Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:00 pm
Joshua Roman, cello | Aaron Jay Kernis, composer | Timothy Russell, conductor
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Overture to The Impresario, K.486
Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgang Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) at the beginning of 1786 for a performance on February 7 in the Orangery at Schönbrunn Palace. The overture calls for an orchestra consisting of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and timpani, plus strings. Duration is about 5 minutes.
Mozart was busy composing for the theater in 1786. The main event of the year was the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro on May 1, but even before that he had completed and produced a Singspiel (a musical play with spoken dialogue) called Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), commissioned by the court for entertainment during a state visit by the Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands, who had come to Vienna with his wife, the Emperor’s much-loved sister Christine Marie. The little work was performed in the Orangery at Schönbrunn Palace before an audience of forty one chevaliers and a like number of ladies. The evening’s entertainment included two new works, especially commissioned for the occasion: Mozart’s little Singspiel and a short Italian opera by the popular court composer, Salieri.
The libretto of The Impresario deals with backstage theatrical life. Indeed by far the largest part of it is completely spoken by a troupe of seven actors (who, along with three singers, form the entire cast). The original performers were all popular Viennese actors of the day, and the plot was arranged so as to allow each of them to appear in scenes with which they had recently had some success. This aspect of the show is meaningless—and tedious—to a modern audience, so twentieth century performances invariably rewrite the script to cut out most of the dialogue and concentrate on Mozart’s music. The musical part of the story deals with the rivalry of two prima donnas, Mme. Silberklang (“Silvertone”) and Mme. Herz (“Heart”), who are being wooed for principal positions in the impresario’s troupe, but who dispute which of them will be the “first lady” (prima donna)—a real life situation with which Mozart was, no doubt, all too familiar.
As was most common at the time, the overture is an independent movement with no inherent musical connection to what follows, serving as a signal to the audience that the show was about to start. In fact, given the slenderness of the plot of The Impresario, the overture is surprisingly rich in material and working out. But, then, we have to remember that in the Orangery it also served as the opening number of the entire festive evening. Its emotional richness goes far beyond the purpose immediately at hand; we are, in fact, in the world of large, complex, and ambiguous emotions that Mozart was composing simultaneously for The Marriage of Figaro. Thus it is no accident that the overture to The Impresario should have become a popular concert piece.
AARON JAY KERNIS
Dreamsongs for Solo Cello and Chamber Orchestra
(notes provided by the composer)
Dreamsongs is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), two clarinets (doubling bass clarinet and Eb clarinet), bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, two percussionists playing vibraphone, crotales, three temple bowls, congas, pedal bass drum (or small bass drum), crash cymbal, medium suspended cymbal, wood block, African metal rattle, marimba, timpani, vabasa, and triangle, harp and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.
While Dreamsongs is a concerto for cello and chamber orchestra, it doesn’t take on the forms of older concerti. Rather than the almost ubiquitous three movement layout—Fast-Slow-Fast—it has only two movements, both of which mix slow and fast with dramatic and lyrical sections. The first, Floating Dreamsongs, is mostly slow and floating and develops as a group of continuously developing variations on the music introduced in its three cellos opening, and first variation with strings, harp and vibraphone. Often the consonant harmonies become spooked and furtive, building into tremulous marimba and vibraphone rolls with large orchestra chords, and, only much later, returns to a mostly peaceful direction.
Much of the second movement, Kora Song, is inspired by music of the African kora, a plucked gourd almost similar in sound to the harp and pizzicato cello combination that opens the movement and is featured often. Few cello pieces concentrate on pizzicato playing as much as this movement. The music frequently changes direction and features a number of cello cadenzas, sometimes with conga drums, but often has a gentle exuberance and is lighter in tone and more energetic than in the opening movement.
