Your presale validation code has been accepted.
Click the
button to order your tickets.

Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles: Repertoire

Program Notes: Osmo Vänskä and Joshua Bell

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Sibelius: En Saga
Hypnotic rhythms and dark orchestral coloring permeate this tone poem, which conveys the sense of a primordial adventure, fiercely urgent, and tragic as well as exhilarating.

Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2
Wieniawski’s show-stopping Second Violin Concerto is rich in Polish tradition, featuring Gypsy rhythms and fiery fiddling. The work is dedicated to Wieniawski’s friend and fellow violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, whose own work follows this one on tonight’s program.

Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs)
A riveting lament, embellished with an array of trills and dramatic ornamentation, leads to a furious, brilliant and breathtaking conclusion.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Beethoven’s lively Seventh Symphony, famously called “the apotheosis of the dance” by Wagner, builds a series of astonishing musical moments from short, simple figures. The second movement, based on a repeating rhythm, has been an audience favorite since its premiere two centuries ago.

Full program notes:

Jean Sibelius

Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

En Saga, Opus 9

In his mid-20s Sibelius studied for a year in Berlin, and then for another year in Vienna. He had at first intended to be a violinist, but in Berlin he heard the Aino Symphony of his senior compatriot Robert Kajanus, which was all the impetus he needed for giving a higher priority to composing, and to turn his own creative effort toward the furtherance of Finnish nationalism. Aino is one of the heroines of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; Sibelius’ wife was one of the numerous Finnish women named for her. Early in 1892 in Vienna, Sibelius completed the first of his own several works based on the Kalevala: the vast five-part symphony Kullervo, in which solo singers and a male chorus depict episodes in the life of the eponymous tragic hero. Kajanus saw to it that the Kullervo Symphony was performed in Helsinki that April, and its success prompted him to ask Sibelius for a shorter piece that could be performed more frequently. Sibelius responded, at about the time of his wedding, in June of that year, with En Saga, in which he recycled material from an octet for winds and strings he had composed in Berlin.

The new piece was not a success when the composer conducted the premiere in Helsinki, on February 16, 1893, but nine years later, when Ferruccio Busoni invited him to present En Saga in Berlin, he subjected the score to a major revision, which made such a positive impression when he introduced it in Helsinki on November 2, 1902, that it immediately took its place in the general repertory. (Kajanus, for his part, eventually gave up composing in order to devote himself to conducting Sibelius’ works; in his last years he went to London to make the premiere recordings of several of them.)

It was not until four decades later still, when he had written the last of his works and the world had celebrated his 75th birthday, that Sibelius said anything at all about the extra-musical significance of this work. At that time (the early 1940s) he remarked, “En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.” Still later, according to his most distinguished biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius “answered an inquiry from abroad by saying that if one had to find a literary or folkloristic source for En Saga the atmosphere of the piece was far closer to the [Icelandic] Eddas than to the Kalevala.”

elemental forces

As Sibelius’ early symphonies show traces of Tchaikovsky and Borodin, En Saga might be said to owe something to such Russian works as Balakirev’s Tamara and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Skazka. (The latter title, in fact, has a meaning similar to that of En Saga, but with less fearsome connotations: “A Tale,” or “Legend,” or in some cases “A Fairy Tale.”) The freedom Sibelius gained by not attempting to tell a specific story or paint a specific picture, though, gives En Saga a universality and directness altogether beyond the scope of those charming and colorful works. This music may not actually make us “want to wrestle a polar bear,” as the enthusiastic Sibelian Olin Downes suggested on hearing En Saga in the 1930s. But it is powerfully evocative in a more general sense, and it may touch us on deeper levels—may convey a sense of some primordial adventure—involving elemental forces rather than individuals, and both tragic and exhilarating in its fierce urgency.

The themes, strong and persistent, seem to grow directly out of one another, in the nature of metamorphoses. The rhythms are hypnotic, the darkish orchestral coloring (with a bass drum replacing, rather than augmenting, the timpani) as deftly achieved as anything from Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss or Ravel. The overall effect is one of striking originality, a style as unlikely to be successfully imitated or duplicated as it is to be mistaken for that of anyone but Sibelius himself.


2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note by Richard Freed.

Henri Wieniawski

Born: July 30, 1835, Lublin, Poland
Died: March 31, 1880, Moscow, Russia

Concerto No. 2 in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 22

Most of the violin heroes from Paganini, who was born in 1782, to Adolf Busch, who died in 1952, were composers of considerable competence. It is different today, when a violinist such as Joshua Bell, daring to write his own cadenza for the Brahms concerto and doing so with flair and originality, is very much an exception among his colleagues.

Henri Wieniawski, born a half-century after Paganini, was one of the most esteemed Romantic violinist-composers. His mother, Regina Wolff, was an able pianist, and his uncle, Edouard Wolff, quite a celebrated one, as well as an active composer. At the age of eight, when Henri had already been playing the violin for some years, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he soon entered the class of Lambert Massart, one of the pedagogic eminences of the day. By the time he was 13, Wieniawski was a busy performer, usually with his younger brother Jósef at the piano, but in 1849 he returned to Paris in order to take up the serious study of composition.

always on the road

The violinist Leopold Auer recalled running into Wieniawski at the gambling tables at Wiesbaden, Germany. On tour with the great Anton Rubinstein, Wieniawski thought he had figured out a way to beat the system and bankrupt the casino; when that happened, he told Auer, he would give up concertizing, play only for his pleasure, and concentrate on composing. That happy day never arrived, and Wieniawski’s life was that of a traveling virtuoso. He lived in Saint Petersburg, where he was a ubiquitous presence on the musical scene, but his career constantly took him all over Europe. In 1872 he began a two-year tour of the United States, giving 215 concerts with Rubinstein in the first year alone, then continuing on almost as exhausting a schedule with the soprano Pauline Lucca.

Wieniawski returned to Europe with shattered health and a lot of money. He settled in Brussels, succeeding Henri Vieuxtemps at the Paris Conservatory. But being the sort of man who spent whatever he earned as soon as he could, he was under continuing pressure to stay on the road and play. A heart condition gave him ever more trouble. In November 1878 he collapsed during a performance in Berlin of his Concerto No. 2. His colleague Joseph Joachim was in the audience, and Wieniawski asked him to finish the concert for him. A month later, in Moscow, he was obliged to break off a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata after the first movement. Undeterred, he was soon off and running again, this time with soprano Désirée Artôt, who had once briefly been engaged to a young Tchaikovsky. Once again, though, the tour had to be called off so that Wieniawski could enter hospital in Odessa. When he died he was not yet 45.

For all his physical tribulations, Wieniawski was a cheerful sort and delightful company, a man who could never resist a pun and was a captivating raconteur. His marriage to an Irishwoman, Isabella Hampton, brought him much happiness. Accounts of Wieniawski’s playing invariably take note of its technical brilliance but remark even more on its fire and ardor. His compositions of course demand these qualities.

the concerto in brief

Wieniawski composed his Second Violin Concerto in 1862 and gave the first performance on November 27 of that year in Saint Petersburg, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting. The score is dedicated to a fellow violinist-composer, Pablo de Sarasate, whose Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) follows the Wieniawski concerto on tonight’s program. The Concerto No. 2 is the only one of Wieniawski’s larger works to have taken a firm hold in the repertory, though a few modern violinists, notably Midori, have made a persuasive case for the Concerto No. 1, which is more pyrotechnical than the Second, but with less soul.

allegro moderato. The first of the Second Concerto’s three movements is an Allegro moderato, more lyric that excited, and Auer recalled that Wieniawski himself used to play it “rather quietly, more moderato than allegro.” There is, of course, enough brilliant passagework to constitute a barrier to all but the most secure fiddlers. For years, having come to know this concerto through Heifetz’s wonderfully played 1935 recording, I had no idea that Wieniawski had begun the movement with an extended orchestral exposition that introduces the main themes and that midway through there is a similarly broad passage for orchestra alone: Heifetz cut all that out and came straight to what he conceived to be the point, namely Himself. But these passages do attest to the seriousness of Wieniawski’s intentions and to his sense of proportion, and they are not badly carried out. He is not quite as adventurous, fluid and skilled as his older contemporary Henri Vieuxtemps, but he is streets ahead of such predecessors as Paganini and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

romance. A shapely and spacious phrase for clarinet alone makes a bridge into the second movement, a Romance. Here Wieniawski is at his most likeable and touching best. The melody is lovely, and the accompaniment imaginative and euphonious.

allegro con fuoco–allegro moderato (à la zingara). The finale is designed to bring the house down, and for this purpose the soloist regales us with flying 16th-notes, a reprise of a wonderfully soulful theme from the first movement, and an absolutely irresistible spell of gypsy-fiddling abandon.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

Pablo de Sarasate

Born: March 10, 1844, Pamplona, Spain
Died: September 20, 1908, Biarritz, France

Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 20

As a parting gift on tonight’s program, Joshua Bell delivers a second virtuoso showpiece by a Romantic-era violinist-composer: Spaniard Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). Sarasate was known in his day primarily as a performer, but he punched above his weight as a composer, rising to fame in the generation just after Paganini. His music, Zigeunerweisen in particular, is yet more evidence that the composers who have written most intelligently and virtuosically for violin have also been violinists—Vivaldi, Mozart, Sibelius, Bruch and Paganini easily come to mind. So, too, does Wieniawski, whose Second Violin Concerto (dedicated to none other than Sarasate) precedes Zigeunerweisen on tonight’s program.

royal connections and unmatched technique

Sarasate’s credentials as a violinist were formidable, earned at a very young age in spite of his origins in the musical backwater of Pamplona, the Basque city known for its annual Running of the Bulls. As is usually true with prodigious musical talent, one of his parents was a musician—in this case, his father, a violinist and military bandmaster who taught five-year-old Pablo the basics. Perhaps his biggest career break came when his playing caught the attention of her royal highness Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored Sarasate’s enrollment at the Paris Conservatory at the tender age 12, and gave him a 1724 Stradivarius violin. As a teen, Sarasate quickly rose to fame as a fearless virtuoso with an unmatched technique that won not only ardent fans, but major competitions in Europe as well. This launched an international touring career that brought him to America twice and regularly to London, where he took audiences by storm. Not since Paganini had a fiddler caused this kind of sensation. He inspired a number of important composers to write pieces for him: among them Bruch, Lalo and Saint-Saëns.

Early in his career, Sarasate began to perform his own works: extended, virtuosic fantasies based on themes from popular operas of the day. His fantasies on Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Faust are bravura pieces that only the most gifted virtuosos need attempt. Regarding Sarasate’s idiomatic writing for the violin, the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw may have said it best when he declared that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music.

a dash for the finish line

Perhaps Sarasate’s best-known work is Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), evoking the Gypsy fire of Romany life. Written in 1878 and recorded by every major violin virtuoso since, it has become a staple for violinists, often as a concert encore. Zigeunerweisen begins with about seven minutes of slow, soulful melodies, leading into a spectacular two-minute dash for the finish line—extremely demanding of the performer—that leaves audiences breathless.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92

Beethoven turned 40 in December 1810, and things were going very well. True, his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he was virtually deaf, but he was still riding that white-hot explosion of creativity that has become known, for better or worse, as his “heroic” style.

re-imagining music

Over the decade-long span of that style, 1803 to 1813, Beethoven essentially re-imagined music and its possibilities. The works that crystallized the heroic style—the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony—unleashed a level of violence and darkness previously unknown in music and then triumphed over them. In these symphonies, music became a matter not of polite discourse but of conflict, struggle and resolution.

In the fall of 1811, Beethoven began a new symphony, his Seventh, which would differ sharply from those two famous predecessors. Gone is the sense of cataclysmic struggle and hard-won victory. Instead, this music is infused from its first instant with a mood of pure celebration.

Such a spirit has inevitably produced interpretations as to what this symphony is “about”: Berlioz heard in it a peasants’ dance, Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance,” and more recently Maynard Solomon has suggested that the Seventh is the musical representation of a festival, a brief moment of pure spiritual liberation.

But it may be safest to leave the issue of meaning aside and instead listen to the Seventh simply as music. There had never been music like this before, nor has there been since: this symphony contains more energy than any other piece of music ever written. Much has been made (correctly) of Beethoven’s ability to transform small bits of theme into massive symphonic structures, but here he begins not so much with theme as with rhythm: tiny figures, almost scraps of rhythm. Gradually he releases the energy locked up in these small figures and from them creates one of the mightiest symphonies ever written.

the symphony: small ideas transformed

poco sostenuto–vivace. The first movement opens with a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a separate movement of its own. Tremendous chords punctuate the slow beginning, which gives way to a poised duet for oboes. The real effect of this long Poco sostenuto, however, is to coil the energy that will be unleashed in the true first movement, and Beethoven conveys this rhythmically: the meter of the introduction is a rock-solid (even square) 4/4, but the main body of the movement, marked Vivace, transforms this into a light-footed 6/8. This Vivace begins in what seems a most unpromising manner, however, as woodwinds toot out a simple dotted 6/8 rhythm and the solo flute announces the first theme. This simple dotted rhythm saturates virtually every measure of the movement, as theme, as accompaniment, as motor rhythm, always hammering into our consciousness. At the climax, horns sail majestically to the close as the orchestra thunders out that rhythm one final time.

allegretto. The second movement, in A minor, is one of Beethoven’s most famous slow movements, but the debate continues as to whether it really is a slow movement. Beethoven could not decide whether to mark it Andante, a walking tempo, or Allegretto, a moderately fast pace. He finally decided on the latter, though the actual pulse is somewhere between those two. This movement too is built on a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the first five notes: long-short-short-long-long—and this pattern repeats here almost as obsessively as the pattern of the first movement. The opening sounds like a series of static chords—the theme itself occurs quietly inside those chords—and Beethoven simply repeats this theme, varying it as it proceeds. The central episode in A major moves gracefully along smoothly-flowing triplets before a little fugato on the opening rhythms builds to a great climax. The movement winds down on the woodwinds’ almost skeletal reprise of the fundamental rhythm.

presto. The scherzo explodes to life on a theme full of grace notes, powerful accents, flying staccatos and timpani explosions. This alternates with a trio section for winds reportedly based on an old pilgrims’ hymn, though no one, it seems, has been able to identify that hymn exactly. Beethoven offers a second repeat of the trio, then seems about to offer a third before five abrupt chords drive the movement to its close.

allegro con brio. These chords set the stage for the finale, again built on the near-obsessive treatment of a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the movement’s opening four-note fanfare. This pattern punctuates the entire movement: it shapes the beginning of the main theme, and its stinging accents thrust the music forward continuously as this movement almost boils over with energy. The ending is remarkable: above growling cellos and basses (which rock along on a two-note ostinato for 28 measures), the opening theme drives to a climax that Beethoven marks fff, a dynamic marking he almost never used. This conclusion is virtually Bacchanalian in its wild power. No matter how many times we’ve heard it, it remains one of the most exciting moments in all of music. Beethoven led the first performance of the Seventh Symphony in Vienna on December 8, 1813—a huge success, with the audience demanding that the second movement be repeated.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Cameron Carpenter Plays Rachmaninoff

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina
Delicate harmonies, sweet folk tunes and morning church bells animate this exquisite tone poem, extracted from an unfinished Russian nationalist opera, that depicts dawn on the Moscow River.

Rachmaninoff/Carpenter: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
A twisting Paganini melody is the basis for Rachmaninoff’s ingenious set of 24 variations. The famous 18th variation turns Paganini’s theme upside down, transforming it into a gorgeous, moonlit love song. Rachmaninoff wrote the solo part for piano, but tonight it is played on organ in an exciting new version that arranger-performer Cameron Carpenter calls “Rachmaninoff on steroids.”


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Shostakovich’s Fifth, the most frequently performed of his 15 symphonies, is forceful and questioning. It imitates the form of a classical symphony until its icy third movement, scored without brass, as gorgeous melodies rise and fall. Dueling critics have interpreted the finale as either triumphant or bitingly sarcastic.

Full program notes:

Modest Mussorgsky

Born: March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died: March 28, 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia

Prelude to Khovanshchina

The most original voice among the “Mighty Handful” of five 19th-century Russian composers was that of Mussorgsky, who was both the genius of the group and its most unstable personality. When he died from the effects of alcoholism at age 42, he left several of his most important compositions unfinished, including the opera Khovanshchina, to which Rimsky-Korsakov then put his hand. While Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has become one of the most well-known Russian operas, Khovanshchina has held the stage far less often. In the meantime we must make do with the attractive orchestral episodes that have carved a place in the concert hall.

a prolonged project, rescued by Rimsky-Korsakov

As we know from Boris Godunov and Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky was an avid Russian nationalist. His most eloquent expression of the national soul was in songs and operas, while his purely orchestral efforts were minimal. In 1872 he began to collect historical and musical materials for Khovanshchina. The work dealt with the political disturbances under the regency which preceded Peter the Great’s full accession to the throne, probing the collision between the old feudalism and the czarist reforms, a crucial time in late 17th-century Russian history.

Instead of drafting a cogent scenario, Mussorgsky assembled fragments of a libretto, being carried away by the historical sources into which he delved. By 1873 he began to create the music, which occupied him intermittently until the summer of 1880. Noting his obsessive drinking, his friends worried about the future of the opera. Their fears were not unfounded, and Khovanshchina loomed importantly in the pile of unpublished manuscripts left at his death in 1881. It was the first work to be rescued by Rimsky-Korsakov. Once completed and orchestrated, the opera was produced by an amateur group in St. Petersburg on February 21, 1886. Rimsky-Korsakov omitted some passages that were subsequently orchestrated by Ravel and Stravinsky; Shostakovich also produced his own version and orchestration of the opera.

pastel washes of sound

The first act of Khovanshchina begins at daybreak in front of a church in a Moscow square. The tranquil, pastel washes of sound in the introductory Prelude evoke, in the composer’s own words, “the growing light of the rising sun,” depicting a dawn on the Moscow River. As orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, the principal theme is announced by an oboe against shimmering background of tremulous and divided strings before being taken up by other colorful instrumental combinations. The image of bells, signaling early Mass, infiltrates the music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, tamtam, harp and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 23, arranged for Organ and Orchestra by Cameron Carpenter

In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake. Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.

a tune that beckons composers

Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra on what is undoubtedly the most varied theme in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted composers through each century since—resulting in variations on it by Liszt (Transcendental Etudes), Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in the 20th century by Witold Lutosławski, Boris Blacher and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.

After considering several titles for his new work, the composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center of this music. The first performance, with the composer as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody.”

bravura solos, brilliant contrasts

The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to the first variation, which is presented before the theme itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which Rachmaninoff marks Precedente, is in fact the bass line for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its original form by both violin sections in unison. Some of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others whip past almost before we know it (several are as short as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies not just in the bravura writing for keyboard but in hearing Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation. In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old plainsong tune Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff, for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here it appears in the solo part in the seventh and tenth variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.

Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations, though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The soloist states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it specifically as a gift “for my agent.”

From here on, the tempo picks up, and the final six variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The excitement builds, the Dies Irae is stamped out by the full orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.

“Rachmaninoff on steroids”

Today’s performance of the Paganini Rhapsody is unlike any ever heard at Orchestra Hall: Cameron Carpenter will perform his own version of the solo piano part on the International Touring Organ (ITO), a one-of-a-kind instrument built for Carpenter by digital organ pioneers Marshall & Ogletree. The ITO is billed as the world’s first truly artistic digital organ, with sophisticated technology that reproduces the sounds of the finest historical organs, providing Carpenter with great flexibility in performances spaces and in his concert repertoire.

Unveiled by Carpenter in a 2014 performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, the ITO features a modular five-keyboard console; a processing system that utilizes samples from several organs key to Carpenter’s artistic development; and a “geographic” concert audio system scalable to venues ranging from concert halls to nightclubs, as well as open-air use and television.

Carpenter’s version of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody, which debuted on July 17, 2015, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Long Yu, takes full advantage of the ITO’s capacities while leaving all the orchestral parts as originally written. Carpenter explains:

“In transcribing Rachmaninoff’s great exploration of Paganini’s theme, I haven’t changed one note or phrase of the orchestral material. That is fortunate, since Rachmaninoff’s writing is incredibly economical, lacking any extra notes or gestures. In the piano part, many interior melodies, figures and other events are given greater tonal contrast on the organ than is possible in the piano, and the organ’s much larger dynamic range—obvious in any comparison between the piano in general with any large organ, but even more extreme in the case of the International Touring Organ—is exploited to the maximum.

“When performing this work on the organ, I think of it as a kind of darkly theatrical, sinister magnification of the original that exaggerates its dynamic and emotional heights and depths to even more extreme degrees, while emphasizing the music’s prolific counterpoint in a way that makes it clearer and more structurally obvious than in the original. It is intended to be Rachmaninoff on steroids: the organ’s powers of perspective and contrast, its ability to indefinitely sustain tone, and to crescendo, tremulate and otherwise alter held tones, afford many technical capabilities of which no piano or pianist is capable; and these are utilized to the full. Rooted in the Dies Irae, a natural match for the organ’s usual imagery, this version strives at moments to invoke a pall of mythic doom, while its sensuous moments should be supercharged with unheard-of horsepower.”

Instrumentation: solo organ with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47

Shostakovich’s Fifth is at once the most popular symphony since Mahler and the most enigmatic. It was composed in the aftermath of the savage January 1936 attack by Pravda on Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which probably had been ordered by Stalin himself. Before that, Shostakovich had been the bright young star of Soviet music, hailed as a product of that system and acclaimed around the world for his witty, sardonic music. Now, virtually overnight, he found himself in disgrace, his career in ruins and he himself perhaps ticketed for a labor camp.

After a great deal of soul searching, Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony very quickly (between April 18 and July 20, 1937), and its triumphant premiere in Leningrad on November 21 of that year signaled his artistic and political rehabilitation. One of the most striking features of this music is Shostakovich’s return to classical form, a move that has signaled capitulation to some Western critics. But it may well be that Shostakovich felt that there was justice in the Pravda description of his music as “fidgety, screaming, neurotic,” and that his music did need greater balance, restraint and stability.

intense drama

There is a great deal of superb music in the Fifth Symphony. This is an intensely dramatic score, so powerful that it is easy to overlook the control and unity of Shostakovich’s writing.

moderato. The first movement opens with ominous canonic exchanges between string sections, and these give way to the violins’ quietly twisting main theme. Almost incidentally, Shostakovich introduces the simple rhythmic motif (short-short-long) that will saturate and unify the entire symphony. There follows a beautiful episode: over string accompaniment that pulses along on the rhythmic motif, first violins sing a melody full of wide leaps. But the wonder is that this peaceful theme, which sounds completely new, is actually a subtle transformation of the powerful canonic introduction to the Symphony. This sort of ingenious transformation of material marks the entire Fifth Symphony.

The entrance of the piano signals the beginning of the development. It has been said that in this symphony Shostakovich does not so much develop his material as brutalize it, and now themes that had been peaceful at their introduction are made shrill, almost hysterical in their intensity. The movement reaches a climax on a furious tamtam stroke as brass stamp out the rhythmic motif. After all this fury, Shostakovich resolves the tensions beautifully: the themes now return peacefully and, with its energy spent, the movement ends quietly.

allegretto. Many have felt the influence of Mahler in the bittersweet second movement that waltzes past in quickstep time. Much of the fun here lies in the instrumental color—the sardonic solo clarinet, the solo violin’s slides in the trio and the rattling sound of the xylophone.

largo. The third movement is more complex. Its scoring is unique: Shostakovich eliminates the brass, divides the strings into eight parts, and gives a prominent role to the harp, piano and celesta. He wrote this movement in one great arc, and the Largo features lean textures, an icy sound and some of his most beautiful melodies. It rises to a great climax, then falls away to end quietly on the spooky sound of harp harmonics.

allegro non troppo. Out of this quiet, the finale rips to life with pounding timpani, ringing brass and boundless energy; an angular second subject arrives in the solo trumpet over whirring strings. The militaristic bombast of this movement has bothered some listeners, but Shostakovich rescues it by his stunning transformation of this bluff beginning. Gradually these themes are made to slow down and sing, and material that had been strident on its first appearance yields unsuspected melodic riches in the subdued center section. Shostakovich gathers his forces and drives the symphony to a triumphant, if somewhat raucous, close in D major.

interpreting the music

Music this dramatic cries out for interpretation, and ideological critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain have been happy to supply violently divergent explanations of its “meaning.” Prompted by authorities to provide a politically correct program, Shostakovich obliged: “The theme of my symphony is the stabilization of a personality. In the center of this composition—conceived lyrically from beginning to end—I saw a man with all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.” So existential an explanation even led to this symphony’s being labeled the Hamlet Symphony in some Soviet circles.

More recently, the Fifth Symphony has become the locus classicus of what might be called “The Great Shostakovich Debate” between two groups: those who regard this symphony as sincere and consciously heroic, and those Western critics who wish to rescue Shostakovich from his past and are unwilling to accept the proposition that great music might have been composed under the Soviet system. These critics have been able to accept this symphony only by declaring the entire piece ironic. Its triumph, they say, is hollow, a conscious nose-thumbing at a political regime that insisted on happy endings from its artists.

To such extremes have ideological critics been driven by their politics—and it is clear that the Cold War lives on in the minds of those engaged in this debate. Perhaps, in this century, it may be possible to approach Shostakovich’s symphony as it should be understood: as music. Heard for itself, it remains an exciting work, satisfying both emotionally and artistically. Far from being a capitulation, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony marks a refinement of his musical language and an engagement with those classical principles that would energize his music for the next 40 years.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, piano, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Liszt Piano Concerto

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
The Siegfried Idyll, one of Wagner’s few purely instrumental works, is lovely, warm and melodic music. Conceived as a love token from the composer to his wife Cosima, it was premiered as a surprise to her on Christmas morning, with the musicians performing on the staircase to her bedroom.

Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1
The powerful main theme of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, punctuated each time by winds and brass, finds key moments to recur throughout the work’s four movements, which are played without pause. Among the musical highlights are the cascading notes in the piano cadenzas, the poetic Quasi adagio second movement and the unusually prominent use of the triangle.


Schumann: Symphony No. 2
Echoing Schumann’s own mental strife, the Second Symphony opens in a troubled, shadowy landscape, with many of its melodies wandering or melancholic. As it progresses, the music grows in confidence and concludes with emotional, triumphant gestures.

Full program notes:

Richard Wagner

Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy

Siegfried Idyll

An understanding of Wagner’s lovely Siegfried Idyll requires some knowledge of the details of that composer’s irregular personal life. In 1864, at the age of 51, Wagner began an affair with 27-year-old Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow. Wagner and Cosima’s daughter Isolde was born the following April, on the same day Bülow conducted the first rehearsal of Tristan and Isolde. All concerned agreed to keep details of the situation a secret, and the infant’s birth certificate listed Bülow as the father, Wagner as the godfather. Cosima bore Wagner two more children, a daughter Eva in 1867 and a son Siegfried in 1869, and moved in with him in 1868. Finally, in 1870—after a six-year relationship and three children—the couple was married.

a Christmas surprise

That fall, Cosima became aware that Wagner was working on a project he would not describe to her, and for good reason: it was to be one of the best surprises in the history of music. On Christmas morning, Cosima, asleep with 18-month-old Siegfried, awoke to the sound of music. Her husband had secretly composed and rehearsed a piece for small orchestra, and now that orchestra, arranged on the staircase leading to Cosima’s bedroom, gave this music its most unusual premiere.

This music was not just a token of love and a Christmas present, but also a birthday present: Cosima had turned 33 a few weeks earlier. It is based on themes from Wagner’s (at that time still unperformed) opera Siegfried, but it also uses a child’s cradle song and other themes with personal meaning for Wagner and Cosima. Their private title for the piece was Tribschen Idyll: they were living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland at the time, and Cosima felt that the music was an embodiment of their life and love in these years. When in 1878, pressed for cash, Wagner had the music published under the now-familiar title Siegfried Idyll, Cosima confessed in her diary: “My secret treasure is becoming common property; may the joy it will give mankind be commensurate with the sacrifice I am making.”

As good love music should be, the Siegfried Idyll is gentle, warm, and melodic. Listeners familiar with the opera Siegfried will recognize some of the themes, all associated with the young hero Siegfried: his horn call, the bird call from the Forest Murmurs sequence, and others. Wagner also quotes, in the oboe near the beginning, the old cradle song “Sleep, Little Child, Sleep.” At its premiere, this music was performed on Cosima’s staircase by an orchestra of 15 players, though the bass player was around a corner and could not see Wagner conduct.

Instrumentation: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Franz Liszt

Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth

Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra

The sudden spurt in physical growth achieved by Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony presented Romantic-era composers with new problems in musical organization and form, problems that affected not only big pieces like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, but also comparatively short ones such as Liszt’s First Piano Concerto.

Sketches for this concerto go back to about 1830, and Liszt worked on the score in the late 1840s and again in 1853. Still more revisions of detail followed the premiere, which took place at Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Liszt at the piano and Berlioz conducting.

understanding the concerto

Liszt’s lifelong exploration of musical form was most extraordinarily, most richly rewarded in his B-minor Piano Sonata of 1852-53, a work in which nobility of spirit, intellectual power and fascinatingly virtuosic writing exist in perfect equipoise. If the First Piano Concerto has never shared the intellectual respectability of the Sonata, or even of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto of 1857-61, it is a piece pianists have always enjoyed playing and one that audiences love to hear.

It is said that Liszt and his son-in-law, the brilliant pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, put words to the First Piano Concerto’s two opening measures: “Das versteht ihr alle nicht—haha!” (The German words conform to the rhythm, though the English translation does not: “None of you understand this—ha-ha!”)

The story sounds believable. Certainly Bülow never passed up an opportunity to express his sense of superiority. I cannot say what exactly he and Liszt had in mind. It is easy to be dazzled by the flying octaves in this concerto (after all, that is what they are for) and to take note of the unusual prominence accorded the triangle (and for some to take umbrage as well), and perhaps the point that Liszt and Bülow were trying to make, even if they were only talking to each other, is that there is more to the E-flat Concerto than that—more invention, more wit and more poetry. Liszt may have been one of the 19th century’s most exasperating underachievers, to say nothing of committing the unforgivable sin of success on a staggering scale, but he was a genius.

the music: ambiguous harmony, passion and drama

allegro maestoso. “Das versteht ihr alle nicht”—as goes Liszt and Bülow’s lyric—is a simple and powerful phrase for strings in octaves; “haha!” is a firm punctuation mark added by woodwinds and brass. Liszt repeats the phrase a step lower, leading to a startlingly different harmony. At this point, widening the harmonic horizons still further, the pianist makes his presence known in an imposing cadenza. There, in essence, is Liszt’s method for this astonishing movement, which is filled with harmonic ambiguity. Again and again he returns to his opening phrase; and each time it leads to something new, to a recitative, to a lyric melody, to thundering octaves, and finally to weightlessly glittering  passagework that ends the movement in a puff of smoke.

quasi adagio–allegretto vivace–allegro marziale animato. Liszt connects the second, third and fourth movements together without pause. He does not specify attacca in the transition from the first movement to the second, but it is clear that this is what he means. The strings lead off and suggest a melody that the piano then sings for us in full. This is one of Liszt’s most beautiful inspirations, full of passion and poetry.

When the passions have calmed, woodwind soloists present a new idea against a decorative background provided by piano and strings. But when the clarinet offers to bring back the great melody from the beginning of the movement, there is an interruption: silence, the ping of a triangle, and the dancing reply of plucked strings. Berlioz, on the podium at the concerto’s premiere, must have been delighted by this bow to his Faustian goblins.

Liszt breaks off this scherzo for a cadenza. The pianist recalls the beginning of the concerto, and suddenly those pages loom large again in a dramatic and developing restatement, which in turn opens the way for the martial finale.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Robert Schumann

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich (near Bonn), Germany

Symphony No. 2 in C major, Opus 61

As Robert Schumann entered his 30s, he had established himself as a family man; thanks to an honorary degree from the University of Jena he was now Herr Doktor Schumann; and, no doubt with plenty of urging from his wife Clara, he was eager to prove himself in the more ambitious calling of the larger forms of the symphony, the string quartet and the oratorio.

Here we encounter the influence of Beethoven, as we will almost anywhere in a study of 19th-century instrumental music. In Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, the Spring Symphony, the debt to Beethoven is less direct, but more than once we hear echoes of Beethoven’s Fourth. In his great Symphony No. 2, Schumann confronted Beethoven the symphonist head-on. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Schumann’s Second traces a course from adversity to triumph that most listeners in the day had no difficulty in recognizing. Schumann’s boldness was rewarded: This became the greatest of his symphonies, a judgment about which most mid-19th-century listeners found themselves in ready agreement.

The symphony’s premiere, however, was not a happy event. Felix Mendelssohn conducted the first performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on November 5, 1846. The concert’s first half consisted of excerpts from Weber’s Euryanthe and Rossini’s William Tell, and Schumann’s symphony was performed by a tired orchestra and conductor to an audience too tired to absorb this difficult new work. Moreover, the William Tell Overture had been encored, and Schumann’s rancorous supporters accused those who had demanded the encore—and even Mendelssohn—of sabotaging his symphony.

music from convalescence

Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 is music written in convalescence. The composer began work on it in the latter part of 1845 and completed it the following year. He had suffered his first bout of what was then called “melancholia” in 1828, and more such sieges, many of them accompanied by frighteningly concrete suicide fantasies, followed in 1830, 1831, 1833, 1837, 1838, 1839 and 1842. His breakdown in August 1844, with trembling, tinnitus and phobias (especially with regard to heights and sharp metallic objects) was the worst of any.

Several years after this misery, he wrote to D. G. Otten, a conductor in Hamburg, that he feared the “semi-invalid state [could] be divined from the music [of the Second Symphony]. I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same, it reminds me of dark days.”

the music: beautiful and enigmatic, with nods to the past

sostenuto assai–allegro ma non troppo. The Second Symphony starts with a slow introduction—not one that exudes assurance, but one that is troubled. Brass instruments sound a summons, but the music of the wandering strings casts strange shadows across it. The summons itself, the keynote and fifth note of the scale, is so simple as to be virtually a cliché. The Allegro, which this dark exordium struggles to find, is a jagged thing, pierced even on its last pages by the summons of the first measures.

This is an interestingly eccentric movement. The first theme is sharply rhythmic, with biting accents on the second of the three beats in each measure. The harmonies veer far to the flat side before settling in the dominant, G major, with a new theme, smooth in outline, urgent in expression. The exposition is very short, and the development, mostly concerned with material from the later part of the exposition, is about two and a half times as long. Schumann, I suspect, had been studying Beethoven’s Eroica. Similarly, the coda is extraordinarily and powerfully expansive.

scherzo: allegro vivace. To offset the intensity of the first Allegro, Schumann brings not the slow movement we expect, but a Scherzo. Like the one in the Spring Symphony, it has two trios. The first one here is rustic, while the other offers a touching blend of the dreamy and the learned.

The second trio also presents, first shyly, then with growing confidence, the name BACH (B-flat/A/C/B-natural, if you use the German names for the notes). Schumann had spent the recuperative months of 1845 in an intensive study of Bach, which he felt had greatly contributed to his recovery, and his two sets of fugues, Opus 72 and Opus 60 (the latter also on the name BACH), date from that time. On the Scherzo’s last page, the fanfare rings out in triumph. The Scherzo itself is the only out-and-out virtuoso piece among Schumann’s symphonies. In all probability, every violinist in every major orchestra today has had to play its opening page at his or her audition.

adagio espressivo. Neither of the two Schumann symphonies that preceded this one (the Spring and the first version of what we now know as No. 4) had a true slow movement; here Schumann gives us one of heart-stopping beauty.

allegro molto vivace. The finale is an original and extraordinary conception in expression and structure, and, I would say, a sign of marvelous mental health. It begins with a fierce rush of energy—to be specific, a scale followed by four chords—which clears the path for an athletic, jolly and perhaps surprisingly neutral first theme.

Next, the melody of the Adagio is revisited at high speed. The first theme returns briefly, after which the initial scale, followed now by six chords, provides fuel for a vigorous development, in which remembrances from the first and third movements also have a part to play.

This driving music sings to a quiet, spacious close in C minor. What follows is one of the most tenderly poetic moments in the whole symphonic literature. It turns out that the oboe had listened carefully, as we perhaps did not, to the way the four chords of the opening gesture turned into six. At any rate, it now transforms those macho chords into a lyric melody of the most poignant sweetness, the sense of distance and mystery being enhanced by the strangeness in this context of the key, E-flat major.

After a tremendous building over rolling drums and rushing scales, the melody appears in the strings as an all but literal quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). This song had poignant significance in Schumann’s personal life. He had cited the same phrase in the glorious Piano Fantasy of 1836—a year of enforced physical separation from Clara. Now, in the mid-1840s, they were together as husband and wife, as parents of four children. But in some painful way, there was still a void between Lover and Beloved.

Nevertheless, the tender melancholy of this allusion is swept aside by gestures of triumph, by the sound of the C-major summons with which this beautiful and enigmatic symphony began. It might be some time before you realize that, while the opening four measure flourish assumed greater and greater significance throughout the finale, the “official” first and second themes had vanished from circulation altogether.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1996), used with permission.

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Mahler's Titan Symphony

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Weill: Violin Concerto

Weill reimagines the concerto as a dialogue between violin and wind band, incorporating Baroque and contemporary influences for a cool 1920s edge. The solo violin is alternately singer and master of fireworks.


Mahler: Symphony No. 1, Titan

Mahler’s First Symphony opens with evocations of birdsong and nature, then gives way to rhythms of a rustic dance, alternately vigorous and graceful. Darker themes rise, but so do exquisite melodies (and a wonderful minor-key nod to Frère Jacques), as energy builds toward the thrilling conclusion.

Full program notes:

Kurt Weill

Born: March 2, 1900, Dessau, Germany

Died: April 3, 1950, New York City

Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Opus 12

Weill composed his Violin Concerto in April and May of 1924. The 24-year-old composer could not have imagined what lay ahead: his ever-troubled but essential marriage, the stunning success of The Threepenny Opera, Hitler, emigration, struggles in Hollywood, and his triumphant reinvention of himself as the American composer of Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus and Street Scene.

a young composer finds his voice

If I were challenged to come up with a capsule characterization of Weill’s Violin Concerto, I might say “thoroughly and diversely engaging, quirky at times, with touching pages that perhaps take you by surprise.” Yet when the ink was scarcely dry, Weill described it as a “somewhat rough, abstract, completely dissonant piece,” adding for good measure that one needed to have “willingly digested a good portion of Schoenberg” in order to understand the music—an indication of how much Weill was then under the Viennese composer’s spell.

Weill, the son of a cantor, had studied in Berlin with Ferruccio Busoni, from whom he got a rock-solid technical foundation, a sense of artistic integrity and something of his own neo-Classic ideal. His hope had been to work with Schoenberg, but he could not afford the move to Vienna. The young Weill’s technical adroitness and elegance are Schoenbergian, and you can understand why that tough master was eager to take the young man on as a pupil. But I hear no direct musical influence from that source, and the music does not sound in the least like Schoenberg’s. A voice that might come to mind is Paul Hindemith’s. Like many composers of his generation, Weill found Hindemith a stimulating model, and if Weill’s Concerto has a close cousin, the place to find one would be among Hindemith’s series of delightful Kammermusiken (Chamber Musics) for various solo instruments with small orchestra, his “Brandenburgs.”

Not surprisingly, Weill’s choice of instrumentation—the stringless orchestra except for double basses—does much to define the special character of his Violin Concerto. Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds comes from 1924 and perhaps helped turn Weill’s mind in this direction. That predominant wind sonority is “1920s cool,” and the solo violin, when it is not engaged in super-athleticism, contributes a sound—and with that sound a feeling—that raises the temperature, the intensity, a certain immediacy with each entrance. The harmony is sturdily tonal at the skeleton level, but on the surface Weill is not shy about using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. The athletic soloist, whether negotiating the Bach-like jungle gyms of broken chords or whizzing up and down scales with dazzling bravura, will be particularly aware of that.

The concerto was premiered on June 11, 1925, in Paris by Marcel Darrieux and the Orchestre des Concerts Walther Straram, with Straram conducting. There are three movements, though I found it interesting, in a way even clarifying, when I read a review of the premiere, in which the writer, the eminent Henri Prunières, described the concerto as a two-movement work with a long intermezzo (actually longer than the two “real” movements).

the concerto in brief

Weill begins with a sweetly melancholic duet for clarinets, a few winds and snare drums softly marking the beat beneath. (If you know The Seven Deadly Sins you will recognize the sound.) At the surface level the music becomes faster and faster, finally to subside into the opening clarinet music again, now heard and felt as an epilogue. The violinist alternates in the roles of master of fireworks and of singer. The English writer David Drew, who knows more about Weill than Weill himself did, hears strains of the Gregorian Dies irae in this movement: I myself can barely detect this, but gladly yield to his greater knowledge.

What Prunières heard as an intermezzo is a miniature three-movement suite: Notturno, Cadenza, Serenata. (In making a chain of three more or less standard movement types, is Weill wittily in debt to the tango-waltz-ragtime sequence in Stravinsky’s Soldier's Tale?) The Notturno, far from a Chopinesque or Debussyian nightscape, approaches the moods of The Threepenny Opera. The trumpet has much to do in the accompanied or at least much punctuated cadenza. The Serenata is rhythmically playful. The blurred borders between the ghostly and the humorous suggest that the spirit of Mahler is not far away. The finale is crisp, brilliant, dancy.


solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone and double basses

Program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

Gustav Mahler

Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia

Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Titan

Mahler’s First Symphony is one of the most impressive first symphonies ever written, and it gave its young creator a great deal of trouble. He began it late in 1884, when he was only 24, and completed a first version in March 1888. But when it was first performed—to a mystified audience in Budapest on November 20, 1889—it had a form far different from the one we know today. Mahler would not even call it a symphony. For that first performance, when he called it Symphonic Poem, it was in two huge parts: three movements that made up “Days of Youth” and two more for what he called the “Human Comedy.”

Mahler had a love-hate relationship with verbal explanations of his music, denouncing them one moment and releasing new ones the next. As Mahler revised the symphony, he began to let slip quite different hints about the “meaning” of this music. At one point he called it the Titan, borrowing the title of Jean Paul Richter’s novel about a wild young hero who feels lost in this world. He also inserted several themes from his just-completed Songs of a Wayfarer, which are about his recovery from an ill-fated love affair.

But when he finally published this symphony in 1899, he had cut it to four movements, greatly expanded the orchestration, and suppressed all mention of the Titan or any other extra-musical associations. Now it was simply his Symphony No. 1.

the music: an epic journey

langsam, schleppend (slow, dragging). The very beginning—Mahler asks that it be “like a nature-sound”—is intended to evoke a quiet summer morning, and he captures that hazy, shimmering stillness with a near-silent A six octaves deep. The effect is magical, as if we are suddenly inside some vast, softly-humming machine. Soon we hear twittering birds and morning fanfares from distant military barracks. The call of the cuckoo is outlined by the interval of a falling fourth, and that figure will recur throughout the symphony, giving shape to many of its themes. Cellos announce the true first theme, which begins with the drop of a fourth—when Mahler earlier used this same theme in his Wayfarer cycle, it set the disappointed lover’s embarking on his lonely journey: “I went this morning through the fields, dew still hung upon the grass.” A noble chorus of horns, ringing out from a forest full of busy cuckoos, forms the second subject, and the brief development leads to a mighty restatement of the Wayfarer theme and an exciting close.

kräftig bewegt (with powerful movement). The second movement is based on the ländler, the rustic Austrian waltz. Winds and then violins stamp out the opening dance, full of hard edges and stomping accents, and this drives to a powerful cadence. Out of the silence, the sound of a solo horn rivets our attention—and nicely changes the mood. The central section is another ländler, but this one sings beautifully, its flowing melodies made all the more sensual by graceful slides from the violins. The movement concludes with a return of the opening material.

feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (solemn, measured, without dragging). In Mahler’s original Symphonic Poem, this movement opened the second part of the symphony. Deliberately grotesque, this music was inspired by a woodcut picturing the funeral of a hunter, whose body is borne through the woods by forest animals—deer, foxes, rabbits, shrews, birds—celebrating his death with mock pageantry. Over the timpani’s quiet tread, solo bass violin plays a lugubrious little tune that is treated as a round, a minor-key variation of the children’s song Frère Jacques.

The first episode lurches along sleazily over an oom-pah rhythm; Mahler indicates that he wants this played “with parody,” and the music echoes the klezmer street bands of Eastern Europe. But a further episode brings soft relief: muted violins offer another quotation from the Wayfarer songs, this time a theme that had set the words “By the wayside stands a linden tree, and there at last I’ve found some peace.” In the song cycle, these words marked the disappointed lover’s escape from his pain and his return to life. The march returns, and the timpani taps this movement to its nearly silent close.

stürmisch bewegt (with violent movement). Mahler said of this violent music: “the [last] movement then springs suddenly, like lightning from a dark cloud. It is simply the cry of a deeply wounded heart, preceded by the ghastly brooding oppressiveness of the funeral march.” Mahler’s original title for this movement was “From Inferno to Paradise,” and this description does reflect the progress of the finale, which moves from the seething tumult of its beginning to the triumph of the close.

Longest by far of the movements, the finale is based on two main themes: a fierce, striving figure in the winds near the beginning and a gorgeous, long-lined melody for violins shortly afterwards. The development pitches between extremes of mood as it drives to what seems a climax but is in fact a false conclusion. The music seems lost, directionless, and now Mahler makes a wonderful decision: back comes the dreamy, slow music from the symphony’s very beginning. Slowly this gathers energy, and what had been gentle at the beginning now returns in glory, shouted out by seven horns as the symphony smashes home triumphantly in D major, racing to the two whip-cracks that bring it to a thrilling conclusion.

conflicting signals

What are we to make of Mahler’s many conflicting signals as to what this symphony is “about”? Is it about youth and the “human comedy”? Is it autobiographical, the tale of his recovery from an unhappy love affair?

Late in his brief life, when he conducted this work with the New York Philharmonic in 1909, Mahler suggested yet another reading. He wrote to his disciple Bruno Walter that he was “quite satisfied with this youthful sketch….What a world this is that casts up such reflections of sounds and figures! Things like the Funeral March and the bursting of the storm which follows it seem to me a flaming indictment of the Creator.”

In the end, we must throw up our hands in the face of so much contradictory information. Perhaps it is best just to settle back and listen to Mahler’s First Symphony for itself—and the mighty symphonic journey that it is.

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (3 doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet and E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Debussy's La Mer

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake
Lyadov loved writing about “the realm of the non-existing”—here, a magical lake, misty, moonlit and shimmering.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
This concerto balances moments of song-like simplicity and thunderous virtuosity. The opening Allegro is subtle and soulful, while the latter movements offer catchy themes, ingenious variations and a feather-light waltz.


Respighi: The Fountains of Rome

Respighi desired to make the fountains of Rome sing in his four-movement symphonic poem that ranges from plaintive and gentle to triumphant and bold. Each movement celebrates a particular fountain and its own unique environment, and each at a different moment of day from dawn to dusk.

Debussy: La Mer

Debussy’s classic oceanic portrait recreates the feeling of a visit to the sea. Two slower movements surround a scherzo as a kaleidoscopic stream of musical fragments eventually builds to a stormy, dissonant close.

Full program notes:

Anatol Lyadov

Born: Born: May 11, 1855, St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: August 28, 1914, Novgorod, Russia

The Enchanted Lake, Opus 62

Born into a musical family in St. Petersburg, Anatol Lyadov studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and was invited to join the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age 23. However, for all his talent and training, he was notoriously unable to produce music. Some of this was the product of self-doubt—but he was also lazy. In the most infamous illustration of this, Lyadov had been Diaghilev’s original choice to compose the music for the Ballets Russes’ new production of The Firebird in 1910. But when Lyadov could not deliver, Diaghilev turned to an unknown young composer named Igor Stravinsky, and the course of music was changed.

“give me a fairy tale…”

As a composer, Lyadov was essentially a miniaturist, best remembered for his short piano pieces like The Musical Snuffbox. Perhaps understandably, the larger forms proved difficult for him: he wrote no operas, no symphonies, no concertos, no chamber music—his output consists exclusively of a few brief orchestral works, choral music, songs and piano pieces. Lyadov, who was very interested in Russian folk music, was happiest when he could enter the magical dream-world of folk legend. He once said: “My ideal is to find the unearthly in art. Art is the realm of the non-existing. Art is a figment, a fairy tale, a phantom. Give me a fairy tale, a dragon, a water sprite, a wood demon—give me something that is unreal, and I am happy.”

In about 1905, Rimsky-Korsakov, trying to get Lyadov to produce something worthy of his talents, suggested that he write an opera on folk legends. Lyadov liked the idea and made some sketches. And though he abandoned the project, those sketches turned into two brief orchestral pieces that have become his most popular works: both The Enchanted Lake and Kikimora spring from that “realm of the non-existing” where Lyadov was happiest.

The Enchanted Lake, first performed in 1909, is a mood-piece, muted and evocative rather than crowded with incident or drama—and one can understand why Diaghilev thought Lyadov might have been right for The Firebird. The shimmering sounds of the opening set exactly the right mood for Lyadov’s portrait of the magical lake, and throughout this brief piece he shifts colors deftly, so that his lake is by turns misty, moonlit and murmuring as the music makes its way to the subdued close.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, bass drum, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia

Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 30

In October 1906 Rachmaninoff moved from Moscow to Dresden with his wife and their daughter, Irina, aiming to take himself out of circulation. He was a busy pianist and conductor—he had just concluded two years as principal conductor at the Bolshoi Opera—and he longed for time just to write. But as offers to play and conduct kept coming in, he decided to accept an invitation to visit the United States. It was for this tour that he wrote his Third Piano Concerto, and on November 28, 1909, he introduced it with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. Soon after he played it again, and to his much greater satisfaction, with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler, another conductor struggling to find time to compose.

the music: from simplicity to virtuosity

allegro ma non tanto. Rachmaninoff invented arresting beginnings for all his works for piano and orchestra. In the first measure of the Third Concerto we find a quality we do not usually associate with Rachmaninoff: simplicity. For two measures, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani and muted strings set up a pulse against which the piano sings—or is it speaks?—a long and quiet melody, the two hands in octaves as in a Schubert piano duet. It is a lovely inspiration, that melody unfolding in subtle variation, just a few notes being continually redisposed rhythmically. Once only, to the extent of a single eighth note, does melody exceed the range of an octave; most of it stays within a fifth.

The accompaniment cost Rachmaninoff considerable trouble. He was thinking, he said, of the piano singing the melody “as a singer would sing it, and [finding] a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather, one that would not muffle this singing.” What he found invites, for precision and delicacy, comparison with the workmanship in Mozart’s concertos. The accompaniment does indeed let the singing through, but even while exquisitely tactful in its recessiveness, it is absolutely specific—a real and characterful invention, the fragmentary utterances of the violins now anticipating, now echoing the pianist’s song, the woodwinds sometimes and with utmost gentleness reinforcing the bass or joining the piano in a few notes of its melody. The further progress of the movement abounds in felicities and ingenuities, sharply imagined and elegantly executed.

intermezzo: adagio. “Intermezzo” is a curiously shy designation for a movement as expansive as this, though we shall discover that it is in fact all upbeat to a still more expansive Finale. It is a series of variations, broken up by a feather-light waltz. The clarinet-and-bassoon melody of the waltz is close cousin to the concerto’s principal theme, and the piano’s dizzying figuration, too, is made of diminutions of the same material.

finale: alla breve. When the Intermezzo yields to the explosive start of the Finale, we again find ourselves caught up in a torrent of virtuosity and invention. Rachmaninoff gives us the surprise of a series of variations on what pretends to be a new idea but is in fact an amalgam of the first movement’s second theme and the beginning of the finale. His evocations of earlier material are imaginative and structural achievements on a level far above the naive quotation-mongering of, say, César Franck or even Dvořák.

Rachmaninoff was anxious to put his best foot forward in America. His Second Concerto had already been played in New York, and Rachmaninoff wanted his new work to convey a clear sense of his growing powers as composer and pianist. It does have features in common with the Second: the sparkling, dense, yet always lucid piano style, a certain melancholy to the song, an extroverted rhetorical stance, the apotheosized ending, even the final YUM-pa-ta-TUM cadential formula that is as good as a signature. But the differences are even more important, and they are essentially matters of ambition and scope. The procedures that hold this work together are far beyond the capabilities of the composer of the Second Concerto eight years earlier.

Also, much more is asked of the pianist. The Third Concerto makes immense demands on stamina, the orchestral passages that frame the Intermezzo being the soloist’s only moments of respite. Rachmaninoff sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to listen, blend and accompany. And even in this non-prima-donna role the challenge is greater here than in the Second Concerto.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Ottorino Respighi

Born: July 9, 1879, Bologna, Italy

Died: April 18, 1936, Rome, Italy

The Fountains of Rome

Ottorino Respighi’s three sets of Roman tone poems—The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928)—are among the most popular of all orchestral works, but their early success was precarious, and the discouraged composer almost abandoned the concept. In 1916 Respighi, then a professor of composition at the Conservatory of St. Cecilia in Rome, composed a suite for orchestra inspired by four of Rome’s striking fountains. The composer had high hopes for this music, but with an apparently indifferent performance, it fell flat at its premiere in March 1917.

When Arturo Toscanini saw the score he asked to perform it at a concert in Rome to benefit Italian artists wounded in World War I. Respighi was too demoralized to attend, and predictably, Toscanini’s performance in February 1918 was so incandescent that it swept the audience away. The firm of Ricordi published the score, and The Fountains of Rome quickly established an international reputation for its surprised composer.

expressing “sentiments and visions”

The influences on the Roman trilogy have often been noted. Respighi’s studies with Rimsky-Korsakov show up in the sumptuous sound of the orchestra, while Richard Strauss’ tone poems provide the model for this sort of orchestral pictorialism. Yet Respighi transcends those influences: he writes for a larger, more varied orchestra than Rimsky-Korsakov ever used, and his musical aims are different from those of Strauss. While Strauss used the orchestra to tell a story, Respighi is not so much interested in musical narrative as he is in creating atmosphere.

And Respighi was a master at evoking atmosphere. He made his intentions clear in a preface to the score: “In this symphonic poem the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome’s fountains, contemplated at the hour in which their character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or in which their beauty appears most impressive to the observer.”

synopses from the composer

In the score, Respighi also provided brief synopses of the four movements of The Fountains of Rome, which are played without pause.

the Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The first part of the poem, inspired by the Fountain of Valle Giulia, depicts a pastoral landscape; droves of cattle pass and disappear in the fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.

the Triton Fountain in the morning. A sudden loud and insistent blast of horns above the trills of the whole orchestra introduces the second part, the Triton Fountain. It is like a joyous call, summoning troops of naiads and tritons, who come running up, pursuing each other and mingling in a frenzied dance between the jets of water.

the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. Next there appears a solemn theme, borne on the undulations of the orchestra. It is the Fountain of Trevi at mid-day. The solemn theme, passing from the woodwinds to the brass instruments, assumes a triumphal character. Trumpets peal; across the radiant surface of the water there passes Neptune’s chariot, drawn by seahorses and followed by a train of sirens and tritons. The procession then vanishes, while faint trumpet blasts resound in the distance.

the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset. The fourth part, the Villa Medici Fountain, is announced by a sad theme, which rises above a subdued warbling. It is the nostalgic hour of sunset. The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, birds twittering, leaves rustling. Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, glockenspiel, chimes, 2 harps, piano, celesta, organ and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Claude Debussy

Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France

La Mer

In the summer of 1903, the 41-year-old Debussy took a cottage in the French wine country, where he set to work on a new orchestral piece inspired by his feelings about the sea. To André Messager he wrote, “I expect you will say that the hills of Burgundy aren’t washed by the sea and that what I’m doing is like painting a landscape in a studio, but my memories are endless and are in my opinion worth more than the real thing, which tends to pull down one’s ideas too much.”

the sea as a concept

Had Richard Strauss written this work, he would have made us hear the thump of waves along the shoreline, the cries of wheeling sea-birds, the hiss of foam across the sand. Debussy’s aims were far different: he wanted this music to give us the feeling of being in the ocean’s presence, to feel the idea, particularly his own idea, of the ocean. Thus La Mer sets out not to make us see whitecaps—but to awaken in us a sense of the sea’s elemental power and beauty.

La Mer consists of two moderately paced movements surrounding a scherzo, created from seeming fragments of musical materials. We discover hints of themes, rhythmic shapes and flashes of color that reappear throughout the work, like kaleidoscopic bits in an evolving mosaic of color and rhythm.

from dawn to noon on the sea. The work begins with a murmur, quiet yet strong. Out of darkness, glints of color and motion emerge, and solo trumpet and English horn share a fragmentary tune that will also return in the final movement. As the morning brightens, the music becomes more animated, and a wealth of ideas follows: swirling rhythms, a noble horn chorale, a dancing figure for the cello section. At the movement’s close, the horn chorale builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax. Out of this splendid sound, a solitary brass chord winds the music into silence.

play of the waves. Opening with shimmering swirls of color, the second movement is brilliant, dancing and surging throughout—it has a sense of fun and play, as a scherzo should. One moment it can be sparkling and light, the next it will surge up darkly. In the delicate close, solo instruments seem to evaporate into the shining mist.

dialogue of wind and sea. The mood changes sharply at the beginning of the final movement, which Debussy specifies should sound “animated and tumultuous.” The ominous growl of lower strings prefaces a restatement of the trumpet tune from the very beginning, and soon the horn chorale returns as well. Woodwinds sing gently and wistfully before the music builds to a huge explosion. Moments later their tune returns in a touch of pure instrumental magic: against rippling harps and the violins’ high harmonics, solo flute brings back this melody with the greatest delicacy. The effect is extraordinary—suddenly we feel a sense of enormous space and calm. Yet within seconds this same shape roars out with all the power of the full orchestra. Earlier themes are recalled and whipped into the vortex as the music hurtles to a tremendous climax, with dissonant brass shrieking out the final chord.

Debussy may be popularly identified as the composer of “impressionistic” moods, full of muted color and subtle understatement. The conclusion of La Mer, however, is anything but the music of water lilies: it is driven by a force beyond human imagination. The normally understated Debussy makes us feel that wild strength in the most violent ending he ever wrote.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Beethoven's Emperor Concerto

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance | Read Kenny Broberg Bio (pdf)

One-minute notes:

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor

Beethoven’s last and best-known piano concerto, the Fifth, is permeated with power, nobility, and energy. After a grand first movement full of wide leaps and frequent cadenzas, a reflective Adagio and a dance-like Rondo cap this touchstone of the piano literature, composed in Vienna near the time of Napoleon’s siege of the city in 1809.


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Shostakovich’s Tenth is a work of great extremes, requiring delicate strands of sound from a massive ensemble, framing tiny movements with huge ones, communicating darkly but rising to a high-spirited conclusion. Many assumed this enigmatic symphony was a protest against Stalin and his oppression, but the composer would acknowledge only that his wish was “to portray human emotions and passions.”.

Full program notes:

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 73, Emperor

In the spring of 1809 Napoleon, intent upon consolidating his hold on Europe, went to war with Austria. He laid siege to Vienna in May, and after a brief bombardment the city surrendered to the French and was occupied through the remainder of the year. The royal family fled early in May and did not return until January 1810, but Beethoven remained behind throughout the shelling and occupation, and it was during this period that he completed his Fifth Piano Concerto.

noble and powerful

Some critics have been ready to take their cue from the French occupation and to understand the concerto as Beethoven’s response to it. But Beethoven was not swept up in the fervor of the fighting: he found the occupation a source of stress and depression. During the shelling, he hid in the basement of his brother Caspar’s house, where he wrapped his head in pillows to protect his ears. “The course of events has affected my body and soul,” he wrote to his publishers. “Life around me is wild and disturbing, nothing but drums, cannons, soldiers, misery of every sort.”

Thus the concerto Beethoven wrote during this period is noble and powerful despite the military occupation rather than because of it. In fact, Beethoven had done much of the work on the concerto before the French army entered Vienna: his earliest sketches date from February 1809, and he appears to have had the concerto largely complete by April, before the fighting began.

Beethoven’s hearing, which was deteriorating rapidly at the time he wrote this concerto, had become so weak that he knew he could not give the first performance of the work; thus it is the only piano concerto he wrote but did not premiere as soloist. That honor went instead to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron and pupil, in a performance on January 13, 1811, at the Palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in Vienna.

the music: defying expectations

allegro. Beethoven defies expectations from the opening instant of this music. The Allegro bursts to life with a resplendent E-flat major chord for the whole orchestra, but this is not the start of the expected orchestral exposition. Instead, that chord opens the way for a cadenza by the solo piano, a cadenza that the orchestra punctuates twice more with powerful chords before sweeping into the movement’s main theme and the true exposition.

