Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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March 01, 2014

March 2014 Program Notes


Born Tikhvin, Russia, 18 March, 1844; died near Luga, Russia, 21 June, 1908.

Scheherazade, Op. 35

Composed 1888 and premiered 28 October of that year in St. Petersburg, the composer conducting. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, tambourine, harp and strings. Performance time is about 45 minutes. The SSO previously played Scheherazade on 15 May 1999, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Scheherazade during an especially fertile period of his compositional life: he was working on Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture at about the same time, while also helping to complete the opera Prince Igor by his recently deceased friend Alexander Borodin.

The printed score for Scheherazade, subtitled After The Thousand and One Nights: a Symphonic Suite, is prefaced by the following description from the composer:

The Sultan Shahryar, convinced of the falsehood and infidelity of women, had sworn to put to death every one of his wives, after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in the stories that she told him over the span of 1001 nights. Driven by curiosity, the sultan postponed her execution from one day to the next, and finally abandoned his sanguinary resolution.

Many marvelous tales were told to Schahryar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her stories she borrowed verses from poets and words from folk songs, and interwove each tale and adventure with the next.

However, Rimsky-Korsakov was anxious to avoid implying to audiences that his “symphonic suite” had an elaborate program that told a precise story bar by bar. In his autobiography written 18 years later, he pointed out that he had originally thought of using abstract titles for the four movements: Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. Upon first publication he did include more descriptive titles for each movement, but suppressed them in the second edition—to no avail, one might say, since the titles have been displayed in program notes ever since.

I.  The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.

Rimsky himself acknowledged that the stern motif the opens the work—forcefully proclaimed in unison by strings, trombones, clarinets and bassoons—signifies the Sultan Shahryar (whose name has been transliterated many different ways but contains the root “shah”=king). Likewise, the solo violin part, with its bardic harp accompaniment, is clearly the enticing voice of Scheherazade spinning the first of her tales. But the Sultan’s motif is soon transformed into a surging theme suggesting the sea heaving underneath the prow of Sinbad’s ship, while the triplet figures in Scheherazade’s music become the faster ripples of the waves. The solo violin appears twice more in the midst of the movement, to remind us of the spell Scheherazade is casting.

II. The Kalendar Prince.

“Kalendars” were mendicant dervishes, a type of begging, wandering priest, and one of the 1001 Nights tales describes a prince, pursued by enemies, who must disguise himself as a Kalendar. This movement begins with Scheherazade’s voice, the solo violin, somewhat more assertive or confident, and continues with a lovely “Oriental” melody heard first on bassoon, then oboe, then violins, perhaps representing the Prince. The last part of this melody features a triplet pattern which eventually gets taken up languidly by a solo cello and then the oboe. Menacing fanfares (another “symphonic metamorphosis” of the Sultan’s motif) on trombone, then trumpet, interrupt the calm, and tension builds until a solo clarinet elaborates on the triplet pattern with great flair. (Are we hearing the Prince defying his foes or simply another symphonic transformation?) The fanfare becomes a march at one point; the Prince’s gentle melody becomes fierce when played by the full orchestra; a solo bassoon repeats the clarinet triple cadenza, as do the strings forcefully and a solo flute and horn with softer echoes. The whole movement is full of powerful contrasts and kaleidoscopic spectacle, with so many instrumental solos that it becomes a kind of concerto for orchestra.

III. The Prince and the Princess.

After the drama of the second movement, the third is ravishingly lyrical. Essentially it consists of two alternating melodies, the first (a different young Prince?) heard on violins at the very beginning of the movement, the second (surely the Princess) first played by the clarinet. In this movement the solo violin with Scheherazade’s theme appears halfway through rather than at the beginning, and continues on to take up the last part of the young Prince’s melody as well, as if Scheherazade were fully immersing herself in her story.

IV. Festival at Baghdad; the Sea; the Ship Breaks Up Against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.

Like the first movement, the Finale opens with the Sultan’s theme, but more urgently played, as if he were either eager to hear the next story or already feeding on the frenzy of the Baghdad festival in the tale to come. Scheherazade’s response (the solo violin theme) is followed by a second, longer outburst of the Sultan, and a second, more impassioned response from the violin, before the music breathlessly plunges into the energy of the fair. Themes from the preceding movements are interwoven: evidently the Kalendar Prince and also the Princess of the third movement are both at the fair. Or in keeping with the composer’s wishes we should simply hear a splendid symphonic development of previous musical themes, including also the menacing fanfare and another outburst of the Sultan’s theme. An increasingly frenetic climax suddenly takes us to the “sea” music from the first movement (one version of the Sultan’s theme, we recall), as we hear one of the most spectacular moments of scene-painting in all music: a ship being washed up onto rocks by a raging sea. Ultimately a calm ensues, echoing the end of the first movement, but now Scheherazade (the solo violin) returns to wrap up the story. As the Sultan’s theme is heard brooding--tamed, one might say--beneath the violin’s sustained high note, the symphonic suite comes to a tranquil close. 


