Sunday, February 24, 2013

Greater Bridgeport Symphony Program Notes April 20

The music of Brahms is a perfect choice to celebrate and close the forty-one-year tenure of Gustav Meier as Music Director and Conductor of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Orchestra. It is music of the highest craft, filled with detail and careful consideration, but also saturated in wit and elegant humor. Every corner of the orchestra will be highlighted during this program, with colors ranging from the public sound of celebration to the intimacy of chamber music. Brahms was at heart an optimist and both works on the program move from darkness into light by engaging epic struggles. Brahms sought the good life in both the first symphony and the second piano concerto; but what he found was radically different in each case. These two journeys will make for a memorable evening. 

Brahms was born in the worst part of town in the slums of Hamburg in the early spring of 1833. The second of three children (he had an older sister and a younger brother); his father was a bass player in street ensembles and bars. He began his musical instruction at age seven with Friedrich Wilhelm Cossel, and three years later with Cossel’s teacher Eduard Marxsen, to whom the second piano concerto is dedicated.

When he was twenty years old he accompanied the violinist Eduard Remenyi in a concert tour. The tour took them to Altenberg where he met Liszt. Brahms offended Liszt with indifference and Remenyi ditched him. Brahms then joined forces with the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, and eventually met Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf. Robert Schumann was so impressed by Brahms that he wrote an article in the journal “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” on October 28 that proclaimed Brahms as the one “called forth to give us the highest ideal expression of our time.”

The pressure of this proclamation weighed on Brahms. He came to international attention and fame quickly for the German Requiem in 1865, a work in memory of his mother and based on oft repeated and underlined passages from her copy of the Bible.

His first symphony was finally completed after a long struggle with the materials and the conception of the work at age 43. Typical of Brahms, he followed with the second symphony almost effortlessly a year later. The second piano concerto occupied Brahms for three years and was completed in 1881. It was a work that he himself premiered as piano soloist.

 Johannes Brahms
(May 7 1833 –April 3 1897)

Symphony No. 1 Op. 68
Instrumentation: 2 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

World Premiere: November 4, 1876
Most Recent Performance by GBS: March 1999
Description: Four movements [13’  10’  5’  17’] duration.

In an unforgettable opening gesture against pulsing timpani strokes, two opposed musical lines are torn apart with the force of the entire orchestra. The movement explores an explosion of simultaneous ideas. These ideas refer to one another and are changed by their interactions, but they also refer to the symphonic tradition. “You can’t imagine” wrote Brahms, “what it means to the likes of us when we hear those footsteps behind us.” Most specifically Brahms meant the footsteps of Beethoven.

Suddenly breaking a moment of repose within the exposition of this movement Brahms scored a memorable gesture in E-flat minor that consists of isolated 3-note gestures. Listen for the way that this gesture is quickly expanded to become a four-note motto. This four-note motto will then be used to represent the footsteps of Beethoven; it invokes the use of iconic motives made famous by Beethoven, in particular the four-note motive played by the horns in the scherzo of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

During the development this four-note motive alternates with a chorale. The contrast between driving energy and religious peace seem promising; but that energy is not sustained. The recapitulation continues to drive directly into a coda with great force. Then, mysteriously, the music suddenly settles and ends without resolving its own tensions and ambiguities.

The second and third movements explore contrasting directions. They are placed in tonalities of mathematical significance [E major and Ab major along an axis of major thirds] that cause them to sound in radically different colors from the movements on either side of them. Within these movements Brahms explores the intimacies and passions of love and companionship.

The second movement opens with an extended lyrical line that is signature Brahms. Listen for the darker, questioning undersides that remain, not far away, during even the most serene passages. The central oboe solo, set in C-sharp minor, prefigures the clarinet music that opens the third movement. Interconnections are important to the musical language of Brahms.

