If you look at the program for the Des Moines Symphony's November 18 and 19 concerts, you may wonder what, if any, commonality exists within the selected works, especially considering the title of the concert, Discover Freedom. The first thing that's important to understand is how concert programs come together. Prior to the start of a new season, the Music Director begins selecting pieces and putting together the overall season. They may have a theme in mind, but they might not. Once the program is solidified, typically the Marketing team steps in and tries to identify thematic elements if they haven't already been established. These are used to promote the season and individual concerts. They distill large musical ideas down to concepts that are easy to communicate to audiences.
In the case of Discover Freedom, we are presented with four beautiful symphonic works that may seem disconnected, but with a little bit of context, a connection emerges. Art at its most basic level is the expression of ideas. Art is produced by people from all walks of life under all manner of different circumstances. These artists find ways to express their dreams and desires through their work, and in these pieces we can observe four artists, all from different backgrounds and experiences, expressing a desire for freedom.
GLINKA - Ruslan & Lyudmila Overture
The first piece on the program is the most straight-forward in terms of theme. This overture by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, is part of an Opera based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin called Ruslan and Ludmila. In the story, Ludmila, the daughter of Prince Vladimir, is captured by an evil wizard and a brave knight named Ruslan is on a quest to rescue her. The theme of freedom is quite evident in this classic fairy tale, a young woman wanting to be freed from her captivity. The poem's author, Pushkin, had also been previously exiled to the south of Russia for political ideas expressed in other works, specifically his "Ode to Freedom."
GRIEG - Piano Concerto in A Minor
Grieg's Piano Concerto may be one of the most famous ever written, but many won't know the underlying context of its creation. Edvard Grieg was a vocal supporter of Norwegian independence. The country at the time was ruled by Sweden. When he composed his Concerto, Grieg was on a mission to establish a uniquely Norwegian sound, completely separate from their Swedish rulers. The Piano Concerto in A Minor begins with its recognizable opening chord progression, aggressively leaping out of the gate as if to say, "This is Norway, and you will hear us."
PRICE - Andante moderato from String Quartet No. 1
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 in a mixed-race family. While her family was well respected in the community, there is no doubt that the deck was stacked against her from an early age. Despite the prejudice of the world she lived in, Price graduated as Valedictorian of her high school class, and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she graduated with honors. While there, she concealed her background in an attempt to avoid racial discrimination. She went on to compose over 300 works and was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. She was an instrumental member of the Chicago Black Renaissance, and composed a number of works referencing classic Black spirituals. Florence Price's life and career is a testament to her strength and passion, and her unwillingness to give up in the face of adversity.
SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major
Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony was originally intended to be a celebration of the Soviet Union's victory over Germany in WWII. The composer was under incredible pressure by the Stalinist regime to produce something as monumental as Beethoven's exuberant Ninth Symphony. Upon its premiere, audiences and critics were shocked at the brevity and emotional complexity of the work, expecting something much more grand and triumphant. Despite the unfriendly reception, Shostakovich's Ninth was nominated for a Stalin Prize in 1946, but unsurprisingly did not win. In 1948, the work was officially banned by the central censorship board, along with some of his other compositions, citing "ideological weakness." Shostakovitch spent much of his career under the heavy hand of Stalin's Russia. Later in his life he expressed that he often experienced intense anxiety and depression in the repressive environment. Many scholars now believe that his Ninth Symphony was actually a critique of the creative oppression Shostakovitch experienced under Soviet rule.
Four composers. Four symphonic works. Four different expressions of the same desire for freedom, in whatever form resonated with them. We hope you'll join us for a celebration of the spirit of freedom at the Civic Center on November 18 and 19.