Dreamsongs was written for the generous and virtuosic playing of cellist Joshua Roman, who I’ve known for a number of years and is now my neighbor in New York City. It is dedicated to Joshua and his wife, Mi-Ryung, and also was written in honor of Maestro Timothy Russell's 34-year tenure as ProMusica Chamber Orchestra’s Music Director. It was commissioned by ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, Ohio, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, The State Auto Group, The Ohio State University, Marty Johnson and John Gerhold, Yuhua Una Tsou and Ken Hunter, and Jack and Zoe Johnstone and The Fund for New Music. Commissioning partners are the Bellingham Festival in Washington State and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, who will perform the work this summer and fall.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, district of Viatka, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme in December 1876 for the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, to whom they are dedicated and who gave the first performance on November 30, 1877; Nikolai Rubinstein conducted. Fitzenhagen later published a considerably reordered version of the piece, and that has become the best known by far. The orchestra includes two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, plus strings. Duration is about 18 minutes.
Despite the fact that he was probably the best schooled Russian composer of his generation, Tchaikovsky could be very insecure about his technique, especially when confronted with someone from Germany, the wellspring of modern music in his day. He wrote the Variations on a Rococo Theme more or less as a way of escaping a string of bad reviews of his latest opera, Vakula the Smith in St. Petersburg and of his orchestral tone poem Romeo and Juliet in Paris and Vienna.
The light hearted mood of these elegant variations bears little trace of the composer’s depression. The work was intended for the 28 year old principal cellist of the Moscow Conservatory, a German musician named Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Since Tchaikovsky himself did not play the cello, he relied on Fitzenhagen for the final version of many details in the solo part (the player actually wrote his changes directly into Tchaikovsky’s manuscript). And that is how he first performed the work. But Fitzenhagen couldn’t let well enough alone, and Tchaikovsky was evidently unsure enough to yield the point to his German colleague. When the score was published eleven years after its first performance, it was in an edition “revised and corrected” by Fitzenhagen. The “corrections” involved a very substantial reordering of the original variations. Fitzenhagen enjoyed great success all over Europe with this work in his version, and that is how generations of cellists came to learn it.
In Tchaikovsky’s original form, there follows a series of six variations in 2/4 time, all of them in the key of A except the third, which is in D minor and somewhat slower; the placement of the minor variation in the middle of this group provides a modest contrast that is then further emphasized by the seventh variation. Placed near the end, the traditional point for an excursion farther afield, Variation VII is the only one in 3/4 time; it is the slowest of them all, and in the most distant key, C major. The finale follows, back again in the home key of A and the original meter, leading into the Coda.
Fitzenhagen’s more familiar version rearranges Tchaikovsky’s variations in the order 1, 2, 7, 5, 6, 3, 4, and Coda (which was severely cut), thus putting the most distant variation in third place, the minor key variation near the end, and dropping much of the finale. This is almost invariably how the piece is heard today.
Tchaikovsky’s summer home in Klin, about an hour outside of Moscow, is now a museum with the composer’s living quarters kept as they were in the last years of his life. There one can see, in a cabinet separate from his other musical scores, the complete works of Mozart, one of the composer’s prize possessions. Though the theme of Opus 33 is original and has no particular Mozartean character, the variations offer a clear Tchaikovskyan homage to the music of the preceding century and Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer. And the Variations did achieve an early success, unlike so much of Tchaikovsky’s music, which he thought of as failures until the day he died. When Franz Liszt—generally regarded as an apostle of modernism in his day—first heard the work at a festival in Wiesbaden in 1879, his reaction was highly gratifying to the self doubting composer: “At last, music again!”
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began the Symphony No. 7 in the fall of 1811, completed it in the spring of 1812, and led the first public performance in Vienna on December 8, 1813. The symphony is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 36 minutes.
The first performance of the Seventh Symphony, which took place in Vienna on December 8, 1813, at a charity concert that also included the premiere of Wellington’s Victory in the Battle of Vittoria, Opus 91, was one of the most splendid successes of Beethoven’s life. The concert was repeated four days later, at the same benefit prices, and raised a large sum of money for the aid of Austrian and Bavarian troops wounded in the Battle of Hanau. More important from the musical point of view, it marked the real arrival of popular recognition that Beethoven was the greatest living composer.
To tell the truth, it was probably the potboiler Wellington’s Victory at the end of the program that spurred the most enthusiasm. Wellington, after all, was allied with the Austrians in opposing Napoleon, and a degree of patriotic fervor infected the proceedings. Moreover the piece was simply calculated to appeal to a broad general audience more certainly than the lengthy abstract symphony that had opened the concert.