This first movement is marked by a spaciousness and grandeur far removed from Beethoven’s misery over the fighting that wracked Vienna. Here is music of shining sweep, built on two main ideas, both somewhat in the manner of marches: the strings’ vigorous main subject and a poised second theme, sounded first by the strings, then repeated memorably as a duet for horns. After so vigorous an exposition, the entrance of the piano feels understated, as it ruminates on the two main themes, but soon the piano part, full of octaves, wide leaps and runs, becomes as difficult as it is brilliant. At a length of nearly 20 minutes, this is one of Beethoven’s longest first movements, longer than the final two movements combined. Beethoven maintains strict control: he does not allow the soloist the freedom to create his own cadenza but instead writes out a brief cadential treatment of themes before the movement hurtles to its powerful close.

adagio un poco mosso. The second movement transports us to a different world altogether. Gone is the energy of the first movement; now we seem in the midst of sylvan calm. Beethoven moves to the remote key of B major and mutes the strings, which sing the hymn-like main theme. There follow two extended variations on that rapt melody. The first, for piano over quiet accompaniment, might almost be labeled Chopinesque in its expressive freedom, while the second is for winds, embellished by the piano’s steady strands of 16ths.

rondo: allegro. The second movement concludes on a low B, and then Beethoven drops everything a half-step to B-flat. Out of that unusual change, the piano begins, very gradually, to outline a melodic idea, which struggles to take shape and direction. And suddenly it does—as if these misty imaginings have been hit with an electric current that snaps them to vibrant life as the movement’s main theme. Lyric episodes alternate with some of Beethoven’s most rhythmically energized writing: this music seems to want to dance. Near the close comes one of its most striking moments, a duet for piano and timpani, which taps out the movement’s fundamental rhythm. Then the piano leaps up to energize the full orchestra, which concludes with one final recall of the rondo theme.

a note on the title

Today we use the nickname Emperor almost reflexively—but it did not originate with the composer, and Beethoven’s denunciation of Napoleon’s self-coronation suggests that he would not have been sympathetic to it at all. It is almost certain that Beethoven never heard it applied to the concerto, and its source remains unknown.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93

Shostakovich and other Russian composers were pilloried at the infamous 1948 Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers, a showcase inquisition put on by a government intent on keeping its artists on a short leash. Shostakovich was dismissed from his teaching positions and forced to read a humiliating confession. Then, as he supported his family by writing film scores and patriotic music, he privately composed the music he wanted to write and kept it back, waiting for a more liberal atmosphere. Soon after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, he set to work on his Tenth Symphony, which was completed that October and premiered by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic that December 17.

a matter of debate

This imposing work, dark and somber, touched off a firestorm in Russia, where it was regarded as a challenge to Soviet control of Russian artists. A conference was called in Moscow in the spring of 1954 to try to come to terms with music that was so politically incorrect. After three days of debate, the conference came to a compromise approval of this music, declaring—with considerable mental gymnastics—that the Shostakovich Tenth represented “an optimistic tragedy.”

the music: struggles, signatures and shifts

moderato. The music begins quietly and ominously, with rising and falling patterns of three notes. More animated material follows: a wistful tune for solo clarinet and a dark waltz for solo flute. Simple figures explode violently across the span of this movement, which rises to a series of craggy climaxes. After so much mighty struggle, the movement vanishes on the most delicate strands of sound: solo piccolo, barely audible timpani rolls and widely spaced pizzicato strokes.

allegro. The second movement, brief and brutal, rips to life with frenzied energy and does not stop until it vanishes on a whirlwind. Listeners will detect the rising pattern of three notes that opened the first movement, but here they are spit out like bursts of machine-gun fire. Some view this movement as a musical portrait of Stalin, but the composer’s son Maxim has specifically denied this.

allegretto. After the fury of the second movement, the third begins almost whimsically. The violins’ opening gesture repeats the three-note phrase that underpins so much of this symphony, and we move to what is distinctive about this movement: one of the earliest appearances of Shostakovich’s musical signature in his works. High woodwinds toot out the four-note motto D/E-flat/C/B. In German notation, E-flat is S and B is H, and the resulting motto spells DSCH, the composer’s initials in their German spelling: Dmitri SCHostakovich. This musical calling card would appear in many subsequent Shostakovich works, at times seeming to be an assertion of Shostakovich’s existence and his independence. Also notable is this movement’s horn call, ringing out 12 times across its span. In this enigmatic movement, one senses a private drama being played out. The music slides into silence with lonely woodwinds chirping out the DSCH motto one final time.

andante – allegro. The finale opening returns to the mood of the very beginning, with somber low strings beneath lonely woodwind cries. When our sensibilities are thoroughly darkened, Shostakovich suddenly shifts gears. Solo clarinet offers a taut call to order, and the violins launch into an Allegro that pushes the symphony to an almost too conventional happy ending.

What are we to make of this conclusion, apparently shaped by the requisite high spirits of Socialist Realism? It has unsettled many listeners, who feel it a violation of the powerful music that preceded it. The source of the power of this work continues to elude our understanding, even as we are swept up in its somber strength.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo (1 flute also doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, xylophone and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: West Side Story

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Full program notes:

Leonard Bernstein

Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

West Side Story

In 1947, choreographer/director Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein with what the composer called in his diary “a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics… Street brawls, double death – it all fits.” The idea lay dormant until 1955, when a Los Angeles newspaper headline about Latino gang problems inspired an exciting new path. With the hiring of 25-year-old composer Stephen Sondheim, who reluctantly signed on to provide lyrics only, the final pieces fell into place.

After two years of rewriting and struggles to raise financing, West Side Story’s 1957 Broadway opening elicited reactions that ranged from passionate raves to stunned walk-outs. The latter were sparked by the musical’s depiction of gang warfare and prejudice, and its near unprecedented body count for a musical on the Great White Way. The show was largely snubbed at the Tony Awards in favor of a more accessible rival, The Music Man.

Nevertheless, audiences in New York and London (where the show was an instant smash) quickly caught up with the innovations of Robbins’ explosive, character-driven choreography, Arthur Laurents’ ingenious transposition of Shakespeare, and the thrilling Bernstein score, with lyrics by Sondheim, that included “Tonight” and “Maria.” When Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise joined forces to co-direct the 1961 screen version for United Artists, starring box office favorite Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer (The Diary of Anne Frank), the result was one of the decade’s greatest commercial and critical triumphs.

The film’s co-stars, George Chakiris (Bernardo) and Rita Moreno (Anita), took home Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. In all, the film won 10 Academy Awards: for Best Art Direction–Set Decoration, Color; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Costume Design, Color (the winner, Irene Sharaff, also worked on the Broadway original); Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; Best Sound; Best Director (for both Robbins and Wise, the first time this award was shared); and Best Picture. Jerome Robbins also received an honorary Academy Award “for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”

a state-of-the-art live performance

Fifty-seven after its original release, the motion picture West Side Story will be presented today in a format that brings its own innovations. MGM has created a restored, high-definition print of the film that reveals details unseen since 1961. A new sound technology developed by Paris-based Audionamix and utilized by Chace Audio by Deluxe, one of the film industry’s top restoration companies, has isolated vocal tracks from the feature, using new source-separation technology that separates elements within a monophonic soundtrack.

In the case of West Side Story, Audionamix “taught” its technology to recognize and then remove orchestral elements on the sound- track while retaining vocals, dialogue, and effects. This allows the Minnesota Orchestra and today’s conductor, David Newman, to accompany the vocals. Newman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the first-ever live performance of this production in 2011.

Although the original musical materials for the movie arrangements were lost, 14 months of research by Eleonor M. Sandresky of The Leonard Bernstein Office brought to light a trove of important finds in private collections and library archives around the country. From materials discovered in the papers of orchestrator Sid Ramin, as well as in the archives of conductor/music supervisor Johnny Green, director Robert Wise and producer Walter Mirisch, she was able to assemble a mock-up short score of the complete film. Garth Edwin Sunderland, Senior Music Editor for the Bernstein Office, restored and adapted the orchestration for live performance. At the same time, Sunderland oversaw the creation of a brand new engraving of the entire film score, right down to last-minute modifications made on the scoring stage in 1961.

The final result is a presentation of West Side Story unlike any in the history of this screen musical.

Program note by Steven Smith, an Emmy-nominated documentary producer, journalist, and author of the biography A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann.

Program Notes: Fauré Requiem

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Rigel: Symphony No. 4
This brief symphony comes from a composer who was well-respected in the musical circles of 18th-century France; yet much of Rigel’s work was hidden in the shadow of Haydn and is little-known today. The outer movements drive ahead with intensity, while the central Andantino offers a simple, elegant arc.

Mozart: Symphony No. 31, Paris
To please the Parisian audiences that were known to love bold and dramatic new music, Mozart used all of the resources available to him when scoring his Paris Symphony for the largest orchestra he had yet used—with added personnel in the strings and a full contingent of wind instruments.


Fauré: Pavane
Graceful in melody and airy of texture, this music is distinguished by the restraint of its emotional display and its gentle solo woodwinds. Today’s performance features the rarely-heard version with chorus.

Fauré: Requiem
Fauré’s Requiem is the gentlest of all settings of the Mass for the Dead, casting aside the darkness of the Dies Irae emphasized by other composers in favor of a vision that assumes salvation, ultimate redemption and rest. Instrumental colors are generally from the darker lower spectrum, as in the opening of the Agnus Dei, where violas play one of the most graceful melodies ever written for the instrument. In the finale, the soprano section takes the part of the angels who draw us into paradise.

Full program notes:

Henri-Joseph Rigel

Born: February 9, 1741, Wertheim am Main, Germany
Died: May 2, 1799, Paris, France

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 12, No. 4

For someone in the business of musical archeology (if that’s indeed a thing), the experience of unearthing a forgotten, yet first-rate composer must be the find of a lifetime; even a career-making thing. After all these years, can there possibly be excellent composers still left to discover from the days of Haydn and Mozart?

Apparently, there’s at least one: consider the case of Henri-Joseph Rigel, who spent most of his career in Paris. Those involved in the rediscovery of the German-born Rigel deserve our thanks, because his music is full of imagination and individuality. Personally, I was astonished to learn about him. During my 30 years in the Minnesota Orchestra’s viola section, not once has his name come up, even in passing. In fact, these concerts mark Rigel’s first appearance on any program in the Orchestra’s 115-year history, so you’ll be forgiven for wondering, mid-performance, how Rigel has escaped detection all these years. Perhaps that is where we should begin.

a time of tectonic shifts

Paris at the time of Monsieur Rigel’s residency—about 1760 through the century’s end—was a terribly confusing place to live for a composer, or for any citizen, for that matter. It was a time of tectonic shifts in French politics (a euphemism for the very bloody French Revolution), and the highly-respected Rigel had the misfortune to die at 58, right in the middle of the chaotic collapse of the Republic. As a result, his posthumous reputation was probably doomed, as his music was neglected for many years.

But there is another layer to this story. Tectonic shifts were simultaneously happening in the musical tastes of the Parisian public, and Rigel happened to align with the losing side of musical history. The flavor of the day had become the Austrian Franz Joseph Haydn, whose sophisticated, poised symphonies had become immensely popular in Paris in relatively short order. 

One historian posits that the success of Haydn in Paris “nearly dealt a death blow” to French symphonists. Indeed, Rigel actually quit writing symphonies after completing 20, bowing to the forces of changing tastes and Haydn’s success.

But Rigel’s output remained high: he also wrote 14 operas, dozens of harpsichord pieces and at least six string quartets, among other works. In fact, he was a well-loved and highly respected composer during his time—he was a founder of the Paris Conservatoire—and his conducting talents led him to become head of the resident orchestra there and teacher of young César Franck. In summary, Rigel was, at one time, a really big deal.

music of drama, intensity and beauty

Rigel’s music is especially notable for its “Sturm und Drang” style (literally “Storm and Stress”), a movement popular with Parisian audiences who favored bigger orchestras and more dramatic music. That is audible from the first bars of his Fourth Symphony, which jumps off the page with crackling intensity. Rigel was a naturally gifted melodist; witness the slow movement, as beautiful, simple and tuneful as anything Schubert would write. The three-movement affair closes with a finale of effervescent energy driven forward by the irrepressible strings.

for further fun…

At home, consider putting on a recording of some Rigel for friends—especially those who think they know a lot about classical music. This is a “guess-the-composer” quiz they are doomed to fail! (Some honorable mention answers: Schubert, C.P.E. Bach and Johann Baptist Vanhal—or for bonus points, František Benda.)

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 300a [K. 297], Paris

Between 1774 and 1778, his eighteenth to twenty-second years, Mozart did not write a single symphony. He composed nearly 100 other works during this period, but not until his visit to Paris in the spring of 1778 did he have occasion to write another symphony—inevitably, of course, given the moniker Paris.

Mozart took care to write a work tailored to the prevailing Parisian taste. One feature of the Symphony No. 31 that sets it apart from most others in his catalog, including all 30 that preceded it, is the size of the orchestra. It requires a full wind complement of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets (used for the very first time in a Mozart symphony) and bassoons, plus horns, trumpets and timpani. In addition, the string section Mozart had at his disposal in Paris was far larger than what he was used to in Salzburg: reportedly 40 members strong at the symphony’s premiere on June 12, 1778.

a symphony catered to French tastes

In structuring the symphony, Mozart omitted the minuet movement, which was not yet accepted in Parisian symphonies, and kept the harmonic scheme simple throughout.

allegro assai. A notable feature of the first movement is the premier coup d’archet (first stroke of the bow), which in French style meant a loud, big chord from the full string section. Mozart obliged the French by including all the winds as well.

andantino. The central movement has been the subject of considerable debate, for Mozart wrote two entirely different movements to go with this symphony. The man behind the commission, Joseph (also known as Jean) Le Gros, was dissatisfied with the movement played at the symphony’s premiere, so the composer humored the man’s questionable judgment and wrote another shortly thereafter. However, due to confusion regarding tempo markings and autograph versus published scores, we are not certain today which was really the “original” movement. The only means of identifying them unequivocally is by meter: 6/8 or 3/4. Many orchestras today play the movement in 6/8; that version is heard at tonight’s performance. (Stay tuned, though, for a word from the conductor before intermission.)

allegro. Atypically for a Mozart symphony, the final movement begins softly, and the composer gauged its effect correctly. The audience at the first performance was still chattering away following the conclusion of the slow movement (audience behavior is markedly different today!), so when the music was perceived through the din, there were cries of “Hush! Hush!” Just about the point where everyone was “hushed,” the full orchestra came crashing in with overflowing joy and exuberance. The audience immediately broke out in applause at being caught off guard like this—another departure from modern concert decorum.

Mary Ann Feldman, former Showcase editor and annotator, offers this verdict: “Brilliant and capricious rather than profound, the Paris Symphony brings to mind, in paraphrase, what Goethe said about his short-lived contemporary: Nothing can explain the phenomenon of Mozart but genius—and it is through such genius that God works his miracles.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Gabriel Fauré

Born: May 12, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died: November 4, 1924, Paris, France

Pavane in F-sharp minor, Opus 50

When discussing some French composers, the same words turn up again and again: precision, craft, elegance and—not the least—restraint. With such a piece as Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, they are no doubt appropriate. The music reflects the man, who was refined, discerning and invariably described as “aristocratic,” though his career gave him little in the way of leisure or affluence.

organist, teacher, composer—and harmonic pioneer

The youngest of six children in a family of modest means, Fauré first attended a school housed in a medieval convent. From his earliest years he developed a penchant for ancient music that later would be reflected in his fusion of old modality with the 19th-century harmonic system—a direction that made him one of the pioneers of 20th-century harmony.

Starting at age 21, Fauré took a series of church organ positions first in Rennes, then Paris. His lengthiest affiliation was with the famous church of the Madeleine on the Place de la Concorde, where he started out in 1874 as deputy for the principal organist, Camille Saint-Saëns. Twin career triumphs came in 1896, when Fauré was named principal organist at Madeleine and was appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. There he was revered by his pupils, including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, for cultivating an atmosphere of artistic freedom.

Despite the exhausting demands of a double career as organist and teacher, Fauré composed a substantial number of works, most of them during his summer holidays, all of them in an idiom distinctively his own, fundamentally untouched by the Wagnerisms of the day. He was by nature averse to extravagant orchestral effects, and he produced relatively few works for orchestra, instead focusing primarily on art songs and chamber music. Today’s concert offers two of the Frenchman’s works for vocalists and orchestra: the Pavane and the Requiem.

the spirit of the past

Many French composers of Fauré’s time recreated the spirit of the past, especially in fragile, evocative pieces that recalled the elegance and artifice of the rococo, or Late Baroque—the early-18th century artistic movement that reacted against the strict restrictions of the Baroque, instead emphasizing a more graceful approach. Fauré’s Pavane dates from 1887 (characteristically composed during summertime), when he was called upon to contribute music for an entertainment at the Opéra-Comique that was conceived in the pastoral spirit of a painting by the rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Graceful in melody and airy of texture, this work is also distinguished by the restraint of its emotional display. Fauré’s use of solo woodwind is as gentle and refined as the pastel colorations of rococo art. The title itself suggests a nostalgia for the past, one far preceding the rococo: the pavane was a slow, dignified court dance of the 16th century thought to have originated in Spain.

with or without voices?

Two versions of Fauré’s Pavane premiered in quick succession in November 1888: one for orchestra alone, and the other with a chorus added on top of the same instrumentals. The choral lyrics were written by Robert de Montesquiou, a French poet, art collector and intellectual of Fauré’s time. Although the Pavane is nowadays seldom performed with voices, these concerts feature the version with chorus included.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Requiem, Opus 48

Setting the Requiem Mass for the Dead to music is a challenge which makes certain composers reveal their deepest nature, and when we hear their Requiem settings, we peer deep into their souls. From the self-conscious pageantry of the Berlioz Requiem to the lyric drama of Verdi, from the independence of Brahms (who chose his own texts to make it a distinctly German Requiem) to the anguish of Britten’s War Requiem, a setting of the Requiem text can become a spectacularly different thing in each  composer’s hands.

the gentlest of settings

What most distinguishes the Requiem of Gabriel Fauré is its calm, for sure this spare and understated music is the gentlest of all settings. Where Berlioz storms the heavens with a huge orchestra and chorus, Fauré rarely raises his voice above quiet supplication. Verdi employs four brilliant soloists in an almost operatic setting, but Fauré keeps his drama quietly unobtrusive. 

While Brahms shouts out the triumph of resurrection over the grave, Fauré calmly fixes his eyes on paradise. Britten is outraged by warfare, but Fauré remains at peace throughout.

Much of the serenity of Fauré’s Requiem results from his alteration of the text, for he omits the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) of the traditional text. Berlioz and Verdi evoke the shrieking horror of damnation, but Fauré ignores it—his vision of death foresees not damnation, but only salvation. While he reinserts a line from the Dies Irae in the Libera me, the effect remains one of quiet confidence in redemption. Fauré underlines this by concluding with an additional section, In Paradisum—that title reminds us of the emphasis of the entire work, and Fauré brings his music to a quiet resolution on the almost inaudible final word “requiem” (rest).

the Requiem’s evolution

The Fauré Requiem has become one of the best-loved of all liturgical works, but it took shape very slowly. The mid-1880s found Fauré struggling as a composer. He had achieved modest early success with a violin sonata and piano quartet, but now, in his 40s, he remained virtually unknown as a composer. For more than 25 years he supported himself by serving as choirmaster and organist at the Madeleine, and it was during these years—particularly following the death of his father in 1885—that Fauré began to plan his Requiem setting. He was just completing the score when his mother died on January 31, 1887. The first performance took place at the Madeleine two weeks later, on February 16.

But the music performed on that occasion was very different from the version we know today. It was scored for a chamber ensemble and was in only five movements rather than seven. Over the next decade, Fauré returned to the score several times and changed it significantly. The orchestration began to grow, and he added two movements: the Offertorium in 1889 and the Libera me in 1892. The “final” version dates from about 1900.

the music: “from a twilight world”

The Fauré Requiem seems to come from a twilight world. There are no fast movements here (Fauré’s favorite tempo markings, which recur throughout, are Andante moderato and Molto adagio), dynamics are for the most part subdued, and instrumental colors are generally from the darker lower spectrum. Violin sections were added only in the final version, and even here they remain silent in three of the seven movements. In the Introit and Kyrie, the chorus almost whispers its first entrance on the words “Requiem aeternam,” and while the movement soon begins to flow, this prayer for mercy comes to a pianissimo conclusion.

At this point in a Requiem Mass should come the Dies Irae, with its description of the horrors of damnation, the admission of man’s unworthiness, and an abject prayer for mercy. Fauré skips this movement altogether and goes directly to the Offertorium with its baritone solo at “Hostias.” This movement, which Fauré composed and added to the Requiem the year after its original premiere, comes to one of the most beautiful conclusions in all the choral literature as the long final Amen seems to float weightlessly outside time and space. Fauré does finally deploy his brass instruments in the Sanctus, but even this movement comes to a shimmering, near-silent close.

The Pie Jesu brings a complete change. In his German Requiem, Brahms used a soprano soloist in only one of the seven movements, and Fauré does the same thing here. The effect—almost magical—is the same in both works: Above the dark sound of those two settings, the soprano’s voice sounds silvery and pure as she sings a message of consolation.

At the start of the Agnus Dei the violas play one of the most graceful melodies ever written for that instrument, a long, flowing strand of song that threads its way through much of the movement. Tenors introduce the text of this movement, which rises to a sonorous climax, and at the point Fauré brings back the Requiem aeternam from the very beginning; the violas return to draw the movement to its close.

The final two movements set texts from the Burial Service rather than from the Mass for the Dead. The Libera me was composed in its earliest form in 1877, and Fauré adapted it for the Requiem in 1892. Over pulsing, insistent pizzicatos, the baritone soloist sings an urgent prayer for deliverance. The choir responds in fear, and the music rises to its most dramatic moment on horn calls and the sole appearance in the entire work of a line from the Dies Irae. But the specter of damnation passes quickly, and the movement concludes with one last plea for salvation.

That comes in the final movement. Concluding with In Paradisum points at the special character of the Fauré Requiem: It assumes salvation, and if Fauré believed that death was “a happiness beyond the grave,” he shows us that in his concluding movement. There is a surprising parallel between the conclusions of the Fauré Requiem and the Mahler Fourth Symphony, composed in 1900: Both finales feel consciously light after what has gone before, both offer a vision of paradise, and in both cases it is the sound of the soprano voice that leads us into that world of innocence and peace. Mahler’s soprano soloist presents a child’s unaffected vision of heaven, while Fauré has the soprano section take the part of the angels who draw us into paradise. Fauré “wanted to do something different” with his Requiem, and he achieves that in a finale that quietly arrives at “eternal happiness.”

Fauré’s Requiem has been called pagan rather than Christian, no doubt by those who miss the imminence of judgment. But it is hard to see this gentle invocation of Christ and the mercy of God—and confidence in paradise—as pagan. Rather, it remains a quiet statement of faith in ultimate redemption and rest, one so disarmingly beautiful as to appeal to believer and non-believer alike.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with soprano and baritone vocal soloists, plus orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, organ and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto No. 3

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Tchaikovsky Marathon: Hardly failures
At first glance, this program might seem to offer a collection of Tchaikovsky’s misfires. It opens with his least-familiar symphony, continues with a piano concerto he assembled from an abandoned symphony, and concludes with a ballet score that brought down on the poor composer the most painful failure he ever endured professionally. Though these three works were not immediate triumphs for Tchaikovsky, they clearly flow from the pen of a master, and are most worthy of listening.

It may seem incomprehensible that Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake could have been attacked for its complexity or derided for being “too Wagnerian,” yet it was. Today it ranks as one of his most popular ballets (and in recent years, crossed paths with cinema through its central focus in the film Black Swan). The Third may be the least-played of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, but it offers distinct pleasures of its own: it is Tchaikovsky’s only symphony in a major key, and one senses its kinship with ballet throughout. Tchaikovsky composed a symphony in 1892, but abandoned it. Rather than burning his manuscript, though, he converted the symphony’s first movement into a piano concerto. This concerto is rarely played, so enjoy this performance—Tchaikovsky himself never heard it.

One-minute notes:

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3
The Third Symphony by Tchaikovsky is an oddity among the composer’s collection, straying from many of the structures expected of a symphonic work. It contains a German waltz, carries the Polish nickname, but is especially Russian in character. It is the composer’s only symphony based in a major key, yet it begins with a funeral march. Tchaikovsky even ventured away from routine by adding a fifth movement to the standard four-movement form.

Piano Concerto No. 3
Tchaikovsky’s one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 offers moments of chamber-like intimacy as well as grand theatrics, with a glittering cadenza at its core.


Suite from Swan Lake
In the fairy tale on which the worldwide audience favorite Swan Lake is based, Prince Siegfried triumphs over an evil sorcerer, rescuing his beloved Odette and other maidens who had been transformed into swans. Music Director Osmo Vänskä has selected a suite for today’s performance that includes the famous Waltz marking the Prince’s birthday celebration, the delicate Dance of the Swans and the fiery Mazurka, among other evocative movements.

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 3 in D major, Opus 19

Premiered: November 19, 1875

Following the Moscow Conservatory’s spring term in 1875, Tchaikovsky spent a relaxed summer visiting friends and relatives in Russia and the Ukraine. That summer he began his Third Symphony, but he was in no hurry. To friends he wrote that he was “working in a leisurely way…I don’t sit for hours at a time, but walk a great deal.” Nevertheless, the 35-year-old composer had the symphony complete by August 12, and Nikolai Rubinstein led the premiere in Moscow at a concert of the Russian Music Society on November 19. The work had a reasonable success, but the perpetually self-critical composer offered his own ambivalent review to his fellow Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov: “It seems to me that the symphony doesn’t present any particularly successful ideas—but technically it’s a step forward.”

The Third is the most unusual of Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies—it is the only one in a major key and the only one with five movements—yet it remains the least familiar of that cycle. The standard criticism is that the Third demonstrates Tchaikovsky’s problems with symphonic form: development tends to ramble, the movements do not depend on contrast and organic growth, and there seems little relation between the five movements. Yet the cheerful Third Symphony has virtues that will continue to please audiences for years to come: its three central movements are extremely attractive, the symphony offers some of Tchaikovsky’s most infectious melodies, and the music—at many points reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores—is brightly-colored and energetic.

the music: charming inner movements and an

energetic finale

introduzione ed allegro–moderato assai (tempo marcia funebre). The symphony may nominally be in D major, but it begins in D minor with a slow introduction that Tchaikovsky specifies should be “In the tempo of a funeral march.” This music hardly sounds funereal, however, and it gradually accelerates to the sturdy Allegro brillante main idea, now firmly in D major. The second theme—a falling lyric melody for oboe marked molto espressivo—is especially effective. Tchaikovsky develops both of these at length and drives the movement to a full-throated conclusion.

alla tedesca: allegro moderato e semplice. The three inner movements are cut from entirely different material, and each has a different charm. Tchaikovsky himself felt that the symphony had two scherzo movements, but few would call the second movement a true scherzo. Tchaikovsky marks it Alla tedesca (“In the German style”), and it is in fact a graceful waltz, introduced by woodwinds over pizzicato strings; a middle section based on chattering triplets leads to the return of the opening material and a quiet close.

andante: elegiaco. This “elegy” returns to D minor as flutes sing the delicate main opening; consolation comes in the second section, a warm and flowing idea for strings that Tchaikovsky specifies should be molto espressivo.

scherzo: allegro vivo. The fourth movement is the true scherzo, and it has occasioned much comment. Tchaikovsky was apparently aiming for the kind of shimmering rush that Mendelssohn achieved in his scherzos, and he succeeds admirably in this movement, built on whirling, skittering textures. The music itself is virtually athematic; Tchaikovsky’s contemporary César Cui noted that this movement is “interesting only as sound, almost without musical content.”

finale: allegro con fuoco (tempo di Polacca). The energetic finale bursts to life as the full orchestra shouts out the spirited opening. A firm woodwind choir brings the second section, but the opening theme will dominate this movement. Perhaps anxious to show off his developing symphonic technique, Tchaikovsky anchors the development on fugal treatments of the opening theme. The splendid coda, though, makes use of both themes and drives the Third Symphony to its powerful concluding chords.

a note on the title

Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony has for many years been tagged with a completely spurious nickname: Polish. Tchaikovsky marked the last movement “tempo di Polacca,” but this music bears no relation to Polish themes or rhythms. That marking, though, did inspire the English conductor Sir August Manns to “discover” an elaborate program for this music, which he felt depicted “Poland mourning in her oppression and rejoicing in her regeneration.” This interpretation, which came six years after Tchaikovsky’s death and inspired the nickname, is nonsense, and the subtitle Polish should be forgotten.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 75

Premiered: January 19, 1895

Throughout his life Tchaikovsky worried that he had dried up as a composer. After his Fourth Symphony of 1877, he fell into a long creative trough and did not write his Fifth Symphony until 11 years had passed. In May 1892 he moved to a new house in Klin, outside of Moscow, and there he tried to write another symphony. Almost immediately he ran into trouble, noting in a letter to a friend: “I have begun to compose a symphony but it doesn’t go as smoothly as I might wish. I’m afraid that this is the beginning of the end, i.e., that is that I’ve written myself out.” Tchaikovsky pressed on with the symphony across all of 1892, and by December he had it sketched and partially orchestrated. But at that point the despondent composer gave up: he said that the “impression it creates is far from flattering” and decided to destroy it.

transforming the music

But Tchaikovsky did not destroy the manuscript for the symphony. Instead, he concluded that while it might not be successful as a symphony, it could be converted into music for solo piano and orchestra, and he re-cast its opening movement as his one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3. Tchaikovsky died suddenly in November 1893 without ever having heard this work. Its premiere did not take place until January 19, 1895, when Sergei Taneyev was the soloist in St. Petersburg, and since then the Third Piano Concerto has remained one of the least-familiar of Tchaikovsky’s major works.

Transforming a symphonic movement into a concerto movement brings particular challenges. In a symphonic movement, the emphasis is on the development of the musical argument, while a concerto movement is conceived from the beginning to spotlight a soloist’s virtuosity. To insert a piano soloist into the first movement of what had been intended as a symphony, Tchaikovsky had to re-write a number of orchestral passages for solo piano, sometimes changing the register and the rhythm of the music to suit the piano. And to compensate for the absence of a high-profile part for the soloist, Tchaikovsky composed a massive and very difficult cadenza. The result may be a hybrid, but the Third Piano Concerto contains some very appealing music and deserves to be heard more often.

lone movement, with a brilliant cadenza

The piano enters almost unobtrusively as part of the orchestra’s opening exposition, but Tchaikovsky soon gives it a soloistic profile, with much of the writing in brilliant octaves. The espressivo second subject had been scored for clarinet in the symphony, but now Tchaikovsky transforms this into a lovely passage for solo piano. The movement builds to what in a symphonic movement would be the start of the recapitulation, and here—as if to compensate for a lack of high-profile solo writing—Tchaikovsky supplies his soloist with a lengthy, brilliant, and episodic cadenza based on themes introduced earlier. The orchestra rejoins the pianist, and this one-movement concerto races to its conclusion along a Vivacissimo coda.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Suite from Swan Lake, Opus 20 (Suite amalgamated by Osmo Vänskä)

Premiered: March 4, 1877

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is such a favorite of audiences around the world that it comes as a surprise to learn that the ballet was an abject failure at its premiere. Tchaikovsky, then a young composition teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, had been commissioned by the Imperial Theater to write music for a production of this new ballet at the Bolshoi, and he worked on the score from August 1875 until April 1876. The first performance, on March 4, 1877, was a disaster: it had poor scenery, costumes, and dancing, and—worst of all—it had a conductor so alarmed by Tchaikovsky’s striking music that he cut large sections of it, substituting “safe” music by other composers in their place.

The reviews were scathing, one critic declaring: “I must say that I have never seen a poorer presentation on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. The costumes, decor and machines did not hide in the least the emptiness of the dances.” The same critic conceded that the music showed “the hand of the true master,” but that did Tchaikovsky little good: he never heard the music again and died believing that it would always be a failure. To the contrary: a revival in January 1895—14 months after the composer’s death—launched Swan Lake on its way to the acclaim it enjoys today.

a story of eternal charm

Swan Lake tells a story of eternal charm: Prince Siegfried discovers a flock of beautiful white swans on the lake in a forest. Their queen Odette tells him that they are all maidens who have been transformed by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. Though deceived by Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile (the black swan) during the climactic ball in Act III, Siegfried eventually triumphs over the sorcerer and is united with Odette.

Because Tchaikovsky never arranged the music from Swan Lake into orchestral suites, conductors are free to make their own selections. For today’s performance, Music Director Osmo Vänskä has assembled a suite of eight excerpts, drawn from all four acts of the ballet and performed in chronological order.

The rarely-heard Introduction is the anticipatory music heard just before the curtain comes up, and this is followed by two excerpts from Act I. The Scene, full of excitement and expectancy, introduces Prince Siegfried and his friends drinking wine before a beautiful setting: in the distance are a castle and a bridge across a stream. The famous Waltz is danced as part of the celebration of Prince Siegfried’s birthday.

Next come three excerpts from Act II. The Scene that opens this act, with its plangent and wistful oboe solo, has become some of the most characteristic music of this ballet, and it sets the complex mood here perfectly. This is followed by the Dance of the Swans, during which Siegfried and his fellow hunters discover the swans on the forest lake. The Pas d’action, for Odette and the Prince, begins with a long harp, followed by a deservedly-famous duet for solo violin and harp.

Act III brings the ball in the Great Hall of Siegfried’s castle; it is during this ball that Von Rothbart tricks Siegfried into choosing his daughter Odile over Odette, triggering the events of the final act, when Siegfried finally swears his devotion to Odette and the evil Von Rothbart is vanquished and dies.   Tchaikovsky had a particular flair for national dances, and this concert offers the energetic Mazurka, a dance from Poland. This suite concludes with music from the very end of Act IV. In this Final Scene the prince enters and the ballet comes to its grand conclusion.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphonies No. 2 & 5

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Tchaikovsky Marathon: Influences
We think of Tchaikovsky as so original, so unique, that it comes as a surprise to recognize that there were strong influences on his music. The first of these was Russian folk music. Like many other Russian composers of his generation, Tchaikovsky felt the charm of the music he heard sung around him on the streets and in the fields. His Second Symphony—which opens this program—incorporates a number of ancient folksongs from the Ukraine. Another (and quite unexpected) influence on Tchaikovsky was the music of Mozart. Those two may seem very different people and composers, but Tchaikovsky admired the clarity and emotional balance of Mozart’s music; the Rococo Variations represent his effort to write this kind of music. The Fifth Symphony, however, finds Tchaikovsky speaking in a voice that is very much his own.

One-minute notes:

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2
A single horn sings the opening solo of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, which—in typical Tchaikovsky fashion—quotes a variety of Eastern European folk tunes. Traditional melodies from  Ukraine, or “Little Russia,” as it was then called, inspired both the musical ideas and the nickname for this work.

Variations on a Rococo Theme
From an original theme in the cello, through seven variations and a lively coda, Variations on a Rococo Theme is light, elegant and full of charm. When Franz Liszt first heard it performed, he simply exclaimed, “This is indeed music!”


Symphony No. 5
Tchaikovsky’s popular Fifth Symphony—whose primary theme, he wrote, represents “complete resignation before fate”—is filled with wonderful mottos, orchestral color, balletic beauty and high drama. Watch for the finale’s false conclusion, a great climax that tricks many listeners into thinking the performance is complete.

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Opus 17, Little Russian

Premiered: February 7, 1873

Relations between Tchaikovsky and “The Five,” that influential band of Russian nationalist composers, were always a little tender. Those five—Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov—admired Tchaikovsky’s talents but were suspicious of his conservatory training and his use of Western forms. Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, in fact, occasioned one of their few moments of cordial contact.

Tchaikovsky composed this symphony between June and November 1872, and it was first performed in Moscow on February 7, 1873. The symphony seemed to have a popular success, but César Cui, a member of The Five, savaged it in a review. Always vulnerable to criticism, Tchaikovsky was stung by this review, and seven years later he came back to the symphony and revised it. He was now a better composer, and he knew it. To his patron Madame von Meck he wrote: “Today I set out to remodel my Second Symphony. It went so well that before lunch I had made a rough draft of nearly half of the first movement…How much seven years can mean when a man is striving for progress in his work!”

a symphony infused with folk songs

The Second is Tchaikovsky’s shortest symphony, but what makes this music distinctive is his use of folk tunes for some of its themes. This was a technique favored by The Five, and Rimsky-Korsakov in particular was impressed when Tchaikovsky played this music for him on the piano. The authentic folk tunes that Tchaikovsky employed here come from the Ukraine, a region sometimes known as “Little Russia.” The nickname Little Russian, however, did not originate with the composer. It was coined by the music critic Nicholas Kashkin, and in Russia that nickname would have been understood to mean simply “Ukrainian.”

andante sostenuto–allegro vivo. The first movement opens with a long solo for French horn based on the Ukrainian folksong “Down by Mother Volga.” The music leaps ahead at the Allegro vivo, which itself sounds folksong-derived. Tchaikovsky may have had difficulty with symphonic form, but this movement is beautifully-made: the development treats both the main theme of the exposition and the horn theme from the introduction.

andantino marziale, quasi moderato. The second movement was originally the wedding march from Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated opera Undine. Over the timpani’s steady tread, woodwinds sing the little march tune; a more lyric second idea follows.

scherzo: allegro molto vivace. The third movement is a propulsive scherzo in ABA form. Metric units are quite short here: the outer sections are in 3/8, the trio in 2/8.

finale: moderato assai. Tchaikovsky’s brassy opening theme of the finale bears a striking resemblance to the “Promenade” theme of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, though the Tchaikovsky was written first—but it is in fact a derivation of the Ukrainian folk tune “The Crane.” This theme accelerates until it suddenly is transformed into the athletic main idea, and Tchaikovsky offers a lilting second idea in the violins. It is no surprise that this finale—with its imaginative ideas about structure, unusual harmonic progressions, and use of folk tunes—should have delighted Rimsky-Korsakov. This movement was, in fact, Tchaikovsky’s own favorite.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam and strings

Variations on a Rococo Theme, for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 33

Premiered: November 30, 1877

If we automatically identify Tchaikovsky with colorful and emotional music, we need to remember that he was also drawn to the formal clarity of eighteenth-century music and loved Mozart above all other composers. One of the finest examples of this attraction is his Variations on a Rococo Theme, composed in December 1876. The immediate impulse to write it came in a commission from the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, one of Tchaikovsky’s good friends. When Fitzenhagen asked Tchaikovsky to write a piece for cello and orchestra for him, the composer responded with a set of variations based on what he called a “rococo” theme and scored for what was essentially Mozart’s orchestra (pairs of woodwinds and horns, plus strings).

the music: lyric, athletic and ingenious

A briefly orchestral introduction (how light and clear this music sounds!) gives way to the entrance of the solo cello, which sings the “rococo” theme. That theme, Tchaikovsky’s own, is marked espressivo on its first appearance and falls into two eight-bar phrases. Seven variations follow. These are nicely contrasted: some are lyric, some athletic. Some emphasize the cello, while others vigorously toss the theme between soloist and orchestra. Tchaikovsky varies key and meter throughout the set, and he ingeniously turns the final variation into an exciting coda.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Premiered: November 17, 1888

In the winter of 1887-88, Tchaikovsky made a tour of Western Europe, conducting his own works in Leipzig, Hamburg (where he met Brahms), Berlin, Prague, Paris and London. Those audiences responded enthusiastically to his music (Brahms was an exception), and Tchaikovsky returned to Russia ready to attempt a new symphony. In April 1888, he moved into a villa in Frolovskoye, northwest of Moscow, where he could work on his new symphony and take long walks in the woods. His Fifth Symphony was done by August, and Tchaikovsky led the premiere in St. Petersburg on November 17, 1888.

“resignation before fate”

The Fifth Symphony—full of those wonderful Tchaikovsky themes, imaginative orchestral color, and excitement—has become one of his most popular works. As he did in the Fourth, Tchaikovsky builds this symphony around a motto-theme, and in his notebooks he suggested that the motto of the Fifth Symphony represents “complete resignation before fate.” But that is as far as the resemblance goes, for Tchaikovsky supplied no program for the Fifth Symphony, nor does this music seem to be “about” anything. The motto theme returns in each of the four movements, but it may be best to understand this motto as a unifying device rather than as anything so dramatic as the Fourth Symphony’s “sword of Damocles.”

the music: a wealth of melodies, excitement—and a false ending

andante–allegro con anima. Clarinets introduce the somber motto-theme at the beginning of the slow introduction, and gradually this leads to the main body of the movement, marked Allegro con anima. Over the orchestra’s steady tread, solo clarinet and bassoon sing the movement’s surging main theme, and there follows a wealth of thematic material. This lengthy movement is built on three separate-theme groups, full of those soaring and sumptuous Tchaikovsky melodies.

andante cantabile con alcuna licenza. Deep string chords at the opening of the Andante cantabile introduce one of the great solos for French horn, and a few moments later the oboe has the graceful second subject. For a movement that begins in such relaxed spirits, this music is twice shattered by the return of the motto-theme, which blazes out dramatically in the trumpets.

valse: allegro moderato. Tchaikovsky springs a surprise in the third movement—instead of the expected scherzo, he writes a lovely waltz. He rounds the movement off beautifully with an extended coda based on the waltz tune, and in its closing moments the motto-theme makes a fleeting appearance, like a figure seen through the mists.

finale: andante maestoso–allegro vivace–moderato assai e molto maestoso. However misty that theme may have seemed at the end of the third movement, it comes into crystalline focus at the beginning of the finale. Tchaikovsky moves to E major here and sounds out the motto to open this movement. The main body of the finale, marked Allegro vivace, leaps to life, and the motto-theme breaks in more and more often as it proceeds. The movement drives to a great climax, then breaks off in silence. This is a trap, and it often tricks the unwary into premature applause, for the symphony is not yet over. Out of the ensuing silence begins the real coda, and the motto-theme now leads the way on constantly-accelerating tempos to the (true) conclusion in E major.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Tchaikovsky Marathon: Slavic heritage
Like so many Russian composers, Tchaikovsky was proud of his Slavic heritage. “I love passionately the Russian character in all its expression,” he said, a sentiment that would be echoed by The Mighty Five—Cui, Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—and by many other Russian composers. This program begins with two works, both written when Tchaikovsky was in his thirties, that make that passion clear. His Marche Slave (Slavic March) had a frankly political purpose: Tchaikovsky was enlisted to aid the effort to get the Russian government to intervene militarily to protect their Serbian cousins. The Violin Concerto had no such purpose, but this music—in a purely classical form—is infused with a Russian character all its own, as a hostile critic was quick to point out. Eduard Hanslick, doyen of the Viennese musical establishment, recoiled before the concerto’s “Russian-ness.” Today we value it precisely for that distinct character.

One-minute notes:

Tchaikovsky: Marche Slave
Marche Slave, constructed using motives from high-spirited Serbian folksongs and the Russian national anthem, was a resounding success at its premiere in 1867 and rapidly became a cherished symbol of Slavonic patriotism.

Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky’s dazzling Violin Concerto, once called “unplayable,” is now the vehicle of great virtuosos. It is noted equally for bravura passagework and the pure romantic realism for which the composer is known, with soulful melodies yielding to folk-like dance tunes and rhythms in the exhilarating Finale.


Symphony No. 6, Pathétique
Darkly, tenderly, beautifully, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and final symphony communicates a mood of deep suffering. Brilliant touches include a waltz in 5/4 time, a dramatic scherzo and a lamenting melody that sinks away to silence.

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Marche Slave, Opus 31

Premiered: November 17, 1876

In the summer of 1876 Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein asked the composer for an orchestral work to be performed at a concert to benefit Serbian victims of Turkish aggression. Part of the motive for this concert was to help generate pro-Slavonic sentiment in Russia, so that the larger nation would enter the war on the side of the Serbs.

dark beginning to triumphant close

Tchaikovsky completed the score to his Marche Slave on October 7, 1876, and the premiere took place at the benefit concert six weeks later, on November 17. The title needs to be understood carefully. It does not mean “Slave March,” but rather “Slavic March.” In this piece Tchaikovsky set out to underline the bond between the Russians and the Serbs by using musical materials from their common Slavic heritage.

Musically, Marche Slave proceeds from a dark beginning to a triumphant close, doubtless an optimistic look ahead to the victory of the Serbian cause. Tchaikovsky marks the beginning “in the manner of a funeral march,” and this somber theme is derived from a Serbian folk tune. Gradually the pace quickens, and Tchaikovsky introduces several more folk tunes; he also makes clear the connection between the Serbs and Russians by incorporating an old Tsarist anthem into the progression of these Serbian tunes. The music gradually casts off its funereal beginning, becomes stronger and more confident, and drives to a triumphant conclusion.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam and strings

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35

Premiered: December 4, 1881

Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto in Switzerland during the spring of 1878, sketching it in 11 days and completing the scoring in two weeks. Without asking permission, he dedicated it to the famous Russian violinist Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra. Tchaikovsky promptly ran into a bad surprise. Auer refused to perform the concerto, reportedly calling it “unplayable.” The concerto had to wait three years before Adolph Brodsky gave the premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881.

an infamous review

That premiere was the occasion of one of the most infamous reviews in the history of music. Eduard Hanslick savaged the concerto, saying that it “brings to us for the first time the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks to the ear.” He went on: “The violin is no longer played. It is yanked about. It is torn asunder. It is beaten black and blue…The Adagio, with its tender national melody, almost conciliates, almost wins us. But it breaks off abruptly to make way for a Finale that puts us in the midst of the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian kermess. We see wild and vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell bad brandy.”

Hanslick’s review has become one of the best examples of critical Wretched Excess: the insensitive destruction of a work that would go on to become one of the best-loved concertos in the repertory. But for all his blindness, Hanslick did recognize one important feature of this music—its “Russian-ness.” Tchaikovsky freely—and proudly—admitted his inspiration in this concerto: “My melodies and harmonies of folk-song character come from the fact that I grew up in the country, and in my earliest childhood was impressed by the indescribable beauty of the characteristic features of Russian folk music; also from this, that I love passionately the Russian character in all its expression; in short, I am a Russian in the fullest meaning of the word.”

the music: drama and Russian spirit

allegro moderato. The orchestra’s introduction makes a gracious opening to the concerto, and the solo violin quickly enters with a flourish and settles into the lyric opening theme, which had been prefigured in the orchestra’s introduction. A second theme is equally melodic—Tchaikovsky marks it con molt’espressione—but the development of these themes places extraordinary demands on the soloist, who must solve complicated problems with string-crossings, multiple-stops, and harmonics. Tchaikovsky himself wrote the brilliant cadenza, which makes a gentle return to the movement’s opening theme; a full recapitulation leads to the dramatic close.

canzonetta: andante; finale: allegro vivacissimo. Tchaikovsky marks the second movement Canzonetta (Little Song) and mutes solo violin and orchestral strings throughout this movement. It leads without pause to the explosive opening of the finale, marked Allegro vivacissimo, a rondo built on two themes of distinctly Russian heritage. These are the themes that reminded Hanslick of a drunken Russian brawl, but to more sympathetic ears they evoke a fiery, exciting Russian spirit. The very ending, with the violin soaring brilliantly above the hurtling orchestra, is one of the most exciting moments in this—or in any—violin concerto.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74, Pathétique

Premiered: October 28, 1893

Tchaikovsky began a new symphony in February 1893. It grew out of a note he had written to himself the previous year: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE. First movement—all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH—result of collapse.) Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).”

This note was the seed for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, though the plan would be considerably modified in the course of composition. To his nephew Tchaikovsky wrote, “I had an idea for a new symphony, this time with a program—but a program of a kind that will remain an enigma to all. Let them guess it who can…This program is permeated with subjective feeling…While composing it in my mind, I wept frequently.”

Clearly, the new symphony was important to its creator, and he wished to take measure of its emotional significance with a suitable nickname. His brother Modest suggested Pathétique, and the composer agreed immediately. The term pathétique is difficult to translate into English—Tchaikovsky understood it to mean “emotional” or “passionate.” Yet the “meaning” of this symphony remains elusive.

the music: beginning and ending in darkness

adagio–allegro non troppo. The Pathétique begins in darkness. Solo bassoon sings the somber opening melody, and this smoothly evolves into the movement’s main subject at the Allegro non troppo. The second episode is a heartfelt falling melody for strings that Tchaikovsky marks “tenderly, singing, expansive.” The exposition trails off into silence, but out of that silence the orchestra explodes, and the tumultuous development centers on the opening theme. The climax comes on two huge smashes of sound—the first like a crack of thunder, the second exhausted and falling away—and a noble brass chorale draws this movement to its consoling close.

allegro con grazia. The second movement is a waltz, but instead of writing it in the waltz meter of 3/4, Tchaikovsky casts this one in 5/4. Despite the sour critic who claimed that this waltz could be danced only by someone with three feet, this is graceful music.

allegro molto vivace. This music, one of Tchaikovsky’s most exciting movements, is both scherzo and march. It opens with skittering triplets, and solo oboe quickly sounds the sharp-edged march tune. This movement is beautifully controlled: Tchaikovsky gradually builds these simple materials into a powerful march that drives to a smashing close. It is a close that inevitably brings a burst of applause, but the true ending is still to come.

finale: adagio lamentoso. The symphony concludes with a grieving slow movement that Tchaikovsky significantly marks Adagio lamentoso. It rises to an agitated climax, then slowly slips back into the blackness from which the symphony began.

Tchaikovsky led the premiere on October 28, 1893, before a St. Petersburg audience that could make little sense of so unexpected an ending. Nine days later Tchaikovsky was dead at the age of 53. At a second performance of this symphony 12 days after his death, the audience was overwhelmed by music that had left them mystified earlier, and the proximity of Tchaikovsky’s death to the premiere of this dark music gave rise to all kinds of interpretations of its meaning. Tchaikovsky himself gave no indication beyond his cryptic comment: “Let them guess it who can.”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Tchaikovsky Marathon: Tchaikovsky and Italy
All three pieces on this program have a connection to Italy, and all three were at least partially composed there. The connection with Capriccio italien is clear: the music was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s visit to Rome in 1880. He fell in love with that great city and incorporated some of its music into the Capriccio. The other two works come from a less happy moment in Tchaikovsky’s life, the aftermath of his disastrous marriage, when the stunned composer left Moscow and fled to Western Europe. He did some of the work on the Second Piano Concerto in Rome and completed the Fourth Symphony in San Remo, on the shores of the Mediterranean. Italy is much less an “influence” on these two works than on the Capriccio, but the fact that Tchaikovsky—at a moment of great personal distress—would choose to live and work in Italy may tell us all we need to know about his feelings for that country.

One-minute notes:

Tchaikovsky: Capriccio italien
A delightful ode to Rome, Capriccio italien opens with a striking military bugle call and continues with episodes based on Italian songs, both lyrical and lively, before the work closes with a sizzling tarantella dance.

Piano Concerto No. 2
A thundering march launches the Second Piano Concerto, which initially segregates soloist and orchestra. The middle movement offers a surprise—the hint of a triple concerto with violin and cello—while the finale has the spirit of a high-stepping country dance.


Symphony No. 4
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, like Beethoven’s Fifth, presents a Fate motif at the outset. This is an adventurous work carrying us through lyrical episodes as well as high drama on the way to the exuberant conclusion.

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia


Capriccio italien, Opus 45

Premiered: December 18, 1880

Tchaikovsky spent the winter of 1880 in Rome, and he fell in love with that city. It was carnival season, and life blazed around him: crowds, dancers, fireworks, music, the smell of food—all these were part of his impressions of the Eternal City, and suddenly Tchaikovsky felt like writing music. He turned the tunes he heard around him to good use and began writing Capriccio italien soon after his arrival. To his  patroness Nadezhda von Meck back in Russia, he explained his method: “I am working on a sketch of an ‘Italian Fantasia’ based on folk songs. Thanks to the charming themes, some of which I have heard in the streets, the work will be effective.”

brilliant Italian episodes

The term “capriccio” has no formal musical meaning. It is more a suggestion of atmosphere, indicating something unexpected (the “caprice”) or—more often—something spicy and animated. It is in the latter sense that Tchaikovsky intends the title. Formal structures were never his strong point, and he makes his “Italian Caprice” out of a series of sections in different meters and keys. The resulting structure is episodic, but few have complained—this music, based on the tunes Tchaikovsky heard around him on the streets of Rome, is just too much fun.

Capriccio italien opens with a striking military bugle call. Tchaikovsky’s lodgings in Rome were at the Hotel Constanzi, next to the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirassiers, and he woke to this summons every morning. A series of episodes based on Italian tunes follows. Throughout, Tchaikovsky’s keen orchestral sense is always in evidence: this music is brilliantly orchestrated, and Capriccio italien just plain sounds good. Tchaikovsky rounds matters off with a tarantella, a blazing Italian dance in 6/8.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Concerto No. 2 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 44

Premiered: November 12, 1881

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had caused a serious rift between Tchaikovsky and one of his closest friends, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (as detailed here). Both wanted to mend fences, and the composer decided to do this by writing a new concerto, tailored to Rubinstein’s fabulous abilities as a pianist. The compositional process spanned a variety of locales: Tchaikovsky began the concerto in October 1879 at his family’s summer estate in Ukraine, then brought the manuscript with him for further work in Paris and Rome, and then back to Russia, where he completed the concerto in March 1880.

the music: grand, intimate and virtuosic

allegro brillante e molto vivace. The Second Piano Concerto gets off to an impressive start on the grand stride of the orchestra’s opening statement, with the pianist quickly picking this up as a huge chordal melody. Tchaikovsky offers some quick interplay between soloist and orchestra before an expectant tremolo from the strings sets the stage for the second subject. This falls into two parts: solo clarinet and horn share what might be called an opening phrase, and the piano responds with the tune-like second half. Tchaikovsky develops these over a huge span, and along the way there are two separate cadenzas for the soloist.

andante non troppo. The atmosphere changes completely in this movement, which is—for long periods—simply chamber music. Piano alone announces the principal idea, but is soon joined by solo violin and solo cello, making this movement essentially a concerto for piano trio.

allegro con fuoco. The concluding movement has a rondo-like structure based on two completely different ideas. Tchaikovsky gives the pianist a truly virtuoso part, and the themes are so appealing and the music so energetic that they sweep everything before them as the concerto thunders to its close.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36

Premiered: February 22, 1878

The Fourth Symphony dates from the most tumultuous period in Tchaikovsky’s difficult life. In July 1877, Tchaikovsky married one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. The marriage was an instant disaster. Tchaikovsky abandoned his bride, tried to return, but retreated again. He fled to Western Europe, finding relief in the quiet of Clarens in Switzerland and San Remo in Italy. It was in San Remo—on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean and far from the chaos of his life in Moscow—that he completed the Fourth Symphony in January 1878.

The Fourth Symphony has all of Tchaikovsky’s considerable virtues—great melodies, primary colors, and soaring climaxes—in this case fused with a superheated emotional content. Tchaikovsky said that the model for his Fourth Symphony had been Beethoven’s Fifth, specifically in the way both symphonies are structured around a recurring motif, though perhaps also in the sense that the two symphonies begin in emotional turmoil and eventually win their way to release and triumph in the finale.

the music: a duel with fate

andante sostenuto–moderato con anima. The symphony opens with a powerful brass fanfare, which Tchaikovsky described as “Fate, the inexorable power that hampers our search for happiness. This power hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, leaving us no option but to submit.” The principal subject of this movement, however, is a dark, stumbling waltz in 9/8 introduced by the violins. Like inescapable fate, the opening motto-theme returns at key points in this dramatic music, and it finally drives the movement to a furious close.

andantino in modo canzona. The two middle movements bring much-needed relief. The Andantino, in ternary-form, opens with a plaintive oboe solo and features a more animated middle section. Tchaikovsky described it: “Here is the melancholy feeling that overcomes us when we sit weary and alone at the end of the day. The book we pick up slips from our fingers, and a procession of memories passes in review…”

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. The scherzo has deservedly become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular movements. It is a tour de force for strings, which play pizzicato throughout, with crisp interjections first from the woodwinds and then from brass. The composer noted: “Here are only the capricious arabesques and indeterminate shapes that come into one’s mind with a little wine…”

finale: allegro con fuoco. Out of the quiet close of the third movement, the finale explodes to life. The composer described this movement as “the picture of a folk holiday” and said, “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity.” Marked Allegro con fuoco, this movement simply alternates its volcanic opening sequence with a gentle tune that is actually the Russian folk tune “In the field there stood a birch tree.”

Given the catastrophic events of his life during this music’s composition, Tchaikovsky may well have come to feel that Fate was inescapable, and the reappearance of the opening motto amid the high spirits of the finale represents the climax—musically and emotionally—of the entire symphony. This spectre duly acknowledged, Tchaikovsky rips the symphony to a close guaranteed to set every heart in the hall racing at the same incandescent pace as his music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

Tchaikovsky Marathon: Music by a (mostly) young composer
Some composers achieve success effortlessly. Others struggle for years. Tchaikovsky was in the latter camp. He made his first attempt at composition at age 4, but his apprenticeship was long and difficult. Compounding the problem was Tchaikovsky’s sensitivity to criticism, both from others and from continual self-doubt. Yet even as a young composer he produced some radiant scores, and this concert offers two pieces that had to overcome much opposition. The First Symphony attracted so much criticism while still in manuscript that Tchaikovsky could get only individual movements performed and had to wait years for a complete performance. The First Piano Concerto provoked the most destructive criticism the composer ever faced. But it also revealed a tough confidence beneath his perpetual self-doubt: Tchaikovsky refused to make any changes, and the concerto went on to become one of his best-loved works.

One-minute notes:

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1, Winter Dreams
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, nicknamed Winter Dreams, begins with harmonies that evoke the crispness of a fresh winter’s snow; the work grows with a fiery energy that burns brilliant until the final note.


Serenade for Strings
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings is the composer’s nod back to Mozart and his music of the same genre. Throughout the serenade’s four movements, the strings sparkle and dance, are graceful yet  animated, relaxed but incredibly beautiful. The first chorale theme makes a remarkable return at the very end of the work.

Piano Concerto No. 1 
Like Beethoven, who angrily removed Napoleon’s name from his Eroica Symphony, Tchaikovsky furiously scratched out the name Nikolai Rubinstein, the intended dedicatee of his famous First Piano  Concerto—and it became an instant success in the hands of the man he then honored with the dedication, Hans von Bülow. It begins with high drama, retreats to a place of calm and rushes toward its close in a mood of white-hot energy

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Opus 13, Winter Dreams

Premiered: February 15, 1868

In December 1865, Tchaikovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and took the only steady job he ever had. The Rubinstein brothers—composer Nikolai and pianist Anton—invited him to join the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, and Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow in January 1866 to become a professor of harmony. Nikolai led a successful performance in March 1866 of Tchaikovsky’s Overture in F major, and the brothers encouraged him to take on the most imposing of orchestral forms, the symphony. It was a daunting prospect for a young composer still uncertain about his abilities, and the composition of what would become his first symphony proved harrowing.

stress, then success

Tchaikovsky made a first draft between March and August 1866, but when he showed his manuscript to Anton, the reaction was so caustic that Tchaikovsky went back and completely rewrote it. In fact, the stress was so great that Tchaikovsky came near to collapse—he was doubtless relieved when his doctors ordered him to put the work aside for awhile and collect his faculties. He had the score done by December 22, but the symphony had to wait a year for its premiere. It was worth the wait: that performance, which took place in Moscow on February 15, 1868, was a great success.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony has not really held a place in the repertory, but this music—youthful, melodic, and far from the tortured intensity of some of Tchaikovsky’s later scores—has pleasures of its own. It also has a curious nickname, one for which Tchaikovsky himself was partially responsible. This is not programmatic music, as Tchaikovsky was intent on mastering the symphony on its own terms. He did, however, give the first two movements subtitles, and the one he gave the first movement (“Dreams on a wintry road”) has been transformed into a general nickname for the symphony: Winter Dreams (sometimes rendered as Winter Daydreams). That is an evocative title, but it may not make for an ideal entry into this music, which at moments is full of a fire and excitement far removed from our usual sense of winter.

the music: wintry inspiration and a folksong finale

allegro tranquillo. Certainly no one would on his or her own guess that the first movement should be subtitled “Dreams on a wintry road,” and listeners should take this at most as a suggestion of general atmosphere. This sonata-form movement gets off to a wonderful start: over rustling strings, solo flute and bassoon in octaves outline the main theme, and Tchaikovsky quickly spins a rhythmic sub-theme from this. Solo clarinet has the second subject, and these two theme-groups develop at some length.

adagio cantabile ma non tanto. Tchaikovsky’s subtitle for the second movement, “Land of gloom, land of mist,” is misleading, for this lovely music is so appealing that it has occasionally been performed by itself. Once again, it is based on two theme-groups, which Tchaikovsky simply alternates across the span of the movement. Muted strings make for a lush beginning, and solo oboe introduces what at first seems a melancholy second subject, but the cellos quickly pick this up and make it dance.

scherzo: allegro scherzando giocoso. Neither of the final two movements has a subtitle; perhaps at this point Tchaikovsky had abandoned the wintry inspiration. His performance marking for the Scherzo is worth noting: he wants this movement not just scherzando (jesting) but also giocoso (happy). Its energetic main idea tumbles and cascades along the 3/8 meter. The trio section has been called the first of Tchaikovsky’s great orchestral waltzes. He preserves the 3/8 meter of the scherzo, and this waltz dances energetically.

finale: andante lugubre–allegro moderato–allegro maestoso. The finale begins with a slow introduction based on the old Russian folk tune “The Garden Bloomed,” and which he specifies should be lugubre (gloomy). But sunlight shines through at the Allegro moderato, and Tchaikovsky deftly transforms the folk tune of the slow introduction into the spirited second subject.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is rarely performed today, but he remembered it fondly. Late in his relatively brief life, he described it as “better than many of my other more mature works.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and strings

Serenade in C major for Strings, Opus 48

Premiered: December 3, 1880 (private performance); October 30, 1881 (public performance)

In the fall of 1880, Tchaikovsky set to work simultaneously on two very different pieces. One was the Serenade for Strings; the other was the 1812 Overture. The composer loved the first of these, but had no use for the second.

