Vadim Gluzman, violin & creative partner
David Danzmayr, conductor
Tonight’s program opens and closes with the dance—Korngold’s late-life look at the music of Johann Strauss, whose scores colored Korngold’s early years in Vienna, and Beethoven’s joyous Seventh Symphony, another work imbued with dance from its majestic start to its ebullient conclusion. At the program’s center is Beethoven’s unsurpassed Violin Concerto, a work that has remained the violinist’s gold standard since its inception over two centuries ago.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957): Straussiana
Scored for three flutes, piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, pairs of horns, trumpets and trombones, percussion, harp, piano and strings. Duration is 7 minutes.
Anyone who has watched the movies The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood (both featuring Errol Flynn), Of Human Bondage or any number of other classic Hollywood films will be familiar with the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian immigrant who created soundtracks for some of the best-known moving pictures of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Born in Vienna, Korngold came to the attention of Gustav Mahler while still a boy. The wunderkind’s music became a local sensation when he was but 11 and while in his twenties his operas were being staged from Munich to Hamburg. When his Austrian counterpart, the film director Max Reinhardt, recommended Korngold for the making of an American film entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney, Korngold left for Hollywood. Korngold wove together a brilliant score that wedded the music of Mendelssohn with his own ideas, thus setting the stage for his Hollywood future. For the next several years Korngold continued to work in Europe but with the rise of Nazism was forced to leave. For Korngold, then, Hollywood proved both a political and musical refuge and he would go on to compose the scores for sixteen feature films, winning two Oscars in the process. A pioneer of film music, his scores continue to influence Hollywood composers today.
Straussiana, of 1953, actually sprang from a commission for Korngold to write for a high school orchestra. For inspiration, Korngold looked back to his youthful years in Vienna, when the music of Johann Strauss was all the rage. Years earlier, Korngold had rescued a number of Strauss’ forgotten scores from oblivion and now the aging composer set to work re-creating some of Strauss’ all-but-unknown tunes for what would prove his final orchestral composition. Over the course of three dances—Polka, Mazurka and Waltz—we gain a glimpse of Korngold’s formidable talent, as this Viennese master brings a string of long-forgotten Strauss melodies back to life, doing so with a brilliance and élan that would certainly have impressed the Waltz King himself.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Scored for flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is 42 minutes.
It is December 16, 2017, as I begin crafting the program notes for this, our final concert series of the 2017-2018 season. Given the date, I would like to begin with the notes for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which seems appropriate as today is Beethoven’s birthday. At least it’s the day ascribed to Beethoven’s birthday; there is actually no extant birth certificate for Ludwig van Beethoven, only the certificate of his baptism, which took place December 17, so, common wisdom holds that he must have been born one day earlier. The actual year of his birth is another story entirely, as Beethoven’s father, who had designs on his son becoming another Mozart, attempted to pass him off as younger than he actually was. Thus, even Beethoven himself grew up confused about his own birth. But that’s a story for another time. Though my program notes normally address the music at hand, given the particular place Beethoven holds for me as a musician, and the Violin Concerto in particular, I would like to include a few words about my own personal connection to this work with you, whom I consider part of my extended musical family.
First, though, at least a few words about the concerto proper. The score opens with none other than the timpani, four simple beats that form the foundation of the first movement. Thus, instead of a traditional melody at the outset, Beethoven serves up a rhythmic motive. Technically, all four notes are D’s, the key of the concerto, but the essence of the gesture must be regarded as rhythmic. The effect is all-the-more striking on account of its subtlety, as it is introduced within a piano dynamic and dispatched by the timpani, at the back of the orchestra. It is a daring opening gambit that nobody but Beethoven could have pulled off, much less conceived of. This simple four-note pattern will return repeatedly during the Allegro ma non troppo, sometimes as strong orchestral gestures, sometimes as chords dispatched by the soloist, but it always remains the anchor throughout. The Larghetto is among the most sublime of Beethoven’s slow-movement creations. Cast as a theme and variations, the violin begins to embellish the opening material with its first notes and indeed much of the soloist’s writing seems of an almost improvisatory nature. The tender atmosphere of the slow movement will suddenly evaporate with a jarring orchestral outburst, and the brief violin cadenza that follows serves as a bridge to the finale. A marriage of sonata and rondo forms, the Allegro’s dance-like character is brilliantly fulfilled in the coda, which in short order moves from reflective to exuberant and closes with hair-raising excitement.
I had two boyhood heroes, Beethoven and Joe Namath, as befitted my passions of classical music and football. My mother always worried when I left for football practice but because she wanted one of her sons to play the cello, she tirelessly shuttled me to my cello lessons beyond the city limits. I must, however, attribute my love of the violin to my father, a professional violinist who until his untimely death served as concertmaster of our local symphony and violinist of a professional string quartet. It was in high school when I had the chance to hear the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the first time, while visiting my aunt in Philadelphia. I remember calling my father on the phone and hearing him laugh when I asked him if he’d ever heard of Nathan Milstein, who was going to play the Beethoven with the Philly Orchestra that evening. In the hall that night I sat transfixed at the beauty and power of this concerto, and I distinctly remember Milstein’s flawless, elegant rendering of this work, despite his age (the Odessa-born violinist would have been about 76 and continued to play at his peak into his 80’s, until he broke his hand). Shortly thereafter, I returned home to Greensboro, where the great Polish violinist Henryk Szerying was slated to play the Beethoven. I’ll confess that my father’s influence likely played no small role in Szerying’s interpretation also becoming my ideal, for my dad revered the late violinist’s playing. And I subsequently spent my weekly allowance on Szerying’s recording, an LP that still resides, and probably molds, in my basement, alongside so many other timeless vinyl records. Thus, three giants are associated with my introduction to this majestic concerto—two violinists of eastern-European descent, and my father, the only son of Russian immigrants whose career inspired so much of my own.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is 36 minutes.
