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Concert Archive

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2022-2023 Season

Memories - September 24, 2022

Program

Beethoven Egmont Overture
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Overture to Goethe’s Tragedy Egmont, Op. 84

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven had tremendous respect and affection for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the poet, playwright, critic, journalist, novelist, painter, natural philosopher and scientist who was revolutionizing Germanic literature as Beethoven was revolutionizing music. “I read Goethe every day,” declared Beethoven, “when I read at all.” He had already set several of Goethe’s poems to music and must have been overjoyed when he was asked in 1810 to write incidental music for one of Goethe’s most popular plays, Egmont.

He responded with nearly an hour of music, including four entr’actes, two songs for Clara (Egmont’s fictional fiancée), a melodrama, a description of Clara’s death, and a concluding “Victory Symphony.” But the glory of the set is undoubtedly the overture—one of music’s truly great overtures.

What did Beethoven have in mind when he went about composing this overture? Just how much was he trying to relate the Egmont story with specific musical references to events in the play? Goethe’s 1787 play tells the story of Count Lamoral d’Egmont, historical hero of 16th-century Holland, who as military commander, statesman and eventual martyr inspired his compatriots to throw off the oppressive Spanish yoke and establish the Netherlandish Republic.

While following the strictures of classical sonata form, Beethoven seems to want to put as much dramatic description into his overture as he can. Clearly the glorious fanfares of what Beethoven called the “Victory Symphony” (which appears as the coda of the overture) are deliberately descriptive. But do earlier passages reflect parts of the play? Do the opening heavy minor chords—redolent of the Spanish sarabande—depict the oppression of Spain? Does the quick tempo after the introduction represent the dashing figure of Egmont? Are the delicate woodwind phrases in the development evocative of young Clara? Does the abrupt cutoff of the violins right before the coda symbolize Egmont’s beheading?

Beethoven, of course, never told us. But by filling his great overture with suggestions of tone painting, he opened the door for the next generation of composers to see the possibility of a new genre, a new vista in which music would take on the task of truly telling a story. Beethoven himself never walked through that door. His classical roots were too strong to allow him to yield to the romantic temptation to paint pictures in music. Beethoven’s form remains classical: a sonata preceded by a slow introduction and followed by a victorious coda. There are certainly suggestions of descriptive imagery and outbursts of romantic emotion, suggestions that would allow later composers to go further, but, in Beethoven’s Egmont, they doggedly remain shaped by the composer’s powerful craft into absolute musical form.

~Jere Lantz

Ives Double Fugue from Symphony No. 4
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Double Fugue on American Hymn Tunes  

Charles E. Ives (1874-1954)

Ask a concert audience to name America’s greatest composer and the consensus will likely be Aaron Copland. Ask critics or scholars and they may well name Charles Ives.

Born in the same year as the atonal Austrian Arnold Schoenberg and the staid Englishman Gustav Holst, Ives developed his talent far removed from the current European struggle over the direction of music. He created his ultramodern yet comprehensible style from the music he heard all around him as a child.

George Ives, Charles’ father, served during the Civil War as the youngest bandmaster (a teenager, actually) in the Union Army. Years later, as town bandmaster of Danbury, Connecticut, he got a kick out of creating clashing musical novelties: playing (on the piano) one song in the left hand versus another in the right; or having two bands march through one another’s ranks while playing different marches in different keys. As a result, young Charles grew up with an ear for dissonance as well as an intimate acquaintance with the popular hymns, marches, patriotic songs, fiddle tunes and parlor pieces of his time. While a music student at Yale (as well as a baseball and football hero), he consistently broke harmonic and structural rules, often incorporating familiar melodies into his works. His teacher, composer Horatio Parker, railed at him that “the hymn tune is the lowest form of musical life,” but to no avail.

After graduation Ives became an insurance man, eventually co-owning a company and becoming quite well off. (In fact, he had an influence on life insurance as strong as he did in music; historians of insurance invariably discuss his innovations in policy writing and group sales.)
But on the side, he continued to compose, writing piece after piece that shattered tradition but never got played. He anticipated Schoenberg’s atonality by more than a decade, Stravinsky’s polytonality by two decades, and Stockhausen’s polyorchestral techniques by a half century. He cared little about other composers, live concerts, or hearing his own music performed. He occasionally published some of his songs at his own expense but reacted brusquely to complaints about their difficulty: “The impossibilities of today are the possibilities of tomorrow.” Disgusted with the insurance business, he retired in 1924 at the age of 50. Alas, he was just as disgusted with the music scene, so he quit composing at the same time.

Much of Ives’ music is extremely complex, consisting of at times indecipherably dense textures made by superimposing and juxtaposing piles of contrasting material—original themes, quotes from Beethoven, Brahms or Wagner, and, especially, snippets of standard American music: hymn tunes, ballads, round dances, fiddle tunes, patriotic songs. His Fourth Symphony—perhaps his most complex work—is no exception.

But in the third movement of this Fourth Symphony, Ives’ mature complexity gives way to youthful simplicity. He reaches back to his college years at Yale to resurrect what began as an assignment in counterpoint and ended as a movement in his first string quartet. Ever eager to pontificate about the philosophy of his music, he called his effort “an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.” The formalism lies in the fugue form—straight out of Bach—and the ritualism, in his use of popular New England hymns. As usual, Ives uses only snippets: the principal theme is the opening line of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”; its eventual partner is the final line of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (at the text “Bring forth the royal diadem…”).

