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February 27, 2017

March 11, 2017 Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.
Piano Concerto No. 2, in Bb major, Op. 73
Composed between 1878 and 1881; premiered 9 November 1881 with the composer at the piano and the Budapest National Theatre Orchestra, led by Alexander (Sandor) Erkel. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 49 minutes.

“A symphony for piano and orchestra”: this label has often been applied to Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, not only nowadays but even while the composer himself was touring Central Europe with his new piece. No doubt the description has much to do with the simple fact that the Bb Concerto has four movements—the second being what Brahms jokingly called “a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”—instead of a concerto’s usual three. But perhaps more important, the stereotype of the Romantic-Era piano concerto is one of the piano against the orchestra, each vying to outdo the other in dazzling virtuosity and poetic charm. With Brahms, it’s more as if piano and orchestra are inseparable partners in some kind of heroic drama that must work itself out in purely musical terms—though with plenty of virtuosity and poetry.

Commentators like to suggest that the Bb Concerto has a more playful, sunny disposition than the composer’s stormy First Concerto in D minor because he had just come back from a trip to Italy when he began his first sketches in 1878, and finished the concerto soon after a second Italian vacation. But Brahms was not a scene-painter in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. There is nothing markedly Italian, sunny or otherwise, about the Concerto; its most identifiable ethnic or nationalistic feature is a Hungarian theme in the finale.

I. Allegro non troppo. The Bb Concerto may be on a grand scale, but it begins intimately, with a solo horn stating the first phrase of the main theme. The piano gently echoes and harmonizes it; the horn continues with a second phrase, again echoed by the piano. The woodwinds offer a sweetly harmonized response, the strings adding a more melancholy shading. Then the piano reenters with what turns out to be a fairly long and passionate cadenza. Only then does the movement proper begin, with the orchestra hammering out a more forceful version of the horn theme. The movement is in traditional sonata form, but it might be better to say that it is a monumental drama of interlocking themes, each one memorable in itself, expressing joy or darker feelings, but constantly transforming as the drama unfolds.

II. Allegro appassionato. The “little wisp of a scherzo” turns out to be anything but miniature. It is “impassioned,” as the tempo marking indicates and as we hear in the propulsive opening theme on the piano with fierce syncopated notes in the lower strings. Clearly this movement is not a simple “jest” or “joke” (the original meaning of the word scherzo), any more than the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, another scherzo on a grand scale. Still, Brahms’ scherzo does have tricky syncopations that make it an exhilarating experience to hear or play. The middle (Trio) section is a thrilling outburst of jubilation.

III. Andante. The slow movement opens with another surprise: a long-arching melody played by a solo cello, gently supported by the other strings and eventually bassoon and oboe. (It’s worth noting that Brahms later adapted the melody for his song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer”/“Ever softer grows my slumber.”) But even if the predominant mood is tranquility, the movement unfolds with passages of deep feeling, even perhaps anguish. At one point the tempo becomes yet slower (Più adagio), leading into a quite otherworldly state, as if outside time. Then the solo cello returns, and the movement concludes as a duet between it and the piano, with other instruments quietly accompanying.

IV. Allegretto grazioso. After the emotional extremes of the other movements, the Concerto’s finale is—perhaps another surprise, certainly a delightful contrast—genial and relaxed, even while remaining full of energy thanks to its vigorous rhythms. The tempo is only moderately fast (allegretto) and graceful or gracious (grazioso). Significantly, the trumpets and kettledrums, important in the first two movements but silent in the third, do not return for the finale—very unusual for either a concerto or a symphony. The piano states the playful opening theme without preface, and later the strings introduce a more sweeping, distinctly Hungarian theme. Other themes are spun off from ones already heard, and the whole movement is dancelike, bringing the entire monumental work to an ingratiating close.

 

ANTONIN DVORAK
Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.
Carnival Overture, Op. 92.
Composed 1891 and first performed 28 April, 1892 by the Prague National Theatre Orchestra, the composer conducting. The work is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, harp and strings. Performance time is approximately 10 minutes.

Just before he left his native Bohemia for a lengthy stay in the United States, Antonin Dvorak conducted the premiere in Prague of a set of three concert overtures he called Nature, Life and Love. Soon upon his arrival in New York he gave the American premiere at the brand-new Carnegie Hall. Clearly he was proud of his new compositions; in fact, he wrote to his publisher that he considered them his best works for orchestra to date (and he had written eight symphonies).

But the three overtures—In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello—were published as separate pieces, and are seldom played on one concert program, though the main musical motif of In Nature’s Realm is heard briefly in Carnival and treated more complexly in  the stormy Othello (surely more about jealousy and treachery than “love”). The Carnival Overture has long been the most popular of the three for its exciting dance rhythms, haunting “nocturne” at midpoint, and overall brilliant orchestration.

Early performances included a “program” for the piece which read, “The lonely, contemplative wanderer reaches the city at nightfall, where a carnival is in full swing. On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of people giving vent to their feelings in their songs and dance tunes.” Elsewhere, Dvorak summarized the overture as “a carnival scene interrupted by a reverie depicting a pair of straying lovers.”

“Full swing” is indeed how the overture opens, with a dazzling and very Czech-sounding Carnival (i.e., Mardi Gras) celebration well underway. A succession of lively tunes and rhythms eventually gives way to an enchanting nocturnal scene, enveloping the “lonely wanderer”—or the “lovers” if one prefers—straying off to a nearby woods. The “Nature” theme is heard briefly but memorably, played by the clarinet, then English horn. All too soon the festive strains return, with the opening Carnival theme capping the final section. Trombone fanfares bring the piece to a rousing close.

DAVID WEBER
Born Saginaw, Michigan, 31 May 1952.
Symphony of Songs, scored by Tony Memmel
The individual songs, written for performance by the composer between the early 1990s and the present, were scored for soloist, orchestra and chorus by Tony Memmel in 2016. Tonight is the world premiere of this Symphony of Songs. The orchestration calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, strings, chorus and vocal solo. Performance time is about 26 minutes.

As Reverend David Weber tells us, “I have been writing Christian music since I was 16.  The five songs being orchestrated for the concert were written as individual pieces and have been arranged as a ‘Symphony of Songs’ by Mr. Tony Memmel of Nashville, Tenn.  I was directed to Tony by symphony conductor Kevin McMahon to have him personally write the parts for both the instruments and chorus.  I am indebted to Tony for his incredible musical gifts, but even more so, I count it a privilege to know him as one of the nicest, most humble and gifted people I have ever met. I have known Kevin McMahon for 20 years.  He has always been a source of encouragement for me and the music I have been privileged to compose.  It was about four years ago that he made the suggestion of possibly using some of my songs in the format that will be performed.”

Tony Memmel, who performed his own songs--arranged for the SSO and his own band--during our concert of March 15, 2014, “hadn't met Dave Weber prior to this opportunity to collaborate musically, but I'd heard stories about his beautiful songs from friends and colleagues. When I was asked to arrange five pieces for this project, I jumped at the chance!”

“I began the process of arranging his songs by listening to acoustic guitar and vocal recordings that he sent me. As I listened, I was able to envision the full orchestra and chorus sound you hear tonight. It was exciting to get deeply familiar with the pieces, see them grow, and take on new life.” 

The following are Reverend Weber’s own comments on his Symphony of Songs:

"Sing To The Lord" - I am a great lover of the out-of-doors.  Since 1981, I have co-owned a camp on Lake Superior between Marquette and Munising, Mich. with my brother Paul and his family.  It is a rustic place with no running water or electricity.  It is there that I have witnessed the beauty of creation in calm star-lit nights and the ferocity of Lake Superior during gale winds.  This song was written as a song of praise and reminds me that as I sing out my praise, so does all creation.

"Always The Heart Of Me" - In my ministry, I served the greater community by serving at three assisted living facilities.  In doing so, I got to know not only the residents, but also became friends with many of the staff.  [When one such friend’s] sister lost the battle to cancer, my friend shared with me her personal poetry about her loved one [and] a small heart-shaped locket that she was wearing that had a small picture of the two of them together. Later that evening, the song was written for her and the memory of her sister.  It has since been used many times as a source of comfort for those who are separated from loved ones for a time at death.

"Lord of Broken Dreams" - This song was birthed from a nightmare I had years ago. The tune and lyrics were so engrained in my mind, that when I awoke, I immediately sat down and penned the song.  Most of my music is more ballad- oriented with easy flowing melodies and rhymes, this one is not.  There are no rhymes, just the dissident sound of life's unfairness that flows to the more calming grace of God. The song purposely ends falling back into brokenness knowing that only the Lord can sustain us through our brokenness when it occurs again.

"Teach Me Jesus" - About 4 years ago [in a hospital following surgery for colon cancer] I was awake in the early morning hours not knowing the outcome of my surgery.  I would have to wait for the reports.  This song came to me and I texted the lyrics on my phone as fast as the Lord gave them to me.  Jesus please take full control and teach me how to live.  That line stays with me every day.  As to the outcome, that surgery was three years ago in February, and while I pray daily for my family and friends battling similar disease, at this time I am temporarily able-bodied and cancer free.

"Just As I Am" - The final song of this set of five I wrote about 25 years ago.  It is a simple song of faith reminding me that God accepts me, faults and all.  I would have to say it's my personal definition of Grace.  Why end the set with this particular song, you might ask? It's my wife's favorite!  Need I say more?

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