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Roulette is the culmination of our first-annual International Conducting Workshop, Concert and Competition! Having received dozens of applications from all over the world, our Music Director Lawrence Golan selected 14 conductors to participate in this intensive, week-long workshop. And at the concert, each movement of each piece will be led by a different conductor — a grand total of 16!

The three Russian masterpieces on the program are not only beloved by audiences for generations, but by the composers, too.

Pre-concert, arrive early for two performances of the work Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was “violently in love with,” his lush Serenade for Strings, 6–6:30pm and 6:30–7pm.

Things really get rolling at 7:30pm with his Sixth Symphony — his favorite musical “offspring” — followed by Modest Mussorgsky’s expressive Pictures at an Exhibition. While writing the work, Mussorgsky seemed downright giddy. He wrote, “Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music — I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Serenade in C major for Strings, Op. 48

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who once dubbed Mozart “the Christ of music,” composed the Serenade for Strings as a tribute to his favorite composer. “It is intended to be an imitation of his style,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.”

Tchaikovsky worked on the Serenade at the same time as the 1812 Overture, and his feelings about the two works could not have contrasted more strongly. “You can imagine, beloved friend, that my muse has been benevolent of late when I tell you that I have written two long works very rapidly,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, “the festival Overture [the 1812] and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The Overture will be very noisy; I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm and therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner conviction. It is a heartfelt piece and so, I dare to think, is not without artistic qualities.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky was so pleased with his Serenade that upon its completion he wrote his publisher, “I am violently in love with this work and cannot wait for it to be played.” At its premiere, the audience responded in a similar fashion, calling for an encore of the second movement.

The opening Pezzo in forma di Sonatina (Piece in the form of a Sonatina) begins with a slow introduction, in the manner of an 18th-century string serenade. This full hymn-like melody gives way to an energetic tune that suggests the buoyancy and joy of Mozart. The lilting Waltz has delighted audiences since its first performance. Tchaikovsky succeeding in capturing the essential Viennese flavor of this dance, which shimmers and sparkles. In the Elegie, we hear hints of the brooding quality most suggestive of Tchaikovsky’s style, but the overall mood is meditative rather than melancholy. In the final movement, Tchaikovsky indicates a Russian theme (Tema Russo) and the slow introduction is indeed a Russian folk tune, paired with another Russian folksong full of hustle and bustle. The hymn melody from the first movement concludes the Serenade.

At a Glance:
  • Composer: born May 7, 1840, Kamsko-Votinsk, Viatka province, Russia; died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
  • Work composed: 1880
  • World premiere: October 30, 1881 in St. Petersburg
  • Instrumentation: string orchestra. Tchaikovsky added a note to the score: “The larger the string orchestra, the better will the composer’s desires be fulfilled.”
  • Estimated duration: 28 minutes
Headshot Image for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Tchaikovsky was a known hypochondriac and literally thought his head was going to fall off while conducting. He went so far as to hold his head up with one hand…

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

“I love it as I have never loved any one of my musical offspring before.” – Tchaikovsky on his Sixth Symphony

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, his most controversial work, continues to spark debate more than 100 years after its composition. Although Tchaikovsky declined to articulate the specifics of the program he attached to this symphony — “Let them guess at it!” he wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov — many scholars and critics agree that this passionate, highly emotional music is a declaration of forbidden love; specifically, that of Tchaikovsky for Davidov. Tchaikovsky’s title for the symphony supports this idea. According to scholar Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky’s title, ‘Pateticheskaya simfoniya’ (Патетическая симфония), is “roughly equivalent to the title that Beethoven gave to his Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 — ‘Apassionata.’ The passionate overtones of the Russian title are not adequately conveyed in its better-known French equivalent — ‘Symphonie pathétique,’ with its connotations of suffering and sorrow.” Biographer John Warrack agrees: “The Russian word … carries more feeling of ‘passionate’ or ‘emotional’ in it than the English ‘pathetic,’ and perhaps an overtone, which has largely vanished from our world … of ‘suffering.’”

The Adagio-Allegro ma non troppo begins with a forbidding bassoon solo sounding the primary theme. After the slow Adagio, the strings burst in with an agitated restatement of the bassoon solo, followed by a contrasting theme of melancholy nostalgia. The movement descends into chaos as the themes are developed, ripped apart, and jumbled in a tempest of sound. A solemn brass chorale with pizzicato string accompaniment draws the movement to a close. In the Allegro con grazia, the strings present a graceful waltz in the unusual meter 5/4. Although the overall mood of this movement is lighter than that of the first, Tchaikovsky infuses the music with a strong sense of sadness and hints of romantic despair. The vigorous march of the Allegro molto vivace offsets the melancholy of the first two movements. This powerful, vigorous music boldly proclaims itself with an insouciant swagger. Anguished cries from the strings begin the Adagio lamentoso-Andante. This music succumbs to its own beautifully crafted fatalism, laden with pain and lamentation. The strings are interrupted by a blast from the brasses, after which the strings continue on their mournful way to a subdued conclusion, in which there is no hint of a happy ending.

