Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Program notes: Made in Vermont Music Festival

The Made in Vermont Music Festival Statewide Tour crisscrosses Vermont during our glorious fall foliage season, bringing classical chamber works to eight communities along the way. The tour begins in Johnson on September 23 and continues on to Vergennes (9/24), Derby Line (9/25), Lyndonville (9/29), Bellows Falls (9/30), Randolph (10/1), Woodstock (10/2), and Castleton (10/3). Tickets are available now at the Flynn Regional Box Office online, in person, or by calling (802) 86-FLYNN. The concert includes a fond look backward at summer with Honegger’s serene Pastorale d’été. A salute to autumn follows naturally, in a world premiere commission by award-winning composer Robert Paterson. Music Director Jaime Laredo is featured in one of Mozart’s most humorous pieces, Serenata Notturno, in which the timpanist gets equal billing with a solo string quartet! Sibelius’ Valse Triste, beloved of filmmakers, portrays an unearthly waltz by spectral couples. The performance concludes with Haydn’s Symphony No. 53, aptly nicknamed L’Imperiale. Keep reading for the program notes for this series.

Serenata Notturno No. 6 in D Major, K. 239
W.A. Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born only six years after the death of Bach, was the most wide-ranging of composers in the idioms he adopted, absorbing musical elements from both past and present. In his more popular works, such as his serenades or divertimenti he would sometimes adopt the old concerto form or alternatively write a suite of dances after the old French manner.

The Serenata Notturno employs the concerto form. In fact, it is very much like the Baroque concerto grosso familiar to the earlier composers– Corelli, Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel. In such a three movement concerto, the larger body of players (the ripieno) is set off against the concertino, or smaller group. In this case the ripieno consists of the main string body, minus double bass but with tympani, while the concertino consists of a quartet of two violins, viola, and double bass. The interplay of these two groups provides contrast, variety, and not a little humor.

Yet the sound and internal organization of the Serenata Notturno are very different from that of a Baroque concerto. By Mozart's time the style of music had changed. The basso continuo, performed by a keyboard instrument, was disappearing. Vivaldi and other composers of the baroque period also witnessed in their later years a falling away in the use of counterpoint. Deemed archaic, it was being replaced by short aria-like phrases from the Italian and French operatic traditions when Mozart was born (in 1756) and three years later when the older Haydn entered the service of the Esterhazy family as court composer.

The new idiom was known as the style galant because of its tuneful elegance and charming stylishness. It is this style that Mozart learned and mastered as a boy, and which pervades his early music such as this Serenata Notturno. Written in January 1776, it may have been devised for the city of Salzburg's New Year's celebrations. No one is sure of its exact purpose, but its joyous lighthearted spirit, tinged with little patches of humor, suggest Mozart in a happy frame of mind, despite his increasingly irksome dealings with his boss, the demanding and unpleasant Archbishop of Salzburg.

The first movement, as the title Marcia suggests, is indeed march-like, but in the light genteel manner of the prevailing gallant style. It is also arranged in the simple sonata-allegro form of the early classical period, with a strong first subject followed by a gentler second. Mozart has fun in his brief development section with syncopations, string plucking and tympani noise, before the return of the two opening subjects.

The second movement Menuetto continues in a similarly charming vein. The dotted rhythm brings a kind of jaunty elegance to the dance, where the middle Trio section, given to the concertino group, is characterized by a lighter touch, with delightful triplet figures weaving dainty traceries around the main melody.

The main theme of the third movement Rondo moves along at a brisk pace, but then is halted in its tracks by one of those Mozartian interruptions we often come across during the course of his final movements. This time it is an Adagio, played with due seriousness by the smaller concertino group. It sounds very much like a dig at the Baroque solemnities of the earlier generation (very Handelian in fact), but Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein suggests that this brief tune, along with the next much faster one, refer to popular tunes of the day probably well-known to the local populace. And as Mozart so easily slid into these little diversions, so does he slide out of them and back to the main Rondo theme, to finish off the piece in a lively fashion.

Pastorale d’été

Arnold Honegger (1892-1955)

Pastorale d’été
(Summer Pastorale) is a short symphonic poem for chamber orchestra inspired by a vacation trip the composer took in the Swiss alps in 1920. The score is inscribed with an epigraph by the poet Arthur Rimbaud: “J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été” (I have embraced the summer dawn). The mood is atmospheric and restrained: it seems to be a musical impression of a peaceful early morning in the mountains. The work begins with a languorous soaring theme in the French horn, which is then taken up by the strings. Flute and clarinet tell us the birds are already singing. The middle section is more lively, and colorfully orchestrated; the main theme returns to close the piece in the placid manner of the opening.

Honegger was one of six French composers traditionally bracketed together as the “Les Six,” a composers’ avant garde of the 1920s. Honegger, however, went his own way, not being interested in the new craze for jazz, and admiring rather than disavowing Wagner, Debussy, and Ravel. He stood instead for the classical virtues of balance and craftsmanship, and was drawn to Romantic imagery. The editor of the 1924 pocket score of this piece declared, “Pastorale d’été is absolute music which steers clear from descriptive tendencies.” This is nonsense! Pastorale d’été is a perfect example of illustrative music at its most exquisite.

