Friday, February 24, 2012

Program notes: March 9-11

Second only to “Peter and the Wolf” in popularity, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is one part neo-classicism (harkening back to an 18th century idiom), and one part innovation, stirred by a belief that music should nourish with hope and beauty. The result is delicious! Our soloist for Richard Strauss’s first horn concerto is the amazing Jennifer Montone, principal horn with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Strauss’ abiding love for the heroic French horn, and his indebtedness to the style of Schumann and Mendelssohn, are evident in this remarkably mature early work. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s paean to heroism, his Third Symphony. Although the “Eroica” includes the most famous funeral march in the literature, death does not have the last word in this epic, immortal symphony. Keep reading for the complete concert schedule and program notes.

Friday, March 9, 7:30 p.m.
Bellows Falls Opera House, Bellows Falls

Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m.
Flynn Center, Burlington
Part of the Masterworks Series

Sunday, March 11, 4 p.m.
Paramount Theatre, Rutland
Part of the Sunday Matinee Series

Jaime Laredo, conductor
Jennifer Montone, horn

PROKOFIEV Classical Symphony
STRAUSS Horn Concerto No. 1
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3, "Eroica"

Classical Symphony, Op. 25
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

“It is the duty of the composer to serve his fellow men, to beautify human life and point the way to radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it.” –SP

Prokofiev’s first music teacher was his mother, and it is to her influence and the Beethoven sonatas he heard her play in his infancy that he attributed his penchant for neo-classicism, or the imitation of the classical style of the eighteenth century. Innovation was the other principal feature of his work in which he took pride, and it was a gibe at his “elementary harmony” from his teacher Taneieff which Prokofiev claimed was the foundation of his need for an individual idiom. This recipe of one part neo-classicism and one part innovation, stirred by a belief that music should endow mankind with a sense of hope and beauty, resulted in Prokofiev’s delicious Classical Symphony.

Growing up in a musical home, Prokofiev began composing early and was always at the piano. While a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he composed well over a hundred works, which he considered student work, not suitable for publication. By 1914, he had established a style with elements of humor and lyricism, popularized by short piano pieces. After a couple of important works for orchestra, Prokofiev decided to push himself away from the piano as a compositional tool.

Until this time I had always composed at the piano, but I noticed that the thematic material composed away from the piano was often better. I had been toying with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano. I believed that the orchestra would sound more natural. That is how the project for a symphony in the Haydn style had come into being. Had Haydn lived in our day, he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time.

The Classical Symphony is the most popular of Prokofiev’s works, and in it are his signature techniques of sudden shifts of tonality, deceptive cadences, and leaping melodic intervals, all in the service of mischief in classical dress. It’s a short dress, too, less than 15 minutes.

I. Allegro – This is an utterly polite and miniature version of a typical Haydn or Mozart first symphonic movement, with a second theme that has the violins flapping from high string to low to play a melody con eleganza: a bald-faced, inelegantly placed line of pitches, which, above all, are to be played in an unflappable manner!

II. Larghetto – A soothing melody in violins is heard over a gently rocking accompaniment in the other strings, the melody later heard in solo flute. After a contrasting section with pizzicato, the first melody returns.

III. Gavotta: non troppo allegro – Here a gavotte takes the place of the usual minuet. Originally a peasant dance, the gavotte was adopted by the French court, and by the eighteenth century was a dignified exercise involving large measures of pomp and posturing. Prokofiev features deft harmonic surprises in this movement.

IV. Finale: molto vivace – Once the finale starts, it never looks back. The listener is swept along on a breathtaking and brilliant drive to the symphony’s conclusion.

--Hilary Hatch

Horn Concerto No. 1 in Eb Major, Op. 11
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Richard Strauss’s father Franz was a distinguished French horn player, principal in the Munich Opera House Orchestra. Although the first concerto was written for him (in 1882, at the very beginning of the young composer’s career), the elder Strauss found it too difficult to play! Schumann is the dominant influence here; it’s easy to hear the earlier composer’s Konzertstuck for four horns in some of the more declamatory sections, especially at the beginning of the piece.

After the virile opening bars, which provide the soloist a bravura hunting motif, there is a far more lyrical second subject. The horn takes the lead throughout the development section, while the orchestra merely underlines the solo part and provides a few short bridge passages, including one that gently leads straight into the second movement.

The middle movement, Andante, is a lyrical ballad for the horn, presented over a rudimentary orchestral accompaniment built from a simple, repetitive four-note figure. Partway through, the soloist takes up a more extroverted theme over twittering woodwinds. The inspiration now seems to be the French opera aria.

The finale is a fast rondo featuring a brilliant main melody for the horn. This gives way to more expansive but still urgent material. The scherzo-like final bars require fine control and an extremely light touch, as if Strauss were turning to Mendelssohn as his muse. The entire work is marked by exuberance, and its success stems from both a deep understanding of the French horn’s technical challenges and a devotion to its beauty.