The combination of baroque fugal form and classic American melodies as rendered by a 20th century revolutionary somehow ends up sounding rather romantic. But Ives reminds us not to take it all too seriously: he closes puckishly with a very slow quote, in horns and trombones, from “Joy to the World.”

[Personal recollection: when I first conducted this piece in graduate school, I consulted John Kirkpatrick, curator of Yale’s Ives Collection and a personal friend and collaborator of Ives. When I asked him about this curious addition of “Joy to the World” in the final bars, he chuckled and told me what Ives had told him: the published edition calls for “Joy” to be played like the rest of the piece—smoothly and expressively. But Ives put it in as a joke and wanted it to sound like one. “Play it short and bouncy,” he had said. We’ll try.]

~Jere Lantz

Ginastera Suite from Estancia
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Suite of Dances from Estancia  

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Born in Buenos Aires, Alberto Ginastera was the first Argentinian composer to receive truly international acclaim. Like many Argentinians, he is of partly Italian extraction. Ginastera was proud to be Argentinian, but he was also proud of his Italian roots. In fact, he pronounced his surname as if it were Italian (“Gene-astera”) rather than Spanish (“Heen-astera”).

Ginastera was a thoroughly homegrown talent. Starting piano lessons at seven, young Alberto entered a local conservatory at twelve, moving in 1936 to the National Conservatory, where he won highest honors in composition. His first successful work was Panambi, a ballet subtitled “choreographic legend.” Though the story and some of the melodic content are derived from native sources, we can hear in the music the influence of composers the conservatory student had been studying: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky.

Five years later, Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, commissioned a second ballet for ABC’s upcoming Latin American tour. In the end, the tour was canceled because funds were not available in wartime, and the music from Estancia could be heard for decades only in the suite of four excerpts we hear tonight. (This was not the only gem for which Kirstein was the inspiration. In 1938 he had commissioned Aaron Copland for his first successful ballet, Billy the Kid.)

Estancia is the work that made Ginastera’s international reputation. Like Copland’s Rodeo, which appeared the following season, Estancia depicts cowboy life, but the life not of cowboys on the North American plains but of gauchos on the pampas, the vast expanse of plains—somewhat warmer than their northern counterpart—that stretches from Brazil through Uruguay but is found mostly in Argentina. What Ginastera sought to depict was a rich portrait of one day—dawn to dawn—at a country ranch, or estancia.

The story Ginastera presents sounds like a typical Hollywood western: a young woman from the ranch at first despises a new arrival from the city but finally falls for him when he proves himself at least the equal of any of the rough workers on the ranch.

By the time of Estancia, Ginastera had defined what he called his “objective nationalism” period (1936-1948). He used Argentinian themes, rhythms and native dances in a style that came to be called “gauchesco” after the native cowboys of Argentina, the gauchos. The lessons he had learned in conservatory were not forgotten, however. The “Land Workers” scene, for example, opens with the orchestra playing its explosive rhythms in two keys at once (C and F-sharp), the very keys that Stravinsky fused famously in the bitonal scene of his ballet Petrushka (1911). The rhythm is relentless and the dynamic continuously powerful, never dropping below forte. Though he shifts his keys frequently, there are nearly always two going at once, creating an aura of agitation that can find no rest.

The “Wheat Dance” is as serene as the opening section is agitated. Again we hear bitonality from time to time, but less insistently than earlier. Light lines from the piano combine with pizzicato strings in a bed over which the flute, then horns, can be heard in a theme of ultimate repose. The orchestra builds this theme to a full-throated climax before fading into the distance.

That mood is shattered by “The Cattle Men,” whose dance appears in a meter that is a composite of 3/4 and 3/8 with instructions from Ginastera to play quickly (mosso) and roughly (ruvido). It is a dark roughness at first, with the lower instruments having their say. But higher, lighter instruments get their moment as well, before light and dark combine in an explosive end.

The “Final Dance” is deceptive. It begins swiftly but very softly with a less percussive bitonality than we heard from “The Land Workers.” Ginastera asks the orchestra to build almost imperceptibly but continually until we hear a new mood when it launches into a propulsive malambo. The malambo is the gauchos’ dance: with their heavy boots, the gauchos (men only—women strictly forbidden) pound their feet on the floor in rapid patterns that fall somewhere between tap dancing and clogging. The dynamism is unabated, rising to become simply the most energetic music ever written for orchestra.

~Jere Lantz

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, with Dr. Richard Kogan, piano
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Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 23

 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)                                                   

Tchaikovsky’s dramatic, pyrotechnical piano concerto stands nearly unchallenged as the concerto most adored by musiclovers. Its crashing chords, soaring melodies and exhilarating rhythms have been thrilling concertgoers since its astonishing journey into existence.

The story of the concerto’s creation remains barely known though it is among the most poignant in the annals of composition—replete with humiliation, an erased dedication, and a triumphant premiere halfway around the world.

Tchaikovsky dashed off his concerto in less than two months (November-December 1874) in hopes that dedicating it to his colleague and former teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolas Rubinstein, would guarantee its acceptance despite its Slavic flavor and demanding pianism.

