Friday, February 25, 2011

Program notes: March 4-6

The VSO will perform three concerts March 4-6 in Bellows Falls, Burlington, and Rutland. The program will feature violinist Bella Hristova soloing with the VSO under the baton of Jaime Laredo. Keep reading for program notes.

Click here for information about the March 4 performance in Bellows Falls.
Click here for information about the March 5 performance in Burlington.
Click here for information about the March 6 performance in Rutland.

Voyage for String Orchestra
John Corigliano (1938- )

"I care deeply about communicating with my audience," John Corigliano said in an interview.. "There is just no reason why a composer shouldn’t be able to reach large audiences in a worthwhile way, even if he uses advanced techniques….If a piece is put together with care for detail and, at the same time, with attention to the overall shape, and if the composer takes note that most listeners will not hear most of his technical procedures but will be able to follow that shape, then there is a good chance the music will communicate."

Corigliano has practiced what he preaches. His Symphony No. 1, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1990, earned the composer the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Best New Orchestral Composition--the symphonist’s Nobel Prize. The next year, his opera The Ghosts of Versailles premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, to wide acclaim. That same year, 1991, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

His successes in the 90s distract from his prior output, which contains work in all major genres including film. His soundtrack for the motion picture Altered States (1980) was nominated for an Academy Award. The source of the present work goes back even farther: to 1971, when the composer made an a cappella choral setting of Baudelaire’s 1857 poem "L’Invitation au Voyage.”. For it he used an English translation by Richard Wilbur, the American poet and linguist who provided the libretto to Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide. The composer notes that "Wilbur’s poignant setting pictures a world of obsessive imagination--a drugged version of heaven full of sensual imagery." The music reiterates a strain, inspired by the words "There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, richness, quietness and pleasure"--an image which appears repeatedly through Baudelaire’s voluptuous poetry. In 1978, the composer arranged the work for string orchestra under the title Voyage.

Violin Concerto in a minor, Op. 53
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

The great popularity of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony and his Slavonic Dances has possibly obscured the surpassing beauty and substantial merit of some of his other works, including the Violin Concerto. With its sustained flow of melody, its harmonic richness and robust orchestration, this is a compelling score which deserves a place in the violin concerto repertoire along with those of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Dvořák wrote his Violin Concerto in 1879, while spending the summer as a guest of his friend Alois Göbl, a talented amateur musician and steward on a wealthy nobleman’s estate. It was a happy time for the 37 year-old former village butcher. The year before, Dvořák’s first set of Slavonic Dances had achieved an instant success. His publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, who had paid the still unknown composer a flat fee of only 300 marks, raked in a fortune.

But Dvořák did not go wholly unrewarded. Newspapers throughout Europe hailed him as a new musical personality. One British tabloid even sensationalized the composer with the headline, “From Butcher to Baton.” Commissions poured in, among them a bid for a new concerto from Joseph Joachim, the most famous violinist of the day. (Joachim had helped both Brahms and Bruch with their concertos, which were dedicated to him.) But the finished score did not please Joachim. He returned it, asking for extensive revisions of the solo part. Even after Dvořák made the requested changes, Joachim remained dissatisfied. After two years had passed, Dvořák offered the first performance of the piece to the Czech violinist Frantisek Ondřicek, who played the premiere in Prague in the autumn of 1883. The occasion was a personal triumph for Dvořák, who took special pride in having this event take place in his native country.

The concerto is in three movements, with the opening Allegro linked without a break to the central Adagio. Dvořák firmly rejected his publisher’s suggestion to allow the customary pause between these two movements. He felt strongly that the continuity emphasized the emotional unity of the reflective and lyrical linked movements, contrasting them more effectively with the gay whirl of the Finale. In the first movement, there are a number of striking phrases which are developed in familiar symphonic style, but instead of completing the movement with a traditional reprise of the opening material, Dvořák instead writes a cadenza-like passage for soloist and orchestra which serves as a bridge to the second movement. The slow movement develops from the serenely arching melody sung at the outset by the solo violin, and closes with a poetic return of the same melody, now in the French horn. The last movement opens with a ten-bar theme in the syncopated style of a Czech furiant. This melody returns again and again in different garb but with the persistence of a rondo refrain. The folk-vein of the finale is a perfect example of the spirit which critic David Hall says “offers a glimpse into the very soul of the Czech people.”

Bella Hristova, violin

Violinist Bella Hristova won First Prize in the 2008/09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, where she was also awarded the Rhoda Walker Teagle Prize--which sponsored her New York debut in the Young Concert Artists Series at Merkin Hall--the Miriam Brody Aronson Award, the Ruth Laredo Memorial Award, the Candlelight Concert Society Concert Prize, and the Lied Center of Kansas Concert Prize.

Hristova made debut appearances in the Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, and the University of Florida. She also appeared at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Cartagena Festival Internacional de Musica, and soloed with the Owensboro (KY), Johnstown (PA), DuPage (IL), and Indianapolis symphonies. Also during the 2009/10 season, Hristova performed Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins with celebrated violinists Cho-Liang Lin and Kyoko Takezawa, and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with Indiana University’s Philharmonic Orchestra, as winner of their 2009 Concerto Competition. She has also been a guest artist with the New York String Orchestra conducted by Jaime Laredo.