The third movement is set as chamber music. It is an anti-scherzo. The standard scherzo model was boisterous in its outer sections with a contrasting and often more subdued trio section. This scherzo has the opposite design. Also, a scherzo is typically set in triple time; but the outer section in this scherzo is set two beats to a bar, and in odd and unpredictable phrase groupings. It is only the contrasting trio; more boisterous than the frame that surrounds it, that is set in 3 beats to the bar. The music of this movement is social and engaging; quality time spent with a best friend

The final movement returns to the deep-seated philosophical struggle and drama of the opening movement. The first and fourth movements stand like two mountain peaks within this symphony. And yet, this movement also attempts to reconcile the qualities of the inner with those of the outer movements.

A secret cipher to this movement was provided by Brahms himself. On September 12, 1868 Brahms wrote a postcard to his muse Clara Schumann. On it he quoted the famous horn melody which emerges from the slow introduction in the fourth movement. He claimed to have heard the melody played earlier in the day on an alphorn and thought of her. He wrote: “Hoch auf’m Berg, tief im Thal, grüss ich dich viel tausandmal (High in the mountains, deep in the valleys, I greet you many thousand times).”

This horn tune and another famous melody in the style of Beethoven vie for attention within this movement. Which will win in the ecstatic and victorious music at end of this symphony? Will Brahms turn toward the footsteps of Beethoven or will he embrace this vision of nature and of love? Both? Neither?

Johannes Brahms
(May 7 1833 –April 3 1897)

Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83
Instrumentation: 2 Flutes (first doubling piccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 2 Trumpets, Timpani and strings

World Premiere: November 9, 1881 with Brahms as soloist
Most Recent Performance by GBS: March 2002
Description: Four movements [16’  9’  12’  9’] duration

Classical concerti were traditionally cast in three movements. In this sense they differed from symphonies, which were set in four movements. Symphonies included a dance movement (usually a minuet or scherzo). Brahms intended this work to be symphonic in its design; it is set in four movements and the “extra” movement (the second) is a scherzo. The work is as much a symphony for piano and orchestra as it is a traditional concerto.

Standard concerti typically delayed the entrance of the solo instrument. They often had orchestral expositions that revealed the essential themes and character of the movement before the soloist entered. In this work the horn solo invokes the soloist immediately and the soloist remains a central part of the fabric of the music throughout the work.

Whereas the Symphony No. 1 had it dramatic peaks stationed in the outer movements, the second piano concerto is organized around dramatic structures that break in the center; the first two movements are peaks. Each is designed to intensify and produce a sense of ovation as they close.

The third movement sets off in a new direction. It features an extended cello solo adapted from the Brahms song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Op. 105, No. 2). This song, about the “ever quieter slumber” of death, explains that grief transcends death. The singer of the original song hears you calling from the grave as if in a dream, but “no one wakes and lets you in.” It is May in the final stanza, and the song implores; “Komm, o komme bald! [come, oh come soon].”

This music, encoded without singer in the tune of the solo cello at the opening of the movement, retains all the elements of song. When the piano enters, the music becomes a nocturne and finds its way from B-flat major into the unexpected key of F-sharp minor. It is then joined by the clarinet. When the cello reprises the song it is in the wrong key; F# major, and the piano guides it back into B-flat with trills; it is one of the most wonderful moments in the concerto literature.

The finale has often confounded those who imagine that all finales after Beethoven must transform into drama. This one contrasts Mozartian grace against the beloved Hungarian dances that so entertained Brahms throughout his life. This is a concerto that ends with sonic smiles.

Jeffrey Johnson
University of Bridgeport

Monday, February 18, 2013

Two New Hangouts; Sarah Willis to Interview Wolfgang Vlader and Fergus McWilliam

This week in the Sarah Willis Live Hangout Interview Series, Willis will be talking with Wolfgang Vladar, 3rd Horn in the Vienna Philharmonic. That interview will be on Wednesday, February 20th at 9pm Vienna, which will be 3pm here on the east coast. This will be a rare opportunity to get learn about that enigmatic but unique sound of the Vienna Philharmonic horn section. The technical expertise of Willis guides her ability to open discourse with the folks she interviews.