Rubinstein suggested Tchaikovsky play through his new concerto for him privately at the Conservatory before a Christmas Eve party both were attending. At the close of the first movement, Rubinstein was silent. Not until the composer had played all three movements did he utter a word. Then it was a tirade deriding the concerto as “utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages were so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar.” (So testified Tchaikovsky in a letter.)

Rubinstein insisted that the concerto be completely revised before he would play it. Tchaikovsky replied, “I shall not alter a single note. I shall have the concerto printed exactly as it stands.” After he erased the dedication to Rubinstein, he thought through the short list of great piano virtuosos and picked one who, he had heard, admired his work. He penciled in that new name: German virtuoso and conductor Hans von Bülow, a man he had never met.

Bülow received the concerto graciously, with a far different reaction: “The ideas are so original, so noble, so powerful, the details are so interesting, and though there are many of them they do not impair the clarity and the unity of the work. The form is so mature, ripe, distinguished in style, and intention, the labor being everywhere concealed. I would weary you if I were to enumerate all the characteristics of your work, characteristics which compel me to congratulate equally the composer and those who are destined to enjoy it.”

Bülow, in fact, could not wait to present the new concerto. His next project was a concert tour of North America, so he took the concerto with him.

At his first stop, Boston, Bülow hired an orchestra quite amenable to him: “largely German, industrious, their intelligence not yet drowned in lager beer.” The conductor was another matter. Carl Bergmann may have been conductor of the New York Philharmonic and, according to Dwight’s Journal of Music, “the best conductor in America.” But to Bülow, himself one of the world’s great conductors (the favorite of Wagner until Wagner stole Bülow’s wife Cosima—daughter of Franz Liszt), Bergmann just would not do. Instead Bülow engaged American pianist Benjamin Johnson Lang, like Bülow a Liszt pupil. Dwight’s Journal reported:

Mr. B. J. Lang, who had been called to succeed Mr. Bergmann,…being himself a pianist and an enthusiastic admirer of Von Bülow, was in better sympathy and understanding with him for the rendering of the extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto. It is the composition of a young professor at the Conservatory of Moscow, a pupil of Rubinstein (indeed the work contained not a few suggestions of the master) and is dedicated to Bülow, who complimented Boston with its very first performance.

So it was that Tchaikovsky’s concerto, reviled in Moscow, was first heard in Boston.

In New York, Bülow was even more triumphant in an exhausting fourteen concerts in nineteen days, including two performances of the new concerto. Bülow reported: “Never, anywhere, have I felt so well, I might say so happy. Whereas before I often played like a pig, I now, on occasion, play like a god. Chickering’s gorgeous pianos, undeniably the best in both worlds, have turned me into a top-flight pianist.” Bülow and Chickering pianos had a mutually satisfying arrangement: he inaugurated the Chickering Concert Hall on Fifth Avenue on November 15, 1875, and presented the Tchaikovsky concerto there the next week. (Sixteen years later, Tchaikovsky would come to New York to conduct the first concerts given in Carnegie Hall.) Bülow reported on his performance:

The concerto went much better here…than in Boston. It was a distinct success and is to be repeated next Saturday. In fact, Tchaikovsky has become popular in the New World; and if Jurgenson [Tchaikovsky’s Russian publisher] were not such a damned jackass but would send over a reasonable quantity of Tchaikovsky’s music, he could do a lot of business.

Tchaikovsky relished the news from America, especially since he had just heard the rather flat Russian premiere of his concerto (by pianist Gustav Kross) in St. Petersburg. He was not to be dejected for long. A number of his pianistic compatriots undertook the concerto, not excepting Nicholas Rubinstein, who changed his mind and played it repeatedly at home and abroad—without altering a single note.

~Jere Lantz

Masterpieces - October 15, 2022

Program

Wagner

Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin

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Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin    

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Lohengrin was Wagner’s sixth opera, but the fourth that he would cite in a list of his works. (The first two were juvenilia he wanted to forget.) As in Tannhäuser, which he had just completed, for Lohengrin he created his own libretto (“little book” in Italian, meaning the text for an opera) based on a German legend. Usually, to understand an orchestral overture or prelude to an opera, it is necessary to know the story that will follow. Not so with Lohengrin. In Lohengrin, Wagner chose to do something different not only from tradition but from his own practice. Instead of creating a lengthy overture out of materials from the opera, a practice he had followed in all his previous operas, he decided merely to set the mood. But he did much more: by crafting a vision of the Holy Grail in his prelude, he defined the ethos from which his heroic knight emerged.

Knight Lohengrin had been tapped by his father, the knight Parsifal (spelled Percival when he sits at King Arthur’s Round Table) to be guardian of the Holy Grail. Parsifal had inherited responsibility for the Grail after saving it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor. (Just how he did it, Wagner would tell in his final opera nearly four decades later.) Lohengrin tells of the events that befall the Knight of the Grail when he temporarily departs from his guardianship to help a princess in distress. What Wagner seeks to evoke in the prelude is the world of purity and light in which Lohengrin has been preserving the vessel from which Jesus and his disciples drank at the Last Supper. Wagner described the scene in his typically romantic rhetoric:

Out of the clear blue ether of the sky there seems to condense a wonderful, yet at first hardly perceptible vision; and out of this there gradually emerges, ever more and more clearly, an angel host bearing in its midst the sacred Grail. As it approaches earth, it pours out exquisite odors, like streams of gold, ravishing the sense of the beholder. The glory of the vision grows and grows until it seems as if the rapture must be shattered and dispersed by the very vehemence of its own expansion. The vision draws nearer, and the climax is reached when at last the Grail is revealed in all its glorious reality, radiating fiery beams and shaking the soul with emotion. The beholder sinks on his knees in adoring self-annihilation. The Grail pours out its light on him like a benediction and consecrates him to its service; then the flames gradually die away, and the angel host soars up again to the ethereal heights in tender joy, having made pure once more the hearts of men.