To his benefactress, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote: “I have written two long works very rapidly: the festival overture and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; and therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse: I felt it; and I venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.”

In a way, the two pieces are opposites, for the Serenade—lyric, open, relaxed—is everything the bombastic 1812 Overture is not, and it comes as no surprise that Tchaikovsky had such fondness for this music.

the music: Tchaikovsky at his friendliest

pezzo in forma di sonatina: andante non troppo–allegro moderato. Tchaikovsky intended this work’s opening movement as an homage to one of his favorite composers: Mozart. Although Tchaikovsky called the composition a serenade and specifically set the first movement in sonatina form—both of which  suggest an absence of rigorous formal development—this music is nevertheless beautifully unified. The powerful descending introduction quickly gives way to the Allegro moderato, based on two subjects: a broadly-swung melody for full orchestra and a sparkling theme for violins. Tchaikovsky brings back the introductory theme to close out the movement.

walzer: moderato–tempo di valse. Waltzes were a specialty of Tchaikovsky, and this movement is one of his finest. It gets off to a graceful start, grows more animated as it proceeds, then falls away to wink out on two pizzicato strokes.

elégie: largetto elegiac. The third movement, titled Elegie, begins with a quiet melody that soon grows in intensity and beauty. The mood here never becomes tragic—the Serenade remains, for the most part, in major keys—but the depth of feeling with which this Larghetto elegiaco unfolds makes it the emotional  center of the entire work.

finale (tema Russo): andante–allegro con spirito. The finale has a wonderful beginning. Very quietly the violins play a melody based on a Russian folk tune, reputedly an old hauling song from the Volga River, and suddenly the main theme bursts out and the movement takes wing. The Allegro con spirito  theme is closely related to the introduction of the first movement, and at the end Tchaikovsky deftly combines these two themes to bring one of his friendliest compositions to an exciting close.

Instrumentation: strings alone

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Opus 23

Premiered: October 25, 1875

Tchaikovsky drafted this most famous of piano concertos in November and December 1874, when he was a young professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Only modestly talented as a pianist and insecure about his handling of larger forms, Tchaikovsky sought the advice of Nikolai Rubinstein, head of the Conservatory and the man to whom he intended to dedicate the concerto. Rubinstein listened in silence as Tchaikovsky played the new work through, and then, as the composer later recounted:

“There burst from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first, then he waxed hot, and finally he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It seems that my concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages were so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from somebody and that from somebody else, so that only two or three pages were good for anything and all the rest should be wiped out or radically rewritten.”

a triumphant premiere

Stung (and furious), Tchaikovsky refused to change a note, erased the dedication to Rubinstein, and instead dedicated the concerto to the German pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow, who had championed his music. Bülow promptly took the concerto on a tour of the United States, and it was in Boston on October 25, 1875, that Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was heard for the first time.

It was a huge success on that occasion, and Bülow played it repeatedly in this country to rhapsodic reviews. A critic in Boston, taking note of that success, described the concerto as an “extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto,” but back in Russia the composer read the press clippings and was beside himself with happiness: “Think what healthy appetites these Americans must have! Each time Bülow was obliged to repeat the whole finale of my concerto! Nothing like that happens in our country.”

Rubinstein eventually saw the error of his initial condemnation and became one of the concerto’s great champions. (It should be noted, though, that in 1889— perhaps more aware of Rubinstein’s criticisms than he cared to admit—Tchaikovsky did in fact take the concerto through a major revision, and it is in this form that we know it today).

the music: a famous, ephemeral opening

allegro non troppo e molto maestoso. The concerto has one of the most dramatic beginnings in all the literature, ringing with horn fanfares and cannonades of huge piano chords, followed by one of Tchaikovsky’s Great Tunes, in which that horn fanfare is transformed into a flowing melody for strings. This opening has become extremely famous, but this introductory section has many quirks. It is in the “wrong” key (D-flat major), and—however striking it may be—it never returns in any form: Tchaikovsky simply abandons all this tremendous material when he gets to the main section of the movement.

This “real” beginning, marked Allegro con spirito, is finally in the correct key of B-flat minor, and the piano’s skittering main subject is reportedly based on a tune Tchaikovsky heard a blind beggar whistle at a fair in the Ukraine. The expected secondary material quickly appears—a chorale-like theme for winds and a surging, climbing figure for strings—though Tchaikovsky evades expectations by including multiple cadenzas for the soloist in this movement. The piano writing is of the greatest difficulty (much of it in great hammered octaves), and the movement drives to a dramatic close.

andantino semplice. The Andantino semplice is aptly named, for this truly is simple music in the best sense of that term: over pizzicato chords, solo flute sings the gentle main theme, an island of calm after the searing first movement. A scherzo-like central episode marked Prestissimo leads to the return of the opening material and a quiet close.

allegro con fuoco. The finale is also well named, for here is music full of fire. It is a rondo based on the piano’s nervous, dancing main theme, and while calmer episodes break into this furious rush, the principal impression this music makes is of white-hot energy, and this “strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto” rushes to a knock-out close that is just as impressive to audiences today as it was to that first Boston audience in 1875.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings


Program Notes: A Christmas Oratorio

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Bach: Christmas Oratorio

The Christmas season of 1734–35 in Leipzig, Germany, included a multi-day unveiling of newly-composed music by Bach that we now know as the Christmas Oratorio. Each of its six cantatas was designated for a specific day spanning Christmas and the Epiphany, and together the set forms the narrative of the birth of Christ through the arrival of the Wise Men. These concerts feature the first three cantatas. In the first, the orchestra, choir and soloists jubilantly celebrate the birth of Christ with regal chorale melodies and arias, punctuated by the addition of trumpets and drums. The second cantata, marking the Angel’s announcement to the shepherds, opens with a pastoral orchestral sinfonia—the only one of its kind that Bach includes in the oratorio. Elation is apparent in the third cantata as brilliant choruses and trumpet fanfares depict the shepherds’ adoration of the newborn King. 

Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Cantatas I, II and III

In the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it not with a single feast day, but with a “season” of six special commemorations occurring between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany. These were the birth of Jesus (December 25), the announcement to the shepherds by a host of angels (December 26), the adoration of the baby by the shepherds (December 27), the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day), the coming of the Magi from the East to find the child “born King of the Jews” (the Sunday after New Year’s Day), and finally the Magi’s worship with their gifts (January 6). On each of these six days near the mid-1730s, Johann Sebastian Bach’s congregation was filled with inspiration by a cantata that recounted one of these stories, commenting and reflecting upon the events and their meanings for the Christian individual and community.

a unique oratorio for the season

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, completed around Christmastime of 1734, is not an oratorio in the usual sense. Instead the format is that of a cantata. Like the composer’s Matthew and John passions, it includes a tenor Evangelist who narrates the story of the birth of Christ as it appears in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. In order to keep clear what is narrative and what is commentary, all the Evangelist recitatives—the Gospel texts—are secco (dry, with simple chords from the cello and organ), while the other recitatives are paired with more complex instrumental lines or string accompaniment. These recitatives are unified by lyrical meditations, or arias. The rich, imaginative harmonizations of the ten chorales reflect the voice of the people, as they were hymn tunes mostly well known to Bach’s congregation, the oratorio’s initial audience.

The compiler of the libretto remains unknown, but most scholars believe that Christian Friedrich Henrici (under the pseudonym Picander), a German poet and the librettist for many of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, probably gathered and arranged the texts.

Bach had already composed virtually all of his cantatas when he came to assemble the Christmas Oratorio. In fact, many of the movements are paraphrases from two earlier secular cantatas i dating from 1733, the year before he produced the Christmas Oratorio. Because of this, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Bach viewed the work as an entity. However, one might point to the unifying aspect of the same chorale used in the first and last cantatas. Equally convincing is the fact that all of the opening choruses are composed in triple meter—an understood symbol of the Holy Trinity—and the oratorio commences and concludes in D major. Yet, there is no one consistent structural pattern uniting these cantatas. Five of them begin with a rousing major-key chorus, and one with a sinfonia. All but one end with a chorale, but there is no homogeneity in their presentation, ranging from the unadorned four-part setting of the fifth to the resplendent, chorale-fantasia of the sixth.

Today’s concert features the first, second and third cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio, thus condensing three days of celebration, as Bach’s original audience would have experienced this music, into a single performance.

the cantatas in brief

On the First Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Nativity). The opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio is a paraphrase, taken from the secular birthday cantata for Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress, BWV 214, from which Bach subsequently parodied a number of movements for the oratorio. The text for the original chorus called upon drums, trumpets and strings to fill the air. Bach’s transformation of this material to wonderful and idiomatic Christmas music is a marvel. The opening chorus begins with the drums and is followed up by a mighty rush with the strings and winds to the dazzling entrance of the trumpets. Surrounded by two oboes d’amore, the mezzo recitative expresses contentment with the impending birth, leading us to the first aria, a paraphrase from BWV 213, a cantata originally composed for the House of Saxony. The original text, a denunciation of lust and the serpents of sin, now becomes a call to action: prepare yourself Zion, to behold the fairest.

The first and final chorales of the oratorio are a setting of the Passion chorale, which we usually associate with Lent. However, Bach’s congregations would have been familiar with it as it exists in previously-heard cantatas. The movement that follows for bass soloist and the sopranos of the choir is among one of the most interesting movements in Bach’s entire cantata canon. Bach gives the sopranos four chorale phrases, each in a different key, and each is preceded and followed by an instrumental ritornello framing the entire movement. Furthermore, the chorale statements are extended by the bass’s additional explanatory comment. This unique hybrid structure leads us to the powerful bass aria, another paraphrase from BWV 214, whose original form was a song of homage to the queen. A wonderful and grand setting of Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (From heaven above to earth I come), with trumpets and drums punctuating each cadence, ends the first cantata.

On the Second Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Annunciation to the Shepherds). This is the only one of the six Christmas Oratorio cantatas not to begin with a celebratory chorus but rather with an expansive sinfonia. With the oboes as shepherds accompanied by flutes and strings as the heavenly choir of angels, the gently undulating dotted rhythms shape a lush, pastoral effect.

The Evangelist then paints the picture of the shepherds in the fields when the Angel of the Lord appears. The unsophisticated, yet beautiful chorale Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht (Break forth, o lovely light of morning) contemplates the child’s radiance. Two short recitatives act as a bridge to the first aria of the cantata, the first accompanied by strings and the second by the oboe choir. In the first the Angel, encompassed by a halo of sustained strings, announces the birth of the savior. The bass, backed by emphasizing woodwind chords, brings a reminder of the ancient promise. The tenor and flute aria is a call for them to gather, hasten and see for themselves the child who can refresh both body and spirit, as depicted by sweeping melismas (multiple notes extending the same syllable) in the voice and flute.

The Evangelist then describes the infant Jesus in the manger. The chorale tune Vom Himmel hoch (From heaven above), one of the most beloved of the chorales, paints a darkish picture of the child in the gloomy stable where oxen once fed setting the scene for the gorgeous slumber aria for mezzo, flute and strings. Notice how the flute hovers above the mezzo voice like a halo. The chorus then sings, without instrumental introduction, the energetic “Glory to God” chorus. There are two stunning moments when “peace on earth” is called for, compelling the choir to sing in hushed tones while the primarily eighth-note-driven continuo line temporarily subsides. The section ends with Vom Himmel hoch, this time accompanied by motives from the opening sinfonia.

On the Third Day of the Festival of Christmas (The Adoration of the Shepherds). The third cantata completes the narrative wherein the shepherds and others hasten to the manger, extolling Jesus’ powers. It begins with a brilliant chorus, again recycled from an earlier secular cantata, with trumpets and drums. The Evangelist tells of the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem. These words are encapsulated in the following chorus, less fully orchestrated and even shorter than the first. One of Bach’s typically energized bass lines suggests determination while the flowing flute and violin melody intimates a flurry of activity.

A rather lengthy contemplative section follows. The first of the three plainly harmonized chorales Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (Praise be to You, Jesus Christ) offers a summation of what the shepherds have been told. The jaunty, rustic duet for bass, soprano, and two oboes d’amore is addressed to the child, placing emphasis upon love and devotion. The Evangelist continues telling of the shepherds finding Mary, Joseph and the Child. The mezzo then sings an aria with violin describing Mary’s innermost feelings of the miracle of the birth. The shepherds retreat, praising God for what they have witnessed. The final chorale is the only one in a minor mode and is, perhaps, the most potent of the hymn tunes used in the oratorio so far. It is serious, direct, and delivers an authoritative message of great significance. The opening chorus is repeated to close the cantata.

Program notes ©Craig Smith and Ryan Turner, courtesy of Emmanuel Music,


Program Notes: Brahms' Fourth Symphony

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dukas’ witty scherzo chronicles the misadventures of a young man and his enchanted broom. A gradual accumulation of orchestral power leads to an outburst of chromatic scales, after which musical order is restored.

Ravel: Shéhérazade

Ravel’s mastery of creating evocative musical pictures is showcased in this vocal-orchestral setting of three poems written by his friend Tristan Klingsor. Ravel found his inspiration in the fantastical tales of the Orient, Klingsor’s colorful text and Debussy’s vivid musical imagery.


Brahms: Fourth Symphony

Brahms’ Fourth is a passionate work filled with high drama. From a first movement both warm and tragic, the symphony proceeds through a moody intermezzo and a rambunctious scherzo to a most unusual conclusion: a beautifully abstract set of variations on a Bach cantata.

Full program notes:

Paul Dukas

Born: October 1, 1865, Paris, France

Died: May 17, 1935, Paris, France

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dukas composed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in 1897, precisely 100 years after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the ballad on which it was based. The work was premiered on May 18, 1897, at a Société Nationale concert in Paris, with the composer conducting.

the importance of being able to stop

The story—inscribed in popular culture, of course, by Disney’s Fantasia—is that of a sorcerer-in-training who, in his master’s absence, thinks to save himself trouble by commanding a broom to assume something like human form. The enchanted broom sprouts two legs and a head, and begins fetching the bathwater from the river, but the apprentice has forgotten the command to stop, and no amount of verbal abuse does the trick. Meanwhile the house is flooded. He thinks of a solution—to take a cleaver and destroy the relentlessly industrious broom. This gives him two water-carrying brooms instead of one. Panicked, he calls the sorcerer: “Master, the peril is great/I cannot be rid/Of the spirits I called.” The sorcerer restores order and lays down the law: only he, and for his purposes alone, will summon these spirits.

“the calm before the brainstorm”

The brilliant music of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins with a slow introduction that provides a frame for the story and depicts the calm before the brainstorm. Debussy remembered this beautiful page when he came to write his ballet Jeux, and it is also part of the storehouse on which Stravinsky drew for The Firebird. But even in this calm, something is germinating. For the moment it is a quiet phrase, first played by the clarinet, its outline reinforced by bright harmonics on the harp. Then the music bursts into crazily energized life, and after a thud on the timpani and a long silence the story begins. The broom gets to its newly found feet and begins its work to the clarinet tune, now given to the bassoon and, by being made staccato, quite transformed in character. It is one of those themes that are so simple one can hardly conceive of their needing to be invented.

In an ingenious, brilliantly scored series of continuing variations, the piece builds to its first crisis, the hacking to bits of the broom. What follows—the coming to life of the fragments, the flood, the panicked call to the sorcerer, the sorcerer’s command—is all vividly set before us. The quiet opening music returns to complete the frame. This time Dukas adds a regretful phrase for a single viola, alone unmuted among all the strings. And the last two bars remind us that this is, after all, a scherzo.

Program note by Michael Steinberg.

Maurice Ravel

Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France

Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France


Ravel, the dapper Parisian, had a penchant for foreign lands, which colored a number of his compositions. The taste came early: he was only 14 when he encountered the Javanese Gamelan music and gypsy bands featured at the 1889 World Exposition held in Paris. There he also heard two Russian programs conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who a year earlier had introduced his symphonic suite, Scheherazade, which transferred Eastern melodic patterns into the Russian idiom, while highlighting the solo violin as the beguiling “voice” of the legendary storyteller. The impression on young Ravel was lasting.

a captivating heroine

In 1897, when Ravel entered the advanced composition class taught by Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, he began an opera whose heroine was the narrator of the Persian tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Only portions of it were finished, but the composer himself conducted his Overture to Shéhérazade at the concert of the Société Nationale, after which catcalls mingled with applause.

The opera project was abandoned, but not its heroine. In the meantime, Ravel become active in a coterie of Parisian poets and artists who called themselves the “Apaches,” and who passionately upheld all that was new in the arts. One of the group’s poets, Tristan Klingsor, published a book of verses entitled Shéhérazade, coincidentally the subject of Ravel’s aborted opera. The poems intrigued Ravel for both their metrical freedom and expressive imagery, unlocking for him an enduring fascination with the French language and the challenge of setting its inflections to music. By 1903 he had set three of the most opulent poems to music—his first big venture with the orchestra, used as coloristically as by Rimsky-Korsakov, but with a svelte transparency that is unmistakably Ravel.

The song cycle was introduced on May 17, 1904, at a concert of the Société Nationale, with Alfred Cortot conducting and soprano Jane Hatto, to whom the first movement is dedicated, as soloist. The subsequent songs are inscribed to Madame René de Saint-Marceaux, and to Emma Bardac, who was to become Ravel’s second wife. Speaking of the work in later years, Ravel noted that “the influence of Debussy is fairly obvious. Here again I yielded to the profound attraction which the East has always held for me since my childhood.”

the music: an imaginary journey

Asia. Ravel’s Shéhérazade is an imaginary journey to Arabic and Eastern lands, evoking their legends and essence in strains that are at once rhapsodic and suggestive. It was typical of Ravel’s fondness for difficult tasks that he chose first to set Klingsor’s Asia, the longest and most complex narrative of the three. The music and text vividly describe these wide-ranging lands and diverse people—from merchants to beggars to queens—woven together in a sumptuous tapestry of sound. Changing like a kaleidoscope with each contrasting passage, the orchestra provides the heady, sensuous dimension while the vocal line, free and declamatory, describes the journey.

the enchanted flute. The suppleness of the poetic line is sustained in The Enchanted Flute, whose languor is prophetic of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe. The setting exhibits Ravel’s penchant for combining a vocal line with a single instrumental color, flowing in counterpoint. A tender lyricism pervades the vocal articulation, while the orchestration is slender and sylph-like, as if to contrast with the sumptuous textures of the first song. The image is bewitching: while her “master” sleeps, a woman listens to the distant flute-playing of her lover. Each note brushes her face like a kiss.

the indifferent one. In the final song, The Indifferent One is a handsome youth who speaks in a tongue as foreign as Eastern music, disinterested in the woman who quietly observes him. The ambiguous encounter is evoked by the provocativeness of Ravel’s score.

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Johannes Brahms

Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Brahms knew from the outset that his Fourth Symphony was different from the other three, and he apparently entertained fears that it might not be received as warmly. Composed in 1884 and 1885, on the heels of the extroverted Third Symphony of 1883, the Fourth was at once the composer’s most passionate and his most abstract symphonic outpouring. As with the Second Symphony, he joked self-consciously about its unique quality, stating in a letter that it consisted of “a few entr’actes and polkas that I happened to have lying around.”

Like the first two symphonies, the Third and Fourth also form a pair, one clear-eyed and direct, the other gray and troubled. The English critic Donald Francis Tovey called the Fourth “one of the rarest things in classical music, a symphony which ends tragically.” (The torrid First had broken into triumphant C-major at the end.)

Evidence suggests that the source of the Fourth’s high drama was not personal crisis but Brahms’ interest during the 1880s in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and others. Brahms’ friendship with conductor Hans von Bülow beginning in 1881 was also a factor. Bülow, who had just been named director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, offered Brahms a first-class ensemble with which the composer could “try out” the Fourth and other works.

Bülow prepared the Meiningen Orchestra’s first performance of the Fourth Symphony, which Brahms conducted on October 25, 1885. The composer then took the piece on tour with the Orchestra, performing it throughout northern Germany and the Netherlands, before allowing Hans Richter to present it to the Viennese public in January 1886.

The initial response was surprisingly cool, considering the extent to which the city had lionized Brahms throughout the 1870s and early 1880s. The Fourth was declared “un-Brahmsian.” (At an earlier private performance of a four-hand piano version, the biographer Max Kalbeck reportedly suggested that the fourth movement be omitted altogether.)

Brahms did not lay a finger on the work. And sure enough, by the end of the composer’s life the Viennese public had gained a deeper appreciation not only for the Fourth, but for a whole career of symphonic music that it seemed to sum up. A performance of the Fourth in 1897, a month before the composer’s death, indicated the depth of the shift of opinion.

Here is Florence May’s description of the emotional evening: “A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience. An extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting audience, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go.

“Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there shrunken in form, with lined countenance, a strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for they knew that they were saying farewell.”

Four weeks later, hordes of admirers turned out for the composer’s funeral.

tragedy of the classical kind

allegro non troppo. The first movement is uniquely tragic in tone, yet glowing with an inner warmth that is unprecedented in Brahms’ orchestral output. “It acts its tragedy with unsurpassable variety of expression and power of climax,” Tovey writes. One is tempted to wonder why tragedy should sound so beautiful. Some have also found echoes of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the obsessive descending thirds. (Brahms’ appreciation of late Beethoven had deepened recently as a result of hearing his works played by Bülow, who was also one of the great pianists of his day.)

andante moderato. The slow movement is a moody intermezzo, lightening the tone to take some of the first movement’s weight from the listener’s chest.

allegro giocoso. Likewise is the third movement, one of the composer’s splashiest and most “bacchanalian” scherzos. Its finale-like fervor caused Tovey to ask, “After three movements so full of dramatic incident, what finale is possible?”

allegro energico e passionato. The finale Brahms devised for the Fourth Symphony was indeed singular, and was the chief point of controversy when the symphony was introduced. It was perhaps also the work’s chief point of contact with the last Beethoven piano sonatas, and with the Renaissance and Baroque music that had recently occupied Brahms the scholar. It is a set of variations on the bass from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, Lord, Do I Long).

Brahms inflects the bassline with a tiny, “Romanticizing” chromatic alteration before submitting it to a set of variations that gradually reduces the “theme” to a vague, schematized scaffolding. Such a procedure calls to mind not only Baroque works such as Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin but also the variation movements of late Beethoven. The Opus 111 Sonata, Beethoven’s last, also ends with an ethereal set of variations whose theme is slowly reduced, bit by bit, to little more than an abstract harmonic skeleton.

In retrospect, the orchestral variations were perhaps the only way Brahms could have ended the Fourth Symphony—with a conservative twist that set musical limits by evoking Baroque harmonic ideals, yet creating closure through subtle thematic reminiscences and a reduction to harmonic essentials.

Program note by Paul Horsley.


Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts the Reformation Symphony

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2

The flute player in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 is given the unique challenge of blending with strings while simultaneously standing out as the solo voice in this set of six characteristic dance movements preceded by a French Baroque-style overture.

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 Reformation

Devotion and strength are the building blocks of this symphony, composed in 1830 to commemorate the tercentenary of the Lutheran Church’s founding doctrines. A reflective opening ultimately leads to a grandiose finale built on Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Along the way we hear a lighthearted scherzo and an eloquent slow movement featuring solo violin.


Currier: RE-FORMATION [World Premiere]

Sebastian Currier’s brand-new work RE-FORMATION, commissioned for this performance to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, draws text from Psalms, Martin Luther and contemporary American writer Sarah Manguso. The music recalls the past—incorporating fragments of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony—while also looking forward, ending with a choral hymn that encourages us to protect our natural environment for future generations.

Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Suite No. 2 in B minor for Orchestra, BWV 1067

We begin today’s program with an orchestral suite by Bach—although the composer himself might disagree with the nomenclature. Bach reserved the name “Suite” for solo instrumental works, and his formal title for the four works we call orchestral suites was actually Ouverture, after the names of their first movements, which were patterned after the French overture.

Regardless of its original title, the B-minor Suite conforms in general terms to the suite as we think of it: a series of dance movements all in the same key. The conventional pattern for suites was a French overture followed by an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. This suite expands the norm with the addition of two other short movements, and further charts its own course by featuring a particularly soloistic role for flute.

overture, then dance music for flute

The suite’s opening Overture follows the opera overture style popularized by French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. It has a lengthy slow introduction with pronounced dotted rhythms; following is a faster, contrapuntal middle section, then a return to the ceremonial introduction at the close. The balance of the suite consists of a Rondeau (a simple refrain form), Sarabande (a slow dance in triple time), Bourrée (lively, in duple meter and binary form, generally featuring four-measure phrases with a quarter-note upbeat), Polonaise (a Polish dance in moderate triple time, with repeated rhythmic figures), Menuet (similar to what we know from the third movements of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart) and Badinerie (a playful, coy movement, with no specific rhythmic associations). Bach features the flute in a concertante role in several movements, notably the Overture, Polonaise and concluding Badinerie. In that respect, this work is unique among Bach’s orchestral suites: more akin to a flute concerto with numerous short movements. (Perhaps everyone has had the title wrong!)

Felix Mendelssohn

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Symphony No. 5 in D major, Opus 107, Reformation

We often hear Mendelssohn compared to Mozart because of his youthful precocity. A work like the Reformation Symphony persuades us that the analogy is valid. The symphony is numbered the Fifth because it was published after Mendelssohn’s death, but it actually dates from the winter of 1829-30, when the composer was only 20. For him to have composed such a polished, unified and powerful composition at such a young age is impressive indeed.

The Reformation Symphony takes its name from the circumstances of its commission. Mendelssohn intended the work to commemorate the tercentenary of the Augsburg Conference, which in 1530 set forth the Lutheran Church’s doctrines following the epochal split of Protestantism from Roman Catholicism. Young Mendelssohn was struck by the life of Martin Luther (which is further detailed in the program note for the Sebastian Currier work that follows Mendelssohn’s on today’s program), and by the image of Luther translating the Bible into German while hiding in Eisenach’s Wartburg Castle. The symphony is permeated with melodies from Protestant hymns, including one by Luther himself.

the symphony’s rocky beginnings

Due to touring obligations and a few bouts of ill health, Mendelssohn came short of finishing the work in time for the Augsburg tercentenary celebration in 1830. Upon its completion, the symphony was scheduled to have been premiered by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1831. Rehearsals there did not go well, however, and the players disliked the piece. Ultimately they rejected it, complaining that it was too learned and lacked melodies. (Perhaps their taste was influenced by the Lutheran message, for France is a predominantly Catholic country. On the other hand, French taste suspended that objection just a few years later, when Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots, incorporating one of the same themes that Mendelssohn had used, was the toast of Paris.)

Mendelssohn ultimately conducted the work’s premiere in the more Lutheran terrain of Berlin late in 1832, but he took the initial rejection hard, and retained bad feelings about the piece. Some years later he wrote to his friend Julius Rietz that the first movement was “a fat bristly animal,” and that he’d “rather burn it than any other of my pieces.” Such self-flagellation seems incredible today, especially when we consider how firmly the Reformation Symphony has become entrenched in the repertoire.

the music: anchored in tradition

andante–allegro con fuoco. Mendelssohn’s use of the so-called “Dresden Amen” (familiar to many listeners as the motive of the Grail in Wagner’s Parsifal) in the first movement anchors the symphony in religious tradition. He employs Renaissance-style counterpoint to suggest the music of the Catholic Church. That, and his turbulent minor-mode Allegro, set up the implicit conflict between the two branches of the Christian faith.

allegro vivace; andante. The inner movements display Mendelssohn’s melodic gift, enriching the treasury within the Reformation Symphony. His sprightly scherzo is a foot-tapper from start to finish. Expressive sighing figures and a reverential atmosphere lend eloquence to the gorgeous slow movement. Toward its conclusion, he recalls a theme from the first movement.

chorale: andante con moto–allegro vivace. The finale uses Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) as the basis of a symphonic chorale prelude. Here again, Mendelssohn reprises themes from earlier in the symphony. In this last movement only, he adds depth to the scoring by adding contrabassoon and serpent (an obsolete wind instrument made of leather-covered wood; some modern performances substitute a tuba or a second contrabassoon, while others opt for just the single contrabassoon). The triumphant conclusion resolves the issues of religious strife implied at the beginning—making for a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts, for the Reformation is a tightly unified, cyclic work.

Sebastian Currier

Born: March 16, 1959, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; now living in New York City

RE-FORMATION [World Premiere]

Five hundred years ago, a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg nailed a document containing 95 theses to the door of the university’s Catholic church. His name, of course, was Martin Luther. His action and subsequent writings sparked the Protestant Reformation, dividing the Catholic Church and altering the course of history and religion throughout Europe and beyond.

Luther’s doctrine: grace through faith

Luther had been educated as a Catholic monk. He became offended by the Catholic practice of indulgences, through which the faithful ostensibly “purchased” salvation by paying sums of money to agents of the Pope to fund Catholic causes, notably the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Recipients of indulgences supposedly reduced their time in purgatory. Luther believed instead that sinners were liberated from their burden by faith. He questioned the Pope’s authority, as well as the relationship between the clergy and the common man. His ideas evolved into a doctrine of justification by grace, through faith. All this was anathema to the Vatican.

Resentment against Rome was a powerful force in German-speaking lands during the 16th century. Nevertheless, Luther’s path was not smooth after posting his 95 theses. He was tried for heresy and, in 1521, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The following year, he published his translation of the Bible’s New Testament in the vernacular—his mother tongue of German—making the sacred text available to literate members of the general populace. By 1534, he had completed translations of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. His impact on many levels was widespread, leading to a permanent schism between Protestant and Catholic factions within the Church.

a new Reformation commission

Several years ago, the creative arts resource organization LutheranArts approached Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä about the concept of commissioning a work to honor the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Longtime Orchestra supporters Kathy and Charlie Cunningham stepped forward with generous support for the commission, and Orchestra musicians on an artistic planning committee broached Sebastian Currier’s name as a suitable composer. Once the invitation was extended, Vänskä and Currier discussed broad parameters for the piece: something for chorus and orchestra, with echoes of Mendelssohn in the music.

Much of Currier’s music looks toward the present and the future, while maintaining strong links to the past. The commission triggered a steady stream of ideas. “It was not only the Reformation that fired my imagination,” the composer recalls, “but the subsequent commemorations of the event, particularly Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, in which he used Luther’s hymn Ein’ feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), as Bach had done in the previous century. This connection became the starting point for me.” He named his piece RE-FORMATION to reflect the way in which later generations re-use, re-interpret, and re-imagine the past, in order to meet the needs of the present. “I came to think that, 500 years later, a hymn to protect the environment was a fitting way to honor Luther’s vision.”

Currier’s outline of the music

Currier’s composer’s note reveals his thoughtful approach to the past as well as his concerns about the present and our collective future on earth:

“As RE-FORMATION begins, we hear fragments from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony ring out amidst a more obscure sound world, like decaying structures in a ruined landscape. It is a work that looks back to the Reformation and forward to the future of our planet. As it unfolds, it traces the process by which ideas are formulated, rethought, replaced and recycled.

“Mendelssohn’s symphony employs the tune from Martin Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg, written in 1529. When Luther composed this hymn, he looked much further back in time to Psalm 46 from the Old Testament, adapting the text to his purposes.

“In RE-FORMATION, writer Sarah Manguso—who wrote text for the work’s final segment—and I continue this process of using material from the past and reconfiguring it to suit contemporary needs. Luther’s predominant concerns in 1517 were an individual’s relationship to God and the corruption of the papacy. In 2017, Sarah Manguso and I have recast Luther’s concerns from the sacred to the secular: to the environment, and the urgent need for humans to take responsibility for the safety of the planet. As the piece unfolds, this lineage becomes apparent. When the chorus enters, we hear first a fragment from Psalm 46 sung in the original Hebrew, then the same fragment in a Latin translation from Roman times. Following this is the first phrase of Martin Luther’s hymn in German, then a translation into English from Luther’s time. This is followed by Sarah Manguso’s text.”

a modern call to action

Currier was particularly struck by the connection between Psalm 46—the basis for Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg text—to modern environmentalism. “In the Psalm’s first stanza, God’s strength is depicted by his ability to save us from the ravages of a destructive natural world, from apocalypse,” he notes. “Considering the world today, this viewpoint is reversed. We cannot stand by idly and permit our actions to destroy the planet. We need to take action.”

Currier describes RE-FORMATION as a choral symphony whose five parts flow into one another seamlessly; they are performed without pause. Three of them—Mendelssohn Fragments, Broken Symphony and A Hidden Voice—are for orchestra alone. The chorus only sings in Fragments of Old Texts—in which Currier primarily uses smaller groups from within the full chorus—and in the concluding segment, Chorale: The World. “Most of the psychological weight is in the last section, which sets Sarah Manguso’s text,” Currier observes. “The orchestra is very sparse throughout this section, placing the focus squarely on the chorus.”

Currier has collaborated with Manguso several times, including in Sleepers and Dreams for chorus and orchestra (2012), and in the solo vocal song cycle Deep-Sky Objects (2011). “I think she is one of the major writers of her generation, and I really enjoy working with her,” he says. At Currier’s request, she wrote the text for “The World” specifically for RE-FORMATION.

about the composer

Although this weekend marks the first time that the Minnesota Orchestra has performed Sebastian Currier’s music, Currier has long been a prominent figure in American composition. After completing his doctorate at New York’s Juilliard School, he joined the composition faculty at Columbia University. In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (which carries the largest financial prize in all of classical composition) for Static, a six-movement piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

Currier’s music, which spans solo, chamber and orchestral genres, has been performed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet and the Boston Philharmonic, among many other musicians and ensembles. He enjoys an especially close collaborative relationship with members of the Berlin Philharmonic. In addition to winning the Grawemeyer Award, Currier has been the recipient of the Berlin Prize, a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has held residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies, and was Artist in Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, from 2013 to 2016.

Program notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017. First North American Serial Rights Only.


Program Notes: Beethoven and Prokofiev

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Prokofiev: Classical Symphony

Doffing his hat to Haydn, Prokofiev mixes classical forms with modern harmonies—to a delightful effect.

Mozart: Clarinet Concerto

Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concerto was the last major work he completed before his death at age 35. It calls for a small orchestra with a limited number of wind instruments, allowing the soloist and the orchestra to interact intimately, more akin to chamber music than a typical grand concerto.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

From deep shade, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony emerges, powerful and athletic, into bright daylight. The Adagio is an expansive, rapt song. A blustery third movement goes twice through the scherzo-trio-scherzo cycle, and the finale is a comedy worthy of Beethoven’s erstwhile mentor, Haydn.

Full program notes:

Sergei Prokofiev

Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Russia (now Ukraine)

Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Classical Symphony, Opus 25 [Symphony No. 1]

Prokofiev, a much-cosseted only child, began composing at age 5, and before he was out of his teens he had written four operas, two symphonies and a stack of piano music. At 13 he was admitted to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he exited with the Rubinstein Prize, the highest honor available to a pianist, for the performance of his own Piano Concerto No. 1, completed and already performed in Moscow two years earlier.

In May of 1918, not long after the October Revolution, Prokofiev boarded the Trans-Siberian Express for Vladivostok to begin the life of an émigré. He lived in New York and Chicago, crossed the Atlantic several times, settled in Paris in 1923, and in 1927 began visiting Russia again. In 1936 he returned there for good, taking an apartment in Moscow.

In his earlier years Prokofiev often wrote a sharp-edged and fairly dissonant sort of music; in his later years in the Soviet Union he turned to a more mellifluous style, painted with a broader brush, and was less inclined to humor. Still, in Prokofiev we cannot really find a clear-cut division between early and late, Western and Soviet. He himself recognized four “basic lines” in his lifework, which he called classical, modern, motoric and lyrical. These do not, however, correspond to particular periods in his life. Though the balance among the components varies from work to work, all are present all the time.

Prokofiev did most of the work on his Classical Symphony during the summer of 1917, completing it on September 10 of that year and conducting the first performance in Petrograd on April 21, 1918. For a Russian composer, 1917 cannot have been an easy year to concentrate on his work; nonetheless, it was the most richly productive year of Prokofiev’s life. In addition to the Classical Symphony, he composed the Violin Concerto No. 1 and three works for piano and began two other major works, his Piano Concerto No. 3, and the remarkable cantata, Seven, They Are Seven.

the music: borrowing from another era

In the composer’s memoir, Prokofiev on Prokofiev, he recalls getting underway on his first symphony. “It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style while absorbing something new at the same time. This was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style.” He thus set out to write a symphony for Classical-era orchestra, transparent in texture, harmonically “cool,” on a modest scale, with clearly articulated periods and cadences, buoyant, comedic in spirit, and without weltschmerz and angst. He had a good time doing it, and he achieved his goals.

allegro. The effervescent opening, a 1917 translation of what 140 years or so earlier was called a Mannheim skyrocket (a specialty of composers in the Bavarian Palatinate), immediately gives notice that Prokofiev means to write rewarding virtuoso music for a modern orchestra. The main theme descends, nicely balancing the upward thrust of the rocket. We encounter multiple harmonic changes, a second theme in which violins play pert grace notes and negotiate precipitate leaps pianissimo and con eleganza, some thoroughly 20th-century syncopations, and a final skyrocket that brings the movement to a close.

larghetto. The beautiful, high-flying second movement makes no pretense at being “classical,” except in sweetness and restraint. Harmony and scoring are exquisite in every single measure.

gavotte: non troppo allegro. In the third movement, the harmony is full of Prokofievian skids and quick recoveries.

finale: molto vivace. The Finale brings us back to the mood of that first movement, only now there is no stopping to smell the roses. This is sheer uninhibited delight in energy and forward movement.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria

Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in A major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna from his native Salzburg; a decade later he produced his last completed instrumental work, his only concerto for the clarinet. It was written for a specific musician, the virtuoso Anton Stadler—the composer’s friend, fellow Freemason and member of the Viennese court orchestra.

Mozart’s love for this instrument went back a long way. While he was in Mannheim during 1777-78, he had written to his father: “You cannot imagine the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes and clarinets.” After Mozart befriended Stadler, he also wrote for him a Clarinet Trio, a Clarinet Quintet, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and two arias in the opera La Clemenza di Tito, which have lengthy clarinet obbligatos.

This sublimely beautiful work has enchanted generations of listeners. Qualities that have raised it not only to the summit of the repertory for this instrument but to the pantheon of Mozart’s very greatest masterpieces include its enormous variety of tone colors, subtle dynamic shadings, liquid-smooth lines, beguiling melodies, the manner in which Mozart exploits all registers of the solo instrument—and the air of tenderness and serenity that suffuses the work.

the concerto in brief

The concerto opens with a theme of utmost simplicity and gentle sentiment. The sense of lightness that pervades the movement, even in moments of melancholy, can be attributed in part to the exquisite refinements of the scoring. Cellos often play without the supporting double basses, and flutes play a prominent role while oboes are absent altogether. The ravishingly beautiful slow movement, in the words of Alec Hyatt King, “seems to reflect the timeless and beatific vision of a mind at peace with itself.” The finale is a rondo based on a dancelike theme that seems to transcend joy, as if smiling through the tears.

Program note by Robert Markow.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60

In September 1806, Beethoven accompanied his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky on a visit to the castle of another nobleman, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The count was a musical enthusiast almost without equal: he maintained a private orchestra and would hire new staff for the castle only if they played an instrument and could also play in his orchestra. The trip paid musical dividends for Beethoven, as the count commissioned him to write a new symphony.

the music: removed from the furies

The Fourth Symphony has inevitably been overshadowed by the titanic symphonies on either side of it. Although the Fourth does seem at first a relaxation, far removed from the furies that drive the Eroica and Fifth Symphony, we need to be careful not to underestimate this music.

adagio–allegro vivace. The symphony’s originality is evident from its first instant: the key signature says B-flat major, but the symphony opens in B-flat minor. This introduction keeps us in a tonal fog, but those mists blow away at the Allegro vivace. Huge chords lash out, and when the main theme leaps out brightly, we recognize it as a sped-up version of the slow introduction.

adagio. Violins sing the main theme, marked cantabile. Berlioz spoke effusively of the Adagio: “The being who wrote such a marvel of inspiration as this movement was not a man. Such must be the song of the Archangel Michael.”

allegro vivace. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: its outer sections are full of rough edges and blistering energy, and its witty trio is built on a rustic woodwind tune spiced with saucy interjections from the violins.

allegro ma non troppo. The finale goes like a rocket from its first instant. This movement may be in sonata form, but it feels like perpetual motion on a pulse of racing sixteenth-notes that hardly ever lets up.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Roderick Cox Conducts Rachmaninoff

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Argento: Valentino Dances

Extracted from the opera The Dream of Valentino, Argento’s suite of dances for orchestra is enriched by the addition of the accordion, whose distinctive sound is essential to the tango.

Grieg: Piano Concerto

This virtuosic keyboard showcase, written when its composer was only 25, reveals its heritage in evocations of traditional Norwegian song and dance, and contains a wealth of themes and dramatic gestures.


Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

Rachmaninoff’s final composition is full of rhythmic energy and colorful orchestration. The alto saxophone makes a rare orchestral appearance in this three-movement work, which closes with a breathtaking setting of the Dies Irae.

Full program notes:

Dominick Argento

Born: October 27, 1927, York, Pennsylvania; now living in Minneapolis

Valentino Dances: Suite for Orchestra from The Dream of Valentino

If, nestled among one of our state’s scenic limestone bluffs, there were one day a Mount Rushmore of Minnesota-connected composers, Dominick Argento’s likeness would surely figure prominently. Considered the preeminent American composer of lyric opera, Argento is the recipient of numerous high honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award and a McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. Perhaps as importantly, he has been a guiding light to generations of composers during his decades as a professor, and now Regents Professor Emeritus, at the University of Minnesota—where his former students included the Minnesota Orchestra’s first composers in residence, Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus. In another first, Argento was named this Orchestra’s composer laureate in 1997, part of a nearly 60-year relationship that has brought about numerous performances, commissions and premieres. Last year, Governor Mark Dayton declared a Dominick Argento Day in the state of Minnesota, recognizing him as a master composer, revered educator and beloved Minnesotan.

Each year, Argento’s music is performed by opera companies, orchestras and universities worldwide. This fall, the Minnesota Orchestra is among many organizations celebrating the composer’s 90th birthday. In November, the New York City Opera will mark the occasion by performing two of his one-act operas at Carnegie Hall. His home state of Pennsylvania is honoring the milestone with a concert of his songs presented by Philadelphia’s Song Fest. Here in Minnesota, his adopted home since 1958, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is presenting a semi-staged production of Argento’s opera The Boor on October 15. At today’s concert, we have the good fortune to hear Valentino Dances, an orchestral suite Argento extracted from his opera The Dream of Valentino. The suite was premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra on July 13, 1994, under the direction of David Zinman.

Program note introduction by Carl Schroeder.

Renowned for his vocal music—operas, songs and choral works— as well as praised for his brilliantly scored instrumental music, Dominick Argento is a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the Eastman School of Music, where he received his Ph.D. He used Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships to study in Italy with Luigi Dallapiccola. His early one-act opera buffa based on Chekhov, The Boor (1957), proved to be a remarkable first-published opera, soon mounted on stages all over the U.S. and Europe. Since then, Argento has delivered more than a dozen operas, including The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe; the Dickens-based Miss Havisham’s Fire, commissioned and premiered by the New York City Opera; and The Aspern Papers, drawn from Henry James and telecast nationally by PBS following its 1988 Dallas premiere, spurring productions in Germany and Sweden.

evoking the flamboyant ’20s

Set in the silent film era of Hollywood, but also exploring the Italian immigrant experience, The Dream of Valentino received its premiere in 1994 by Washington’s National Opera, conducted by the late Christopher Keene. Argento has extracted a series of tangos (all his own tunes) from the opera, and collectively titled them Valentino Dances. No ballroom number better evokes the bold sensuality of the flamboyant 1920s than the tango. For Argento, the dance symbolizes the glamour of the film actor’s era.

For this orchestral suite, Argento has expanded and re-orchestrated several numbers from the Valentino opera. The first is associated with the subject’s work as a taxi dancer in New York; the second is identified with the woman he is destined to marry; and the last relates to the opera’s second act, when the film star, because of contractual litigation in Hollywood, is performing in theaters on the road. The composer, who admits that he himself has never indulged in the tango (nor, for that matter, any other dance), notes that this is his first piece to call for an accordion. Its reedy color plumbs a ready nostalgia for another time and place.

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Edvard Grieg

Born: June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway

Died: September 4, 1907, Bergen, Norway

Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 16

In June 1867 Edvard Grieg, then a struggling 24-year-old composer, married his first cousin, Nina Hagerup, a soprano. The following summer, wishing for a break from the busy musical life of Norway, the Griegs went to Denmark, where they hoped the milder climate would benefit the composer’s often frail health. They rented a two-room garden cottage a few miles outside Copenhagen, and there Grieg began his Piano Concerto in A minor. He completed the score early the following year, and Edmund Neupert gave the first performance in Copenhagen on April 3, 1869. The concerto was an immediate success, but Grieg continued to revise it across the rest of his life: he made the final revisions in 1907, only a few months before his death.

a “splendid” success

Several years after the premiere, the Griegs traveled to Rome, where they visited Franz Liszt in his villa. Liszt sat down at his piano and sight-read this difficult concerto from Grieg’s manuscript. Grieg reported that while Liszt played the first movement too fast, his reading of the cadenza was magnificent, and the older master was so taken with the music at one point that he got up and strolled away from the piano with his arms upraised, “literally roaring out the theme.” Best of all, Liszt recognized the way Grieg had amended one of the principal themes of the finale when it comes back for a triumphant reappearance at the end. He shouted out: “G-natural! G-natural! Not G-sharp! Splendid!” Liszt played that ending one more time, then told Grieg: “Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don’t let them frighten you.”

Liszt’s judgment was sound: the Grieg Piano Concerto has become one of the most popular ever written. Its combination of good tunes alternating with stormy, dramatic gestures, all stitched together with brilliant writing for piano, has made it virtually irresistible to audiences. In a way, this music has become a victim of its own success: by the middle of the last century it had become almost too popular, and over the last generation or so it has virtually disappeared from the concert hall. Which makes a fresh performance all the more welcome.

the music

allegro molto moderato. Grieg greatly admired the music of Robert Schumann, and the similarity between the beginnings of their respective piano concertos is striking: each opens with a great orchestral chord followed by a brilliant passage for the solo piano that eases gently into the movement’s main theme. Grieg makes his opening even more dramatic by beginning with a long timpani roll that flares up like a peal of thunder; the piano’s entrance then flashes downward like a streak of lightning.

The movement’s march-like main theme, shared on its first appearance by winds and strings, is only the first of many attractive ideas. (One observer has counted seven different themes in this movement, and these range from a melting lyricism to heaven-storming violence.) The cadenza that Liszt sight-read so well is particularly effective. Though it begins quietly, the concerto soon unleashes great torrents of sound from hammered octaves and brilliant runs. It is altogether typical of this movement that Grieg should introduce a new theme after the cadenza. The piano’s pounding, driving chords propel the music to its exciting close.

adagio. The mood changes completely in the Adagio. Grieg mutes the strings here and moves to the key of D-flat major, which feels soft and warm after the powerful opening movement. A long orchestral introduction leads to the entrance of the piano, which sounds utterly fresh after the dark, muted strings. But this entrance is deceiving. The piano part soon turns dramatic and drives to its own climax; the music subsides and continues without a break into the finale.

allegro moderato molto e marcato. After an opening flourish, the piano introduces the main theme, a dancing 2/4 idea that sounds as if its roots must be in Norwegian folk music. Once again, this movement is built on a wealth of ideas. At the coda Grieg moves into A major and ingeniously recasts his main theme in a 3/4 meter, and the movement drives to its powerful close.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Symphonic Dances, Opus 45

In the summer of 1940 Rachmaninoff set to work on what would be his final complete work, a set of dances for orchestra that would ultimately be known as his Symphonic Dances, premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 3, 1941.

opulent, sumptuous—and subtle

This score is remarkable for the opulence of its color, and Rachmaninoff seems intent on finding and exploiting new orchestral sonorities. More remarkable still is Rachmaninoff’s subtle compositional method. He evolves this music from rhythmic fragments, bits of theme, simple patterns—which are then built up into powerful movements that almost overflow with rhythmic energy.

non allegro. The music opens with some of these fragments, just bits of sound from the first violins, and over them the English horn sounds the three-note pattern that will permeate this work, reappearing across its span in endless forms. Rachmaninoff plays it up into a great climax, which subsides as the opening fragments lead to the central episode, sung at first entirely by woodwinds. This slow interlude—the reedy sound of the alto saxophone is exactly right for this wistful music—makes its way back to the big gestures of the beginning section, now energized by explosive timpani salvos. In the closing moments, Rachmaninoff rounds matters off with a grand chorale for strings, beautifully accompanied by the glistening sound of bells, piano, harp, piccolo and flutes, and the movement winks into silence on the fragments with which it began.

andante con moto (tempo di valse). The opening of the second movement takes us into a completely different sound-world with the icy tones of trumpets and horns, played forte but stopped. Rachmaninoff calls for a waltz tempo, but he sets the music in the untraditional meters of 6/8 and 9/8 and has the waltz introduced by the unlikely sound of solo English horn. This music evolves through several episodes, some soaring, some powerful, before subsiding in a sudden, almost breathless close.

lento assai–allegro vivace. The slow introduction to the final movement is enlivened by the strings’ interjections of the three-note pattern. Gradually these anneal into the Allegro vivace, and off the movement goes, full of rhythmic energy and the sound of ringing bells. A central episode in the tempo of the introduction sings darkly; after wonderful sounds including eerie string glissandos, the Allegro vivace returns to rush the Symphonic Dances to a close guaranteed to rip the top off a concert hall.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Celebrating Finland's Centennial

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Aho: Minea

In this concert opener, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered in 2009, each instrument is given a chance to shine as volume and tempo increase throughout. Adding flavor are percussion instruments and rhythms from non-Western cultures.

Kuusisto: Violin Concerto

Virtuoso violinist Jaakko Kuusisto composed this Violin Concerto for his friend, and tonight’s soloist, Elina Vähälä. It is a dazzling journey of athleticism and lyricism, inspired by Vähälä’s personality and brilliant musical talents.


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

From an assortment of seemingly disjointed elements, Sibelius creates an imposing mosaic in his Second Symphony. One fascinating feature of the Finale: a wistful melody played over running eighth-notes, written in memory of the composer’s sister-in-law.

Full program notes:

Kevin Aho 
Born: March 9, 1949, Forssa, Finland; now living in Helsinki, Finland

Minea: Concertante Music for Orchestra

Kalevi Aho and Osmo Vänskä first met in 1989, when Vänskä conducted two of Aho’s works in a recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in their native Finland. Since then, Vänskä has led premieres of some two dozen compositions by Aho, and has played an active role in commissioning many of them. He has earned a reputation as an authoritative interpreter of Aho’s music, and has led six of Aho’s works at Orchestra Hall since becoming the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director in 2003.

Widely regarded as Finland’s most distinguished symphonist since Sibelius, Aho studied with Einojuhani Rautavaara at the Sibelius Academy. He has become a major figure in European musical circles and has worked as a freelance composer since 1994.

made for Minnesota

Mineamarked a bit of a departure for Aho, who is best known for multi-movement, large scale works. “It was Osmo’s idea that I compose a shorter piece for the Minnesota Orchestra,” Aho recalled at the time of the premiere here in 2009. “We discussed the prospect in 2005 when the orchestra played my Seventh Symphony. Osmo’s proposal was a piece about 16 to 20 minutes, for a large orchestra, about 100 musicians. He wanted every musician of the Minnesota Orchestra to have an opportunity to shine.” That last specification yielded the subtitle, Concertante Music. “This piece really highlights the virtuosity of the Minnesota Orchestra,” says Aho. “It also has some major solos for individual players, for example a very demanding contrabassoon solo toward the middle of the piece.” As for the title: Mineais a play on Minneapolis. “When I finished composing, the work had no name. I began to twist the city name to find a title. I wondered about Minnea, then took away one ‘n’ and got Minea.”

The form was left to Aho’s discretion. He chose a free structure in several sections with a forward trajectory of tempi and volume. Minea opens Tranquillo, then steadily accelerates to Allegro, Furioso, and finally Presto. “The idea is simply that the music becomes faster and faster toward the end,” he explains. “It is like a single, huge accelerandoand crescendo.”

unusual percussion: window to world music

Aho has long had an interest in non-Western music. Minea is one of several works in which he has expanded his musical vocabulary. “I have sought a new, fresh relation to tonality by using scales from other musical cultures,” he explains. “I find rhythm in Western music less interesting than in African, Arabian, or Indian music. In Minea, I have tried to enrich the rhythmic element by using ethnic percussion and by adopting metric influences and patterns from other musical cultures.” Minea’s score specifies a large percussion battery that requires four players. The most unusual instrument Aho includes is darabukka, a goblet-shaped drum prominent in North African and Middle-Eastern music. “I really like the sound of a good darabukka,” declares Aho. A typical phenomenon in Arabian music is rhythmical patterns that repeat through the whole piece. Those patterns can be long and complicated. “Minea also has complex rhythmic patterns, which are repeated dozens of times before they change,” he continues. “Minea’s form is also connected to classical Northern Indian music, which generally begins with a slow section lacking a clear pulse. Eventually a pulse is established, normally with a tabla player drumming. The tempo becomes faster and faster. At the end, the virtuosity and speed of the music increase to a maximum.” Aho compares the Tranquillosection that opens Mineato the opening of an Indian raga, which designates a particular scale pattern, patterns of rising and falling pitches, and mood. The ensuing Allegro, Furioso, and Prestosections correspond to the more rhythmic sections of an Indian composition; however, he has added inflections from Arabian music. “And at the beginning,” he notes, “you might also hear a little Japanese flavor.”

Jaakko Kuusisto
Born: January 17, 1974, in Helsinki, Finland; now living there

Violin Concerto, Opus 28

Collaborative partnerships between composers and violinists have yielded some of the bedrock works in the orchestral literature. Mendelssohn wrote his E-minor Concerto for Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Brahms relied substantially on input from his friend Joseph Joachim while composing his Violin Concerto. In the 20th century, Zoltán Székeley urged Bartók to write a concerto for him; Shostakovich drew inspiration from his friend David Oistrakh. Further examples are plentiful.

from one violinist to another

A virtuoso violinist himself, contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto has performed many of the great concertos in the repertoire, and he had contemplated writing his own violin concerto since the turn of the millennium. The opportunity arose when Elina Vähälä suggested that he compose a concerto for her. The two had collaborated on several projects, so Kuusisto was well acquainted with her playing and her personality.

The project fell into place with funding from the Arts Council of Finland and the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Bureau TEOSTO, which enabled Vähälä to formally commission the piece. She was the soloist at the premiere on April 12, 2012, with Kuusisto conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The same forces have recorded the concerto for BIS Records, and Vähälä continues to champion it as a touring soloist. Although this weekend marks the first time that the Minnesota Orchestra has performed Kuusisto’s music on its classical subscription series, he is no stranger here. In 2004 he was the soloist in performances of Rautavaara’s Violin Concerto. He has also arranged several medleys of music by ABBA, Queen and the Beatles for concerts with the Orchestra and Finnish vocal ensemble Rajaton. Audiences hungry for even more can hear Kuusisto’s octet arrangement of Sibelius’ tone poem En Sagain a “NightCap” concert following the full-Orchestra concert on Saturday, September 23. (A separate ticket is required.)

the music: a brilliant 21st-century concerto

For Vähälä, Kuusisto composed a major work by any measure. Its structure is fairly traditional: three movements, with the first movement in sonata-allegro form, followed by a more leisurely and solemn slow movement and an energetic finale; however, the placement of the solo cadenza at the concerto’s opening departs from convention.

moderato. The extended cadenza is a study in drama, unfolding slowly and deliberately with tonally ambiguous intervals and abundant double stops, in which two notes are played simultaneously. Kuusisto introduces rapid scalar runs and aggressive dissonance, while never fully abandoning tonal moorings. Triplet figuration accelerates the pace, leading to the orchestra’s explosive entry about three minutes into the first movement. A metamorphosis occurs as the soloist distills the cadenza to its essence: we hear the theme in its pure form. Radiant and unabashedly romantic, the theme soars above Kuusisto’s lush harmonies and colorful orchestration. When the low brasses declaim it, the soloist embroiders with a sweetness and delicacy that are at once reminiscent of Sibelius and completely Kuusisto’s own. Dualities between drama and lyricism, and between diatonicism and edgier sonorities, define the balance of the first movement. Melodic and harmonic ideas from the cadenza resurface (including some whole tone scales), transformed and decorated in rhapsodic fashion. Eventually they coalesce in a coda that drives to a thrilling close.

lento. A sustained note in the horns effects the transition to the slow movement. An air of hushed mystery prevails, with cameos for harp and woodwinds in dialogue with the violin, while muted tremolandi strings shimmer in the background. A more agitated middle section interrupts, leading to another violin outburst in double stops. After building to an explosive climax for full orchestra, calm and mystery return.

molto allegro. Kuusisto’s finale storms out of the gate with crackling wood blocks beating time. Quasi-minimalist syncopated figures for winds dance around the insistent pulse. Both are introductory to the violin’s whirlwind perpetuum mobileentrance. The soloist sustains that energy level for the duration of the movement, hurtling with dizzying speed in tandem with the motoric orchestra. It is a thrilling ride, replete with moments to catch our breath and recall the ravishing lyricism of the first movement. Kuusisto is a masterful orchestrator who is completely at home writing for large ensemble without eclipsing the violin. His woodwind writing throughout the concerto is extraordinary. Ultimately, of course, violin is at the center. One has the feeling that he has composed a musical portrait of Vähälä. Through his music, we know this remarkable woman. In turn, her performance illuminates a brilliant 21st-century concerto.

Jean Sibelius
Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

“Sibelius is an aggravatingly difficult person to catalogue,” music critic Lawrence Abbott once said. Finland’s most celebrated composer has been variously described as late Romantic, expressionist, nationalist, spiritual mythologist and futurist. Partly because he enjoyed such a long life and fruitful career (though he did not compose any major works in the last third of his life), his style evolved and altered, lending some credence to all the aforementioned categories. At the same time, certain common themes—Finnish legend, national pride— recurred throughout his career.

Sibelius’ more substantial forms descend from the Classic-Romantic symphonic structures of Tchaikovsky; however, his harmonic language is less chromatic. Sibelius relies on triads and often uses parallel thirds to state his melodies. He also draws on modal scales common to Finnish folk songs. Always, he favors simpler means to deliver his ideas. the music: a brief sub-arctic summer Composed in 1901 and 1902, the Second Symphony has become Sibelius’ most popular symphony, perhaps because of its frankly nationalistic stance. Despite its origins in Finland’s harsh Nordic climate, this symphony pulses with the warmth of the brief sub-arctic summer. The symphony’s popularity, however, does not hinge solely on its expansive mood. Pastoral elements alternate with intense drama, making for a fully satisfying musical experience. Simon Parmet, a 20th-century Finnish conductor, composer and writer, referred to Sibelius in this work as being “in one of those rare moods in which he is in complete harmony with the external world.”

allegretto. In its day, the symphony startled listeners because of its first movement’s unconventional form. One doesn’t hear themes so much as musical gestures: short motives from which larger thematic “paragraphs” evolve. Sibelius detaches these succinct motives at the beginning, then forges them together in his development. At the conclusion of the movement, he breaks the melodic components into fragments again. The entire process is almost the inverse of the conventional approach to musical logic as codified in sonata form, wherein one expects exposition of thematic ideas that are fragmented and developed in a middle section, then unified at the close.

andante, ma rubato. Sibelius referred to his second movement as “a spiritualized development.” Many of its ideas originated in sketches for a symphonic poem about Don Juan as he confronts Death. An ominous timpani roll and pizzicato cellos and basses open the movement in D minor. Bassoons deliver the first theme, their low register underscoring the dark mood. An agitated passage for full orchestra leads to the strings’ angelic second theme, in a remarkable modulation to the distant key of F-sharp major. In Sibelius’s sketches, this theme is marked “Christus”: the prospect of salvation contrasting with the fate of the unrepentant libertine Don Juan. As in the legend, Death prevails, with a return of the bassoon melody.

vivacissimo. The gruff scherzo demands virtuoso playing from the entire orchestra. Whirlwind string figures skitter about in all registers, punctuated by woodwinds in snippets of themes. The trio section slows down the pace, presenting more song-like themes and shifting the melodic emphasis to woodwinds.

finale: allegro moderato. Sibelius’ transition from the third movement to the finale is one of the symphony’s master strokes. He fuses them together by repeating the trio section and letting it unfold gradually into his finale. The transition—possibly modeled on Beethoven’s similar ploy in the Fifth Symphony—is ingenious, organic, and thoroughly convincing, arriving at the majestic finale theme with marvelous assurance. Biographer Burnett James has written that the symphony’s finale “is a fine paean of praise and strength, a sturdy affirmation of life and vitality....The force of nature is given full rein. The winds howl and roar; the tuba emits prodigies of elemental energy; strings scurry and swirl; and once again the great ostinato pedal points in the orchestra hold the foundations firm.”

