The road leading to tonight’s world-premiere performance of Serbian-born composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “This Kiss for the Whole World” is long and winding.
Before the most recent years-long shutdown caused by COVID-19, SYSO and Vrebalov initially intended to work together in 2018. Four years later, the very staging of tonight’s premiere performance of “This Kiss” is a testament to our collective resilience.
Vrebalov describes this journey matter-of-fact, with no sense of loss or devastation: “This Kiss” looks and sounds much different than what was initially intended to come out of a partnership between SYSO and Vrebalov—but no creativity or expression was lost in the project’s transformation.
Original talks included discussion of a solo quartet performing with a SYSO orchestra; the hopeful timeline then moved to the 2020-21 season, the work becoming a potential homage to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, featuring collaborations with local choirs; then, with COVID shutting down concert halls everywhere, it became clear the work could potentially serve a higher purpose for both the musicians performing it and the audiences who would receive the music.
But the ideological connection to Beethoven never frayed. Vrebalov remained interested in themes of strength and persistence Beethoven exalts in his 9th Symphony, and all current events considered, felt compelled to draw a connection between that moment in time and today.
Of the work, and this moment in history, Vrebalov said, “It’s a difficult time for everyone, and especially difficult for young people… they are growing up seeing humanity in a way it should not be. I really wanted to give them something beautiful and noble — from history — as a way to also connect them to times when we as artists took the side of the humanity, when we mourned and rejoiced together.”
The title of the work, “This Kiss for the Whole World,” is a direct translation of text sung by the choir in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Using this direct reference, and in its evocative suggestion that music can be something as loving and gentle as a kiss for mankind, “This Kiss” offers that the symphony orchestra and art remain as powerful a salve against struggle as they were for Beethoven and countless other artists and communities throughout history.
“This Kiss” employs two dominant sonic concepts. The first, which opens the work, is raw and difficult to pin down: musicians perform with modified performance techniques improvising on their instruments, creating a nebulous sound that struggles to ground itself. Vrebalov suggests this musical concept could represent something as simple as an intrusive thought, or something which may lead us to feel uncertain.
These performance techniques—atonality and other jarring sounds—are distinctly modern, evocative of newer works with completely different soundscapes and textures than music created during Beethoven’s time. However, these modern sounds are not by any means “lesser” than Romantic-era music or sound, in fact, they are truer to life. 20th-century musicians and artists called in their work for us to look away from the cliché, melodramatic fantasy that ran through so much 19th-century art, and to recognize that daily life is marked by consistent uncertainty.
From this initial amorphous sound, held notes cut through from the back of the orchestra, the brass signaling a shift in focus with proud declamation. Listeners are then transported through time.
The orchestra takes on the second dominant formal concept in the music: a waltz. Waltzes are arguably one of the more lush and expressive forms in the symphonic repertoire. Originally underscoring dance, their large sound, long and expressive melodic phrases, and their salient 1-2-3 time structure, evoke the very image of elegance and grandeur—of practices more historic than modern. This first waltz, unlike “This Kiss’s” opening, has a clear, gratifying harmonic structure. Our orchestra is melodic and unchallenging, depicting the grand size and influence of the symphony throughout musical history.
Vrebalov frames the structural center of ”This Kiss” as a “butterfly” form; when a second waltz very quickly emerges from the orchestra, its sound is rooted in the memory of the first waltz we just heard. This second one, however, features intrusions of the provocative sounds from the work’s introduction.
But the orchestra persists, and the underlying waltz never loses its presence. The typical 1-2-3 rhythms can be heard in the orchestra through to finish, the strings still functioning in a mostly-uniform fashion while other instruments across the ensemble challenge and thrash against them. Within this struggle against perceptions, the work barrels toward an exciting, bombastic finish.
The message in the “This Kiss’s” final music is that of a choice posited. If the sounds representing our uncertainty emerged consistently throughout the work, challenging listeners, by the end we were able to ground ourselves in the rhythmic familiarity of the waltz underpinning the music. This familiarity—looking backwards—made us better able to understand these initially-jarring sounds in the work’s introduction.
Perhaps then, our history can provide a structural basis on which we can engage with new frustrations and challenges against our peace. The second waltz, marred by abstraction, suggests Beethoven’s music will never sound the same as it did to audiences back when it premiered. But, it provides a framework for us to understand our pain—its sound can inspire us as we take the next, difficult step of forging our humanity through whatever imminent struggle we may face.