Beethoven, for the Romantics, was the misunderstood genius personified. As a man who defied tremendous hardships, conquered fate at the darkest hours, dedicated his life to his art and professed themes of universal brotherhood, he offered much to defend such a perception. Deaf, driven and direct, Beethoven refused to bow to the aristocracy (literally and figuratively) because he regarded himself as no less noble. Musically, he went where no composer had gone before, offering up symphonies that plumbed the depths of human emotions, from grief and anger to unbridled joy. It is this third quality, that of high spirits, that dominates Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Having taken on themes of heroics and dissolution (3rd Symphony), the struggle from dark to light (5th Symphony) and nature’s divine essence (6th Symphony), Beethoven was now moved by a wholly different source of inspiration: dance. By all accounts a lousy dancer himself, he nevertheless understood its rhythms, inherent energy and drive, and this was what underscores his beloved 7th. To be sure, Beethoven is not evoking the courtly minuet as danced in the polished shoes within Vienna’s Hofburg palace but the raucous foot stomping of the Austrian folk. For a little under forty minutes, we are forced to set aside our conceptions of Beethoven the misanthrope and instead are offered up the image of a composer in the full swing of life, a man who did nothing halfway.
Completed in 1812, the A major Symphony, for all its Bacchic intentions, remains couched within the classic architecture Beethoven’s audiences had come to expect, even from such a progressive. Indeed, the first movement opens with a slow introduction—the longest introduction Beethoven would compose—that maps out the symphony’s significant tonal relationships. As the music cascades into the Vivace, we might consider the nature of the dotted motive—long-short-long, long-short-long—which drives the score incessantly forward. This is Beethoven at his most obsessive, and which, along with the explosive dynamic shifts and abrupt modulations, is a hallmark the composer’s middle period. The opening motive permeates nearly every bar of this sonata-form movement, as it weaves its way through the extensive development (which spends inordinate amounts of time in “wrong” keys) and the coda, which drives the motive home, horns blaring. There is no true slow movement in this symphony, rather an A minor Allegretto (a little lively), which only seems slow in comparison with that which surrounds it. Again we note Beethoven’s obsession with a rhythmic motive, this one of the long-short-short-long-long variety. This gesture, as introduced by the lower strings before being taken up by the violins, makes up the first of two ideas, this one serving as an ostinato, a repetitive idea that provides the groundwork, above which Beethoven then lays a long-hewn melody spun out by the violas and cellos. Having run its course, Beethoven introduces a gentle clarinet melody accompanied by running violin triplets. Beethoven casts the movement as a double set of variations, as he banks back and forth between both sets of ideas, re-inventing each anew. Listen for the mysterious fugato passage about six minutes in and the explosive variation that follows, as well as to the movement’s colorful final phrases, where Beethoven distributes his ideas between families of instruments.
The scherzo third movement opens with explosive force in F major and drives with unabated joyousness to its D major trio. The music is propelled forward by rhythmic energy, complete with all its humorous percussive interjections. The calmer trio at its center offers momentary relief, at least until the music swells majestically. As he does in several earlier works from his middle period, Beethoven opens up the traditional A-B-A minuet architecture with an additional B-A tacked on for length, thus, A-B-A-B-A. The drive of the scherzo is taken up full tilt in the blistering Allegro con brio finale, a movement of relentless whirling intensity that the noted British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey described as “bacchic fury.” Although we are immediately swept away by the music’s rhythmic vitality, it should be noted that origins of the melody, as with the preceding scherzo, reside in true folk music (the scherzo draws on an Austrian peasant song and this finale an Irish folk song that Beethoven had previously arranged). Cast in sonata form (providing sufficient weight to balance out the rest of the symphony), the movement includes an expansive development and a sweeping coda, the latter featuring a triple forte dynamic (fff), a rare event even for one of Beethoven’s explosive temperament.
The premiere of the Seventh marked one of the most successful and colorful musical events the composer ever experienced. With his audience demanding an encore, Beethoven and his orchestra repeated the second movement. Of course, Beethoven’s score was a sure-fire winner but he also saw to it that the band was well rehearsed and stocked with some of Europe’s greatest players (these included concertmaster Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, composer Giocomo Meyerbeer, who would go on to operatic fame, and even guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani, who joined the orchestra’s cello section). Violinist Ludwig Spohr, a member of the violin section, noted Beethoven jumping in the air in a forte passage. Others thought Beethoven mad. Perhaps. Or perhaps Beethoven, who regarded this symphony as one of his best, was simply carried away by his musical celebration of life. Regardless, how better to close our thirty-ninth season?
(C) Marc Moskovitz