Beethoven, of course, knew that the symphony was the greater piece. He called it, in fact, “one of my most excellent works” when writing to Johann Peter Salomon (for whom Haydn had written his symphonies 93 101), asking him to use his good offices with a London publisher to sell a group of his works there. And because of the special popularity of Wellington’s Victory (a popularity which was even more likely in England than in Vienna), Beethoven adjusted his prices accordingly: a London publisher could have the “grand symphony” (the Seventh) for thirty ducats, but the Battle Symphony would cost eighty! Those fees do not in any way reflect Beethoven’s view (or ours) of the relative merits of the two works; he was simply asking what he thought the market would bear.
The new symphony contained difficulties that the violin section declared unperformable during rehearsals; Beethoven persuaded the players to take the music home and practice overnight, a concession almost unheard of! The rehearsal the next day went excellently. The composer Louis Spohr, who was playing in the violin section for that performance, has left in his memoirs a description of Beethoven’s conducting during the rehearsal—a remarkable enough feat since Beethoven’s hearing was by now seriously impaired.
Beethoven had accustomed himself to indicate expression by all manner of singular body movements. So often as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms, which he had previously crossed on his breast, with great vehemence asunder. At piano he crouched down lower and lower as he desired the degree of softness. If a crescendo then entered he gradually rose again and at the entrance of the forte jumped into the air. Sometimes, too, he unconsciously shouted to strengthen the forte.
Spohr realized that Beethoven could no longer hear the quiet passages in his own music. At one point during the rehearsal, Beethoven conducted through a pianissimo hold and got several measures ahead of the orchestra without knowing it.
[He] jumped into the air at the point where according to his calculation the forte ought to begin. When this did not follow his movement he looked about in a startled way, stared at the orchestra to see it still playing pianissimo and found his bearings only when the long expected forte came and was visible to him. Fortunately this comical incident did not take place at the performance.
The extraordinary energy of the Seventh Symphony has generated many interpretations from the critics, among the most famous of which is Wagner’s description, “Apotheosis of the Dance.” The air of festive jubilation was certainly linked by the first audiences with the victory over Napoleon, but many later writers have spoken of “a bacchic orgy” or “the upsurge of a powerful dionysiac impulse.” Even for a composer to whom rhythm is so important a factor in his work, the rhythmic vehemence of this symphony, in all four movements, is striking.
At the same time, Beethoven was beginning to exploit far ranging harmonic schemes as the framework for his musical architecture. If the Sixth Symphony had been elaborated from the simplest and most immediate harmonic relations—subdominant and dominant—the Seventh draws on more distant keys, borrowed from the scale of the minor mode. The very opening, the most spacious slow introduction Beethoven ever wrote, moves from the home key of A major through C major and F major (both closely related to A minor), before returning to A for the beginning of the Vivace. That introduction, far more than being simply a neutral foyer serving as entry to the house, summarizes the architecture of the entire building: A, C, and F are the harmonic poles around which the symphony is built.
Nowhere, not even in the opening movement of the Fifth, does Beethoven stick so single mindedly to one rhythmic pattern as in the Vivace of the Seventh. It skips along as rhythmic surface or background throughout.
The slow movement was a sensation from the beginning; it had to be encored at the first two benefit concerts, and during the nineteenth century it was also frequently used, especially in Paris, as a substitute for the slow movement of the Second Symphony. The dark opening, stating the accompaniment to the entire march theme before the melody itself appears; the hypnotic repetition of a quarter note and two eighths; the alternation between major and minor, between strings and winds; the original fusion of march, rondo, and variation forms—all these contribute to the fascination of this movement.
The Presto of the third movement is a headlong rush, broken only slightly by the somewhat slower contrasting Trio. Beethoven brings the Trio around twice and hints that it might come for yet a third time (necessitating still one more round of scherzo) before dispelling our qualms with a few sharp closing chords.
The closing Allegro con brio brings the symphony to its last and highest pitch of jubilation. It is murder on the lips of the brass players, and its constant drive and the motivic repetition (as in the earlier movements, too) led the contemporary American composer John Adams to refer to it, only half jokingly, as the first minimalist symphony.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)