The SSO Swan Lake Suite

Row of ballerinas on stage.

The SSO Swan Lake  Suite Much like the differences between the stage and movie version of your favourite musicals, there are differences between what an orchestra performs when they play the Swan Lake Suite versus a staged ballet of Swan Lake. Luckily for us, conductor Judith Yan is well versed in both versions of Swan … Read more

Chrysalis Extended – Nia Imani Franklin

With styles ranging from R&B to classical, Nia’s soulful and eclectic music is a great fit for commercials, television and film. Her gospel singing background in church contributed to her love for music at a young age, having written her first song at the age of five. Nia has a Bachelor of Music degree in theory and composition and a Master of Music degree in composition. She is a composer of opera, instrumental music, and writes for artists and herself.

We’re thrilled to be performing the Canadian premiere of her new work “Chrysalis Extended” as part of our Swan Lake performance on February 26th.

Take time to watch her video talk about this incredible new work!

Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

Infinitely charming and seemingly unable to age, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is the closest he ever came to writing a full solo work (concerto) for cello and orchestra. Inspired by the elegance and grace of Mozart, the Variations show how brilliant Tchaikovsky could be when he turned his pen to the classical style…but rococo? Not so much!

Jonathan Craig Penner

Rococo was a period of art between the Baroque era and the Classical era. Rococo style is elegant and refreshing – Tchaikovsky wrote his own theme, it wasn’t Rococo after all!

The piece is made up of a brand new theme and eight variations. Tchaikovsky wrote an original theme in a style that meant Rococo to him; the orchestra creates the mood, the horn hands it off to the cello, and they all share the elegant theme repeated four times, allowing the cello to lead us into the variations…

The variations each show us something unique:

Var 1 – Tempo della Theme (same speed as the theme) is full of triplets, lively and graceful!

Var 2 – Tempo della Theme is a dialogue between orchestra and soloist and the statement of the theme has had its rhythms manipulated to make it feel much more lively and brazen, refusing to resolve.

Var 3 – Andante (at a walking speed) is sad. It’s melancholy restatement of the theme is the only time the composer gives us the the music in a minor key.

Var 4 – Allegro vivo (fast, full of life!) warms us up taking us from the previous D minor to sunny sensuous return A major. This is one of the most difficult passages in the piece for the soloist as its filled with constant fast note runs. It’s blazingly fast and ends with a graceful use of a rocket theme (the music literally goes up like a rocket!)

Var 5 – Andante grazioso (walking gracefully) is where Tchaikovsky moves the beat around on us. He’s mixing up where we feel the downbeat and gives us a stunning trill from the cello!

Var 6 – Andante takes that cello trill and hands the main theme off to the flute. When the soloist finally “falls” from the trill to a low E, the orchestra takes over with the joyous theme again. The soloist is given a cadenza (solo virtuosic phrase) that leads us into C major, something that feels so distant and foreign but comfortable all at once.

Var 7 – Andante sostenuto feel contemplative in the warmth of C major as it slowly winds its way toward E major – its Tchaikovsky giving us a hint that we’re heading home before long! There’s a meditative hopefulness here that seems to ask and answer a question, and E major gives us a perfect way to prepare for the return of the home key in…

Var 8 – e Coda: Allegro moderato con anima (Moderately fast with movement) has the cello gracefully bringing us home to A Major. It’s one big crescendo that leaps from fortissimo to piano only to be joined by the orchestra again. Joyful, full of light, buoyant, full of running scales to get us into the Coda that finally gives us the full drama that Tchaikovsky is so known for. This elegant journey comes to a glorious end…one that Mozart would have been proud of!

The SSO is thrilled to have Regina-born cellist Jonathan Craig Penner making his SSO debut with the Variations on a Rococo Theme as part of our Swan Lake concert February 26th.

Tchaikovksy’s Swan Lake

Some works of art become bigger than life. Swan Lake started its life as Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at a ballet…and initially it was a flop.

Premiering in March 1877, Swan Lake came at a pivotal moment in Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky’ career.  The composer had two symphonies under him, and was writing his landmark piano concerto at the same time, but still hadn’t gained considerable fame. It was a stressful time in his life, entering into a loveless marriage and waiting for his music to take off. Fashioning a love story for the ages out of folk tales from Russian and German lore to tell the story of princess Odette who winds up turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Receiving its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow with one of the day’s leading choreographers there was much hope for this new work…but the ballet wasn’t a hit. At least, not yet.

Tchaikovsky lived in the Russia of the “Mighty Five” – a group of composers’ whose works were simultaneously creating the Russian national voice of music – but for his ballet he looked to inspiration from composers he admired for their stage dance works. He’d found genius and muse in the works of French compoers Adolphe Adam (Giselle) and Leo Delibes (Sylvia) and found there to be an elegance, charm, and and “wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony”.

Commissioned to compose Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions for his new ballet; some of his cousins even noted he’d previously penned a short ballet called “The Lake of the Swans”. He used the technique of leitmotif for the Swan Theme – the music would allow the audience to associate certain themes, characters, or moods, with a melodic idea. In total the ballet took only a year to write from beginning to end and while many see this as his excitement for the music itself, some historians note that he was anxious to finish Swan Lake so that he could get going on composing Eugene Onegin.

At the premiere, audiences and critics felt the score was noise and “too Wagnerian, too symphonic”. To be sure, it was the most symphonic ballet written to date, elevating the orchestral music from the pit to being music worthy of sitting centre stage. But there was a curiousity around the characters of Odette and Odile that started to draw attention from dancers and patrons alike. The ballet continued to be performed and, in the years that followed the composers’ 1893 death, Swan Lake staked its claim as one of the monumental works of romantic ballet and indeed romantic music!

Swan Lake is now one of the most frequently performed ballets, and has earned the honour of being refered to as a “beloved classic”.

You can see the SSO perform the music of Swan Lake February 26th – live at TCU Place or live online at