Behind the Scenes: Simplicity Program Notes + Guest Artist

LexPhil welcomes award-winning mezzo-soprano, Sofia Selowsky to Lexington for Simplicity! Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No.4 in B-flat sets the stage for Dominick Argento’s exquisite Casa Guidi for voice and orchestra. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony closes an elegant evening immersed in simply beautiful music. Purchase your tickets today!

Program Notes
By: Daniel Chetel


Tonight’s program features three works that offer us a glimpse into the more intimate side of composition and music-making. These selections by the classical icon Ludwig van Beethoven, living American master Dominick Argento, and the Russian modernist Serge Prokofiev each engage with a unique approach to simplicity. The result is an evening of expanded chamber music and the joyful, vibrant interplay between orchestra, soloist, and conductor that such music compels.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) musical output is traditionally divided into three general periods, and he produced symphonic works in all three. The Symphony No. 1 in C Major (1801) represents his reverence for the style of his teacher Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). His more mature middle period begins with the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 Eroica, originally dedicated to Napoleon, which expanded significantly on the traditional structural forms. The heavily wrought Symphony No. 5 begins with fate knocking at the door in C minor and ends with a glorious achievement of C major. His more modern final period includes his Symphony No. 9, which revolutionized the genre of the symphony itself with its expansive score and the inclusion of a choir to sing Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) call for the unity of all humankind.

Tonight’s program, which features the beauty of musical simplicity, opens with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, known for its humor and somewhat lighter touch. This elegant work is perhaps underappreciated; the weighty third and fifth symphonies are more commonly played. After a lugubrious and mysterious opening, the work leaps into a traditional sonata-form opening movement complete with leaping melodies and pastoral harmonies tossed across the ensemble. Beethoven’s recognizable rhythmic motor is prominent throughout the work, even in the lyrical Adagio second movement. The rollicking scherzo recalls the hemiolas (triple versus duple rhythmic patterns) so present in the composer’s Eroica symphony from just two years prior, while the scampering energy of the final Allegro ma non troppo may look ahead to his Symphony No. 6 Pastorale, filled with the teeming liveliness of the countryside and forest.

American composer Dominick Argento’s (1927-) musical output includes works for the concert hall and opera house, including his 1975 song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music) and tonight’s orchestral song cycle, Casa Guidi (1984) for which Frederica von Stade and The Minnesota Orchestra won a Grammy in 2004. Argento sets texts drawn from the letters of Victorian-era English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861). While Browning is better known for her poetry, Argento selects the intimate and personal prose of Browning’s letters—written while she was living in Florence, Italy with her husband—home to her sister Henrietta, still living in England. Browning’s reflections on marriage, strained family relationships, and the simple joys of domestic life are no less relevant today than they were in nineteenth-century Italy or Victorian England. Argento’s music transitions gracefully between lyrically sung and more spoken (or recitative) styles of writing, perfectly complementing the familiar quality of the language itself.

Tonight’s program begins with a classical symphony by Beethoven and concludes with another “classical” symphony, the perhaps more aptly named “neo-classical” Symphony No. 1, Op. 25 of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). While Prokofiev was a leading voice in early twentieth-century modern music, especially after his departure from his homeland after the 1917 October Revolution, this charming, small-scale work is one of Prokofiev’s most popular offerings.

Highly aware of the classical (and baroque) precedents for a symphony, Prokofiev produces a recognizable four-movement form: two substantial fast-paced outer movements with a slow second movement and a dance-based third movement (in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 the dance is not the traditional triple meter minuet or scherzo, but the duple meter gavotte). Prokofiev was soon joined by his fellow countryman Igor Stravinsky (1881-1971) in the exploration of this neo-classical style, which is often seen as a reaction to the extreme expansiveness of the late modernists like Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). While the spirit of the Symphony No. 1 is certainly Haydn-like, Prokofiev uses the classical-sized orchestra in wonderfully creative ways to create sounds and effects unique to Prokofiev’s modern musical language, especially in the rambunctious final movement which includes rapid fire, machine-like precision in the repeated notes throughout the orchestra. Heard here as youthful exuberance, these musical ideas perhaps presage the menacing mechanical sounds that will permeate symphonic music composed between and after the World Wars, especially in a work like the politically charged Symphony No. 5 (1937) of fellow Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Sofia Selowsky, mezzo-soprano

Praised by Opera News as a “silvery-luminescent mezzo-soprano of power and poise,” Sofia Selowsky is quickly establishing herself as an exciting young artist on both the operatic and concert stage. In the 17/18 season, Ms. Selowsky makes several significant debuts, joining the Houston Ballet for its production of Mayerling, the Lexington Philharmonic for performances of Dominick Argento’s Casa Guidi, and the North Carolina Symphony for Mozart’s Requiem. She also returns to Houston Grand Opera to make her role debut as Rosina Il barbiere di Siviglia alongside Eric Owens, David Portillo, and Lucas Meachem.

In her 16/17 season, Ms. Selowsky returned to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to perform the role of Frau Grubach in the American Premiere of Philip Glass’ The Trial under the baton of Carolyn Kuan. Equally at home on the concert stage, she joined Ars Lyrica for performances of Handel’s Jephthaand performed De Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas at The Menil Collection under the auspices of Da Camera of Houston. She made her debut with The Minnesota Orchestra in Handel’s Messiah, debuted with Sarasota Orchestra in performances of Mozart’s Requiem with Music Director Anu Tali, and returned to the Houston Symphony Orchestra as the mezzo soloist in De Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat.

In prior seasons, Ms. Selowsky has appeared in Schumann’s The Pilgrimage of the Rose with the Houston Symphony and Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, William Bolcom’s A Wedding, Despina in Così fan tutte under the baton of Jane Glover, Mère Jeanne in Dialogues of the Carmelites (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), Lazuli in Chabrier’s L’étoile, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 with the Dayton Philharmonic.

A graduate of the famed Houston Grand Opera Studio, Ms. Selowsky was heard in a wide variety of roles during her time as a Studio Artist, including Suzuki in Madama Butterfly opposite Ana Maria Martinez, the Fox in Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, the Second Wood Nymph in Rusalka, Nell Gwynn in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s new opera, Prince of Players, and Eliza in the premiere of David Hanlon’s After the Storm.

Ms. Selowsky was a 2016 grant recipient from the Gerda Lissner Foundation and a 2015 recipient of a Richard F. Gold Career Grant from the Shoshanna Foundation. In 2014, she was a National Semifinalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and won Third Place in the Houston Grand Opera’s prestigious Eleanor McCollum Competition.  Other honors include the Italo Tajo Memorial Award (CCM Opera Scholarship Competition), an Emerging Talent Award from the Kurt Weill Foundation’s Lotte Lenya Competition, the Emile Dieterle Scholarship (CCM), and an Artist Development Fellowship from Harvard University. Learn more at