Wagner achieves his aura of heavenly purity with chords of high violins divided into eight parts, four of them solo on especially high sounds called “harmonics.” They play a leitmotif associated throughout the opera with the Grail. It is the single theme of the ten-minute prelude. Its only development is the gradual augmentation of the orchestra to create the climactic appearance of the Grail, which then fades into the mists of the original high harmonics.

It hardly needs noting that all this ultra-romanticism in concept and sound is entirely new. Never had an introduction to an opera (which Wagner, it must be noted, calls “prelude,” not “overture”) been based on such a tiny musical germ. Never had violins been wielded in such a risky, delicate fashion. Never had so little in musical terms been made into so much. And never had anyone had the colossal nerve to attempt to represent the most divine of sacred vessels in music. (Again, it hardly needs saying that no one has attempted it since.)

~Jere Lantz

 

 

Mozart Ave verum corpus
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Ave verum corpus, K. 618

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

TEXT:

Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary,
Truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for humankind,
From whose pierced side flowed blood and water,
Be for us, as we approach death, a foretaste (of what lies beyond).

Mozart had a very busy final year. It opened with a performance of his final piano concerto (K. 595 in B-flat) and included the creation of his clarinet concerto, his operas La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus, premiered in August in Prague) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, premiered in September in Vienna), plus his uncompleted Requiem. He became ill in October and was confined to bed by November 20, passing at five minutes before one in the morning on December 5.

It has never been resolved what he died from. Some medical experts opt for a streptococcal infection, others for uremia stemming from chronic kidney disease. (Regardless of popular theater and film productions, he was not poisoned or murdered.)

It can be argued that no other composer created so much great music in his final year. And, for me, the most moving of all that music is a brief, simple choral work he composed for a friend during a visit to the country in June.

Mozart’s exuberant wife Constanza loved to travel to Baden, a spa resort near Vienna, where she had recently replaced Josef Haydn’s nag of a wife Maria Anna as the grand dame of the summer season. Mozart enjoyed the break from the city, partly by visiting his friend Anton Stoll, who was choir director for the local church. In June 1791, Mozart dropped by the church and, while catching up on each other’s lives, asked Stoll what he was planning to have his choir sing at the upcoming feast of Corpus Christi. When Stoll said he didn’t know, Mozart asked if he would like to have a new piece. Of course, Stoll was delighted.

So Mozart sat down with some manuscript paper he had been using to compose Die Zauberflöte and wrote a new piece for chorus and strings. Its mere 46 bars are not at all elaborate or complex—easy for Stoll’s country choir and strings to learn in the six days left before the feast service. Though Mozart at this point had no idea that he would be dead in less than six months, his music, prompted by the mournful prayer of the text, is permeated with a mature resignation.

Musically, the impact of the message is amplified by chromatic harmonic settings of the poignant text (“from whose pierced side flow water and blood”). But what cannot be explained is how Mozart managed to evoke so much magical beauty in so few notes. The four-sheet manuscript, central to the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, holds just the music and the date: June 17, 1791.

We can but wonder how Mozart’s momentary inspiration became perhaps the three most beautiful minutes of music ever conceived.

~Jere Lantz

 

Handel Zadok, the Priest
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Coronation Anthem “Zadok, the Priest”

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Behind Handel’s triumphant quartet of coronation anthems lies perhaps the most astonishing tale of musical diplomacy we know.

In his twenties, Handel visited Italy and came back to Germany wanting to carve a career composing opera in the Italian style. He decided that the place ripest for an introduction to opera was Europe’s fastest growing economic metropolis, London. He took a calculating look at a map, decided that Hanover was the royal German court closest to England, and secured a position as court composer to the Elector (local regent) of Hanover. In 1711 he asked for and was granted leave to visit England for several months, returning in 1712 just long enough to secure another leave—again to London. This time he stayed for good. Imagine his discomfort when England’s Queen Anne died childless in 1714, and her heir was declared to be none other than George, the Elector of Hanover.

Legend has it that Handel ingratiated himself with his old boss, now England’s King George I, by hiring a bargeful of musicians and rowing up to the king’s own barge on the Thames while his players all piped Handel’s newly composed Water Music. Legend, sorry to say, has it wrong. It was, in fact, the king who hired Handel to entertain him during his July 1717 barging party. Apparently, they had already reconciled, with George, hereditary king but still an alien with no command of English, delighted to find a familiar face he could at least speak to.

Ten years later came a pivotal year for both Handel and the House of Hanover. In 1727 Handel became a British subject, his name changing forever from Georg Friedrich Händel to George Frideric Handel. His grant of citizenship was signed, of course, by the one man in England at least as German as he. Within weeks George I was dead. Though the son had despised the father, the new king, George II, immediately tapped his father’s favorite composer to create four coronation anthems for his and Queen Caroline’s official ascension on October 11 at Westminster Abbey.