Program notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017. First North American serial rights only.

Program Notes: Vänskä Opens the Season with Stravinsky's Firebird

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

one-minute notes:

Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Fast-paced and brimming with energy, Adams’ Short Ride is steadily driven by persistent, pulsating wood blocks.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

Despite its somewhat deceptive title, Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess was not meant to evoke emotions of great sadness; rather, the composer intended to convey the delicate image of a young Spanish princess from long ago, engaging in a traditional 16th century dance.

Hillborg: Violin Concerto No. 2

Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto invites listeners to stretch their ears as the solo violin and orchestra together traverse new territories of texture, color and musical contrast.

Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture

The Berlioz opera Benvenuto Cellini was a dismal failure, but the composer loved the work and extracted from it the themes and fragments with which he created the splendidly successful Roman Carnival Overture.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird

The heroic Prince Ivan and a magical Firebird are revealed with brilliant orchestral colors. The gentle dance of captive princesses, the prince’s effort to free them, the evil sorcerer’s defeat by the Firebird—all is painted in the most vivid musical imagery.

Full program notes:

John Adams
BornFebruary 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts; now living in Berkeley, California

Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams is one of the greatest success stories among today’s “classical” composers, a success boosted in its earliest stages by one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s past music directors, Edo de Waart, and by one of the Orchestra’s former program annotators, the late Michael Steinberg. In one such nexus, the Orchestra co-commissioned and premiered one of Adams’ most important compositions, the Violin Concerto, with de Waart conducting and then-Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis as soloist at the 1994 premiere. Steinberg later wrote about this work in his highly-regarded book The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide—with Adams being one of just four living composers spotlighted in the volume.

Virtually every major orchestra in the world, from Stockholm to Sydney and from Singapore to Syracuse, has played Adams’ music. In fact, in some years he is the most frequently-programmed contemporary American composer on the schedules of major orchestras. Audiences invariably are seduced by his music’s rhythmic energy, hypnotic pulsations, brilliant orchestration, and the imaginative ways in which he incorporates familiar concepts and materials into music uniquely his own and undeniably American. He is well-known for his historically-based operas including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, and for orchestral works including On the Transmigration of Souls, which won Adams the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.

Ensembles around the world are marking Adams’ 70th birthday year in 2017; two highlights are an Adams residency with the Berlin Philharmonic and the world premiere of his latest opera, Girls of the Golden West, in San Francisco in November.

a “ride in a terrific sports car”

Short Ride in a Fast Machine is one of the most frequently-performed orchestral works by a living American composer. This four-minute concert opener was first performed on June 13, 1986, at the inaugural concert of the Great Woods Festival in Mansfield, Massachusetts (hence the work’s subtitle, Fanfare for Great Woods), where the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was in residence for the summer; Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the premiere.

The large orchestra includes two synthesizers and much percussion. The rhythmic activity, as befits the title, is driving and frenetic, the dynamic level almost consistently loud. As Michael Steinberg reported in his annotation for the San Francisco Symphony, “Adams describes the woodblock’s persistence as ‘almost sadistic’ and thinks of the rest of the orchestra as running the gauntlet through that rhythmic tunnel.” As for the title, Adams remarks: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t.”

Maurice Ravel 
BornMarch 7, 1875, Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France
DiedDecember 28, 1937, Paris, France

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Throughout his compositional career, Ravel turned often to dance as inspiration. The waltz, minuet, bolero, habanera and pavane he all set twice or more; also given due attention were the malagueña, rigaudon and forlane. One of his first successful works was the exquisite piano miniature Pavane pour une infante défunte, written in 1899 while the composer was still a student, and dedicated to the Princess of Polignac, a noted patron of the arts. In the composer’s words: “It is not a lament for a dead child, but an evocation of the pavane which might have been danced by a tiny princess such as was painted by Velasquez at the Spanish Court.” The first performance of the solo piano version was given by Ricardo Viñes in Paris on April 5, 1902.

an exquisite orchestration

The Pavane’s popularity grew even more when the composer orchestrated it in 1910. In Ravel’s treatment of the pavane (a stately 16th-century Spanish court dance), we find a haunting, graceful melody set against a gently undulating rhythmic accompaniment. Strings are muted throughout, adding a touch of veiled mystery to the subtly archaic character. The small orchestra includes also a harp, an oboe, and pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. The orchestration’s premiere was conducted by Sir Henry Wood in Manchester, England, on February 27, 1911.

Although Ravel did not leave a recording of himself conducting the work, he did critique the orchestral version’s premiere. He lamented the Pavane’s “excessively flagrant influence” of French Romantic composer Emmanuel Chabrier, and also claimed that the original piano version’s popularity was due to what he considered its conservative, unimaginative character. Regardless of Ravel’s assessment, the Pavane’s quaint charm, evocative mood and idyllic tranquility have endeared it to millions, and no critic, not even the composer, can undo the touching effect this exquisite musical gem has on us.

Anders Hillborg
BornMay 31, 1954, Sollentuna, Sweden; now living in Stockholm, Sweden

Violin Concerto No. 2

Minnesota Orchestra audiences first encountered the music of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg in 2014, when, soprano Renée Fleming introduced Hillborg’s The Strand Settings to Minnesota following the work’s highly-acclaimed premiere in Carnegie Hall. This week we experience the American premiere of Hillborg’s Second Violin Concerto, which was co-commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

concertos, pop music and more

Concertos feature prominently in Hillborg’s catalog. His first work of this kind, dating from 1992, was the First Violin Concerto. Also for solo violin is the Bach Materia, premiered this past March and due for its American premiere later this fall by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He may be the only composer of his stature to have written both a Trombone Concerto and a Concerto for Two Trombones. Then there are concertos for piano, flute, percussion and oboe. Currently he is working on a Concerto for Orchestra.

Hillborg received most of his musical training at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, but he also absorbed what various visiting composers had to offer, especially the English avant-garde figure Brian Ferneyhough. His enormous range of activity encompasses music for orchestra, film scores and pop music. Commissions have come from such leading orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra and most of Sweden’s major orchestras. In recent years he has been honored with the Swedish Gramophone Award for Best Classical CD of the Year for the disc Eleven Gates, which features four of his orchestral works; served as Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition at the University of Toronto; and was composer in residence with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg.

“like Dali’s melting watches”

Conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has vividly described the characteristic contrasts inherent in Hillborg’s music: “the static and the hyperactive, the mechanical and the human, the nobly beautiful and the banally brutal, the comic and the moving. Almost never sentimental, but surreal in a way—like Dali’s melting watches.” Other images suggested by Hillborg’s music, taken from various sources, include “a seething sonic cauldron,” “an aircraft revving up for take-off” and “a softly shimmering and slowly changing sonic mist.” These qualities and more are found in the Second Violin Concerto, premiered by its dedicatee Lisa Batiashvili with Sakari Oramo conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on October 20, 2016.

The Second Violin Concerto is laid out in a single movement, lasting about 25 minutes. The soloist’s role is tightly integrated with the orchestra, so much so that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. The emphasis is less on melody than on textures, colors, motoric patterns and the contrasts Hillborg draws from both orchestra and soloist, creating an absorbing, at times even fascinating voyage through a sonic landscape.

An uneasy stasis hangs over much of the music, broken on three occasions by short episodes of violent rhythmic activity. The dynamic range can explode from ppp to fff in a fraction of a second, or go the reverse route. A huge canvas is suggested by the vast difference in range between the lowest notes of the basses and the stratospheric lines of the solo violin. Hillborg’s orchestra is not large, but he uses it with great imagination. At several points, woodwinds sound as though they are imitating the early-morning sounds of an aviary. Strings are often subdivided into multiple parts (up to 17), creating dense sound masses that slide like thick lava flows. In short, the Second Violin Concerto is a work that will stretch the ears of many listeners, but mostly in beguiling and captivating ways.

Hector Berlioz
BornDecember 11, 1803, La Côte-St. André, France
DiedMarch 8, 1869, Paris, France

Roman Carnival Overture

Berlioz made a characteristic choice when he decided to write his first opera about Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century goldsmith, sculptor, adventurer—and author of a self-conscious autobiography. Berlioz, who would later write his own splendidly self-conscious autobiography, was strongly drawn to the figure of Cellini, but the opera was a complete failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. It had only four performances, French audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted, with typical detachment, that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.” Liszt led a successful revival at Weimar in 1852, but Benvenuto Cellini has not held the stage.

an overture that outshines the opera

Berlioz was stung by the failure of the opera, but he continued to love its music, and years later he would speak of its “variety of ideas, an impetuous verve, and a brilliancy of musical coloring.” In 1843, five years after the failed premiere, he pulled out two of its themes and from them fashioned an overture that he planned to use as an introduction to the second tableau of the opera set in Rome’s Piazza Colonna during carnival season. Those two themes are the aria “O Teresa, vous que j’aime plus que la vie,” which Benvenuto sings to his 17-year-old lover in the first tableau, and the saltarello from the second tableau, which the players from Cassandro’s theater dance to attract crowds during the pre-Lenten festivities. Berlioz may have intended that his new overture would serve as part of the opera, but when he led the overture as a concert piece in Paris on February 3, 1844, it was such a success that it had to be encored, and it has become one of his most popular works on its own, entirely divorced from the opera that gave it life.

The Roman Carnival Overture, as this music was eventually named, opens with a great flourish that hints at the saltarello theme to be heard later—Berlioz marks this flourish Allegro assai and further specifies that it should be con fuoco, “with fire.” The music quickly settles as the English horn sings Benvenuto’s plaintive love song, and this is extended briefly before the music leaps ahead at the saltarello, originally a dance from the Mediterranean area in a lively 6/8 meter. This is a wonderful moment: the crispness of Berlioz’s rhythmic energy is nicely underlined by his decision to keep the strings muted during the first part of the saltarello. Along its spirited way, Berlioz brings back the love-song theme and turns it into a fugato, and there is some deft combination of the main ideas. Finally, though, it is the dance that triumphs, and the ending explodes with all the sonic fireworks appropriate to a carnival in Rome.

Igor Stravinsky
BornJune 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
DiedApril 6, 1971, New York City

Suite from The Firebird

In 1909, following a successful visit of the Ballets Russes to Paris, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and his choreographer Michel Fokine made plans for a new ballet to be presented in Paris the following season and based on the old Russian legend of the Firebird. They decided to take a chance on an unknown young composer named Igor Stravinsky. Recognizing that this was his big chance, Stravinsky set to work in November 1909 and finished the score the following spring. The first performance, in Paris on June 25, 1910, was a huge success. Though Stravinsky would go on to write quite different music over the remainder of his long career, the music from The Firebird remains his most popular creation. Of the three concert suites Stravinsky drew from the ballet score, the 1919 revision heard here is performed most often.

a tale of enchantment

The Firebird tells of a young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, who pursues the magic Firebird—part woman, part bird—into the garden of the ogre Kashchei, who imprisons maidens in the castle and turns all knights who come to rescue them to stone. Ivan captures the Firebird, who gives him a magic feather when he releases her. The prince sees 13 princesses playing with golden apples, and when at dawn they hurry back to Kashchei’s castle, he follows them. The monsters there capture him and he is about to be turned to stone himself when he waves the magic feather—and the Firebird returns, puts the ogres to sleep and shows him where a magic egg is hidden. When Ivan smashes the egg, Kashchei and his fiends disappear, the petrified knights return to life, the maidens are freed, and Ivan marries the most beautiful of the princesses.

magical music

The Introduction brings one of Stravinsky’s most striking orchestral effects: a series of rippling string arpeggios played entirely in harmonics. The composer wanted to create here a Catherine-wheel effect, that of fireworks spinning and throwing off light. The music proceeds into the shimmering, whirling Dance of the Firebird, Stravinsky’s own favorite music from this score.

In the Dance of the Princesses Stravinsky uses the old Russian folk tune “In the Garden.” The Infernal Dance of King Kashchei begins with one of the most violent orchestral attacks ever written. Sharply syncopated rhythms and barbaric growls depict the fiends’ efforts to resist the Firebird’s spell.

In its aftermath, solo bassoon sings the gentle Berceuse with which the Firebird lulls Kashchei and his followers to sleep, and this leads through a magical passage for tremolo strings into the Finale. Here solo horn announces the main theme, based on another Russian folksong, “By the Gate.” Beginning quietly, this noble tune drives The Firebird to a magnificent conclusion on music of general rejoicing.

Program notes on the Adams, Ravel and Hillborg works by Robert Markow.

Program notes on the Berlioz and Stravinsky works by Eric Bromberger.


Program Notes: Opera Finale: Strauss’ Salome

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, August 5th

Full program notes:

Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Salome, Opus 54

Shocking, bestial, pestiferous, perverse, devastating, decadent and depraved are just a few of the terms that have been hurled at Strauss’ opera Salome. Without question, it is one of the boldest, most original and most provocative scores ever written. The premiere of this one-act opera in Dresden on December 9, 1905, set off waves of revulsion and charges of scandal such as the operatic world had seldom, if ever, seen.

Critics competed for the most vivid and graphic images to make their points. In Boston, Louis Elson admonished readers of the Daily Advertiser that the libretto “is a compound of lust, stifling perfumes and blood, and cannot be read by any woman or fully understood by anyone but a physician.” In London, the 1908 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claimed that “on the average hearer it produces a sense of nausea.” Not to be outdone, the influential New York critic Henry Krehbiel called the opera a “moral stench.”

scandalous and sensational
Why all the fuss? Well, to name a few still-scandalous plot points: Salome’s stepfather Herod is in lust with her. Herod and his second wife Herodias are constantly at each other’s throats, squabbling about everything and agreeing on nothing. (Actually, they’re living in sin, as Herod’s first marriage was never annulled.) A servant commits suicide in front of the whole court and hardly anyone notices except a man who was in love with him. And then there is Salome herself—physically attracted to a holy man whose charms she enumerates in explicit detail; prepared to dance nude to get what she wants; and so perverted that she can blithely ask for a severed heard to be delivered to her, and “on a silver platter,” no less. What she does with this head is beyond what most people can stomach. Even Herod is so repulsed that he orders his own stepdaughter murdered.

Not exactly light summer fare! Nor is it for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Nevertheless, our fascination with the lurid, the morbid, the sensational and the perverse keeps Salome at the top of the operatic hit list. Tonight’s performance, however, marks the first time it has been presented as the Sommerfest opera finale.

a “sung play,” brilliantly orchestrated
For his libretto, Strauss used a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s original French-language play, published in 1892. The subject is treated briefly in the gospels according to Mark and Matthew. Before Strauss got to it, Salome’s story had been treated elsewhere in words (including Flaubert’s short story that Massenet turned into the opera Hérodiade), in drawings (Dürer, Mucha, Picasso and Beardsley), and on canvas (Rubens, Leonardo, Donatello, Titian, Moreau and Klimt). Strauss reduced Wilde’s text by about a third, but otherwise used it virtually word for word. There are no arias, duets, or choral numbers. Nearly everything is monologue or dialogue—opera as sung play.

By the time Strauss completed Salome in 1905, he had already achieved renown on two continents as the composer of a series of extraordinary tone poems that explored orchestral possibilities to their limits. He had set the musical world on its ear through the marvelous colors and pictorial effects he incorporated into symphonic poems like Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben. He had brought the orchestra to its highest level of development, demanded unprecedented technical facility from every player, and expanded the range of nearly every instrument. If Berlioz could be said to have used the orchestra as a collective soloist, then Strauss made everyone a virtuoso. In Salome, he carried these elements farther than ever before. So essential is the orchestra in Salome that one cannot ever think of it as “accompanying” the singers.

To accomplish this purpose, Strauss employed an oversized orchestra, not just to produce overwhelming tidal waves of sound, but to have at his disposal an enormous range of colors. The tally of musicians required for Salome, while not the very largest Strauss ever used in an opera (that honor goes to Elektra), is certainly as variegated as in any other. A glance at the score reveals such rarely encountered instruments as the heckelphone (bass oboe), celesta, harmonium and organ.

Strauss’ complete mastery of the orchestral palette allowed him to create moods with uncanny accuracy. The slinky, feline nature of the title character is captured in an instant by the clarinet’s opening notes, which constitute one of the most important motifs in the opera. It is played by nearly every instrument of the orchestra at one point or another, including even by the contrabassoon, where, needless to say, it hardly sounds slinky or seductive. The sensuous, sultry warmth of the Middle Eastern night pervades much of the score, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the central episode of Salome’s dance. Alternating with this rich, heavy, languorous music are episodes of nervous excitability in which woodwinds skitter about with the agility of monkeys, horns and trumpets need the facility of string instruments, and the strings practically require whole sections of Heifetzes to play accurately what Strauss wrote for them. Even the timpanist is asked to execute acrobatic feats of derring-do.

Strauss once boasted that he could describe virtually anything in music, even a knife and fork, if need be. He was never challenged on the knife and fork, but in Salome we find dozens of examples of his gift for converting almost anything into orchestral tone. When Herodias taunts Herod about his lowly ancestry (the son of a camel driver), woodwinds erupt with several shrill, nasal imitations of a camel’s cry. Herod in turn accuses his wife of screeching like a bird of prey, to appropriate sounds from five clarinets and a trumpet. When Herod imagines an icy wind blowing through the palace, Strauss conjures up a highly realistic effect by having the strings and flutes race up and down chromatic scales; one not only hears, but feels the blast of chill air and pervasive sense of fear. The composer’s father made the oft-quoted remark that there is so much nervousness in the score that “it is exactly as if one had one’s pants full of maybugs.”

can opera still shock?
Despite the opera’s controversial subject matter and the howls of critics, the 1905 premiere of Salome in Dresden was a great success, with 38 curtain calls and the event being declared the most exciting premiere since that of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1894. Within two years, 50 cities in Germany had mounted productions of Strauss’ Salome, and by 1911 nearly every country in Europe had done so. In the U.S., there was a single performance at the Metropolitan Opera in January of 1907, and then the opera was banned and not readmitted there until 1933.

With more than a century of wars, terrorism, vice, corruption, scandal, violence and decline in moral standards since the premiere of Salome, the ability of the opera to create shock and awe is perhaps not what it used to be. But the thrills of a performance remain as potent as ever, generated by vivid character portrayal, manic temperament, a fiendishly difficult title role, and above all the coruscating orchestration that leaps from every page of the score.


The opera’s setting is the terrace just outside the palace of Herod in Judea. Herod, often referred to as the Tetrarch (ruler of the fourth part of a region in the ancient Roman Empire), is married to his brother’s widow Herodias, mother of the beautiful but spoiled teenage Salome. Imprisoned in an underground cistern is the prophet John the Baptist (Jokanaan in German), who has denounced Herodias for her perfidious act of having her former husband murdered, and preaches the coming of Christ. Herod is afraid of him, Herodias despises him, and Salome falls in lust with him. Herod too is in lust, with his step-daughter Salome. An unsavory scene all around!

The action begins with no overture. Narraboth, captain of the guard, comments on the beauty of Princess Salome, who is still inside the palace. To no avail, a page warns Narraboth of the danger in admiring Salome. John the Baptist, down in the cistern, sings the first of his Scriptural prophecies, which make no sense to anyone. Salome comes out onto the terrace, annoyed with the lecherous glances she keeps getting from Herod. Again John speaks; Salome is instantly attracted by his voice and intrigued by his message. She demands that Narraboth bring him up for her to see. Narraboth protests that Herod has forbidden him to do this, but playing the role of a seductress, she soon persuades Narraboth to do her bidding. Step by step, she tries to get John to reciprocate the sexual desire she feels for him, but each time he spurns her. Exasperated, he curses her and returns to the cistern. While John descends, and while Salome steams and fumes, the orchestra pours forth a torrent of sound in a ferocious interlude that depicts the emotional turmoil in the air.

Accompanied by members of the court, Herod and Herodias enter. We quickly learn what a degenerate, repellent couple they are. Herod slips in the blood of Narraboth’s dead body (he has killed himself in disgust over Salome’s lascivious behavior toward John the Baptist), but he hardly cares. He is more concerned with the superstitious nature of the event than with human feelings. Herod asks Salome to bite into a piece of fruit, so that he might put his own lips where hers have been. He tries to cajole her into drinking wine with him. Herodias argues with virtually everything Herod says and does, not neglecting to taunt him with the fact that she comes from royalty while he is the son of a mere camel driver. The superstitious, neurotic Herod imagines strange winds in the air. Again we hear the voice of John the Baptist. A quintet of Jews argues over who the prophet really is. Suddenly Herod asks Salome to dance for him. At first she refuses, supported by her mother. Finally Salome consents, but only if Herod swears to give her anything she wants. Anything. Herod readily agrees.

With that, Salome launches into the famous Dance of the Seven Veils. One by one Salome sheds her veils, until by the end she is stark naked, much to Herod’s delight.

And now it is time for her reward. Herod hasn’t the faintest idea of what’s coming. Salome, the spoiled brat, having been rejected by John the Baptist and not used to hearing the word “no,” sweetly, almost childishly, asks for the head of the prophet, to be delivered to her on a silver platter. Herod is naturally horrified; equally naturally, Herodias is delighted. The next 15 minutes depict Herod’s road to insanity as he attempts with increasing desperation to find something, anything, that Salome will accept instead. After the seventh time she demands “Gib mir den Kopf des Jokanaan,” Herod collapses in despair and submits to the inevitable.

While Herod slips into semi-consciousness, Herodias removes the ring of execution from his finger and hands it to the executioner. Herod revives, now in a state of total panic. Salome, leaning over the cistern in a state of sexual excitement and total derangement, listens for the head to fall. When it does, she whoops with glee. As the executioner hands her the prize, still dripping blood, she exults that now, finally, she can kiss in death the mouth of the man who spurned her in life. The ghastly effect created by the huge orchestra at the beginning of the Final Scene perfectly captures the air of monstrous depravity and pathologically warped minds that inhabit the stage. Virtually all of the remainder of the opera belongs to Salome as she slobbers over the head, examining every feature in minute detail. Near the end, the moon emerges from behind a dark cloud, illuminating the silver platter with the bloody head, while one by one the instruments of the orchestra begin trilling until the listener is engulfed in a display of dazzling brilliance. Now even Herod is revolted by what he has just witnessed, and orders his solders to batter her to death. Howls, screams of terror, four awful crunches, and the gruesome tale is over.

Program note and synopsis by Robert Markow.

Program Notes: New York Rhythms

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, August 4th

Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

Appalachian Spring

Tonality in serious music seems to come in waves. In the 1980s it became “permissible” among academic composers to write accessible music again, in a sea-change that some called “the new Romanticism.” But such shifts in fashion and dogma are seen through the centuries.

When Aaron Copland returned to the U.S. from Paris in 1924, he entered what he called a “period of austerity,” during which he explored 12-tone composition and other modern techniques. Then, toward the end of the 1930s, he found himself dissatisfied with the state of American music, and with the relationship of composers to their audiences.

“The conventional concert public continued apathetic or indifferent to anything but the established classics,” he wrote in 1941. “It seemed to me that we composers were in danger of working in a vacuum. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.” It was in this spirit that Copland embarked upon a series of enduring works that assured his position as the quintessential American classical composer: Fanfare for the Common Man, the ballet Rodeo, A Lincoln Portrait and Appalachian Spring.

the Martha Graham factor
The spark for Appalachian Spring was Martha Graham, who had helped re-make American dance with her innovative modern style. Graham and Copland had often planned to collaborate, but it was not until Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge attended a Graham performance in early 1942 that funding became available. The fabulously generous benefactress commissioned Graham to create three new ballets for the 1943 Fall Festival of the Coolidge Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Spring was one of those three, but it didn’t get to the stage that year. Graham’s script was delayed, so Copland didn’t finish the score until June 1944. The premiere that October in Washington—with Graham, Merce Cunningham and May O’Donnell in the company—was a full year later than originally planned. Louis Horst conducted the 13-member chamber ensemble for which the piece was originally composed.

a pioneer celebration
The ballet depicts, in Copland’s words, “a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century.” The composer’s description continues: “The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, that their new partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”

At the heart of the piece are the famous variations of the Shaker song known as Simple Gifts or The Gift to be Simple. It is thanks largely to Copland that we know of this melody; composed in 1848 by Joseph Brackett, the tune was little-known outside of Shaker communities until Copland adopted it in Appalachian Spring as well as his Old American Songs.

a new version
In 1945, a year after Appalachian Spring premiered, Copland composed an abbreviated version for full orchestra instrumentation; that suite is the form in which the music is best known today. Tonight’s performance, however, features the first-ever hearing at Orchestra Hall of a newly-compiled version. Dating from 2016, it features the complete ballet music, expanded for full orchestra from the original’s 13-player instrumentation. Copland had begun this project in the 1950s, and it was completed last year on a commission by the Aaron Copland Fund for Music with the aid of arranger David Newman.

Jane Levere, a writer for New York’s WQXR radio station, explained the process: “Newman was tasked to orchestrate some 50 measures (out of a total of almost 1,000 in the entire piece) that did not appear in any previous orchestral version, as well as adjusting passages back to their original keys. To authentically orchestrate those bars, Newman consulted Copland’s own manuscript sketches and scores for the ballet and orchestral suite, as well as the published scores. In addition, he studied the annotations Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein left on personal scores of the work.”

Program note by Paul Horsley.

George Gershwin 
Born: September 26, 1898, Brooklyn, New York 
Died: July 11, 1937, Hollywood, California

Who Cares? (orch. Hershy Kay)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin, one of the most beloved songwriters of all time and one of our greatest composers, was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other classical composer this country has ever produced. Gershwin’s style derived from the American soul and spirit. He came to prominence during the roaring ’20s, the age of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals and silent films. His output of more than 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, is all the more astonishing given that Gershwin lived only 38 years.

Program note introduction by Robert Markow.

the original Gershwin Songbook 
The George Gershwin Songbook is a generic title used by many pop musicians to describe a collection of their favorite Gershwin tunes. There was, however, an actual George Gershwin Songbook compiled by the composer himself. On almost any night of the week in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gershwin could be found at one of the parties that filled the elite New York social calendar. Ebullient personality aside, his enormous popularity at these gatherings was no doubt due to his inexhaustible enthusiasm for seating himself at the piano from where he regaled the guests with all of his latest songs in wildly virtuosic arrangements. Gershwin’s musician friends were constantly urging him to write down these nocturnal improvisations so they could be enjoyed for posterity.

He finally obliged, and the George Gershwin Songbook was published in 1932 consisting of 18 of his favorite songs beautifully bound with illustrations by the artist Constantin Alajalov. Unfortunately, all Gershwin actually wrote down was one chorus of each song, so the majority of the arrangements fill only two pages of music and take less than 60 seconds to play. While such brevity is hardly conducive to concert hall performance, the Songbook nevertheless provides welcome insight into Gershwin’s improvisatory skills at the piano.

“natural for dancing” 
One person who owned a copy of the Songbook was the great Russian choreographer George Balanchine, who had worked with Gershwin in Hollywood shortly before the composer’s death in 1937. Many years later, Balanchine was playing through the Songbook at home one day when he realized that if the song arrangements were “filled out” with an introduction and an additional chorus or two played by the orchestra, the result might make an interesting accompaniment to a ballet. With the help of composer Hershy Kay, Balanchine created Who Cares?, which was first performed by the New York City Ballet on February 5, 1970.

Balanchine wrote: “George’s music is so natural for dancing, so easy to work with....I remember he spoke often to me about wanting to write for the ballet. So I like to think this is George’s ballet, this is the ballet we have done for him.”

Kay and Balanchine use 16 Gershwin songs in the ballet, although only 14 of them are in the original Songbook. The two newcomers are “Bidin’ My Time” and “Embraceable You,” both of which predate the Songbook but were not included by Gershwin. At tonight’s concert, four dancers from New York City Ballet will perform Balanchine’s choreography for selected songs; other songs will feature the Orchestra alone.

The late Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of New York City Ballet, shared these thoughts on Gershwin and Who Cares?: “The best Gershwin songs maintain their classic freshness, like an eternal martini—dry, frank, refreshing, tailor-made, with an invisible kick from its slightest hint of citron. Nostalgia has not syruped the songs’ sentiment nor robbed them of immediate piquancy. We associate them with time past, but when well sung or played, or preferably both at once, they not only revive but transcend their epoch....To combine an intensely personal attitude with a flagrantly popular language is a feat that few popular artists manage, and it is appropriate that Balanchine has used the songs not as facile recapitulation of a lost epoch, but simply as songs or melodies for classic, undeformed, traditional academic dances, which in their equivalence of phrasing, dynamics, and emotions find their brotherly parallel.”

Program note by Andrew Litton.

The performance of Who Cares?, a Balanchine® Ballet, is presented by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust and has been produced in accordance with the Balanchine Style® and Balanchine Technique® Service standards established and provided by the Trust.

Program Notes: The Danube Calls: An Evening of Waltzes

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 29

Full program notes:

the magic of Strauss

Sommerfest regulars know what to expect for the Viennese waltz evening: a generous dose of music by the Strauss family and perhaps other Viennese composers for most of the program, and a concerto of some sort tucked in the middle, often something out of the ordinary—a niche filled tonight by Tchaikovsky’s brief but brilliant Third Piano Concerto. A Viennese waltz program would, of course, be unthinkable without music of the Strauss family. This year, excepting the Tchaikovsky concerto, the entire program is devoted to the most famous Strauss of all, Johann Jr., whose waltzes, polkas, galops, marches, quadrilles and operettas have provided countless people with countless hours of listening—and dancing—pleasure. Tonight we hear four of his most famous waltzes plus five popular polkas, all introduced by the overture to the world’s most beloved operetta, Die Fledermaus. First, though, a few words about those two dance forms, the polka and the waltz.

The five polkas we hear tonight all rank among Strauss’ most popular. This lively folk dance in 2/4 meter originated in Bohemia (not Poland!) around 1830. Its name is derived from the Czech word půlka, meaning “little half,” a reference to the short half-steps that characterize the dance. Polkamania quickly swept the world, and the dance became popular not only throughout Europe but as far afield as Argentina, Peru and the U.S. The entire Strauss family—Johann Sr., Johann Jr., Eduard and Josef—all wrote polkas, as did many others, including non-Viennese composers like Shostakovich (the ballet The Age of Gold and Jazz Suite No. 1), Stravinsky (Circus Polka), and Smetana in his opera The Bartered Bride and his nearly two dozen polkas for piano.

The dance form most indelibly linked with Vienna is of course the waltz. Today we associate it with elegant ballrooms and upper-class society, but its origins were in the lowly Ländler, a slow-turning Austrian peasant dance in three-four meter. The waltz became popular during the last quarter of the 18th century, enchanting both aristocrat and commoner with its captivating appeal. A Strauss “waltz” is actually more than a waltz; it is rather a whole string of them, usually arranged in contrasting moods, keys and tempos, and all framed by an elaborate introduction and a coda. It has been calculated that if all the melodic ideas of the approximately 170 waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr., were added up, the total would exceed 700. Superb orchestrations, lilting rhythms, melodic inspiration and an air that perfectly captured the whole golden age of the Emperor Franz Josef coalesced in waltzes that are far more than mere dance music; they are musical masterpieces, great tone poems that reflect a glamorous era.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Born: October 25, 1825, Vienna, Austria
Died: June 3, 1899, Vienna, Austria

Overture to Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss, Jr., was already 45 and world-famous before he turned to operetta. His first complete stage work, Indigo and the Forty Thieves, launched his new career in 1871 at the Theater an der Wien, the same theater that had seen premieres of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ third stage work, followed in 1874 and became not only the most famous Viennese operetta ever written, but one of the most amazingly successful stage shows of all time. Within six years, it had been seen on over 170 separate stages in Germany alone. To date, it has been heard in at least a dozen languages.

Die Fledermaus is a joyous, bubbly, totally improbable concoction of mistaken identities, amorous intrigues, mischief and mirth. It raised the Viennese operetta to new artistic heights, and was billed as a “comic opera” rather than as an operetta. The plot has been criticized for being laden with improbabilities and chance occurrences, but no matter—the music is so full of irresistible tunes, sprightly orchestration, rhythmic verve and the irrepressible charm of Old Vienna that such criticism evaporates.

The Overture is put together from a potpourri of the operetta’s main themes, including (after an Allegro vivace introduction) Rosalinde’s mock-serious farewell to her husband Eisenstein before he goes off to serve a jail term; Eisenstein’s wrath when, disguised as the lawyer Blind, he learns how his wife has deceived him with Alfred; and the famous waltz. 

Annen Polka (Polka for St. Anne’s)

Nearly every one of Johann Strauss’ approximately 150 polkas takes its name from a programmatic or extra-musical association. The light-hearted, chirpy Annen Polka is one of his earliest (he was still in his 20s when he wrote it). This gentle, moderately-paced polka was first heard as part of the Festival of Saint Anne (grandmother of Jesus) celebrations in Vienna’s famous municipal park, the Prater, on July 26, 1852, with the composer conducting.

Tritsch-Tratsch Polka

The title of the jaunty and high-spirited Tritsch-Tratsch (Chit-Chat) Polka has several possible derivations, according to Strauss specialist Peter Kemp: the name of a Viennese publication specializing in comics and gossip; a burlesque called Der Tritsch-tratsch by the Austrian playwright and actor Johann Nestroy with music by Adolf Müller, Sr.; or the name of the poodle of Strauss’ first wife. The first option is the most likely, but take your pick!

Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring) Waltz

Voices of Spring is one of Strauss’ later waltzes, following by many years most of his other great works in the genre. It is unusual in that it was introduced not as an instrumental work but as a vehicle for coloratura soprano. Voices of Spring was written to a text by Richard Genée for a charity event at the Theater an der Wien. The premiere was given by a singer from the Imperial Court Opera, Bianca Bianchi. The work then dropped out of the repertory while it became far better known in its purely orchestral and solo piano versions (Liszt had a particular fondness for it). Egon Gartenberg, in his study of the composer, sums up the enduring appeal of this masterpiece in calling it “a creation of elfin grace, a vision of flowing gowns and bare feet whirling through the Vienna Woods.”

Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt), Polka schnell

Auf der Jagd (On the Hunt) comes from Strauss’ 1875 operetta Cagliostro in Wien. It was successful at first, due in large part to famous names in the cast, but its popularity did not endure. Nevertheless, Strauss created no fewer than six shorter pieces (Opuses 369 through 374) drawn from or based on themes from the larger work, including a waltz sequence, a march, a quadrille and three polkas. One of these is the “quick” polka (polka schnell), Auf der Jagd, which incorporates gunfire (real or imitative) and horn calls from hunters, even though the operetta’s storyline has nothing to do with guns or shooting.

Kaiserwalzer (Emperors Waltzes)

Perhaps only second in popularity among Strauss’ waltzes, after The Blue Danube, is the dignified and majestic Emperors Waltzes, so richly imbued with the pomp and dignity implied in its title. And about that title: the name as usually rendered in English, Emperor Waltz, is not quite an accurate translation of the German Kaiserwalzer; properly speaking, it should be Emperors Waltzes. Singular and plural of “waltz” in German is Walzer, and like many other works of its kind, Kaiserwalzer is really a whole string of waltzes, not just one. Furthermore, there were two Kaiser (again, the German word remains unchanged in the plural) involved in the creation of Strauss’ music. The first was the popular Franz Josef of Austria, ever so much a symbol of Strauss’ Vienna and in the 40th year of his reign when Strauss composed his tribute (1888). The other Kaiser was the newly-elected Wilhelm II of Prussia. Strauss wrote the Kaiserwalzer for some concerts that formed part of the ceremonies surrounding the first state visit of Franz Josef to Berlin in 1889. The original title of the work was Hand in Hand; the current one was suggested by Strauss’ Berlin publisher Simrock. “By not dedicating the music to either Kaiser specifically, Strauss could satisfy the vanity of both,” noted Peter Kemp.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major for Piano and Orchestra

So overwhelmingly popular is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor that it is easy to forget that he wrote two others as well. The genesis of the Third Concerto is found in sketches Tchaikovsky made for a new symphony during the spring of 1892, about a year and a half before his death. Deciding that this work contained “nothing interesting or appealing,” he abandoned it and went on to begin composing what we now call Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique). 

After completing his final symphonic masterpiece, Tchaikovsky returned to the abandoned symphony and reworked the first movement into the single-movement Piano Concerto No. 3. He also left fragments for what may have been intended as the work’s second and third movements, although his intentions for these fragments are not confirmed. They were later orchestrated by Sergei Taneyev, a composer and friend of Tchaikovsky, but nearly all modern performances of the Third Piano Concerto consist of just the confirmed, completed Allegro brillante movement.

The Allegro brillante is laid out in large-scale sonata form with three distinct, important themes. The first is heard in the opening bars played by bassoons over a rumbling bass; the second is sometimes described as “Schumannesque”—a nostalgic, lyrical idea introduced by solo piano; and the third theme follows soon thereafter, a peppy, militaristic tune that soon turns highly virtuosic. The soloist’s only period of rest comes in the development section, but this is followed by a cadenza of massive proportions covering ten pages of printed music. The recapitulation is straightforward, and the movement ends in a whirlwind of pianistic pyrotechnics.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Wine, Women and Song Waltz
Wne, Women and Song takes its name from this famous saying: Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang / Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang. (He who loves not wine, woman and song / Remains a fool his whole life long.) Aside from the wealth of gorgeous melody and splendid orchestration, what sets this waltz apart from most others is the sheer length of its introduction, a miniature symphonic poem in itself amounting to about half the length of the entire composition. Strauss biographer Egon Gartenberg notes that “the romanticism of the opening might easily have been a thought from the pen of Weber or Mendelssohn, and the final march theme, before the waltz is allowed to unfold, comes pictorially right out of [Wagner’s opera] Die Meistersinger.” It is worth mentioning that Wagner, who seldom had praise for any composer but himself, was a great fan of this waltz.

Johann Strauss, Jr., and Josef Strauss 
Pizzicato Polka

The brief Pizzicato Polka is scored for plucked strings only. It is often attributed to Johann Strauss Jr., but in fact one of his younger brothers, Josef (1827-1870), also had a hand in it; they composed it in 1869 for a trip to Russia.

Johann Strauss, Jr. 
Thunder and Lightning, Polka schnell

The brilliant Thunder and Lightning Polka is appropriately named for the thunderous rolls and flashes of lightning emanating from the percussion section, as well as for the “lightning” speed at which it all flies by.

On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Waltz

To close tonight’s program, we hear the immortal Blue Danube Waltz (On the Beautiful Blue Danube, to give the full title). Like Voices of Spring and Wine, Women and Song, in its original form it was vocally conceived. The Blue Danube began life as a number for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association with a text by Josef Weyl. The words were soon discarded in favor of a purely instrumental version, the form in which it is familiar today. As any concertgoer can tell you, The Blue Danube never fails to sweep listeners into its magical flow, sending them home radiantly happy after a night in Vienna.

Program notes by Robert Markow.

Program Notes: Andrew Litton and André Watts

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 28th

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe Moldau, No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

Suite from The Sleeping Beauty, Opus 66

In the spring of 1888, Tchaikovsky was visited by the Director of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who proposed that Tchaikovsky compose the score for a new ballet. It would be based on the fairy tale La belle au bois dormant, originally collected by the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault and published as part of his Contes de la mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose). Tchaikovsky’s one previous ballet, Swan Lake, had been a disaster at its premiere in 1877, and the composer was wary of another such experience. But he was nevertheless attracted to Perrault’s tale. He sketched the new ballet between October 1888 and the spring of 1889 and completed the orchestration on September 1, 1889. 

The premiere of The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890—attended by the czar—was a huge success. Tchaikovsky, who was perpetually worried about having written himself out, could finally take pleasure in one of his own compositions: “The subject is so poetic (and) it lends itself so admirably to music that I enjoyed composing it very much and worked with a zeal and eagerness that always makes for good results.” For once, the critics agreed, and The Sleeping Beauty has been universally judged one of Tchaikovsky’s finest works.

a familiar fairy tale

The Sleeping Beauty tale is familiar from the Walt Disney version and other iterations. The infant Princess Aurora is blessed by six good fairies at her christening, but the evil Carabosse—who was not invited—shows up in a carriage drawn by rats and pronounces a curse: one day Princess Aurora will prick her finger and die. The Lilac Fairy softens the curse: the princess will not die, but will fall into a slumber for a hundred years, to be awakened by the kiss of her true love. Sixteen years later, at a ball where she is courted by four suitor-princess, Aurora is given a spindle by the disguised Carabosse, pricks her finger, and falls into a deep sleep along with the rest of the court. One hundred years later, Prince Florimund fights his way through the thicket that the Lilac Fairy has caused to grow up around the castle, defeats the evil Carabosse, and discovers the sleeping princess. He awakens her with a kiss, and a wedding celebration soon follows.

the music: a suite compiled by Litton

In its full form, the ballet comprises a Prologue and three acts. The Prologue sets the scene and introduces the characters, while Act I begins with the celebration of Princess Aurora’s 16th birthday and concludes with Carabosse’s curse coming true. Act II brings the arrival of Prince Florimund, the awakening of the princess, and their engagement. Act III is a set of characteristic dances celebrating their wedding. The Sleeping Beauty Suite compiled by Andrew Litton for tonight’s performance presents nine excerpts from the ballet—arranged not in their chronological sequence in the ballet, but rather to provide a musically satisfying concert suite.

The first two movements come from Act II. Prince Florimund and his friends have entered the forest while on a hunt. His friends call him to join them, but the prince feels drawn to enter the forest alone, and he sends them away; Scene is the music that accompanies their departure. The Lilac Fairy now draws the prince into the woods with visions of the sleeping princess, and the elegant Panorama is the music that accompanies Florimund’s approach to the castle where Aurora lies sleeping. The meter and accompaniment are in 6/8, but the violins’ silky melody seems to be in 3/4, and those two rhythms tug nicely at each other throughout. The famous Waltz comes from Act I, where it is part of the princess’ 16th birthday celebration.

The next three excerpts form an important sequence in Act I. The Pas d’action (known as the Rose Adagio) begins with a long harp cadenza and accompanies the scene in which four suitor-princes approach the princess, each with the gift of a rose. This is followed by two ensemble dances. Dances of the Maids of Honour and Pages is a sturdy, propulsive dance over firm rhythms—the violin line is full of trills here—followed by a quick dance to round out the movement. This is followed immediately by Aurora’s Variation. Tchaikovsky gives the orchestra’s concertmaster a starring role in this elegant dance.

The Adagio comes from Act III’s Grand pas de quatre, danced by Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, the Gold Fairy and the Sapphire Fairy. Its noble opening oboe melody gradually evolves into music of soaring strength. The brief but spirited Presto is the music that propels the ballet into the concluding Apotheosis. In that remarkable final scene, Tchaikovsky brings all his characters together in a grand tableau. This stirring music is based on Vive Henri IV, an ancient French march-melody that was fitted with lyrics in praise of that king. Over the centuries, it has become a virtual symbol of French royalty, and in this grand finale to his ballet Tchaikovsky assigns a leading role to an unexpected instrument, the piano.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Edward MacDowell
Born: December 18, 1860, New York City
Died: January 23, 1908, New York City

Concerto No. 2 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23

Edward MacDowell occupies a special place in the history of American music. He is generally regarded as this country’s first classical composer whose music can stand comparison in artistic expression and technical competence with that of many European composers. Like all aspiring American musicians of the late 19th century, MacDowell studied in Europe. He began in Paris from ages 15 to 17, then continued to Germany for three further years of study. He remained in Germany for an additional seven years, teaching piano, composing and moving in the highest musical circles.

MacDowell wrote his Second Piano Concerto in 1884 and 1885 while living in Darmstadt, Germany. The first performance was given on March 5, 1889, shortly after MacDowell’s return to America, with the composer as soloist and with Theodore Thomas conducting the New York Philharmonic. Thereafter, MacDowell continued to enjoy public and critical success on two continents, a success sustained in large part by this concerto. When the New York critic James Huneker remarked that the work “was very good for an American,” Thomas retorted, “or for a German either.”

Indeed, MacDowell’s studies in Germany gave him a solid education in that country’s musical thought and romanticism. If echoes of Grieg’s Piano Concerto are prominent in MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto, it must be remembered that Grieg too studied in Germany. In addition, the influence of Liszt’s two piano concertos cannot be denied. In the words of the MacDowell scholar Christiane Kefferstan: “These pieces share a language in their highly imaginative, rhapsodic forms, nontraditional approaches, and use of thematic recall. There is a sweep, bravura, and sureness of the pianistic writing used by both composers which speaks of intuitive knowledge of resources and effectiveness.”

the music: an American masterpiece

larghetto calmato. The concerto opens with a long introduction. Strings present a wistful subject that contains the seeds of the first movement’s two principal themes. The soloist interrupts to offer the first of the movement’s three(!) cadenzas, a quintessentially bravura piece of romantic writing charged with crashing chords, hammered octaves and whirlwind arpeggios. Following a varied repeat of the orchestral introduction, the soloist presents the first theme, a long-breathed melody against a shimmering accompaniment. Lyricism also infuses the second theme, heard initially in the cellos and clarinet.

presto giocoso. The second movement is not the expected Andante or Adagio, but a fleet Presto, highly unusual though not quite unprecedented (Saint-Saëns had done the same in his Second Piano Concerto). The drama and rhetoric of the first movement give way to music of sparkling joy and breezy spontaneity. Its origins can be found in an orchestral score MacDowell had begun but abandoned, Beatrice and Benedick, inspired by a performance of Much Ado About Nothing he had seen in London in 1884.

largo–molto allegro. Like the first movement, the third opens with an introduction, and like the second, it contains three distinct and easily identifiable ideas: the moody introductory material, derived from the first movement’s main theme; an exuberant, dancelike tune; and a witty, pianistic rollercoaster affair. Throughout, the piano part is written with great skill, verve and a bid for virtuoso effect, ensuring a highly favorable public response after the race to the finish is over.

Program note by Robert Markow.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Symphony No. 3 in D major, Opus 29, Polish

Few titles are as perplexing as that of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, the Polish, especially since the composer produced a thoroughly Russian work. The clue turns up only in the robust final movement, marked Tempo di polacca. This movement takes its cue from the traditional polonaise, but connotes not so much a national flavor as the general vigor associated with the ceremonial Polish court dance. By the time the tag, Polish, was attached to this symphony, Tchaikovsky had been dead for six years. But the moniker has stuck.

At its Moscow premiere on November 19, 1875, the Third Symphony was given a warm reception—unlike Tchaikovsky’s next major work, Swan Lake. The relative success of the symphony gave the composer encouragement at a time when he most needed it. The Third Symphony is bright and exuberant, and in five movements rather than the expected four—the extra being a folkish scherzo that, in the composer’s own words, was intended to be “in the German style.” So much for the name Polish.

the music: from somber to splendid

introduzione ed allegro—moderato assai (tempo marcia funebre). The somber prologue is built over a single repeated pitch (A) played pizzicato by cellos and basses. Violins and violas announce the portentous motif, but soon the horns take over. Still clinging to the repeated A as the music gradually accelerates, the movement finally bursts into an Allegro brillante, seemingly dismissing any thoughts of Russian gloom. Along the way, however, Tchaikovsky offers a contrasting thought in B minor, its sadness perfectly suited to the oboe before moving on to other winds. Before this compact exposition draws to a close, there is yet a third idea. Playful contrapuntal devices enliven the development, with imitations so close as to follow heel upon tail. Sonorous as the music is, it remains for the coda to pull out all the stops, building a glorious mass of sound whose volume will only be topped in Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

alla tedesca: allegro moderato e semplice. Now for the Germanic interlude, whose theme, inaugurated by solo flute and clarinet, suggests a Slavic interpretation of 3/4 time—quite in the spirit of the waltz’s ancestor, the Ländler. Before long, the bassoon tootles away with a counter-theme of its own, and from here on the lowest woodwind is kept busy. While the tempo of the Trio section does not change, motion accrues through a chirping triplet pattern, initially bustling in the winds, and retained by the strings when the bassoons bring back the graceful dance tune.

andante elegiaco. Here is the core of the symphony. The bassoon starts, and will have the last word, as flutes pour out the expressive D-minor strain, one of those heart-on-your-sleeve themes in which Tchaikovsky excelled. There is no concealing his identity—not just in the plethora of his themes but in their soulfulness. The contrasting section focuses on a waltz-like melody that is pure instrumental song of extraordinary warmth and feeling, and building to a poignant climax.

scherzo: allegro vivo. The Scherzo, ignited by muted pizzicatos, sets forth on a will-o’-the-wisp of a subject that races up, then down, sly and teasing, and eminently suited to dialogue among the instruments. At one point, a flute figuration conjures shades of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, so unabashed as to be deliberate. The Trio, always the centerpiece of a scherzo interlude, is anchored in a stubborn D that persists in the horns, providing a backdrop to the crisply dotted march tune as it roams through a host of different keys.

finale: allegro con fuoco (tempo di polacca). Those who have ever savored the ballroom scene of Tchaikovsky’s most intimate opera, Eugene Onegin, may feel nostalgic at the onset of the Finale, a rondo movement that employs the polonaise-styled tune as its refrain. No lightweight, this concluding movement balances the substance of the opening and, like it, is flagrantly contrapuntal. The close is full of splendor, uniting all the instruments and indulging in noisy cadencing that serves as an affirmation of the robust human spirit.

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Program Notes: Season Finale: Vänskä Conducts Mahler’s Second

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, June 16, 17 and 18

Full program notes:

Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in D major for Keyboard and Orchestra, H. XVIII:11

Of all the places to journey back to in music history, the glittering palace of the Esterházys on the Hungarian plains east of Vienna would be a prime destination. A time-traveler arriving at just the right night in the early 1780s, when this D-major Concerto was brand new, would witness the following scene: 

Haydn, as music director and resident composer at the aristocratic Esterházy establishment—renowned for its lavish musical forces—has programmed and rehearsed a concert for the entertainment of a swarm of guests, royalty among them. The musicians, attired in smartly-cut livery, offer a varied program, with perhaps even the latest symphony by their beloved Kapellmeister. Haydn himself, though he makes no pretense to virtuosity, may be presiding at the keyboard for the concerto; or at least, he commands the second keyboard, conducting from the harpsichord that is still present as part of the continuo texture, though in its twilight phase.

a rival emerges
At the time this concerto was written (its precise date is uncertain), a formidable rival would soon dispatch the harpsichord for good. The new piano, like the orchestra itself, was advancing by leaps and bounds, having already made its bid for fashion in the 1770s. When the firm of Artaria published Haydn’s D-major Concerto in 1784, they designated the work “per il clavicembalo o fortepiano,” a titled that would be attached to various works for many years, as publishers made a bid for the harpsichord as well as the piano market.

the music: from an age of transition
vivace. Though equally idiomatic for the modern piano, the crisp brilliant runs and driving momentum of the opening Vivace remain in the harpsichord mode. Haydn, with his amazing inventiveness, accomplishes a good deal with very little, restricting himself largely to the bright, tripping theme of the opening for most of what happens in this engaging movement. When it comes time to push on to a contrasting key, however, a new slant of thought enriches the textures with a brief chromatic dalliance.

un poco adagio. For all its courtly rococo graces (the delicate embellishments mirroring the very decor of Esterháza as you may view it even today), the second movement turns up some decisive piano signals. The exquisite line summons the sustaining tone of the piano, on which Haydn had by then already heard Mozart perform. A poignant solo commands the center of this song-shaped movement, its emotions intensified by a six-times-repeated note that cries out for the nuances and shading possible only at the piano, rather than on its plucked predecessor. When the main theme returns, however, its elaborate graces are straight out of an earlier age. And so the movement is a genuine hybrid, created in an age of transition.

rondo all’ungherese: allegro assai. The folk dance spirit of that melting pot region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prevails in the concluding Rondo, whose title alerts us to its Hungarian style. No one wrote wittier or livelier finales than Haydn, and this one is in a class by itself. Much of its playfulness emerges from the composer’s sly transformations of the refrain, which undergoes metamorphoses almost beyond recognition, but manages to dominate even the episodes. The harmonic gestures are bold, especially in the turn to minor, but the manner is genial and the antics were no doubt intended to amuse. As in the earlier movements, Haydn provides opportunities for cadenzas and, in fact, left a couple presumed to be his own. Fresh extemporizations, however, are precisely what he would have expected, and few artists will resist the temptation to supply something new.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

In August 1886, the 26-year-old Mahler was appointed second conductor at the theater in Leipzig. He soon made the acquaintance of Baron Carl von Weber, grandson of the composer of Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon, music close to Mahler’s heart. The encounter had interesting consequences.

First, Weber invited Mahler to examine his grandfather’s sketches for an opera called Die drei Pintos (The Three Pintos), hoping to interest Mahler in extracting a performing version from those sketches. Next, Mahler and Weber’s wife, Marion, fell in love, and some of the affair is, as it were, composed into the First Symphony, on which Mahler worked with great concentration in February and March 1888.

an imaginary funeral
Mahler did, in any event, take on Die drei Pintos and conducted its highly acclaimed premiere on January 20, 1888. Bouquets and wreaths galore were presented to Mahler and the cast. Mahler took home as many of these floral tributes as he could manage, and lying in his room amid their seductive scent, he imagined himself dead on his bier. The experience sharpened greatly Mahler’s vision of a compositional project he had had in mind for some months: a large orchestral piece called Totenfeier (Funeral Rites).

Mahler completed this work later in 1888, and five years later— after having left Leipzig to become music director of the opera in Budapest, then principal conductor in Hamburg—he realized that Totenfeier was not an independent piece but rather the first movement of a new symphony. In 1893-94, working around his conducting obligations, he wrote a second and third movement, also a finale and revision to the first movement; a song he had previously composed, Urlicht (Primal Light), was inserted as the fourth movement.

Mahler led the Berlin Philharmonic in the premiere of the first three movements on March 4, 1895, and of the entire work on December 13 of that year. He revised the scoring again in 1903 and was still tinkering with it as late as 1909.

the music: a journey toward resurrection
The Second Symphony is often called the Resurrection, but Mahler himself gave it no title. On various occasions, though, he offered programs to explain the work—yet he blew hot and cold on this question, being skeptical and then changing his mind repeatedly as to just what the program was. Yet across their differences, Mahler’s various program descriptions share certain features.

The first movement celebrates a dead hero, retaining its original Totenfeier aspect. The second and third movements represent retrospect, the second being innocent and nostalgic, the third including a certain element of the grotesque. The fourth and fifth movements are the resolution, and they deal with the Last Judgment, redemption and resurrection.

All this has bearing on Mahler’s perception of the structure of his Second Symphony, a matter on which he made various comments that are not so much contradictory as they are complementary. He said that the first three movements were in effect “only the exposition” of the symphony and that the appearance of the Urlicht song, the fourth movement, sheds light on what comes before. He referred to the three middle movements as having the function only of an “interludium.”

allegro maestoso. The first movement, the Totenfeier, is firmly anchored to the classical sonata tradition (late Romantic branch). Its character is that of a march, and Mahler’s choice of key—C minor—surely alludes to the classic exemplar of such a piece, the marcia funebre in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The lyric, contrasting theme, beautifully scored for horns, is an homage to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

andante moderato. The thematic material of the second movement, both the gentle dance it begins with and the cello tune that soon joins in, goes back to Leipzig and the time of the Totenfeier. This movement was occasionally played by itself, and Mahler used to refer to these bucolic genre pieces as the raisins in his cakes.

in quietly flowing movement. The third movement is a symphonic expansion of a song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes; the text comes from the collection of German folk verse, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler worked on the two pieces simultaneously and finished the scoring of the song one day after he completed the orchestration of the scherzo.

Urlicht: very solemn, but simple. The sardonic Fischpredigt scherzo skids into silence, and its final shudder is succeeded by a new sound, the sound of a human voice. In summoning that resource, as he would in his next two symphonies as well, Mahler consciously and explicitly evokes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Urlicht, whose text also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is one of Mahler’s loveliest songs.

in the tempo of the scherzo. The peace that the song spreads over the symphony like balm is shattered by an outburst whose ferocity again refers to the corresponding place in Beethoven’s Ninth. Mahler arrays before us a great and pictorial pageant. Horns sound in the distance (Mahler referred to this as “the crier in the wilderness”). A march with a suggestion of the Gregorian Dies irae is heard, and so is other music saturated in angst, more trumpet signals, marches and a chorale. Then Mahler’s Great Summons: horns and trumpets loud but at a great distance, while in the foreground a solitary bird flutters across the scene of destruction. Silence. From that silence there emerges again the sound of human voices in a Hymn of Resurrection. A few instruments enter to support the singers and, magically, at the word “rief” (called), a single soprano begins to float free.

The problem of finding the right text had baffled Mahler for a long time. Then the remarkable figure of Hans von Bülow entered the scene—Bülow, the pianist who gave the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto, who conducted the premieres of Tristan and Meistersinger, and who was one of the most influential supporters of Brahms. When Mahler went to the Hamburg Opera in 1891, the other important conductor in town was Bülow, who was in charge of the symphony concerts, and who was impressed by Mahler. As Bülow’s health declined, Mahler began to substitute for him, and he was much affected by Bülow’s death early in 1894. At the memorial service, the choir sang a setting of the Resurrection Hymn by the 18th-century Saxon poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.

“It struck me like lightning, this thing,” Mahler wrote to Arthur Seidl, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He took the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s hymn and added to them verses of his own that deal still more explicitly with the issue of redemption and resurrection.

The lines about the vanquishing of pain and death are given to the two soloists in passionate duet. The verses beginning “Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen” (With wings I won for myself) form the upbeat to the triumphant reappearance of the chorale: “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!” (I shall die so as to live!), and the symphony comes to its close in a din of fanfares and pealing bells.

Instrumentation: solo soprano, solo mezzo and four-part mixed chorus, with orchestra comprising 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet and 1 doubling E-flat clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 10 horns (4 offstage), 6 trumpets, 4 offstage trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani (1 offstage), snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, 2 tamtams, triangle, bells, chimes, 2 harps, organ and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Program Notes: Osmo Vänskä and Yo-Yo Ma

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, June 13th

Full program notes:

Bedrich Smetana

Bedřich Smetana
Born: March 2, 1824, Litomyšl, Czech Republic
Died: May 12, 1884, Prague

The Moldau, No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

During the second half of the 19th century, the countries we now know as Slovakia and the Czech Republic were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled by Hapsburg monarchs. Nationalism in music was largely a reaction to German and Austrian dominance of musical forms. Across Europe, many nations were discovering in their native folk music and dance rhythms the materials for an individual musical style that could also serve as a powerful reminder of national identity. A staunch patriot, Bedřich Smetana found in composing the outlet for his deep love of his native Bohemia. Most of his compositions were inspired by an event in his life or an extra-musical association with his homeland. 

a cycle of nationalist tone poems
Smetana’s greatest work is Má Vlast, a series of six orchestral tone poems composed over a period of several years in the 1870s and dedicated to the city of Prague. It is the quintessential nationalist work, celebrating the rich Bohemian heritage and land of which Smetana was so proud. Heard in its entirety, Má Vlast is a unified cycle both musically and spiritually. It encompasses Czech legend, landscape, geography and history, evoking both people and places. All are represented in Smetana’s section titles: Vyšehrad, the half-legendary rock towering above the river; Vlatva (the Moldau River); Sárka (after both a valley and an Amazon woman in ancient Czech legend), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields; Tábor (a town in southern Bohemia that was the headquarters of the religious and political reformer Jan Hus); and Blaník (a continuation of Tábor). Best known by far is its second movement, The Moldau, a favorite of most symphony-goers and performed more frequently than any of the other segments. 

the music: following the river’s course
Vltava (“Moldau” in German-speaking lands) is the river originating in southern Bohemia, converging with the River Elbe in the north. Smetana’s The Moldau is a series of episodes freely following the river’s course from its origins until the point where it joins the Elbe. It begins with the orchestra’s first and second flutes representing the two springs—one warm water, the other cold— that feed the river, joining to run through rustic countryside. The flutes’ sinuous, liquid lines constitute one of the most ingenious evocations of nature in all music.

The flutes are joined by the clarinets, and eventually by strings, as the forest streams join forces to become a mighty river, whose full majesty is declaimed by a famous E-minor melody. Notes in the score indicate the Moldau’s path as it meanders. Smetana next takes us past a scene of hunting in the forest, a rustic village wedding (signaled by a change to duple meter and a peasant dance), moonlight and the dance of water sprites, rapids, and a final salute as the river passes by Vyšehrad, the massive rock that overlooks Prague (which is also the subject of Má Vlast’s first segment). 

