Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Talking Turkey

Nicholas McGegan
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This weekend’s St. Louis Symphony concerts are a mix of the familiar and the exotic—or at least, what was seen as exotic in the 18th century.

The familiar part is the return of Nicholas McGegan to the podium.  Last seen at Powell Hall conducting an exuberant “Baroque fireworks” program last October, Mr. McGegan is a frequent visitor to St. Louis and a widely respected interpreter of music of the 17th and 18th centuries.  The London Independent has dubbed him “one of the finest Baroque conductors of his generation”, while Santa Barbara Scene magazine has called him “the go-to visitor/educator/conductor” for pre-19th century music.  Given that the “newest” piece on the bill this weekend premiered in 1811, Mr. McGegan should be very much in his element.

The exotic aspect of the program is the pervasive fascination with the cultures of the near east in general and Turkey in particular that pops up often in 17th and 18th century music.  The reasons for that are partly political.  Austria and Turkey (a.k.a. The Ottoman Empire) were at war on and off from the around 1526 until almost the end of the 18th century, when the 1797 Treaty of Sistova left both nations in sufficient disarray to discourage any more military adventures.  In Europe and (especially) Austria, therefore, all things Turkish and middle eastern were seen as exotic and not a little dangerous—which naturally made them interesting to composers and other creative types.

This weekend’s concerts open with the lively overture to Abu Hassan by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).  Based loosely on a story from the “Thousand and One Nights” (also the inspiration for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade from two weeks ago), Abu Hassan (premiered in 1811) is a one act singspiel rather than an opera, which means there’s a mix of recitatives and spoken dialog.  Mozart’s Magic Flute is probably the most famous example of the genre.  Its silly story (Lewis Foreman of the University of Birmingham calls it a “vigorous romp with a Fedeauesque sub-plot”) has kept it out of the operatic mainstream, but the overture is a tune-filled favorite.

Next is Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 291, from 1776 or thereabouts.  There’s nothing particularly exotic about the first two movements, although the Adagio second movement is longer and has a more elaborate orchestral introduction than any of Mozart’s other violin concertos.  It’s the third movement Rondeau that has caused some writers to dub it the “Turkish” concerto.  In the middle section, Mozart changes the time signature to 2/4 and uses some exotic melodic effects, including having cellos and basses slap their strings with the wood of the bow (Mozart calls it “coll’arco roverscio”).  It might not sound that “Turkish” to modern ears, but back in the day it yelled “Ottoman”.

Stefan Jackiw
All three movements offer opportunities for the soloist to insert cadenzas.  I don’t know what Stefan Jackiw (a much-praised young American violinist making his SLSO debut) will do with them—will he improvise his own or use existing cadenzas Joachim or one of that crowd?  It will be interesting to see.

After intermission, it’s a step back in time to 1735-36 with a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes (The Gallant Indians). The opéra-ballet was a kind of musical theatre hybrid popular in late 17thand early 18th century France in which dance was prominent.  It consisted of a prologue followed by three or four semi-independent acts united by a common theme.  For Les Indes Galantes, the theme is romantic triangles in such exotic locales as Turkey ("Le Turc généreux," or "The Gracious Turk"), Peru ("Les Incas du Pérou," "The Incas of Peru"), Persia ("Les Fleurs," "The Flowers") and, in a fourth act added for the 1736 revival, America ("Les Sauvages," "The Savages of America").

That last act, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, “presents Indians and Europeans joining amicably to smoke a peace pipe and praise the pleasures of love. This happy event is depicted in the “Dance of the Great Peace Pipe,” which leads to the grandest moment in Les Indes galantes. It comes as Indian and French warriors, Amazons and “shepherds and shepherdesses” join in a grand Chaconne, the dance traditionally used to close an opera-ballet in the Baroque era.”  Pretty enlightened for the time.

Finishing off the evening is Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major, dubbed the “military” because the use of brass, timpani, and triangle in both the second movement and finale recalled the noisy percussion of the Janissary bands of the Turkish military.  The effect is striking, even to modern ears.  Back in Haydn’s day it was apparently electrifying. According to a Morning Chronicle review of the March 31, 1795 premiere in the London (where all of Haydn’s last twelve symphonies were first performed), “the middle movement was again received with absolute shouts of applause.  Encore! encore! encore! resounded form every seat”.  Clearly, the composer had yet another hit on his hands.

A lyria organizzata
The second movement might also have been a bit of joke on Haydn’s part, since the main theme of that movement came from a Concerto for Two Lira Organizzata (a raucous Italian hybrid of hurdy-gurdy and harmonium) he had written ten years earlier for the King of Naples.  Re-using the theme in an even nosier context might have appealed to his sense of humor.  This was, after all, the composer of the “Surprise” symphony and the Symphony No. 90, with its false ending designed to sucker the audience into applauding too soon (which it invariably does).

The St. Louis Symphony presents its “Turkish” program Friday at 10:30 AM (a coffee concert with Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and Saturday at 8 PM, November 8 and 9, at Powell Hall.  For more information:

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