Curtis Symphony Orchestra with Gilbert Varga, conductor

Gilbert Varga, conductor
Yue Bao, conducting fellow

CORIGLIANO                      
BARTÓK
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV

The Mannheim Rocket
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
Scheherazade 

“A masterful interpreter” (Baltimore Sun), British conductor Gilbert Varga brings his elegant, electric style to the lush melodic legends of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade—and to the blazing colors and shocking storyline of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. John Corigliano’s Mannheim Rocket offers an explosive opening.

Repertoire

Born into a musical family—his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years, and his mother was a gifted pianist—John Corigliano is one of the best-known composers of our time. After studies with Otto Luening and Vittorio Giannini, he worked in radio and as a producer for CBS-TV and Columbia Masterworks before delving into film scoring. His Altered States score earned an Oscar nomination. His score for The Red Violin ultimately won the Academy Award, and he repurposed this music as a successful Violin Concerto for its original soloist, Joshua Bell.

Corigliano has taken up commissions from major musical institutions throughout his career, and has won the Pulitzer Prize, a Grawemeyer Award, and five Grammy Awards. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), composed on commission for the Metropolitan Opera, became one of the most widely discussed American theater works. His orchestral music includes three symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber works, and choral music. His recent works include the orchestral song cycle One Sweet Morning and Stomp, which exists in versions for solo violin and for orchestra. He is member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School and holds a distinguished professorship at Lehman College, City University of New York.

The Mannheim Rocket is a brief showpiece commissioned by the Mannheim Orchestra and given its premiere in 2001. It features a wide array of special effects, including an amplified musical saw, glassy sul-ponticello effects in the strings, aleatoric passages for the winds, and atonal clusters alternating with explosions of classical-sounding symphonic passages. It culminates in a “rocket-like” finale, which the composer elucidates in his note on the piece:

I first heard of the “Mannheim rocket” in a music history course in my freshman year at college. The term was used to describe a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term “rocket.”) 

As a young music student, however, my imagination construed a very different image—that of a giant 18th-century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron von Munchausen, and its marvelous journey to the heavens and back.  It was this image that excited me when I was asked to write a work for today’s Mannheim Orchestra … And so this ten-minute work begins with the scratch of a match and a serpentine twelve-tone fuse that sparkles with light and fire. The ignition leads to a slow heaving as the giant engine builds up steam. The “motor” of the rocket is a very low, very slow “Alberti bass,” the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces. 

To get it started, I included a quote from one of the originators of the “Mannheim Rocket,” Johann Anton Wenzel Stamitz (1717–57). … This is the first in a series of quotes as the rocket rises and moves faster and faster, climbing through more than 200 years of German music, finally breaking through a glass ceiling to float serenely in heaven. 

There the rocket and crew are serenaded by tranquil “Music of the Spheres.” But what comes up must come down, and with a return of the opening fuse-music, the descent begins. The rocket accelerates as flashes of the ascent—backwards—mark the fall. Just before the inevitable crash, Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable: even he can’t stop it. After a crunching meeting with terra firma the slow heaving and Alberti-bass-motor die away as we hear a fleeting memory of heaven, and, finally, a coda composed of a “Mannheim rocket.”

The first quarter of the 20th century was a time of almost unfathomable upheaval in the European sphere, as centuries-old feudalism met its violent end. It seemed natural that artists would feel the impact, and indeed the art that we today call modernism tried its best to negate a millennium of the history of art, literature, and music. And as long as artists push boundaries of acceptability, a fearful establishment is there to fight back.

As one of music’s great 20th-century innovators, Bartók was no stranger to backlash. The objections to his new ideas came to a head with The Miraculous Mandarin—composed as a follow-up to his successful ballet The Wooden Prince (1917) and the controversial but much-lauded opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1918). Mandarin was a more challenging project, and Bartók struggled—first for months, then for years—before completing the ballet-pantomime. Though it was staged in Cologne as early as 1926, thanks to Hungarian censors Mandarin was not performed in Budapest in its entirety until after Bartók’s death.