Jennifer Montone, French horn

Jennifer joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as principal horn in 2006. She was the principal horn of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 2003 to 2006. Formerly associate principal of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, she was an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University and was a faculty performer at the Aspen Music Festival and School from 2005 to 2009.

She has played concertos with the Saint Louis, Dallas, and National symphony orchestras; the Philadelphia Orchestra; and the Polish National Radio Symphony, among others, and has performed chamber music with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as well as at festivals in La Jolla, Santa Fe, Marlboro, Bay Chamber Concerts, and Spoleto, Italy.

Her numerous honors and awards include the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant (2006), Paxman Young Horn Player of the Year in London (1996), and Presidential Scholar for Musical Achievement (1995). A native of northern Virginia, she graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Jennifer joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in 2007.

Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The original manuscript of the “Eroica” lay ready in Beethoven’s apartment for the trip to Paris via the French Embassy in Vienna. There was nothing written on the title page save two names: “Bonaparte” at the top and “Luige van Beethoven” at the bottom. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was intended as a paean to one of his great heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte. To the composer, Napoleon was the very essence, the flower of democratic genius, with the message of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” for all mankind. On May 18, 1804, Napoleon did the last thing Beethoven expected him to do and assumed the title of “Emperor.” Upon hearing this news, the former admirer seized his “Eroica” manuscript, ripped off the title page, tore it in two and threw it to the floor. On his own personal conducting copy of the score he scratched out the word Bonaparte so violently that he tore a hole in the paper.

The symphony was renamed and published as “Sinfonia eroica per festiggiare il sovvenire d’ un gran uomo”-- “Heroic Symphony, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”

Beethoven left no actual program to this symphony, though many have attempted to ascribe one to it, including Berlioz, Marx, and Wagner. Suffice it to say that the thought behind the work is obvious in the nature of the musical material. There is an enormous stylistic gap between Beethoven’s first two symphonies and the third: “Eroica” makes it hard to imagine Beethoven as a student of Haydn, as he was a mere ten years earlier. (At that time, Haydn saw his young student as a musical rebel whose creations held aspects of senseless license—to Beethoven, his teacher was an old fogy. They were never friends, and their influence on one another was negligible. Although Beethoven later came to appreciate his teacher’s genius, he said flatly: “I never learned anything from Haydn.”)

The first public performance of the Symphony took place at the Theater an Wien on April 7, 1805, at a concert sponsored by violinist Franz Clement. The work was dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, obviously the most opportune hero of the moment. Its debut was not a total success—one gentleman in the gallery shouted down “I’d give another kreuzer if they would stop.” Other, more considered opinions were mixed: “…virtually a daring and wild fantasia…There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the composer are obvious; but…the work seems to lose itself in utter confusion.”

In Nussdorf, in the summer of 1817, when Beethoven had written all but his ultimate symphony, he sat with the poet Christian Kuffner at dinner in the tavern Zur Rose. Kuffner asked his friend which of his symphonies was his favorite. “Aha,” said Beethoven. “Why, the ‘Eroica.’” The poet remarked: “I should have guessed the c minor [5th].” “No,” Beethoven insisted, “the ‘Eroica.’”

I. Allegro con brio. There is no introduction, unlike Beethoven’s previous symphonies. The movement starts with two short major chords and a stark announcement of the “hero” theme. The inner mood of the whole movement is one of harmonic tension, ever seeking and failing to resolve itself fully. The second theme is less melody than a succession of chords, a harmonic rather than a melodic theme. This movement is much more plastic than anything in the previous symphonies, without the sharp demarcation of themes, and it features a boldness of dissonance and syncopation not heard before.

II. Marcia funèbre: Adagio assai. This is a funeral march on an epic scale. There is a central section in a major key, more sustained, but the climax is reached in fugal development followed by a “Judgment Day” proclamation of the trombones. The march ends brokenly, in disjointed fragments. After hearing of Napoleon’s death, Beethoven, who had not spoken of him for seventeen years, remarked: “I have already composed the proper music for the catastrophe.”

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace. The Scherzo seems to say that death does not have the last word in Beethoven’s mind. It bears the promise of renewal and resurrection, and has been felt by program seekers to represent “merrymaking in the soldier’s camp,” “truce at the grave,” or “funeral games given in honor of the dead hero.”

IV. Finale: Allegro molto. The choice for the finale is a theme that appeared throughout the years in Beethoven’s works. Nicknamed the “Prometheus” theme after its youthful introduction in his “Prometheus” ballet, it then surfaced as the basis for fifteen piano variations, op. 35, and the melody of a contradance. The finale of the symphony is the ultimate treatment of the theme, eleven variations and a presto coda (actually a twelfth variation), so protean in nature that they suggest, as a last word, the power and infinite variety of existence beyond the confines of mortal concerns.

--Hilary Hatch