The Moldau’s musical form has some of the rhetorical inevitability of the river itself; on a more technical basis, Smetana provides unity by re-introducing the Moldau theme in the final sections, this time in rich E major that celebrates the river’s power.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, harp and strings 

Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in C major for Cello and Orchestra, Hob. VIIb:1

We love Haydn best for his symphonies, string quartets and oratorios, but he was a prolific composer in other genres, including opera, keyboard sonatas and songs. Why did he cultivate the solo concerto less than his Italian and South German contemporaries? One reason is that, unlike Mozart a couple of decades later, he was not primarily writing for himself, and did not rely on virtuoso instrumental works to earn his living. Another factor is that in the mid-18th century, aristocratic taste in Austria favored the symphony rather than the concerto.

Most of Haydn’s instrumental concertos date from the 1760s, during the first years he was in the employ of the wealthy Esterházy princes. As Kapellmeister, Haydn oversaw the court orchestra, which already had a fine reputation. Determined to make a good ensemble even better, he set out to engage new players to strengthen its ranks. One of Haydn’s new hires was the excellent cellist Joseph Weigl, who was appointed principal cellist of the Esterházy orchestra in 1761, at Haydn’s recommendation. Weigl remained in that position until 1769. The two men became friends as well as colleagues; Haydn and his wife were godparents to two of the Weigl children. The Cello Concerto in C major was composed for Weigl, probably in the early 1760s. It was clearly designed to show off Weigl’s superior skill.

the music: festive and ceremonial
moderato. Cast in three spacious movements, the concerto has a festive and ceremonial air. The relaxed pace in the opening Moderato allows for detailed conversational exchange between the orchestra and the soloist, rather like the alternations between the full ensemble and concertino group of soloists in a Baroque concerto grosso. Haydn’s thematic material emphasizes dotted rhythms and complex patterns that sometimes emulate the cadences of speech. The movement proceeds with courtly elegance and grace, peppered with a few flashes of brilliance. At tonight’s performance, Yo-Yo Ma performs his own cadenza.

adagio. The orchestra recedes to the background in the slow movement, permitting the soloist to demonstrate beautiful sound in intimate, songlike melodies.

rondo: allegro. In the finale, Haydn pulls out the virtuoso stops, with a headlong race that highlights the soloist’s agility and brilliant technique. He sends the cellist fearlessly into the instrument’s uppermost register, only to plunge headlong into its rich lower depths. Dazzling runs and passage work abound as the soloist skitters at breakneck pace all over the instrument. The ride is somewhat like a roller coaster: at once heart-pounding and exhilarating. With good reason, this concerto has become a favorite of audiences and cellists alike.

a near miss: rediscovered centuries later
Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto is a masterpiece of his early years at Esterházy, and has become the most successful instrumental concerto of the mid-18th century. It is, however, a matter of sheer musicological happenstance that we have it at all. Scholars knew of its existence because Haydn recorded it in a catalogue of his compositions he began compiling in 1765. He continued to update the document, known as the Entwurf-Katalog (Draft Catalogue), until the late 1770s, and it is considered a seminal source work for authentication of Haydn’s music. It was the basis for a more comprehensive catalogue prepared in 1805 by Johann Elssler, under Haydn’s supervision.

Unfortunately, the manuscript to the C-major Cello Concerto disappeared at some point. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, subsequent catalogues of Haydn’s compositions referred to this work as missing or lost. In 1961, Oldřich Pulkert, an archivist in the Prague National Museum, came across a set of parts, apparently in Joseph Weigl’s hand. Comparing them to the thematic entry in the Entwurf-Katalog, he was able to identify the missing concerto. The first performance in nearly two centuries took place in Prague in May 1962; Miloš Sádlo was the soloist and Sir Charles Mackerras led the Czech Radio Symphony. Haydn’s previously unknown concerto was immediately heralded as the great work it is, and has been joyously entrenched in the literature ever since.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21

The genesis of Mendelssohn’s beloved Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale almost as appealing as Shakespeare’s play. On a balmy August night in 1826, the Mendelssohn family was entertaining Johann Franz Encke, an astronomer who directed the Berlin Observatory. After dinner, Felix excused himself for a walk in the garden, to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation during the meal. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night. Floral fragrances wafted through the air on gentle breezes. Four such zephyrs are said to have been the origins of the woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The feather-light string figuration taken up by both violin sections is Felix’s musical impression of fireflies flickering at nightfall. Years later, he told the English composer William Sterndale Bennett, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

affinity for the Bard of Avon
Felix had read Shakespeare in German translation and revered him as “the most perfect poet who ever lived.” His original intent was to express the spirit of Shakespeare’s immortal comedy in a single concert movement. He was only 17 when he composed this flawless overture. The rest of his incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream did not follow until 1843. Then, at the ripe old age of 34, he decided to expand the overture’s themes into a full complement of music to accompany a staged performance of the play.

a new genre: the concert overture
The overture is a fine example of sonata form, consistent with Mendelssohn’s penchant for the ideals of the 18th century. He controlled the formal apparatus effortlessly. We are more conscious of Shakespearean subplots than we are of first and second themes, development and recapitulation. Robert Schumann considered that, with this work, Mendelssohn had invented a new genre: the programmatic concert-overture. Yet the movement’s success derives from atmospheric rather than specifically narrative means. 

Mendelssohn’s incomparably light touch is absolutely perfect for this music. A lifelong master of the scherzo, he incorporated all the best characteristics of his style into this glorious overture. We have the mysterious, elfin, faerie world of Titania, Oberon, and their minions Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed. The boisterous good nature of Bottom, Flute, Snout and their cohorts also finds its place in the score, including the braying of the ass. Nor does Mendelssohn ignore the ultimately noble sentiments of the Athenian nobles, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. Above all, both magic and humor shine forth, happily joined in this miraculous overture.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani and strings

Antonín Dvořák 
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Silent Woods for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 68, No. 5

Silent Woods originated in Dvořák’s From the Bohemian Forest (1884), a collection of six pieces for one piano, four hands. Each movement focuses on an aspect of southwestern Bohemia, where Dvořák had a much-loved country house. In 1892, a few months before his departure for New York to head the new National Conservatory, he embarked on a farewell tour of smaller Bohemian and Moravian towns, performing a program of his music with his friends Ferdinand Lachner, professor of violin at Prague Conservatory, and the cellist Hanuš Wihan (the eventual dedicatee of Dvořák’s late masterpiece, the Cello Concerto in B minor).

Their signature work was the Dumky Piano Trio, but to flesh out their concert program, Dvořák also arranged some earlier pieces to play with his friends, including Silent Woods for cello and piano. He liked the five-minute movement well enough to arrange it for cello and small orchestra as well; that is the version that Yo-Yo Ma plays this evening.

innermost thoughts and feelings
The music is in modified ternary form. The cellist’s poetic, intimate melody unfolds at a measured pace that suggests the composer is revealing his innermost thoughts and feelings. At emotionally charged moments, he soars to the instrument’s high register. A more agitated middle section provides musical contrast and opportunity for rich dialogue with the woodwinds. Cameo solos for clarinet and flute are especially lovely. If God is to be found in nature, Silent Woods feels like a prayer.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn and strings

Franz Liszt 
Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3

a new genre: Liszt the inventor
Although we might think of the Hungarian-born Liszt as a piano virtuoso first and a composer second, he had considerable impact on his era in other respects. Liszt is credited with inventing the piano recital as we know it. He was also an influential patron and mentor of younger composers, particularly after 1850. As an orchestral composer, Liszt eschewed traditional symphonies for the most part, favoring instead a new type of composition: the symphonic poem. His concept was a single-movement orchestral piece, accompanied by a written program that the audience was intended to read prior to hearing the performance. Such a program was not the same as the printed program notes that you are currently reading. Rather, it introduced an extramusical association (for example, a poem or other literary source) intended to stimulate the listener’s imagination and subsequent grasp of the music.

Liszt was an educated and literate man. He perceived through program music an opportunity to merge different facets of romantic sensibility. Descriptive overtures such as Beethoven’s Coriolan (1807) and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (1829-32) prompted his thinking. In 1854, he coined the term “symphonic poem”—itself a combination of musical and literary terminology—as the subtitle for his latest orchestral work, Tasso. Eventually, he endowed the repertoire with a dozen examples of this new genre, all composed during the 13 years (1848-61) he spent in Weimar, Germany. Liszt’s widespread influence is eminently clear in the many tone poems of his younger contemporaries, most notably Richard Strauss.

from choral settings to orchestral masterwork
If we sought one symphonic poem that both encompassed the sweeping passions of 19-century romanticism and embodied the tempestuous career of Franz Liszt, Les Préludes would surely fit the bill. It has a bewildering and complex history. Les Préludes began as an overture to four choral settings of poetry by Joseph Autran. By the time Liszt completed the score in 1854, he had discarded the choral pieces (which were never published) and reworked the overture to comport with the verse and philosophy of a more prominent French poet: Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). Liszt’s score acquired the heading Les Préludes (d’après Lamartine), connecting his music to the poet’s Méditations poétiques, a collection of 24 poems published in 1820. The link is strengthened by the composer’s famous remarks at the front of the score:

“What is our life but a series of Preludes to that unknown song, the first solemn note of which is sounded by Death? The enchanted dawn of every existence is heralded by Love, yet in whose destiny are not the first throbs of happiness interrupted by storms?...”

The preface, which is more Liszt than Lamartine, provides the composer with latitude for widely contrasting emotional states: love and passion; the pastoral calm of nature’s beauty; spiritual conflict. They all find their way into the music. Through a process called thematic transformation (yet another Lisztian innovation), he moves through these widely varied states using only two basic themes. If Les Préludes is the only one of Liszt’s symphonic poems to have found a permanent place in the repertoire, it deserves that berth because of its sweeping grandeur, poetic themes, and inspired orchestration.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings

Program notes © 2017 by Laurie Shulman. First North American serial rights only.

Program Notes: Mozart and Debussy

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, June 8, 9, and 10

Full program notes:

Manuel de Falla
Born: November 23, 1876, Cádiz, Spain
Died: November 14, 1946, Alta Gracia, Argentina

Interlude and Dance from La Vida Breve

A hundred years ago, Spain was a difficult place for an aspiring young composer to get recognition. Not only was it far off the beaten path of classical music, its nascent musical culture offered little to keep talented native sons like Manuel de Falla (and Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados before him) from going off to Paris, the hotbed of the musical world. In fact, from 1900 until about 1940, Paris was a veritable Petri dish of artistic activity that provided unparalleled conditions for the exchange of creative ideas. A wave of artists, authors and composers of all nationalities migrated there, fostering a climate of imaginative cross-fertilization.

man on a mission
During his seven (remember that number) years in Paris, Falla found himself at the center of the remarkable goings on there. He was befriended by Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Dukas. He soaked up the music by the bad boys of the avant-garde, such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev. And many of them, in turn, were fascinated by Falla’s novel, even exotic-sounding Spanish music.

But he arrived in Paris with a single-minded agenda: to stage his new opera La Vida Breve (The Short Life). Despite earning first prize in a 1905 composition contest from the Royal Academy in Madrid, Falla couldn’t get it staged anywhere in Spain. In 1913, La Vida Breve finally got its Paris premiere, to wide critical acclaim. This put Falla on the map in the most important place in the musical world. One can only imagine the intoxicating thrill of success for this young man from Spain, surrounded by Parisian cultural luminaries such as Picasso, Hemingway, Poulenc, Stein, Proust, Cézanne, Dali, Gauguin, Matisse, Cocteau and Sartre.

audience favorites from an unusual opera
La Vida Breve—an unusual opera for having as much purely instrumental as vocal music—is rarely staged, in spite of its operatically brief one-hour running time. It tells the dramatic tale of a beautiful-but-poor gypsy girl named Salud, who falls for dark, handsome and wealthy Paco. Paco unfortunately neglects to mention his pending wedding to a woman of his own social class, setting up a proverbial wedding-day confrontation at the altar, as Salud crashes the affair and declares her love for Paco. Rejected and ordered out by Paco, Salud denounces him to all and then stabs herself, falling dead at his feet in the ultimate gesture of contempt for her lover. (As in all good operas, someone has to die at the end!)

The colorful Interlude and Dance from La Vida Breve, long audience favorites, have found a niche in the concert hall, including a popular version for violin and piano arranged by Fritz Kreisler.

maturity and superstition
Forced by the outbreak of World War I to flee Paris for Madrid, Falla entered his mature creative phase, composing Nights in the Garden of Spain and two ballets, El Amor Brujo and The ThreeCornered Hat. Displaced again following Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, Falla moved to Argentina, where he lived out his remaining seven years.

Falla, who never married or had children, was known to be quite the eccentric. For example, he was extremely superstitious and had a special regard for the number seven. (Check out his Seven Spanish Folksongs.) He believed, among other things, that life was divided into seven-year periods. Even the timing of his death fulfilled his prophecy—he died a few days before his 70th birthday, neatly completing his tenth seven-year period. And that trip to Paris? He intended it to be a seven-week trip, but it wound up being a seven-year stay.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, large and small hammers, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, bells, glockenspiel, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 23 in A major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 488

The Marriage of Figaro was Mozart’s big project in the spring of 1786, but the composer repeatedly interrupted himself to dash off several additional works, including his Piano Concerto No. 23. He entered it into his catalogue on March 2 and presumably played it in Vienna soon after.

the music: lovely and touching
allegro. The first movement, music of lovely and touching gallantry, is the essence of Mozartian reticence and dolcezza. Its second chord, darkened by an unexpected G-natural in the second violins, already suggests the sadness that will cast fleeting shadows throughout the concerto and altogether dominate its slow movement.

It is both fascinating and delightful the way Mozart scores the two main themes. He begins both with strings alone. He continues the first with an answering phrase just for winds, punctuated twice by forceful string chords, and that leads to the first passage for full orchestra. In the new theme he proceeds more subtly: a bassoon joins the violins nine measures into the melody and, as though encouraged by that, the flute appears in mid-phrase, with horns and clarinets arriving just in time to reinforce the cadence. The beginning of the development is spliced neatly into the end of the exposition; the real activity is in the woodwinds, and the piano accompanies with bright figurations. The recapitulation brings new distribution of material between solo and orchestra. After the cadenza comes a buoyant coda whose close is tongue-in-cheek matter-of-fact.

adagio. Slow movements in minor keys are surprisingly uncommon in Mozart, master of melancholy in music, and this one is in fact the last he writes. An Adagio marking is rare, too, and this movement is an altogether special transformation of the lilting siciliano style. The exquisite dissonances heard in the orchestra’s first phrase are brought about by the bassoon’s imitation of clarinet and violins. A second theme is more chromatic and thus still more moody than the first.

Throughout, Mozart the pianist imagines himself as the ideal opera singer. Near the end, he writes a miraculous and especially operatic passage, the strings playing simple broken chords, part pizzicato, part arco, over which the piano declaims a noble and passionate melody notable for its range: two and a half octaves, at one point traversed in a single leap. Pianists differ about what to do here, some simply playing the notes in the score, other filling the gaps (in time and space) with embellishments of their own. Our knowledge of 18th-century practice suggests that Mozart might well have taken the latter way.

allegro assai. After the restraint of the first movement and the melancholia of the second, Mozart gives us a finale of enchanting high spirits. It keeps the pianist very busy in music that comes close to perpetual motion and in which there is plenty to engage our ear, now so alert to the delicacy and overflowing invention with which Mozart uses those few and quiet instruments.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Claude Debussy 
Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France

Images for Orchestra

In 1905, shortly after the premiere of La Mer, Debussy composed a set of three evocative solo piano pieces called Images. He told his publisher that he was a working on a second set, this time for two pianos, in which he would pay tribute to the music of England, Spain and France, and he planned to finish this new set “as quickly as possible.” But Debussy’s plans changed completely: it took him eight years to complete the music, and the finished version was for orchestra rather than two pianos. So spread out was Debussy’s composition that the three parts were premiered separately, and even today they are rarely played together. This concert brings the rare opportunity to hear Debussy’s Images as he intended them to be heard.

Images is one of Debussy’s most colorful scores, but its evocation of three different countries’ music is sometimes quite subtle, particularly in its outer movements. Debussy disliked the term “impressionism,” and he told his publisher that he was trying “to achieve something different—an effect of reality...what some idiots term Impressionism, a word that is altogether misused, particularly by the critics.” Yet if the outer movements of Images can be subtle in the extreme, the central movement, Ibéria, brings some of Debussy’s most explicit musical scene-painting.

English gigues unlike any other
gigues. The first movement, Gigues, was the last to be completed, and it gave Debussy a great deal of trouble: he wrote between 1909 and 1912, and there is evidence that his amanuensis, André Caplet, may have done much of the orchestration under Debussy’s supervision.

Debussy conceived of Gigues as a tribute to English music; however, probably no listener coming to this subdued music without knowing its title or Debussy’s intent would identify it as having anything to do with English music. Debussy may take some characteristics of the gigue (swung rhythms and a bagpipe sound), but there is nothing here of the mood of the merry jig. In fact, Debussy’s original title was Gigues tristes—“Sad Gigues.” Debussy builds this movement around two themes—a fragmentary presentation of the traditional Northumberland song “Keel Row,” and another first given out by the oboe d’amore. Debussy marks the first appearance of this theme “gentle and melancholy,” and the mellow sound of the oboe d’amore, an instrument long thought obsolete when Debussy used it here, contributes much to the mood of this movement.

Ibéria: three Spanish movements
The second section—Ibéria, a musical evocation of Spain in three colorful movements—has become one of Debussy’s most popular orchestral works and is usually performed separately. Debussy’s direct experience of Spain consisted of one three-hour excursion across the border to visit San Sebastian, but that was apparently enough, and Iberia has been hailed as one of the greatest examples of a distinctly “Spanish” music.

in the streets and by-ways. The first movement of the Iberia section is full of energy and hard-edged rhythms underlined by clicking castanets. This movement offers striking solos for clarinet, English horn, viola, a virtuoso entrance by the entire horn section, and sultry trombone glissandos. After all the excitement, it flickers out on a few strokes of quiet percussion.

fragrances of the night. This habanera is the most exotic-sounding movement—Debussy marks it “Soft and dreamy.” Colors are muted in this movement, cast in the unusual key of F-sharp major. This is music of the perfumed night, full of languorous melodies, subtle touches of instrumental timbre and fluid rhythms.

morning of a festival day. Debussy was especially proud of the transition from the second Ibéria movement to the third, which he said “doesn’t sound as if it has been written down”—he wanted the effect of the music being improvised on the spot. The expectant feeling of early morning at the opening gradually gives way to sunlight and bright color. The main subject sounds as if it is being played by a giant guitar; Debussy emphasizes this visually by having the violinists and violists strum their instruments under their arms rather than placing them under their chins. This music is remarkable in Debussy’s output for its attempt to paint detailed scenes—“there are melon sellers and whistling urchins whom I see very clearly,” he said. At one point the march interrupts a street fiddler and thrusts him aside, and then with a sudden rush the music blazes to a wild finish.

France in spring
rondes de printemps. Debussy prefaced the score to the concluding Rondes de printemps (“Rounds of Spring”) with a line from the 15th-century poet Poliziano: “Long live May! Welcome to May with its sylvan banner.” This evocation of France recalls the ancient spring ritual in which youths decked themselves with laurel wreaths. Debussy gives it a subtly Gallic flavor by quoting two French children’s songs—Nous n’irons plus au bois and Do, do l’enfant, do—both of which he had used previously in his Nocturnes for orchestra. Here, however, those nursery tunes are broken down into component bits, mere thematic fragments. Beginning quietly, this movement builds steadily to a resounding conclusion that joyfully hails the arrival of spring.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, chimes, timpani, 2 harps, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, June 2nd and 3rd

Full program notes:

Richard Wagner
Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy

Overture to Tannhäuser

The idea of the redemptive power of love would engage Wagner throughout his life: it lies at the core of The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, the Ring Cycle and even Parsifal. It is also central to Tannhäuser, which Wagner composed between 1843 and 1845. 

the opera’s story
Set in the 13th century, the opera—subtitled Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg—tells of the minstrel-knight Tannhäuser, who is trapped by the sensual claims of Venusberg and is living a dissolute life in that grotto of love. Weary of the flesh and longing for something purer and finer, he appeals to the Virgin Mary and instantly finds himself back in his native Thuringia, where he once loved the pure Elizabeth. There he enters a singing competition, but when his song extolls the virtues of sensuality, the other contestants turn violently on him, and he is saved only by the intercession of Elizabeth.

Seeking redemption, Tannhäuser makes a pilgrimage to Rome. His appeal is dismissed by the Pope, who proclaims that the staff in his hand would sooner burst into flower than would a sinner in Venusberg be redeemed. The bitter Tannhäuser returns to Thuringia, defiant and vowing to go back to Venusberg. But Elizabeth appeals to the Virgin Mary, offering her own death as a means of redeeming Tannhäuser’s soul, and indeed Elizabeth departs on that fatal journey. Recognizing her sacrifice for him, Tannhäuser—his soul finally released—falls dead, and at that moment pilgrims returning from Rome report a miracle: the Pope’s staff has burst into blossom.

the overture: capturing the central drama
Wagner believed that an opera overture should encapsulate the opera’s central drama and point an audience toward an understanding of what is to follow, and his overture to Tannhäuser does this perfectly: it is built on the same conflict that drives the opera—the collision between the pure and the sensual.

The overture opens as a wind chorale intones the stately music of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” sung in Acts II and III by those on their way to and from Rome. That chorus grows in power, then subsides and gives way to the famous Venusberg music. This Allegro, which first leaps upward brilliantly in the violas, is the music that accompanies the bacchanalian sensuality that seduces the young knight. This section is full of a feverish, swirling excitement. We hear a grand march for full orchestra derived from Tannhäuser’s hymn of praise for love in Act I, as well as a delicate passage for solo clarinet derived from Venus’ praise of her domain as Tannhäuser tries to leave, also from Act I. In just these few minutes Wagner has given us the outlines of the plot and the music that will shape the opera, and this central section builds to a climax that features the sound of tambourine, cymbals and triangle. 

But—just as in the opera—it will be the music of the Pilgrim’s Chorus that will prevail. Beginning quietly, that chorus gradually grows in strength, accompanied by great cascades of sound from the violins, until it blazes out triumphantly in the brass to bring the overture to its resounding conclusion. In Wagner’s own words: “...the sun rises in splendor and the Pilgrims’ Chorus proclaims salvation to all the world, the joyous murmur swells to the mightiest, noblest rejoicing. Redeemed from the curse of ungodly shame, the Venusberg itself joins its exultant voice to the godly chant.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, castanets, cymbals, tambourine, triangle and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Ernest Bloch
Born: July 24, 1880, Geneva, Switzerland
Died: July 15, 1959, Portland, Oregon

Schelomo (Solomon), Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra

By the time he became an American citizen in 1924, Ernest Bloch, the Swiss-born composer of Jewish ancestry, perceived that the role of his music was to express his Jewish heritage. He attained his creative peak in works that are Hebraic in essence, among them his Three Jewish Poems and the compelling Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, named after King Solomon, Schelomo.

Nevertheless, despite a determination to articulate his roots in music, Bloch did not rely upon authentic Jewish or Middle Eastern sources. Instead, his goal was to construct the character and spirit of the Jewish people from within himself. He relied, he said, on “an inner voice…which surged up in me on reading certain passages in the Bible....To what extent is [my music] Jewish, to what extent it is just Ernest Bloch, of that I know nothing. The future alone will decide.”

Before his death in Oregon nearly 60 years ago, Bloch built a unique body of music in which he attempted to express “the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers deep in our soul.” But it is the relatively early work, Schelomo (dating from 1916), by which Bloch remains best known.

finding Schelomo’s voice
Bloch was born in Geneva, the son of a clock dealer who had studied for the rabbinate. Beyond the weekly Sabbath dinners and proper observance of the high holidays, however, the family was not especially religious. But the cantillation Bloch sporadically heard in the synagogue exercised its power on the young composer, and as early as 1912, he began to experiment with an idiom that would shape the works included in his so-called “Jewish cycle.” When he tried to produce songs based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, he realized that only the original Hebrew was suitable. Unfortunately, his command of Hebrew was inadequate for the setting of that language to music.

Bloch sadly shelved these sketches, only to retrieve them in 1916 when he heard a performance by the cellist Alexander Barjansky. In the strength and supple lyricism of the Russian’s playing, Bloch found the appropriate voice of Schelomo. Within a few weeks he transformed his song sketches into the Rhapsody that remains his most-performed work. The premiere took place at Carnegie Hall on May 3, 1917, with Hans Kindler in the solo role. A notable performance took place in January 1933, when Barjansky played Schelomo under Bloch’s direction in Rome.

the music: the cellist as singer The images of this moving work, in which the cello is a singer of emotions so profound and vivid as to require no words, descend from ancient Israel and Solomon in all his glory. The music speaks of the buildings of the Temple, the sensual poet of the Song of Songs, the wit of the Proverbs, and the preacher who proclaims that all is vanity.

The late Joseph Machlis, who provided succinct guides to major 20th-century works in his Introduction to Contemporary Music, offered this brief commentary on the music:

“The rhapsody is a congenial form for Bloch. It lends itself to his favorite method of fashioning a work out of fully developed melodic forms that flower into one another (as opposed to the tightly knit development of themes and motives which constitutes the classical method of the symphony). Schelomo ranges over a variety of moods, from brooding introversion to rhetoric flourishes, that are woven into unity. The piece is conceived in terms of a two-fold contrast—between the dark singing tone of the cello and the full orchestral sound; and that between the high and low registers of the solo instrument....The wide leaps, sinuous arabesques and supple rhythms of the cello part are set against a background abounding in pageantry and exaltation. One feels the absence of a firmly welded architecture; yet formal restraint would hardly accord with the rapturous mood of the piece.”

Instrumentation: solo cello and orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, 2 harps, celesta and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany

Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30

"abstruse” used to be the favorite adjective of critics trying to characterize Also sprach Zarathustra. Then, in 1968, Stanley Kubrick co-opted its opening to serve as part of the brilliantly chosen acoustic décor in his 2001: A Space Odyssey, and ever since, Zarathustra has been a big box-office piece in the symphonic repertoire. I imagine the surprise of the people who first encountered the piece in that movie, bought a recording, and discovered that it went on for another half hour after the magnificent sunrise that had sent them to the record store in the first place. I imagine too, that seeing the name of Friedrich Nietzsche must have caused some rolling of eyes.

Like many Strauss tone poems, Also sprach Zarathustra sprang from a literary source—though much more recent than those of Don Juan, Don Quixote, Macbeth and Till Eulenspiegel. In 1896, when Strauss introduced his Zarathustra to the world, Nietzsche’s book Also sprach Zarathustra was hardly more than ten years old. Strauss had at first been overwhelmed by Nietzsche’s book: it was full of new ideas and even new words, and Strauss let it sink in slowly. In a long prose poem, Nietzsche uses the figure of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster to speak for him on an immense range of subjects. The book consists of 82 short sections with such titles as “On the Pale Criminal,” “On the Flies of the Market Place,” “On Chastity” and “At Noon,” and each section ends with the phrase “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spake Zarathustra).

a famous beginning
Strauss had an extraordinary knack when it came to figuring out how to begin pieces. Here he begins with the famous sunrise. In Nietzsche, Zarathustra, who has dwelled on a mountaintop for ten years, watches a new day begin. Strauss first gives us a long suspended moment of indeterminate rumble on C, but so low that we hardly register a specific pitch. From this emerges the simplest three-note trumpet call. Immediately this gives way to muttering low strings. These are the Hinterweltler—the AfterWorldly or Backworldsmen—mankind in its most undeveloped stage, which to Nietzsche is exemplified by those whose goal is the afterlife rather than a richly fulfilled here and now.

When the music gets faster, we are in a section Strauss heads On the Great Longing—longing, that is to rise beyond the limitations of the Hinterweltler. “Inquiring” arpeggios in the key of B (here, B minor) combine with the rising three-note motif in C that the trumpets played at the opening. This combination brings about the juxtaposition—and sometimes collision—of the two keys.

A great sweeping glissando for both harps propels the music into On Joys and Passions, a conflict between sensual and spiritual elements. A darker variant of this music is marked Funeral Song.

The music then slows to a halt and fades to the edge of inaudibility. Cellos and basses proffer a strangely groping theme, encompassing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This is On Science. Nietzsche’s word is Wissenschaft, which carries broad meanings of learning, scholarship, erudition and knowledge. Strauss does the most “wissenschaftlich” possible thing: He writes a fugue. It is one of my favorite pages in all of Strauss—mysterious, visionary, dissonant in rhythm as well as in harmony. Again the music comes to a halt, and some hesitantly exploring sounds leads to an energetic, thrusting passage, The Convalescent. Zarathustra has a kind of breakdown.

songs and a magical close
Next, Strauss evokes Nietzsche’s Dance Song, a kind of rivalry of life and wisdom, which Strauss expresses as a waltz. The solo violin is prominent here. It is well known that Strauss loved sopranos, but sometimes he appeared to love concertmasters almost as much. In Nietzsche’s “Other Dance Song,” which Strauss titles Sleepwalker’s Song, a bell tolls 12 times, with a line of the poem “O Mensch, gib Acht” (Oh Man, Take Heed) inserted after each peal.

In the course of its 12 strokes, Strauss’ bell describes a long decrescendo from fff to ppp. Everything seems settled in C major, but then the violins, backed by horns and harp, with infinite gentleness begin the coda—in B major. The two tonalities rock back and forth.

The last word is uttered by the cellos and basses with their pizzicato C-natural. It is one of the most magical closes ever devised by Richard Strauss, that great master of great endings.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tubular bells, glockenspiel, 2 harps, organ and strings

Excerpted from a program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

Program Notes: Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance May 11th, 12th, and 13th

Full program notes:

Witold Lutosławski
Born: January 25, 1913, Warsaw, Poland
Died: February 7, 1994, Warsaw, Poland

A pretty tough story lurks behind this gentle little piece. Witold Lutosławski graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1937, but his plans to study in Paris were thwarted by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Lutosławski served as a radio operator in the Polish army but was captured by the Nazis. He escaped, walked 250 miles back to Warsaw, and went underground. The Nazis banned concerts during the war, and Lutosławski supported himself by playing the piano in nightclubs until the Warsaw uprising in 1944 forced him to flee that city—he lost all his early compositions when part of the city was destroyed. After the war, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviets, who enforced a rigorously-simplistic artistic doctrine: all art must be accessible to the masses, inspiring and uncomplicated. When Lutosławski’s First Symphony was premiered in 1948, Russian critics walked out, the Polish vice-minister of culture remarked that Lutosławski should be thrown under a streetcar, and further performances were banned.

Serious composers found that any thought of developing according to their own ideals was impossible. Lutosławski’s good friend Andrzej Panufnik fled to the West in 1954 and made his career in England, but Lutosławski chose to remain in Warsaw, where he found his options limited: he was free to compose film scores, patriotic choruses and children’s songs. A further possibility was music based on folk songs, and here Lutosławski turned to the model of a composer he greatly admired, Béla Bartók (though ironically, Bartók’s music was banned by the Soviets for its “formalism”).

a suite from folk tunes
In 1950, two years after the debacle of his First Symphony, Lutosławski had a request from Warsaw Radio for a piece based on folklore. For that commission he composed his Little Suite, and it was premiered the same year by what the official catalog of his works describes as “a light-music chamber orchestra.” The Little Suite proved a success, and the following year Lutosławski arranged it for full symphony orchestra. This version was successfully premiered by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg on April 20, 1951.

Lutosławski’s model for the Little Suite may well have been Bartók’s charming Romanian Folk Dances of 1915, in which Bartók orchestrated and briefly extended folk dance tunes. Lutosławski chose folk tunes from around the village of Máchow in the far southeastern corner of Poland and used them to compose his Little Suite, whose four movements span barely ten minutes. Fajurka (that title translates as “fife”) opens appropriately with the bright sound of piccolo stamping out the principal theme; this is developed energetically, and the opening melody returns to close out the movement. The curious thing about the Hurra Polka (Hurray Polka) is that it dances in a triple meter rather than the duple meter we expect of the polka. A melancholy clarinet solo opens Piosenka (Song), but this quiet opening quickly builds to a strident climax before the music subsides to its quiet close. The vivacious concluding Taniec (Dance) does indeed dance brightly before giving way to a singing, surging central episode; the opening material returns, but Lutosławski rounds off the Little Suite with a brisk and emphatic coda.

What are we to make of this gentle and apparently well-behaved piece of music? Is it the work of an obedient servant intent on satisfying repressive authorities? Or is it perhaps something more significant? When he wrote the Little Suite, Lutosławski was working within tight strictures, but he recognized—just as Bartók had before him—that there were possibilities within folk music. In Little Suite he refines his technique carefully: he presents the folk tunes, develops them crisply and subtly, and orchestrates them cleanly and brightly. Lutosławski’s use of folk material would culminate in his Concerto for Orchestra of 1954, in which folk tunes are broken down into component intervals and bits and used as the basis for a brilliant orchestral work. The Concerto for Orchestra was a sort of break-out work for Lutosławski. Its success, and gradually relaxing government control, allowed him to compose serial music and later music based in part on chance. By the time he reached an authentic voice as a composer, Lutosławski had left his early folk-inspired pieces far behind. But the Little Suite remains one of the most popular of his early works.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

In 1778-79, Mozart became intensely interested in the possibilities of concertos with more than one solo instrument. Earlier, in May 1774, he had written what he called a Concertone, literally “a big concerto,” for two solo violins and an almost equally prominent oboe part, but now there suddenly appeared a whole run of such works.

More precisely, we have three completed works—the Concerto for Flute and Harp from April 1778, agreeably Rococo but a bit perfunctory; the delightful Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the early part of April 1779; and the present Sinfonia concertante; also two that were abandoned part way through (the concerts for which they were intended were canceled) and one puzzle, one which has not come down to us in any form that can be authenticated as being by Mozart.

In the middle of these experiments and accomplishments, the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola stands out as one of Mozart’s most seductively rich works and surely as the finest of his string concertos. He probably wrote this work in the summer of 1779.

Mozart and the viola
Excellent violinist though he was, when Mozart played chamber music he liked best to take up the viola. He enjoyed being in the middle of the texture, besides which there is surely an affinity between the viola’s dark and somehow pent-up sonority and the element of melancholy that tends to invade even the most festive of Mozart’s compositions. The viola is the Mozartian sound par excellence. Mozart’s chamber music attains its highest point in those quintets where he adds a second viola to the standard string quartet.

Here, in this Sinfonia concertante—the title suggests a symphony that behaves like a concerto—he stresses that characteristic color by dividing the violas into two sections. As for the two solo instruments, Mozart is more interested in the distinction of color than in the difference of range. He sends the viola clear up to the high E-flat above the treble staff, an altitude it never comes near approaching in his chamber music. To allow the viola to be more penetrating, Mozart writes the part not in E-flat but in D, a more sonorous and brilliant key for the instrument because it takes better advantage of the open strings and their overtones.

Indeed, everything about the sheer sound of the Sinfonia concertante attests to the richness of Mozart’s aural fantasy: the piquant wind writing, the delightful and serenade-like pizzicatos in the orchestra, the subtle interaction of solo and orchestral strings beginning with the very first emergence of the two soloists from the tutti, and, not least, the way so sumptuous and varied a sonority is drawn from so modest a complement.

the music: opening doors we didn’t know existed
The splendid and majestic first movement, Allegro maestoso, is followed by an operatic Andante of deep pathos: one can almost hear the Italian words as the two singers vie in passionate protestation. In Symphonie concertante, the ballet George Balanchine created in 1947 for Taaquil Le Clercq and Maria Tallchief, Balanchine rendered these conversations visible, the gay and spirited ones of the first and last movements no less than the darkly impassioned ones of the Andante.

The way this Andante begins is a glorious instance of how Mozart can surprise us by opening doors whose very existence we never suspected. The music begins with regular questions and answers, but the third time—I always think of Tamino finding the right door—something opens, the barriers come down, formality and symmetry are gone, and we witness and share in raw pain.

The finale, after that, is all high spirits and virtuosic brilliance. Mozart includes cadenzas in the score.

Instrumentation: solo violin and solo viola, with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Born: November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany
Died: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt, Germany

Mathis der Maler, Symphony

In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Paul Hindemith set to work on an opera based on the life of the German painter Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528), whose masterpiece is the altarpiece he painted for St. Anthony’s Church in Isenheim from 1515 to 1518. The events of Grünewald’s life are almost unknown (even his last name appears to be an invention by a later biographer), so Hindemith, who wrote his own libretto, was free to imagine the details of Grünewald’s participation in the Peasants’ War in Mainz in 1524.

artist or activist?
The actions of Hindemith’s hero are curiously ambiguous. At work on his altarpiece, he is swept up in the peasants’ cause and throws aside his painting to become a man of action, in the process falling in love with Regina, daughter of Schwalb, leader of the revolt. The peasants suffer a disastrous defeat, Schwalb is killed, Regina dies, and Matthias is left to reassess his commitment to the cause. At the climax of the opera, he has a nightmare in which he imagines himself undergoing the temptations of St. Anthony (one of the principal paintings of his altarpiece) and concludes that he must remain true to his individual talents. He sets aside his activism and returns to painting.

The moral meaning of such a story is unclear. Is Hindemith’s painter a symbol of heroic artistic resistance to tyranny—or is he the symbol of artistic disengagement?

The new Nazi government was quite certain where it stood on the subject of a popular revolt against a government in power. When Hindemith drew a three-movement symphony from the music of the opera (premiered by Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin on March 12, 1934), it came under prompt attack. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment (how suffocating, how deadly that title sounds!), wrote an article denouncing the “Cultural Bolshevism” of Hindemith’s music, which was labeled “degenerate.” Furtwängler, who had planned to lead the premiere of the opera and who now defended Hindemith, was forced to resign temporarily as director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and the opera was not produced until 1938, when it was given in Zúrich. By that time, Hindemith, perhaps more committed to action than his hero, had already left Germany.

the symphony
The opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is rarely produced today, but the symphony that Hindemith drew from it has become his most popular work. The symphony was assembled before the opera was completed, and listeners should not expect it to be an instrumental précis of the opera or even to present its excerpts in the order in which they occur in the opera. All three movements are named after specific panels in the Isenheim altarpiece, and Hindemith consciously creates an “archaic” quality in much of this music by quoting old German folksongs and chorales.

angel concert. The first movement is the overture to the opera and is based on the painting that depicts a heavenly consort serenading the Virgin and Child. A slow introduction built on broadly-spaced chords creates an impression of great space, and out of this the old German song Es sungen drei Engeln (There Sang Three Angels) is announced by all three trombones in unison over gently-rocking string accompaniment. The main body of the movement is based on busy thematic material (Hindemith marks it Ziemlich lebhaft Halbe: “Rather lively half-notes”) and is generally in sonata form. At the climax, Es sungen returns, singing in 3/2 as the rest of the orchestra continues in 4/4, and the movement drives to a resounding close.

entombment. In the second movement, just 45 measures long, muted strings lay out the halting main theme, which in the opera accompanies the burial of Regina, the hero’s love. Solo oboe sings the jagged second subject; the music rises to a climax and falls away on a coda that treats both themes.

the temptation of St. Anthony. For the final movement Hindemith selected the music that accompanies Mathis’ climactic nightmare, during which he imagines himself undergoing the hideous torments depicted in the Isenheim altarpiece. In the score, Hindemith prefaces the finale with the line Mathis sings during this nightmare, which also appears on Grünewaldt altarpiece: “Ubi eras bone Jhesu / ubi eras, quare non affuisti / ut sanares vulnera mea?” (Where were you, good Jesus? Why have you not come to heal my wounds?) The movement opens with a free recitative for strings that leads to the main body of the movement, marked Very lively, and this drives ahead on music appropriate to torment. A quiet and beautiful central section leads to a fugal coda, where—over all the busy contrapuntal activity—the old Gregorian chant Lauda Sion Salvatorem is intoned by the winds. The symphony drives to a triumphantclose as brass blaze out the concluding Alleluia.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Haydn and Mozart

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, May 4th and 5th

Full program notes:

Franz Joseph Haydn
Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, La Reine

Haydn served as kapellmeister to the Esterházy court for three decades (1761 to 1790), a period spent in what he himself described as “isolation”—the Esterházys maintained palaces in small villages on the edge of the Hungarian plain. In Eisenstadt and Eszterházy Haydn had an excellent orchestra and a discriminating royal audience, but as the years went by he became interested in wider fame, and in 1779 Prince Nikolaus gave him the freedom to accept commissions from other sources. One of the first of these came from Paris, where the Loge Olympique, a Masonic order, sponsored a series of public concerts in the Tuileries. The young Count d’Ogny, one of the leaders of the lodge, had long been an admirer of Haydn’s music, and in 1784 he commissioned six symphonies from the composer, who had just turned 52. These works inevitably became known as the Paris Symphonies (Nos. 82 to 87).

The commission brought Haydn new fame, significant income (he was paid the handsome sum of 25 Louis d’or per symphony) and expanded artistic opportunities. The orchestra of the Loge Olympique was huge: it might have as many as 70 players, including 40 violins, while Haydn’s Esterházy orchestra had at most about 25 players. The Parisian orchestras were also famed for the brilliance of their playing. Haydn was aware of the Parisian sense of spectacle—the orchestra of the Loge Olympique wore sky-blue coats, lace and swords while they played—and he knew that he would be writing for a large audience rather than for a small, refined court. Thus he wrote grand symphonies, full of energy and appealing melodies, and it is no surprise that Haydn’s Paris Symphonies remain, more than two centuries after their composition, among his most popular.

the Queen’s favorite
Three of the Paris Symphonies have nicknames—No. 82, The Bear; No. 83, The Hen; and No. 85, The Queen. The first two arose from the music itself: audiences made out growling sounds in the finale of The Bear and clucking noises in the first movement of The Hen. But the third came from farther afield. Symphony No. 85 was reportedly the favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, who attended the concerts in the Tuileries. When it was published by Imbault in 1788, its title page bore the subtitle “La Reine de France,” and it has been known as La Reine ever since. Marie Antoinette heard this symphony in 1787, near the end of her increasingly troubled reign; within two years she would lose her throne and her freedom (and later her head).

Still, when Haydn wrote this music, it was simply the Symphony in B-flat major. Scored for what might seem relatively modest forces, this is nevertheless powerful music that rings out with a grand sonority well suited to the large orchestras of Paris. And it is fast: two briskly-paced outer movements, marked Vivace and Presto, frame inner movements both marked Allegretto, allowing this symphony no true slow movement.

the music: surprises along the way
adagio–vivace. The Symphony No. 85 gets off to an imposing start with a grand introduction, full of runs and dotted rhythms. It is also loud (the dynamic is fortissimo), which makes the beginning of the Vivace all the more effective, as the music turns fast and soft at the same instant. In this nicely integrated movement, Haydn spins all of his material out of this same Vivace tune and recalls the runs from the introduction. Along the way this theme makes a striking plunge into F minor, and the music suddenly turns fierce in a passage curiously reminiscent of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, composed l5 years earlier. The storm passes quickly, however, and the movement powers to an exhilarating close.

romanze: allegretto; menuetto: allegretto. Haydn nods to his French hosts (sponsors, performers and audience) in the second movement, which is a set of variations on the French song La gentille et jeune Lisette (Lovely Young Lisette). Haydn titles this movement Romanze, underlining the intimate character of the little tune, and then offers four sprightly variations in which the tune always remains clear. The Menuetto has a sonorous sweep, nicely setting off the poised trio section.

presto. The finale leaps to life with an infectious eight-measure phrase that instantly has us tapping our feet, comfortable in the knowledge that this will be a rondo. But Haydn is Haydn, and there are surprises along the way. Suddenly the little tune grows complex and begins to develop, and then, just as suddenly, Haydn makes a polished return to the rondo and rounds matters off with a ringing cadence.

This music just plain sounds good. One wonders what that 1787 performance—given before Marie Antoinette by an orchestra dressed in sky-blue coats—must have sounded like.

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major for Horn and Orchestra, K. 447

The music in Mozart’s concertos often has the quality of transposed opera and, like most of Mozart’s operatic roles and concert arias, these works are, to borrow from dance parlance, “made on” particular performers. The voice and personality behind Mozart’s four horn concertos are those of Joseph Leutgeb.

Leutgeb was a virtuoso who had been principal horn in Salzburg during Mozart’s young years. By 1770, he was doing considerable solo work, enjoying exceptional success in Paris. In 1773, he joined Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart on part of their Italian tour. In 1777, he moved to Vienna where, in addition to keeping up his musical activities, he ran a cheese store. He retired from playing about 1792 and died in 1811. A certain bratty vein of Mozart’s humor emerges in the manuscripts destined for Leutgeb, which contain such remarks as “a sheep could trill like that,” and in one of which he sets a trap for the soloist by marking his part Adagio where the orchestra has Allegro—but Leutgeb remained an unswervingly loyal friend.

More to the point, Leutgeb was an artist. Playing the horn is not easy now; in Mozart’s and Leutgeb’s day it was even riskier. Valves came in around 1820, but until then, players had available only those 16 pitches that were part of the natural overtone series (nine of them bunched together in the highest of the instrument’s three octaves, and not perfectly in tune), plus some other notes that could be produced by inserting the hand into the bell onefourth, half, or three-quarters of the way. The trouble was this hand-stopping altered the tone, making it in various degrees nasal, muffled or snarly. That meant that to play a continuous melody required unremitting vigilance and uncanny finesse, It is no wonder that Mozart’s concertos for horn are much shorter than those for other instruments.

delights and challenges
Mozart’s horn concertos offer many delights to the listener as well as challenges to the soloist. The Third Concerto is the most poetic of the four as well as the one whose sound is the most special, for here alone Mozart departs from the oboe-horn combination of the other works to give us instead the velvety background of clarinets and bassoons. 

allegro. For so compressed a work, an astonishing variety of musical characters passes before us. In his boldest flight of poetry, not to mention his utter faith in Leutgeb’s artistry, Mozart begins his development in the dreamily remote key of D-flat major, making his way back to the home key by way of a succession of magic modulations we would find remarkable if we came across it in one of his most inventive piano concertos.

romanza: larghetto; allegro. The middle movement, which Mozart labels Romanza, is in A-flat major, a key he ventures into rarely and one that always sets him to music. The serene melody of the Romanza stages an unexpected reappearance when it turns up—in quick tempo—as one of the episodes in the artful hunt-music finale (a device Mahler would charmingly imitate in his Fifth Symphony).

The date of this concerto’s composition is not known. It used to be given as 1783, but studies of both Mozart’s handwriting in the manuscript and of the paper itself have led scholars to conclude that 1787 or 1788 would be more accurate. Nothing is known about the first performance, nor did Mozart leave any cadenzas.

Instrumentation: solo horn with orchestra comprising 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Benjamin Britten
Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England
Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a

Peter Grimes, one of the great operas of the 20th century, depends for much of its force on Britten’s superb evocation of the harsh and violent Suffolk coast. But surprisingly enough, the opera got its start in Southern California.

Britten had left England for Long Island in 1939, believing that his homeland was blocked to him as an artist and intending to make a new life in America. After bouts of ill health he wished for a warmer climate, and he accepted an invitation to spend the summer of 1941 in Escondido, just north of San Diego. Britten and Peter Pears drove an ancient car across the country, reaching their destination that spring.

from poem to opera
Early that summer, Pears bought a volume of the poetry of George Crabbe, with which the two young men now found themselves enthralled. Crabbe (1754-1832), from Britten’s own Suffolk, had a bleak vision of mankind and of Suffolk life. To a friend in Long Island, Britten wrote: “We’ve just re-discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited— maybe an opera one day—!”

Britten was particularly taken with Crabbe’s The Borough (1810), which tells of a deadly collision between a Suffolk fishing village— which represents convention, religion, law and smugness—and Peter Grimes, an outcast, violent, perhaps demented, yet longing for acceptance by the community he despises. And when Serge koussevitzky commissioned an opera from Britten the following winter, he chose this as his subject. The composer returned to England in April 1942, fired by a new passion for his native Suffolk. He composed Peter Grimes in 1944-45, and its premiere in June 1945 was a triumph.

The opera is in three acts, and as preludes to the acts or as interludes between scenes Britten composed six orchestral interludes, brief mood-pieces designed to set a scene, establish a mood or hint at character. Even before the opera had been produced, Britten assembled an orchestral suite made up of four of these, which he called Sea Interludes, and led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in its premiere on June 14, 1945.

the music: portraits of the sea
dawn. The first interlude comes at the conclusion of the opera’s opening Prologue, during which the Borough questions Grimes about the death of his previous apprentice. Here is gray daybreak on the bleak Suffolk coast, evoked by the high, clear, pure sound of unison flutes and violins. This is haunting, evocative music, full of the cries of sea birds, the hiss of surf across rocky beaches, and—menacing in the deep brass—the swell of the sea itself.

sunday morning. The second interlude, the prelude to Act II, opens with the sound of church bells pealing madly in the horns and woodwinds. The strings have the theme that one character, Ellen Orford, sings in praise of the sunny sea: “Glitter of waves / And glitter of sunlight / Bid us rejoice / And lift our hearts high.”

moonlight. A portrait of the tranquil sea, broken by splashes of sound from flute, xylophone and harp, serves as the prelude to the opera’s third act.

storm. The concluding selection depicts a storm that strikes the coasts; it forms the interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act I. The violence of the opening gives way to a more subdued central section before the storm breaks out again and drives the music to its powerful close. Britten noted: “…My life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, xylophone, chimes in B-flat and E-flat, harp and strings

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

La Valse

Ravel, like many French composers, was profoundly wary of German music. Yet there was one German form for which he felt undiluted affection: the waltz. As a young piano student in Paris, Ravel fell under the spell of Schubert’s waltzes for piano, and in 1911 he composed his own Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, a set of charming waltzes modeled on the Schubert dances he loved so much. Earlier, in 1906, he had planned a great orchestral waltz with the working title Wien (Vienna), but the piece was delayed and Ravel did not return to it until the fall of 1919. This was the year after the conclusion of World War I, and the French vision of the Germanic world was now quite different than it had been when he originally conceived the piece.

Nevertheless, Ravel still felt the appeal of the project, and by December he was madly at work. The orchestration was completed the following March, and the first performance took place in Paris on December 12, 1920. By this time, perhaps wary of wartime associations, Ravel had renamed the piece La Valse.

an opulent—and troubling—score
Ravel described exactly his original conception for the work: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.”

The music also gives us this scene. Out of the murky, misty beginning come bits of waltz rhythms; gradually these join together and plunge into an animated dance. This is dazzling writing for orchestra, some of which results from the music’s rhythmic energy, some from Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental color.

If La Valse concluded with all this elegant vitality, our sense of the music might be clear, but instead it drives to an ending full of frenzied violence. We come away not so much exhilarated as shaken. Ravel made a telling comment about this conclusion: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.”

Is this music a celebration of the waltz—or an exploration of the darker spirit behind the culture that created it? Many have opted for the latter explanation, hearing in La Valse not a Rosenkavalierlike evocation of a more graceful era, but the snarling menace behind that elegance.

Ravel himself was evasive about the ending. Aware of its implications, he explained in a letter to a friend: “Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others that it was postwar Vienna. They are wrong. Certainly, La Valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, antique cymbals, castanets, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, bells, 2 harps and strings

Program notes on the Haydn, Britten and Ravel works by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Lise de la Salle Plays Ravel

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, April 27, 28, & 29

Full program notes:

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Maurice Ravel

Suite of Five Pieces from Mother Goose (Ma Mère l’Oye)

Ravel, a collector of miniatures, never lost his capacity for child-like wonder. Sometimes he masked his pleasure in toys and tales and the paraphernalia of the nursery behind young friends. Ma Mère l’Oye, which we know as the Mother Goose Suite, originated as a set of five children’s pieces for four-hand piano, a gift for the young Godebski children that Ravel composed between 1908 and 1910. In 1911 he transcribed it for the orchestra, whose colors added magic to the imagery.

The original piano version was first performed on April 20, 1910, by two little girls, ages six and seven. One of them, Jeanne Leleu, later a Paris Conservatoire professor and composer in her own right, recalled that Ravel asked them to play very simply, without seeking expression in every note: “He wanted the first piece, the Pavane, to be very slow—for children that’s quite difficult! He wanted Tom Thumb to be very uniform in sonority... Laideronnette had to be very clear, like little crystal bells, without hurrying the melodic phrase in the bass.”

Drawing from Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, originally published in 1697, Ravel also borrowed Perrault’s title. The author’s opening tale became the Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, who is lulled by a gentle oscillating figure based on the ancient Aeolian mode; the music is so lightly scored that there is little risk of waking her. Tom Thumb, who discovers that the birds have eaten the crumbs he has strewn on his pathway, is evoked by constantly varying time signatures and the changing direction of the line, as he turns hither and thither in a frantic effort to retrace his steps. In Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas (not buildings but tiny, insect-like creatures), the royal one is glimpsed in her bath, where she is serenaded by an orchestra of viols and lutes made of nutshells. Beauty and the Beast encounter each other in a dramatic waltz that contrasts the lyric charm of her voice, sweet in the clarinet, with his gruff responses, rumbling from the contrabassoon. The Enchanted Garden, so crystalline in texture that it might have been spun of glass, is capped by sparkling glissandos.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, xylophone, harp, celesta, keyboard glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra

Ravel was 54 before he wrote any concertos, and then, in the fall of 1929, he set to work simultaneously on two. His Concerto for Piano Left Hand, dark and serious, was for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the other, the much lighter Piano Concerto in G major, was intended for the composer’s own use. But by the fall of 1931, when the G-major Concerto was complete, failing health prevented the composer from performing this music himself. Instead, he conducted the premiere in Paris on January 14, 1932; the pianist was Marguerite Long, to whom Ravel dedicated the concerto, and who had also given the first performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1919.

brilliant, transparent—and sultry
Ravel described this work as “written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns,” but listeners would hardly make those associations. What strikes audiences first are the concerto’s virtuoso writing for both piano and orchestra, the brilliance and transparency of the music, and the influence of American jazz. It is possible to make too much of the jazz influence, but Ravel had heard jazz during his tour of America in 1928 and found much to admire. When asked about its influence on this concerto, he said: “It includes some elements borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.” Ravel was quite proud of this music and said that in it, he had expressed his thoughts just as he had wished.

allegramente. The first movement opens with a whipcrack, and immediately the piccolo plays the jaunty opening tune, picked up in turn by solo trumpet before the piano makes its sultry solo entrance. Some of the concerto’s most brilliant music occurs in this movement, which is possessed of a sort of madcap energy, with great splashes of instrumental color, strident flutter-tonguing by the winds, string glissandos and a quasi-cadenza for the harp.

adagio assai. In a three-minute solo that opens the Adagio assai, one of Ravel’s most beautiful slow movements, the pianist lays out at length the haunting main theme, which later returns to great effect with the English horn heard over delicate piano accompaniment. Despite its seemingly easy flow of melody, this movement gave Ravel a great deal of trouble, and he later said that he wrote it “two bars at a time.”

presto. The finale explodes to life with a five-note riff that recurs throughout, functioning somewhat like the ritornello of the Baroque concerto. The jazz influence shows up here in the squealing clarinets, brass smears and racing piano passages. The movement comes to a sizzling conclusion on the phrase with which it began.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, slap stick, tamtam, triangle, wood block, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Sergei Prokofiev
Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Russia
Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Opus 100

The premiere of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on January 13, 1945, in Moscow, was one of those storybook tales, almost too good to be true. As Prokofiev mounted the podium, the sound of distant artillery rumbled through the hall. The news had just arrived that the Russian army had smashed across the Vistula River in Poland and was preparing for its final assault on Nazi Germany. That artillery barrage was the sound of the garrison in Moscow celebrating the now-inevitable victory. And so it was that Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was heard for the first time with a prelude of artillery thunder.

with vision and force
Prokofiev composed this music in the space of one month during the summer of 1944 in Ivanovo, at an artists’ retreat 150 miles northeast of Moscow. Like Stravinsky and Copland, Prokofiev was not by nature a symphonist, finding himself more comfortable with dance scores and smaller forms. Now, however—in the face of a defining national moment—Prokofiev turned to the most serious of orchestral forms and wrote with vision and force.

The Fifth Symphony builds across an effective sequence in its four movements: a broad-scaled and conflicted first movement gives way to a propulsive scherzo, followed by a painful adagio; the symphony concludes with an almost happy-go-lucky finale that transforms themes from the first movement to suit its mood of celebration. The symphony’s themes are simple, even singable, its orchestration masterful. The combination of dramatic content, attractive themes, skillful orchestration and formal control makes this music almost unique among Prokofiev’s works.

the music
andante. The very beginning is deceptively innocent: Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony opens with the pastel sound of two flutes and a bassoon playing the simple opening idea, and the other themes, all introduced quietly and lyrically, appear quickly. This movement is an andante rather than the expected allegro, but while the pace may be measured, it is also inexorable, and the music gathers force as it proceeds. In its closing moments, skies blacken over what had been a generally serene landscape, and the climax is shattering, one of the most impressive in all symphonic music: tunes that had seemed genial now explode as the strength pent up in those simple figures is unleashed.

allegro marcato. The almost demonic ticking accompaniment heard at the very beginning of the second movement continues throughout—so pervasive that the ear seems to hear it even when it is not there. Solo clarinet leads the way in this music, full of rhythmic energy and instrumental color, thanks to Prokofiev’s imaginative handling of percussion. Oboe and clarinet herald the arrival of the good-natured trio, but the return of the opening material brings a surprise: over the halting sound of staccato trumpets, timpani and pizzicato strings, the opening theme now sounds lugubrious. Gradually the tempo accelerates, and the scherzo smashes its way to the close.

adagio. While Prokofiev would not link this symphony with the war that raged while it was written, it is hard not to feel that the third movement is touched by the events of those years. This grieving music opens with a simple clarinet melody that quickly turns impassioned, and a range of melodic material follows, including a theme that rises up over a span of four octaves and a grotesque march that sounds like something plucked from a Mahler symphony. Much of the writing here, particularly for the strings, is very high, yet for all this movement’s pain, its quiet closing moments are among the most beautiful in the symphony.

allegro giocoso. The concluding finale is well named, for this truly is fast and happy music. Prokofiev re-introduces, transformed, several themes from the first movement—the once-poised ideas now are rollicking. Violas lead the way, full of sweep and high spirits, and it takes little imagination to hear the sound of laughter at moments in this music of celebration. The ending is particularly effective. With the music racing along, Prokofiev suddenly reduces his forces to just a handful of players, and for a few moments this mighty symphony becomes chamber music. In the last seconds, the entire orchestra leaps back in for the ear-splitting rush up the scale that drives Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony to its exultant close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, wood block, snare drum, tambourine, suspended cymbal, tamtam, triangle, harp, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Edo de Waart Returns

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, April 21st and 22nd

Full program notes:

Edward Elgar
Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester, England

The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38

The Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale are making history this weekend. These performances of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius are the Orchestra’s first in 110 years. It is an astounding gap, considering that Elgar composed Gerontius directly after his triumphant Enigma Variations, when he was at the height of his powers.

There are reasons the work is so rarely mounted. It is long and difficult for both chorus and orchestra. It requires three superb soloists, two of whom must portray different characters over the course of the drama. And the subject matter is challenging: an elderly man’s spiritual journey from his deathbed to the next world, in a profound affirmation of faith. How does one spin a compelling musical narrative from such a tale?

In the hands of a lesser composer, the project would likely have failed; however, Elgar’s genius served him brilliantly in The Dream of Gerontius, resulting in what may be the greatest English oratorio of the Romantic era.

the literary source: a Cardinal’s poem
Elgar began with a remarkable literary text that had fascinated him for nearly 15 years, written by the English cleric and author Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman, whose life (1801-1890) spanned nearly the entire 19th century, was a prominent figure in the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which endeavored to restore aspects of Roman Catholic sacraments, practices and doctrines that had been abandoned at the time of the English Reformation in the 1530s. Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845, was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1846 and was elevated to Cardinal in 1879.

Newman published widely and in a range of genres, from essays to autobiographical novels to religious lyrics. His mystic religious poem The Dream of Gerontius was published in 1865 and enjoyed considerable popularity in its day.

In the poem, the elderly Gerontius is on his deathbed, with morbid thoughts of the hereafter, laced with fear and nightmarish imaginings. He rallies to assert his Christian faith before resigning himself to the next world and judgment before God. His Guardian Angel leads him to judgment. En route, he hears the suffering of those eternally damned in hell, and the singing of heavenly angels. At the end, he is consigned to Purgatory. His journey—his dream—has been one of discovery.

Newman’s poem asserted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the importance of revelation in an increasingly rational age. He was a violinist as well as a writer, and his verse contains many references to music. Recognizing the musical potential of Gerontius, Newman presented a copy to Antonín Dvořák in 1887, on one of the Bohemian composer’s trips to England, hoping that Dvořák would set it as an oratorio for the Birmingham Festival. Dvořák declined the project, because he had been at work on his oratorio St. Ludmila since 1885. Gerontius would have to wait nearly 15 years for its musical setting—by a native English speaker. Newman had been dead more than a decade when Edward Elgar completed The Dream of Gerontius.

crafting a libretto
Elgar, who was Roman Catholic, had first become acquainted with Newman’s poem in the mid-1880s. When he married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889, an annotated copy of the book was among their wedding presents. He regarded the poem as solemn and mystic, and the idea of adapting it in a large-scale choral setting percolated inside him for nearly a decade. Opportunity to bring it to fruition occurred when G.H. Johnstone, chairman of the orchestral sub-committee at the Birmingham Festival, proposed that Elgar compose an oratorio for the 1900 season.

