I have given a great deal of thought to the ideal presentation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in concert, and I’m sorry – almost embarrassed, in fact – to admit that I’ve never found the different suites of Prokofiev to be convincing. The Suite No. 1, which Prokofiev wanted to see performed independently, closes with the famous Death of Tybalt... which to me does not make a satisfactory ending. The Suite No. 2 is certainly more coherent, but The Death of Juliet does not appear in it (it is part of the Suite No. 3). But how can you not end with this? It is all very problematic.
For this performance I imagined my own suite, which I wanted to be narrative above all. I called it Suite romantique after the initial sense of the adjective, “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is mysterious or dreamed, suggestive of an idealized or sentimental expression.”
The Brussels Philharmonic, founded in 1935 by the Belgian public broadcaster (NIR/INR), enjoys an excellent reputation for performing new works as well as the great classics. Stéphane Denève has been music director since 2015, and together with the orchestra he has launched the CffOR (Centre for Future Orchestral Repertoire), a new platform that seeks to collect core information about 21st-century symphonic compositions.
The Brussels Philharmonic has made a name for itself at the international level, with regular appearances in the major European capitals. International representation by IMG Touring is bringing further tours to not only Europe but also Japan, the U.S. and Canada. Also known for its expertise in film music, a notable highlight for the orchestra was recording Ludovic Bource’s OSCAR® winning score to The Artist in 2011.
Recordings of the Brussels Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, Palazzetto Bru Zane, Klara, Film Fest Gent, Brussels Philharmonic Recordings) have been warmly received by the international press and have won an ECHO Klassik, Choc Classica of the Year and Diapason d’Or of the Year, among other awards.
Born in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, May 5, 1970
Now living in Paris
Guillaume Connesson is one of France’s leading composers of the middle generation. He studied in Boulogne and at the Conservatoire national de Paris, including six years with Marcel Landowski for composition. He has held residencies with the Orchestre national des Pays de la Loire, the Orchestre national de Lyon, the Orchestre de Pau Pays de Béarn, and the Netherlands Philharmonic. Connesson’s major orchestral commissions include Aleph (2007), a co-commission with, among others, the Toronto Symphony. Connesson teaches orchestration at the Conservatoire à rayonnement régional d’Aubervilliers-La Courneuve.
Flammenschrift, meaning “flame-writing” or “letter of fire,” is an expression Goethe used in his Marienbad Elegy. The composer explains: “I wanted to compose a work with a fierceness that would draw a psychological portrait of Beethoven and, more generally, pay homage to the music of Germany. My portrait of Beethoven is that of a man of great anger, seething and impetuous, whose inner violence transpires in numerous works of music.… To pay homage to him, I use the same instrumental nomenclature as his Fifth Symphony, but also make use of opposing factions (woodwinds versus strings), and above all rhythmical writing with numerous allusions to his works. But more generally, it is to German music in its entirety that I wanted to pay tribute with the veiled references to the compositions of Brahms and Richard Strauss at the end of the piece. …Two themes of furious character are stated in the opening pages, while a third, less tense at the beginning (clarinets and bassoons) undergoes a great number of transformations. A fourth, more lyrical theme completes the material of the exposition. Then comes a long development, and the four themes are transmuted, recalling the sudden emergence of the major mode in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth. Following the drama comes a dance of joy.”
Daniele Gatti conducted the first performance of Flammenschrift on November 8, 2012 with the Orchestre national de France at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Program notes by Robert Markow
Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770
Died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
Beethoven’s only contribution to the repertoire of violin concertos proved to be a landmark. Not only was it longer and more complex than any previous work of its kind, but in symphonic thought and expansiveness it eclipsed all predecessors. It is still considered one of the most exalted of all concertos for any instrument; its only peer in the pantheon of violin concertos is the Brahms concerto (also in D major).
