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Director's letter from the podium

February 14, 2003|by Elizabeth Schulze

This weekend's performances by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra feature music written for the ballet. Each of the three works on the program are suites, or groupings of musical extracts, derived from larger theatrical works for dance. The practice of extracting sections of a large work to form a new one strictly for the concert stage was established in the 19th century, as a way for a composer to give "new legs" to music that might not otherwise be heard by audiences who favored the concert hall over the opera house or the ballet theater. Indeed, the orchestral repertoire is full of successful overtures to operas or dramas long forgotten in their complete form. And today, many works for ballet are more familiar in their strictly instrumental suite form, the complete work being lost or discarded by the ballet world.

Such seemed to be the case for Peter Tchaikovsky's ballet, "Swan Lake," which met with critical condemnation at its premiere in 1877. Tchaikovsky withdrew the score and in 1893, shortly before his death, expressed an interest in reworking the music. His untimely death came before he could carry out any revisions, but luckily for us, others rediscovered the music and presented it on the stage to great success. Today, the ballet is a staple in the repertoire of many of the great ballet companies. Several suites were arranged, posthumously, of the splendid music from this ballet, revealing the composer's genius for gorgeous melody, lush orchestrations and dramatic characterizations.

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Igor Stravinsky's "Divertimento," a symphonic suite from his 1928 ballet, "The Fairy's Kiss," is a skillful reweaving of his larger work based on Hans Christian Anderson's famous story of "The Ice Queen." Stravinsky dedicated his ballet to the memory of Peter Tchaikovsky and incorporated several themes by Tchaikovsky into the musical material of his complete work. During his lifetime, Stravinsky was widely regarded as the greatest composer of the 20th century. He was admired for his reworking and rethinking of older musical materials and forms and transforming them into something fresh, witty and smartly (and occasionally profoundly) modern. Time and perspective have revealed him to be a musical giant among several other giants of his century, but his music remains unique and starkly powerful, for all its artiface and brilliance.

Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" is an American musical icon. Written for the great American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, the 1944 ballet, particularly in its suite form, has become the composer's best-known work. This weekend, the orchestra will open its concerts with the original version of the suite, for 13 instruments. This sparer orchestration was conceived of necessity, due to the small orchestra pit in the theater at which the premiere was given. And yet, the intimacy of the small ensemble, the opportunities for a communion of sorts, among colleagues, draws the listener more closely into the simple and sincere world of the new bride and her husband at the beginning of their life together.

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