Each anthem was based on a biblical text traditional to the occasion and assigned to a specific moment in the ceremony. In the event, some of the appointed music (not Handel’s) was accidentally omitted, leaving the musical program in disarray. Nonetheless, the Coronation Anthems were a smashing success with their extrovert grandeur confidently proclaiming the occasion.

Zadok is at once the grandest and briefest of the anthems. Anticipating the actual moment the crown is conferred and using the text of the coronation of Solomon in I Kings 1, it begins with one of the most dramatic and extended orchestral crescendos in music. Knowing the value of simplicity, Handel moves through a stately, though conventional, chord progression in which the only perceptible movement is a full landscape of arpeggios rising repeatedly in the violins. The effect of restraining his forces so assiduously is to build such anticipatory suspense in the listener that when the chorus, trumpets and kettledrums finally peal forth at full volume, we can be confident that heaven has truly blessed this ceremony and its result.

As in Messiah, Handel pulls out his full set of musical brushes to paint his text in technicolor. At the words “And all the people rejoiced,” the tempo quickens, and the rhythm becomes exultantly jagged. “God save the King” brings stentorian gravity; “Amen,” a profusion of gladsome notes; “Alleluia,” declamatory pillars of sound.

That Handel was able to evoke the grandeur and glory of the ultimate royal ceremony to a degree no other composer has approached comes as no surprise to those of us who know and love his work. That George II expected no less from his father’s court composer is a tribute to the king’s musical acuity and Handel’s diplomacy. The British nation has been no less perceptive: every coronation since 1727 has included Zadok, the Priest.

~Jere Lantz

 

Brahms Academic Festival Overture
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Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80   

Johannes Brahms (1833-1896)

Today we think of Brahms as a romantic whose music pours out with glorious sound, powerful drama and heartfelt emotion. Yet in his day, many musicians and critics felt him to be anything but romantic. Mahler called him “a mannikin with a somewhat narrow heart.” Hugo Wolf said, “a relic from primeval ages.” Tchaikovsky was the most acerbic: “a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius…Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” (How fortunate that, though they shared a birthday, they never met.)

But these opinions were drowned by the deluge of admirers for whom Brahms was champion of all things beautiful and true in music. He enjoyed the role, being not at all shy in his criticism of the “music of the future” espoused by followers of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. Brahms, more than an unabashed romantic, was clearly a student of his greatest predecessors: of Bach’s counterpoint, of Beethoven’s structure, of Schumann’s cross-rhythms. His music is serious, absolute—with no hint of a program or story behind it. It is romantic in sound but clings studiously to traditional forms. Thus, it came as no surprise that, in 1879, he was presented with a doctorate by the University of Breslau (today Wroclaw, Poland).

Unable to attend the ceremony, he sent a card of appreciation but not the customary commemorative work for the occasion. (Brahms was never a master of societal graces.) His friend Bernhard Scholz, conductor of the orchestra in Breslau, wrote that he needed to offer something more substantial—a real musical work. So he did. And he traveled to Breslau to conduct its premiere two years later in 1881.

If the dons of that august institution expected a serious musical thesis, they were in for a surprise: Brahms’ overture follows traditional sonata form but is peppered with student songs of the time, most of them cobbled from the local rathskellers, where students (in a tradition as time-honored as doctoral ceremonies) raised steins and voices in loud expression of hopes and fears.

Brahms opens with his own music—more puckish than stately—saving the first student song for a trio of majestic trumpets: Wir hätten gebauet ein staatliches Haus (“We have built a stately house”). After a grander statement of Brahms’ opening, two more student songs appear: first the lushly lyrical Der Landesvater (“The Father of the Land”) in the strings, then the impishly comical freshman’s initiation song Was kommt dort von der Höh? (“What comes there from on high?”) on that most comical of instruments, the bassoon.

At this point, one expects that Brahms has used all the popular tunes he can fit in, for, in classic sonata form, he develops and recapitulates his themes and seems headed for a close. But he cannot resist a final jibe, moving directly from a raucous, brassy rendition of the freshman’s song to a grand coda: the universal university hymn Gaudeamus Igitur (“Let us enjoy our youth”)—some six centuries old in Brahms’ day yet still familiar in ours.

~Jere Lantz

 

 

Sibelius Symphony No. 2
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Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) 

Finland’s musical giant Jean Sibelius is harder to summarize than most of his contemporaries outside the principal cultural capitals of Europe. Like most, he was trained in the German tradition (in Berlin and Vienna) and returned home to write nationalistic works based on folk legends and a powerful love for his country. Like many, his fame had a rocket’s rise and a meteor’s fall. (In 1940, Virgil Thomson, composer and redoubtable critic, called the Second Symphony “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond description.”) Yet Sibelius’ star is on the rise again, as his music is more frequently played and better understood.

True, he could be as cloying as Norwegian Edvard Grieg, especially in his folk-based tone poems and suites. But his seven symphonies were purely musical and truly profound. “My symphonies,” he asserted, “are music conceived and worked out in terms of music with no literary basis…the germ and fertilization of my symphonies have been solely musical.” The form of his symphonies varies, but it never leans on or shatters tradition. He uses as much conventional form as he needs to support his highly individual style of succinct themes and concise developments.