The problem lay not so much in the music but in the scenario, derived from a one-act play by Menyhért Lengyel (a pantomime grotesque, as the author called it) that left a deep mark on Bartók— although the composer’s vivid musical underscoring of the more lurid aspects of the ballet made it all the more shocking. The gruesome story draws from myth, legend, and fairy tale, yet it also feels deeply rooted in the expressionist extremes found in much early-20th-century literature, art, and music. In the printed score to Mandarin Bartók describes the scenario thus:

In a miserable suburban slum, three thieves force a girl to lure men from the street into her room, whom they proceed to rob. A shabby cavalier and a shy youth are ensnared, but both are rejected as being too poor. The third visitor is an eerie Mandarin, whose unsettling impassivity the girl tries to calm by dancing, but when he anxiously grips her she writhes away in terror. After a wild chase he catches her, at which point the thieves leap from hiding and try to smother him with cushions. But he gets to his feet and gazes longingly at the girl. They stab him clean through with a sword: He staggers, but his yearning is stronger than his wounds. He lunges at her. They string him up by the neck but he will not die. Only when they have taken him down and the girl takes him into her arms [and presumably allows him to achieve sexual release] do his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.

When the story proved too racy for the Budapest stage, the composer created an orchestral suite of the first two-thirds of the score, which was performed in Budapest in October 1928.

Scheherazade is the quintessential musical statement on The Arabian Nights, the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from which sprang such characters as Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. As one of the prime expressions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of orchestral texture, this series of musical episodes also helped establish the composer as a founding father of 20th-century orchestral color. This and other works by Rimsky-Korsakov helped spur further innovations in orchestration by Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and others.

The preface to the composer’s first edition of the Scheherazade score sets both the musical and the dramatic mood: “The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and faithlessness of women, vowed to execute each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting the Sultan in tales she told him, through 1,001 nights. Impelled by curiosity, the Sultan continually put off her execution, and at last entirely abandoned his sanguinary resolve. Many marvels did Scheherazade relate to him, citing the verses of poets and the words of songs, weaving tale into tale and story into story.”

Scheherazade’s program draws on several images and stories from Arabian Nights, arranged in four interconnected movements. “The program that guided me in the composition of Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights,” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “scattered through all four movements.” Scheherazade was first performed in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1888.

The opening theme seems to represent the Sultan’s booming voice, demanding that Scheherazade begin her stories; the willowy violin solo that follows seeks to characterize her discursive story-telling. Both recur throughout all four movements. The first movement conveys both the gentle rocking of the ocean and the character of Sindbad, the fictional sailor whose restless voyages form a crucial part of later versions of the Arabian Nights. (Rimsky-Korsakov, who sailed the high seas as an officer in the Russian navy, seems to have reveled in such tales.) The second movement recounts the story of a lowly Kalander who turns out to be a nobleman; the Kalanders were itinerant magicians and showmen at Middle Eastern courts. The mesmerizing slow movement relates a love story between the Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur. The Finale tells a series of stories: “The Festival at Baghdad,” “The Sea,” and “Shipwreck.” Through the course of storytelling one hears the Sultan’s stern theme gradually melt into something more sensuous and cheerful, and perhaps even loving.

Rimsky-Korsakov later wrote that his aim was to create “a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character,” which led him later to do away with most of the headings. “I meant these hints to direct only slightly the listener’s fancy on the path that my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each.” In the final analysis, we can listen to Scheherazade either as music that tells tales or as music free of programmatic connections. Its discursive style suggests moods and emotional states, but it also holds up organically as a purely musical structure.

Biographies

Gilbert Varga, principal conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, is one of Europe’s most sought-after conductors. He has conducted many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Radio Symphony Berlin; Orchestre de Paris; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Budapest Festival Orchestra; Munich, Oslo, and Rotterdam philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Sydney, and Toronto symphonies; and Los Angeles and Saint Paul chamber orchestras.

Born in London, Mr. Varga studied violin with his father, Tibor Varga. He studied conducting under Franco Ferrara, Sergiu Celibidache, and Charles Bruck. He served as chief conductor of the Hofer Symphoniker and the Philharmonia Hungarica, permanent guest conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of the Malmö Symphony. In 1997 he became music director of the Basque National Orchestra, leading them through ten seasons, including tours across the U.K., Germany, Spain, and South America.

Mr. Varga’s discography includes recordings with the ASV, Koch International, and Claves record labels. His latest recording, of cello concertos by Shostakovich and Martinů with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Christian Poltéra (Bis), was released in May 2017.

Yue Bao, from Shanghai, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2017. As a conducting fellow, she works closely with Curtis mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Ms. Bao is the Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow.

Ms. Bao was the student conductor of the Mannes Orchestra from 2014 to 2016. She has appeared as a guest conductor with the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra, the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Shanghai Nanyang School Symphony. She served as a cover conductor for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as a Julius Rudel Fellow in 2015. She was a 2016 Conducting Fellow with the New Symphony Orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a 2015 Conducting Fellow with the Eastern Festival Orchestra in Greensboro, N.C.

