Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   October 2014 Program...
September 23, 2014

October 2014 Program Notes


Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.

The Magic Flute: Overture

The overture to Die Zauberflöte was completed only two days before the premiere of the opera, conducted by the composer, 30 September 1791, at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna,. The Overture calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration about 7 minutes. The SSO played the Overture to The Magic Flute most recently under the baton of Guy Victor Bordo, 9 October 1993.

The Magic Flute was an opera—or more precisely a Singspiel, a musical play with spoken dialogue—devised by Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, who was not only the librettist but the leader of the company which gave the premiere and a singing actor who co-starred in the comic role of the bird-handler Papageno. He was also a Freemason, as was Mozart, and the fairy-tale story of a handsome prince who rescues a lovely princess from her sinister mother, the Queen of the Night, has many Masonic elements, especially in scenes involving the high priest Sarastro.

The number three was sacred in Freemasonry, and patterns of three are scattered throughout The Magic Flute. So appropriately enough, the Overture opens with three solemn chords (to be sure, five notes if one counts the upbeats before the second and third chords). These same chords will be heard in the opera proper in connection with the high priest; but in the Overture they are followed by a slow introductory passage and then a fleet Allegro theme that is treated fugally until it builds to a glorious restatement by the full orchestra. In sonata-form tradition we hear a contrasting theme—a rather chromatic one introduced by the flute—in a new key, but as this section comes to a close we hear again the three solemn chords. Only then does the Allegro continue with the traditional development and recapitulation sections, before the Overture come to a close with another set of three notes—here in quicker succession and all on the same major Eb chord, which happens to be in three flats.

Thus in his Overture Mozart manages, seemingly without effort, to mix solemnity with life-affirming energy and playfulness, just as the whole opera is a miraculously coherent mix of ritual, romance, melodrama and slapstick comedy.



Born Paris, 25 October 1838; died Bougival, near Paris, 3 June 1875.

Carmen Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (arr. Ernest Guiraud)

The opera Carmen was composed 1873-74 and premiered 3 March 1875 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. Sometime after the composer’s death on 3 June of that year, Ernest Guiraud derived two suites from the opera, published 1882/1887. The Suites combined call for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 35 minutes. The SSO last performed both Suites together on 12 October 1991, led by guest conductor David Schripsema; Guy Victor Bordo led Suite No. 1 on 4 February 2001.

Georges Bizet composed several operas, including The Pearl Fishers, before Carmen, but the latter is universally considered his masterpiece and still one of the most popular operas on today’s stages. Sadly, Bizet did not live to see his story of the fatal love between a gypsy woman and a renegade soldier become a worldwide success: the premiere at the Opéra-Comique, just weeks before his untimely death, met with little enthusiasm from either public or critics. The story was considered too sordid for a “family” opera house, and the music—so familiar today even to those who never attend opera—baffled audiences: one critic called it “dull and obscure”; others, incredibly, found it tuneless and steeped in “Wagnerism,” meaning the orchestra was too dominant.

But it did not take long for non-Parisians to recognize the composer’s genius. Peter Tchaikovsky was already “in utter ecstasy” over the piano-vocal score he studied in 1875, and after seeing one of the last performances of the Opéra-Comique run he pronounced Carmen a masterpiece that within about ten years would become “the most popular opera in the world!” He wasn’t far wrong: the Vienna premiere was a great success (Brahms saw it 20 times), and the opera was produced everywhere from New York to St. Petersburg before Paris finally saw it again, in 1883. Meanwhile, for the Vienna production Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud had composed music, still often used today, for the spoken-dialogue passages of the opera, and he went on to create  two suites of music from the opera for the concert hall.

The Carmen Suite No. 1’s short Prélude introduces the ominous theme that the opera associates with both Carmen and her fate at the hands of her lover Don José. This leads without pause into the Aragonaise: festive yet delicate and sinuous music that opens Act IV (the final act) as crowds arrive for a parade and bullfight. Next, the lyrical Intermezzo (the Prelude to Act III) features ravishing woodwind melodies. The Seguedille that follows is an orchestral arrangement of Carmen’s Act I aria in which she seduces Don José into letting her free and meeting her at her friend Lillas Pastia’s tavern. (She has been arrested for brawling with another woman, and Don José is assigned to take her to jail. A seguidilla is a type of Castilian folksong.) Les dragons d’Alcala (The Dragoons of Alcala) is a jaunty march that forms the opera’s Prelude to Act II; later in the act José is heard singing it offstage as he approaches Pastia’s inn. Les Toréadors is the rousing finale of the suite: in the opera it is actually the very opening music, preceding the fateful Carmen theme, and is heard again at the end of the opera, when the Carmen theme interrupts it even more jarringly. In this number we briefly hear the toreador Escamillo’s song, to be presented more fully in the second suite.