Robert Paterson
Dark Mountains

Vermont is famous for its green mountains, but I often find myself taking long drives through the mountains at night or on overcast days, when the mountains lose color and become gray silhouettes. Many roads in Vermont are so dark, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom, that you need to use headlights, even during the day. Dark Mountains is meant to portray the beauty and grandeur of the mountains and the peacefulness of the open roads, but also the darkness and occasional treacherous passes one may encounter during the evening hours. The piece is in three connected sections. The first section portrays the calmness and austerity of a quiet evening. The second is inspired by a fast drive down winding country roads, with twists and turns, frequent tempo changes and shifting gears. The final section evokes the feeling of looking at the nighttime sky with moonlight shining through the trees and the sounds of nature in the distance.

I would like to thank the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Jaime Laredo, David Ludwig and the VSO staff for the opportunity to write this piece. This orchestra holds a special place in my heart, since my wife and I played in the orchestra years ago and I have many friends in the orchestra.
This piece is commissioned by and dedicated to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Jaime Laredo, Music Director, for the 2011 Made in Vermont Music Festival statewide concert tour

– Robert Paterson

Valse triste, Op. 44, No. 1
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Valse triste (Sad waltz) is a short orchestral work by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was originally part of the incidental music he composed for his brother-in-law Arvid Jarnefelt’s 1903 play Kuolema (Death). In 1904 Sibelius revised the piece, which was performed in Helsinki on April 25 under the current title. It was an instant hit with the public, took on a life of its own, and remains one of Sibelius’ signature pieces.

The background to the music as it functions within the original play is expanded upon by the program notes for the production:

It is night. The son, who has been watching beside the bedside of his sick mother, has fallen asleep from sheer weariness. Gradually, a ruddy light is diffused through the room: there is a sound of distant music. The glow and the music steal nearer until the strains of a waltz melody float distantly to our ears. The sleeping mother awakens, rises from her bed and, in her long white garment, which takes the semblance of a ball dress, begins to move silently and slowly to and fro. She waves her hands and beckons in time to the music, as though she were summoning a crowd of invisible guests. And now they appear, these strange visionary couples, turning and gliding to an unearthly waltz rhythm. The dying woman mingles with the dancers; she strives to make them look into her eyes, but the shadowy guests one and all avoid her glance. Then she seems to sink exhausted on her bed and the music breaks off. Presently she gathers all her strength and invokes the dance once more, with more energetic gestures than before. Back come the shadowy dancers, gyrating in a wild, mad rhythm. The weird gaiety reaches a climax; there is a knock at the door, which flies wide open. The mother utters a despairing cry, the spectral guests vanish, the music dies away. Death stands on the threshold.

A synthesizer version of Valse triste was used in Making The Shining, a documentary by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter about her father’s film. The music was also used in the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. The animated film Allegro Non Troppo used Valse triste in “Feline Fantasies,” a segment about the ghost of a cat roaming around the ruins of the house it once inhabited.

Symphony No. 53 in D Major, L’Imperiale
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

In 1761, Haydn was hired as assistant Kapellmeister by the Esterhazy family, for whom he was to work for 32 years. These fabulously wealthy Hungarian nobles maintained one of the best musical establishments in Europe. As a servant of Prince Esterhazy, Haydn reported for orders twice a day. He had to select and manage an orchestra, conduct two concerts a week, organize the music library, copy music, and of course compose. Although Haydn was chronically overworked (on one of his scores, he corrected an error, noting “Written while asleep” ) and missed the gaiety of Vienna’s social life, on the whole, he felt fortunate. “My Prince was always satisfied with my work. Not only did I have the encouragement of constant approval, but as conductor of the orchestra I could experiment, find out what made a good effect and what weakened it, so I was free to alter, improve, add, or omit, and be as bold as I pleased. Cut off from the world, I had no one to bother me and was forced to become original.” Although his fame soon spread beyond Esterhaza, Haydn was always modest about his talents. He attributed most of his success to hard work. “I was never a quick writer,” he said, “and composed with care and diligence.” He was forced to admit, however, “I did, of course, have talent.”

That talent is very evident in his wonderful Symphony No. 53. No one seems quite clear about the subtitle “L’imperiale,” but the most obvious explanation is that it was played for the imperial court during one of their state visits to the Esterhazy castle of Kittsee. It became the most popular of all of Haydn’s pre-Paris symphonies. “Elegant” is the first adjective that occurs to describe the work; yet there rich passages of exceptional beauty as well.

James Webster has grouped the Symphony No. 53 with others of the same period (1770s) and categorized Haydn’s writing during this time as “theatrical and popular.” Prince Esterhazy may have instructed Haydn that he had gone too far in the experimentation of his Sturm und Drang period; whatever the reason, there is a definite stylistic change in works from this period. Haydn seems to be turning his increasing technical command towards entertainment.

The second movement is in double variation form (ABA1B1, etc.), a format which Haydn perfected in slow movements from works he composed in this decade. This beautiful symphony reaches its peak in an amazing finale—and there is a choice to be made! There are multiple finales--at least four that we know of—for this work, although two of them may not have been written by Haydn. The first, composed in 1777, was an adaptation of the overture to an unknown opera. The second originally had no flute or timpani parts, but H. Robbins Landon added them in the Eulenburg edition he edited. In case you are curious, we will be using the former in our performance today.