Beethoven wrote the concerto in late 1806, the year he worked on or completed such other masterpieces as the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the three Rasumovsky Quartets, the first revision of Fidelio and the 32 Variations in C minor for piano. As was common in that era, Beethoven wrote for a specific soloist, the virtuoso Franz Clement (1780–1842). Clement was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted musicians in all Vienna, with a musical memory that rivaled Mozart’s. His stellar career began when he was still a child, performing at the Imperial Opera House in Vienna and under the direction of Haydn in London. In his adult years he became concertmaster and conductor of the Vienna Opera. Beethoven’s concerto resulted from a request from Clement for a concerto to play at his benefit concert scheduled for December 23, 1806 at the Theater an der Wien. The deeply lyrical quality of this concerto, the finesse of its phrases and its poetry all reflect the attributes of Clement’s playing, which according to contemporary accounts was marked by perfect intonation, suppleness of bow control, “gracefulness and tenderness of expression” and “indescribable delicacy, neatness and elegance.”
Five soft beats on the timpani usher in the concerto. These even, repeated notes become one of the movement’s great unifying devices, occurring in many contexts and moods. The inner tension of this movement is heightened by the contrast of this five-beat throb and the gracious lyricism of its melodies. The two principal themes are both, as it happens, introduced by a woodwind group, both are built exclusively on scale patterns of D major, and both are sublimely lyrical and reposed in spirit.
The Larghetto is one of Beethoven’s most sublimely beautiful, hymn-like slow movements. Little “happens” here in the traditional sense; a mood of deep peace, contemplation and introspection prevails while three themes, all in G major, weave their way through a series of free-form variations.
A brief cadenza leads directly into the rollicking Finale – a rondo with a memorable recurring principal theme, numerous horn flourishes suggestive of the hunt, and many humorous touches.
Program notes by Robert Markow
Born in Sontsovka (today Krasnoye), department of Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, April 27, 1891
Died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
When Prokofiev turned to Shakespeare’s play as the subject for a choreographic drama, he already had six ballets to his credit, but for his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in music he created not only one of his very finest and most popular compositions, but what would quickly rise to become the most successful full-length, three-act ballet score of the twentieth century. The music contains a wealth of memorable themes, passionate lyricism, compelling rhythmic excitement and a generous measure of comic elements, a component not usually associated with the story. Yet, as Israel Nestyev points out in his biography of the composer, no one else has “caught and expressed so well the tragedy’s light and playful moments, the aspect that endows it with fresh contrasts and sharply defined chiaroscuro effects.”
For all the fame and popularity Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet enjoys today, its early years were rocky and uncertain. Prokofiev wrote the music in 1934 and 1935 at the invitation of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, which was eager to mount a new ballet by the country’s returning celebrity. (Prokofiev had just returned to his homeland after living and traveling abroad for nearly 16 years.) However, the theatre rejected the score, presumably because of the story line (“Living people can dance, the dying cannot,” Prokofiev later rationalized), though the composer may also have tripped in the political minefield of the Soviet theatre world. A contract was arranged with the Bolshoi in Moscow instead, but there the music was declared “undanceable.” One wag has suggested that at this point Prokofiev may well have invoked Mercutio’s line from the play, “A plague o’ both your houses!”
At least the score was played in concert form in the Beethoven Hall of the Moscow Bolshoi in October of 1935. Since no staged performance was in sight, Prokofiev expediently arranged two orchestral suites of seven numbers each (drawn from the total of 52), as well as a set of 10 numbers arranged for piano solo. (A third orchestral suite was compiled in 1946.) These suites enjoyed some currency before Romeo and Juliet was finally staged by the Kirov in 1940. But in the meantime, the honour of the premiere stage production went to Brno, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), where it was given, without Prokofiev’s participation, on December 30, 1938 at the Opera House to an enthusiastic reception. Obviously it was not “undanceable” after all!
None of Prokofiev’s suites from Romeo and Juliet follows the original order of events, and conductors have felt free to compile their own suites. Stéphane Denève has chosen ten excerpts from the complete score of 52 numbers and arranged them in a cogent sequence that follows the original dramatic outline and progression of moods in the ballet.
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Montagues and Capulets – Members of both feuding families strut about the ballroom. A contrasting waltz interlude depicts Juliet dancing with Paris, her betrothed. The return of the opening section is announced by a solo from an instrument rarely found in symphony orchestras, the saxophone.
Minuet – Noble, pompous music to accompany the arrival of the guests, the cream of Veronese society, at the home of the Capulets for the grand ball.
The Young Juliet – All the mischievousness, skittishness and vivaciousness of the 14-year-old girl are admirably captured in this number.
Masks – A swaggering march tune accompanies Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, all masked, as they arrive at the ball of the rival Capulets’ house.
Dance of the Knights – In the grand hall of the Capulets’ palace, knights and ladies dance alternately and together. Juliet dances with her fiancé Paris. This is the scene where Romeo, masked, first sets eyes on Juliet and is hopelessly entranced.
Balcony Scene – The Balcony Scene takes place near the end of Act I. It is night. Juliet, restless and unable to sleep, steps out onto her balcony while down below, Romeo is making his way through the garden to see Juliet, shortly after having met her for the first time at the ball earlier that evening. For what is perhaps the most famous love scene in all literature, Prokofiev poured forth some of his most passionately lyrical music, perfectly conveying the ecstasy of the two lovers.
Friar Laurence – Juliet visits the kindly, understanding friar, who provides her with a potion that will simulate death for a few hours.
The Death of Tybalt – To magnificent brawl music, Romeo avenges the murder of his friend Mercutio by dueling with and killing Tybalt. Swashbuckling action is followed by a grim funeral march (in 3/4 metre!) to grinding dissonances. The orchestral writing is highly virtuosic, with violins in particular required to execute incredible feats of showmanship.
Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb – In the ballet’s final scene, Romeo comes to Juliet’s funeral bier. Believing her dead, in despair he takes poison to music of searing, poignant intensity.
The Death of Juliet – Juliet awakes to find Romeo dead at her feet, and stabs herself with his dagger. The curtain falls on the inert bodies of the lovers in a final embrace.
Program notes by Robert Markow
Otto Derolez, concert master
Bart Lemmens, principal
Mari Hagiwara, principal
Samuel Nemtanu, principal
Pablo Ases Urenya
Ana Bajo Djurasevic
Veerle Van Roosbroeck
Francis Vanden Heede
Mihai Cocea, principal
Griet François, soloist
Patricia Van Reusel
Karel Steylaerts, principal
Kristaps Bergs, principal
Jan Buysschaert, principal
Wouter Van den Eynde, principal
Lieve Schuermans, associate principal
Jill Jeschek, piccolo, soloist
Joris Van den Hauwe, principal
Lode Cartrysse, English horn, soloist
Danny Corstjens, principal
Midori Mori, bass clarinet, soloist
Karsten Przybyl, principal
Marceau Lefèvre, principal
Jonas Coomans, contrabassoon, soloist
Hans van der Zanden, principal
Mieke Ailliet, soloist
Luc Van den Hove
Ward Hoornaert, principal
Juan Antonio Martinez, soloist
David Rey, principal
Tim Van Medegael, bass trombone, soloist
Jean Xhonneux, soloist
Wouter Versavel, soloist
Gert François, principal
Gert D’haese, soloist
Titus Franken, soloist
Eline Groslot, soloist
Anastasia Goldberg, soloist
This is the first time the Brussels Philharmonic has performed at the National Arts Centre.
Brussels Philharmonic is supported by the Flemish Government.
The Brussels Philharmonic North America Tour 2019 is supported by: BelCham New York, Brussels Airlines, Brussels International, Brussels Invest & Export, Consulate General of Belgium, Embassy of Belgium, Flanders’ House New York, Flanders Investment & Trade, IMG Artists, Intercontinental Barclay Hotel, VISITFLANDERS.