Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November Masterworks: An Overture, a Concerto & a Symphony, Oh My!

It's time for the Harrisburg Symphony's November Masterworks program this weekend and it includes three works – Rossini's Overture to William Tell, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by Jonathan Leshnoff (his Starburst had been performed here a few seasons ago), and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Jean Sibelius in honor of the composer's 150th Anniversary.

The concerts are at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – and the Music Director and conductor, Stuart Malina, will be giving the Pre-Concert Talk an hour before each performance.

November Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

A typical symphonic program consists of an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. Maybe it's a short and lively piece for an opener, not necessarily an overture (a curtain-raiser), or, depending on its size and scope, maybe the concerto will close the concert instead. And instead of a symphony, maybe it's a large-scale orchestral work that's not actually a “symphony.” But however you slice it, it's an old, tried-and-true formula concert-goers are used to, and if the formula works, why not use it?

This weekend's program opens with perhaps one of the most familiar overtures in the repertoire – at least, the ending is, thanks to its being an old-time TV show's theme-song. It's the overture to the last opera Gioacchino Rossini composed, based on the story of the Swiss patriot and folk-hero, William Tell. And while opera overtures typically combine some of the best themes from the opera as a kind of preview (or maybe paint the scene for the curtain raising), this one is a little four-movement tone-poem complete in itself, each part famous on its own.

Rossini when writing "William Tell"
It opens with an evocation of dawn in the Swiss Alps, the setting for the opera: a solo cello is answered by a choir of four other cellos and double basses. This is interrupted by the storm – one of the most famous in classical music – which, after reaching a tremendous climax, gradually subsides into a pastoral scene beginning with a shepherd's call played on the English horn answered by flute and other woodwinds. Both these sections are beloved of cartoons in need of descriptive music for storms and that wonderful sense of relief after a storm.

Then comes the famous finale, a galop in more ways than one. Usually referred to as “The March of Swiss Soldiers,” it comes from the opera's final act, recounting the victory of the Swiss army, liberating their land from Austrian repression. Speaking of cartoons – or films in general – this music is often used to represent galloping horses, the timely arrival of the hero or, especially, the cavalry (though there is no cavalry or even horses in the opera itself). It has become so famous from 1950s TV (and before that, radio), it has been said “an 'intellectual' is someone who can hear Rossini's William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger.” (There – I said it...)

And all of this, first heard in 1829.

Here's a more recent performance of the overture with Riccardo Muti conducting the Opera Orchestra of La Scala, Milan – in this case, from a DVD of the complete opera where the orchestra is in the pit.

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Instead of following along in “concert order,” I'm going to skip ahead to the Big Symphony that concludes the program, in this case Jean Sibelius' 2nd Symphony.

Next month will be the official 150th Anniversary of the birth of the great Finnish composer, born in 1865. This symphony was written at the start of the 20th Century, begun in 1901 and premiered the following year.

It's a great symphony by a great symphonist. Sibelius was one of those composers who specialized in symphonies though he only completed seven and of those, perhaps three or four are performed with any regularity. The 2nd is probably his most popular, though the 5th cannot be far behind.

Curiously, the program opens with the overture to Rossini's last opera, an overture that's certainly one of his most popular works but few people – at least in this country – would ever have had the chance to see the opera. He completed the opera in 1829 and then, basically, retired from composing despite the fact he died almost 40 years later. Why did he just stop composing? Especially after having written such a triumphant success as this?

Sibelius is another composer who actually retired from composing and, curiously, his last major work after his 7th Symphony, the tone-poem Tapiola (speaking of musical storms!) was written in 1926, almost a hundred years after Rossini quit composing. By the time he died in 1957 at the age of 91, not having published anything for 30 years, his reputation as a great composer of the 20th Century had declined considerably.

Creativity moves in mysterious ways... Both stories probably deal more with their lack of comfort with the rest of the music world going on around them and their concern about fitting in (such doubts also plagued Rachmaninoff, among others) than with being "written out" or not having anything to say.

But sometimes, the creative spark just dies for whatever reason: it's something all composers fear.

Sibelius in 1907
His 2nd Symphony, however, comes just as his career was taking off – he had just started receiving international recognition after his 1st Symphony was performed on a European tour and his 2nd Symphony, when it was played in Berlin in 1905, marked his arrival as “a composer to watch.”

If William Tell's Switzerland was under the occupation of Austria in the 15th Century, Sibelius' Finland was a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire and an independent Finland didn't exist until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and Finland, after flirting with a monarchy like its fellow northern countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, decided on becoming a Republic in 1919. But that's after this symphony was composed.