One of the monumental tasks he faced was paring down Newman’s text to a manageable length. The complete poem consists of 900 lines organized in seven sections. Elgar trimmed it to a more concise—but still substantial—435 lines. Elgar transformed Newman’s Prologue into his Part I, in which the dying Gerontius, drifting in and out of consciousness, is attended by a Priest and assistants. The Priest’s words at the end of Part I (“Proficiscere”) are from the Latin burial service. Gerontius has expired, and the Priest bids him farewell from this world.

The remaining six sections of Newman’s Gerontius became Elgar’s longer Part II, which takes place in the next world. The Soul of Gerontius interacts with demons and angelicals (sung by large and small choruses), an Angel, and the Angel of Agony, who prepares the Soul of Gerontius to go before God. The Angel’s Farewell at the end of Part II balances the Priest’s farewell at the end of Part I.

in the heat of inspiration
Arguably the most significant milestone in Elgar’s remarkable career was the first performance of his Enigma Variations on June 21, 1899, at London’s St. James Hall. Prior to that, Elgar had been a moderately successful composer. Enigma—universally acknowledged as a masterpiece—catapulted him to the forefront of English composition.

He was still basking in its triumphant premiere when the Gerontius commission from Birmingham was confirmed in early January 1900. Riding a wave of confidence after Enigma, he embarked on this most ambitious project yet. Surviving sketchbooks suggest that he may have begun his setting with choruses, and that he re-used some material from prior sketchbooks.

He wrote much of Gerontius at Birchwood Lodge, a summer haven near his permanent home in Malvern. Though he was not always satisfied with his initial efforts at text setting and made multiple attempts with certain lines, work progressed well. By early June 1900, he had completed the vocal score.

Elgar was emotionally and musically invested in Gerontius, whose value he clearly intuited. In the midst of the orchestration process, he wrote to the conductor Nicholas Kilburn:

“I am not suggesting that I have risen to the heights of the poem for one moment—but on our hillside night after night looking across our ‘illimitable’ horizon...I’ve seen in thought the Soul go up & have written my own heart’s blood into the score.”

He put the final touches on the orchestration in early August. By the end of the month, the Birmingham Festival Chorus had begun rehearsals.

a notorious premiere
The Dream of Gerontius made its debut in Birmingham on October 3, 1900. It was a singularly inauspicious premiere: virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The problems began in late spring when the Birmingham chorus master, Swinnerton Heap, died suddenly. He had been a sympathetic and skilled interpreter of Elgar’s music. His replacement, W.C. Stockley, was no fan of Elgar, and disliked new music in general. Further, he was suspicious of the Catholic subject and text.

The problems did not end there. Birmingham’s celebrated festival chorus had barely two months with a score approximately 100 minutes long—and exceedingly difficult for singers and instrumentalists alike. All three soloists were vocally unsuited to the powerful and spiritual characters they were to portray.

The conductor, Hans Richter, had led the premiere of the Enigma Variations and was an enthusiastic advocate of Elgar’s. Unfortunately he was not provided a full score of the new work until a month before the first performance. He had precious little time with the score before the first rehearsal in London on September 24, only a week and a half prior to the premiere on October 3. Rehearsals were woefully inadequate for such a demanding work. Even six hours of extra rehearsal the day before the premiere could not save the first performance, which was beset by problems of intonation and ensemble.

the initial reception
Not surprisingly, that first performance was a dismal failure. Elgar was deeply depressed, and briefly considered giving up composition. Initially he was convinced that the work would never be performed again. His publisher Novello had warned him to anticipate anti-Catholic bias in Victorian England, and initial reception reflected that bias. The composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford famously (or infamously) observed: “It stinks of incense.” Frederick Delius—admittedly an outspoken opponent of organized religion—decried Gerontius as “nauseating” and dismissed it as excessively indebted to Wagner’s Parsifal.

But Elgar was to have his second chance. Hans Richter, the conductor, was steadfast in his loyalty to Elgar and to his belief in the English composer’s genius. He arranged for German translation of the text, and was instrumental in arranging a second performance in Dusseldorf, Germany on December 19, 1901. A third performance followed at the Lower Rhine Festival in 1902, this time conducted by Richard Strauss, who was outspoken in his enthusiastic advocacy of Elgar’s music, heralding him as “a great master.” The English soon followed suit and reassessed their opinion. Further performances took place in Worcester, Chicago, New York and London. Today, Gerontius is regularly performed in the U.K., and is rightly regarded as one of Elgar’s greatest compositions. It is not, however, frequently heard outside Britain.

Wagnerian techniques and seamless segments
Elgar believed that Newman’s poem could best be delivered by adapting Wagnerian techniques, particularly Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. Elgar’s themes are different from Wagner’s, of course, and his methods of thematic transformation vary, but Elgar conformed to Wagnerian ideas in the sense that motives and themes constitute the work’s structure.

A significant difference is that Elgar maintained separation of individual arias, choruses, and arioso passages that function like accompanied recitatives. The distinction is subtle, however: Elgar does observe clear cadences, but he does not pause. Instead, he proceeds seamlessly from one segment to the next. His fluid use of modulation helps the sections to cohere, leading smoothly in the next direction.

the music: Gerontius’ journey
In essence, Part I portrays the elderly Gerontius on his deathbed. In Part II, we shift from this world to the next with solos for the Soul of Gerontius, the Angel and the Angel of the Agony; three dialogues between the Angel and the Soul; and regular commentary from the chorus.

Elgar’s score specifies both a full chorus and a smaller semi-chorus. The two groups fulfill varying roles. In Part I, the small chorus are the Priest’s assistants, singing a Kyrie eleison at Gerontius’ deathbed, while the larger vocal ensemble prays for deliverance of his soul. In Part II, the choruses represent both demons and angelicals, then voices on earth, souls in Purgatory and celestial beings.

part I. The ten-minute instrumental Prelude that opens Gerontius contains many of the important motives from which Elgar constructs his music. August Jaeger, Elgar’s principal advocate at the publishing house of Novello (and the subject of the beloved Nimrod Variation in Enigma), prepared an analysis for the premiere that identified 14 principal motives. They symbolize concepts like despair, committal, sleep, fear and judgment; one is a Miserere chant. Those that are not introduced in the Prelude occur in Gerontius’ first solo.

The Prelude’s quiet, funereal opening aptly establishes the somber atmosphere of the deathbed chamber. Chromatic Wagnerian harmonies gradually emerge, punctuated by glorious orchestral touches: a harp glissando here, an English horn solo there, and nearly always, the lush sonority of divisi strings, sometimes in as many as 16 parts. At climaxes, in the Prelude and throughout the work, Elgar employs full brass, timpani and organ to thrilling effect.

part II. The Soul of Gerontius, now refreshed, attempts to understand his circumstances. He meets up with an Angel who guides him on his journey toward judgment. After passing an angry, menacing group of souls condemned to eternal suffering, the Angel and the Soul of Gerontius encounter the Angel of the Agony, who attended Jesus at the Crucifixion. The Angel of the Agony is empowered to guide worthy souls to redemption and eternal salvation.

Frequent metrical changes in Newman’s verse gave Elgar considerable musical latitude, and Gerontius is an exceptional example of the English language skillfully set to music. He struggled to merge music with the natural accents of Newman’s poem, succeeding particularly well in the solo arioso passages.

The Angel of Agony anticipates the discomfort and pain, both emotional and physical, that Gerontius will experience in the presence of God. That moment of judgment is the work’s most climactic moment. The Soul of Gerontius then begins his time in Purgatory. A final benediction—a chorus of Amens—closes the work.

the final analysis
Elgar viewed Gerontius as a repentant sinner brought to face consequences of his actions: an Everyman. His music makes Gerontius a more universal suffering human. By focusing on his humanity and the struggle to surmount fear, Elgar kept the action more spiritual than physical. Paradoxically, his music is so intensely expressive that the drama feels heightened. Regardless of one’s individual beliefs, at the end, we are persuaded that God’s spirit is present in us all, even, and perhaps especially, here on this earth.

From a musical standpoint, all the essential elements—harmony, melody, Elgar’s gift for instrumentation—came together in the pursuit of drama. Elgar disliked the term oratorio; nor did he wish for Dream of Gerontius to be classified as a sacred cantata. Nevertheless, one suspects that, 117 years after its premiere, he would not have objected to Gerontius being heralded as the greatest English oratorio of the Romantic era.

Instrumentation: solo mezzo, tenor and bass, mixed large chorus and semi-chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, sleigh bells, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps, organ and strings

Program note © 2017 by Laurie Shulman. First North American serial rights only.

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Schubert

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, April 6, 7, and 9

Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenbach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany


Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave.

In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the fourth Brandenburg concerto
This concerto has interesting solo-tutti combinations. In the first movement, the solo violin dominates, and the recorders (whose parts are played on flutes in most performances in large halls) are secondary. In the Andante, the flutes dominate, while the violin provides their bass in a vigorous dialogue with full orchestra, which is used in only this one of the Brandenburg slow movements. The orchestra then plays its largest role in the fugal finale, though no violinist negotiating Bach’s scales at about a dozen notes per second will feel that the composer has neglected his soloists.

Instrumentation: solo violin and 2 flutes, with harpsichord and string orchestra

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Edward Elgar
Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester, England

Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 85

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last important work, completed in the summer of 1919. Into this masterpiece he poured his most personal utterances, underscored by a sense of resignation brought on by the traumas of war. Although he would live another 15 years, this work is from the autumn of his life: his health was already in decline.

The cello’s poignant tone seems to emphasize Elgar’s mood of resignation, which is heightened further by his restraint in use of the orchestra. Yet despite the seeming melancholy of the music, the Cello Concerto has rightfully gained a place not only as one of Elgar’s best-known compositions, but as one of the most exalted works for the solo instrument, a concerto deeply loved by cellists and audiences alike.

The first performance took place in Queen’s Hall, London, on October 26, 1919, with the composer conducting the London Symphony and Felix Salmond as soloist.

a balance of opposites
The Cello Concerto is a work of great beauty and great contradiction. Elgar scores the concerto for a large orchestra, but gives a chamber-like delicacy to much of the music. Moods can change abruptly, from a touching intimacy one moment to extroverted style the next. We almost sense two completely different composers behind the concerto. One is the public Elgar— strong, confident, declarative—while the other is the private Elgar, torn by age and doubt. This strange division lies at the heart of this quietly powerful work.

adagio. We seem to hear the old confident Elgar in the cello’s sturdy opening recitative, marked nobilmente, yet at the main body of the movement things change completely. Without any accompaniment, violas lay out the movement’s haunting main theme, which rocks along wistfully on its 9/8 meter. This somber idea sets the mood for the entire opening movement. Even the second subject, announced by pairs of woodwinds, is derived from this theme. Throughout, Elgar reminds the soloist to play dolcissimo and espressivo.

lento–allegro molto. The first movement is joined to the second by a brief pizzicato reminiscence of the opening recitative, and the solo cello tentatively outlines what will become the main theme of the second movement, a scherzo. Once this movement takes wing, it really flies—it is a sort of perpetual-motion movement, and Elgar marks the cello’s part leggierissimo: “as light as possible.” Tuneful interludes intrude momentarily on the busy progress, but the cello’s breathless rush always returns, and the movement races to a sudden—and pleasing—close.

adagio. The music returns to the mood of the opening movement. Metric units are short here (the marking is 3/8), but Elgar writes long, lyric lines for the soloist, who plays virtually without pause. There is a dreamy, almost disembodied quality to this music, and Donald Francis Tovey caught its mood perfectly when he described the Adagio as “a fairy tale.”

allegro. The finale, cast in rondo form, has an extended introduction, combining orchestral flourishes, bits of the opening recitative and a cadenza for the soloist, before plunging into the main part of the movement, marked Allegro, ma non troppo. This is launched with some of the old Elgarian swagger, and the music at first seems full of enough confidence to knit up the troubled edges of what has gone before.

But this is only a first impression. Gone is the confident energy, and we sense that in place of the music Elgar wanted to write he is giving us the music he had to write. Finally a vigorous recurrence of the bold, swaggering theme sweeps away the memory of things past, and the work concludes on a grand flourish.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Franz Schubert
Born: January 31, 1797, Vienna, Austria
Died: November 19, 1828

Vienna, Austria Symphony in C major, D. 944, The Great

The origins of Franz Schubert’s Great C-major symphony are the stuff of legend. The symphony’s manuscript is dated March 1828, mere months before the composer’s death at age 31. And, as the legend has it, Schubert never heard a note of it: the manuscript was consigned to dusty shelves upon his death, and it was years before the music was performed, much longer before it was understood. Not until 10 years after Schubert’s death did Robert Schumann discover the manuscript of the symphony in Vienna and send it off to Leipzig, where Felix Mendelssohn led the premiere on March 21, 1839. That dramatic beginning established it as one of the masterpieces of the symphonic literature.

the symphony’s true story
This has always made a terrific story, even though much of it is untrue. Recent research, which includes dating the manuscript paper that Schubert used in different years, has shown that he actually composed this symphony during the summer of 1825. He had recently recovered from a serious illness, and now he went on a walking tour of Upper Austria. In the town of Gmunden, mid-way between Salzburg and Linz, Schubert began to sketch a symphony. He worked on it all that summer and over the next two years. (The date “March 1828” on the manuscript may be the date of final revisions.) And Schubert did hear at least some of this music. Orchestral parts were copied, and the orchestra of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde played through it in the composer’s presence before rejecting it as too difficult.

Far from being welcomed into the repertory following Mendelssohn’s premiere, the symphony actually made its way very slowly. Attempts to perform it in London and Paris in the 1840s foundered when players jeered the music and refused to continue because of its difficulty; the American premiere had occurred, in 1851, before this symphony was heard in those two cities. 

a transformative addition
Schubert scores the symphony for Classical orchestra (pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings), but he makes one addition that transforms everything: to Mozart’s orchestra he adds three trombones, which are given important roles thematically. It is part of the originality of this symphony that Schubert is willing, for the first time, to treat the trombone as a thematic—rather than a supportive—instrument. Their tonal heft dictates a greatly increased string section and occasional doubling of the woodwind parts, and everything about this music—its sonority and range of expression—suggests that Schubert envisioned its performance by a large orchestra.

Very early this symphony acquired the nickname Great, a description that needs to be understood carefully. It was originally called The Great C-major to distinguish it from Schubert’s brief Symphony No. 6 in C major, inevitably called The Little C-major. And so in its original sense, Great was an indication only of relative size. But that description has stuck to this music, and if ever a symphony deserved to be called Great, this is it.

the music
andante—allegro, ma non troppo. The symphony has a magic beginning. In unison, two horns sound a long call that seems to come from a great distance. In the classical symphony form, the slow introduction usually had nothing to do thematically with the sonata-form first movement that followed but served only to call matters to order and prepare the way for the Allegro. It is one more mark of Schubert’s new vision that this slow introduction would have important functions in the main body of the movement. Schubert repeats this opening melody in various guises before the music rushes into the Allegro, ma non troppo.

Strings surge ahead on sturdy dotted rhythms while woodwinds respond with chattering triplets—Schubert will fully exploit the energizing contrast between these two rhythms. The second subject, a lilting tune for woodwinds, arrives in the “wrong” key of E minor. (Schubert deftly nudges it into the “correct” key of G major.) All seems set for a proper exposition, when Schubert springs one of his best surprises: very softly, trombones intone the horn theme from the very beginning, their dark color giving that noble tune an ominous power. That theme now begins to penetrate this movement, and the rhythm of its second measure takes on a thematic importance of its own. The development is brief, but the recapitulation is full, and Schubert drives the movement to a thrilling conclusion; trombones push the music forward powerfully, and the opening horn call is shouted out in all its glory as the movement hammers to its close. 

allegro con moto. The slow movement is marked Andante con moto, and the walking tempo implied in that title makes itself felt in the music’s steady tread. Solo oboe sings the sprightly main theme, while the peaceful second subject arrives in the strings. There is no development, but Schubert creates another moment of pure magic: over softly-pulsing string chords, a solo horn (once again sounding as if from far away) leads the way into the recapitulation. Schumann’s description of this passage, often quoted, is worth hearing again: “Here everyone is hushed and listening, as though some heavenly visitant were quietly stealing through the orchestra.” The recapitulation itself is not literal, and Schubert drives to a great climax where the music is suddenly ripped into a moment of silence, the only point in the entire movement where the steady opening tread is not heard. Only gradually does the orchestra recover as the cellos lead to a luminous restatement of the second subject, now richly embellished.

scherzo: allegro vivace. The Allegro vivace is the expected scherzo and trio form, but again Schubert surprises us: the movement is in sonata form and develops over such a generous span that if all repeats are taken, it can approach the length of the two opening movements. Strings stamp out the powerful opening, and violins soar and plunge as it begins to develop. Part of the pleasure here lies in the way Schubert transforms the sledgehammer power of the opening into a series of terraced, needle-sharp entrances in the course of the development. By contrast, the trio sings with a rollicking charm before horns lead the way back to a literal reprise of the scherzo.

allegro vivace. The finale, also marked Allegro vivace, opens with a salvo of bright fanfares. So quickly do these whip past that one does not at first recognize that they make the same contrast between dotted and triplet rhythms that powered the first movement—now these return to drive the finale along a shaft of white-hot energy. This is the movement that caused early orchestras to balk, and it remains very difficult, particularly for the strings. It is in sonata form with two subjects, the first growing smoothly out of the flying triplets and a second that rides along the energy of four pounding chords. The first theme provides the speed—those showers of triplets almost seem to throw sparks through the hall—while the second subject and its pounding chords take on a menacing strength as Schubert builds to the climax. Along the way, attentive listeners will hear a whiff of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Schubert’s own close is as powerful as those of the master he so much admired.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Rite of Spring

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, March 31st and April 1st

Full program notes:

Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

Brahms was still just a rosy-cheeked boy of 20 when Robert Schumann met him, immediately recognized his talent and became his enthusiastic champion. He proclaimed Brahms “a young eagle” and said: “When he holds his magic wand over the massed resources of chorus and orchestra, we shall be granted marvelous insights into spiritual secrets.” But Schumann went into steep mental decline, attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and died two years later in a mental asylum.

It was natural for the young composer to try to register his feelings in music, and in March 1854, only weeks after his friend’s suicide attempt, he set out to create that most dramatic and challenging of forms, a symphony. He had never written anything for orchestra, so he sketched this work first as a sonata for two pianos—and soon realized that he was not ready to compose a symphony. He decided to transform the first movement into the opening movement of a piano concerto. Then he composed a new slow movement and a new rondo-finale. Still desperately uncertain of his abilities, Brahms worked on the piano concerto for four years before, in March 1858, he was willing to try it out in a private performance. The public premiere came the following January.

the music: catastrophe, relief and heroism
maestoso. Despite the marking Maestoso, the first movement feels less majestic than catastrophic. This violent opening, Brahms told Joseph Joachim, was a depiction of his feelings when he learned of Schumann’s suicide attempt. After the initial sound and fury, the piano makes a deceptively understated entrance, which points to a remarkable feature of this movement: in general, the orchestra has the more aggressive material, the piano the friendlier music. To call this a “symphony-concerto,” as some have done, goes too far, but such a description does indicate the unusually dramatic character of this music. The huge exposition leads to a relatively brief development that includes a shimmering, dancing episode in D major. The recapitulation offers no emotional release, no modulation into a major key, and the movement drives unrelentingly to its close.

adagio. Relief arrives with the second movement. In a letter from December 1856 Brahms wrote to Schumann’s widow Clara, a superb pianist who was to be Brahms’ lifelong friend: “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the Adagio.” In D major, it has a quiet expressiveness, an almost consoling quality after the furies of the first movement. It rises to a gentle climax before a brief cadenza leads to a quiet close.

rondo: allegro non troppo. The finale returns to the mood and D-minor tonality of the opening. The piano’s initial theme makes few literal returns but is skillfully transformed on each reappearance, including one use as the subject for a brief but lithe fugue. Brahms offers two cadenzas in this movement, the first almost Bachian in its keyboard writing, and at the very end the rising shape of the rondo theme helps propel the movement— finally in D major—to a heroic conclusion.

Early reaction to this concerto was harsh. After a performance in Leipzig, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann: “You have probably already heard that it was a complete fiasco; at the rehearsal it met with total silence, and at the performance (where hardly three people raised their hands to clap) it was actually hissed.” It must have given Brahms particular pleasure when, 35 years later, in 1894, he conducted a program in Leipzig that included both his piano concertos—and heard this product of his youth cheered in the same hall where it had been reviled so many years before.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and string

Igor Stravinsky
Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971, New York City

The Rite of Spring

In the spring of 1910, while completing the orchestration of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky had the most famous dream in the history of music: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”

This idea became The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky began composing in the summer of 1911, immediately after the premiere of Petrushka. For help in creating a scenario that would evoke the spirit of pagan Russia, Stravinsky turned to the painter-archeologist-geologist Nicholas Roerich, who summarized the action:

“The first set should transport us to the foot of a sacred hill, in a lush plain, where Slavonic tribes are gathered together to celebrate the spring rites. In this scene there is an old witch who predicts the future, a marriage by capture, round dances. Then comes the most solemn moment. The wise elder is brought from the village to imprint his sacred kiss on the new-flowering earth. During this rite the crowd is seized with a mystic terror.

“After this uprush of terrestrial joy, the second scene sets a celestial mystery before us. Young virgins dance on the sacred hill amid enchanted rocks; they choose the victim they intend to honor. In a moment she will dance her last dance before the ancients clad in bearskins to show that the bear was man’s ancestor. Then the greybeards dedicate the victim to the god Yarilo.”

This story of violence and nature-worship in pagan Russia—inspired in part by Stravinsky’s boyhood memories of the thunderous break-up of the ice on the Neva River in St. Petersburg each spring—became a ballet in two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice.

ancient and modern
In the music, Stravinsky drew on the distant past and fused it with the modern. His themes, many adapted from ancient Lithuanian wedding tunes, are brief, of narrow compass, and based on the constantly changing meters of Russian folk music,yet his harmonic language can be fiercely dissonant and “modern,” particularly in the famous repeating chord in Dance of the Adolescents, where he superimposes an E-flat major chord (with added seventh) on top of an F-flat major chord. Even more striking is the rhythmic imagination that animates this score: Stravinsky himself confessed that parts were so complicated that while he could play them, he could not write them down.

And beyond all these, The Rite of Spring is founded on an incredible orchestral sense: from the eerie sound of the high solo bassoon at the beginning through its use of a massive percussion section and such unusual instruments as alto flute and piccolo trumpet (not to mention the eight horns, two tubas and quadruple woodwinds), this score rings with sounds never heard before. The premiere may have provoked a noisy riot, but at a more civilized level it had an even greater impact: no music written after May 29, 1913, would ever be the same.

the adoration of the earth
The Introduction is scored almost exclusively for woodwinds: from the famous opening bassoon solo through its intricately twisting woodwind figures, the music suggests the wriggling of insects as they unfold and come to life in the spring thaw. This is suddenly interrupted by Dance of the Adolescents, driven along by stamping, dissonant chords and off-the-beat accents.

The Mock Abduction, full of horn calls and furious rhythmic energy, rides a quiet trill into Rounds of Spring, where together the E-flat and bass clarinets outline the haunting principal melody, another theme Stravinsky derived from ancient folk music. Deep string chords (which in the ballet accompany the male dancers’ lifting the girls onto their backs) soon build to a cataclysmic climax full of the sound of tam-tam and trombone glissandos. The return of the wistful opening melody rounds this section off quietly, but that calm is annihilated by the timpani salvos and snarling low brass of Games of the Rival Cities. The eight horns ring out splendidly here, and the music rushes ahead to the brief Procession of the Wise Elder and then to one of the eeriest moments in the score, Adoration of the Earth. Only four measures long, this concludes with an unsettling chord for eleven solo strings, all playing harmonics, as the Wise Elder bends to kiss the earth. The music explodes, and Dance of the Earth races to the conclusion of the ballet’s first half.

the sacrifice
The second part of the work might be thought of as a gradual crescendo of excitement. It moves from a misty beginning (an inspiration to generations of film composers) to the exultant fury of the concluding Sacrificial Dance. Along the way come such distinctive moments as the solo for alto flute in Mysterious Circles of Young Girls, where the sacrificial maiden will be chosen; the violently pounding 11/4 measure that thrusts the music into Glorification of the Chosen One; the nodding, bobbing bassoons that herald Evocation of the Ancestors (another folk-derived theme of constricted range yet of great metric variety); and the shrieking horns of Ritual of the Ancestors.

A solitary bass clarinet plunges us into the Sacrificial Dance, whose rhythmic complexity has become legendary: this was the section that Stravinsky could play but at first not write down, and in 1943 (30 years after composing this music) he went back and rebarred it in the effort to make it easier for performers. This music is dauntingly “black” on the page, with its furious energy, its quite short (and constantly changing) bar lengths and its gathering excitement. It dances its way to a delicate violin trill, and The Rite of Spring concludes with the brutal chord that marks the climactic moment of sacrifice.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), alto flute, piccolo, 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (2 doubling tenor Wagner tuben), 4 trumpets (1 doubling bass trumpet), piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, antique cymbals in B-flat/A-flat, cymbals, bass drum, guiro, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle and strings

Program Notes: Mozart and Beethoven

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, March 16-18

Full program notes:

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria


Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, Linz

Mozart married Constanze Weber in Vienna in August 1782, and the following summer the couple undertook, with some trepidation, a trip to Salzburg so that Constanze could meet her father-in-law. The three-month visit was not wholly successful, and the young couple was doubtless relieved to head back toward Vienna at the end of October 1783. On the way they were guests in Linz of Count Thun, the wealthy father of one of Mozart’s students—and on arrival they discovered that the Count had scheduled a concert for only a few days later. Mozart wrote to his father: “On Thursday, November 4, I am going to give a concert in the theater, and as I have not a single symphony with me, I am writing at breakneck speed a new one…”

not the faintest trace of rush
Even Mozart, who could write at blinding speed, must have felt a little pressed this time, as he finished the new work on November 3 and premiered it the next day. Yet there is not the faintest trace of rush about this magnificent music, which is polished and complete in every way. In this, the first symphony Mozart wrote after moving to Vienna, some have heard the influence of Haydn—in the slow introduction, the singing Andante and the sturdy minuet. But the Linz Symphony, as it has come to be known, is pure Mozart, particularly in its perfect sense of form and expressive chromatic writing. The music glows, its sunny C-major energy propelled along at moments by dotted-rhythm fanfares.

adagio–allegro spiritoso. The thunderous slow introduction (the first in a Mozart symphony) instantly rivets attention. The movement leaps ahead at the aptly-named Allegro spiritoso, where the first violins’ opening theme has a rhythmic snap that will characterize the entire symphony; the second subject is one of those wonderful Mozart themes that changes key and character even as it proceeds.

andante; menuetto–trio. The Andante is a long flow of easy melody, so graceful that it is easy to overlook the fact that Mozart does something extremely unusual here: he uses trumpets and timpani in a slow movement, and their color, beautifully restrained, gives this music rare expressive power. The minuet is forthright (and somewhat foursquare), while the trio section, with its ländler tune in the winds, beautifully overlaps phrases in its later strains.

presto. The finale, in sonata form rather than the expected rondo, zips along with the unremitting energy of a perpetuum mobile. The movement’s three themes are interrelated, but the work is so dazzling that the subtlety is nearly lost in the rush. Throughout, Mozart’s chromatic writing allows the music to slide effortlessly through many different moods until the symphony is rounded off with a coda that is shining, heroic—and quite brief.

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 64

"I would like to write you a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace.” So wrote Mendelssohn to his lifelong friend, violinist Ferdinand David, in 1838, and that opening has given millions of music lovers no peace ever since, for it is one of the most perfect violin melodies ever written.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto seems so polished, so effortless in its easy flow, that this music feels as if it must have appeared in one sustained stroke of his pen. Yet it took seven years to write. Normally a fast worker, Mendelssohn proceeded very carefully on this concerto, revising, polishing and consulting with David, his concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, at every step of its composition. He completed the score while on vacation in Soden, near Frankfurt, during the summer of 1844, and David gave the premiere in Leipzig on March 13, 1845. Mendelssohn was ill at the time and could not conduct, so his assistant, the Danish composer Niels Gade, led the first performance.

originality and endless beauty
We do not normally think of Mendelssohn as an innovator, but his Violin Concerto is as remarkable for its originality as for its endless beauty. It is deftly scored: he writes for what is essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra, and he keeps textures transparent and the soloist audible throughout. But he can also make that orchestra ring out with a splendor that Mozart and Haydn never dreamed of.

allegro molto appassionato. The innovations begin in the first instant. Mendelssohn does away with the standard orchestral exposition and has the violin enter in the second bar with its famous theme, marked Allegro molto appassionato and played entirely on the violin’s E-string; this soaring idea immediately establishes the movement’s singing yet impassioned character. Other themes follow in turn: a transitional figure for the orchestra and the true second subject, a chorale-like tune first given out by the woodwinds.

The quiet timpani strokes in the first few seconds, which subtly energize the orchestra’s swirling textures, show the hand of a master. Another innovation: Mendelssohn sets the cadenza where we do not expect it, at the end of the development rather than just before the coda. That cadenza—a terrific compilation of trills, harmonics and arpeggios—appears to have been largely the creation of David, who fashioned it from Mendelssohn’s themes. The return of the orchestra is a masterstroke: it is the orchestra that brings back the movement’s main theme as the violinist accompanies the orchestra with dancing arpeggios.

andante. Mendelssohn hated applause between movements, and he tried to guard against it here by tying the first two movements together with a single bassoon note. The two themes of the Andante might by themselves define the term “romanticism.” There is a sweetness about this music that could, in other hands, turn cloying, but Mendelssohn skirts that danger gracefully. The soloist has the arching and falling opening melody, while the orchestra gives out the darker, more insistent second subject. The writing for violin in this movement, full of double-stopping and fingered octaves, is a great deal more difficult than it sounds.

allegretto non troppo—allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn joins the second and third movements with an anticipatory bridge passage that subtly takes its shape from the concerto’s opening theme. Resounding fanfares from the orchestra lead directly to the soloist’s entrance on an effervescent, dancing melody so full of easy grace that we seem suddenly in the fairyland atmosphere of Mendelssohn’s own incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several other themes appear along the way, some combined in ingenious ways. But it is the sprightly opening melody that dominates as the music seems to fly through the sparkling coda to the violin’s exultant three-octave leap at the very end.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36 Premiered: April 5, 1803

Beethoven liked to get away from Vienna during the summer, and in April 1802 he rented rooms in the village of Heiligenstadt, which had fields and forests where he could take long walks. He remained there a long time, not returning to the city until October, but his lengthy stay had nothing to do with the beauty of the setting. That summer the composer finally had to face the dark truth that his hearing was failing, that there was no hope, and that he would eventually go deaf; evidence suggests that he considered suicide that summer.

dark despair, sunny music
Yet from these depths, Beethoven wrote some of his most genial music, a fact that should warn us not to make easy connections between a creator’s life and his art. The Symphony No. 2, chief among the works he completed that despairing summer, is as sunny a piece of music as he ever wrote, with an atmosphere of non-stop energy that made it seem audacious to those who first heard it.

adagio molto–allegro con brio. The slow introduction begins with a great explosion: the orchestra has a unison D, marked fortissimo, and then moves through an unexpected range of keys, its rhythms growing increasingly animated as it proceeds. At the Allegro con brio, Beethoven introduces as his main theme a figure for lower strings that seems almost consciously athematic: there is nothing melodic about this motif, which rushes ahead, curving around a 16th-note turn as it goes. Yet built into it is a vast amount of energy, and much of the development will grow out of the turn. The second subject, innocent and good-natured, arrives in the wind band. Beethoven develops both these ideas, but the turn-figure dominates the movement, including a muttering, ominous modulation for strings at the end of the development. The movement drives to a wonderful climax, the sound of trumpets stinging through a splendid mass of orchestral sound, and the turn-figure propels the music to a close on the same unison D that opened the movement.

larghetto. The second movement is not really a slow movement in the traditional sense, but a moderately-paced sonata-form movement built on a profusion of themes. Beethoven develops these lyric ideas at luxurious length: this is the longest movement in the symphony.

scherzo: allegro. The Scherzo erupts with another unison D, and out of this explosion leap three-note salvos. Beethoven seems unusually alert here to where these sounds are coming from: the three-note cannonades jump up from all over the orchestra. By contrast, the trio brings a gentle tune, but the remarkable thing about both scherzo and trio is that each opening statement is quite brief, while the second strains are long and take the music through unexpected harmonic excursions.

allegro molto. The finale opens with an abrupt flourish, and from this brief figure Beethoven generates most of the last movement, deriving much of the music from the flourish’s opening F-sharp/G slide and its concluding drop of a fifth. Full of boundless energy and good spirits, this rondo offers a flowing second theme for lower strings (Beethoven marks it dolce) and a genial tune for woodwinds over chirping string accompaniment. But the opening flourish always returns to whip this movement forward and to give the music its almost manic character, and the symphony drives to a conclusion that is—one last time—a ringing D for full orchestra.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program Notes: Hugh Wolff Conducts Mendelssohn

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, February 23, 24, and 25

Full program notes:

Thomas Adès
Born: March 1, 1971, London; now living there and in Los Angeles, California


Dances from Powder Her Face

Thomas Adès’ chamber opera Powder Her Face, first heard in Cheltenham, England, in July 1995, when the composer was only 24, generated somewhat of a scandal at that premiere—yet Adès has gone on to become the leading British composer of his generation.

Trained at the Guildhall School of Music and at King’s College, Cambridge, Adès has earned commissions from the New York, Berlin and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. His 2003 opera The Tempest (based on Shakespeare’s play) has been performed in the U.S., Europe and Australia. His newest opera, The Exterminating Angel, was commissioned and premiered by the Salzburg Festival in 2015. The New Yorker has noted that Adès “has outgrown his status as the wunderkind of a vibrant British scene and become one of the most imposing figures in contemporary classical music.”

Powder Her Face takes as its subject the story of the infamous Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, notorious for her extravagant lifestyle, sexual promiscuity, lurid divorce proceedings and eventual decline into poverty (she died in 1993 at the age 80, after a fall in a nursing home). Powder Her Face tells that story in eight scenes and an epilogue, tracing the Duchess’ long descent from wealth in 1934 through increasingly difficult situations, and finally concluding in 1990 with her expulsion from the hotel where she had lived for years. The composer has said that his opera “paints the portrait of a Duchess of a certain age at the end of the twentieth century and the end of British aristocratic influence,” and—in regards to his subject matter—he has noted that “even horrible people are tragic.”

The scandal caused by Powder Her Face at its 1995 premiere concerned its depiction of certain sexual acts never seen before (or since) in an opera house, and a whiff of notoriety has followed the opera ever since. (In fact, a British classical music station refused to broadcast a performance of the opera due to some of the things that take place between the Duchess and other characters.) Given that sort of lurid reputation, it has been easy to overlook Adès’ accomplished music. He originally scored Powder Her Face for an orchestra of only 15 players and for only four singers: one of these takes the part of the Duchess, and the remaining three sing a variety of parts. Some have been quick to identify influences (Stravinsky, Berg’s Lulu, others) on this score, but all of these are subsumed within Adès’ own music, which is perfectly suited to his subject: he creates a glittering musical idiom, built of jazz, foxtrot, tango, and other dances and witty songs of the 1930s, all presented with a manic energy and virtuosity. For example, in the original chamber version the solitary percussionist is asked to play 26 different instruments, and the scene depicting the Duchess’ mental decline is accompanied by players operating fishing reels.

three dance sequences

More than a decade after the opera’s premiere, the Cleveland Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra of London co-commissioned a collection of instrumental excerpts from Powder Her Face. Adès expanded three dance sequences from their original chamber scoring into the version for full orchestra heard at today’s concert. The Overture, Waltz and Finale—as Adès originally titled these three excerpts—premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival on June 17, 2007, when the composer led the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The Overture gets off to a blistering start (Adès marks it Avanti: “Go!”), but this quickly subsides into a stumbling, sleazy dance that—in the opera—introduces the Electrician and the Maid as they mock the Duchess in her own apartment. The Waltz, by turns spiky and delicate, leads to music from the very end of the opera. The Finale brings the scene in which the Duchess is expelled from her apartment for failure to pay her rent, and after she is led away, the Electrician and the Maid emerge from under her bed and dance this slinky, flirtatious tango as they strip the room to prepare it for its next occupants.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, snare drum, bass drum, 2 drumkit bass drums, bongos, 3 brake drums, 2 suspended cymbals, guiro, hi-hat, popgun, rototom, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, temple blocks, vibraslap, washboard, timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, piano and strings

Béla Bartók
Born: March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died: September 26, 1945, New York City

Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra

In the summer of 1936, just as he was finishing his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Bartók had a visit from his old friend and frequent recital partner, the violinist Zoltán Székely, who asked the composer to write a violin concerto for him. Bartók countered with a different suggestion: instead of a concerto, would Székely accept a set of variations for violin and orchestra? Székely said no—he wanted a concerto—and Bartók finally agreed.

But writing it took a long time. Normally a fast worker, Bartók spent more than two years on the project, pausing in the process to write the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion during the summer of 1937 and Contrasts (for Benny Goodman) during the summer of 1938. He did not complete the concerto until the final day of 1938, barely in time for Székely to learn it and to have the orchestral parts copied. The premiere took place in Amsterdam only 12 weeks later, on March 23, 1939.

Székely may have gotten what he wanted, but Bartók, when he gave the violinist the manuscript, pointed out that he, too, had gotten what he originally proposed. Not only is the central movement of the concerto in theme-and-variation form, but Bartók gleefully noted that “strictly speaking, [the last movement] is a free variation of the first movement (so I managed to outwit you. I wrote variations after all).”

a theme-and-variations concerto

Both men had reason to be pleased. For all the ingenuity of Bartók’s variation procedures—and they are amazing—this is at heart a very traditional violin concerto. Beethoven and Brahms would have found its harmonic language assaultive, but they would have recognized its form immediately: a sonata-form first movement with a cadenza near the close, a lyric variationmovement in the center, and a brilliant sonata-form movement to conclude.

Beyond this, it is a virtuoso concerto in the best sense of that term. Bartók did not play the violin, but his understanding of that instrument was profound. This is a violinist’s violin concerto. It sits comfortably under the hand, Bartók plays to the violin’s lyric and dramatic strengths, and in the process he creates soaring, heroic music for both soloist and orchestra. Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 may speak the harmonic language of the 20th century, but in form, gesture and intention it is essentially a big 19th-century virtuoso concerto. Bartók here pours a bracing new wine into a familiar old bottle.

allegro non troppo. The first movement grows out of a wealth of thematic ideas. Even before the soloist enters, the harp’s opening B-major triads and the strings’ deep pizzicatos lay a harmonic and thematic basis for much of what follows. The entrance of the solo violin is magnificent. Beginning on its lowest note, the violin arcs upward across a range of more than three octaves before this theme is completely stated. The second subject, marked Calmo, sings sinuously, and this brings a most intriguing moment, because this is a 12-tone theme. Bartók wrote it consciously, and he was very proud of it—he told Yehudi Menuhin that he had written it because he “wanted to show Schoenberg that one can use all 12 tones and still remain tonal.” Bartók, however, treats this theme not as a tone row to be manipulated, but as a discrete theme capable of development and change.

The development of these ideas may seem to get off to a dreamy start, but Bartók’s extension of them is brisk and imaginative. He recapitulates his main themes upside-down before turning them right-side-up and heading into the cadenza, which Bartók wrote himself. This gets off to a striking start on the sound of quarter-tones: the violin rocks back and forth across its open D-string, upward to a flattened E-flat and downward to a sharpened C-sharp. The wonderful cadenza (such violinistic writing by a composer who did not play the violin!) ruminates on themes, then grows more animated and rushes into the coda. The movement concludes on a resounding B from every person on the stage.

theme and variations: andante tranquillo. After that fiery finish, the Andante tranquillo arrives with the greatest delicacy as the solo violin sings the wistful little eight-bar tune that will serve as the basis for six variations. This movement is remarkable for its restraint. Bartók eliminates all brass except horns (even these are used sparingly) and keeps textures transparent. The six variations are easily followed, and the fun lies in hearing that little tune—so gentle on its first appearance—sing in so many ways. Particularly striking are the third variation, which begins with the violinist’s gruff double-stopping at the frog of the bow; the fourth, which trills and swirls before concluding with a particularly beautiful reimagining of the main theme; and the sixth, full of buzzing trills and repeated notes (do we hear an echo here of the insect sounds Bartók loved throughout life?). At the end comes a lovely repeat of the main theme, now set very high, and the music winks out delicately.

rondo: allegro molto. Manuscript evidence shows that the idea of making the finale a variation of the first movement occurred to Bartók while he was at work on the opening movement (some of his sketches from the summer of 1937 include the variations as they would occur in the finale). To a mind with the formal precision of Bartók’s, such a mirror-image variation must have seemed an appealing challenge, and he does it in breathtaking detail: Not only the themes, but also the structure and accompaniment figures of the first movement are transformed in the last. There are some important changes in the process. The 4/4 of the first movement becomes 3/4 in the last, and the tempo is much faster (Allegro molto). As we hear this movement, there is the fun sense of revisiting familiar things in strange new ways, as if we are looking into a carnival mirror that distorts even as its re-presents. In the process, the character of the music is transformed. What had been noble, soaring, even heroic in the first movement becomes tart, “dancey,” even a little sassy in the finale.

Bartók wrote two different endings to this concerto, just as he would do six years later for the Concerto for Orchestra. His original ending had the soloist drop out 22 measures from the ending, and the orchestra alone drove this music to its cadence. Székely objected. He wanted to be a part of the ending, and he told Bartók that he wanted the music to end “like a concerto, not like a symphony.” Bartók responded by writing a new version of the ending that keeps the violin playing right through the ringing final two chords. While the published score contains both endings, performers invariably choose the “violinist’s” ending, but Bartók’s original ending—which is extraordinarily wild—is worth seeking out.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, 2 snare drums, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, harp, celeste and strings

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish

Mendelssohn made his first visit to England in 1829 at the age of 20, and after a successful stay in London, he set off with his friend Karly Klingemann on a walking tour of Scotland that would lead him to compose two pieces. The first was the Fingal’s Cave Overture (which was heard at Orchestra Hall just last month), inspired by a stormy trip to the misty Hebrides Islands, but the creation of the Scottish Symphony proved more complex. Mendelssohn claimed to have had the original idea for this music during a visit to the ruined Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh: “In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved....The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”

Mendelssohn may have been precise about the inspiration for this music, but he was in no hurry to write it—not until 13 years after his trip to Scotland did he finish this symphony. Although Mendelssohn referred to the music as his Scottish Symphony, no one is sure what this nickname means. The music tells no tale, and it quotes no Scottish tunes. In fact, Mendelssohn loathed folk music, once stating: “No national music for me! Now I am in Wales and, dear me, a harper sits in the hall of every reputed inn, incessantly playing so-called national melodies; that is to say, the most infamous, vulgar, out-of-tune trash, with a hurdygurdy going on at the same time. It’s maddening, and has given me a toothache already.”

If one did not know that it carried the nickname Scottish, there would be little in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 to suggest anything distinctively Scottish. Amusingly, Mendelssohn’s friend Robert Schumann once wrote a review of the score under the impression he was writing about Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. So convinced was he of the Italian-ness of the music that he singled out for praise its “beautiful Italian pictures, so beautiful as to compensate a hearer who had never been to Italy.”

a unifying “chapel theme”
The four movements of this symphony, played without pause, are unified around the somber opening melody—the theme inspired by the visit to Holyrood Chapel—which appears in quite different forms throughout. Played by winds and divided violas, it opens the slow introduction; when the music leaps ahead at the Allegro un poco agitato, the violins’ main theme is simply a variation of the slow introduction. The first movement alternates a nervous quality with moments of silky calm, and all of these moods are built from that same material. A tempestuous climax trails off into quiet, and Mendelssohn brings back part of the introduction as a bridge to the second movement.

Mendelssohn was famous for his scherzos, and the second movement of this symphony, marked Vivace non troppo, is one of his finest. Throughout, there is a sense of rustling motion—the music’s boundless energy keeps it pushing forward at every instant. Solo clarinet has the swirling first theme, and some have identified this tune’s extra final accent as the “Scottish snap.” The scherzo rushes to its quiet close and proceeds directly into the Adagio.

Out of the quiet conclusion of the third movement, the finale explodes. Marked Allegro vivacissimo, this movement is full of fire and excitement, beginning with the violins’ dancing, dotted opening idea. Along the way Mendelssohn incorporates a second theme, derived once again from the symphony’s introduction, and here Mendelssohn springs a surprise: back comes the simple melody that opened the symphony, but now it has acquired an unexpected nobility. That once-simple melody gathers its strength and drives the symphony to its energetic conclusion.

Many regard the Scottish Symphony as Mendelssohn’s finest orchestral work, but no one can explain that nickname satisfactorily. Rather than searching for the sound of gathering clans or hearing bits of Scottish folktunes, it may be simplest to regard this as a work inspired by one specific Scottish impression, which then evolved ingeniously into an entire symphony.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program Notes: Russian Nights

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, February 16, 17, and 18

Full program notes:

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture

The fateful story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers has attracted a range of composers, from Bellini to Berlioz, from Gounod to Prokofiev. Perhaps it was inevitable that so dramatic a story should appeal to the young Tchaikovsky, struggling to find his way as a composer. In the summer of 1869, shortly after Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony had been savaged by critics, composer Mily Balakirev suggested that Shakespeare’s play might make a fitting subject for an orchestral work. Balakirev sketched an outline for the piece and even contributed part of a theme. Intrigued, Tchaikovsky set to work on October 7 of that year and had the score in first draft by November 27. It would (eventually) be his first real success.

the friar, the families, the lovers

Tchaikovsky based his work on three separate themes, each meant to portray one of the forces in the play. The chorale-like opening passage suggests the pivotal figure of Friar Laurence, alone in his cell. At the Allegro giusto, the music leaps ahead with a dark and thrusting idea that reflects the violent struggles between the Montague and Capulet families. And this in turn gives way to the most famous part of this composition, the soaring love music of the young Romeo and Juliet themselves. But Tchaikovsky tries to treat this music symphonically rather than letting it simply become tone-painting. The themes develop in a sonata form-like structure: they alternate, collide, contrast, and finally drive to the great cataclysm of the end, a shattering climax. Then the music falls back to remember the lovers one last time and ends dramatically.

While the themes may represent specific characters, listeners should be careful not to search for too literal a depiction of the events of Shakespeare’s play. Rather, Romeo and Juliet should be understood as abstract music-drama, inspired by Shakespeare’s tale but not bound by the need for exact musical depiction. This may explain Tchaikovsky’s curious choice of subtitle: he called this an “Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare.”

The first performance, in Moscow on March 16, 1870, was not a great success. Under Balakirev’s guidance Tchaikovsky revised the work several times before he reached a final version in 1880; this may explain why it is one of his few works without an opus number. While early audiences may not have reacted positively, Romeo and Juliet soon became a popular favorite, so much so that when Tchaikovsky made a tour of the United States in 1891 to conduct his own music, he included Romeo and Juliet on every program.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43

In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake. Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.

a tune that beckons composers
Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra on what is doubtless the most varied theme in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted composers through each century since—resulting in variations on it by Liszt (Transcendental Etudes), Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in the 20th century by Witold Lutosławski, Boris Blacher and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.

After considering several titles for his new work, the composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center of this music. The first performance, with the composer as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody.”

bravura solos, brilliant contrasts

The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to the first variation, which is presented before the theme itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which Rachmaninoff marks Precedente, is in fact the bass line for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its original form by both violin sections in unison. Some of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others whip past almost before we know it (several are as short as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies not just in the bravura writing for piano but in hearing Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation. In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old plainsong tune Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff, for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here it appears in the piano part in the seventh and tenth variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.

Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations, though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The piano states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it specifically as a gift “for my agent.”

From here on, the tempo picks up, and the final six variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The excitement builds, the Dies Irae is stamped out by the full orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Dmitri Shostakovich
Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 54

In January 1936 Shostakovich fell into disgrace when Stalin walked out of a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The prudish dictator had been outraged, and within days Pravda savaged Shostakovich for his “fidgety, screaming, neurotic” music. This was the horrifying period of Stalin’s purges, and Shostakovich’s career was put on ice. Not until the premiere of the acceptably “heroic” Fifth Symphony nearly two years later did he return to tentative favor.

complaints from critics

Following that success, Shostakovich announced that he was setting to work on a new symphony that would be dedicated to Lenin and would feature texts about him by Vladimir Mayakovsky and other writers, as well as folk songs. But when the Sixth Symphony was first performed on November 21, 1939, by Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, everything about it seemed strange. It was not about Lenin, it had no text, it had no heroic theme, and it was in an unusual and lopsided form: a long slow movement followed by two short fast ones. No one knew what to make of it.

The first performance had been a great success (the finale had to be repeated on that occasion), but Soviet critics were disappointed that the new work was not the announced revolutionary symphony. One went so far as to suggest that the brooding first movement represented the suffering of the Russian people under the czars and the final movements represented their ecstatic happiness under Soviet rule. A number of Western critics, scarcely more perceptive, adopted a patronizing tone toward the Sixth, and their criticism focused on the symphony’s unusual form. One complained that the Sixth is “a symphony without a head,” arguing that it lacks the first movement that would make it complete. Another suggested that Shostakovich should have included a second slow movement to give the symphony necessary balance.

All these critics missed the point: the music needs to be taken for what it is, not condemned for failing to meet ideological or formalist standards. Shostakovich had a penchant for doing what he felt like doing, rather than what was expected of him. Those who listen to what he did write, rather than complaining about what he did not, will find the Sixth Symphony one of his finest.

from haunting to high-spirited

largo. The opening movement contains some of the most haunting music Shostakovich ever wrote. Longer than the other two movements combined, it leads us through a desolate landscape seldom relieved by light. The tone is set by the lower strings’ surging and jagged opening theme, and for a first movement, the pace is extremely slow. The form is also quite original: this movement is not so much a sonata-form structure as it is a long meditation, and it is remarkable for its many solos for wind instruments. Across its length there are extended solos—often lonely and bleak—for piccolo, trumpet, English horn, oboe, flute, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet, often heard above the sound of trilling strings. The movement comes to a striking conclusion on a long, frozen chord in the strings, held over ominous strokes of sound from harp, timpani and lower strings.

The Largo’s dramatic bleakness invites interpretation, and in his much-disputed memoirs Shostakovich suggested that this music reflects the period of his own disgrace and the purges during the Great Terror of the 1930s. As might be expected, the Soviet government hotly denied the authenticity of the memoirs.

allegro. Then comes a complete change: the final movements take us into a different world altogether. The Allegro is a scherzo that rushes along at high speed from start to finish. Once again, much of the music’s character comes from the wind instruments: it opens with the saucy sound of E-flat clarinet, there are brassy horn calls along the way, and the closing minutes bring an impressive solo for piccolo. While there are humor and high spirits throughout, a wistfulness sets in during those closing moments, and the movement vanishes in a quiet wisp of sound.

presto. The concluding Presto is lots of fun, and Shostakovich includes a number of in-jokes, especially in the way he borrows and bends themes of other composers. The opening is a variation of the famous William Tell Overture theme, while the second subject is lifted from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (this movement has proven evocative: one of the early American annotators of symphonic music, Louis Biancolli, also claimed to hear in it Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, the Mexican song Cielito Lindo and a whiff of Offenbach). At the end, a circus band swaggers in, and, pushed along by some spectacular timpani cannonades, the symphony races to an all-time knock-out ending.

The Sixth may not be one of Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies, but it is one of his finest. From the haunting, icy beauty of the opening to the high spirits of the conclusion, this is a brilliant work, original in conception and tremendously effective in the concert hall. The Sixth makes sense on its own terms, and if ideological or formalist critics have found it unconvincing, the failure lies with them, not with the music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, celesta and strings

Program Notes: A Tribute Concert to Sir Neville Marriner

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, January 26th and 27th

Full program notes:

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

The Hebrides Overture, Opus 26 (Fingal’s Cave) ca. 10'

Of all the master composers who were great traveling companions, Mendelssohn ranks with the best. This affable genius, a man of boundless curiosity and charm who made friends wherever he went, recorded his impressions not only in descriptive letters and on his sketchpad, but in music of extraordinary tonal imagination, like the Hebrides Overture. Richard Wagner praised it as “one of the most beautiful pieces we possess,” recognizing that Mendelssohn’s vivid tone painting was a prelude to his own sea music.

an adventure across Scotland
At 20, Mendelssohn was intent on seeing the world, beginning with England; accompanying him was his best friend Karl Klingemann. The capstone of their trip was an adventure across Scotland. That journey eventually paid off in two masterpieces: the Symphony No. 3, known as the Scottish, an idea for which struck him at Holyrood Castle; and the Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, named for a tourist attraction off the tiny isle of Staffa. Mendelssohn recorded his impression of the cave in a 21-bar musical fragment which he sent to his sister Fanny on August 7, 1830, telling her: “In order to make you realize how extraordinarily the Hebrides have affected me, the following came into my mind there.” These opening measures have virtually the final form in which they appear in the Overture that Mendelssohn finished in Italy in 1830, but withheld from performance until he was fully satisfied.

Klingemann, an aspiring poet and future diplomat, cast his impression in words that anticipate Mendelssohn’s music: “We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up to the pillar stumps to the famous Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern—its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.”

Addressing his family from Paris on January 31, 1832, Mendelssohn sniffed at his manuscript: “The whole so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale-oil and seagulls and cod-liver oil, and it ought to be the other way around.” Soon he revised the score and brought it to London, where, on May 14, the Philharmonic Society gave the first performance. Despite its success, the meticulous composer made still more changes, finally submitting it for publication in 1833, when he remarked to his mother that the work “had become much better through threefold revisions.”

There is no prelude: the theme invented on the spot is immediately unfolded by a somber blend of low strings and bassoon, casting us into the midst of swirling waters and melancholy visions. As the motif expands, it draws more instruments into a vortex of subtly shifting harmonies. The powerful second theme left its imprint on many later Romantic composers. In the work’s brass fanfares, Mendelssohn’s contemporaries detected an epic, Ossianic quality—the wild, Romantic impulse that inspired the poems of the legendary Gaelic hero, imitated by the Scotsman James MacPherson in his grandiloquent rhythmic prose.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21 ca. 25

Beethoven began sketches for a symphony in C major in 1795, three years after he arrived in Vienna, but the piece did not go well, and he abandoned it. The symphony was the grandest of purely instrumental forms, and, because he did not want to rush into a field where Haydn and Mozart had done such distinguished work, Beethoven used the decade of the 1790s to refine his technique as a composer and to prepare to write a symphony. He slowly mastered sonata form and began to write for larger chamber ensembles and for wind instruments; he also composed two piano concertos before re-approaching the challenge of a symphony. By 1800 he had completed his First Symphony, and it was premiered in Vienna on April 2, 1800.

crisp and exuberant music
The genial First Symphony has occasionally been burdened with ponderous commentary by those who feel that it must contain the seeds of Beethoven’s future development—every modulation and detail of orchestration has been squeezed for evidence of the revolutionary directions the composer would later take. Actually, Beethoven’s First is a very straightforward late 18th-century symphony, the product of a talented young man quite aware of the example of Haydn and Mozart and anxious to master the most challenging form he had faced so far. In fact, one of the most impressive things about Beethoven’s First Symphony is just how conservative it is. It uses the standard Haydn-Mozart orchestra of pairs of winds plus timpani and strings; its form is right out of Haydn, with whom Beethoven had studied; and its spirit is consistently carefree. There are no battles fought and won here, no grappling with darkness and struggling toward the light—the distinction of the First Symphony lies simply in its crisp energy and exuberant music-making.

adagio molto–allegro con brio. The key signature of this symphony may suggest that it is in C major, but the first movement’s slow introduction opens with a stinging discord that glances off into the unexpected key of F major. This leads to another “wrong” key, G major, and only gradually does Beethoven “correct” the tonality when the orchestra alights gracefully on C major at the Allegro con brio. Many have noticed the resemblance between Beethoven’s sturdy main theme here and the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, composed twelve years earlier. This is not a case of plagiarism or of slavish imitation—only a young man’s awareness of the thunder behind him. This energetic movement, with its graceful second theme in the woodwinds, develops concisely and powerfully.

andante cantabile con moto. The second movement is also in sonata form. The main theme arrives as a series of polyphonic entrances, and Beethoven soon transforms the dotted rhythm of this theme’s third measure into an accompaniment figure: it trips along in the background through much of this movement, and Beethoven gives it to the solo timpani for extended periods. Beethoven’s stipulation con moto is crucial: this may be a slow movement, but it pulses continuously forward along its 3/8 meter, driving to a graceful climax as the woodwind choir sings a variant of the main theme.

menuetto: allegro molto e vivace. By contrast, the third movement bristles with energy, and Beethoven’s marking Menuetto frankly seems incorrect: this may well be a minuet in form, but the indication Allegro molto e vivace banishes any notion of dance music. This movement is—in everything but name—a scherzo, the first of the remarkable series of symphonic scherzos Beethoven would write across his career. The trio section is dominated by the winds, whose chorale-like main tune is accompanied by madly-scampering violins.

finale: adagio–allegro molto e vivace.
The most amusing joke in this symphony comes at the opening of the finale, where a rising scale emerges bit by bit, like a snake coming out of its hole; at the Allegro molto vivace, that scale rockets upward to introduce the main theme. With this eight-bar theme, the movement seems at first a rondo, but it is actually in sonata form, complete with exposition repeat and development of secondary themes. A vigorous little march drives the symphony to its resounding close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Symphony No. 8 in G minor, Opus 88 ca. 26'

In the summer of 1889 Dvořák took his family to their summer retreat at Vysoka in the countryside south of Prague. There, amid the rolling fields and forests of his homeland, he could escape the pressures of the concert season, enjoy the company of his wife and children, and indulge one of his favorite pastimes: raising pigeons.

“melodies pour out of me”
Dvořák also composed a great deal that summer. On August 10 he completed his Piano Quartet in E-flat major, writing to a friend that “melodies pour out of me,” and lamenting “If only one could write them down straight away! But there—I must go slowly, only keep pace with my hand, and may God give the rest.” A few weeks later, on August 25, he made the first sketches for a new symphony, and once again the melodies poured out: he began the actual composition on September 6, and on the 13th the first movement was done. The second movement took three days, the third a single day, and by September 23 the entire symphony had been sketched. The orchestration was completed on November 8, and Dvořák himself led the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Prague on February 2, 1890. From the time Dvořák had sat down before a sheet of blank paper to the completion of the full score, only 75 days had passed.

allegro con brio. “Symphony in G major,” says the title page, but the beginning of this work is firmly in the “wrong” key of G minor, and this is only the first of many harmonic surprises. It is also a gorgeous beginning, with the cellos singing their long wistful melody. But—another surprise—this theme will have little to do with the actual progress of the first movement. We soon arrive at what appears to be the true first subject, a flute theme of an almost pastoral innocence (commentators appear unable to resist describing this theme as “birdlike”), and suddenly we have slipped into G major. There follows a wealth of themes; someone counted six separate ideas in the opening minutes of this symphony. Dvořák develops these across the span of the opening movement, and the cellos’ somber opening melody returns at key moments, beginning the development quietly and then being blazed out triumphantly by the trumpets at the stirring climax.

adagio. The two middle movements are just as free. The Adagio is apparently in C minor, but it begins in E-flat major with dark and halting string phrases; the middle section flows easily on a relaxed woodwind tune in C major in which some have heard the sound of cimbalon and a village band. A violin solo leads to a surprisingly violent climax before the movement falls away to its quiet close.

allegretto grazioso. The third movement opens with a soaring waltz in G minor that dances nimbly along its 3/8 meter; the charming center section also whirls in 3/8 time, but here its dotted rhythms produce a distinctive lilt. The movement concludes with nice surprises: a blistering coda, Molto vivace, whips along a variant of the lilting center section tune, but Dvořák has now transformed its triple meter into a propulsive 2/4. The movement rushes on chattering woodwinds right up to its close, where it concludes suddenly with a hushed string chord.

allegro ma non troppo. The finale is a variation movement—sort of. It opens with a stinging trumpet fanfare, an afterthought on Dvořák’s part, added after the rest of the movement was complete. Cellos announce the noble central theme (itself derived from the flute theme of the first movement), and a series of variations follows, including a spirited episode for solo flute. But suddenly the variations vanish: Dvořák throws in an exotic Turkish march full of rhythmic energy, a completely separate episode that rises to a great climax based on the ringing trumpet fanfare from the opening.

Gradually things calm down, and the variations resume as if this turbulent storm had never blown through. Near the end comes lovely writing for strings, and a raucous, joyous coda—a final variation of the main theme—propels this symphony to its rousing close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings. 

