This excellent Buffalo Philharmonic concert to close its on demand season brought together two important 20th-century works that were based upon pre-existing compositions and are both dominated by the strings: opening with Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, created for his wife (Maya Plisetskaya) for the eponymous ballet that she conceived to be choreographed by Alberto Alonso; and then the glorious Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910, which he based upon a tune in Tallis’ choral setting of the Second Psalm, written for the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1567.   

JoAnn Falletta conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic strings
© Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

It is challenging for a dance critic to review the Carmen Suite without watching the ballet for which it was composed because they are so inseparable. This special arrangement of music would not exist were it not for Plisetskaya’s overwhelming desire to dance as Carmen: “The thought of my Carmen lived in me constantly, glowing deep inside, occasionally rushing to the surface demandingly. Whenever I talked to anyone about my dreams, the image of Carmen was at the top of the list,” Plisetskaya wrote in her autobiography.  

This burning desire to create a ballet based on the libretto of Bizet’s opera led her to approach Shostakovich to write the score but he declined, telling Plisetskaya that he was “afraid of Bizet”. Khachaturian also refused her overtures to compose the music and the idea went cold until a visit to Moscow by the Cuban National Ballet in late 1966. It was here that Plisetskaya first encountered Alonso’s choreography: “I felt as if a snake had bitten me,” she wrote, adding “This was Carmen’s language.  Her movements. Her world.”

For the music, she went closer to home – even venturing inside it – by asking her husband to compose a new musical text as variations on Bizet’s Carmen. Shchedrin orchestrated it in just 16 days, working in the kitchen of their apartment while Plisetskaya danced choreographic ideas sketched out by Alonso. The work premiered on 21st April 1967 at the Bolshoi Theatre and although it was not initially well received by the Moscow authorities and audiences – largely due to its daring, seductive choreography – Plisetskaya subsequently performed it 350 times with her final performance coming in 1990, aged 64!

Shchedrin’s reimagining of Bizet’s opera in thirteen sections was based exclusively on strings and percussion and he stamped his own mark on this popular music by utilising a battery of percussion instruments in his innovative orchestration, many of which post-dated Bizet, such as the regularly-featured marimba (rather like a xylophone but with a lower pitch), working together with the vibraphone, the güiro (a South American scraping instrument, comprising hollow gourd and stick), two bongos, three almglocken (tuned cow bells), wood blocks, triangle, tambourine, snare drums, claves, castanets (prominently used for Spanish flavour), a hi-hat, five tom-toms, a booming tam tam and chimes, which figure with striking dramatic effect at the beginning and end of the suite. This armoury of percussive effects places Shchedrin’s indelible signature on the music by adding new and very strong accents to every familiar tune.

Vaughan Williams' orchestration of the 16th-century hymn is innovative through his use of two orchestras with the small second group of nine (four violins, two each of violas and cellos and a double bass) distanced from the main body of musicians (here arranged in a curved line against the stage backdrop). The second orchestra performed together with the full orchestra and occasionally alone as if an ethereal and distant echo of the music. 

The juxtaposition of two such different works seemed to gain relevance with the haunting opening of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia in B flat major appearing to be a logical extension of the ending to the Carmen Suite since one could readily imagine this fugue as marking Carmen’s funeral.

There was an unmistakable majesty to the swirling, voluminous spread and interplay of the dynamic strings, with the solo viola of Caroline Gilbert rising above the orchestra before enjoying its own gentle solo. The smaller second group appeared to resonate from another world away from the main orchestral themes, from which the passages of Concertmaster Nikki Chooi’s solo violin soared like a magnificent eagle, returning to enjoy a brief final coda.   

These performances were given without unnecessary trimmings, the musicians arranged in a horseshoe with suitable social distancing on the fan-shaped stage of the historic Kleinhans Music Hall, under the elegant direction of JoAnn Falletta who gave a charming and brief introduction to both works (augmented for the Shchedrin by a tour of the percussion by Dinesh Joseph; and for the Vaughan Williams by a brief explanation of the role of the second orchestra by first violinist, Loren Silvertrust).     

This performance was reviewed from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's video stream