Program Notes: Hugh Wolff Conducts Mendelssohn

Program Notes: Hugh Wolff Conducts Mendelssohn

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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

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