Aurora borealis. United States Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the sky was Bellatrix
Between Betelgeuse and Rigel fixed.
With Kappa standing to the right
Orion walks the winter night. – “Orion,” The New Golden Rocket (1991)

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

No, it’s not winter yet, but the opening work in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend (October 7 and 8) give us a sonic preview with “Ciel d’hiver” (“Winter Sky”) by Helsinki-born Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). Saariaho has lived in Paris since 1982, where her studies at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) convinced her to turn away from serialism and towards spectralism, a movement that treats orchestral color (the sonic spectrum) as a compositional cornerstone.  You can hear that in the rich acoustic palette of “Ciel d’hiver,” which is a 2014 re-orchestration of the second movement of Saariaho’s 2002 suite

Kaija Saariaho
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Beginning with high woodwinds suspended over growling low notes with not much in between, the work strongly suggests the bleak emptiness of a dark, chilly night. The aurora borealis shimmers in the exotic percussion battery and eventually the winds begin to moan ominously. Finally the sky clears to a tinkling piano motif and an evanescent cello melody and it all fades to black.

“It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,” as W.C. Fields repeatedly intones in “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” but its music has a forbidding beauty all the same.

The composer of the second work on the program was also based in Paris, but the land of his birth lies considerably to the south of Saariaho’s Finland. Joseph Bologne, (1745-1799), was born in Baillif, Gaudeloupe, the son of Nanon, a Senegalese slave, and plantation owner George de Bologne Saint-Georges. The latter adopted the boy, paid for his education, and took both him and Nanon with him when a dubious murder charge obliged him to decamp for France.

Raised as a gentleman, the younger Bologne became a master fencer as well as an expert equestrian and was knighted Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the ripe old age of 19. He also excelled at music and achieved renown as a violinist, conductor, and composer. He survived the French revolution by siding with the Republic and leading an all-black cavalry unit. After a series of adventures, misadventures, and reversals of fortune that could easily be the basis of a rousing work of historical fiction, he died of a bladder infection at the age of 54.

It’s a hell of a biography for an 18th century composer and stands in stark contrast to the elegance of his Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5 No. 2 (c. 1775), which the SLSO will play for the first time this weekend. At first hearing, it may remind you a bit of Mozart, but there’s an unmistakably gallic je ne sais quoi to this work in general and the solo part in particular that is entirely Bologne’s own.

By D'après Mather Brown (1761–1831) &
William Ward (1766–1826) -
Gabriel Banat.- The Chevalier de Saint-Georges,
Virtuosa of the Sword and the Bow,
Public Domain

The soloist will be the SLSO’s own Hannah Ji. A relatively recent addition to the first violin section, Ji has appeared on NPR’s “From the Top” program (which showcases exceptional young artists) and has performed with such luminaries as Pinchas Zuckerman, Jeremy Denk, and Yo-Yo Ma. This will be her first solo spot with the orchestra.

After intermission we get the Big Deal on this week’s bill: Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." As the title indicates, it was inspired by the composer’s visit to an exhibit of work by the Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann.

Hartmann may only have been 39 when he died in 1873, but he had already gained considerable fame for his inventive uses of Russian folk traditions in his work. He might have remained unknown outside Russia, however, had he not become friends with the equally innovative Mussorgsky. Attending an exhibition of Hartmann's works a year after the artist's death, Mussorgsky was so moved that he immediately dashed off a piano suite based on ten of the pictures at that exhibition. Unfortunately, Mussorgsky himself died—at the age of 42—before the suite could be published.

And there it might have rested had not Maurice Ravel been commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to produce an orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922. The work was a rousing success that guaranteed Hartmann a prominent place in musical history and Mussorgsky a larger share of concert programs than he might have gotten otherwise.

Ravel was not the first to orchestrate Mussorgsky's suite; that honor fell to fellow Russian Michail Tuschmalov in 1886, the year in which the suite was published. But he arranged only seven of the ten pictures, and the next attempt—by Britain's Sir Henry Wood in 1915—eliminated some of the reoccurrences of the unifying "Promenade" theme, which represents Mussorgsky wandering through the exhibition. Ravel wasn't even the first to orchestrate the entire piece; the Slovenian Leo Funtek pulled that one off in the same year as the Frenchman. Ravel's has, however, remained the most popular of the over two dozen arrangements of the original, for everything from full orchestra to jazz band to (oddly enough) solo guitar.

A costume sketch of canary chicks
by Victor Hartmann for the ballet Trilby

This weekend it's the familiar Ravel orchestration that guest conductor Jonathon Heyward will conduct in his first appearance with the orchestra. If you have never heard it before, I think you'll be delighted by the many opportunities it offers for individual musicians to take the spotlight. Ravel is justifiably regarded as an expert orchestrator, and his expansion of Mussorgsky's original is filled with ingenious touches, like the high woodwinds chirping away in the "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells"; the alto sax playing the voice of a troubadour in "The Old Castle"; and the hair-raising evocation of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs", home of the witch Baba-Yaga from Russian folklore. This is music that never fails to please.

That said, I often wish that orchestras would give us a chance to hear some of those other arrangements. Leopold Stokowski's 1939 version, for example, is pretty compelling (even if he does leave out two of the original movements). So is the one by pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, still available on CD along with his performance of the piano original.

To the best of my knowledge, the closest the SLSO has come to giving us a taste of those other arrangements was a concert on January 25-27, 1991, in which Leonard Slatkin presented a kind of "mosaic" version of "Pictures" that included orchestrations of individual movements by not only Stokowski and Ashkenazy but also (among others) Tuschmalov, Wood, and Lucien Caillet, with Ravel returning only in the last two movements. That performance was recorded and released by the SLSO as part of a special commemorative six-CD set titled "The Slatkin Years." The release was limited but individual copies still show up from resellers now and then. The good news is that Slatkin put together a similar arrangement for a recording with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for Naxos in 2008, so I have included that version along with Ravel’s in this week’s Spotify playlist.

The Essentials: Guest conductor Jonathon Heyward leads the orchestra and violinist Hannah Ji in a program of Kaija Saariaho's "Ciel d'hiver" ("Winter Sky"), Joseph Bologne's Violin Concerto No 2 (both local premieres), and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Performances are Friday at 10:30 am and Saturday at 8 pm, October 7 and 8. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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