Program Notes: Roderick Cox Conducts Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, January 19th, 20th and 21st

Full program notes:

Claude Debussy
Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun ca. 10'

This shimmering, endlessly beautiful music is so familiar to us—and so loved—that it is difficult to comprehend how problematic it was for audiences in the years after its premiere in December 1894. Saint-Saëns was outraged: “[It] is pretty sound, but it contains not the slightest musical idea in the real sense of the word. It’s as much a piece of music as the palette a painter has worked from is a painting.”

We smile, but Saint-Saëns had a point. Though it lacks the savagery of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun may be an even more revolutionary piece of music, for it does away with musical form altogether. This is not music to be grasped intellectually, but simply to be heard and felt.

Debussy based this work on the poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” by his close friend, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem itself is dreamlike, a series of impressions and sensations rather than a narrative. It tells of the languorous memories of a faun on a sleepy afternoon as he recalls an amorous encounter the previous day with two passing forest nymphs. This encounter may or may not have taken place, and the faun’s memories— subject to drowsiness, warm sunlight, forgetfulness and drink— grow vague and finally blur into sleep.

a soft and sensual world
Like the faun’s dream, Debussy’s music lacks specific direction. The famous opening flute solo (the faun’s pipe?) draws us into this soft, sensual world. The middle section, introduced by woodwinds, may be a subtle variation of the opening flute melody—it is a measure of this dreamy music that we cannot be sure. The opening theme returns to lead the music to its glowing close.

Audiences have come to love this music precisely for its sunlit mists and glowing sound, but it is easy to understand why it troubled early listeners. Beneath its shimmering and gentle beauties lies an entirely new conception of what music might be.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 18 ca. 32'

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto may be the best-loved piano concerto on the planet, but it almost didn’t get written, and the tale of its creation is one of the most remarkable in all of music. Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with its highest award, the gold medal, and quickly embarked on a career as a touring pianist. But he wanted to compose. He had written a piano concerto while still a conservatory student, and early in 1895 the 21-year-old composer took on the most challenging of orchestral compositions, a symphony. Its premiere, on March 27, 1897, was a catastrophe. Conductor Alexander Glazunov was unprepared, the orchestra played badly, and audience and critics alike hated the music, César Cui describing it as a “program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt...[music that would give] acute delight to the inhabitants of Hell.” What should have been a moment of triumph for the young composer instead brought humiliation.

Rachmaninoff may have been a powerful performer, but he was a vulnerable personality, and the disaster of the premiere plunged him into a deep depression. His first act was to destroy the score to the symphony. It was never performed again during his lifetime, but after his death it was reassembled from the orchestral parts, and the painful irony is that this work is now admired as one of the finest works of his youth. However, in the aftermath of the fiasco of its premiere, Rachmaninoff lost confidence in himself and wrote no music at all for the next three years.

the doctor steps in
Alarmed, the composer’s family and friends arranged for him to see Dr. Nicholas Dahl, an internal medicine specialist who sometimes treated patients through hypnosis. Dahl was also extremely cultured—he was an amateur cellist—and Rachmaninoff’s friends were hopeful that contact with such a man would improve the composer’s spirits. During a lengthy series of visits, the composer heard a steady message of encouragement from the doctor: “You will begin to write your concerto….You will work with great facility….The concerto will be of excellent quality.” To the composer’s astonishment, Dahl’s treatment worked. He later said: “Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. By the beginning of summer I again began to compose. The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me—more than enough for my concerto.”

With the dam broken, new music rushed out of the rejuvenated composer. Across the summer and fall of 1900, Rachmaninoff composed what would become the second and third movements of his Second Piano Concerto. These were performed successfully that December, and Rachmaninoff composed the opening movement the following spring. The first performance of the complete concerto, in Moscow on November 9, 1901, was a triumph. Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl.

the music
moderato. The very beginning of the concerto seems so “right” that it is hard to believe that this movement was written last. Throughout his life Rachmaninoff loved the sound of Russian church bells. The concerto begins with the sound of those bells, as the solo piano alone echoes their tolling. Into that swirling sound, the orchestra stamps out the impassioned main theme, one of those powerful Slavic melodies that instantly haunt the mind; the solo piano has the yearning second subject. Rachmaninoff writes with imagination throughout this movement: the orchestra reprises the main theme beneath the soloist’s dancing chordal accompaniment, while the solo horn recalls the second subject in a haunting passage marked dolce. The music demands a pianist of extraordinary ability. 

adagio sostenuto. A soft chorale for muted strings introduces the second movement, but in a wonderful touch the solo flute sings the main theme as the pianist accompanies. The theme is repeated, first by the clarinet and then the strings, growing more elaborate as it proceeds, and only then is the piano allowed to take the lead. A brief but spectacular cadenza leads to a recall of the tolling bells from the very beginning and a quiet close.

allegro scherzando. The final movement begins quietly as well, but in a march-like manner full of suppressed rhythmic energy. Rachmaninoff makes effective contrast between the orchestra’s opening—powerful but controlled with an almost military precision—and the piano’s entrance, which explodes with an extraordinary wildness. The second theme, broadly sung by the violas, has become one of those Big Tunes for which Rachmaninoff was famous. This wonderful melody would become an inspiration for countless Hollywood composers and, many years later, would be used to set the words “Full moon and empty arms.” If one can escape such associations and listen with fresh ears, this lovely music is an excellent reminder of Rachmaninoff’s considerable melodic gift. The concerto rushes to its conclusion on a no-holdsbarred coda (another Rachmaninoff specialty) that resounds in every measure with the young composer’s recently restored health.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 Premiered: February 22, 1878 ca. 44'

"Our symphony progresses,” Tchaikovsky wrote in late summer 1877. The other half of “our” was Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who had come into Tchaikovsky’s life some eight months before, in December 1876. She was a wealthy woman, recently widowed, tough, given to organizing things and people. She loved Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession and made contact with her idol. Almost at once they found themselves embarked on a voluminous, exhaustive, intimate correspondence. And 500 rubles were moved every month from the vast Meck account into Tchaikovsky’s fragile one, bringing him years of blessed financial security.

an unusual friendship
Clearly, her feelings for Tchaikovsky and his music were on some level erotic, but she seems to have been unwilling to have that feeling transmuted into sexual reality. She insisted that they must never meet, and with that liberating condition in effect, their mutually nourishing friendship, so strange and so understandable, lasted nearly 14 years. Being rich as well as neurotic, Mme. von Meck was doubly entitled to caprice, and in a maggoty moment she broke contact, seemingly without warning—at least with no warning Tchaikovsky understood. By 1890, when that happened, Tchaikovsky no longer needed her money, but he never got over the hurt of the sudden abandonment.

It was during the first year of his friendship with Mme. Von Meck that he took the most foolish step of his life: he got married, succumbing to the advances of a former pupil of his. He tried to be as candid with her about his homosexuality as the manners and the permissible language of 1877 allowed, but she seems to have had no idea what he was talking about. They married, he fled, and with the massive support of relatives and friends he got his life back on track.

Tchaikovsky began the Fourth Symphony soon after Nadezhda Filaretovna’s arrival on the scene; he completed it in the aftermath of the catastrophic marriage. He realized at once the significance of Mme. von Meck’s entrance into his life and knew that he wanted to dedicate his new symphony to her. He wrote to her on February 24, 1878, just two days after the premiere was conducted “o Minn Orch January 2017.qxp_Minnesota Orch copy 12/15/16 1:32 PM Page 33 MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA SHOWCASE 34 in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein: “In my heart of hearts I feel sure it is the best thing I have done so far.”

“things which arise in the heart”
At one point, Mme. von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what their symphony “was about.” Tchaikovsky shilly-shallied, explaining that the answer was to be found in the music itself and not in words about the music. Nonetheless, he did oblige at length with a “program” in which the opening fanfare is identified with “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

Tchaikovsky had a rather more illuminating exchange about the Fourth Symphony with his friend the composer Sergei Taneyev. “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. It would only appear ludicrous and raise a smile. But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He continued: “Please don’t imagine that I want to swagger before you with profound emotions and lofty ideas....In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not of course copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.”

the music: a great adventure
The Fourth Symphony is also among the great adventures and the great successes. It all has to do with harmonic design, with gravitational pull. In short, Tchaikovsky goes to surprising keys at surprising times.

andante sostenuto—moderato con anima. In the first movement, having emphatically set up F minor as a center of gravity in the introduction and the keening start of the Moderato, he declines to return to that key until this long movement is almost nine-tenths over. That moment is marked by the fourth appearance of the “fate” fanfare, and it is more powerful for the extreme delay.

Tchaikovsky sets up a network of harmonic reference across the entire symphony. To cite a grand example: “recapitulation” usually means a return to the original key as well as a return to all the themes. Tchaikovsky recapitulates the themes, all right, but he holds off bringing back the tonic key, F minor, until the coda; instead he sets the recapitulation in D minor, a key hitherto untouched. But the finale of the symphony is in F major, closely related to F minor by virtue of sharing the keynote F, but equally close to that surprising D minor.

andantino in modo di canzona. The burden of Tchaikovsky’s musical and extramusical arguments is in the large, brooding first movement with its latent—and not so latent—waltz content. What follows is picturesque support. The Andantino is a melancholy song introduced by the oboe, that most melancholic of wind instruments. Its impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominate the first movement.

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky was especially proud of his novel instrumental scheme: the perpetual pizzicato and the assignment of distinctive material to each group in the orchestra. Once the symphony was in circulation, he was annoyed because it was always the “cute” scherzo that made the biggest hit.

finale: allegro con fuoco. The principal tune of the Finale, also introduced with an odd harmonic obliqueness, is a folk song, There Stood a Little Birch. The “fate” fanfare intrudes once more, making a musical as well as a programmatic point, after which the symphony is free to rush to its emphatic conclusion. This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Program Notes: Vanska and Weilerstein

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, January 13th and 14th

Full program notes:

Kalevi Aho
Born: March 9, 1949, Forssa, Finland; now living in Helsinki

Gejia, Chinese Images for Orchestra ca. 15'

In 2011 the National Center for the Arts in Beijing invited five foreign composers to visit China as part of a commissioning project called “Composing China.” They were to travel throughout China, hear its indigenous music and experience its many cultures, and use those experiences as the starting point for a work of their own. The composers came from England (Robin Holloway), Finland (Kalevi Aho) and the U.S. (Augusta Read Thomas, Michael Gordon and Sebastian Currier). Each responded to his or her experience of China in quite a different way, and each wrote a piece that grew out of a specific inspiration: Currier’s Quanta was inspired by the “shape” of the characters of the Chinese language, while Thomas’ stay among the Chinese Miao (Hmong) people became the starting point for her Harvest Drum, inspired by the legends the Miao people have handed down for centuries. (Incidentally, the Minnesota Orchestra has commissioned Currier to write a new symphony for chorus and orchestra, Black Sky, that will premiere at Orchestra Hall in November 2017.)

Kalevi Aho found the inspiration for his Gejia, Chinese Images for Orchestra, in two quite different parts of China: Beijing and the Guizhou province. On his first day in Beijing, Aho heard a performance by a traditional Chinese orchestra and was particularly impressed by that orchestra’s percussion section, the variety of instruments it employed and the many colors they produced. He decided to begin his own composition with a brilliant cadenza-like passage for three percussionists playing these instruments. The first percussionist plays a Chinese theater gong, a flexaton (an instrument of variable pitch, related to the musical saw), tamtam, xylophone and two gongs; the second plays five tom-toms, small theater cymbals and a snare drum; and the third plays Chinese bass drum, two wood blocks, two brake drums, suspended cymbal and Chinese opera drum. Their solo—full of unusual sounds, complex rhythms and a bright energy—makes a striking opening to Gejia, and the three percussionists will play an important role throughout.

a striking turn
Gejia makes a striking turn once the opening percussion section concludes—reflecting the next stage of the composer’s visit in China. From Beijing, Aho was flown to Guizhou province in southern China, not far from the border with Vietnam. This is an area of beautiful river valleys, ethnic villages and unusual geologic formations, and there Aho visited a number of rural Gejia villages. The Gejia are an ethnic subgroup famed for their batik method of dyeing textiles. (The Chinese government considers them part of the Miao people, although the Gejia dispute this.) In Beijing, Aho had heard sophisticated classical Chinese percussionists, but in the Gejia villages he heard an entirely different kind of music—melancholy folk-melodies sung by young women—and he used those melodies as the material for the main part of Gejia.

It should be noted that Aho does not simply transcribe those melodies for symphony orchestra. Rather, he uses them as the starting point for an entirely new composition of his own, and he writes music of unusual sophistication. The Gejia folk-melodies are presented by a variety of instruments—piccolo, violins, a striking solo for viola eventually accompanied by a bass playing only pizzicato—and from these emerge a series of dance-like episodes. Particularly striking is the metric complexity of Aho’s writing. In some sections the meter changes every measure (11/16, 7/16, 3/4, 7/8, 5/8, and so on), and the long episode near the end is in the extremely unusual meter of 13/16, which is counted as 4+4+5. The dynamic writing for large orchestra and percussion and the unusual rhythmic “feel” give Gejia a continual freshness. The very ending brings a surprise, however. Rather than concluding forcefully, the music drifts into enigmatic silence on a quiet passage scored for muted off-stage trumpets.

All five “Composing China” commissions were performed at a grand concert in Beijing on March 17, 2013. The National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra was led on that occasion by Kristjan Järvi and Zhang Yi.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, snare drum, bass drum, 2 brake drums, suspended cymbal, small Chinese theater cymbals, Chinese opera drum, 2 gongs, 2 Chinese theater gongs, flexaton, tamtam, 5 tom-toms, 2 wood blocks, xylophone, harp and strings

Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Concerto in B minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 104 ca. 40

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is the greatest ever written for that instrument, and so it comes as a surprise to learn that the composer had been reluctant to write a concerto for this instrument. He had reservations about what he considered the cello’s “limitations”: a somewhat indistinct sound in its lowest register and a thin sound in its highest, as well as the problem of making a low-pitched instrument cut through the weight of a full orchestra. But—encouraged by hearing Victor Herbert play his own Second Cello Concerto in New York in 1894—Dvořák wrote this masterpiece very quickly between November 8, 1894, and February 9, 1895.

both grand and lean
Dvořák’s solutions to the problems posed by a cello concerto are ingenious. Rather than scaling back the orchestra to balance it more equitably with the soloist, he instead writes for a huge orchestra, adding three trombones and tuba to the texture, as well as such “exotic” instruments as piccolo and triangle. He then scores the concerto with great imagination, alternating grand gestures that use all his forces with leanly-scored passages in which only a handful of instruments accompany the soloist. When Brahms examined the score to Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, he exclaimed: “Why on earth didn’t I know one could write a cello concerto like this? If I had only known I would have written one long ago!”

allegro. The lengthy opening Allegro is in sonata form, and Dvořák follows custom by introducing both main themes before the soloist enters. The quiet opening tune, a dark, march-like figure for clarinets, soon builds up to a Grandioso restatement, preparing the way for the glorious second subject, a soaring melody perfectly suited to the solo horn that announces it. The solo cello makes an impressive entrance on the opening march theme, and Dvořák exploits fully the lyric and dramatic possibilities of the instrument in this movement.

adagio ma non troppo. The second movement is in ABA form, with woodwinds introducing the gentle opening section before the soloist takes it up. The central episode quotes from Dvořák’s own song “Leave me alone with my dreams.” It had been a favorite of one of Dvořák’s pupils, Josefina Čermáková Kaunitzova, with whom he had fallen in love while he was a young man. She had not responded to that love, and Dvořák later married her sister. Now, as he was writing this concerto in New York City, he learned that Josefina was seriously ill in Prague, and remembering her fondness for this song, he included its wistful melody in this movement.

finale: allegro moderato. Over a steady pulse from lower strings, horns announce the main subject of the rondo-finale, which the soloist quickly picks up. This rondo is both lively and lyric, and its episodes are varied. Near the close comes a remarkable passage. Shortly after Dvořák returned to Prague in 1895, Josefina died. Stunned, the composer returned from her funeral and rewrote the ending of the concerto, adding a quiet 60-measure section that recalls the main theme of the first movement and the song-theme from the second movement that Josefina had loved so much.

It is a moving ending. Dvořák recalls his sister-in-law one final time as the cello sings this sad melody, its final measures trailing off over quiet timpani accompaniment, and then—with this behind him—he rushes the work toward its smashing close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle and strings

Jean Sibelius
Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 82 ca. 31

World War I threatened the Western consciousness in a way that it had never been assaulted before; for the first time it dawned on the human imagination that it might be possible to destroy civilization. That war, however, left Scandinavia untouched, and the residents of those countries watched warily as the horror unfolded to the south. In 1915, the first full year of the war, Sibelius drafted his Fifth Symphony. He did not connect it directly to the war, but it is hard not to feel that it registers some response to that traumatic time. Sibelius wanted his symphony understood only as music: for the London premiere in 1921, he specified that “The composer desires the work to be regarded as absolute music, having no direct poetic basis.” But while the symphony may not consciously be about the war, it makes statements of strength and hope from out of that turbulent time.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony went through three different versions spread out over five years. The composer had made a successful tour of America in 1914, and he returned home to find Europe at war. A notebook entry from September 1914 brings his first mention of the new symphony, as well as an indication of how depressed he was: “In a deep valley again. But I already begin to see dimly the mountain that I shall certainly ascend...God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” He drafted the symphony in 1915 and led the premiere on December 8 of that year, his 50th birthday. But Sibelius was dissatisfied, and across 1916 he revised the symphony, combining its first two movements and so reducing the number of movements from four to three. But when this version was performed in December 1916, he was still unhappy, and he came back to the symphony three years later and revised it a third time. This final version premiered in Helsinki on November 24, 1919, a year after the war’s end.

unusual and ultimately triumphal
tempo molto moderato – allegro moderato – presto. In its final version, the Fifth Symphony has an unusual structure, and it blurs traditional notions of sonata form, which depends on the contrast and resolution of different material. Instead, the Fifth Symphony evolves through the organic growth of a few fundamental ideas. The most important of these is the horn call heard at the opening of the first movement. That shape sweeps up over an octave and falls back (commentators are unable to resist comparing this opening to the dawn), and this shape will recur in many forms over the course of the symphony. The movement rises to a great climax at which that horn-shape blazes out in the brass, then speeds seamlessly into the Allegro moderato. This is the symphony’s scherzo, and in the earliest version of the Fifth Symphony it was a separate movement. The movement gathers strength on its driving 3/4 pulse and drives to a tremendous conclusion.

andante mosso, quasi allegretto. The central movement is in variation form, but even this old form evolves under Sibelius’ hands. Instead of a clear theme followed by variations, Sibelius instead offers a series of variations on a rhythm: a sequence of five-note patterns first stamped out by low pizzicato strings. Such a plan runs the danger of growing repetitious, but Sibelius colors each repetition in a new way, and at one point plunges into a rather unsettled interlude in E-flat major before returning to the home key of G major and a quiet close. In the movement’s final minutes come hints once again of the horn-theme from the symphony’s very beginning.

allegro molto – misterioso. The concluding movement bursts to life in a great rush of energy from rustling strings, and soon this busy sound is penetrated by the sound of horns, which punch out a series of ringing attacks. It is a mark of the subtle unity of this symphony that this same figure had served as an accompaniment figure to the rhythmic variations of the middle movement. Over the cascading peal of those bright horn attacks, woodwinds sing a radiant melody, one so broad and grand that its effect has been compared to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. This melody evolves through various forms and finally builds to a great climax and drives toward the powerful close. Sibelius builds to a climax, cuts the music off in silence, and then finishes with six huge chords. The first four—widely and unevenly spaced— feel lonely and uncertain, and then every player on the stage joins together for the final two chords, which bring the Fifth Symphony to its smashing close. If Sibelius refused to connect his Fifth Symphony directly to World War I, he nevertheless made its moral message clear in his own description of its ending: “The whole, if I may say so, a vital climax to the end. Triumphal.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program Notes: Handel's Messiah

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, December 9th and 10th

Full program notes:

George Frideric Handel
Born: February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany
Died: April 14, 1759, London


By the spring of 1741 Handel’s 30-year effort to make a success of Italian opera in London had come to a shuddering conclusion. He finally had to admit failure, and rumors circulated in London that he was about to leave England and return to Germany.

Relief came from an unlikely source. The Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin to put on a series of concerts in support of various local charities. For Handel, Ireland was literally new territory, and he was glad to accept the invitation, get away from London for a while and seek new audiences. In addition to gathering earlier works for performance there, that summer he began work on a new oratorio that would have its premiere in Dublin.

at breakneck speed
This oratorio represented a new direction for Handel, who by no means considered himself a composer of sacred music. It was on a text assembled from the Bible and the Prayer Book Psalter by his longtime friend Charles Jennens. Handel worked with unbelievable speed: from the time he sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper until the completion of the full orchestral score of Messiah, just 24 days had elapsed—from August 22 to September 14. He then pressed on with his oratorio Samson, completing it by late October, and left almost immediately, taking one of the packet boats that ran regularly from Chester to Ireland.

Handel’s arrival in Dublin—on November 18, 1741—was very much like Haydn’s would be in London precisely 50 years later. Both composers journeyed to a foreign land and discovered that they were famous. Both were feted, delighted by the quality of the performers and acclaimed by enthusiastic crowds in jammed halls. Just as Haydn would later do in London, Handel began his Dublin residency by performing earlier works, including L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea, Esther and Alexander’s Feast. Not until he had been in Dublin for five months did Handel present his new oratorio: he led an open rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, and the official premiere followed four days later, on April 13.

success in ireland
It was a stunning success, and Dubliners struggled to get tickets. Neal’s Musick Hall, where the premiere took place, had room for only 600, and so management came up with a shrewd solution. The day of the performance, Faulkner’s Dublin Journal carried this admonition: “The Stewards of the Charitable Musical Society request the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamble-Street: the Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords.” Thus slimmed down, 700 listeners were crammed into the hall, and the performance turned the handsome profit of 400 pounds for Mercer’s Hospital, the Charitable Infirmary and the Charitable Music Society (for the relief of those imprisoned for debt). A second performance of Messiah, on June 13, was equally successful, and Handel left Ireland in August, eager to repeat that success in London.

It must have come as the worst possible surprise to the composer when the oratorio failed at its London premiere on March 23, 1743. Perhaps he should have seen it coming. That performance was preceded by a furor in the newspapers about his decision to present an oratorio on Biblical texts in a public theater, and Handel’s performance was attacked as “blasphemous.” A few subsequent performances had scarcely more success, and it was not until May 1, 1750, when Handel led Messiah as a benefit for the opening of the Hospital Chapel of the Foundling Hospital, his favorite charity, that the oratorio finally won favor.

By the time Handel died nine years later, in April 1759, Messiah had been performed 56 times in London and was on its way to achieving the status it enjoys today, that of a beloved icon.

nativity, crucifixion, resurrection
Messiah was originally composed for the Easter season, yet for two and a half centuries it has been a perennial event in Christmas celebrations.

Jennens structured his work around the three central events of Christianity: Part I is about the birth of Christ, Part II is about the crucifixion, and the final part is about the resurrection and the spreading of the gospel. Thus Messiah focuses essentially on Christianity’s three primary holy days: Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.

His arrangement of texts for Messiah was brilliant. Basic to his plan was his decision not to cast Messiah as drama—there is no narrative line here, no rising action, no climax. He began with the assumption that his audience already knew the story and required no telling; he then chose texts about specific incidents in the life of Christ, and these become a sequence of moments along-the-way in one of the most famous and familiar of all stories, rather than an attempt to tell that story.

magnificent music
But Jennens’ text would have been long forgotten were it not for the magnificence of Handel’s music. Handel composed Messiah from many different kinds of music. From opera he retained the recitative and dramatic aria, though he shrewdly avoids making the arias too brilliant. In place of florid lines that might seem operatic and out of context for this subject, he blesses the soloists with some of the most appealing, straightforward melodies ever written—though these also can be brilliant.

The famous Pastoral Symphony, or Pifa, is derived from the pifferari, the music of the Italian shepherds who would make an annual Christmas pilgrimage to Rome to play wind instruments in imitation of the shepherds who watched over the Nativity. Handel is quite willing to paint pictures with his orchestra, as in the resounding brass of “The trumpet shall sound,” and in the stunning progress from the ominous B-minor murmurings of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” to the radiant G-major sunlight of “For unto us a Child is born.” Yet the real glory of Messiah lies in its choruses, and Handel demands great versatility from his singers: their music ranges from the lyric to the brilliant (“And he shall purify”) to the dramatic (“Glory to God in the highest”) and—most impressively—to the great fugues (“And with his stripes,” “He trusted in God” and the concluding “Amen”).

Even its creator could be overpowered by this music. As he completed the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Handel, tears streaming down his face, is reported to have told his manservant: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.”

Instrumentation: vocal soloists and mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, organ and strings

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Mahler's Sixth

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, November 11 & 12, 2016

Full program notes:

Claudio Puntin
Born: October 13, 1965, Zug, Switzerland; now living in Berlin, Germany

AROMA: imaginative spaces for Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Electronic Effects and Orchestra Ca. 25

Claudio Puntin is a musical polymath: clarinetist, composer, and producer of music for film, theater, exhibitions and radio plays. A master of his instrument, he is equally at home in jazz, classical, Klezmer, contemporary, folk and electronic music. Several of his broad-based interests provide creative sparks in AROMA, his new work for clarinet and orchestra.

“a great opportunity”
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s first exposure to Puntin’s music was through listening to a recording of East, Puntin’s 2002 album for clarinet and string quartet, which synthesized Eastern European elements into a classically structured six-movement composition. Vänskä had no familiarity with Puntin’s work in improvisation, electronics, jazz, and new music. But he was intrigued—surely in part because Vänskä himself began his musical career as a clarinetist.

When they met in Berlin two years ago, Vänskä proposed that Puntin compose a symphonic work for solo clarinet. “He had in mind a 25-minute piece incorporating some Klezmer flavor,” Puntin recalls. “A great opportunity for me as composer and soloist!” Klezmer music was a major influence for Puntin as a young clarinetist; he was drawn to what he perceives as its closeness to the human voice. Also attracted to Romanian folk music in his youth, he developed a passion for Balkan styles. Aspects of Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish and Serbian folk song and dance rhythms find their way into AROMA, along with Klezmer, jazz and traditional Western techniques.

AROMA does not adhere to three-movement concerto structure. Each of its nine sections has its own distinct melodic and atmospheric character. Clarinet cadenzas provide transitions, so that the sections unfold as an uninterrupted sequence, rather like cinematic fade-outs and fade-ins. Much of the solo part is not written out, including the cadenzas, introductions and epilogue, which makes soloistic improvisation central to AROMA.

“Cadenzas were always meant to create space for the soloist within a concerto, especially in the Baroque and Classical eras,” the composer observes. “A professional orchestra requires a fully written out score and parts for the orchestral players, but sometimes my part in AROMA’s score is just a guideline. I have many opportunities to do different things—to create faraway atmospheres.”

“the soloist must choose”
While not virtuosic in the traditional sense, Puntin’s clarinet part requires virtuoso technique in terms of musical decisions. “The soloist must choose sounds and musical material, and introduce composed themes that then pass to instruments in the orchestra,” he says.

The soloist’s musical inventions are similar to a cook who decides, based on experience, what spices (aromas) he adds to his culinary creation. Aroma is, of course, associated with the sense of smell, while music appeals to one’s hearing. Puntin thinks of “aroma” in more conceptual terms, as the flavor of an impulse. “I like the transmission to a musical situation. The nose can identify many thousands of aromas, while the tongue is limited to five basic tastes. That inspires me. There’s a similar proportion between the ear and the eye.”

Other ‘flavors’ in AROMA include the addition of electronic processings to the solo clarinet part by means of electronic devices. Puntin explains: “My electronic processing always uses the source of the clarinet’s sound and adds spaces, delays, loops, and other sound processes to obtain alternative possibilities of expression and new mixtures together with the orchestral sound. In AROMA, some of the electronic sound effects are indicated in my part. At other points I have the challenge to find compelling sounds in the moment of performance.”

fanciful titles
Puntin’s fanciful movement titles seek to stimulate the listener’s imagination and connect it to the musical experience. Some are intentionally ambivalent, like VIA. “In Italian it can mean a street, but also ‘away’ or ‘let’s go’ or ‘start,’” offers Puntin. “This movement is a driving dance with a wedding character, initiated by two trumpets that take the entire orchestra with them to their party.

“Another example: ELEM ZMER, a contraction of ‘ELEMents of kleZMER,’ which uses embellishments of Klezmer style—not in its usual character, but with a calm cloud of strings leading to the next theme, TRASLO,” he continues. “In Italian, ‘trasloco’ means moving (as in relocation) or changing place, but here the music retains its character.”

The composer’s note follows.

“The concert suite AROMA is based on inventions, connected and inspired by the flavor of musical languages related to Klezmer or Balkan music, but always following emotional atmospheres, creating starting points for new climatic creations. The work itself is not to be considered as part of those traditions. Rather, it is perfumed by their spirit.

“All the movements are performed attacca (without pause), to make the change of moods fluid. The nine movements (spaces) are composed to allow freedom for imagination and improvisation: ‘rooms’ for the soloist and emotional orchestral atmospheres between now and then, fantasy and tradition. The lyrical titles of the spaces follow this idea of imaginative freedom, chosen to keep each listener’s or performer’s personal picture open. Each performance by the soloist will be essentially different, illuminating an almost-lost faculty in classical music: spontaneous creation within the creation.”

Instrumentation: solo clarinet and bass clarinet with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling alto flute), piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bass clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tamtam, triangle, chimes, vibraphone, harp, electronic effects and strings

Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 6 in A minor Ca. 80'

Mahler’s Sixth is the only one of his ten symphonies whose conclusion is in minor mode. In all the others, some elements of hope, of optimism, of positive thinking allowed him to see a silver lining in the thunderclouds so often implied by his music. Not so in this work.

Mahler acknowledged that his Sixth is a very difficult symphony to conduct. The symphony was misunderstood during his lifetime, enjoying fewer performances than any other work he completed. Even in Amsterdam, where his music was admired by the public and championed by Willem Mengelberg, the Sixth remained unperformed while Mahler lived. Remarkably, it was not heard in the United States until 1947. The Minnesota Orchestra’s first performance came in 1974.

why so tragic?
Why is this symphony so tragic? The circumstances surrounding its composition seemed to encourage a work entirely opposite in character. Mahler was in an expansive and romantic mood during the summers of 1903 and 1904, when he was composing it. He was on holiday in the Austrian mountain village of Maiernigg with his beautiful young bride, Alma, and their daughter Maria (“Putzi”) who had been born in 1902; a second daughter, Anna, was on the way. Mahler had every reason to be pouring forth joyous music. 

But logic is not always a prevailing factor in the artistic process, and for whatever reason, the symphony that Mahler composed during those two fateful summers was a brooding work, filled with grim resolution entirely inconsistent with his life at the time. (One is struck by the inverse parallel with Beethoven, who penned the exuberant Second Symphony shortly before the tortured and impassioned Heiligenstadt Testament.)

Mahler himself was always deeply moved by the tragic power of his own music, particularly in this symphony. But there is also a significant element of mystery and enigma associated with the Sixth. To his biographer Richard Specht he wrote: “My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.”

Even with these prophetic words—for his prediction proved accurate, as generations of Mahler lovers have devoured the Sixth along with its siblings—Mahler wrought extensive and frequent revisions on the Sixth, as with all his middle symphonies.

Two musical memories of this symphony remain with the listener long after departure from the concert hall. One is a single chord, brilliantly declaimed by the trumpets, fortissimo, in A-major; then abruptly fading to somber oboes, pianissimo, in A-minor with the inexorable pounding of funeral percussion in the bass beneath it. One hears this gesture early on, and it recurs several times. This is the “fate” or “tragedy” motive of the symphony, a constant and menacing reminder of imminent doom. The percussive pattern associated with it recurs in two of the three succeeding movements.

The other vivid aural memory in the Sixth Symphony is that of the hammer blows in the finale. Both instances intensify the sense of tragedy and defeat that permeates this music; each wreaks its peculiar power in a different way.

the music

allegro energico, ma non troppo.
Mahler favored march movements to open his symphonies, frequently returning to the march rhythm in later movements. The Sixth provides a characteristic and fine example, with a strong emphasis on brass and percussion highlighting the military character of the march. At more than twenty minutes, Heftig, aber markig (vehement, but with plenty of vigor) is an imposing start, grand enough to encompass a wealth of melodic ideas. Of particular note is the whimsical and elusive second theme, in F major, which Mahler told Alma was his attempt to characterize her in music. “Whether I've succeeded or not I don't know, but you shall have to put up with it!” he said to her. The “Alma” theme is followed by an unusual section featuring xylophone, the sole use of that instrument in all of Mahler’s music. Another evocative episode in this first movement is the introduction of cowbells, which Mahler described as “the last earthly sounds heard from the valley far below by the departing spirit on the mountaintop.”

andante moderato; scherzo: wuchtig (heavily).
Both in the concert hall and on recordings, the scherzo sometimes precedes the Andante of the Sixth, because Mahler changed his mind more than once concerning the order of the inner movements. Whereas the scherzo (Wuchtig), with its strong brass and pounding percussion, echoes the foreboding spirit that dominates the symphony, the slow movement is remote in mood and temperament from the inexorable march of fate introduced in the first movement. By placing it in E-flat major, a tonality far removed from the home key of A minor, Mahler subtly emphasizes that spiritual difference. Cowbells, horn calls, a splendid English horn solo and a woodwind chorale all help to release the near-unbearable tension generated by the rest of the symphony. This is the only movement that successfully sidesteps an otherwise overpowering sense of doom. Like an island, it remains impervious to the themes and motives so dominant in the other movements.

finale: allegro moderato–allegro energico.
For his finale, Mahler returns to the enormous proportions of his opening with a massive movement taking more than half an hour. The Allegro moderato overflows with big themes: one each for violins, tuba, lower woodwinds and horns. The hammer blows occur at the end of Mahler’s two development sections. Originally there were three hammer blows, but Mahler was superstitious, and feared that three was an unlucky number for blows of fate, so he excised the third.

His premonition was eerily accurate. In 1907, the year after the Sixth Symphony was premiered, three cataclysmic events struck the composer. The first was his forced resignation from the music directorship of Vienna Opera, prompted by anti-Semitism and the political machinations of his enemies. The second was the death of his older daughter Maria from scarlet fever. The final blow that fateful year was the diagnosis of an incurable heart ailment that obliged him to curtail the active life he so loved.

Many conductors have chosen to restore the third hammer blow in performance; it occurs at a climactic point in the finale, where the second return of the introduction music is cut short by the tragedy motif. Mahler’s valiance and noble spirit come through in this music more powerfully than any other of the purely instrumental symphonies, giving us what English journalist and critic Michael Kennedy has called “Mahler’s most perfect reconciliation of form and matter.”

Instrumentation: 4 flutes, piccolo (2 flutes also doubling piccolo), 4 oboes, English horn (2 oboes also doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cowbells, cymbals, hammer, rute, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, 2 harps, celesta and strings

Program Notes: New World Symphony

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, November 3,4 and 5

Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, Newyork

Lincoln Portrait Ca. 14

On December 18, 1941, just 11 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II, conductor André Kostelanetz sent letters to Aaron Copland and two other American composers, proposing a commission to create a “musical portrait gallery of great Americans.” Copland’s first choice was Walt Whitman, but since one of the other composers, Jerome Kern, had already picked a writer (Mark Twain), Kostelanetz requested that Copland choose a statesman instead. The composer obliged, writing a piece for narrator and orchestra honoring America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Kostelanetz led the premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on May 14, 1942, with William Adams narrating.

In preparing to write Lincoln Portrait, Copland later said he was “skeptical about expressing patriotism in music; it is difficult to achieve without becoming maudlin or bombastic, or both.” To avoid these common tropes, he incorporated five spoken excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and writings in the work’s second half, drawing “a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln himself—in my opinion among the best this nation has ever heard to express patriotism and humanity.” Lincoln Portrait also includes quotations of another kind: melodic fragments from two folk tunes popular in Lincoln’s time.

The patriotism that swept the U.S. during the war years ensured Lincoln Portrait’s immediate popularity, but even Copland was surprised at its enduring place in the musical repertoire. “I never expected it to be performed frequently,” he said. But Lincoln Portrait has become one of Copland’s most-performed works, familiar to generations of audiences at patriotic occasions. The narration has been delivered by many celebrities and political figures, including Barack Obama, who read the part with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005 in a performance led by William Eddins, a former associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Copland himself conducted the work with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1975; narrators here have included former Vice President Walter Mondale, current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich and Minnesota Vikings great Carl Eller. Today, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page joins their ranks.

words and music, rich with symbolism
The first half of Lincoln Portrait is purely instrumental, while in the latter half, the speaker enters and the orchestra adopts a supportive role. The piece opens a simple melodic idea, distinguished by a recurring double-dotted rhythm, that suggests solemnity and steadfast determination—motives equally apt in Lincoln’s 1860s and Copland’s 1940s. The first of two American folk songs Copland incorporates is “Springfield Mountain,” a ballad about a young soldier from Springfield Mountain, Massachusetts, who died of a snakebite. Using this melody to eulogize Lincoln is appropriate on several levels: Lincoln’s life was also cut short, and he too had lived in a town called Springfield. The other borrowed melodic material, which appears in the boisterous middle segment, is based loosely on the well-known song “Camptown Races.”

The concluding section includes five spoken Lincoln quotations— words from an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, the 1862 State of the Union Address, the 1863 Gettysburg Address and private writings published after the President’s death. Copland sequenced them to establish grave historical circumstances, to outline the righteousness of the American cause, and finally to proclaim inevitable victory. In concluding with a quotation from Lincoln’s most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, the piece gives strong emphasis to history’s lesson that America has survived dark moments before—a message that has resonated throughout all of our country’s uncertain times, handed to us through the centuries by the tall, bearded abolitionist statesman who freed a people and saved a nation.

Instrumentation: narrator with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, sleigh bells, tamtam, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta and strings

Max Bruch
Born: January 6, 1838, Cologne Germany
Died: October 2, 1920, Friedenau, Germany

Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26 Ca' 23

Max Bruch comes perilously close to being a one-work composer, this G-minor Concerto being the one work. In his day, however, he was a most substantial figure on the musical landscape, an artist who consistently won respect for his command of craft and affection for his devotion to euphony.

his life and music
Bruch’s early musical training outside the home amounted to indoctrination in the conservative Mendelssohn-Schumann Brahms faction and against the progressive Liszt-Wagner wing. He composed prodigiously during boyhood, and at 20, he settled down to teach in Cologne, where his first opera was staged the same year.

Bruch completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1866 and conducted the first performance on April 24 that year with Otto von Königslow as soloist. Bruch substantially revised the Concerto with the help of Joseph Joachim, who reintroduced it in its present form in 1868.

In the 1870s, in part because of the phenomenal success of the G-minor Violin Concerto, Bruch enjoyed some patches of prosperity and independence that allowed him to devote himself entirely to composition. In the early 1890s he was granted the titles without which no self-respecting German can go to his reward in peace: a professorship (at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts) and a doctorate (from Cambridge).

As Bruch lived in comfortable retirement in his Berlin villa, the world around him changed nearly beyond recognition. Although the popularity of his Violin Concerto No. 1 remained a reassuring constant, when he died at 82 many who read the respectful obituaries must have been astonished to learn that he had been alive until the day before.

“the richest, the most seductive” concerto
Assessing the four most famous German violin concertos—the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn, the Bruch G-minor and the Brahms—Joseph Joachim, who was intimately connected with all four, called Bruch’s “the richest, the most seductive.” If you take “richest” to refer to immediate sensuous impressions, Joachim is exactly on target, and it takes less than a minute to find that out.

In the first movement, Prelude, orchestral flourishes alternate with solo flourishes. Bruch introduces two expansive and memorable melodies. Just when a development seems due, he brings back his opening chords and flourishes, using them this time to prepare the soft sinking into the Adagio. It is in this second movement that the soul of this perennially fresh and touching concerto resides, lyric rapture being heightened by Bruch’s artfully cultivated way with form, proportion and sequence.

As for the crackling, Gypsy-tinged Finale, having paid no attention to the date of composition, I had always assumed that Bruch had borrowed a notion or two from his slightly older colleague Johannes Brahms. It turns out that Bruch got there first and, always inclined to be jealous of Brahms, he would have found my mistake very annoying.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia (now Nelahozeves, Czech Republic)
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, From the New World Ca. 40'

Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, was one of many works this composer wrote during his sojourn in America from 1892 to 1895. Although the New World Symphony was written in the New World, it is not specifically about the New World. True, there are themes that could be construed as being “authentic” songs of the American Indians or African Americans, but in fact, he did not quote from folksongs—he composed his own, based on study of the source material.

One “New World” aspect of this symphony is the role played by Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvorák had read in Czech translation some 30 years earlier. He re-read the poem in America and claimed that the scene of Minnehaha’s funeral in the forest inspired the Largo movement of his symphony, while the Indians’ dance was responsible for the Scherzo

the music: magical

adagio—allegro. This alone of Dvorák’s nine symphonies opens with a slow introduction. Within the space of just 23 measures, the composer incorporates moods of melancholic dreaming and tense foreboding, startling eruptions and a surging melodic line. The main Allegro section is launched by horns in an arpeggiated fanfare motif in E minor, a motif that will reappear in all remaining movements as well. Several additional themes follow.

largo. The second movement contains one of the most famous themes in all classical music, known to many as the song “Goin’ home.” The composition is Dvorák’s own: one of his students, William Arms Fisher, superimposed the words of the spiritual after Dvorák had completed the symphony. This theme, presented by the English horn, is in the key of D-flat major, which is harmonically distant from the key of the first movement, E minor. Dvorák arrives at the new key through a sequence of just seven somber chords played by low woodwinds and brass, beginning in E minor and ending in D-flat major. The effect is effortless, even magical, “like the drawing back of a curtain revealing the scene to the spectators’ gaze,” to quote biographer Otakar Sourek.

scherzo—molto vivace. The Scherzo is one of the most energetic and exhilarating movements Dvorák ever wrote, and it borders on the virtuosic as well for the dazzling orchestral display it entails. Contributing to the bright colors and brilliant effects is the triangle, which is employed in this movement alone. The contrasting Trio section is a charming rustic dance introduced by the woodwind choir and set to a lilting long-short-long rhythm.

allegro con fuoco. The finale, too, contains its share of melodic fecundity and inventiveness. The development section treats not only material from this movement but from the three previous ones as well, especially the main theme of the Largo, which is fragmented and tossed about with almost reckless abandon. The grand climax of the long coda (which begins after the horn solo that amazingly covers three full octaves) brings back the chordal sequence that opened the Largo, but now painted in broad, majestic strokes in the full brass and woodwind sections.

The fury subsides, the orchestra dies away to a whisper, horns softly intone the finale’s main theme like an echo from a far-away world. Violins proudly proclaim the theme one last time, and the symphony seems destined to end in E minor, the key in which it began. But with a sudden shift of the harmonic gears, Dvorák brings the symphony to a close in joyous E major. The final chord, too, is a surprise—not a predictably stentorian chord played fortissimo by the full orchestra, but a lovely, warm sonority of winds alone.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings


Program Notes: Josefowicz Performs John Adams

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, October 20-21, 2016

Full program notes:

Hector Berlioz
Born: December 11, 1803, Grenoble, France
Died: March 8, 1869, Paris, France

Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Opus 23
Premiered: September 10, 1838


Berlioz based his first opera on the life of Benvenuto Cellini. The French composer recognized a kindred spirit in Cellini—a goldsmith, sculptor, musician, soldier, lover, duellist, rogue, adventurer and autobiographer who lived from 1500 to 1571—but the opera was a crashing failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. Burdened with a libretto that manages to be both complex and undramatic at the same time, Benvenuto Cellini ran for only three performances. Parisian audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted (with typical detachment) that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.” Liszt led a revival at Weimar in 1852, but a further production in London in 1855 was a failure, and Benvenuto Cellini has not held the stage.

The only part of Benvenuto Cellini to have any success was its rousing overture. Everything after that may have been hissed, but Berlioz observed that the overture drew “exaggerated applause,” and it has enjoyed a long life in the concert hall. As well it should– the overture blazes with all the fiery energy of Cellini himself.

Berlioz wrote the overture after the opera itself was complete, and he incorporated a certain amount of material from the opera in the overture, but the explosive opening was composed specifically for the overture, and it appears to be a portrait of the hero. Marked Allegro deciso con impetuo, this opening rushes forward on a main theme full of rhythmic snap, but quickly this energy subsides and the music slows to a Larghetto. Over pizzicato accompaniment, woodwinds sing themes from Cardinal Salviati’s “A tous péchés pleine indulgence” and the “Arriete d’Arlequin” from a vapid show that takes place during carnival season in Rome. The opening Allegro returns, but once again Berlioz interrupts this with more lyric music, this time from the love-duet sung by Cellini and his 17-year-old lover Teresa. Back comes the blazing opening material, and the overture reaches its climax as Berlioz presents several of its themes simultaneously. It is a very exciting (and very loud) moment, and the overture whips to a grand conclusion. If only the rest of the opera were as good as this overture!

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe
Premiered: April 30, 1914

In 1909 the impresario Serge Diaghilev brought the Ballets Russes to Paris as part of his ongoing presentation of things Russian (art, sculpture, icons, opera and ballet) in the City of Lights, and that summer Diaghilev approached Ravel and asked him for a score. The French composer, then 34, could not have had more distinguished collaborators: Diaghilev oversaw the project, Mikhail Fokine was choreographer, Leon Bakst designed the sets, and Vaclav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina would dance the lead roles.

gentle story, stormy collaboration
But it proved a stormy collaboration. For the subject, Diaghilev proposed the gentle love story of Daphnis and Chloe, a pastoral by the Greek Longus (fourth or fifth century B.C.). A young man and woman, abandoned as infants by their respective parents and raised by a shepherd and a goatherd, meet and fall in love. She is kidnapped by pirates but rescued by the intercession of the god Pan, and the ballet concludes with general rejoicing.

The story seems simple enough, but quickly the collaborators were at odds. Part of the problem was that while Bakst had conceived an opulent oriental setting for the ballet, Ravel imagined “a vast musical fresco, less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams, which identifies quite willingly with that imagined and depicted by late 18th-century French artists.” Paintings of the verdant sets suggest that Ravel’s conception— described by Madeline Goss as “a typically 18th-century atmosphere of Watteau shepherdesses”—finally prevailed.

“into our hearts like a comet”
The Daphnis premiere was conducted by Pierre Monteux at the Châtelet Théâtre on June 8, 1912. The ballet had an overwhelming impact. Poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau, then only 23, asserted: “Daphnis and Chloe is one of the creations which fell into our hearts like a comet coming from a planet, the laws of which will remain to us forever mysterious and forbidden.”

Ravel drew two suites from the ballet for concert performance. The familiar Suite No. 2 constitutes the closing celebration of the ballet. Rippling flutes and clarinets echo the sound of rivulets as Daphnis awakes and the sun comes up. This glorious music is derived from the soaring horn melody heard at the very beginning of the ballet. Chloe appears, and the joyful lovers are united. Told that Pan had saved her in memory of the nymph Syrinx, Daphnis and Chloe now act out that tale in pantomime, and Daphnis mimes playing on reeds, a part taken in the orchestra by an opulent flute solo. The two collapse into each other’s arms and pledge their love. The stage is filled with happy youths, whose Danse générale brings the ballet to a thrilling conclusion.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, celeste, 2 harps and strings.

John Adams
Born: Februry 15, 1947, Worcester, Massachusetts; now living in Berkeley, California

Scheherazade.2, Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra
Premiered: March 26, 2015

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on Arabian Nights, has always been one of the most popular pieces ever written, and its sumptuous sound, exotic atmosphere, and wonderful part for solo violin have made it the entry point into classical music for many people. Yet beneath the shining surface of RimskyKorsakov’s score lurks an ugly story: the Sultan Schahriah marries a new wife every day, takes her for one night, and then—fearing that no woman can remain faithful—has her strangled the following morning. Only the wily Scheherazade escapes that fate, spinning a series of tales so entrancing that the Sultan cannot bring himself to order her execution. 

It was to the dark underside of this tale that John Adams turned when he took up the subject of Scheherazade in 2014. Instead of seeing it as an opulent, exotic experience, he was more struck by the brutality at the heart of the tale, particularly the objectification of women and the violence directed at them. Now he re-imagined “a contemporary Scheherazade…an empowered woman, a Scheherazade who could talk back to authority,” and to make clear that this is a re-telling, he titled his piece Scheherazade.2. He subtitled it “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra,” emphasizing that he wanted to create a “symphony that told a story.” Adams has described his conception of this music.

“I was suddenly struck by the idea of a ‘dramatic symphony’ in which the principal character role is taken by the solo violin— and she would be Scheherazade. While not having an actual story line or plot, the symphony follows a set of provocative images: a beautiful young woman with grit and personal power; a pursuit by ‘true believers’; a love scene which is both violent and tender; a scene in which she is tried by a court of religious zealots (Scheherazade and the Men with Beards), during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations; and a final ‘escape, flight and sanctuary’ which must be the archetypal dream of any woman importuned by a man or men.”

Listeners may approach Scheherazade.2 as a re-imagining of Rimsky’s classic tale, but they should not think of it as tone-painting à la Richard Strauss, in which specific incidents would be described minutely in sound. In this sense, Adams’ approach is exactly the same as that of Rimsky, who said of composing Scheherazade: “I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each listener. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders…” In exactly the same way, Adams notes that he wanted to write “a symphony that told a story,” and he gave each movement an evocative title (Tale of the Wise Young Woman and Pursuit by the True Believers; A Long Desire [Love Scene]; Scheherazade and the Men with Beards; Escape, Flight, Sanctuary) and traced a general progression of events, but to the listener he specifies: “I leave the details of the narrative to your imagination.”

Adams conceived his Scheherazade as an extraordinary woman, and it should be noted that it takes an extraordinary violinist to master this music. Adams wrote it specifically for Leila Josefowicz, a champion of contemporary music in general and of Adams’ music in particular—the two worked together as he composed Scheherazade.2, and Adams dedicated it to Josefowicz.

This is not a virtuoso concerto, though it is more difficult than many violin concertos. Instead, it is a dramatic symphony that has a solo violin as its protagonist. Adams sets that violinist against a big, often violent orchestra, and the violinist must not only master the fiendishly-difficult solo part but must also struggle and prevail in that tumultuous world. Some sense of the range of expression Adams requires may be seen in his many performance instructions to the violinist, who by turns is instructed to be misterioso, brutale, manic, struggling, furioso, savage, but who must also play gently, playfully, intimately, delicately and freely. Listeners may follow the progression of the movements that Adams describes above, always remembering that he leaves “the details of the narrative to your imagination.” After so much violence, Scheherazade.2 ends not in triumph but in the “escape, flight and sanctuary” that finally brings her peace.

Scheherazade. 2 was jointly commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Leila Josefowicz gave the first performance on March 26, 2015, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, regular and large bass drums, suspended cymbal, tamtam, tuned gongs, whip, vibraphone, xylophone, cimbalom, celeste, 2 harps and strings

Program Notes: Celebrating Skrowaczewski

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, October 14th and 15th

Full program notes:

Anton Bruckner
Born: September 4, 1824, Ansfelden, Upper Austria
Died: October 11, 1896, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 8 in C minor
Premiered: December 18, 1892

Across five and a half decades with the Minnesota Orchestra, since he fled Poland to become music director of the Minnesota Orchestra (1960 to 1979) and then conductor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski has worked as both conductor and composer. With this double focus, increasingly rare in our time, he has carried on the tradition of such great orchestral figures as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and, in America, Leonard Bernstein.

Skrowaczewski was always a daring programmer, premiering works of contemporaries such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Gunther Schuller, and conducting the gigantic symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Skrowaczewski emerged long ago as a Brucknerian of worldwide eminence, winning honors from the International Bruckner Society and building audiences for the composer on several continents.

skrowaczewski and bruckner

Bruckner’s enthralling music has resonated in Skrowaczewski’s life ever since he was a small boy. One summer day in 1931, when the seven-year-old prodigy was already composing pieces of his own, he was walking along a pretty street in his native Lwów. Suddenly, from a window above, came the music of Bruckner, music such as he had never heard before. He has recalled: “Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven—these I knew well and even had some scores of their music—but this music on that hot summer day was completely different. I was entranced. My companion, a sculptor who also played the piano, did not know what had happened to me when I stood frozen to the spot—for 20 minutes perhaps—he became very worried. Then the music finished. This was a radio broadcast, and the announcer began to talk. My friend took me home: I was as if in a trance, and I had a fever that lasted a whole day. I was very disturbed, and very curious: what was this music?”

Before long the boy found an essay about Bruckner; then he acquired a piano reduction of one of the symphonies that would accompany him throughout a distinguished musical life.

As recently as the 1950s, scarcely anyone knew Bruckner. The Nazis had claimed this humble, God-fearing Austrian Catholic as an echt German, which did not help the cause of his powerful music. Then, Skrowaczewski reminds us, came the societal upheaval of the 1960s: “Suddenly young people wanted big, strongly emotional music—symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner. Krzysztof Penderecki could write his St. Luke Passion, a work that spans an entire evening”—as at its American premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra in 1967—“and was very prophetic. It hints at those times.” Soon Skrowaczewski took Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 on tour with the Orchestra, showcasing it on university campuses. “We took risks,” Skrowaczewski recalls, “but we made a big hit with our difficult programs.”

The Bruckner Eighth has long been one of Skrowaczewski’s favorites—for its magnificent content and design, emotional depth, and capacity to show off great orchestral playing. “I walk into Bruckner’s world,” he says, “to focus entirely on the music. Early in my career I gave much attention to the shape of the performance and what the orchestra does. Later in life, I have become very emotional, not only with Bruckner, but with Beethoven and Shostakovich—all their great works that are so close to me.”

a chronicle of the symphony

“Hallelujah!—the Eighth is finished at last,” Bruckner rejoiced to conductor Hermann Levi on September 4, 1887, the composer’s 63rd birthday. He had been past 40 when he wrote his First Symphony, and now he was at the zenith of his powers. Levi’s performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in Munich had launched the composer’s fame outside Vienna. But now, despite Bruckner’s excitement, Levi was baffled by the gigantic new score for the Eighth. When other friends also felt at a loss, Bruckner—regularly plagued by bouts of depression—was devastated, and his efforts to begin work on a Ninth Symphony were stunted.

Self-effacing to a degree that mitigated against his own best interests, Bruckner devoted the year 1889 to revisions of the Eighth. Notes in his own hand record his progress until, in March of the following year, he penned the words “ganz fertig” (completely finished) on the last page. Despite all the changes Bruckner willingly made, Levi did not conduct the first performance. Nor did the brilliant young Felix Weingartner, who prepared for a Mannheim premiere but, for lack of rehearsal time, eventually gave up.

By the time the score was printed in 1892, Bruckner was a sick old man. His well-intentioned friends made all the changes they liked. Still, Bruckner was one up on them: he packed his original manuscript in a sealed parcel and directed in his will that it be deposited in the Vienna Court Library. Such foresight made possible the 20th-century editions we encounter these days. Soon Hans Richter took the work under his wing to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in the first performance on December 18, 1892—a triumph without precedent for Bruckner, who was literally crowned with a laurel wreath. “Even a Roman emperor could not have wished for a more superb triumph,” wrote the composer-critic Hugo Wolf.

Regarding editions of Bruckner’s works: the two big contenders are the Robert Haas edition, the so-called original version of 1938, and the Leopold Nowak Edition, published by the International Bruckner Society in 1955. These days, elements of both versions are likely to turn up in a performance, as is the case with Skrowaczewski: he draws from the sources that work best for him, the conductor.

the music in brief

Representing the summit of Bruckner’s art, the symphony is non-stop instrumental song. Each movement is designed on a massive scale, patiently building exuberant climaxes marked by joyful brass trumpeting. Working from a few germinal motifs, Bruckner breathes life into mighty themes, nourishing them with contrapuntal skill that would have impressed Bach himself. Time stops in a work like this, which elevates us to musical realms we may not have explored before.

allegro moderato. The first movement sketches a sober dotted-rhythm theme low in the strings. Gradually the Eighth’s tonal pillars, rooted in C minor, emerge from the mists. The most sweeping climax is reserved for the reprise, where horns and trumpet blast away at the note C until finally the movement fades desolately on a fragment of its opening idea, now barren and submissive.

scherzo and trio. Nearly everything in the second movement is spun from its opening bars, which blend a robust, lumbering tune (violas and cellos) with excited violin tremolo high above. The slower mid-section Trio unfolds a gentle theme that reveals Bruckner’s affinity with Schubert. It is cast as a violin serenade with guitar-like accompaniment—pizzicato, plucked. A horn cannot resist adding a tender line of its own.

adagio. As the longest but most sublime portion of the work, the Adagio embodies the ecstatic mysticism associated with this humble teacher of counterpoint. Here is the heart of the symphony, based on three glowing themes whose statements are intensified in the reprise. Its mood is reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan, shorn of its erotic implications.

finale. Solemn but not fast, the Finale resonates with stirring music (including a brassy, high-energy march) that builds a stunning climax. At its peak, trumpets and trombones sound the opening theme of the symphony, and a jubilant coda welds motives from the previous movements in an eloquent summation—truly the symbol of the “victory of light over darkness.”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 8 horns (4 doubling Wagner tuben), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 3 harps and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.


Program Notes: Paulus Mass

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, September 29th, 30th, October 1st

Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave. In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the first Brandenburg concerto

In both sound and form, the First is the most complex of the Brandenburgs. The violino piccolo, tuned a minor third higher than a normal violin, is the primary solo instrument. One oboe joins it in duet in the Adagio, but in general the wind players together form something like a secondary solo group. In the Adagio, the bass entrance of the melody leads to a famous harmonic collision, the most emphatic example of Bach’s expressive play with the magic of what music theorists used to call “false relations,” here the appearance of A-natural and A-flat in different voices and adjacent beats.

The orchestral possibilities frequently lead Bach into a nine-layered polyphony. Nowhere is his concern with color more explicitly manifest than in the Adagio’s last measures, with their separation on successive beats into bass, oboes and unsupported high strings. Bach’s original version consists of three movements in the normal manner, but in its final form the concerto gets an unexpected extension in the form of a minuet with three contrasting interludes: a true trio for oboes and bassoon; a polonaise for strings only and in a quicker tempo; and then, in a new meter, a virtuosic passage for two horns playing against all the oboes in unison. Thus the work crystallizes in this closing divertissement those fastidiously structured timbral sequences that are its most basic and serious compositional concern.

Instrumentation: violino piccolo, 2 horns, 3 oboes, bassoon, harpsichord and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Alberto Ginastera
Born: April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died: June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, Opus 25

Argentina’s best-known composer, whose centenary is being observed this year, was born of an Italian mother and a father of Catalan descent. The latter accounted for Alberto Ginastera’s preference for pronouncing his name with a soft “G,” as in the Catalan language (“Jean-astera”), rather than with the standard hard “G.”

Ginastera was heavily involved with promoting Argentine music and in developing the musical life of his country. His contributions in this area include setting up a league of composers that became the Argentine section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, participation in numerous international festivals of new music, and teaching at several prestigious schools in Buenos Aires, including his own alma mater, the National Conservatory. Ginastera’s ballet scores Panambí (1937) and Estancia (1941) were early successes that remain among his most popular works.

A Guggenheim Fellowship to live and work in the U.S. during 1946-47 solidified Ginastera’s close association with this country; henceforth, many of his major works received their premieres here, including two concertos for piano and one each for violin, harp and cello; the operas Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci; and the orchestral score Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals.

“a harder task”

The Harp Concerto was commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips—who had been principal harpist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1930 to 1946, and the first female member of that orchestra—and her husband Samuel R. Rosenbaum. They expected that the concerto would be ready for performance at the 1958 Inter-American Music Festival in Washington, D.C. Political events and other projects intervened: Ginastera was among those demanding civil liberties from an oppressive Argentine government that responded by withdrawing all his academic positions, and he was preoccupied with Bomarzo, an opera he was working on at the time.

Ginastera didn’t finish the concerto until late 1964, by which time Phillips was no longer performing. The composer has written that “writing for the harp [is] a harder task than writing for piano, violin or clarinet. My creative work was therefore slow and painful, since I wished to produce, as I did with my Piano and Violin Concertos, a virtuoso concerto with all the virtuoso display, for the soloist and for the orchestra, that real concertos must have.” Ginastera called it “the most difficult work I have ever written.”

The honor of the premiere went to a distinguished colleague of Phillips, Nicanor Zabaleta. Eugene Ormandy—the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1931 to 1936—conducted Phillips’ former orchestra on February 18, 1965.

Listeners familiar with Ginastera’s concertos for piano and violin will find once again the composer’s delight in use of imaginative orchestral colors, his fondness for sharp-edged dissonances and predilection for virtuosic writing. The orchestral resources are modest except in the percussion department, which requires nearly 30 different instruments handled by four players, all in addition to timpani. The multifarious ways in which Ginastera uses this assemblage contribute significantly to the fascination of the score and to its highly rhythmic nature. “When it came to sheer technique and resource, to sonorous imagination, to brilliant and irresistible effect, he had few peers,” wrote the distinguished musicologist and author Michael Steinberg for a performance of this concerto by the San Francisco Symphony. “No surprise then,” he continues, “if this concerto is, among other things, a joyous kind of Baedeker to the harp and its possibilities.”

the music allegro

giusto. The first movement is in sonata form, with two well-defined and contrasting subjects, the first presented by the soloist against a busy and highly rhythmic orchestral background in the opening bars, the second a more relaxed affair for the harp alone.

molto moderato. The slow movement opens and closes with a quiet fugato for the strings. In between are two contrasting episodes. In the first, the harp writing is primarily chordal and clearly defined; in the second, the harp indulges in a misty dialogue with celesta and glockenspiel.

cadenza: liberamente capriccioso – vivace. A long cadenza exploits idiomatic harp writing—sweeping glissandos, arpeggios, powerful block chords, whistling effects (sons sifflés), scale figurations and pearly bell-tones. This leads directly into the finale, an exhilarating movement in simple rondo form (ABACA) and infused with energetic dance impulses of Argentine origin. The highly rhythmic nature of this movement is underscored by the percussion section, which at times nearly competes with the harp as a collective soloist and greatly helps carry the concerto to an exhilarating conclusion.

Instrumentation: solo harp with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, field drum, tenor drum, bass drum, antique cymbals, suspended cymbal, bongos, claves, high and low cowbells, guiro, maracas, slapstick, tambourine, tamtam, tom-toms, small triangle, wood block, xylophone, glockenspiel, celeste and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Stephen Paulus
Born: August 24, 1949, Summit, New Jersey
Died: October 19, 2014, Arden Hills,

Minnesota Mass for a Sacred Place

A bright, lyrical inventor whose music pulsates with a driving, kinetic energy,” says The New Yorker. “Exceptionally imaginative in textures and use of instruments....[a] lush and extravagant” musical style, the verdict of The New York Times. “To listen to his music is to know Stephen Paulus as a friend,” says the dean of Minnesota composers, Dominick Argento.

These and many other tributes attest to the enduring attraction audiences have to the music of Stephen Paulus. The shock of his death two years ago from complications following a stroke is still keenly felt by the American musical community, especially that of Minnesota, where Paulus lived for most of his life.

a singular partnership

It is difficult to think of any contemporary composer who has been better served by a single orchestra than Stephen Paulus has been by the Minnesota Orchestra. Between 1983, when Sir Neville Marriner conducted his Concerto for Orchestra, and this week, when we hear Mass for a Sacred Place at Orchestra Hall for the first time, the Minnesota Orchestra has performed no fewer than 13 different compositions by Paulus in fifteen different seasons. Several works have been played during more than one season. Marriner, at the time music director of the Orchestra, believed so strongly in the then-young composer that he programmed Paulus’ music in four consecutive seasons. Osmo Vänskä is an equally firm believer in Paulus’ music, and has led five of his compositions.

Paulus received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1978. Five years later, he became the Minnesota Orchestra’s first composer in residence (a position he shared with Libby Larsen), serving in that capacity for four years. Later he held this post with the orchestras of Tucson, Atlanta and Annapolis. Over the years, Paulus wrote numerous works for the Minnesota Orchestra, including the Concerto for Two Trumpets (2003), Symphony in Three Movements (1986), the Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn (2005) and TimePiece (2011), which was co-composed with his son Greg Paulus. Paulus’ catalogue of more than 600 compositions includes 55 orchestral works, including commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Dallas Symphony, among many other ensembles. His catalogue also boasts over 400 choral compositions and 12 operas. His Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band was a 2015 Grammy nominee for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Pilgrims’ Hymn was sung at the funerals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

“washes of sound”

Mass for a Sacred Place was commissioned by the Cathedral Choral Society of Washington, D.C., in remembrance of the concerts the Society gave during World War II. The first performance was given by the Society at Washington National Cathedral on March 16, 2003, conducted by J. Reilly Lewis. The composer wrote that “Mass for a Sacred Place was carefully written with particular awareness to the reverberant quality of the premiere performance space. Sound and words were organized so that they could often be distinguished, even in this vibrant edifice. I also decided to use the space to advantage by creating blocks of sound that would overlap, amounting to ‘washes of sound’ in some cases.”

Listeners will quickly realize that transparency of texture was foremost in the composer’s mind when composing this Mass for the highly reverberant “sacred place” of Washington National Cathedral. Most of the choral work is in “block writing”—that is, all the voices move together, as in a hymn. There are few overlapping entries, and there are no fugal passages, whose complex textures and continuously overlapping lines would have been inappropriate for the acoustics of this Cathedral. Paulus has set the entire text of the Ordinary, but to keep his Mass to about 25 minutes, he has avoided the text repetition that can spin Mass settings by other composers out to 70, 80 and even 90 minutes.

The orchestral forces are modest, and are for the most part used with restraint, but notable moments abound. In the opening Kyrie, a lovely trumpet solo links the central Christe eleison, whose arrival is heralded by percussion, with the return of the Kyrie eleison. There is no mistaking the entry of the organ, withheld until the Kyrie’s final chord, which swells to fortississimo.

The Gloria and Credo have by far the longest texts of the Mass Ordinary. To cover all this material in coherent fashion, Paulus varies his choral writing frequently: full chorus, women only, men only, and block writing versus dovetailed lines. Variations in tempo, dynamic contrasts and use of various percussion instruments also serve to indicate the arrival of each new sub-section.

Similar procedures inform the Credo, but this movement is distinguished by the fullest textures and the greatest use of the full chorus. Like the Gloria, the Credo ends with a mighty “Amen.”

The Sanctus is scored for voices alone, and includes a solo role for mezzo. This movement includes the most piquant harmony, but it is also the most lyrical and free-flowing of the five movements.

The Agnus Dei opens quietly, in a mood of deep introspection and austere gravity. So it remains for most of it length. The final words, the eternal plea for peace (“Dona nobis pacem”), float gently away to the threshold of audibility, carrying its message into the vast reaches of space.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tamtam, tom-toms, glockenspiel, chimes, organ and strings  

Program note by Robert Markow.

Program Notes: Season Opening

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, September 22nd and 23rd

Full program notes:

Todd Levin
Born: May 5, 1961, Detroit, Michigan


Originally from Detroit and trained academically in Ann Arbor and Rochester, Todd Levin moved to New York City in the early 1990s, where he became a friend and associate of Philip Glass. But his music does not sound like that of Glass. Levin evolved a style of his own by returning to his Detroit techno roots and club music. That style combines the driving beat of techno and the live energy of the club within the framework of the classical symphony orchestra. The emphasis in Levin’s music is on thrust and a steely sonority—and Blur, with its six minutes of non-stop, driving motion, is an exhilarating example of that style.

The music begins quietly, set in a square pounding 4/4 meter. This steady techno beat will continue throughout. Quickly the music takes on new layers, particularly a vamp from the lower strings that functions like the repetitive bass line in a techno mix. Soon comes the main “theme”: the harp swoops upward, and flutes and high strings intone a melody that sounds like a twisted variant of the old Dies Irae motif—but is actually based on a famous 12-tone row, the first ever written, from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Piano, Opus 23. There is a fiery quality to this music, which comes through in great cascades of brass attacks, a sizzling interlude played by two percussionists on thin metal plates, and resounding, organ-like attacks for full orchestra that drive the piece to its conclusion.

This is in-your-face music, and it never lets up, not for one second. But Blur is also an infectious, exhilarating piece that will have you feeling its driving beat and will leave your pulse racing long after the music has come to its sudden, surprising close.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, hihat cymbals, suspended cymbal, mounted headless tambourine, shaker, 2 low tomtoms, 3 sets of very large thin metal plates, large wooden plank with hammer, glockenspiel, chimes, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, harp, piano and strings 

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35

"The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto....Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”

Incredible as it may seem today, this was the response to the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in Vienna in December 1881. The words quoted are by the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick—and eight of the 10 reviews that appeared in Vienna voiced much the same sentiment.

The circumstances leading to the concerto’s first performance were hardly auspicious. Tchaikovsky composed the work during March and April of 1878 while staying at Clarens on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. There he was visiting his composition student, Yosif Yosifovich Kotek, who was the one responsible for introducing Tchaikovsky to the wealthy patroness Nadejda von Meck. The composer wrote to Madame von Meck that he was inspired by the “freshness, piquant rhythms, beautifully harmonized melodies of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole,” and shortly afterwards that his own concerto “is hurrying towards its end…I started the work, was seduced by it and now the sketches are almost completed.” Kotek expressed dissatisfaction with the second movement, and Tchaikovsky replaced it with entirely different music.

the “unplayable” work

Mme. von Meck was not completely pleased by the concerto either. But the biggest blow was probably the rejection from the celebrated virtuoso and teacher Leopold Auer, to whom the work was originally dedicated—and who pronounced it unplayable. Not until nearly four years after its completion did Adolf Brodsky take up its cause, giving the first performance not in Russia but in Vienna. He was daunted neither by its technical difficulties nor by the dismal critical reception.

Tchaikovsky rewrote the dedication to Brodsky, who went on to perform the concerto in London, and then in Moscow, eventually winning public support for it. Even Auer, in his old age, finally saw its merits, and the work became a mainstay in the repertories of his protégés, including Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist. Today’s students readily master yesterday’s most fiendish difficulties, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is now one of the two or three most popular works in the genre. 

Although the concerto is full of bravura passage work, it also contains a wealth of the pure romantic lyricism for which Tchaikovsky is so noted. The first movement, Allegro moderato, boasts both a lyrical first and second theme, and even the cadenza emphasizes the expressive over the virtuosic. The second movement, Canzonetta: Andante, has a certain melancholic wistfulness to it— soulful, though not mournful. The muted solo violin presents the first folk-like theme. This brief movement is followed without pause by the exhilarating Finale, whose themes suggest Russian dance tunes and rhythms, especially the trepak.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73

"Suffused with the sunshine and the warm winds playing on the water”—these are the words Richard Specht used to describe Brahms’ Second Symphony. “Bathed in a mellow glow of instrumental sound of which Brahms alone had the secret” was John Horton’s response. After the massiveness and severity of Brahms’ First Symphony, the idyllic, pastoral Second, with its wealth of singable melodies, had strong popular appeal. Whereas Brahms had toiled for 20 years over his First Symphony, the Second was written in the space of a mere three months. In its pastoral quality, many listeners find a parallel to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which, like Brahms’ Second, followed a serious and heroic symphony in C minor. 

the music

allegro non troppo. From the very first notes, the listener is caught up in the symphony’s gentle, relaxed mood. The initial two bars also provide the basic motivic seeds of the entire movement, as well as for much of the material in the subsequent movements. The three-note motto in the cellos and basses and the following arpeggio in the horns are heard repeatedly in many guises— slowed down, speeded up, played upside down, buried in the texture or featured prominently. All the principal themes of the movement are derived from these short melodic building blocks. The second theme is one of Brahms’ most glorious, sung by violas and cellos as only these instruments can sing.

adagio non troppo. The second movement is of a darker hue and more profound sentiment. The form is basically an A-B-A structure, with a more agitated central section in the minor mode. Throughout the movement, the listener’s attention is continually focused as much on the densely saturated textures as on the themes.

allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino). The genial, relaxed character returns in the third movement, not a scherzo as Beethoven would have written, but a sort of lyrical intermezzo, harking back to the gracious 18th-century minuet. The forces are reduced almost to chamber orchestra levels, and woodwinds are often the featured sonority. This movement proved so popular at its premiere that it had to be repeated.

allegro con spirito. The forthright and optimistic finale derives heavily from the melodies of the first movement, though as usual with Brahms, this material is so cleverly disguised that one scarcely notices. The coda calls for special comment. Brahms seldom used the trombones and tuba, yet on occasion he wrote stunning passages for them. One such moment occurs in the Second Symphony’s coda, a passage as thrilling for audiences as it is for trombonists, every one of whom looks forward to a role in bringing this joyous work to its blazing D-major conclusion.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Program Notes: Otello

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 23

Full program notes:

Giuseppe Verdi
Born: October 10, 1813, La Roncole, near Busseto, Italy
Died: January 27, 1901, Milan, Italy


With the successful premiere of his Aida in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi announced that “the account is settled,” and anticipated retirement. The composer who in the 1850s had given the world La Traviata, Il trovatore and Rigoletto—indeed the composer whose very name was synonymous with opera— believed that time had passed him by. Undeniably, many audiences were looking elsewhere, including to Germany, where Richard Wagner had ascended.

Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, wasn’t so sure. One night in 1877, over dinner in Milan, Ricordi delicately suggested to Verdi that he might attempt adapting Shakespeare’s Othello. Ricordi suggested as a librettist the composer Arrigo Boito, who was some 30 years Verdi’s junior. Boito was a modernist who had publicly, not to say vulgarly, criticized the great Verdi.

Verdi was excited by the notion—having long admired Shakespeare and adapted Macbeth much earlier in his career—and accepted Ricordi’s suggestion. For his part, Boito acknowledged his earlier lapse of judgment, and Verdi had all but forgiven him.

A decade elapsed between Verdi’s initial dinner meeting and the premiere of Otello, and the long wait paid off with an unqualified success. On the opening night of February 5, 1887, Milan was ecstatic. Numerous encores, 20 curtain calls and shouts of “Viva Verdi!” filled La Scala and later the Hotel Milano where Verdi was residing.

The heartrending tale of the Cyprian general Otello, who is turned murderously against his wife Desdemona by his manipulative ensign Iago, became in one commentator’s words “the crowning glory of Italian tragic opera.” The rapturous response led Verdi and Boito to reunite in 1893 for another Shakespearean opera, Falstaff.

Among the unique features of Otello is its musical structure: Verdi departed from his style of the 1850s and composed Otello as a sung-through opera. Gone were the traditional arias, duets and ensembles. Also remarkable is that Verdi and Boito knew their Shakespeare only in translation to Italian. That the works capture the Bard’s essence—a suggestion here, a double entendre there—is a feat attributable mostly to Boito’s brilliance.


the “missing” Shakespeare prologue. For the sake of brevity, Verdi’s Otello, comprising four acts, excises the entire opening act of Shakespeare’s five-act Othello. But the omitted material, which sets in motion the events of Verdi’s opera, is worthy of summary.

In Shakespeare’s opening act, Othello (“Otello” in the Italian translation), a Cyprian general of Moorish background, has promoted Cassio to be his captain, much to the envy of his ensign Iago. Meanwhile, a young Venetian named Roderigo has fallen in love with Desdemona, the daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. But word has spread that Desdemona has eloped with Otello.

Iago provokes a stir in front of Desdemona’s house. Roderigo, uttering racial slurs, announces to Desdemona’s father that Otello has married his daughter. Brabantio concludes that his daughter was a victim of Otello’s magic “charms” and “witch- craft.” Otello is summoned to the senate to defend himself against charges of sorcery. There he expresses his true love for Desdemona, who joins him before the senate. Otello, now cleared, is appointed to defend Venice against the attacking Turks.

act I. General Otello, victorious over Turkey, returns from battle, in a fierce storm that nearly consumes his ships. Verdi dramatically describes the storm: a crash of the cymbals, the piccolo, a wind machine and a sustained chord on the organ. They also presage the storm that Otello himself becomes. 

All but the embittered ensign Iago cheer Otello’s victory—over the Turks and over the storm—and Otello emerges exultant.

When the young Venetian Roderigo mourns his loss of Otello’s wife Desdemona, Iago responds: “I promise that the woman shall be yours. Listen, though I make show of loving him, I hate the Moor ... If I were the Moor, I would not want a Iago about me.”

Verdi ignites a joyous campfire, with sparks and flames throughout the orchestra.

In a drinking song, Iago circulates a cup of wine, which he urges Otello’s lieutenant Cassio, whom he knows cannot hold his alcohol, to consume. Verdi’s orchestra “pours” the wine, and, amidst the pizzicato strings, the evil, elongated trill in Iago’s “Beva! Beva!” (“Drink! Drink!”) reveals his evil.

A drunken brawl ensues, and Iago sends Roderigo to spread the word of revolt. Otello appears, stunned at what he sees. He asks “honesto Iago” the cause of this uproar. Iago answers with two disingenuous syllables: “No son,” denying knowledge of the cause.

When Desdemona appears, seeking to learn the cause of Otello’s absence from her, Otello becomes furious and on the spot demotes Cassio. The crowd retreats, to Verdi’s exit music, which yields to the intimate sound of four cellos as Otello and Desdemona are left alone, lighted only by the shining Venus. Literally ecstatic, they recall Otello’s battles and Desdemona’s love of him for them. Straight from Shakespeare, the stirred Otello is passionate: “Un bacio, ancora un bacio!” (“A kiss, another kiss!”) The act ends with Otello’s allusion to Venus, as the four cellos return, and Verdi’s strings replicate the star’s radiance.

act II. The entr’acte begins dark and ominously and becomes deceptively tuneful. We are in the midst of a conversation between the disgraced Cassio and the dishonorable Iago, who falsely pledges to help Cassio regain his former rank. Desdemona is “the general’s general,” he says, so Cassio, must take his cause to her.

In a departure from the play, Iago, left alone, states his “Credo,” his only aria, summing up his malevolence revealed in Shakespeare’s first act.

He puts that malice to work, and suggests to Otello by various word-games that Desdemona is unfaithful, and that Cassio is her lover. When Otello angrily succumbs to Iago’s accusations, the latter reinforces them with a feigned caution of jealousy’s dangers. Otello demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity.

Desdemona enters, surrounded by women of Cyprus, children and sailors. They offer her flowers and sing to her, accompanied by the sound of a guzla, a form of mandolin. Otello is so taken by the scene that he utters to himself, “If she be false to me, then heaven mocks itself.”

Cassio has enlisted Desdemona’s assistance, following Iago’s suggestion, and now she enters to plead Cassio’s case to Otello. Otello rejects her and he becomes increasingly hostile, his temples throbbing. When Desdemona offers to wipe his brow with her handkerchief, il fazzoletto (the one he gave to her “as my first token of love”), he throws it to the ground. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, picks-up the handkerchief.

Seizing the opportunity, Iago demands the handkerchief from Emilia, who suspects he will use it mischievously.

Otello is delirious: He believes his wife true, but he believes her false, and Verdi provides us with that ambivalence as his score ascends and just as quickly descends. Iago’s plan works perfectly as Otello forcefully dismisses his newlywed. Iago is not finished. He now tells Otello that he heard Cassio sleep-talking, as if in a dream and uttering, “Sweet Desdemona, let us hide our love...” None of this is true, of course, but Verdi’s music is so vivid that we need to remind ourselves of Iago’s falsity. Iago seals it all by telling Otello that he has seen Cassio in possession of the handkerchief Otello had given to Desdemona.

The act ends with Iago and Otello swearing vengeance.

act III. The entr’acte recalls Iago’s Act II “jealousy” motive in various guises.

Preparations are being made to greet Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador. But first, Desdemona pleads Otello to pardon Cassio, to which Otello complains of the pain to his forehead he suffered in Act II. This time, though, he asks for the handkerchief, rather than to discard it. Desdemona offers a handkerchief, but it is not the handkerchief. Otello asks what became of it, and when Desdemona says she does not have it about her, he warns her, to the orchestra’s chilling accompaniment: “Take heed! To lose it, or give it away, were perdition!” – a significant response, given what we know about references to witchcraft in Shakespeare’s first act.

Totally out of control, Otello sees the “blackest of crimes on your lily forehead.” The Verdi catalogue contains numerous passages of orchestral sobbing, but nowhere is it as moving as here, as Desdemona has no hint of the cause of her husband’s deterioration.

To comply with Otello’s demand for “proof,” Iago has arranged to meet with Cassio, within Otello’s earshot. Iago slyly leads Cassio to make certain utterances aloud, and even to laugh, which the paranoid Otello assumes is at him. Then, Cassio produces Desdemona’s handkerchief which he innocently found in his quarters, placed there, we know, by Iago. Iago surreptitiously displays it to Otello. That’s it. That’s all Otello needed to see. The only question now is how to kill Desdemona.

Iago responds that she should die in the bed where she “sinned.” This choice so impresses the mad Otello that, there and then, he promotes Iago to captain.

Trumpets announce Lodovico’s arrival from Venice.

Otello announces the duke’s proclamation that he has been recalled to Venice. Cassio is named Otello’s successor in Cyprus, thereby eliminating Iago. Iago, however, suggests to Roderigo that, should anything befall Cassio, Otello, and of course Desdemona, would need to remain in Cyprus. Roderigo sets off to act on that suggestion.

The die is cast: Roderigo will kill Cassio; Otello will smother Desdemona. He orders everyone away, and, with repeated cries of “il fazzoletto” he collapses, unconscious.

Iago sneers to all, “Here is your lion!” “Ecco il leone!” The orchestra’s brass section lets loose with the lion’s roar, ending Act III.

act IV. The final act, set in Desdemona’s bedroom opens with foreboding woodwinds, led by the English horn. Desdemona knows her fate as she readies for bed, but still knows not the cause.

Almost in rote she recites a story learned from her mother, the famed “Willow Song.” She cries a pathetic “Addio” to Emilia.

Following “The Willow Song,” she recites the Ave Maria. Upon her “Amen,” Otello enters accompanied by the lowest, most threatening notes by the double basses. He kisses her once, again, and then again, this time without Venus’s splendor. The orchestra repeats the “baccio” motive from Act I.

When Desdemona awakens, he asks her if she had offered her prayers, for she is about to die a sinner. “Cassio is your lover!” Her denials are in vain. When she asks for Cassio to vouch for her, Otello says that he has been forever silenced. “I am undone and he is betrayed,” she cries. After further dreadful protests, Desdemona is smothered. “As quiet as the grave,” (“calma come la tomba”) observes Otello.

Emilia frantically knocks on the door, and from this point on, as Iago’s scheme unravels, Verdi serially accompanies each character’s unwitting involvement in this tragedy.

When Iago is asked why he engaged in this dreadful plot to prove the dying Desdemona unfaithful, he responds, simply, “I thought her so.” Tal la credea.

Iago escapes and all that remains is for Otello to die at his own hand. “Before I killed thee, wife, I kissed thee thus. Now dying... in the shadow where I lie...a kiss... another kiss...ah!... another kiss...”

Program note and synopsis by Phillip Gainsley.

Program Notes: Beethoven Triple Concerto

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 16

Full program notes:

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Overture to Fidelio, Opus 72(c)

Few of Beethoven’s compositions gave him more trouble than his only opera, Fidelio (originally titled Leonore). This tale of marital fidelity and heroic resistance to political tyranny went through three separate versions before the composer quit work on it, and even then many critics (and Beethoven himself) were not wholly satisfied. If the opera gave Beethoven trouble, then the overture gave him fits: Fidelio is doubtless the only opera in history to have four different overtures. In the Leonore Overtures, Nos. 1 to 3, Beethoven tried to foreshadow the action of the opera by using some of its themes. The problem was that the Leonore Overtures were so dramatic by themselves that they threatened to overpower what followed, particularly the opera’s rather lighthearted beginning.

Convinced that he could never solve this problem, Beethoven simply gave up. For the final version of the opera (1814) he composed the Fidelio Overture, and this is the version that introduces the opera at performances today. The overture contains no thematic references to the opera that follows—it is a conventional curtain-raiser, full of thrust and noble sentiment. The introduction alternates a fanfare for full orchestra, marked Allegro, with Adagio passages. This fanfare contains the rhythmic cell—a dotted figure—that drives the overture forward and also suggests the shape of its main theme, first heard in the horns and clarinets. The brief overture ends with a blazing coda marked Presto. The dotted figure that opened the overture now drives it to a heroic close, a fitting, if unrelated, introduction to the opera’s tale of heroism.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Opus 56 (Triple Concerto)

Beethoven wrote this unusual concerto during the spring and summer of 1804, a time of unbelievable creativity for him. In those months he revised the recently-completed I Symphony, began the Waldstein Sonata, and made sketches for the Appassionata Sonata and for his opera Leonore (later re-named Fidelio). Beethoven himself was apparently unsure how to classify his new orchestral work with three soloists. After the work was completed he referred to it as a “concertante for violin, violoncello and pianoforte with full orchestra.” Today it is most often called the Triple Concerto.

Concertos for multiple instruments of course call to mind the Baroque concerto grosso, in which a small group of soloists plays in contrast to the main body of the orchestra, but the Triple Concerto is no concerto grosso. Rather, it is a concerto for piano trio and orchestra. Such a concerto posed two particular problems for Beethoven: how to give each soloist enough individual attention, and how to keep the cello from becoming buried within this complex texture. He solved these problems ingeniously: the first by having his three soloists play often just as a trio, the second by allowing the cellist the first statement of many of the themes.

a concerto like no other

The Triple Concerto contrasts sharply with the other music Beethoven was composing in these years. Whereas the Eroica, the opera and the two piano sonatas burn with a sense of urgency and dramatic fury, the Triple Concerto lacks their tension: this is expansive music, relaxed and agreeable rather than striving.

allegro. The opening movement gets off to a grand start with a full-orchestra exposition of its themes, but textures thin out considerably when the soloists enter. Beethoven often has the soloists play by themselves with only unobtrusive orchestral accompaniment, punctuated by tutti outbursts. The thematic material in this movement is genial rather than distinctive, the rhythms slightly swung rather than sharp-edged. The most impressive feature of this movement may be its span: at 17 minutes, it is one of Beethoven’s longest.

largo. By contrast, the second is very brief, almost an interlude between the dynamic outer movements. Beethoven rarely used the tempo indication Largo, a marking that suggests very slow and dignified music. An orchestra of muted strings introduces the Largo, but this lyric movement belongs almost entirely to the three soloists—it is essentially chamber music. Once again, the cello leads the way, this time with a theme marked molto cantabile.

rondo alla polacca. Beethoven marks the finale Rondo alla pollaca, or a rondo in the style of a polonaise. The cello introduces the main theme and launches this jovial movement on its way. Near the end comes a surprising passage: a polonaise is in 3/4, but now Beethoven resets his principal theme in 2/4, shortening it and making it dance in new ways before going back to 3/4 for the coda and cadence.

Though completed in 1804, the Triple Concerto did not make its way decisively into the musical world, and it has remained one of Beethoven’s less familiar works. Despite several private performances, this music did not receive its public premiere in Vienna until May 1808, nearly a year after it had been published. Beethoven dedicated it to his patron Prince Lobkowitz, also the dedicatee of the Eroica.

Program notes on both Beethoven works by Eric Bromberger.



Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Brahms knew from the outset that his Fourth Symphony was different from the other three, and he apparently entertained fears that it might not be received as warmly.  Composed in 1884 and 1885, on the heels of the extroverted Third Symphony of 1883, the Fourth was at once the composer’s most passionate and his most abstract symphonic outpouring. As with the Second Symphony, he joked self-consciously about its unique quality, stating in a letter that it consisted of “a few entr’actes and polkas that I happened to have lying around.”

Like the first two symphonies, the Third and Fourth also form a pair, one clear-eyed and direct, the other gray and troubled. The English critic Donald Francis Tovey called the Fourth “one of the rarest things in classical music, a symphony which ends tragically.” (The torrid First had broken into triumphant C-major at the end.)

Evidence suggests that the source of the Fourth’s high drama was not personal crisis but Brahms’ interest during the 1880s in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and others. Brahms’ friendship with conductor Hans von Bülow beginning in 1881 was also a factor. Bülow, who had just been named director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, offered Brahms a first-class ensemble with which the composer could “try out” the Fourth and other works.

Bülow prepared the Meiningen Orchestra’s first performance of the Fourth Symphony, which Brahms conducted on October 25, 1885. The composer then took the piece on tour with the Orchestra, performing it throughout northern Germany and the Netherlands, before allowing Hans Richter to present it to the Viennese public in January 1886.

The initial response was surprisingly cool, considering the extent to which the city had lionized Brahms throughout the 1870s and early 1880s. The Fourth was declared “un-Brahmsian.” (At an earlier private performance of a four-hand piano version, the biographer Max Kalbeck reportedly suggested that the fourth movement be omitted altogether.)

Brahms did not lay a finger on the work. And sure enough, by the end of the composer’s life the Viennese public had gained a deeper appreciation not only for the Fourth, but for a whole career of symphonic music that it seemed to sum up. A performance of the Fourth in 1897, a month before the composer’s death, indicated the depth of the shift of opinion. Here is Florence May’s description of the emotional evening:

“A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience.

“An extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting audience, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go.

“Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there shrunken in form, with lined countenance, a strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for they knew that they were saying farewell.”

Four weeks later, hordes of admirers turned out for the composer’s funeral.

tragedy of the classical kind

allegro non troppo. The first movement is uniquely tragic in tone yet glowing with an inner warmth that is unprecedented in Brahms’ orchestral output. “It acts its tragedy with unsurpassable variety of expression and power of climax,” Tovey writes. One is tempted to wonder why tragedy should sound so beautiful. Some have also found echoes of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the obsessive descending thirds. (Brahms’ appreciation of late Beethoven had deepened recently as a result of hearing his works played by Bülow, who was also one of the great pianists of his day.)

andante moderato. The slow movement is a moody intermezzo, lightening the tone to take some of the first movement’s weight from the listener’s chest.

allegro giocoso. Likewise is the third movement, one of the composer’s splashiest and most “bacchanalian” scherzos. Its finale-like fervor caused Tovey to ask, “After three movements so full of dramatic incident, what finale is possible?”

allegro energico e passionato. The finale Brahms devised for the Fourth Symphony was indeed singular, and was the chief point of controversy when the symphony was introduced. It was perhaps also the work’s chief point of contact with the last Beethoven piano sonatas, and with the Renaissance and Baroque music that had recently occupied Brahms the scholar. It is a set of variations on the bass from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, Lord, Do I Long).

Brahms inflects the bassline with a tiny, “Romanticizing” chromatic alteration before submitting it to a set of variations that gradually reduces the “theme” to a vague, schematized scaffolding. Such a procedure calls to mind not only Baroque works such as Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin but also the variation movements of late Beethoven. The Opus 111 Sonata, Beethoven’s last, also ends with an ethereal set of variations whose theme is slowly reduced, bit by bit, to little more than an abstract harmonic skeleton.

In retrospect, the orchestral variations were perhaps the only way Brahms could have ended the Fourth Symphony—with a conservative twist that set musical limits by evoking Baroque harmonic ideals, yet creating closure through subtle thematic reminiscences and a reduction to harmonic essentials.

Program note by Paul Horsley.

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 15

Full program notes:


Johannes Brahms

Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Opus 102 (Double Concerto)

Brahms wrote his Double Concerto in the summer of 1887 at Thun, Switzerland. The first official performance took place on October 18, 1887, with the violinist Joseph Joachim, cellist Robert Hausmann and the composer at the podium with the Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne.

Robert Hausmann, the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, liked to recount how Brahms, hearing him play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto for him at his apartment shortly before his death, had said with some chagrin that had he known it was possible to write such a good cello concerto, he himself would have done it long ago.

In 1884 Hausmann had in fact urged Brahms to do just that, “or at least [to produce] a companion piece” to the E-minor Cello Sonata. Brahms did not write a concerto for Hausmann, but in 1886 he offered some consolation in the form of the F-major Sonata, with the Double Concerto for him and Joachim coming along a year later.

rebuilding a friendship

To be sure, for both musical and personal reasons Joachim was the more urgent cause behind this project. Brahms and Joachim had become friends in 1853, and over the years, Joachim had given the first performance of the Violin Concerto and about half of Brahms’ chamber works.

But the long friendship was clouded in 1884 by the divorce proceedings between Joachim and his wife, the contralto Amalie Weiss. Joachim had always been madly jealous, even though his wife’s behavior gave him no reason to be, and now he suspected her of having an affair. Brahms, sure of her innocence, wrote her a sympathetic letter that subsequently convinced the court of her innocence as well. Joachim, hurt and enraged by what he regarded as Brahms’ treachery, broke off relations. The Italians have a sensible proverb, imprinted these days on ashtrays and tea towels, that advises, “Fra moglie e marito, non mettere ditto”— Don’t put even one finger between husband and wife.

Brahms worked hard to repair the friendship, and the most significant of his efforts was to tender this Double Concerto as a peace offering. It is of course odd—but then this is Brahms, which means the situation could not be uncomplicated—that a composer should write a double concerto as a peace offering for a violinist but make the cello part the more prominent and rewarding.

In any event, he told Joachim in a letter that he had been unable to resist composing the work, that nothing about it really mattered to him except Joachim’s attitude toward it. For three and a half strained years, Brahms had been writing to Joachim and sending him scores, and Joachim had continued to play Brahms’ music but refused to resume the friendship. This time, however, he succumbed. The friendship was at least functionally restored, with both men reverting to the intimate du and complete cordiality, but their old closeness was gone for good.

Brahms’ Double Concerto, which turned out to be his last orchestral work, was written for two musicians who had been the twin anchors of a great string quartet for eight years: it takes a chamber-music approach to make the piece really work. With its muscular, sometimes stern first movement, tender and subtly lyric Andante, and flavorful finale, the Double Concerto offers rich rewards.

allegro. The orchestra begins forcefully but on an odd harmonic slant, and it stops very quickly, as though choked off in mid-phrase. The cello, directed to play “in the manner of a recitative but always in tempo,” picks up the orchestra’s last three notes and uses them as a springboard from which to launch a powerfully assertive 22-measure solo. The orchestra responds with a musing phrase for woodwinds, and the solo violin, when it enters, continues to spin out that dream. A triplet passage descending through two octaves awakens the cello’s attention, and from here the solo becomes an increasingly excited duet.

The four bars with which the orchestra begins the concerto pose a conflict between the basic duple meter (the first two measures) and rhythmically dissonant triplets (the next two). This tension is an important feature throughout the work. In the double cadenza, triplets gradually give way to multiples of two, and this emergence from rhythmic dissonance into clarity is a crucial part of what gives this page its energy. Urged in by a series of thrusting chords in multiple stops, the orchestra returns, playing the same phrase with which it had begun but now firmly placed in A minor. This is our first sense of an unmistakable downbeat. Introductory gestures are over.

The exposition is based for the most part on the forceful opening theme and the more yielding one that introduced the violin. When the soloists enter again, the cello once more takes the lead, this time with a lyric variant of the opening theme. The development is active indeed. It is also virtuosic, with wide- ranging arpeggiated passages and a sequence of the maddest trills since Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. The recapitula- tion, this too heralded by a series of hugely sonorous seven and eight-note chords for the two soloists, is, as always in Brahms, full of new inventions and new perspectives. One detail in this movement should get special mention, and that is Brahms’ use of the two solo instruments in octaves. He is aware of its effectiveness, as any composer would be, but unlike most composers he is possessed by an almost fanatic sense of economy in such things; the octave passages therefore are few and brief and, as a result, hair-raising.

andante. After the storms of the Allegro, the slow movement—in D major—is gentle. A romantic horn-call and its woodwind echo cue a glorious, subtly limned melody. It is first played not just by the two soloists in octaves, but, much of the way, with the orchestra joining in as well. The refinement with which Brahms maneuvers the orchestra in and out of that melody is one of its loveliest features. The song itself is folklike, but later both melody and texture become more elaborate. Harmonies range widely, and an extraordinarily difficult double cadenza brings us back to another journey through the opening melody. The orchestration is amazingly inventive and diverse throughout, and the movement ends in a reminiscing coda that is a moment of exquisite poetry.

vivace non troppo. The finale is another in Brahms’ gypsy vein. It is also full of humor; for instance, in the violin’s inclination to disrupt the cello’s attempt to bring back the opening tune. Toward the end, with the tempo momentarily slowed, the music becomes surprisingly delicate and lyric, with closely worked filigree passages for the soloists, but the final page is all strength and energy.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission. 

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36

“Our symphony progresses,” Tchaikovsky wrote in late summer 1877. The other half of “our” was Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who had come into Tchaikovsky’s life some eight months before, in December 1876. She was a wealthy woman, recently widowed, tough, given to organizing things and people. She loved Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession and made contact with her idol. Almost at once they found themselves embarked on a voluminous, exhaustive, intimate correspondence. And 500 rubles were moved every month from the vast Meck account into Tchaikovsky’s fragile one, bringing him years of blessed financial security.

an unusual friendship

Clearly, her feelings for Tchaikovsky and his music were on some level erotic, but she seems to have been unwilling to have that feeling transmuted into sexual reality. She insisted that they must never meet, and with that liberating condition
in effect, their mutually nourishing friendship, so strange and so understandable, lasted nearly 14 years. Being rich as well as neurotic, Mme. von Meck was doubly entitled to caprice, and in a maggoty moment she broke contact, seemingly without warning—at least with no warning Tchaikovsky understood. By 1890, when that happened, Tchaikovsky no longer needed her money, but he never got over the hurt of the sudden abandonment.

It was during the first year of his friendship with Mme. Von Meck that he took the most foolish step of his life: he got married, succumbing to the advances of a former pupil of his. He tried to be as candid with her about his homosexuality as the manners and the permissible language of 1877 allowed, but she seems to have had no idea what he was talking about. They married, he fled, and with the massive support of relatives and friends he got his life back on track.

Tchaikovsky began the Fourth Symphony soon after Nadezhda Filaretovna’s arrival on the scene; he completed it in the aftermath of the catastrophic marriage. He realized at once the significance of Mme. von Meck’s entrance into his life and knew that he wanted to dedicate his new symphony to her. He wrote to her on February 24, 1878, just two days after the premiere was conducted in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein: “In my heart of hearts I feel sure it is the best thing I have done so far.”

“things which arise in the heart”

At one point, Mme. von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what their symphony “was about.” Tchaikovsky shilly-shallied, explaining that the answer was to be found in the music itself and not in words about the music. Nonetheless, he did oblige at length with a “program” in which the opening fanfare is identified with “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

Tchaikovsky had a rather more illuminating exchange about the Fourth Symphony with his friend the composer Sergei Taneyev. “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. It would only appear ludicrous and raise a smile. But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He continued: “Please don’t imagine that I want to swagger before you with profound emotions and lofty ideas....In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not of course copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.”

The critic Hans Keller has pointed out that Tchaikovsky’s opening fanfare serves as a structural marker in much the same way as Beethoven’s famous motto. He suggests that the dimensions as well as the unusual form of the symphony made Tchaikovsky feel the musical necessity of such a marker.

To the end of his life, Tchaikovsky thought himself clumsy about form. Let us say that he could be painfully academic and astoundingly adventurous. His moments of great daring yielded some compelling successes: the tone poem The Voyevoda, with its powerfully compressed coda, is a little-known instance, and the Symphonie pathétique a famous and much loved one.

the music: a great adventure

The Fourth Symphony is also among the great adventures and the great successes. It all has to do with harmonic design, with gravitational pull. In short, Tchaikovsky goes to surprising keys at surprising times.

andante sostenuto—moderato con anima. In the first movement, having emphatically set up F minor as a center of gravity in the introduction and the keening start of the Moderato, he declines to return to that key until this long movement is almost nine-tenths over. That moment is marked by the fourth appearance of the “fate” fanfare, and it is more powerful for the extreme delay.

Tchaikovsky sets up a network of harmonic reference across the entire symphony. To cite a grand example: “recapitulation” usually means a return to the original key as well as a return to all the themes. Tchaikovsky recapitulates the themes, all right, but he holds off bringing back the tonic key, F minor, until the coda; instead he sets the recapitulation in D minor, a key hitherto untouched. But the finale of the symphony is in F major, closely related to F minor by virtue of sharing the keynote F, but equally close to that surprising D minor.

andantino in modo di canzona. The burden of Tchaikovsky’s musical and extramusical arguments is in the large, brooding first movement with its latent—and not so latent—waltz content. What follows is picturesque support. The Andantino is a melancholy song introduced by the oboe, that most melancholic of wind instruments. Its impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominate the first movement.

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky was especially proud of his novel instrumental scheme: the perpetual pizzicato and the assignment of distinctive material to each group in the orchestra. Once the symphony was in circulation, he was annoyed because it was always the “cute” scherzo that made the biggest hit.

finale: allegro con fuoco. The principal tune of the Finale, also introduced with an odd harmonic obliqueness, is a folk song, There Stood a Little Birch. The “fate” fanfare intrudes once more, making a musical as well as a programmatic point, after which the symphony is free to rush to its emphatic conclusion. This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Program Notes: Beethoven and Rachmaninoff

Please note: this program has changed. Read the press release for full details.

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 9

Full program notes:

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21

Felix Mendelssohn grew up in the most cultivated household in Berlin, and it is a measure of the Mendelssohn family’s sophistication that one of their recreations was reading Shakespeare’s plays together in the Schlegel-Tieck German translation. Fanny Mendelssohn later remembered the impact of one play in particular: “We were saying yesterday what an important part the Midsummer Night’s Dream has always played in our home ... We were really brought up on the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Felix especially made it his own...”

Felix indeed “made it his own” during the summer of 1826, when the 17-year-old composer wrote an overture to that play that remains today the finest music ever inspired by Shakespeare.

Young Mendelssohn captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s play perfectly. The instant this music begins, we feel ourselves transported to the woods outside Athens, where Puck flits mischievously through the forest, the “rude mechanicals” rehearse their play and lovers are mysteriously transformed.

The beginning is magic. Four soft chords lift us into the land of make-believe, and a glistening rush in the violins suggests the gossamer flickering of tiny wings. All seems set when, over heavy stamping, the orchestra shouts out a vigorous tune that ends with a great hee-haw. This is the braying of Bottom, the rustic actor who is transformed into an ass. A cascade of shining chords leads to a surprise—a false ending—and after returning to the flickering “fairyland” of the beginning, the Overture vanishes on the same four chords with which it began.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 15

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792, not quite 22 years old and completely unknown. Though he wanted to be a composer, he established himself first as a pianist in his adopted city. The Viennese, used to a gentler keyboard style, were amazed by the power and expressiveness of Beethoven’s playing, and he made his early reputation in Vienna for his ability to improvise.

Beethoven may have been a confident pianist, but as a composer he was much less sure of himself, particularly with the specter of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos behind him. Mozart had raised the piano concerto from a mere entertainment vehicle to the sophisticated and expressive form in which he composed some of his greatest music, and Beethoven recognized that any concerto he wrote would have to meet that standard. Not surprisingly, the influence of Mozart’s piano concertos can be felt very firmly in Beethoven’s First, premiered in 1798.

The First Piano Concerto’s opening movement, marked Allegro con brio, begins very quietly with the simplest of figures; yet seconds later this very figure thunders to life with all the power one expects from Beethoven. Violins sing the flowing second subject, and then the piano enters with entirely new material. The writing for piano here is graceful and accomplished, but—as in Mozart’s concertos—not particularly virtuosic: the emphasis is on musical values as an end in themselves rather than on virtuosic display.

Solo piano opens the Largo with that movement’s main idea, melodic and extremely ornate; the solo clarinet assumes an important role in this movement with a part so expressive that at moments the music is reminiscent of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Solo piano again opens the concluding Allegro scherzando, and its lively rondo tune is quickly answered by the boisterous orchestra. Along the way, Beethoven offers the soloist two brief cadenzas.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia
Died: March 28,1943, Beverly Hills, California

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27

One of the most surprising things about Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony is that it was written at all. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a debacle, plunging the composer into a depression so profound that he wrote nothing for several years thereafter. It wasn’t just that the public didn’t like it, or the critics, or his friends, or his colleagues. No one liked it, including its own author. A long series of treatments involving hypnosis by a Dr. Dahl brought him to the point where he could write his Second Piano Concerto, completed in 1900. But it was ten years before Rachmaninoff could face the prospect of writing another symphony. And at first, he told no one about his endeavor.

a success from the start

He had moved to Dresden at the time, in the fall of 1906, to escape the demands of public life in Moscow, where he was in constant demand as a pianist, conductor, committeeman, guest and collaborator on all things musical. The stately old city, where Rachmaninoff and his wife had spent their honeymoon several years earlier, appealed strongly to the composer. Also, the peace and anonymity he found in Dresden were conducive to artistic creativity. His Second Symphony was fully sketched by New Year’s Day of 1907. Revisions and orchestration took place over a longer period, both back home in Russia and during a return visit to Dresden. Rachmaninoff conducted the first performance, which took place on January 26, 1908, in St. Petersburg. He also led the Moscow premiere a week later, as well as an early American performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in November 1909. In each case the audience responded enthusiastically, and the symphony has enjoyed an unbroken run of popularity to this day.

The score was published in 1908, but then the manuscript went missing for nearly a century. Musical sleuths rejoiced when, in September of 2004, it turned up in a cellar in Switzerland. Until then, it was the only Rachmaninoff manuscript not accounted for, making it all the more tantalizing as a prize find. Rachmaninoff specialist Geoffrey Norris notes that “quite apart from the score’s potential monetary value, its significance for musicians and scholars is priceless, because, with the hundreds of emendations, crossings-out and annotations that Rachmaninoff made on the manuscript, it gives clues to his earlier thoughts on the symphony, possibly revised in the light of performances he conducted in Moscow and St. Petersburg before publication.”

the music

largo – allegro moderato. Most of the symphony’s melodic material derives from a single motif, heard in the opening bars in the somber colors of low cellos and basses. In a multifarious variety of guises and transformations, this “motto” haunts the entire symphony in both obvious and subtle ways, infusing it with coherence and compelling impetus. After its initial statement, the motto passes to other instruments, eventually giving birth to a sinuous violin phrase, which grows to an impressive climax as it weaves its way through lushly orchestrated textures and luxuri- ant counterpoint. Following the slow introduction, the main Allegro moderato section of the movement is ushered in with a shivering, rising figure in the strings. Violins then spin out a long, winding, aspiring theme based on the motto. The delicate, gentle second theme, divided between woodwinds and responding strings, also derives from the motto.

allegro molto. The second movement, a scherzo, is built on the motif of the Dies Irae, the medieval Gregorian chant for the dead. Four horns in unison proclaim a boldly exuberant version of the Dies Irae, which itself has its seeds in the symphony’s motto. (This motif was used in the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.) Two contrasting ideas of note are the warmly flowing lyrical theme for the violins and a brilliant fugato section that demands the utmost in virtuosity from

adagio. The third movement is one of the lyric highlights of all Rachmaninoff. No fewer than three gorgeous melodies are heard, beginning with one of the most popular ever written. Following immediately on this theme of great repose and tranquility comes one of the glories of the solo clarinet repertory—an extended theme full of ardent longing.

allegro vivace. The enormously energetic finale too is a broadly expansive movement, beginning with a boisterously robust idea that might easily conjure up the spirit of a carnival. This is followed by a dark, grim, march-like episode, then by another of Rachmaninoff’s most famous themes—a magnificent, soaring affair that sweeps onward over an expanse of more than one hundred measures. Rachmaninoff’s longest, grandest, most expansive symphonic work ends in a veritable blaze of sound.


Program Notes: Let's Dance

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance, July 8

Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

In 1942 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, marooned in New York due to World War II, commissioned a ballet from Agnes de Mille. The young American dancer drew up a scenario set on a ranch in the West and approached Aaron Copland to write the music. Copland was at first uninterested, as he’d already had success with a “cowboy” ballet (Billy the Kid) and did not want to repeat himself. But as de Mille talked, Copland saw new possibilities, and he accepted the commission. The premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in October 1942 was a phenomenal success.

In the ballet, set on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest, none of the characters has a name—each is a type. The principal figure is the Cowgirl, a tomboy anxious to attract male attention. She tries to compete for the affections of the Head Wrangler and the Roper through her cowboy skills, but they ignore her in favor of the city girls in their pretty dresses. Disconsolate, the Cowgirl storms off and returns to the Saturday night dance in a beautiful dress. Only at this point does she attract the men, who now flock to her.

Copland based the opening Buckaroo Holiday movement on the cowboy song “If He’d Be a Buckaroo by Trade” and the railroad song “Sis Joe.” It details the Cowgirl’s awkward attempt to mount her horse, the brilliant entrance of the cowboys and the sudden stop at the moment of the Cowgirl’s humiliation. Corral Nocturne depicts the lonely musings of the Cowgirl as the sun goes down. The next section, Ranch House Party, portrays a dance set in a noisy, well-lit ranch house while outside the night is dark and lonely.

The concluding two movements come from the dance on the evening of the rodeo. Saturday Night Waltz begins with the sound of open strings as the players seem to be tuning up; the dances then begin with a variant of the cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint.” This turns into a spirited waltz. The middle section is quiet and reflective, and a return of the waltz-tune brings the movement to its close. The famous Hoe-Down is based on two principal themes: the fiddle-tune “Bonyparte” and a variant of the old Scottish dance “McLeod’s Reel.” The square dance is interrupted by the appearance of the Cowgirl in her dress, the men compete for her, and the tempo gradually slows to a quiet chord that marks the moment when the Head Wrangler kisses the Cowgirl. Instantly the music explodes, driving to a close on three great stamping chords.


Franz Liszt
Born: October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary (now Austria)
Died: July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Totentanz, for Piano and Orchestra

In 1838 Liszt visited Pisa and viewed the horrifying fresco Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death), attributed to the 14th-century painter Andrea Orcagna. The fresco depicts scenes of death, including stacks of bodies, corpses rotting in open graves, and souls being transported to heaven while others are dragged to hell. So struck by these scenes was the 27-year-old composer that he resolved to write a work for piano and orchestra inspired by them. Liszt made his first sketches in February 1839, but he was in no hurry—he worked on it over two decades, finally completing a revised version of Totentanz in 1859. Hans von Bülow premiered it on April 15, 1865 (coincidentally, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s death).

Totentanz (which translates as “Dance of Death”) is not an attempt to depict painted scenes in music. And in no sense is it a dance. Rather, it is a set of variations upon a musical idea long associated with death: the 13th-century plainchant theme Dies Irae. At first glance, the form appears traditional: Liszt introduces his theme, then provides six variations. But Liszt has some surprises for us along that path.

Over the piano’s foreboding ostinato, low winds stamp out the Dies Irae theme. Then comes the first of the work’s several piano cadenzas. The first few variations are relatively brief. In Variation I, bassoons and violas introduce the brisk dotted theme, followed quickly by the piano. Variation II presents the theme in the pianist’s left hand as a solo horn soars overhead. Variation III offers the theme in the deep accompaniment as the piano punctuates that line with staccato chords. Variation IV, for piano alone, treats the Dies Irae theme canonically. This evolves through several quite different episodes, then rushes into Variation V, a fugato. Solo piano leads the way here, soon joined by the orchestra.

Another cadenza leads to Variation VI, and it is here that Totentanz makes its most striking turn. Liszt introduces an entirely new plainchant theme in the strings and woodwinds, and to this the horns provide a blistering counter-theme. This is the most demonic moment in a very demonic piece, and Liszt promptly embarks on a series of variations on this new theme—taking an unexpected (and very exciting) detour in what to this point has been a fairly straightforward series of variations on the Dies Irae. One more cadenza leads to the return of the principal theme, a brisk coda and a knockout close.


Camille Saint-Saëns
Born: October 9, 1835, Paris, France 

Died: December 16, 1921, Algiers, Algeria

Bacchanale, from Samson and Delilah 

Saint-Saëns’ opera based on the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah got off to a rocky start. He originally planned it as an oratorio, but was soon convinced to re-cast it as an opera. But when he had parts of the opera performed, they provoked strong criticism. Worse, the Paris Opera refused to produce an opera based on a Biblical subject. Samson and Delilah might have gone unperformed, but Saint-Saëns’ good friend Franz Liszt saw the score, admired it, and arranged a production in Weimar. That performance on December 2, 1877, was a huge success. By the time of Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921, the Paris Opera had recanted its objections—performing Samson and Delilah more than 500 times.

One of the most famous parts of the opera is the Bacchanale, which is heard in the final scene. Samson has been seduced by Delilah. Blinded, his hair shorn, he has been shackled and forced to turn a mill-wheel as he laments his failure to protect his people. The Philistines celebrate their triumph over Samson with a wild dance, which in the opera is a brief ballet, and the Bacchanale is the music for that ballet. A bacchanale is not a musical form but rather an event—in essence, a wild drinking party (the term comes from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine). Saint-Saëns had traveled a great deal through northern Africa and the Middle East, and he adapted the idiom of that region’s music for his Bacchanale, with its evocative opening oboe solo and the wild energy of its dances. The Bacchanale is infectious music, built on a series of crisp tunes. This music marks the final moments of the Philistines’ triumph: Samson will shortly summon his strength and bring the temple tumbling down upon them all.


Alberto Ginastera
Born: April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina 
Died: June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

Ballet Suite from Estancia

Ginastera, Argentina’s most renowned classical composer, was heavily involved with promoting Argentine music and in developing the musical life of his country. Many of his early works, such as Panambí and Estancia, are representative of what he called his “objective nationalism” style—music that deliberately and overtly employed the rhythms and melodies of native Argentine folksongs and dances.

Estancia was commissioned in 1941 by Lincoln Kirstein for his American Ballet Caravan, which was touring South America at the time. But before the score could be premiered, Kirstein’s company disbanded. A staging of Estancia had to wait until 1952, when it was given at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. As many composers have done with their ballet scores, Ginastera extracted a suite for orchestral concerts. It was in this form that the world first heard Estancia, as the suite was performed by the Teatro Colón Orchestra on May 12, 1943.

The half-hour ballet score is rarely heard in its entirety, unaccountably so in view of its consistently fine music. But the suite of four dances we hear tonight has become almost a repertory staple. Pungent harmonies, jagged rhythms and dancelike impulses prevail. The orchestration is especially colorful, particularly in the prominent use of percussion, including piano, xylophone and castanets, which contribute to one of the most exhilarating conclusions in all music.

The following note (slightly edited) is found as a preface to the score: “The deep and bare beauty of the land, its richness and natural strength, constitute the basis of Argentine life. This ballet presents various aspects of the activities on an ‘estancia’ [cattle ranch] in the course of a day, from dawn to dawn, with a symbolic sense of continuity. The plot shows a country girl who despises the man of the city. She finally admires him when he proves that he can perform the roughest and most difficult tasks in the land.”


Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Basses-Pyrénées, France 

Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Ravel, like many French composers, was profoundly wary of German music. Yet there was one German form for which he felt undiluted affection: the waltz. As a young piano student in Paris, Ravel fell under the spell of Schubert’s waltzes for piano, and in 1911 he composed his own Noble and Sentimental Waltzes, a set of charming waltzes modeled on the Schubert dances he loved so much. Earlier, in 1906, he had planned a great orchestral waltz with the working title Wien (Vienna), but the piece was delayed and Ravel did not return to it until the fall of 1919. This was the year after the conclusion of World War I, and the French vision of the Germanic world was now quite different than it had been when he originally conceived the piece.

Nevertheless, Ravel still felt the appeal of the project, and by December he was madly at work. The orchestration was completed the following March, and the first performance took place in Paris on December 12, 1920. By this time, perhaps wary of wartime associations, Ravel had renamed the piece La Valse.

an opulent—and troubling—score

Ravel described exactly his original conception for the work: “Whirling clouds give glimpses, through rifts, of couples waltzing. The clouds scatter little by little. One sees an immense hall peopled with a twirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth fortissimo. An Imperial Court, about 1855.”

The music also gives us this scene. Out of the murky, misty beginning come bits of waltz rhythms; gradually these join together and plunge into an animated dance. This is dazzling writing for orchestra, some of which results from the music’s rhythmic energy, some from Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental color.

If La Valse concluded with all this elegant vitality, our sense of the music might be clear, but instead it drives to an ending full of frenzied violence. We come away not so much exhilarated as shaken. Ravel made a telling comment about this conclusion: “I had intended this work to be a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, with which was associated in my imagination an impression of a fantastic and fatal sort of dervish’s dance.”

Is this music a celebration of the waltz—or an exploration of the darker spirit behind the culture that created it? Many have opted for the latter explanation, hearing in La Valse not a Rosenkavalier-like evocation of a more graceful era, but the snarling menace behind that elegance.

Ravel himself was evasive about the ending. Aware of its implications, he explained in a letter to a friend: “Some people have seen in this piece the expression of a tragic affair; some have said that it represented the end of the Second Empire, others that it was postwar Vienna. They are wrong. Certainly, La Valse is tragic, but in the Greek sense: it is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.”

Program notes on the Copland, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Ravel works by Eric Bromberger; program note on Ginastera’s Estancia by Robert Markow.

The Best Piece

By my count, I’ve played on a couple of dozen Minnesota Orchestra recordings in the 15-plus years I’ve been employed here, and there are more than a few CDs in that stack that I’m quite proud to have been a part of. But it’s no hyperbole to say that I had been waiting my entire career to sit down and make the CD that we recorded in the spring of 2011.

That disc, released by the BIS label in 2012 and nominated for a Grammy later that year, included Sibelius’s Second Symphony, probably his most popular multi-movement work. And of course, recording any Sibelius with Osmo is a virtual guarantee that the world will pay attention to the results. But for me, the highlight of the recording session was the chance to lay down a memorable rendition of the mighty Finn’s Fifth Symphony. The Fifth is not just my favorite Sibelius work, not just my favorite symphony – it’s my favorite music, period. I love it more than the Mendelssohn Octet, more than Leonard Cohen’s best songs or the Indigo Girls’ tightest harmonies, more than Bach fugues or Brahms symphonies. In my opinion, separating out any peripheral issues like how groundbreaking or influential a work of art is or isn’t, Sibelius 5 is purely and simply the best music ever written.

There are a lot of reasons I believe this, but most of them come down to perfection of pacing, which also means that Sibelius 5 only becomes the best music ever written with the right performance. I was a fairly late convert to Sibelius, because most of the recordings of his music that I heard as a kid were heavy, ponderous things (listen below) presided over by ultra-serious conductors who liked to stretch every phrase to its maximum possible length, as if to convey, through slowness, that this was Important Art. Then, as now, that approach to music did almost nothing for me, and I just assumed that I wasn’t a big Sibelius fan.


That changed one night in 1996, when I made the 45-minute trek from my little college town to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Sibelius’ Second at Severance Hall. (I think the conductor was Jukka-Pekka Saraste, but I’m not even a little bit certain of that.) It was a revelation: played correctly by a really great string section (Cleveland has one of the very best in the world), the opening swells of that symphony set a mood that wraps around you like a hug, and propels you forward into Sibelius’s universe of murmuring rhythmic pulses and explosive brass flourishes. I was an instant convert.

I discovered the Fifth a couple of years later, and knew instantly that I had found my symphony. From the opening horn call (which somehow manages to sound exactly like a sunrise), to the halting, nervous chattering that follows in the strings, to the propulsive brass arpeggios that herald the opening of the scherzo, everything is paced to extract the maximum emotional response from the audience.

The first movement ends with an accelerando that lasts for about five minutes, builds to a frenzied climax, and then slams to a halt with almost no warning. Here, take a listen. Cue the video below to 12 minutes, 14 seconds:

If you pace it just right, the audience will sometimes gasp audibly as the final chord rips past them. Our audiences at Orchestra Hall that spring when we made our recording not only gasped, some of them jumped in their seats, and there was an audible moment of discombobulation bouncing around the still-electric room, during which I watched a few people clearly going through the following mental progression in a matter of seconds:


Okay, that was...


...I mean, what just happened?!...

Hey, I should applaud!!, wait! Maybe I shouldn’t!

You could practically see these people’s heart rates being yanked up and down, which is a pretty impressive thing for a piece of music to do. It requires a tremendous amount of technical setup for a composer to place an audience so squarely in the palm of his hand that a quick right turn into a tonic chord can be enough to cause a physical jolt. And that’s just the first movement!

The end of the finale of the 5th is every bit as impressive, and even more daring on Sibelius’s part. Like the first movement, the finale builds slowly, progressing organically to what is clearly going to be another shattering climax. But satisfying our basest desire for simple resolution isn’t what Sibelius has in mind. Instead, he preps us for full-on emotional catharsis, and then provides that release not through excess, but through cavernous, pregnant silence. To hear this, cue the video below to 29 minutes, 5 seconds.

Call it the Anti-Tchaikovsky approach. Nothing against Tchaikovsky (though, in truth, I have plenty against him), but in his symphonies, he mostly specializes in sending waves of consonant sound crashing over the audience, and then providing exactly the final, sugar-bomb catharsis he knows you’re craving. Sibelius, by contrast, takes his time, builds the sound in layers, brings us to the edge of the cliff, and then sweeps away, leaving us standing on its edge, filled with the thrill of it all but also with the profound emptiness of eternity.

This immensity and appeal to the furthest reaches of human contemplation were no accident. As he was beginning to compose the Fifth, in 1914, Sibelius wrote in his notebook that, while the details of the piece were not yet clear to him, he already knew that he was embarking on a monumental journey. Never one to mince words, he described his hoped-for outcome this way: “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”*

I don’t know about God’s orchestra, or what they like to play. But I know that I’ve never experienced a sense of musical power like the one I feel when I’m a part of a performance of Sibelius 5. It’s perfect, perfect music. I honestly believe that.

*(citation: Michael Steinberg. The Symphony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.)

Addendum: In addition to our recording of Sibelius’s 5th (and 2nd) symphonies, which you can purchase here, Osmo also recorded what is arguably the definitive version of the 5th with Sinfonia Lahti back in the 1990s, also for BIS. As proud as I am to have been a part of our version, the Lahti recording is the gold standard, and you should go get it, now.

Originally published June 2011. Revised September 2015.