Despite Tchaikovsky’s status as the preeminent Russian composer of his time, the premiere of the Sixth Symphony, which he conducted, was not an instant success. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky wrote, “It is very strange about this symphony. It was not exactly a failure, but it was received with some hesitation.” Symphonies that end quietly often leave audiences puzzled or unsettled (Brahms’ Third has the same problem). After the second performance, which took place just days after Tchaikovsky’s death, the Sixth received an overwhelmingly positive ovation. The unconventional ending became indelibly associated with the composer’s death — as if Tchaikovsky had written his own demise. The Sixth soon came to be regarded as a symphonic masterpiece and remains Tchaikovsky’s most popular symphony.

At a Glance:
  • Work composed: 1893; dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davidov
  • World premiere: Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance on October 28, 1893, at the Hall of the Nobles in St. Petersburg
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo) 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 44 minutes

Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel)
Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky’s most popular composition owes its reputation to its orchestrator, Maurice Ravel. Before Ravel arranged this obscure piano suite for orchestra in 1922, it was virtually unknown.

Pictures at an Exhibition is Mussorgsky’s musical portrayal of a memorial exhibit of artwork by Victor Hartmann, an artist, designer, architect, and close friend. In the spring of 1874, Russian critic Vladimir Stasov organized an exhibition of Hartmann’s work in St. Petersburg, which Mussorgsky attended. By June 22, Mussorgsky transformed ten of Hartmann’s works into music as a further tribute to his friend. Mussorgsky also inserted his own presence into Pictures through the music of the Promenade, which recurs periodically throughout.

The Promenade’s irregular rhythm portrays Mussorgsky, a man of considerable size, ambling through the exhibit, sometimes pausing before a particular picture that caught his interest. It leads directly to the first picture, Gnomus (Gnome), Hartmann’s design for a nutcracker. Unlike the princely Nutcracker of Tchaikovsky, however, Hartmann’s nutcracker is a macabre, wizened creature. The return of the Promenade, in shortened form, brings us to Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle), which Stasov says depicts a troubadour singing and strumming a guitar in front of a medieval castle. Ravel’s mournful saxophone sounds the troubadour’s song. The Promenade returns with the majestic brasses and winds of the opening, but stops abruptly in front of the next picture, Tuileries (Dispute d’enfants après jeux) (Tuileries-Dispute between children at play). Here in the famous Tuileries Gardens in Paris, children attended by nannies sing out the universal childhood taunt, “Nyah-nyah.”

Bydlo (Cattle) portrays plodding oxen drawing a heavy cart. A brief Promenade leads us to the oddly named Balet nevylupivshikhsya ptentsov (Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks). Hartmann’s costume designs for a ballet called Trilbyinspired this whimsical music, in which child dancers wear egg costumes with their legs sticking out. In “Samuel” Goldenberg und “Schmuÿle,” Mussorgsky combined two of Hartmann’s pictures of Jews in the Sandomierz ghetto of Poland. Samuel Goldenberg is a rich, self-important man (represented by measured phrases of the strings), while Schmuÿle, (characterized by insistent bleatings of a muted trumpet) is portrayed as a whining, cowering beggar. However, Mussorgsky’s title suggests the two men are really the same person (Samuel is the Germanized form of the Yiddish Schmuÿle), and the movement has been generally viewed as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

In Limoges le marchè (La grande nouvelle) (The Market: The Big News), market-women share the latest gossip. Abruptly we are plunged into the Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum) (Catacombs: Roman sepulcher). This watercolor shows Hartmann and several others inspecting the Parisian catacombs by lantern light, which illuminates a cage full of skulls. Mussorgsky wrote of this piece, “The creative genius of Hartmann leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow.” Con mortuis in lingua morta (With the Dead in a Dead Language) follows, a mournful, eerie reworking of the Promenade. The ominous music of The Hut on Fowls’ Legs depicts the witch Baba Yaga (not to be confused with Baby Yoda) of Russian folklore, whose house stood on chicken’s feet.

In the final movement, Ravel and Mussorgsky capture the grandeur of The Great Gate of Kiev, Hartmann’s design for the reconstruction of the ancient stone gates of Kiev. Although the actual gates were never built, The Great Gate of Kiev remains a permanent musical tribute to the city and its rich history.

At a Glance:
  • Composer: born March 21, 1839, Karevo, Pskov district; died March 28, 1881, St. Petersburg
  • Work composed: June 2–22, 1874. Maurice Ravel orchestrated it in the summer of 1922.
  • World premiere: Serge Koussevitzky led the first performance of Ravel’s version on October 22, 1922, in Paris
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, celesta, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, whip, xylophone, 2 harps, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 35 minutes
Headshot Image for Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky


© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz

These program notes are published here by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.