June 29 & 30, 2023: Joshua Bell + Mussorgsky’s Pictures

May 16, 2023

“Motherboxx Connection” from Tales: A Folklore Symphony for orchestra (2021)

Carlos Simon (b. 1986)

For generations of Americans, comic books were the first real page-turners: exciting, cheap, and easily available at any newsstand or drugstore. But for many Black readers, the dearth of characters — and especially heroes — who looked like them kept the stories at a certain distance. Seeking to address this truth, composer Carlos Simon found inspiration in Black Kirby, an artist collective whose work is steeped in the socio-cultural genre known as Afrofuturism, and whose name references the comic book pioneer Jack Kirby. Simon devoted the first part of his four-movement Tales: A Folklore Symphony to Black Kirby’s artistry. He called it “Motherboxx Connection” after a motherboxx, a fictional device in the Black Kirby universe. (A motherboxx is said to be a small, living computer “that is aware of the multi-faceted aspects of blackness.”) Simon later revised “Motherboxx Connection” as a standalone work.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Atlanta, Simon brings a wide-ranging background to this theme. He holds a doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan, where his teachers included Michael Daugherty (noted for his Superman-inspired Metropolis Symphony). Currently a composer-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Simon has written jazz- and gospel-inflected compositions for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. He has explored aspects of Black history in works including Portrait of a Queen, Warmth from Other Suns, and Requiem for the Enslaved, the latter commemorating the 272 men, women, and children sold in 1838 by Georgetown University. Simon maintains an active career as a keyboardist and has served as a musical director for R&B singers Jennifer Holliday and Angie Stone.

Tales: A Folklore Symphony was commissioned by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, for its 25th anniversary, and by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premiere on January 26, 2022, under the direction of Kenneth Kiesler. Motherboxx Connection summons the sturdy heroism of comic book characters, built on a majestic, fanfare-like theme. The titular motherboxx is also represented in the score with “a short fast-moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and throughout the orchestra,” says Simon. Ultimately, Simon’s piece may fit within a larger tradition of “folkloric” compositions by African-American artists, including William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony and William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, while offering an expansive view of folklore in our modern age.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

History books have at times characterized Max Bruch as a one-hit-wonder — his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor being that one piece — but this downplays the scope of his accomplishments. The concerto received its premiere when Bruch was just 28, and he went on to write nearly 100 other works, including three symphonies, three operas, a dozen choral works, assorted songs, and chamber pieces.

Having studied the violin as a young boy, there’s no question that Bruch excelled in warm-hearted works for solo string instruments, among them the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra and the Kol Nidre for cello and orchestra. (His second and third violin concertos, however, never caught on). But the G-minor violin concerto became overexposed. According to Bruch’s son, the composer grew exasperated with the many requests for the piece, once shouting, “The G-minor concerto again! I couldn’t bear to hear it once more. My friends, play the second concerto or the Scottish Fantasy for once!”

The G-minor concerto also benefited from a superstar champion. After the piece failed to gain traction at its 1866 premiere by violinist Otto von Königslöw, Bruch sent the manuscript to the violinist Joseph Joachim for feedback. The great virtuoso offered many key suggestions, which Bruch accepted, and Joachim presented the concerto in its finished form in 1868. Joachim also had close ties to concertos by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, but he later declared Bruch’s “the richest, the most seductive” of them all.

The rhapsodic first movement shows what Joachim meant, opening with a rhapsodic dialogue between orchestra and soloist, and continuing with two main melodies, each expansive and memorable. Yet this relatively short movement feels more like an elaborate introduction to the slow movement, which follows without pause. The Adagio is the heart and soul of the concerto, with three poignant and wistful themes that intertwine and build to a rapturous climax. In the third movement, Bruch unleashes a crackling, temperamental dance full of virtuoso techniques for the soloist (four-note chords, double and triple stops), before building to a brilliant finish.

Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Long before museum-goers would snap selfies and stage Instagram posts before iconic paintings, Modest Mussorgsky was making self-referential museum art of a musical variety. In Pictures at an Exhibition, the Russian composer places himself in a gallery, gazing at ten drawings, sketches, and watercolors by his late friend, the architect, and painter Viktor Hartmann.

Hartmann was a bright young star of the Russian art world who died of an aneurysm in 1873 at age 39. The critic Vladimir Stassov, who had been a mutual friend of Hartmann and Mussorgsky, helped to arrange a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s work at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. A visit to the show left Mussorgsky deeply moved, and as a tribute, he translated ten of the pictures into a piano suite. “My dear friend, what a terrible blow,” Mussorgsky wrote in a letter to Stassov. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat live on and creatures like Hartmann must die?” Piano virtuosos embraced the suite, and in 1922-23, Maurice Ravel arranged it brilliantly for full orchestra.

As for his musical “selfie,” Mussorgsky acknowledged in one of his letters that the recurring Promenade theme represents himself strolling through the gallery, its broad, off-kilter melody reflecting his own large physique. The individual sections are:

  1. Promenade. Announced by the solo trumpet.
  2. Gnomus. This section was inspired by Hartmann’s design for a carved wooden nutcracker in the form of an evil gnome.
  3. The Old Castle. Featuring a nostalgic saxophone melody, this section is based on a watercolor of a troubadour singing before a medieval Italian castle.
  4. Tuileries. Hartmann’s drawing, now lost, portrayed the Parisian garden filled with children and their nannies.
  5. Bydło. Using the Polish word for “cattle,” this section depicts a typical Polish ox-cart.
  6. Promenade.
  7. The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This represents two dancers modeling Hartmann’s costumes of eggshells topped with feathers.
  8. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. Two Hartmann pencil drawings inspired this section, which Mussorgsky called “two Jews: one rich, the other poor.”
  9. Promenade.
  10. The Marketplace at Limoges. A portrait of a bustling French market.
  11. Catacombs. A painting of Hartmann himself touring the Paris catacombs, the grandeur, and stillness evoked with block chords.
  12. Cum mortuis in lingua mortua. Mussorgsky writes in the score: “A Latin text: ‘With the dead in a dead language.’ He adds, “Hartmann’s creative spirit leads me to the place of skulls and calls to them — the skulls begin to glow faintly from within.”
  13. The Little Hut on Chicken’s Legs. Hartmann’s drawing portrays the home of the Russian fairytale witch Baba Yaga.
  14. The Great Gate of Kiev. The resplendent finale is based on Hartmann’s unrealized entry into a competition for an ornamental gate in Kiev (Kyiv). Capped with a cupola in the shape of an ancient Russian helmet, this is a fantasy gate, suggesting a majestic structure of great antiquity. In current times, this movement has been presented in tribute to the people of the embattled Ukrainian capital.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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