Vadim Gluzman, violin & creative partner
David Danzmayr, conductor
The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur LLP
Unsuk Chin (1961): subito con forza
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, horns, timpani, percussion and strings
Duration: Approximately 5 minutes
South Korean Unsuk Chin packs about as much power into her subito con forza (suddenly with force) as seems possible. “What particularly appeals to me are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.” There is plenty of both in this tight five-minute work that draws on vivid colors and the intensity of Stravinsky (think Rite of Spring), Ligeti (among her teachers and one of the most important of the 20th-century avant-garde), and even Beethoven (strains of his Coriolan Overture open Chin’s composition). Unsuk’s score runs the tonal gamut, provides references enough to be hauntingly familiar on the one hand, and creates a sonic palette that pushes music’s limits on the other. A brilliant score by this award-winning, Berlin-based master.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77 in D Major
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, four horns (originally, two ‘natural horns’ in D and two in E), timpani and strings
Duration: 38 minutes
Surprising as it may seem today, Johannes Brahms struggled mightily with insecurities, despite his evident mastery of every musical medium with which he worked. A large portion of his concerns was attributable to Beethoven, whom Brahms regarded as his musical forefather, believing he needed to live up to the ideals the older master had established for successive generations. It was a tall order, but one Brahms ultimately achieved in spades. But Brahms also needed the affirmation of his contemporaries, particularly composer and pianist Clara Schumann and his long-time friend Joseph Joachim, and often submitted his scores to both for their criticism or approval.
We have Brahms’ tight-knit relationship with Joseph Joachim, among the era’s greatest violinists, to thank for one of the composer’s most beloved scores. During the course of the concerto’s composition, Brahms sent Joachim various solo passages to ensure that the violin writing was idiomatic (or at the very least playable!). In the end, the composer did not heed all of his friend’s advice, though the final product proved so sublime that we might applaud Brahms for sticking to his guns. Joachim did insist, however, that he premiere the concerto on the same program with Beethoven’s concerto—a work also in the same key—not so much as a comparison but to pit old against new. The premiere, which took place in 1879 with Brahms conducting, was not an overwhelming critical success by any means, a common enough experience for Brahms’ newest offerings. But as was also typical of his music, time proved the ultimate judge, and his D major Violin Concerto soon came to be regarded as among the greatest ever written for the instrument.
Not unexpectedly, Brahms’ score reveals clear indebtedness to that of Beethoven, including the violin’s entrance with the timpani following the first movement’s orchestral introduction. But Brahms’ magisterial creation stands fully on its own as a masterstroke of solo writing infused with robust, symphonic orchestration. In fact, violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to play the work on account of not wanting to stand around while the oboe took center stage in the concerto’s sublime second movement! Brahms’ indebtedness to tradition is evident in the work’s three-movement scheme and reliance on classical forms, although in its infancy, Brahms was actually considering a four-movement scheme (in the end, the discarded material was reworked in the composer’s Second Piano Concerto). Fittingly, Joachim’s masterful first movement cadenza quickly became the most familiar, allowing the violinist’s voice to take its place among his friend’s towering composition, although many violinists have since composed their own. But in the end, it is Brahms’ voice that we ultimately remember, his Violin Concerto enduring among the greatest “orchestral” concertos ever created.
James MacMillan (b. 1959): One
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings
Duration: Approximately 3 minutes
The concept of Klangfarbenmelodie, literally tone-color-melody, was championed by Arnold Schoenberg and his student Anton Webern in Vienna during the opening decades of the 20th century. The idea was to explore color throughout the orchestra, in contrast to the emphasis on melody or rhythm, music’s dominant features for centuries. Sir James MacMillan’s One, from 2012, is an exemplary study in orchestral tone color. In fact, there is never more than a single audible line (hence the work’s title), from the opening indigenous-sounding flute solo to the eventual addition of timpani or strumming violins. All dovetail one into another in unison until the very last bars, at which point this Scottish master peels back the curtain ever so quickly, as if to assure us that there were chordal options all along!