Sibelius has often been condemned for being conservative, for not following the modernistic trends that were the historical hallmark of music a century ago. While it is true that his harmonic, rhythmic and orchestrational language remains romantic, Sibelius had an approach to form and texture entirely his own, unprecedented and unimitated.

A case in point: the opening movement (one is tempted to say “essay,” for each Sibelius movement seems to strive to make a point) of his Second Symphony begins and ends softly. Its pace is moderate and its opening germ of three reiterated notes provides the basis for most of the movement. (The staccato oboe theme heard soon afterward is really just a counterpoint to this initial germ.) The other principal idea is a sweeping single line on violins that feels so free, so soaring that it belies its composer’s assertion that his symphonies are pure music. Doesn’t this sense of liberation have at least something to do with Finland’s oppression under the Russian yoke?

Such a sense of an individual asserting his freedom pervades the second movement. Here Sibelius seems determined to appear unfettered, even undisciplined. In fact, the movement is tightly structured of gestures that imply an absence of control: mysterious, deep pizzicati, lugubrious bassoons, allegro sections bristling with fistfuls of rising notes, weighty, long-winded brass fanfares cut off at climax. At first hearing, it is difficult to decipher. One longs for a story that will make sense of it all. With its roughhewn gestures and sense of sprawl, it seems more “Finnish” than anything else in the symphony. But is it a drama of Finland or of Sibelius’ own soul? There can be no answer. Part of the mystery of any Sibelius symphony is its ability to depict a nation or an individual despite its composer’s assertion that it depicts nothing extramusical.

Innovation within tradition is epitomized in the third movement. Beethoven’s symphonic scheme here posits a scherzo; Sibelius complies, but with the fastest scherzo ever conceived (Vivacissimo—most lively—he asserts). Its velocity is too reckless to be balanced by a contrasting scherzo section at the same reckless pace. Sibelius instead goes to the opposite extreme, calling upon the expressive oboe to intone a theme of utmost nostalgia, a theme that reminds us of the opening of the symphony with its reiteration of a single note. When, after another spate of reckless vivacissimo, the oboe returns with its nostalgia, the entire orchestra is inspired to pour forth one of the great symphonic crescendos, rising, rising, ever rising to Sibelius’ most majestic finale.

What a finale! Its opening gesture of three rising notes repeated a step down, derived once again from the opening sounds of the symphony, is one of the noblest themes ever envisaged. Its accompaniment in trombones and its answering trumpet fanfare constitute one of music’s most effective uses of symphonic brass. But its most striking and innovative feature is two huge ostinato sections in which a pattern of rising and falling eighth notes is repeated precisely again and again (in one instance, more than seventy times) while tension builds above.

Such mounting tension portends a powerful and profound coda. Sibelius does not disappoint. He takes the three rising notes of his finale’s main theme and raises them to a fourth higher note, a simple gesture that yields fulfillment enough for any music lover’s soul. As if he knows he has achieved an epiphany, he closes his symphony, like a hymn, with a warm Amen.

~Jere Lantz

 

Milestones - November 19, 2022

Program

Wagner

Overture to Die Meistersinger

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Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg                       Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

By the time Richard Wagner, at age 48, set about composing his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg (“The Mastersingers of Nuremburg”), he was renowned as a conductor, a philosopher/essayist, a revolutionary (currently in his thirteenth year of exile), and a champion of “the music of the future.”

Wagner wrote almost nothing but opera, and his earlier operas were all epic tragedies based primarily on ancient Teutonic myths. They were filled with murky, heavy, slow music that, more often than not, met with vilification by critics: “These compositions are remarkable only for the absence of everything that has been deemed beautiful in music”; or “…destitute of melody, extremely bad in harmony, utterly incoherent in form and inexpressive of any intelligible ideas whatever.”

Die Meistersinger is Wagner’s answer to these critics. Based not on myth but on history, the light, happy plot weaves a fictional love story into the actual practices of the guilds of 16th-century Nuremburg, focusing on the greatest guild of them all, the Mastersingers. Wagner makes sure that this opera exhibits his brilliance at everything his critics said he couldn’t do. The opera brims with fast, sunny music that remains clearly within a key, develops through traditional forms, and demonstrates a masterly command of the technique dearest to Wagner’s conservative countrymen—counterpoint.

The overture demonstrates all these qualities. It bursts with melodies, each in Wagnerian tradition depicting a particular emotion or character. An opening, majestic Meistersinger procession gives way to woodwinds that sing a theme of awakening love before a cascade of violin sixteenths leads to a brassier, more pompous Meistersinger fanfare. Power and pomp grow until a short statement of love’s passion leads to the first really peaceful moment—the quietly beautiful song, in violins, of young Walther to his beloved Eva. Passion again rises, rudely interrupted by the playful apprentices, who, too immature to have a theme of their own, merely imitate their masters in a puckish woodwind version of the overture’s opening bars. Their staccato mockery grows until their masters, in a grand gesture, sweep them aside with the original stately theme.