Ms. Bao holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Shanghai Conservatory and a Master of Music degree from the Mannes School of Music, both in orchestral conducting. Her former teachers are David Hayes and XiaoOu Zhao. She is also an experienced pianist and composer.

Born into a musical family—his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years, and his mother was a gifted pianist—John Corigliano is one of the best-known composers of our time. After studies with Otto Luening and Vittorio Giannini, he worked in radio and as a producer for CBS-TV and Columbia Masterworks before delving into film scoring. His Altered States score earned an Oscar nomination. His score for The Red Violin ultimately won the Academy Award, and he repurposed this music as a successful Violin Concerto for its original soloist, Joshua Bell.

Corigliano has taken up commissions from major musical institutions throughout his career, and has won the Pulitzer Prize, a Grawemeyer Award, and five Grammy Awards. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), composed on commission for the Metropolitan Opera, became one of the most widely discussed American theater works. His orchestral music includes three symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber works, and choral music. His recent works include the orchestral song cycle One Sweet Morning and Stomp, which exists in versions for solo violin and for orchestra. He is member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School and holds a distinguished professorship at Lehman College, City University of New York.

The Mannheim Rocket is a brief showpiece commissioned by the Mannheim Orchestra and given its premiere in 2001. It features a wide array of special effects, including an amplified musical saw, glassy sul-ponticello effects in the strings, aleatoric passages for the winds, and atonal clusters alternating with explosions of classical-sounding symphonic passages. It culminates in a “rocket-like” finale, which the composer elucidates in his note on the piece:

I first heard of the “Mannheim rocket” in a music history course in my freshman year at college. The term was used to describe a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term “rocket.”) 

As a young music student, however, my imagination construed a very different image—that of a giant 18th-century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron von Munchausen, and its marvelous journey to the heavens and back.  It was this image that excited me when I was asked to write a work for today’s Mannheim Orchestra … And so this ten-minute work begins with the scratch of a match and a serpentine twelve-tone fuse that sparkles with light and fire. The ignition leads to a slow heaving as the giant engine builds up steam. The “motor” of the rocket is a very low, very slow “Alberti bass,” the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces. 

To get it started, I included a quote from one of the originators of the “Mannheim Rocket,” Johann Anton Wenzel Stamitz (1717–57). … This is the first in a series of quotes as the rocket rises and moves faster and faster, climbing through more than 200 years of German music, finally breaking through a glass ceiling to float serenely in heaven. 

There the rocket and crew are serenaded by tranquil “Music of the Spheres.” But what comes up must come down, and with a return of the opening fuse-music, the descent begins. The rocket accelerates as flashes of the ascent—backwards—mark the fall. Just before the inevitable crash, Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable: even he can’t stop it. After a crunching meeting with terra firma the slow heaving and Alberti-bass-motor die away as we hear a fleeting memory of heaven, and, finally, a coda composed of a “Mannheim rocket.”

The first quarter of the 20th century was a time of almost unfathomable upheaval in the European sphere, as centuries-old feudalism met its violent end. It seemed natural that artists would feel the impact, and indeed the art that we today call modernism tried its best to negate a millennium of the history of art, literature, and music. And as long as artists push boundaries of acceptability, a fearful establishment is there to fight back.

As one of music’s great 20th-century innovators, Bartók was no stranger to backlash. The objections to his new ideas came to a head with The Miraculous Mandarin—composed as a follow-up to his successful ballet The Wooden Prince (1917) and the controversial but much-lauded opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1918). Mandarin was a more challenging project, and Bartók struggled—first for months, then for years—before completing the ballet-pantomime. Though it was staged in Cologne as early as 1926, thanks to Hungarian censors Mandarin was not performed in Budapest in its entirety until after Bartók’s death.

The problem lay not so much in the music but in the scenario, derived from a one-act play by Menyhért Lengyel (a pantomime grotesque, as the author called it) that left a deep mark on Bartók— although the composer’s vivid musical underscoring of the more lurid aspects of the ballet made it all the more shocking. The gruesome story draws from myth, legend, and fairy tale, yet it also feels deeply rooted in the expressionist extremes found in much early-20th-century literature, art, and music. In the printed score to Mandarin Bartók describes the scenario thus:

In a miserable suburban slum, three thieves force a girl to lure men from the street into her room, whom they proceed to rob. A shabby cavalier and a shy youth are ensnared, but both are rejected as being too poor. The third visitor is an eerie Mandarin, whose unsettling impassivity the girl tries to calm by dancing, but when he anxiously grips her she writhes away in terror. After a wild chase he catches her, at which point the thieves leap from hiding and try to smother him with cushions. But he gets to his feet and gazes longingly at the girl. They stab him clean through with a sword: He staggers, but his yearning is stronger than his wounds. He lunges at her. They string him up by the neck but he will not die. Only when they have taken him down and the girl takes him into her arms [and presumably allows him to achieve sexual release] do his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.