On Friday the 22nd at 9pm Vienna, (once again 3pm here on the east coast) Willis will interview Fergus McWilliam; a legendary horn player with an identifiable presence instantly recognizable by fans of the the Berliner Philharmoniker. His book, “Blow Your Own Horn”is not as readily available as I would like to see it become, but I look forward to reading in the near future.

Tune in to both of the live chats if you can schedule them. Willis is responsive to questions from participants and there is a friendly and engaging community that have have become regulars of the live events. Please join us! I recommend these live chats highly. They are informative and colorful and a way of learning about horn section from insiders.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Rigoletto Live in HD; Live from Vegas?

What happened in Vegas should have stayed in Mantua.

Michael Mayer's new highly advertised production of Rigoletto set in 60s Vegas seemed a sure thing. The entire first scene in the opera is even set with dance music interspersed with hit singles that unfold like a headlining act on the strip. The set was all neon. The costumes were fab. The translations hep; "You send me to the moon."

So what went wrong?

It wasn't the singing. The principals are veterans of the roles and each delivered. Štefan Kocán was particularly impressive as Sparafucile. But each of the characters who were interviewed between acts had to admit that the new production didn't alter much of the way that they understood their roles or their singing.

Monterone was a shiek. Humor? Hmmm. Anyway, it distracted from the central moment of his entrance and from the whole idea of the curse. The girl who jumped out of the glitzy Egyptian sarcophagus looked more like a showgirl than his daughter. Bad luck is common in the town that imports money and exports losers. But curses? Curses that wreck comedians? It didn't work.

The abduction scene made little sense either. The whole gang showed up? During the scene in which the Duke forces himself upon Gilda we never actually saw Gilda, just the Duke going downstairs. It wasn't horrifying enough. Too sanitized. Too disconnected.

The third act worked. It was set around a small strip club with neon lights that had become disentangled and vertical. The lights were deep blue but flashed white during the storm. Later, the body was stuffed into the trunk of a car. Problem: it no longer looked like Vegas. It could have been anywhere. 

Tempos by conductor Michele Mariotti also tended to slow in the first two acts and that compounded the sense that things were not moving; not developing. The sets during Act I and II were also big and prevented the intimate private qualities that Verdi sets against public scenes.

As much as this production was advertised it would not have been a good introduction to what opera can be for anyone new to the process. It was, unintentionally, the very thing that opera struggles against: a world of overstimulation that distracts from what is essential.      

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Meditation on February; Inside the Seasons by Tchaikovsky

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

Tchaikovsky is thinking in terms of Carnival; of lively Mardi Gras and the "large feast that will overflow" according to the epigraph by Pyotr Vyazemsky that was chosen by publisher Nikolay Bernard.

But this is no ordinary event. The piece is tricky and even its fleeting quiet passages bring little relief. It is a concentrated and restless sound world. This performance by pianist Daniela Negrini is a lovely expression of simultaneous dualities; fanfares and kaleidoscopic activity coincide with the focus and stillness of her physical expression. Her performance exposes inner tensions behind the celebratory exterior of this music.

The English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) knew of these tensions and wrote about February in his book "The Twelve Moneths."

"It is now February," wrote Breton, "and the sun has gotten up a stride of his climbing, the valleyes now are painted white."

But then Breton's prose becomes as still and focused as Daniela Negrini. "The Ayre," writes Breton, "is sharp and piercing, and the winds blow cold."

"Physick now hath work among weake bodies, and Apothecaries drugges are very gainfull: There is hope of a better time not farre off, for this in it selfe is little comfortable: and for the small pleasure that I find in it, I will thus briefly conclude of it: It is the poore mans pick-purse, and the miser’s cut-throat, the enemy to pleasure, and the time of patience. Farewell."
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