Everything subsides as a single stroke on the triangle announces one of the great moments in all of music. Wagner answers his critics with an unsurpassed masterstroke of contrapuntal craft: he restates quietly the three principal themes of the overture, not one after another but simultaneously. (It is considered the supreme feat of counterpoint to create two independent themes, each beautiful on its own, that yield perfect counterpoint when played together. To do that with three themes is simply unheard of.) Here is a decoding for tune detectives: the opening procession serves as foundation in the lowest depths of the orchestra—tuba, bassoon and double bass; Walther’s song to Eva soars in first violin, horn, clarinet and cello; and the brassy Meistersinger fanfare receives, as the procession theme did earlier, the mocking apprentice treatment—fast and staccato in second violins, violas, and the remaining winds. The rest of the overture is a growing profusion of all its themes that climax as cymbals announce a last grand affirmation of pomp and pageantry.

If Wagner is answering his conservative critics musically in the Meistersinger prelude, he is answering them philosophically in the story of the opera. Impetuous young Walther learns in the end that his revolutionary musical ideas become more profound when tempered by respect for the past. And the stuffy Mastersingers learn they must not become so entangled by tradition that they cannot recognize the value of brilliant innovation.

Yes, this is Wagner preaching to those who have criticized him throughout his career. He is telling them, “I believe in (and can compose with all the techniques of) tradition. But you must be open to new ways. And I am the one who will show you those ways.”

~Jere Lantz

Walton

Suite from Henry V

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Suite from Henry V                                                                          William Walton (1902-1986)

Needing a heroic image to bolster morale during World War II, Great Britain turned to its most revered military hero as portrayed by their greatest poet in his most unabashedly patriotic play. The result was a lavish technicolor spectacle of Shakespeare’s Henry V, produced and directed by the leading British actor of the time, Laurence Olivier. For the musical score, Olivier turned to William Walton, whom he had met when they were both plying their arts for a film of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1936.

Olivier’s brilliant inspiration was to start and end the film in the Globe playhouse, where Shakespeare first produced Henry V in 1599. He was aiming at authenticity in two historical periods—Henry’s early 15th century and Shakespeare’s late 16th. Walton accordingly drew his musical themes from early liturgical chants and folksongs as well as Elizabethan madrigals, arranged powerfully for a modern symphony orchestra.

As the film opens, a flute accompanies a replica of the original 1599 Henry V playbill as it flutters in the wind to fill the screen. A majestic fanfare supports the film credits before the scene shifts to the Globe, where actors and audience hustle and bustle to ready themselves for the performance.

Early in the film Sir John Falstaff, the rotund and witty fellow miscreant of Henry’s youthful pranks (told in the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV), lies on his deathbed. As the old man recalls his painful dismissal from court by his beloved Prince Hal (now King Henry), the strings intone a passacaglia—a baroque form in which a simple bass line repeats over and over (nine times in all), finally rising to the violin as Falstaff’s soul slips away.

The central event of Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt, where the English, outnumbered five to one, defeat the French in one of the most lavish battle scenes ever filmed. The troops gather to fanfares in horns, trumpets and drums. In full armor, the French cavalry charges mightily, only to run into pointed stakes planted by the English and the murderous shafts of Welsh longbows. Mired in the mud of a week’s rain, 10,000 Frenchmen die as an old French ballad, Bailero, is heard mournfully in the English horn.

A second string interlude derives from an earlier scene when Falstaff’s friends, saddened by his death, are spending their last night together before embarking for France and war. The title is taken from a line in the play, and the music, a sad ballad, reflects the double sadness of the moment.

Legend has it (and for once, history agrees) that after the battle Henry and his men sang lustily an improvised song of thanks that has been passed down as one of England’s greatest folk tunes, the Agincourt Hymn. Walton’s suite ends with a grand rendition of that 1415 song, its stately melody in stentorian brass with the rest of the orchestra dancing in joyful tumult.

~Jere Lantz

Brahms

Symphony No. 2

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Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73                                          Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms’ hesitation to write a symphony is legendary. He had seen too many romantic symphonists fail—in the eyes of the critics, the public and themselves—to live up to the legacy of Beethoven. His earlier orchestral works (two serenades, the First Piano Concerto, the Haydn Variations) demonstrated an ample symphonic prowess. Still, he told friends, “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter,” and “You have no idea of how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant.”

Eventually Brahms had to yield to the inevitable; after working on it for nearly twenty years, Brahms presented, at age 43, his First Symphony. Its moderate success unleashed a flood: a second symphony within a year and two more in the next decade. Though he would write no orchestral works in the final decade of his life, his reputation as the greatest symphonist since Beethoven was assured.

Far more than most symphonists, Brahms captured a different flavor or character in each of his symphonies. The First makes an almost Beethovenian progression from darkness to light. (Indeed, conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed it “The Tenth,” a compliment that cut both ways, confirming Brahms’ fears about “the tramp of a giant.”) The Third is heroic at first, later melodic and finally enigmatic. The Fourth, perhaps the greatest, was called dry at its premiere, but has come to be treasured as a trove of marvelously controlled intensity.

The Second is generally labeled “pastoral,” and it is here that labels show both their logic and their limitations. A gentle opening, with its four-note underpinning in the bass and comforting horn call above, certainly suggests the peace of the countryside. Wanderings high in the violin do nothing to erase this mood, which is enriched by a truly singing second theme in the resonant baritone register of the cellos and violas. A more aggressive third theme and assertive brasses in development and coda serve only to highlight the overall serenity, and the movement ends in pensive calm.

