Under the baton of the Taiwanese American conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra performs Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites, Op.64a. Recorded at Gothenburg Concert Hall, on May 4, 2018.
Shakespeare's immortal drama inspired some of the most original and colourful music Prokofiev wrote in his career. It follows and comments the tragic love story with powerful orchestral explosions and sympathetic themes which seem to be aware of the characters' inner feelings and thoughts. When the music was edited into suites, the music conquered the world and since then belongs to the repertoire of great orchestral music.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
♪ Romeo and Juliet, Suite for orchestra, Op.64a No.1 (1936) [00:30]*
i. Folk Dance
vi. Balcony scene
vii. Death of Tybalt
♪ Romeo and Juliet, Suite for orchestra, Op.64a No.2 (1936) [32:40]
i. The Montagues and the Capulets
ii. Juliet - The Little Girl
iii. Friar Laurence
v. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting
vi. Dance of the Maids from the Antilles
vii. Romeo at Juliet's Grave
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Mei-Ann Chen
Gothenburg Concert Hall, May 4, 2018
* Start time of each work
Sergei Prokofiev extracted three orchestral suites and a set of ten piano transcriptions from his ballet masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (1935-1936). It was his practice to recycle music from his larger works, and he scored a number of successes doing so. The Second Suite from Romeo and Juliet, for example, has become the most popular offshoot and is more familiar than the ballet itself.
The First Suite has nearly attained that level of currency, as well, in the both concert hall and on record. Its seven numbers do not follow the chronology in the ballet and sometimes incorporate music from more than one section. This was typical of Prokofiev's method in his fairly literal transcriptions and suites, as he sought to create a composition with a somewhat different emotional center of gravity from the source work.
Structurally, each movement in the Suite No.1 is sounder than its more action-defined counterpart in the ballet. The opening movement is Folk Dance, derived from the first dance in the Second Act (No.22). The music here is festive and joyous, at times sounding ecstatic and as far removed from the work's ultimate tragedy as it could be. The orchestration is colorful, the rhythmic main theme catchy and danceable, and the overall effect invigorating. The second movement, Scene comes from No.3, The Street Awakens. The music here is jovial and features an air of nonchalance in its sparse but colorful orchestration. At about a minute-and-a-half, it is the shortest of the seven numbers here.
Madrigal is derived from the like-named No.16 in the First Act. The music here depicts the burgeoning love of Romeo for Juliet. Minuet is next, bringing the bright, celebratory music of No.11 from the ballet. A more festive and high-spirited mood would be hard to imagine.
Masques is the ensuing movement and corresponds to No.12 in the First Act. It is music that features an infectious theme, a simple but deftly-orchestrated rhythm, and thoroughly colorful writing throughout. Oddly, this movement sounds tamer in any orchestral version compared with the grittier piano rendering in the Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet. Up to this point, the selections in the Suite No.1 correspond closely with the order in the Ten Pieces, for piano: the first two and the fifth are the same, and the fourth here corresponds to the third in the piano version.
The sixth and seventh, however, like the third, have no actual counterpart in the piano version, even if some themes are shared. Romeo and Juliet, the penultimate movement here, relates mainly to No.21 in the First Act, Romeo and Juliet's love dance, but also incorporates music from No.19, Balcony Scene. Prokofiev made minor changes in the orchestration of this section, in the end distilling some of the most passionate and powerful music he ever wrote. This movement features the famous love theme, one of the two most popular melodies in the ballet, the other being the march-like theme that depicts the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, which appears in the Second Suite.
The last movement, Death of Tybalt derives mainly from Nos. 33, Tybalt and Mercutio fight, and 35, Romeo avenges Mercutio's death. But, again, Prokofiev makes some changes in the orchestration that enhance the suspenseful, exhilarating music in the first half. The brassy, funereal music in the latter part is left essentially as it appears in the ballet.
A concert performance of this music lasts about a half-hour. Prokofiev published the score in 1938.
Source: Robert Cummings (allmusic.com)
Frustrated by the delays in getting his full-length ballet Romeo and Juliet premiered – both the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad, which commissioned it, originally rejected it as "undanceable" – Prokofiev assembled two suites for concert use, adding a third some years later. The Second Suite is the one most often encountered; it was first performed in Leningrad in 1937.
The half-hour suite does not follow the action (which hews closely to Shakespeare); instead, it is a series of character pieces and scenes, almost a "greatest hits" collection drawn from the full work. The number-one hit leads off the suite: Montagues and Capulets. This begins with a gradually layered brass chord that results in a crushing dissonance soon resolved into soft string chords, all of which represents the conflict between Romeo's family and Juliet's. The sequence is repeated once, then goes straight into what in the full ballet is called Dance of the Knights; this is the heavy, snarling, angular march- like music to which the macho Capulet men dance at their masked ball. This contrasts with a delicate, somewhat unsettling minor-mode woodwind minuet for Juliet and her suitor, the young nobleman Paris. The knights' music returns, again exploiting the orchestra's lowest registers.