It is, however, important to keep this in mind because Sibelius' reputation at home was based on the hymn-like finale he composed for a series of six “historical scenes” for a press celebration in 1899 depicting various elements of Finland's largely sad history. This “celebration” was a covert protest against the increasing censorship of the Russian occupiers. The final movement, called “Finland Awakes!” became such an immediate hit with its hymn-tune – an original theme, by the way – that the Russian authorities forbid its performance, so it was usually performed in a variety of arrangements under a variety of titles like “Happy Feelings,” “Spring Awakes” or “Choral March.” It would eventually become the song of the patriotic resistance and then the unofficial National Anthem.

Also in 1899, Sibelius composed his 1st Symphony. His 2nd followed by about two years.

Many commentators remark on the “pastoral quality” of the opening, the ensuing storminess and tension and, of course, the epic finale with its ultimate triumph, even if it might be overwhelmed by underwelling gloom before it reaches its conclusion.

It is, certainly, a great Romantic symphony in the 19th Century tradition with an original and immediately identifiable voice even if it does not use Finnish folk-songs as a basis of its thematic language (what can be more folk-like than that opening theme in the winds?).

That didn't keep Finns from hearing it as “The Symphony of Finnish Independence” or, in the long run, as their “Heroic” Symphony. It certainly has elements of a heroic nature in it, but there's no indication that was the composer's intent.

While it quickly established Sibelius as a leading composer around the world, it has been recorded many times (in many ways). But in this recording, a modern Finnish conductor, Osmo Vänskä, conducts a Finnish orchestra, the Lahti Symphony and while I normally like to post performances where you can actually watch the orchestra, this performance was too good to pass up just because it lacks originality in its graphic presentation.

In four movements, it opens with an Allegretto (a moderate tempo); the second movement, Andante, ma rubato (a flexible moderately slow tempo – a “walking” tempo, technically) begins around 9:24; the scherzo, Vivacissimo (very fast), begins around 23:54; and the finale, Allegro moderato (a moderately fast tempo) begins around 29:52. This entire performance takes about 45 minutes.

You can read more biographical background about the composer and his symphony in this post, Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony, here. There will be a biographical summary of the composer's life which I will post in early December.

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Jonathan Leshnoff
In between these two giants is a young composer whose career is on the rise. Jonathan Leshnoff's Starburst was played at the HSO concert in May, 2012 (you can read about it, here).

Stuart Malina was telling me before the 2011-2012 season had been announced how excited he'd been when he first heard Leshnoff's music.

Stuart felt Leshnoff’s music is in much the same vein as Jennifer Higdon’s – direct and appealing (without pandering). Pointing out that Higdon (whose Blue Cathedral and "Percussion Concerto" were performed here to considerable popular acclaim) and Kevin Puts (whose 2nd Symphony was well received here a few years ago) have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music since then – and don't forget Higdon's Grammy – he expects similar good things to be happening in Leshnoff’s career. “It’s always nice to know you’re backing a winning horse!”

And things are clearly going well for Leshnoff, a Baltimore-based composer teaching at Towson University. He'll have a new Clarinet Concerto premiered by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 2016; an oratorio, Zhohar, premiered by the Atlanta Symphony the same week (now, how can even the greatest composer be in two places at once!?); a new Violin Concerto for Gil Shaham to be premiered in the spring of 2016 also; his 2nd Symphony is being premiered in Atlanta this month and next May, his 3rd Symphony is being premiered in Kansas City.

Definitely a busy time for composer Leshnoff – and the kind of success so far that most composers can only dream of!

His “Double Concerto” for Violin and Viola will be performed here by violinist Alexander Kerr and violist Michael Strauss. The title brings to mind a similar kind of work by Brahms (for Violin and Cello) and the instrumentation reminds one of the Symphonie concertante by Mozart for Violin and Viola.

It was composed in 2007 and has been recorded on the Naxos label.

Here is a complete performance of the concerto (again, a less than imaginative YouTube graphic) with violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Roberto Diaz and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Delta David Gier in 2010.

Here are some reviews of the Double Concerto:

“This luscious concerto ended far too soon, with its haunting four-note theme still expanding within my brain... Leshnoff’s concerto was complexly layered, though never dull. The interplay between brass and strings was colorful, even as the two soloists kept attention focused on their technical wizardry.

“In the power of the conclusion, that memorable four-note theme emerged victorious, assuring us that at least some new symphonic music will have a confident future.”
Samuel Black, Duluth News Tribune, May 5, 2008

“Saturday night, however, a new concerto from the exceptional composer Jonathan Leshnoff found a deservedly warm welcome at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre... His ‘Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra’, composed last year, is an elegant creation, beautifully rendered by the orchestra and the two outstanding soloists... Leshnoff’s full embrace of harmony grants accessibility without sacrificing depth or musicality. It is complex but not complicated, exploring a range of emotions... IRIS is one of five organizations that commissioned the work and the orchestra plans more performances from this terrific composer.”
Jon W. Sparks, The Commercial Appeal, March 31, 2008

We'll see how the Patriot-News and the Carlisle Sentinel like it!

- Dick Strawser

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