CONCERT NOTES

ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS

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Guest Artists

Stephanie Strong, cello
Young Musician Competition Winner

Rachel Nesvig, violin
Jessica Jasper, viola

HAYDN

Cello Concerto, Hob. VIIb:1., C major

To look at the vast amount of Haydn’s music still in the repertoire is rather chilling to a mere mortal. His 104 symphonies, 83 quartets, 16 operas, plus countless divertimenti, sonatas, duos, trios, and much more, all written more or less to order, are equaled by his masses, oratorios, te deums and cantatas. Haydn was remarkably prolific in an age of prolific composers. He prided himself on his ability to get the job done, almost in spite of inspiration; he felt that he was paid to compose, so compose he would. He was a professional in the highest sense of the word.

There was one sort of composition, however, that Haydn had to force himself to write: solo concertos left him cold. He believed that music was at its best the reflection of the interplay of a group of musicians, and at its very best the conscious striving towards an ineffable divinity (though it is highly unlikely that he would ever permit himself the luxury of publicly saying anything of the kind). The very principle of the solo concerto was to Haydn an offense, leading to the sort of pyrotechnical display that he found most aggravating. He nevertheless wrote nineteen of them, including a few for his friends, which are notably characterized by an added enthusiasm. These include the celebrated Trumpet Concerto, written to display the charms of a new type of trumpet, and the two Cello Concertos, composed for his favorite cellists, both at different times in the employ of the Esterhazy family.

The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in C Major is a comparatively early work, written in the first years of Haydn’s tenure in the Esterhazy court. The score, lost for many years, was found in Prague in 1961, thus shattering an illusion held by musicologists that all of Haydn’s music from the early years of his Esterhazy career had been lost in a disastrous fire at Eisenstadt in 1768. The Concerto, undoubtedly genuine, was most likely written in the years 1762-1765 for the court cellist Joseph Weigl.

(Ronald Comber)

 

MOZART

Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, in E-flat major, K. 364

In addition to his concertos for solo winds, for solo violin, and for solo piano, Mozart also composed a number of works in the then‑popular medium known as the Sinfonia Concertante, essentially a concerto with multiple soloists. Here particularly his powers of melodic invention were essential, for he not only had to distinguish between soloist and orchestra, but also between the two (or more) soloists.

Far and away the greatest of the works in this category is the one that also stands as his finest concerto for stringed instruments, the E‑flat Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. It was the product of Mozart's maturity, and the darker sonority of the viola seems to have inspired him to new expression. His predilection for the viola reveals itself in two ways here: first, he makes the orchestral viola sound more prominent by dividing the section into two parts, giving a mellow richness to the orchestral sonority, then he helps the solo viola stand out in the texture (where the violin's brighter sonority might threaten to engulf it) by playing a little trick of tuning. The work is composed in the key of E‑flat; stringed instruments are tuned to the notes that are prominent in the sharp keys (G, D, A, etc). But Mozart writes the viola part in D, with a note telling the solo player to tune a half‑step higher than the rest of the orchestra, so that playing as if in the key of D will produce the sounds of E‑flat. This tuning allows the solo viola to get more resonance out of the instrument compared to the solo violin or the orchestral strings, all of which are playing in E‑flat with normal tuning. At the same time, the extra half‑step by which the pitch is raised makes the sound of the viola slightly more penetrating.

This is only one element of Mozart's aural imagination to appear in the piece. From beginning to end the work is filled with wonderful details of scoring and texture. Unlike a piano concerto, where the soloist's arrival brings a sound entirely new to the piece, the two string soloists here emerge out of the texture, only gradually to develop their individuality.

But individuals they become, singing to themselves, or with the tiny complement of winds (oboes and horns), or contrasting with the larger body of strings. During the slow movement, the two soloists embark on elaborate embellishments recalling the fioritura of great operatic scenes, filled with passion and pathos. The finale returns to light‑hearted high spirits with the soloists leading the way in virtuosity (showing the other strings, for example, how to turn the 2/4 meter into a figure filled with triplets) to the satisfying conclusion.

(Steven Ledbetter)

 

TCHAIKOVSKY

Symphony No. 5, Op. 64, in E minor

Tchaikovsky approached his Fifth Symphony from a position of extreme self-doubt, nearly always his posture vis-à-vis his incipient creations. In May 1888, he confessed in a letter to his brother, Modest, that he feared his imagination had dried up, that he had nothing more to express in music. Still, there was a glimmer of hope: “I am hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.”

Tchaikovsky was spending the summer of 1888 at a vacation residence he had built on a forested hillside at Frolovskoe, not a long trip from his home base in Moscow. The idyllic locale proved conducive to inspiration and apparently played a major role in helping him conquer his demons long enough to complete this symphony, which he did in four months. Tchaikovsky made a habit of keeping his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, informed about his compositions through detailed letters, and thanks to this ongoing correspondence we have a good deal of information about how the Fifth Symphony progressed during that summer. Tchaikovsky had met Mme. von Meck a dozen years earlier. In fact, he hadn’t exactly “met” her, since an eccentric stipulation of her philanthropy was that they should avoid personal contact. Tchaikovsky’s labor on the symphony was already well along when he broached the subject with Mme. von Meck, in a letter on June 22: “I shall work my hardest. I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others, that I am not played out as a composer. Have I told you that I intend to write a symphony? The beginning was difficult, but now inspiration seems to have come. We shall see…”

His correspondence on the subject brims with allusions to the emotional background to this piece, which involved resignation to fate, the designs of providence, murmurs of doubt, and similarly dark thoughts.

Critics blasted the symphony at its premiere, due in part to the composer’s limited skill on the podium; and yet the audience was enthusiastic. Tchaikovsky, true to type, decided the critics must be right. In December he wrote to von Meck,

Having played my Symphony twice in Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated color, some insincerity of fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations referred not to this but to other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public.

Elsewhere he wrote of his Fifth Symphony, “the organic sequence fails, and a skillful join has to be made… I cannot complain of lack of inventive power, but I have always suffered from want of skill in the management of form.”

These comments reveal considerable self-awareness; one might say that Tchaikovsky was wrong, but for all the right reasons. The work’s orchestral palette is indeed unusually colorful (despite the fact that the composer employs an essentially Classical orchestra of modest proportions). The composer was quite on target about “the management of form” being his weak suit; and, indeed, the Fifth Symphony may be viewed as something of a patchwork—the more so when compared to the relatively tight symphony that preceded it eleven years earlier. And if Tchaikovsky was embarrassed by the degree of overt sentiment, he reached in the Fifth Symphony, it still fell short of the emotional frontiers he would cross in his Sixth.

The Fifth Symphony adheres to the classic four-movement form, but the movements are unified to some degree through common reference to a “motto theme,” a sort of Berliozian idée fixe announced by the somber clarinets at the outset. Most commentators are happy to agree that this represents the idea of Fate to which Tchaikovsky referred in his prose sketch of April 1888. It will reappear often in this symphony, sometimes reworked considerably, and it certainly defines the bleak tone that governs much of the proceedings. And yet, not everything is bleak. Shafts of sunlight often cut through the shadows: hopeful secondary melodies, orchestration of illuminating brightness, rhythmic vivacity and variety, passages of balletic grace.

“If Beethoven’s Fifth is Fate knocking at the door,” wrote a commentator when the piece was new, “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is Fate trying to get out.” It nearly does so in a journey that threatens to culminate in a series of climactic B major chords. But notwithstanding the frequent interruption of audience applause at that point, the adventure continues to a conclusion that is to some extent ambiguous: four closing E major chords that we may hear as triumphant but may just as easily sound ominous.

(James M. Keller)