Friday, September 14, 2012

Program notes: Made in Vermont Music Festival

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s annual Made in Vermont Music Festival statewide tour is coming to a town near you! Join friends and neighbors for some brilliant music to go along with Vermont’s brilliant fall foliage. The program includes a sparkling work by Haydn’s baby brother Michael; a world premiere by University of Vermont composer David Feurzeig; a darkly appealing piece for string orchestra by Dmitri Shostakovich; and Schubert’s richly melodic Symphony No. 5. Anthony Princiotti conducts. Keep reading for the complete tour schedule and program notes.

Friday, September 21, 7:30 pm
Johnson State College Dibden Center for the Arts, Johnson
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Saturday, September 22, 7:30 pm
Vergennes Opera House, Vergennes
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Sunday, September 23, 4:00 pm
Haskell Opera House, Derby Line
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Thursday, September 27, 7:30 pm
Lyndon State College Alexander Twilight Theatre, Lyndonville
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Friday, September 28, 7:30 pm
Bellows Falls Opera House, Bellows Falls
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Saturday, September 29, 7:30 pm
Chandler Center for the Arts, Randolph
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Sunday, September 30, 3:00 pm
Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans
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Monday, October 1, 7:00 pm
Castleton State College Fine Arts Center, Castleton
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Symphony No. 25 in G Major, P. 16
Michael Haydn (1737-1806)

Johann Michael Haydn was an Austrian composer of the classical period, the younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn. His Symphony No. 25 was composed in 1783. The opus was for a long time believed to be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 37, but it is now known that Mozart only added an Andante maestoso introduction. The work is in three movements: Allegro con spirito, Andante sostenuto, and Allegro molto.

Michael Haydn's fame is now considerably overshadowed by that of his older brother, Franz Joseph Haydn, but he was a prolific composer who in his day was much admired. Further, the passage of time has allowed an appreciation of his music's impact upon succeeding generations: he influenced both Mozart and Schubert, and he was the teacher of such notable composers as Carl Maria von Weber and Anton Diabelli.

Like Franz Joseph, Michael Haydn was born in Rohrau, in Lower Austria. He left home around 1745 to attend the choir school at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where he received instruction in general subjects, singing, keyboard and violin. It was at St. Stephen's that Haydn gained a reputation for his unusually clear and beautiful voice, as well as for its extremely large range of three octaves. He was dismissed from St. Stephen's when his voice broke.

In 1757, Haydn was appointed Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein in Hungary. He served the Bishop until 1763, when he accepted the position of Konzertmeister to Archbishop Sigismund Schrettenbach in Salzburg. This appointment put Haydn in a position to have a profound impact on the young Mozart, who spent his formative years in Salzburg.

With the death in 1777 of the first organist at Trinity Church, Haydn was appointed to the post. Concurrently, Mozart became the organist at the cathedral. When Mozart left the employ of the Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo in 1781, Haydn took over at the cathedral as well. He died in Salzburg in 1806 and was buried in the cemetery at St. Peter's.

Haydn was an extremely versatile composer who wrote in both the stile antico, represented by the music of Fux, and in more modern styles; his masses followed the tradition of concluding the Gloria and Credo with fugues. Haydn made his greatest contribution in the area of sacred music, but fortunately also made time to compose some wonderful secular music like the symphony we hear today.

Sinfonia for String Orchestra, arr. Drew
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet Russian composer and pianist and was one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. He achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of Leon Trotsky’s chief of staff, but later had a difficult relationship with the government. Nevertheless, he received many accolades and state awards during his lifetime.

The String Quartet No. 8 in c minor is the most loved of all Shostakovich's quartets, and is performed more frequently than all of the other fourteen together. It has also been arranged by various people for string orchestra. The quartet has five linked movements and lasts about 20 minutes. Despite its popularity, the work can evoke feelings of gloom and melancholy. What is it about this quartet that, in spite of its austere and tragic music, explains its outstanding appeal?

Unlike most of Shostakovich's other quartets, the meaning of the Eighth, like its origins, was initially believed to be easily understood. It is the only substantial work that Shostakovich composed outside Russia. It was written in 1960 while Shostakovich was visiting the former Communist State of East Germany. Officially he was there to write the score for the Soviet film Five Days - Five Nights, a film centering on the ruin of Dresden. The center of that beautiful baroque city had been destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945 by a massive and infamous aerial incendiary attack by British and American bombers. The film used the destruction of the city as the background for a fictional story. While working on the film score, Shostakovich also composed the quartet, which too him just three days. In the USSR the quartet was referred to as the “Dresden Quartet.”