As winner of First Prize in the 2007 Michael Hill International Competition in New Zealand, Hristova made a critically acclaimed concert tour of the country and recorded a CD of solo violin works by the Belgian virtuoso Charles de Bériot for the Naxos label. She was awarded a career grant from the Salon de Virtuosi in New York and performed as a new member of Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center.

Hristova has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. Festival appearances include The Grand Teton Festival, Music@Menlo, Ravinia’s Steans Institute, Music from Angel Fire, and the Marlboro Music Festival.

Born in Pleven, Bulgaria in 1985, Hristova began violin studies at the age of six. At twelve, she participated in master classes with Ruggiero Ricci at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Since the age of thirteen, she has lived in the United States, working with Stephen Shipps. In 2003, Hristova entered The Curtis Institute, where she worked with Ida Kavafian and studied chamber music with Steven Tenenbom. She is currently pursuing an Artist Diploma with Jaime Laredo at Indiana University. Hristova plays a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin, once owned by violinist Louis Krasner.

Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op. 56, “Scotch”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)

Goethe said that he was “born on a lucky day”; his name, Felix, is Latin for “happy man.” The critics who subscribe to the theory that great art is borne of the sufferings of the artist are those who feel that Mendelssohn never planted both feet firmly in the pantheon of great composers, presumably because his music lacks that certain note of angst. Although this criticism seems artificial, it is true that Mendelssohn enjoyed luxuries and encouragements that few of his counterparts experienced.

Mendelssohn was born to a family of position. His grandfather, Moses, was one of the great intellectual figures of the 18th century and his father a wealthy Hamburg banker who said of himself, “I am but a dash uniting Moses and Felix Mendelssohn.” The composer and his beloved older sister Fanny began piano lessons at a tender age with their mother, and were nurtured so carefully that by the age of 10 Mendelssohn had already gained prominence. (His sister, who was at least as gifted as her brother, was typically sacrificed to the mores of the age and not permitted to pursue an unseemly career for a woman.) The only stumbling block which existed for Mendelssohn was removed by his father, who knew that many avenues were closed to a musician who was a Jew. For the sake of his son he converted his family to Protestantism, for him a step taken with repugnance out of necessity, and later appended the name “Bartholdy” to “Mendelssohn” to distinguish his family as non-Jewish.

Mendelssohn was personable and physically attractive, engendering affection and admiration wherever he went. By age 10, the precocious boy had debuted as a concert pianist and had a composition performed in Berlin. By his teens he had already written symphonies, operas, the Octet for Strings and the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. At 20, Mendelssohn engineered two inspired performances of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew and saw the early fulfillment of an ambition to rescue Bach’s music from the oblivion into which it had passed with the general music public. After achieving this fortuitous service in his homeland, he embarked on extensive travel in other countries: England, Scotland, Italy and France.

Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland lasted only three days, but the country suffused him with impressions: “Everything here looks so stern and robust, half-enveloped in haze or smoke or fog…”; the men “with their long red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and plumes, bare knees, and their bagpipes in their hands.” He attended a bagpipe competition which his letters describe as an excruciating experience. He swam in the sea and visited Holyrood “where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there, with a winding staircase leading up to it. There the murderers ascended and finding Rizzio in the little room, dragged him out, and three chambers away is a dark corner where they killed him. The adjoining chapel is now roofless; grass and ivy grow abundantly in it; and before the altar, now in ruins, Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.”
That same day Mendelssohn wrote the opening bars of his Symphony, and continued to work on it during his Italian trip the following year. Eventually a full twelve years passed before he conducted the premiere of the work in March 1842 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn used the appellation “Scotch” whenever he referred to the symphony in his correspondence, but this nickname is just that, and does not appear on the first edition of the score. This score does include his specific directions that the four movements of the work be played without interruptions “that murder the mood.”

The introduction to the first movement (Andante con moto; Allegro un poco agitato) begins with the phrase that Mendelssohn captured in the ruined chapel, presented mournfully by violas and oboes. This idea builds to the agitated main section and appears in variation in the new key of e minor. The recapitulation recalls the opening a minor section and leads without pause to the second movement, Vivace non troppo. A solo clarinet plays the theme over tremolo violins and violas. There is a clear thematic relationship to the basic thought of the first movement but the treatment is said to be derived from an old pentatonic bagpipe melody, “Charlie is My Darling.” This Scherzo follows a traditional sonata-allegro form, and a short transition leads to the third movement, Adagio. The two main ideas here are heard in the intimate and flowing violin melody and somber chords of the winds in a dotted rhythm. The final movement (Allegro vivacissimo) begins with a dotted rhythm cascade in the violins, who present a breezy melody in thirds and sixths against chords in the violas, bassoons and horns. The second theme is a lyrical passage in the woodwinds over an organ point in the first violins, leading to a majestic coda for full orchestra.
--Hilary Hatch