Born Pamiers, France, 12 May 1845; died Paris, 5 November 1924.

Pavane in F-sharp minor for orchestra and chorus, Op. 50

Originating as a piano piece, the Pavane was orchestrated by Fauré with optional part for chorus; the choral version was premiered by the Société Nationale de Musique, 28 November 1888. It is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, plus strings and chorus. Performance time about 6 minutes. The SSO and Chorus previously performed the Pavane on 14 May 2005, Janet L. Herrick conducting.

Though not as famous internationally as his teacher and friend Camille Saint-Saëns, or his pupil Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré is one of the most distinguished French composers, admired especially for his piano, vocal solo, and choral music. (In 1924 the young Aaron Copland published an article entitled “Gabriel Fauré, a Neglected Master.”) Among his best-known works are his Requiem and a suite of incidental music for the play Pelléas et Mélisande (both performed in previous seasons by the SSO).

A pavane is a stately dance of the Renaissance era, originating in Italy though associated with Spain as well. Fauré’s Pavane (premiered just a month after Rimsky’s Scheherazade) was written as entertainment for a wealthy patroness’s summer concert, with the possibility of choreography in mind. Pizzicato strings provide the steady rhythm for much of the piece, with solo flute playing a prominent role. One critic finds the Pavane “mingling a hidden melancholy with a certain serenity,” except for its more passionate middle section. 

The playful lyrics, portraying love as a dance of greetings, quarrels and farewells, were written by the patroness’s cousin, Robert de Montesquieu, a figure at the center of the French Decadent movement and model for a leading character in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Considering that the music of Claude Debussy is often compared to Impressionist paintings, one might find a parallel between the Pavane and the pale pastel-colored murals, with their ritual figures, of Fauré’s contemporary Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. 


Born West Allis, WI, 1985; resident of Waukesha, WI.

Opus 1: Five Songs for Chorus, Orchestra, and Rock and Roll Ensemble

Opus 1 is an orchestrated suite of songs that were written 2010-12. The arrangement is for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, chorus and rock-and-roll trio: vocals/guitar/piano/harmonica, keyboards/backup vocals, and drums/percussion. Tonight’s performance is the world premiere.

The association of Tony Memmel and the SSO began with Maestro Kevin McMahon hearing a concert of combined Madison Area youth choirs featuring music by Mr. Memmel, who was their guest while doing a residency with the area schools. Having been “struck by how wonderful his music is, how good his presentation, and by an overwhelmingly enthusiastic audience response,” Maestro McMahon requested the SSO board to commission Mr. Memmel to orchestrate a suite of his songs to be performed by the SSO and Chorus with “Tony Memmel and His Band” (whose other members are Lesleigh Memmel and Brian Farvour).  

 The composer offers the following comments on the songs in Opus 1:

"Overture/Here We Go" 

These pieces were written after my wife, Lesleigh, and I participated in a Hurricane Katrina relief trip to New Orleans. While we were there, I was inspired by the resilience and generosity of the people, and came home to Wisconsin inspired to write. The overall theme is to encourage and reaffirm perseverance in life. 

"Burnt Bridges" 

While I have many songs about the joys I've experienced in relationships, "Burnt Bridges" explores the challenges. It's not about the end of a relationship, but about being in the thick of communication and facing struggle. I left the lyrics and the music unresolved...

"Blinded by the Light"

This is a piece about the ambition required in pursuit of a goal. The music is unrelenting and rushes onward like a cavalry charge. The lyrics discuss a conflicted, yet determined, mindset in the pursuit of an unmarked finish line. 

"I Could Make You New"

The most meaningful relationship in my life was built from a foundation of friendship, faith, and hope. I knew life would truly be better with her by my side. This piece is about my wife.  

"Clenched Hands Brave Demands"

In 2011, I had the privilege to work as an "Artist in Residence" with the Madison Youth Choirs. Working closely with the exceptional directors and students sparked the inspiration for this piece. At its core, "Clenched Hands Brave Demands" is about how much music means to me, and how hard I've had to work at it. I hope the listener can place himself into the role of the singer of this song, and remember a time when he felt like he was exactly where he should be, doing exactly what he should be doing, and singing, "I am so alive."   

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