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Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, "Naughty Limericks"

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Rodion Shchedrin

Past Performances

Image unvailable for National Symphony Orchestra: Valery Gergiev, conductor National Symphony Orchestra: Valery Gergiev, conductor - Mar. 18 - 21, 2004

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Rodion Shchedrin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Itzhak Perlman, violin Feb. 5 - 7, 2004
© Richard Freed
The first of Rodion Shchedrin's concertos for orchestra wax composed in 1963 and given its first performance in September of that year by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Walter Hendl conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on March 7 and 8, 1967, in Constitution Hall, and March 10 in Fairfax, Virginia; Arthur Fiedler conducted the most recent ones the following month: April 8 in Washington, April 16 in Philharmonic Hall (since renamed Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center in New York.
The score, dedicated to Gennady Rozhdestvensky, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, timpani, side drum, bass drum, wooden spoons, crotales, slapstick, cymbals, tam-tam, piano, harp and strings. Duration: 8 minutes.

Rodion Shchedrin has been a frequent visitor to the United States, where several of his works have been commissioned and introduced. The National Symphony Orchestra has given the world premieres of two of them. In March 1988 Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the NSO in the premiere of Stykhira, a substantial single-movement piece composed in observance of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. (The title refers to an old form of religious chant.) That work was not written under a commission, but was a spontaneous gesture on the composer's part, a gift from Shchedrin to his friend Rostropovich. It was a stunningly significant one, especially in view of Shchedrin's position as head of the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation, for at that time, even in the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost , Rostropovich was still under official censure in his homeland, whose pre-Gorbachev government had revoked his citizenship and that of his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, ten years earlier. The score, in fact, was sent to Washington by Shchedrin's wife, the dancer Maya Plisetskaya, from Madrid, where she was director of the Spanish National Ballet.

The Russian premiere of Stykhira, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in Moscow in November 1988, with the full background of the work's creation, was seen as a symbolic validation of glasnost and a harbinger of further happy developments. In February 1990, his citizenship reinstated, Rostropovich returned to Russia for the first time in 16 years, at the head of his American orchestra, having by then recorded Stykhira in this hall, and in June 1992 he and the NSO gave the world premiere of Shchedrin's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Nikolai Petrov as soloist.

Naughty Limericks was composed when Shchedrin was 30; it was one of the earliest of his works to be performed outside his own country, and it initiated his series of concise and varied “concertos for orchestra.” The second in that series was Chimes, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of that orchestra's 125th anniversary in 1967, the year Naughty Limericks became the first Shchedrin work performed by the NSO. The piece remains, together with another early work, the Carmen Ballet (a virtuoso workout on Bizet's themes, composed for Plisetskaya and scored for strings and percussion alone), among his most widely circulated compositions.

The Russian title of this brilliantly orchestrated eight-minute piece, which fully lives up to its designation as a concerto for orchestra, is Ozorniye chastushki— one of those terms that simply defy literal translation. It has been billed at times as Mischievous Ditties or Mischievous Melodies , but Naughty Limericks has proved to be the most durable English title, and it certainly conveys the spirit of the music. A chastushka is a free-spirited, irreverent sort of folk song. Shchedrin, who used chastushka motifs in several of his early works, tells us:

In a chastushka there is always humor, irony and sharp satire of the status quo, its defenders and the “leaders of the people.” Brevity is its chief characteristic. Its specifically musical traits are a four-square and asymmetric structure, a deliberately primitive melody of few notes, driving syncopated rhythm, improvisation, repetition involving variation, and most of all a sense of humor pervading both words and music.

Unfortunately the chastushka is associated in the minds of many musicians with simple tunes of eight bars, suggesting nothing but boredom. I like to think, however, that this modest and unsassuming form may be likened to a door opening, as in an old fairy tale, upon a world of most varied and inexhaustible musical riches. In Naughty Limericks, conceived as a virtuosic orchestral work, I treat only the comic and dance chastushka tunes. The concertante style and virtuosic effects are, to my mind, inherent in this type of chastushka.

Naughty Limericks, then, is a mélange of motifs and effects representing a chain of such ditties, with little cadenzas and unexpected pauses here and there. When Walter Hendl conducted the NSO's first performances of the piece, he turned to the audience at what appeared to be the end and advised that the score includes a sort of epilogue, which, according to a note in the score, “may be performed at the option of the conductor, in the event of public success”—and of course a storm of applause and cheering brought it forth. By now this built-in encore has simply become a permanent postlude.