If the first movement cleaves to the pastoral appellation, the second transcends it, striving toward profundity. After its premiere, Viennese critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick wrote:

A broad singing Adagio in B follows, which, as it appears to me, is more conspicuous for the development of the themes than for the worth of the themes themselves. For this reason, undoubtedly, it makes a less profound impression on the audience than do the other movements.

Which is to say, it is less extroverted than its mates. Hanslick identified one of Brahms’ greatest skills—an organic, natural unfolding of a theme’s development. Yet he failed to understand that themes with higher profiles resist such organic development. Though not easy to grasp, even for Hanslick, the Adagio remains one of Brahms’ richest treasures.

As usual, Brahms supplants the conventional rollicking scherzo form with a quiet piece that might be called, as Brahms did in his piano works, an intermezzo. With the reedy oboe giving out a gently rocking melody, the Allegretto grazioso could well be a shepherd’s serenade to his grazing flock. Twice the mood is broken by brief scampers (gamboling sheep?) that hint at a true scherzo, but after every scamper, the serenade resumes, its composure unflappable.

Like the Adagio, the finale marks a departure from pastoral serenity but in the opposite direction. Its opening is more urgent than tranquil, the deliberately quietened (sotto voce) unison reflecting things past (the very opening notes of the symphony) and promising things to come. The continued whispering in quick (Allegro con spirito) tempo builds potential energy that bursts forth with a sudden radiance hitherto unheard in the symphony. One is immediately reminded that D major was to the classical composers the key of victory and joy.

As in the opening movement, a second theme is richer and to be played more broadly (largamente). The initial energy returns, mushrooming to a climax in a marvelous pattern of repeated scales. A brief tranquillo passage in the development recalls erstwhile pastoralism before yielding to the movement’s initial urgency.

A masterly symphonic dramatist, Brahms saves a crowning touch for the coda. Showcasing his powers of transformation, he presents the principal themes of the movement—originally subdued—in exuberant dress. The largamente theme, in fact, becomes a brilliant trumpet call leading to a shattering triad in the trombones as the symphony that began in a “pastoral” mode ends on a note of triumph.

Program Notes by Jere Lantz

Festive Farewell - December 10, 2022

Program

Music by William Mathias

Sir Christèmas

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Words anonymous, c. 1500   

Music from Piae Cantiones (1582), arr. Arthur Harris

Good King Wenceslas

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Words by John Mason Neale

17th-century Italian carol, arr. Charles Wood

Once, As I Remember

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Words by G. R. Woodward

Gustav Holst

Christmas Day: Choral Fantasy on Old Carols

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a carol medley Maestro Lantz first conducted in 1971

arr. Jere Lantz

A Jingle in Time

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Arranged by Jere Lantz (with apologies to Mssrs. Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn & Stravinsky)

arr. Jere Lantz

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

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Music by Felix Mendelssohn, adapted by William Cummings, arr. Jere Lantz. Words by Charles Wesley and others.

SING ALONG LYRICS

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

Joyful, all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies.

With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

 

Christ, by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the God head see. Hail th’incarnate Deity.

Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

 

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the sun of righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.

Mild He lays His blory by, Born that we no more may die,

Born to raise us from the earth, Born to give us second birth.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

Music by John Goss, arr. David Willcocks

See Amid the Winter’s Snow

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Words by Edward Caswell

Georges Bizet

March of the Three Kings (Farandole from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2)

Music by James R. Murray and William J. Kirkpatrick, arr. Shelley Hanson

Away in a Manger

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Words anonymous

Music by Lowell Mason, based on Handel, arr. Jere Lantz

Joy to the World

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Words by Isaac Watts

SING ALONG LYRICS

Joy to the World

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.

Let ev’ry heart prepare him room, and heav’n and nature sing,

And heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.

 

Joy to the world! The savior reigns. Let men their songs employ,

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,

Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

 

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove

The glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love,

And wonders of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love.

Words and Music by John Seagard

A Light Where Jesus Lay

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Created for Rochester Symphony in 1989.

arr. David Willcocks

Sussex Carol

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Traditional English Carol

Words and Music by John Rutter

Nativity Carol

arr. Jere Lantz

Deck the Hall

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Text by Thomas Oliphant. Traditional Welsh Carol.

SING ALONG LYRICS

Deck the Hall

Deck the hall with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Don  we now our gay apparel, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

 

See the blazing Yule before us, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Strike the harp and join the chorus, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Follow me in merry measure, Fa la la la la, la la la la,

While I tell of Yuletide treasure, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

 

Fast away the old year passes, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Sing we joyous all together, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Heedless of the wind and weather, Fa la la la la, la la la la.

arr. Jere Lantz

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

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English West Country Carol performed at each Rochester Symphony holiday concert since 1982!

Free Family Preview - Americas - February 24, 2023

Program

The Americas - February 25, 2023

Program

Higdon Suite from Cold Mountain
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(United States, North America)

Minnesota premiere, New Music for Americas consortium commission

Piazzolla The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
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(Argentina, South America) with Francesca Anderegg, violin

Márquez Dánzon No. 2
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(Mexico, North America)

The Requiem - March 25, 2023

Program

Mendelssohn (Fanny) Overture in C Major
Mozart Symphony No. 9
Mozart Requiem
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featuring the Rochester Symphony Chorale