When the story proved too racy for the Budapest stage, the composer created an orchestral suite of the first two-thirds of the score, which was performed in Budapest in October 1928.

Scheherazade is the quintessential musical statement on The Arabian Nights, the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from which sprang such characters as Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. As one of the prime expressions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of orchestral texture, this series of musical episodes also helped establish the composer as a founding father of 20th-century orchestral color. This and other works by Rimsky-Korsakov helped spur further innovations in orchestration by Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and others.

The preface to the composer’s first edition of the Scheherazade score sets both the musical and the dramatic mood: “The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and faithlessness of women, vowed to execute each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting the Sultan in tales she told him, through 1,001 nights. Impelled by curiosity, the Sultan continually put off her execution, and at last entirely abandoned his sanguinary resolve. Many marvels did Scheherazade relate to him, citing the verses of poets and the words of songs, weaving tale into tale and story into story.”

Scheherazade’s program draws on several images and stories from Arabian Nights, arranged in four interconnected movements. “The program that guided me in the composition of Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights,” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “scattered through all four movements.” Scheherazade was first performed in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1888.

The opening theme seems to represent the Sultan’s booming voice, demanding that Scheherazade begin her stories; the willowy violin solo that follows seeks to characterize her discursive story-telling. Both recur throughout all four movements. The first movement conveys both the gentle rocking of the ocean and the character of Sindbad, the fictional sailor whose restless voyages form a crucial part of later versions of the Arabian Nights. (Rimsky-Korsakov, who sailed the high seas as an officer in the Russian navy, seems to have reveled in such tales.) The second movement recounts the story of a lowly Kalander who turns out to be a nobleman; the Kalanders were itinerant magicians and showmen at Middle Eastern courts. The mesmerizing slow movement relates a love story between the Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur. The Finale tells a series of stories: “The Festival at Baghdad,” “The Sea,” and “Shipwreck.” Through the course of storytelling one hears the Sultan’s stern theme gradually melt into something more sensuous and cheerful, and perhaps even loving.

Rimsky-Korsakov later wrote that his aim was to create “a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character,” which led him later to do away with most of the headings. “I meant these hints to direct only slightly the listener’s fancy on the path that my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each.” In the final analysis, we can listen to Scheherazade either as music that tells tales or as music free of programmatic connections. Its discursive style suggests moods and emotional states, but it also holds up organically as a purely musical structure.

 

Gilbert Varga, principal conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, is one of Europe’s most sought-after conductors. He has conducted many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Radio Symphony Berlin; Orchestre de Paris; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Budapest Festival Orchestra; Munich, Oslo, and Rotterdam philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Sydney, and Toronto symphonies; and Los Angeles and Saint Paul chamber orchestras.

Born in London, Mr. Varga studied violin with his father, Tibor Varga. He studied conducting under Franco Ferrara, Sergiu Celibidache, and Charles Bruck. He served as chief conductor of the Hofer Symphoniker and the Philharmonia Hungarica, permanent guest conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of the Malmö Symphony. In 1997 he became music director of the Basque National Orchestra, leading them through ten seasons, including tours across the U.K., Germany, Spain, and South America.

Mr. Varga’s discography includes recordings with the ASV, Koch International, and Claves record labels. His latest recording, of cello concertos by Shostakovich and Martinů with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Christian Poltéra (Bis), was released in May 2017.

Yue Bao, from Shanghai, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2017. As a conducting fellow, she works closely with Curtis mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Ms. Bao is the Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow.

Ms. Bao was the student conductor of the Mannes Orchestra from 2014 to 2016. She has appeared as a guest conductor with the Shanghai Opera Symphony Orchestra, the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Shanghai Nanyang School Symphony. She served as a cover conductor for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as a Julius Rudel Fellow in 2015. She was a 2016 Conducting Fellow with the New Symphony Orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a 2015 Conducting Fellow with the Eastern Festival Orchestra in Greensboro, N.C.

Ms. Bao holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Shanghai Conservatory and a Master of Music degree from the Mannes School of Music, both in orchestral conducting. Her former teachers are David Hayes and XiaoOu Zhao. She is also an experienced pianist and composer.


Orchestral concerts are supported by the Jack Wolgin Curtis Orchestral Concerts Endowment Fund.