February 25-26, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Christina Bouey, Violin

 

BarberMedea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance
SibeliusViolin Concerto
ChaussonSymphony in B-flat major

 

Program Notes

Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

In 1947 the eminent American composer Samuel Barber was commissioned to compose the score for a ballet for Martha Graham’s dance company. The ballet was based on Euripides’s play from Greek mythology, Medea. Drawing from that score some years later he produced the concert piece for a large symphony orchestra, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance. As well, drawing from elements of Euripides’s intense play, Barber created a stunning orchestral representation encompassing love, caring, jealousy, hate, ambition, subterfuge, vengeance and violence, among many others.

One of the great twentieth-century “traditionalists,” Samuel Barber composed music of singular beauty and emotional impact. Much of Barber’s greatness lies in his polished craftsmanship; his ability to use his outgoing lyricism in such a way gave his works a distinct twentieth-century unpredictability while remaining completely tonal in their harmonic structures. His most familiar compositions, the Adagio for Strings, the Violin Concerto, Op. 14, and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 are examples of this unique quality.

A child prodigy, Barber was admitted to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at age fourteen. He studied composition, piano and singing. His interest in song was undoubtedly an important influence in the innate, compelling lyricism heard in his orchestral pieces. He was a baritone and he sang in performances of his own pieces as well as those of others. Graduating in 1932, he began his career as a composer. His superb musical education was evident when he later won two Pulitzer Prizes and the Prix de Rome.

 

Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius completed the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in 1903. It was to be his only concerto. At the time, he was an aspiring violin virtuoso as well as composer, so he wrote for an instrument with which he had intimate knowledge. He eventually gave up his soloist dreams, realizing that he had neither the temperament nor skills necessary for that exceedingly demanding life. Nevertheless, his insights and feeling for the violin resulted in a work that has become the most recorded violin concerto in the 20th century.

The work was composed when Sibelius was still heavily influenced by late 19th-century romanticism. Long, flowing, emotional melodies, coupled with dramatic Tchaikovskian climaxes, abound; characteristic of the time, the concerto has extremely difficult virtuosic passages. 

It was later, in 1907 with his Symphony No. 3, that Sibelius turned toward the new century and a style that was based on brief, concentrated melodic motifs and somewhat spare, almost bleak harmonies. The concerto's violin part proved to be so difficult that Sibelius made extensive revisions after its first performance. It was this version, still used today, that had its premiere in 1905 with soloist Carl Halir; Richard Strauss conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. The work remains a significant challenge, requiring virtuosic levels of performance. It is scored for solo violin, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.    

Sibelius used traditional forms in free, imaginative ways, giving them the freshness of the twentieth century. A case in point is the first movement, Allegro moderato, which is basically in sonata form. Here, the exposition contains three themes; the development consists of only a solo cadenza; and the recapitulation, eschewing simple repetition, continues with more development and exploration. 

Against a mumuring, almost silent background, the violin enters with the first rhapsodic theme, establishing the work's romantic character. Virtuosity follows in a cadenza-like passage, but the virtuosity is always in service of the music, rather than a simple bravura display. Several measures of strong orchestral statement lead to the second theme, played piano in woodwinds and quickly given over to the violin, embellishing the tune with double stops. The brisk, march-like third theme appears in the orchestra, finally lowering in dynamics and ending with a dramatic, unaccompanied violin entrance, bringing forth the long cadenza, unusual as a development section. An orchestral entrance with bassoons signals the recapitulation and exciting first movement finish.

The three-part second movement, Adagio di molto, begins with an eloquent and very beautiful melody in the violin's middle and lower registers. The middle section features brighter interplay between orchestra and soloist, but then retreats back to a quiet return of the plaintive melancholy of the opening melody.   

The rousing third movement, Allegro, ma non tanto, a rondo, begins with the soloist's bouncing theme accompanied by a rhythm in strings and drums described by Sir Donald Tovey as "evidently a polonaise for polar bears." The second forceful theme utilizes time signatures that alternate between six-eight and three-four. With little exception, the rhythmic drive of this final movement prevails throughout, and combined with the pyrotechnics in the solo part, supplies the concerto with a flashing conclusion.

 

Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 20
Ernest Chausson (1855- 1899)

French composer Ernest Chausson took an unusual route to his ultimate arrival on the French musical scene of the late 19th century. To maintain peace with his father he began his advanced education with the study of law, which ended with the award of a doctorate degree in law in 1877. His activities ended soon in that profession when he could no longer bear his total lack of interest. There was money available, since his father was a wealthy contractor. Chausson wrote, “Ever since my childhood I have believed I would write music. Everybody advises me against it. Everybody gives me different advice.”    

In 1879, tired of waiting, he finally enrolled in a composition class at the Paris Conservatory taught by César Franck, a great influence on Chausson, and he soon became involved with Franck and Claude Debussy, who, not withstanding their high regard for the German composer Richard Wagner, were leading the effort in France to overcome the overriding influence of Wagner and his operas, and operatic music in general. Their goal was to create a leading role in France for instrumental music as well. Earlier, in 1871, they and their followers founded the Société Nationale de Musique, which included such musicians as Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Fauré, Bizet, Debussy and Ravel, a group also known as la Bande á Franck.

Their success led to the production of several symphonies and other French instrumental works. In describing important characteristics of their works, Debussy wrote, “French music is clearness, simple and natural declamation: French music wishes first of all to give pleasure.” The period has been called “the renaissance of French instrumental music.”

Chausson’s instrumental music is primarily heard today due to two works: the Symphony in B flat Major, his only symphony, and the Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op.25. The symphony was completed in 1890, and the composer conducted its premiere in Paris on April 18, 1891. The Poème was completed in 1896 and premiered in Paris by the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in April, 1897.

The symphony was not well received at its first performance, but six years later, in 1897, conductor Artur Nikisch conducted the work to much acclaim in a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in Paris. The work is in three movements, and the forms are notable for the composer’s employment of the cyclic principle, a technique where previously heard themes reappear, transformed, in other movements or sections of the piece, providing unification. The  technique can also be heard in Beethoven’s Op.13 piano sonata and in the music of Franz Liszt.

The first movement, Lent; allegro vivo, begins with the statement of a brief sustained somewhat dark melody, which, true to form, will be heard again, transformed, in the last movement. The tempo quickens to the end of this first movement.

Très lent, the moving, lovely second slow movement, provides insight to Chausson’s superb skills in orchestration, as colors of this richly scored symphony are abundant. The frequent playing of three ascending pitches stems from the first movement’s theme. The mood quickly changes in the powerful, fiery third movement, Animé; très animé, where we hear again transformed elements from the opening movement.

– Richard Wolter

 

 

Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 4:00 p.m.
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.