Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Program notes: December 5 Masterworks Series

The VSO offers a five-concert Saturday Masterworks series at the Flynn Center in Burlington. All concerts begin at 8:00 p.m. and are preceded at 7:00 p.m. by Musically Speaking, a free pre-concert discussion that provides entertaining insight into the evening’s program. Anthony Princiotti conducts our second concert in the series, to be performed Saturday, December 5, at the Flynn Center in Burlington. Click "Keep reading!" to peruse the program notes.

Trittico Botticelliano
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

In 1900 Respighi left his job as an orchestral violinist in Bologna, Italy to travel to St. Petersburg. There he was to play first viola for the Russian Imperial Theater's season of Italian opera. More important, the move brought him within striking distance of his goal to receive instruction in composition and orchestration from his idol, Rimsky-Korsakov. At his earliest opportunity, Respighi called on the Russian master and found a throng of like-minded admirers. After glancing at one of Respighi's scores, Rimsky-Korsakov announced, "I can see nobody else today!" and closeted himself with his young pupil, becoming his instructor for the five remaining months of Respighi's Russian stay.

Encouraged by his early teacher in Bologna to recognize that music other than opera deserved to be written (revolutionary thinking in Italy!), Respighi became the great Italian orchestral composer of his time. Involved in scholarly interests as well, he revered the Italian legacy of Renaissance music and art. Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures) is the composer’s musical impression of three paintings by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. An evocative blend of the classical and romantic, the work was commissioned by Washington arts philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1926 following a tour of the United States by Respighi as pianist/conductor.

I. La Primavera - "Spring.” The painting is a sylvan scene including shepherds, nymphs, the goddess Flora and the three Graces. In the tradition of Vivaldi, Respighi heralds spring with bird calls and a rustic dance melody.

II. L'Adorazione dei Magi - "The Adoration of the Kings.” This small painting is overwhelming in its visual offerings of richly-dressed pilgrims descending from fine horses to worship the Mother and infant Christ child. The music opens with a moving Siciliana, and the contrapuntal melodic line includes wisps of Gregorian chant.

III. La Nascita di Venere - "The Birth of Venus.” This famous painting depicts the nude Venus, born of the sea, standing in the middle of a scallop shell above the life-giving waters. The music evokes the play of the waves that Debussy captured in La Mer. The long and sensuous melody that represents Venus grows to an eloquent crescendo, then fades to a close.

--Hilary Hatch

Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms kept his audience waiting for six years between his second and third symphonies. He did the bulk of the work on this piece in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, where his new young love, contralto Hermine Spiess, lived. As different from the first two as they are from each other, the Third reflects a more personal and intimate side of the composer. Eduard Hanslick, oft-quoted reviewer of the period, promptly nicknamed the symphony “Eroica,” although he pointed out that the only heroic parts were the opening and closing movements, which frame movements that “quiver with the romantic twilight of Schumann and Mendelssohn.” The Third is the least frequently performed of Brahms’ four symphonies, possibly because it is the only one which does not have a rousing, triumphant ending. It is undeniably a masterpiece, however: a product of the mature artist at the height of his powers, a work that fairly bursts with vitality and strength.

Karl Geiringer’s biography of Brahms has this to say about the symphony:

Like the first two symphonies, the Third is introduced by a brief motto; this not only provides the bass for the grandiose principal subject of the first movement, but dominates the whole symphony. It assumes a particularly important role in the first movement, before the beginning of the recapitulation. After the passionate development, the waves of excitement calm down, and the horn announces the motto, in a mystic Eb Major, as a herald of heavenly peace. Passionless, clear, almost objective serenity speaks to us from the second movement. No Andante of such emotional tranquility is to be found in the works of the youthful Brahms. Particularly attractive is the first theme of the following Poco Allegretto, which (in spite of its great simplicity) is stamped with a highly individual character by its constant alternation of rhythms. Further, Brahms contrived to make the concise three-fold form of the movement more effective by orchestrating the da capo of the first part in quite a different manner. Such a mixture of simplicity and refinement is characteristic of Brahms in his later years. The Finale is a tremendous conflict of elemental forces; it is only in the Coda that calm returns. Like a rainbow after a thunderstorm, the motto, played by the flute, spans the turmoil of the other voices with its message of hope and freedom.

Symphony No. 2 in c minor, Op. 17, “Little Russian”
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

In the summer of 1872, after an exhausting year of working too hard, Tchaikovsky visited his sister, Alexandra, in the rural village of Kamenka, in the Ukraine. Inspired by the peasant songs he heard, he started work on his second symphony. Tchaikovsky put the finishing touches on the piece in Moscow in November of that year, and wrote to his brother, “Modi, my conscience pricks me. That is my punishment for not having written to you for so long. But what can I do when the symphony, which is nearing completion, occupies me so entirely that I can think of nothing else? It seems to me my best work, at least so far as correctness of form is concerned, a quality for which I have not so far distinguished myself.” Tchaikovsky showed the manuscript to Rimsky-Korsakov and the other members of the Russian ultra-nationalist group known as “The Five”—Mussorgsky, Borodin, Balakireff, and Cui—and received enthusiastic praise from them.

The premiere was a success, yet Tchaikovsky, ever his own severest critic, was not satisfied. Seven years later, he undertook a major overhaul. He wrote to his friend and patroness Madame von Meck, “How I thank the fate that made Bessel fail in his contract and never print this score! How much seven years can mean when a man is striving for progress in his work! Is it possible that seven years hence I shall look upon what I write today as I look at my music written in 1872? I know it is possible because perfection—the ideal—is boundless.”

I. Andante sostenuto; Allegro vivo. The slow introduction begins with a melancholy French horn solo, a melody taken from the Ukrainian variant of the folk song, “Down by Mother Volga.” The main theme presents a stormy, vigorous motive which contrasts with the lyrical, gently yearning second theme. An energetic development section develops both themes to a brilliant climax, after which the slow horn solo is heard once more.

II. Andantino marziale, quasi moderato. The slow movement begins with the tragic wedding march from the last act of Tchaikovsky’s opera Undine, composed in 1869 and later destroyed by the composer, save for this excerpt and a few other fragments. The central section of the movement is based on “Spin, My Spinner,” a Russian folksong that Tchaikovsky included in a compilation of folksongs published in 1868.

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace. The nimble scherzo’s rhythmic drive is punctuated by a whimsical trio featuring the woodwinds in a contrasting duple meter.

IV. Finale: Moderato assai. This movement is a set of variations--harmonic, contrapuntal, and instrumental--on the Ukrainian melody, “The Crane.” A slow introduction presents the short melody, but propulsive energy is the hallmark of the movement. The exuberant, nearly frenzied, ending inevitably reminds the listener of a fiery Cossack dance.

The designation “Little Russian” was given to this symphony by the critic Nicholas Kashkin, the Ukrainian region having been known in Tsarist days as “Little Russia.”