro moderato
4. Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace (alla breve)


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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