The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball in Nothingtown 1926 | 15 mins
Highly regarded as a pioneer of Jewish art music, Gnesin wrote works that mixed Soviet tradition, European Modernism, and Jewish cultural music. The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball in Nothingtown, written as incidental music for Nikolai Gogol's famous satirical play Revizor (The Inspector General), narrates seven ethnic dances in near-literal form—a dream-ball sequence, a Slavonic dance, a movement of clashes, another that is delicate and sensitive, one tinged with Gypsy tunes, something of a Turkish Mahler’s Klezmer band, and a tartly harmonic sequence.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major 1959 | 30 mins
The Cello Concerto No. 1, one of two written for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, is a work that feeds on grim memories. The first movement is marked Allegretto (moderately quick). The music is questioning and nervous, followed by a fiercely contained melody of great tensile strength. The sonic colors are predominantly dark, punctuated, at times, by shrillness. (Listen for one of the most difficult passages for French horn, which is embedded within this scarily relentless movement.) The second movement features the horn singing an expressive, pliant melody until the solo cello replies with sterner stuff. The music climaxes then heads into a single-movement cadenza (showcasing the solo cello). The finale offers the fastest music so far. The violently obsessive character of the opening movement returns and the cellist dashes through to a ferocious close. The piece ends with seven timpani strokes.
Symphony No. 6, Pathétique 1893 | 46 mins
“I certainly regard it as easily the best—and especially the most ‘sincere’—of all my works” Tchaikovsky said to a friend of his Sixth Symphony. He wrote another, “Without exaggeration, I have put my whole soul into this work.” During the first rehearsals, he maintained that this was “the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose.” Tchaikovsky’s words would make an immense impression on the Sixth’s first listeners—but not for the reasons he imagined when he uttered them. The premiere, led by the composer, was met with some puzzlement. The music seemed, somehow, “unfinal.” Yet the second performance, just three weeks later, made a powerful impression. Why? Between the two first performances, Tchaikovsky died suddenly of cholera. What a bewildering experience it must have been for early listeners of this astonishingly soulful piece, which ends with music that simply passes beyond our hearing.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.