Program Notes: Season Opening

Program Notes: Season Opening

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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.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff