Program Notes: March 6, 2005
Five Pieces for Orchestra (World Premiere)
Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez (born 1964)
- Twittering Machine
- Da lontano (From Afar)
Composed between the early summer of 2004 and the first weeks of 2005, and dedicated to Jed Gaylin, each of these short works introduces a unique compositional "situation." In "Vocalise," a simple melody travels across the orchestra, lets us catch a brief glimpse of its most luminous qualities, then plunges into darkness. "Twittering Machine" places various musical "mechanisms" in a scenario of "imperfect functionality": This is an organism in which regularity, symmetry, and pulse try to coexist with their opposites. In "Waves," I walk into a harmonic maze where everything is constantly—yet subtly—changing. The piece is, thus, both a labyrinth and a kaleidoscope, and it allows me to walk in circles, get lost, and, if I am lucky, find the way out. The sound of bells in "Da Lontano" gently pushes the music from the comfortable world of perfect fifths into a more "active" universe that pays tribute to the Stravinsky of the "Requiem Canticles." Finally, "Echoes" lets me play with "hockets," antiphonal gestures, and obstinate rhythms. In it I try to conjure what I think are the essential elements of good dancing: precision, elegance, and abandon.
Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Opus 82
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
- Tempo molto moderato—Allegro moderato
- Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
- Allegro molto
Johann Sibelius was, and is, regarded synonymously with the country of Finland. As Verdi was to Italy, so Sibelius was to Finland during that country's independence at the turn of the 20th century. Of his musical importance, Finnish contemporary Robert Kajanus said, "...Finnish music...scarcely existed when Jean Sibelius struck his powerful chords….Finnish music's mighty springs came bursting forth….Jean Sibelius alone showed the way." Born in Hameenlina in south-central Finland, Sibelius spent nearly his entire life in his homeland. He left briefly to study in Berlin late in the 1880's (around that time he "internationalized" his name to Jean), but returned to Finland and rarely traveled thereafter.
In his lifetime, Sibelius became regarded by some as the "aristocrat of symphonists." Indeed, the main body of his creation was seven unparalleled symphonies. Structurally, he believed a symphony should grow from within itself in organic evolution, the music dictating its own structure. Of the completely unique orchestral colors that Sibelius created, Ralph Vaughan Williams once said that Sibelius could make a C major chord sound completely his own. Although each of his orchestral landscapes is astonishingly singular, nonetheless each is a vision of Finland in its natural beauty, severity, and etherealness.
The composer was approaching 50 when he began the Symphony No. 5, hurrying to complete it for his birthday celebration in 1915. It was received well enough, but Sibelius was a fastidious reviser of his works, and never more so than with his fifth symphony. He revised it many times before reaching the final version of 1919.
The first movement opens in that most wonderful of Sibelius’ coloristic allusions: the horns sounding a world awakening to a warming sunrise, and the woodwinds slowly filling the vast hills of Finland with birdsong. Following a loose sonata form, the movement presents truly splendid themes. Clear early on are some Sibelius hallmarks: the power of underlying forces manifesting in string tremolos, meandering woodwinds in thirds, the angst of dissonance, the crashing and massive weight of the brasses, and the indefatigable rolls of the timpani.
Without our noticing it, the first movement melts into the second. Almost imperceptibly, the flame under the kettle has been turned up and the water starts to simmer. But there is no real way to prepare for what will happen in the final section of this glorious movement. The closing Presto catches your heart in your chest with its overpowering joy, uninhibited dance-like explosion, and utter gladness. The whole movement gradually speeds up in a feat of musical pacing unmatched before or since.
Of the third movement (first planned as an Adagio), Sibelius' diary said, "…earth, worms and heartache—fortissimos and muted strings…And the sounds are Godlike. Have rejoiced and reveled in rushing strings when the soul sings." But the final version is a tender rendering full of lightness, with its own mysteries and reveling, and perfectly balanced to follow the robust close of the second movement.
One morning on his routine walk, Sibelius witnessed 16 swans flying overhead, a sight that struck him deeply. "One of the greatest experiences! My God, what beauty! …Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to trumpet….A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature's Mysticism and Life's Angst! The Fifth Symphony's finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets!" Starting in haste, the last movement soon introduces this "swan theme," a slow, languid, swinging melody in the brass. As this theme progresses, we are given a glimpse of its grandeur and the splendor to come. Sibelius creates an ending to end all endings: massive block chords separated by utter silence, evoking the power of the unspoken and Nature's sublimity.
"My heart sings, full of sadness—the shadows lengthen." [Diary of Sibelius, 1914]
Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 61
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Allegro, ma non troppo
The life of Ludwig van Beethoven has been studied intensively. We know that it was chaotic, with hardship, struggle, and illness. A whole volume has been devoted to his illnesses. It is well known that he went completely deaf in the middle of his life. (His hearing loss was quite advanced when he wrote the Violin Concerto in 1806.) But the torture that this caused him can never be overestimated. Nevertheless, his Violin Concerto bespeaks a composer who was compassionate, witty, deeply humane, and understanding of whispered joys.
The Concerto is one of the lengthiest written by any composer. Yet, remarkably, it is also one of the quietest, crafted within a scope of serenity. Often, when the music reaches a dramatic moment, its arrival is one of pastoral amplitude.
"One might be inclined to say off-hand that the most mysterious stroke of genius in the whole [of this] work is the famous opening with five strokes of the drum which introduces the peculiarly radiant first subject on the wood-wind…." So said the esteemed musicologist Donald Tovey.
But even more, so said Beethoven. The Violin Concerto is a work of genius. Though the piece begins in D major, after the second phrase the violins suddenly play a D sharp. This note, completely unrelated to the key of the work, and to the preceding music, and even to what is to follow, is of unequaled brilliance. This chromatic note signals this work as a creation of the unexpected, of clever structural subtleties, of delicate surprises.
The second movement, Larghetto, is a beautifully radiant and sentimental set of variations with a hymn-like opening. Beginning without pause, the third movement Rondo does not move too far from the work’s overall serenity, but it brings some delightful twists in its energy and off-beat rhythms.
The concerto was premiered by 26-year-old Franz Clement in December 1806. The lore of the concerto tells us that Clement sightread most of the performance, the music not having been finished in time for him to practice it. What is certain is that another violinist would soon be associated with the Concerto as much as any soloist with any concerto will ever be: the famous Joseph Joachim. His cadenza has earned its place in this concerto, produced during a musical era that fostered soloists who created their own cadenzas, a time that was ripe for such extraordinary concertos and cadenzas.