Aleksandra Vrebalov is a freelance composer currently based in New York. For more information about her work, please visit www.aleksandravrebalov.com.
Though Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) music is performed often today, few works have reached such fame and commonality in the symphonic canon as his orchestral suite “Scheherazade.” Part fairy tale, part symphonic journey, the work depicts countless characters and affectations through its varied orchestration and colorful shifts in tone.
This particular period in late-19th century history foreshadowed a near-century-long fascination with the East and far-fetched storytelling. Mystery, magic, and deceit run strong through artistic content up through the mid-20th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s fascination with what lay east of St. Petersburg led him to Scheherazade, with its titular character hailing from Egyptian, Persian, and Indian folk tales.
The story goes that Scheherazade is the daughter of the Court’s vizier, and is offered by her father to marry Shahryar, the king. Shahryar, upon learning of his first wife’s infidelity, vows to take a new virgin every day, and in the next morning, kills them before they can become unfaithful to him. Scheherazade, a cunning and brilliant mind depicted by a violin solo, begins telling bedtime stories to Shahryar, but cuts them short just shy of their climax—and dawn. Scheherazade hooks Shahryar with brilliant plot, then leaves him with cliffhangers to sway him toward inviting her to return for another night. This continues for 1,001 nights until, finally, Shahryar falls in love and agrees to take Scheherazade as his bride.
Musically, the work has four movements of varied texture and color. Characters are captured in solo instruments: the heroine Scheherazade captured in a melodic violin solo, an opening brass fanfare is credit as representative of the Sultan. Rimsky-Korsakov composed “Scheherazade” to produce a kaleidoscopic effect across the four movements: first, the ocean carrying a pirate’s ship; the devious exploits of a Kalendar Prince; a passionate, enchanting love story of a young prince and princess; and finally, a storm-wrecked ocean that wrecks the ship from the first movement.
Listen for how “Scheherazade” captures all the unique language of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pen across its 45 minutes. Solo voices are given plenty of character in their melodic lines, and rich, lush instrumentation produces a wide array of texture for listeners. Melodic lines are repeated over re-worked harmonic structures in a masterful way, capturing in the work a whole prism of color and sound.
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Manuel De Falla (1876-1946), a Spanish composer, wrote “The Three-Cornered Hat” during 1918-1919 as underscoring for a ballet. This ballet premiered in 1919 by Diaghilev’s touring Russian Ballet, which just 6 years prior had achieved widespread international fame for their scandalous premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Daghilev for years had urged Falla to consider writing for his ballet company. Thus came “The Three-Cornered Hat,” a jaunty work based loosely on Andalusian folk tales, following a popular Spanish storytelling type called “picaresque”—full of many characters, buffoonery, and mischief.
The premiere of “The Three-Cornered Hat” ballet included an absolute knockout “who’s-who” of modernist art: Diaghilev choreographing, Falla composing, and famed artist Pablo Picasso himself designing costumes and set pieces. (Apparently, Picasso was still painting the curtain drop during the final rehearsal—artists can never be rushed!) The performance featured brilliant colorful hues and backdrops, to match the expressive and explosive score by Falla.
Like many works composed for ballet, “Three-Cornered Hat” found its way to the orchestra stage shortly thereafter, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1924. Its flair, exciting upbeat dance energy, and Spanish influence were certainly exciting to American audiences who were, like the rest of music enjoyers worldwide, were becoming accustomed to the accoutrements of globalization, taking in—and often exploiting—art from different cultures across the world.
“Jota,” the final dance from “The Three-Cornered Hat” is an exciting, jaunty movement. Listen for quick-paced, staccato-like rhythms in the strings with expressive melodies in the winds. And, of course, perhaps most iconically Spanish in “Three-Cornered Hat” is its character-like use of percussion. The percussion punctuates the flirty nature of the orchestra with strong character and presence, instantly evocative of dancers bursting in the air like fireworks. There is a lovely build and growing-effect, the orchestra pulsating from large sounds into smaller textures, then building and turning on itself like a Ferris wheel. The movement’s end, with all the character and quirk described earlier, is impossible not to smile at: the castanet gets one last, elongated statement, before the orchestra quickly lands on their final chord.