The Carmen Suite No. 2 is derived from vocal numbers of the opera. It starts off with the Marche des contrebandiers (The Smugglers’ March), which is sung at the beginning of Act III, when José has joined Carmen in the mountains where her friends carry on their trade. It is a light march, stealthy yet somehow impertinent. The Habañera is a transcription of Carmen’s famous Act I aria in which she describes love as a wild bird that can never be tamed: “If you don’t love me, I love you; but if I love you, watch out for yourself!” For a complete contrast, the Nocturne is an orchestration of the tender and soaring Act III aria of Michaëla, José’s sweet and chaste former girlfriend, as she fearfully wanders into the mountains with a message for him. Here a solo violin takes over the vocal line. The Chanson du Toréador is Escamillo’s swaggering portrayal of his art, while La Garde Montante is the children’s chorus from the beginning of the opera, where a band of street kids imitate the local troop’s changing of the guard. Finally, Danse Bohême is the gypsy dance that Carmen and her friends perform at Lillas Pastia’s: it starts quietly but builds to a frenzy.



Born Liège, Belgium, 14 December 1873; died Sart-lez-Spa, Belgium, 12 July 1953.

Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 81

Composed 1926-28, the Symphonie Concertante was first performed in Brussels at the Royal Conservatory of Music, with Jongen at the organ and Désiré Defauw conducting, 11 February 1928. The score calls forpiccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn,  2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp, strings  and solo organ. Performance time is about 35 minutes.

Joseph Jongen, an esteemed Belgian composer, organist and educator, composed symphonic, chamber and vocal music, but is by far best known for his Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra. It was commissioned by department-store magnate Rodman Wanamaker to celebrate the expansion of a colossal pipe organ located in Wanamaker’s Philadelphia store, where daily recitals were given. The instrument was and reportedly still is the world’s largest, with 28,482 pipes, 461 ranks and six manuals. Jongen was to be the soloist, but circumstances—including the death of his father and later of Wanamaker—delayed and eventually caused the cancellation of the premiere, which took place instead at the Brussels Conservatoire where Jongen was a professor. He was the soloist; Désiré Defauw (who would become music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1940s) conducted. It was only in 2008 that the work was finally played on the Wanamaker Organ, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but long before then it had become a success around the world, championed by star organists like Virgil Fox and by orchestras wishing to show off their concert hall’s instrument.

Works combining organ and symphony orchestra were not uncommon in Jongen’s day, notable past examples including Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony (1886) and several symphonies (1882-1913) by the renowned French organist-composer Charles-Marie Widor. Jongen initially called his work a “Symphony with Organ,” but a fellow Belgian, the composer and violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, urged him to change the title: it was the “with” that Ysaÿe objected to, as it implied the organ was merely an accompaniment rather than “a second orchestra,” as it truly was. Nor was the work a “concerto,” which by the late Romantic era had come to imply, if not a contest between soloist and orchestra, at least an assertion of the individual against the group. Jongen chose “Symphonie Concertante” to imply a partnership of equals, creating a greater variety of colors and richness of sound than would be possible with one alone.

One of the remarkable features of Jongen’s symphony is the way that the orchestra often sounds very much like an organ and yet revels in the distinctive colors of its woodwind, brass and string sections. To be sure, the same could be said of the Symphony in D minor (1888) by Belgium’s greatest organist-composer, César Franck, but Jongen finds his own blends and contrasts of timbre, along with a harmonic palette enriched by the examples of Widor and Claude Debussy among others. With the additional colors provided by a grand organ, the Symphonie Concertante follows in the French tradition of making timbre a central component of the music.

The opening movement, a “very moderate” Allegro, begins with a fugal treatment of a brisk theme against an organ-like pedal (sustained) note in the lowest orchestral instruments, but soon the organ enters majestically with a countertheme. Gentler, more chromatic themes are introduced, and the rest of the movement interweaves all this material in delightful ways, with a slower-paced, quiet conclusion. Ysaÿe thought the opening theme was like a typical folktune from Liège, Jongen’s home town in Wallonia, French-speaking Belgium.

The second movement is a scherzo, titled Divertimento. Here the organ alone begins the movement with a tune in 7/4 time that seems to tumble forth. Eventually, a chorale-like passage in 3/2 time alternates with the more precipitous 7/4 theme. A Trio section with a swirling waltz-like theme in 9/4 time is heard; then the movement’s original themes return, with varied treatment.

The third movement, marked very slow (Largo) and mysterious, has impressionist colors and harmonies. It opens with a series of woodwind solos, followed by a longer section in which the strings carry the melodic material with harmonic support from the organ. The music swells to more than one dramatic climax, with brass colors predominating, before it subsides gently to its final notes.

The finale is labeled Toccata, subtitled Moto Perpetuo: that is, a “touch piece” characterized by very rapid fingerwork, here with a “perpetual motion” feeling. The organ plays nonstop 16th notes throughout the movement, while echoing a wealth of fanfares and other themes initiated by the orchestra. The concluding bars are as rousing as almost anything in the orchestral or organ repertoire.

 The organ used in tonight’s performance is a Rodgers Model 361 with three manuals and 61 basic stops plus 135 Voice Palette stops for a total of 196 real-time available stops, equivalent to 301 pipe ranks.



Share this on: