Program Notes: Vanska and Weilerstein

Program Notes: Vanska and Weilerstein

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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

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.