Artistic inspiration: Allentown Symphony Orchestra explores roots of ‘Scheherazade’ and Paganini
I think that some of the best music ever written was often inspired by a picture, a story or a melody that someone else wrote.
That leads us to question: Where does artistic inspiration come from? We often think of the artist, the composer, or the writer sitting in his or her little hovel, desperately trying to come up with some new creative idea that will set the world on fire.
In reality, though, many artists, writers, and musicians are often inspired by other creative people, and they build upon artwork, stories, or music of the past.
This is the case with the upcoming concert of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, “Scheherazade and Paganini Rhapsody,” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Feb. 11, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown.
I remember growing up and reading some of the stories in “One Thousand and One Nights” with the powerful ruler, the Sultan Shakriar, and his beautiful wife, Scheherazade.
The original stories in “Nights” were drawn from ancient fantasy tales from Egypt, Persia, and India. French author, Antoine Galland, gathered together additional stories and published them together with the “Nights” in installments in 1704.
“Aladdin’s Lamp” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” are some of the more famous stories added to the collection. The story consistent in editions of the “Nights” is that of the Sultan and Scheherazade. Many of the stories have been the basis for Disney movies, so they are familiar to all of us.
In 1888, Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, inspired by stories drawn from “Scheherazade” and “1001 Nights,” decided that he wanted to compose an orchestral piece based upon these ancient tales. That was his musical inspiration. He had to figure out how to make the tales come alive in music.
Rimsky-Korsakov selected some of the characters and stories as the titles for different movements of his piece called “Scheherazade,” stories like: “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” “The Story of the Kalandar Prince,” “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” and “The Festival at Baghdad,” which includes “The Sea and the Shipwreck.”
A unique characteristic of the composition is that before, and also toward the end of each movement, Rimsky-Korsakov features a violin solo melody accompanied by a harp, where the violinist becomes the Scheherazade character weaving a musical story for the audience to follow.
The solo violin part will be performed by the ASO Concertmaster, Eliezer Gutman.
The Allentown Symphony concert opens with a piece that had a similar inspiration, only this time it was a painting that provided the creative impulse for the composer.
Zhou Tian is a Chinese composer who writes very colorful orchestral pieces. His piece, “The Palace of Nine Perfections” (written in 2004), was inspired by a Chinese painting of the same name from 1691 by Yuan Jiang. The painting, composed of 12 panels, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
When Zhou first saw the painting he was “immediately moved by its honesty and unusual vividness.” And he stated, “I wanted to create a musical reaction to Yuan’s vision, hoping that we could hear as well as see ‘The Palace of Nine Perfections.’ In the Palace, I wanted to use the modern symphony orchestra to convey a sense of unfamiliar beauty and energy.”
The Allentown Symphony performance of “The Palace of Nine Perfections” is the Lehigh Valley premiere. Zhou Tian will be there in person so that you can talk to him before and after the concert.
Another person who was inspired by a previous creator is Rachmaninoff with his famous “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
Nicolò Paganini was a violinist who was well-known in 1805 for his theatrical performance of incredibly difficult music. People actually thought he might have sold his soul to the devil since he was so far beyond the competition.
In the early 1800s, Paganini wrote a set of 24 Caprices, or short pieces, for solo violin. The 24th Caprice became quite famous as it was a set of variations on a simple melody that became increasingly more difficult to play with each variation.
Rachmaninoff liked the melody that Paganini used and in 1934 decided to create his own set of variations for piano and orchestra. He was not the first to do this. Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms had been inspired by the same opening music and composed pieces based upon this melody.
Taking his cue from the Paganini legend, Rachmaninoff also included in his composition another well-known melody, the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) from the “Requiem Mass for the Dead,” which becomes an important melody along with the Paganini theme.
The “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is a brilliant showpiece for a virtuoso pianist and we are indeed featuring a virtuoso pianist for the concerts. Joyce Yang was a silver medalist in the renowned Van Cliburn Piano Competition and she has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and New Jersey, symphony orchestras, among others.
I know that you will enjoy her performance of the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.
Each piece on the upcoming ASO concert program is a masterpiece, but drawn from and inspired by, other artistic masterpieces. I am always fascinated how the creative spirit transcends time and influences generation after generation in new and exciting ways. Come experience a part of history and hear artistic inspiration brought to life by the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.
Meet the Artist, noon Feb. 9: Join us on stage as Allentown Symphony Orchestra Music Director-Conductor Diane Wittry leads a talk about the music for “Scheherazade & Paganini Rhapsody.” Piano soloist Joyce Yang and conducting fellow Kalena Bovell will join the discussion. You will have the opportunity to ask questions. Feel free to bring ar bagged lunch to enjoy during the talk.
Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Ridgewood Symphony, N.J., and author, “Beyond the Baton” and “Baton Basics” (both, Oxford University Press).
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715. Free student tickets, underwritten by a grant from the Century Fund, are available for Allentown Symphony concerts.