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 5 in D Major “Reformation”
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani
Duration: 27 minutes
Few composers have enjoyed the cultural and material privileges afforded the Mendelssohn children. Their father was a banker, their grandfather the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and their mother’s family patrons and acquaintances of Mozart. At home, the children’s formidable artistic gifts were strongly fostered. By the age of 18, Felix could compose as well or better than most composers twice his age. His sister, Fanny, was also a precocious musical talent, and their brother Paul a cellist. There was art, theater—the children constantly wrote and put on plays—and tremendous intellectual life in general. Guests to their home included mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers—“Europe,” it has been said, “came to their living room.”
Yet, for all their connections, or perhaps because of them, Felix’s parents decided to break with their Jewish ancestry. Baptized and raised without a religious education, Felix became a member of the Reformed church, and this factor eventually led him to accept a commission to compose a “Symphony to Celebrate the Church Revolution.” The occasion was the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous Augsburg Confession, which was to be feted in June of 1830, though the celebration was subsequently canceled on account of rising political tensions in Europe. The planned Paris premiere two years later was also scrubbed when the players rejected Mendelssohn’s score. The composer, among Europe’s elite conductors, ended up directing the first performance in Berlin.
The symphony opens with a stately, solemn introduction featuring a clarion call and, twice towards its conclusion, a cadential formula known as the “Dresden Amen,” a series of six rising notes associated with Dresden (Catholic!) church services (those familiar with the operas of Richard Wagner will recognize this gesture in Parsifal). The Allegro proper is dark and unsettling because of its minor mode and agitated sixteenth-note passagework, dispatched relentlessly by the violins. The movement draws increasingly on the clarion call from the introduction and the Dresden Amen, which keeps the increasing unrest in check. The two movements that follow are far less serious in intent. A jaunty scherzo follows first, providing a welcome foil to the seriousness that preceded it. The pastoral section at its center adds further buoyancy with its absolutely charming wind-dominated writing. There follows an all-too-brief Andante, constructed in A-B-A song form, an arioso in all but words, its languishing, searching melody sung by the violins. The benedictory mood at its close gives way to a flute solo, Martin Luther’s universally known chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”). Note how exquisitely Mendelssohn varies the chorale repetition—such moments make it clear why his scores remain models for orchestration classes to this day.
The finale is a tour de force of formal mastery. Mendelssohn twice bumps up the tempo, first re-inventing the chorale (still more miraculously orchestrated) and then introducing a rocketing arpeggio figure, deftly weaving the chorale in and out of the texture. Following the cello and clarinet reinventions of the chorale comes an extended passage of “learned” counterpoint—voices operating relatively independent of one another, a technique common to Bach and the Baroque and which raised the hackles of the Parisian orchestra—extremely intricate part writing that will soon serve as the accompaniment of the chorale. And finally, the earlier “learned” contrapuntal style is subsequently subsumed by the Lutheran chorale. As a Protestant, Mendelssohn sought to defend his faith in sound, his score ultimately celebrating the triumph of Protestantism.
Whatever the message, Mendelssohn was actually far from satisfied with the final results. He not only withdrew the work from publication but requested that the music be burned (which it thankfully was not). It was finally published posthumously in 1868, as his 5th Symphony, despite being the second composed. We can perhaps appreciate the composer’s dissatisfaction with his score, given its lack of cohesion and imbalance, particularly when one compares the religious/serious content of the outer movements to the spirited scherzo and gracious Andante at its center. Still, for all its unusual qualities, the symphony remains an exquisitely crafted work containing moments of genuine inspiration—the final three minutes alone are among the most thrilling in the repertoire. In the end, the Reformation remains a glorious experience, and regardless of one’s religious beliefs, Mendelssohn’s achievement reaffirms our own faith in the power of music.
(c) Marc Moskovitz