The Young Juliet, with its skittering string scales and playful use of woodwinds and light percussion, begins as a portrait of a squirmy teenager. A more tender clarinet theme represents Juliet's innocence. After a brief return of the opening material, broad, lyrical themes for the woodwinds and cello, and eventually the other strings, suggest the girl's budding emotional maturity. A slow, sensitive coda perhaps alludes to the tragedy in her immediate future. Friar Laurence is a plodding but sympathetic portrait of the man of the cloth who facilitates Romeo and Juliet's romance – and, inadvertently, their deaths. The man is represented by a solemn legato theme kept low in the orchestra.
Dance has nothing to do with the plot. It's a light, brilliant scherzo, something of a tarantella, with the ever-rising tune melting from one brass or woodwind instrument to another in mid-phrase. Romeo at Juliet's Before Parting opens with a wistful flute solo – the flute represents Juliet through much of the score. This is a slow, quiet, nocturnal segment that begins to open up with a short horn phrase that leads straight into the cadential chords associated with Romeo near the beginning of the full ballet. The music's ardor and instrumental thickness gradually increase, mingling the Romeo and Juliet material, then the ecstatic, yearning horn theme breaks out in full, topped off with the Romeo motif. This material repeats, fuller and louder, yet ultimately backs down into a long, mysterious passage that foreshadows the main theme from the tomb scene at the story's (and suite's) end.
Dance of the Antilles Girls is brief, quiet, and rather ritualistic, with another sinuous, upward-reaching melody that is passed among the orchestral soloists. Romeo at the Grave of Juliet is drawn from the ballet's concluding pages; it begins with a long, slow, anguished theme for the strings that is taken up briefly by the horns. The other brass instruments enter with their own slight variants. The earlier love music struggles forward, now in a minor mode, but is overpowered by the brass with the funereal material that opened the section. A delicate reminiscence in the woodwinds of the love music eases the suite to a quiet, resigned conclusion.
Source: James Reel (allmusic.com)
Praised for her dynamic, passionate conducting style, Taiwanese American conductor Mei-Ann Chen is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm and high-level music-making, galvanizing audiences and communities alike. Appointed Music Director of the MacArthur Award-winning Chicago Sinfonietta in 2011 and as Artistic Director & Conductor for the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival since 2016 she is highly regarded as a compelling communicator and an innovative leader both on and off the podium. A sought-after guest conductor, she continues to expand her relationships with orchestras worldwide.
North American guesting credits include appearances with the Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, National, Nashville, Oregon, Pacific, River Oaks Chamber, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, to name a few. Overseas guest engagements include the symphonies of BBC Scottish, Denmark's National, Aalborg, Aarhus, and Odense, Sweden's Gavle, Gothenburg, Helsingborg, Malmo, and Norrkoping, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Norwegian Radio and Trondheim Symphony, Finland's Tampere Philharmonic, Austria's Grosses Orchester Graz, Germany's Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, Brazil's Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Minas Gerais Philharmonic, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico, and Taiwan Philharmonic, National Taiwan & Taipei Symphony Orchestras. Her U.S. summer music festival credits include Aspen, Grant Park, Grand Teton, Ravinia, Texas, and Wintergreen. Future engagements include debuts with Austria's Tonkunstler Orchester, Denmark's Copenhagen Philharmonic on a 7-city tour, Germany's Wurth Philharmonic, Netherlands Residentie Orkest, Norway's Oslo Philharmonic, Switzerland's Basel, Turkey's Bilkent, and return engagement highlights include Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for its Gala program with Lang Lang, and multiple return engagements to Austria's Recreation Grosses Orchester Graz and Sweden's Malmo Symphony Orchestra.
Recognized as someone who has redefined the orchestra experience, amongst Ms. Chen's honors and awards are being named one of the 2015 Top 30 Influencers by Musical America, (the bible of the performing arts industry); 2012 Helen M. Thompson Award from the League of American Orchestras; Winner, the 2007 Taki Concordia Fellowship; and First Prize Winner, the prestigious Malko Competition in 2005. Ms. Chen also is the recipient of several ASCAP awards for innovative programming during her tenure as the Music Director of Chicago Sinfonietta and Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregon (2002-2007). Ms. Chen is also Conductor Laureate of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, having served as Music Director from 2010 to 2016.
Born in Taiwan in 1973, Mei-Ann Chen came to the United States to study violin in 1989 and became the first student in New England Conservatory's history to receive master's degrees simultaneously in both violin and conducting. She later studied with Kenneth Kiesler at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting. Ms. Chen participated in the National Conductor Preview, National Conducting Institute, Aspen American Academy of Conducting, and Pierre Monteux School.
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