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In 1922, the genius orchestrator Maurice Ravel had his way with a suite for piano by the gifted—and capricious—Modest Mussorgsky. Coaxing radiant hues out of unorthodox combinations of instruments, Ravel transformed Mussorgsky’s monochrome pieces into one of the most popular works for orchestra. How did he do it? He leaned into the ensemble’s soloists. This week, the San Francisco Symphony spotlights the artistry and eloquent precision of its principal players. In a parade of famous solos, the Symphony presents Ravel’s ingenious orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition.
Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru keeps the spotlight on the Symphony’s own with a world-premiere concerto featuring SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly. An SFS commission, this concerto by L.A.-based composer Adam Schoenberg is part of the San Francisco Symphony’s ongoing exploration of the new American Sound. Setting the virtuosic tone is a spritely work by Lili Boulanger, who in 1913 became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome.
All sound clips are from San Francisco Symphony performances and are used with permission of the SFS Players Committee.
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
At A Glance
D’un matin de printemps 1918 | 6 mins
Lili Boulanger had made much of her twenty-four years when she died in 1918, leaving behind a small but choice oeuvre. She first conceived D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning) as a piece for violin and piano, but it gradually evolved through different versions into the short orchestral movement played here. As her energy waned, she was increasingly assisted by her devoted older sister Nadia Boulanger, later an acclaimed pedagogue, who helped put this piece on paper. Although Lili Boulanger composed it during her final year it is in no way mournful. Instead, it is a miniature tone poem of buoyant optimism, making highly effective use of orchestral colors and sparkling in the best fashion of the French Impressionists.—James M. Keller Read more
Losing Earth 2019 | 23 mins WORLD PREMIERE
When I was first commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to write this piece, I began to think about the history of percussion and how it can be traced back to the beginning of time. It is the most earthy and grounded of instruments, and in many cultures is considered to be the heartbeat of music. With the ability to make rhythm, keep time, and create melody, drums were a way for our ancestors to communicate love and joy, danger and survival. Second only to the human voice, this instrument has watched the earth endure all its phases, including the devastation that is now beginning to emerge because of global warming. Losing Earth pays homage to this history.—Adam Schoenberg Read More
Pictures at an Exhibition 1874/1922 | 31 mins
Maurice Ravel was not the first to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but his version seamlessly blends two contrasting cultures while remaining a model for technical brilliance, imaginative insight, and concern for the original composer. The pictures are by Victor Hartmann, a close and important friend to Mussorgsky whose death at only thirty‑nine in the summer of 1873 caused the composer profound and tearing grief. Pictures at an Exhibition charts the course of visitors strolling through a gallery of Hartmann’s various paintings, sketches, and architectural fantasies.—From notes by Michael Steinberg Read More