April 8-9, 2017
James Buswell, Violin
|Vaughan Williams||Symphony No. 4|
Overture to Semiramide
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
The birth of opera can be traced to Italy in 1600. The form gained immediate acceptance and soon was heard throughout Europe, although it remained under Italian influence. French composers in the latter part of the 18th century challenged this influence with operá comique and grand opéra, but Italians soon regained operatic supremacy in the early 19th century. Three Italian composers can be credited with raising the Italian operatic form to new heights: Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Rossini quickly established himself as the most successful operatic composer, holding that position until he abandoned opera in 1829. Bellini and Donizetti then dominated until Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) came upon the scene, followed by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
Rossini had a remarkable career, composing some forty works by the age of thirty-seven. But then, to the surprise of all, he retired to a life of leisure and wit, enjoying gourmet cooking, eating and numerous other pleasures.
Rossini was known for the speed with which he turned out compositions. In part, this was due to the use of formulaic operas in which arias, choruses and ensembles always occurred in the same order. In some cases, he was still composing a work the day of its first performance. As a result, some of his operatic works, with little enduring quality, have dropped from sight. However, overtures he composed for many of his operas have become staples of symphonic performances throughout the world, and the overture to Semiramidi is a shining example. Here, Rossini offers exciting, contrasting sections, many with presto tempos marked by virtuosic solo passages as well as section displays. A lovely lyrical passage featuring French horns is heard shortly after the opening statement in this engaging, brilliant overture.
The opera for which this overture was composed received its premiere performance at the notable concert hall, La Fenice, in Venice, in 1823. It is based on Voltaire’s tragic tale of the Babylonian Queen Semiramis. The overture reflects the turbulent action taking place in the plot.
Symphony No. 4 in F minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
England languished for two centuries without a native-born composer worthy of national or world-class stature. The great Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 began the barren period. It took two German nationals to win the hearts of the English and fill the emptiness: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). They spent much time in England, and their influences were so powerful that English composers of the time could do little more than emulate their styles but never reached their musical heights. The Englishman who finally brought the title “musical laureate” back home with music of pure English character was Edward Elgar (1857-1934), and soon to follow him in an equally significant nationalist role was Ralph Vaughan Williams. He wrote, “Every composer . . . may reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people.”
He is well known for his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1909) and Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (1934), which display his great interest in sixteenth-century modal scales and even earlier harmonic and polyphonic practices.
Among other interests heard in his music over the years, such as in his nine symphonies, Vaughan Williams also displayed a deep love of nature and the beauty of the English countryside, pastoral qualities that are much in evidence in The Lark Ascending.
The Symphony No. 4, however, marks a totally different, baffling and controversial change of character. As quoted in Edward Downes’s Guide to Symphonic Music, the composer said at the rehearsal for the premiere in 1935, “I don’t know whether I like it — but it’s what I meant.”
In any case, the first performance was greeted with tumultuous approval by critics and audience alike. Downes also quoted critic Eric Blom who wrote in the Birmingham Post: “His latest work is as harshly and grimly uncompromising in its clashing, dissonant polyphony as anything the youngest adventurer would dare to fling down on music paper. That the symphony is a tremendously strong, convincing and wonderfully devised work cannot be questioned.”
These thoughts remain accurate to this day. In this four-movement work, Vaughan Williams, with heartfelt expression in gripping, engaging varieties of contrasting symphonic statements ranging from extreme power to gentle lyricism, offers rewarding, emotional listening.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In the musical world, it is generally agreed that there are two violin concertos considered the greatest of all —Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61, composed in 1806, and Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77, composed in 1878. Interestingly, these works share several qualities. They both received inspiration and advice from the leading violin virtuosos of their day; in Beethoven’s case, Franz Clement, and in Brahms’s case, Joseph Joachim. Both violinists were renowned throughout Europe for possessing infinite technical ability and espousing an approach to performance noted for the highest levels of serious, noble musical interpretation. Both works are set in the key of D Major and both present challenging, difficult solo parts and melodic lines of exceeding, incomparable beauty. The works also frequently call for the soloist to accompany orchestral thematic statements with high, exquisite filigree. While Brahms was inspired by Beethoven, whom he greatly respected, he took the concerto to great heights, equal to the earlier master.
In 1853, Brahms, age 20, and Joachim, age 22, traveled extensively giving joint recitals. That year, the violinist, a celebrity much more well-known than Brahms, was responsible for introducing him to Robert and Clara Schumann, an occasion that greatly affected Brahms’s future. It was the beginning of the two most important relationships in Brahms’s life: that with Clara Schumann and Joachim. Both of these stellar musicians—Clara a renowned concert pianist, and Joachim a violinist, composer and conductor—were enormous influences, both musically and as friends, and in Clara’s case, there was a deeply felt love. Many letters exist among the friends and are evidence of the extent to which Brahms relied upon them for advice in his compositions. They also frequently performed much of his music in the ensuing years.
As he completed sections of the Violin Concerto, Brahms relied on Joachim for advice about string technique as well as questions of structure and orchestration. This concerto was completed in the fall of 1878 and was dedicated to his friend. It was first performed in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1879, with Brahms conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Joachim as soloist. Even with Joachim’s fervent support and subsequent performances of the concerto, it was not easily received, and many soloists resisted due to the difficulty of the solo part. Performances by Fritz Kreisler after the turn of the century marked the beginning of the work’s widespread acceptance.
Brahms had initially planned four movements for the work, but then he deleted a scherzo. He also rewrote the middle movement Adagio. In writing of these changes, he said, “The middle movements have gone and of course they were the best! But I have written a poor Adagio for it,” a typical example of his usual self-deprecating approach to his composing, even when referring to one of his most moving and sublime slow movements.
The first movement begins with a ritornello, an orchestral statement of most of the movement’s themes before the solo entrance, which is indicative of Brahms’s affinity for earlier classic structures. There are actually two major subjects offered in the ritornello, also very classic, except each of them contains three significant thematic ideas which come rather quickly. The two major subjects are separated by a strong fortissimo section. The foundation of this magnificent first movement, which is in sonata form, is found in the six melodic ideas, along with a seventh reserved for the soloist to introduce later. These seven melodies appear again and again for soloist and orchestra, both in original and completely transformed settings.
The opening statement of the first theme calls for cellos, violas, bassoons and horns—all rich, warm, middle register instruments. That, coupled with the simple tune in a gentle triple meter, establishes the lyrical quality of the entire piece. The soloist’s sudden entrance after the ritornello deserves special attention; it is one of stunning, powerful technical brilliance, followed with remarkable, gradually diminishing arpeggios, reaching ever higher, and finally leading to the rapturously quiet and beautiful singing of the opening theme. This is surely one of the most inspiring, moving moments in all of music.
Brahms chose to begin the second movement Adagio with a twenty-nine measure opening for winds alone, accompanying a plaintive oboe solo. The warmth of the movement is established with this melody and the soloist’s enhancement of it with expansive, embellishing figurations, particularly in the high register. This is a movement of compelling beauty, and of course, is anything but a “poor Adagio.”
The final movement is marked Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, and indeed, it is a joyous, exuberant rondo. This is, again, a classic form contrasting a primary theme with intervening episodes. Analysts suggest that the Hungarian flavor of the main theme reflects Brahms’s dedication to the Hungarian-born Joachim. Great demands are placed on the soloist’s technical abilities here, and the soloist has opportunity for superb virtuosic playing. Never, however, is this at the sacrifice of musicality, a steadfast principal of Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Joachim.
– Richard Wolter
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Greenwich High School Performing Arts Center
Pre-Concert Lectures with Assistant Conductor Joshua Bavaro Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.