All five movements of the quartet are written in the minor mode, but the first and last are in c minor, which traditionally, from Purcell through Schubert to Brahms, has been a tragic key (although some composers, notably Beethoven, have used it for works conjuring up heroism). But Shostakovich gave the work a dedication which firmly identified it with the tragic: “In Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War.”

The sombre dedication fits well with the gravity of the quartet, whose moods throughout its five movements range through various shades of darkness. The anguish of the quartet, according to Shostakovich, reflected his thoughts on visiting the ruined city. This explanation, then universally accepted, was reinforced at the beginning of the fourth movement, when four notes are repeated against a low drone, bringing to mind the sound of anti-aircraft fire and the menacing whine of a bomber high in the sky above.

But this explanation did not long survive Shostakovich's death in 1975. In 1979 a book appeared in the West entitled Testimony, which claimed to be the composer's memoirs, as told to, and subsequently edited by, an associate named Solomon Volkov. The book was highly controversial because it showed Shostakovich not as a passive supporter of the Soviet regime, but as a closet dissident. Protests followed the book's publication. It was first accused of being a forgery (which in parts it was), but it was also hailed as reflecting the spirit of Shostakovich's thoughts (which it is now generally believed to do).

Music critics also found much to ponder in the book because it included passages which upset their previously held consensus, like this one concerning the Eighth Quartet. “When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of ‘exposing fascism.’ You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote “Lady Macbeth,” the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet; it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”

High Water
David Feurzeig, composer

High Water, an impression of Irene and its aftermath, is in three continuous sections. “Rain” starts off with gentle falling figures representing the storm’s deceptively mild onset. The descending music builds but is soon overpowered by ascending gestures depicting the rivers’ inexorable and destructive rise.

A precipitous climax is abruptly silenced by the slow central section, “Silt.” The emotional heart of the piece, it begins with brooding string chords which suggest the tenacious muck left in Irene’s wake and the feeling of paralysis as people struggled to dig out from the mire. A tortuous climbing melody emerges from the chords only to fall back repeatedly, ending “Silt” where it began. The melody is punctuated by mourning dove cries from the woodwinds—a lament, but also an augur that the waters will eventually recede.

A haunting statement of the refrain from “Goodnight Irene” links to the final section, “Grit,” a celebration of the communal resolve that followed the devastation. It is announced by a rousing theme from Castleton composer Ebenezer Child’s hymn “Vermont,” which reads in part: Lord, thou hast called thy grace to mind, Thou hast reversed thy heavy doom. Thou made thy fiercest wrath abate, And brought thy wand’ring captives home.

Following a triumphant development, a brief coda reprises the gentle rain music of the opening, as the horn bids Irene one last goodnight. The flute, though, has the final word: “I’ll see you in my dreams….”

Thanks to the VSO for commissioning High Water, to Anthony Princiotti and the musicians for realizing it, and to Pete Sutherland for helping me find “Vermont.”

Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, D. 485
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

It is sometimes difficult to believe that Franz Schubert lived fewer than thirty-two years. He wrote about 600 songs and almost 1000 more compositions, music in almost every form that existed in his time. We even divide them into periods – early, middle and late works. His was an extraordinarily full, long life, condensed into a short period of time. Mozart and Mendelssohn, in their thirty-six years, had important public careers, though very different ones, and were well-known figures in the musical world. Schubert was not altogether unknown, but he never really had a place in concert life. There is no record of a public performance of any of his symphonies until after his death.

He was born when Beethoven was twenty-seven years old, and he died sixteen months after Beethoven, but they inhabited different Viennas. Schubert had few connections with the great and wealthy families who had supported Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Some of his friends were people of “quality” and he even spent two summers in Hungary as a music teacher to the Esterházys, but for the most part he lived his life as an ordinary Viennese. It was a simple life of the kind later called “Bohemian,” lived with a group of friends, many of them talented and some of them from rich families, compared with Schubert’s. They attended concerts when they could, admired the great musicians of their time and worshipped Beethoven from a distance.

Schubert wrote his Bb Symphony during a few weeks in the fall of 1816, when he was nineteen. It was played soon afterward by a sort of teaching orchestra that the composer’s father had organized, at a friend’s home. The light scoring probably tells us exactly what instruments were on hand. The music was put aside and forgotten until about fifty years later, when George Grove, the original editor of the famous Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, went to Vienna to search for the lost manuscripts of Schubert’s unpublished works. Among the treasures they brought home to London were this and three more symphonies.

The four movements of the Fifth Symphony follow the classical models that young Schubert had before him: Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven. The first is a gracious Allegro movement and the second, a smooth and expressive Andante con moto. The Minuet, Allegro molto, is patterned directly after that of Mozart’s great g minor Symphony, and the finale, Allegro vivace, is richly melodic. All but the Minuet are in variants of the sonata form.

-- Hilary Hatch