Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 04, 2015

November 14, 2015 Program Notes

Born Eisenach, Germany, 25 March 1685; died Leipzig, 28 July 1750.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051
The six concertos Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg on 24 March 1721 are presumed to have been performed by Bach’s orchestra in Cöthen sometime earlier. The instruments for tonight’s performance are 2 violas, 3 cellos, string bass and harpsichord continuo. Performance time is about 17 minutes.

In 1719 while on a trip to Berlin to buy a new harpsichord for his orchestra back in Cöthen (about 100 miles to the southwest), J.S. Bach met the Margrave of Brandenburg, who asked to see some of his music. Two years later Bach sent him a set of six “concertos for several instruments” and a cover letter indicating that he would be happy to provide further services for the Margrave. No record exists of the Margrave either replying to the letter or having the concertos performed.

As Kapellmeister for Leopold, the Prince of Cöthen, Bach must have performed versions of these works with his own ensemble, and he brought parts with him when he took new employment in Leipzig in 1723. Only No. 5, with its dazzling solo harpsichord part, seems to have been played between Bach’s death and the discovery of the Brandenburg manuscript in 1859. And it was only in the 1930s, with the first recordings of the full set, that they began to achieve the tremendous popularity that they retain today.

Each of the Brandenburgs is written for a different set of solo instruments with accompanying strings and harpsichord continuo. Only Nos. 3 and 6 include no woodwind or brass instrument, and No. 6 has the quite unusual combination of two violas (specified as viole da braccio, or “arm” violas, in the score), two viole da gamba (“leg” viols, a six-string viol played between the legs like a modern cello), one violoncello and one violone (a six-string contrabass viol), plus accompanying harpsichord. The score does not indicate multiple players on any of the parts, so the intention may have been to have six soloists plus the harpsichord, as in tonight’s performance, though the piece is sometimes performed with a larger string orchestra.

The three “modern” instruments, the violas and the cello, have the leads, while the three more ancient viols accompany. (In the first performances Prince Leopold may have played a viola da gamba while Bach played a modern viola.) Another remarkable feature of the score is that it calls only for lower-pitched strings—i.e., no violins—yet the music does not sound lugubrious or heavy, but rather warm and rich.

In the first movement the second viola plays in canon with the first—echoing its musical line a beat behind the first—while the other players keep a steady pulse that is all the more striking because of short passages when the pulse ceases. In the second movement, a solemn but always forward-moving Adagio, the two violas are featured while the two viole da gamba (cellos in tonight’s performance) are silent. This movement leads without pause into the finale, a gigue—an elegant sort of jig in this case —in a joyful 6/8 rhythm, with syncopations and challenging rapid figures for the three “modern” strings.

Born Hämeenlinna, Finland, 8 December 1865; died Ainola, Finland, 20 September 1957.
The Swan of Tuonela, from the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22
The first version was completed in 1895 and performed 13 April 1896 with the composer conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic; a final version was completed in 1900. The score calls for English horn solo, oboe, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, harp and strings. The work lasts approximately 10 minutes.

The Kalevala, a source of inspiration for many of Sibelius’ works, was a collection of ancient Finnish poems compiled in the mid-1800s. It stood as the national epic at a time when the Grand Duchy of Finland was still subject to the Russian Empire. In these legends Tuonela was the Land of the Dead, and in his mood-piece “The Swan of Tuonela” the composer imagines a swan floating on a river separating Tuonela from the Land of the Living.

In 1893 Sibelius completed an overture to an opera he called The Building of the Boat, in which the hero goes to Tuonela to learn a magic chant to build the vessel of the title. But Sibelius abandoned the opera, and used music from the overture for “The Swan of Tuonela,” one of a set of tone poems that form the Lemminkäinen Suite, also known as Four Legends from the Kalevala. The Suite--which the composer thought of as a kind of symphony, with “The Swan” as the slow movement, but did not label it as such--was well received by the audience at its 1896 premiere but was savagely attacked by the critics. Sibelius continued to perform “The Swan of Tuonela” and the rousing finale, “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” but did not allow the entire Suite to be published until several decades later.

“The Swan of Tuonela” is remarkable in many ways, beginning with its unusually somber orchestration: no flutes or trumpets, only the bass clarinet, and most strikingly, a prominent English horn, sometimes answered by solo cello and viola. The English horn’s melancholy refrain has phrases that suggest folksong, but each dreamlike reiteration is subtly different from the next. About halfway through, the strings play a pizzicato rhythm like an anxious heartbeat, and toward the end there is a funereal rhythm in the lowest instruments. Finally, before everything settles into silence, the divided strings repeat the intensely poignant passage they played near the beginning of the piece.

Symphony No. 7, Op. 105
Completed in early 1924 and premiered in Stockholm on 24 March of that year with the composer conducting the Concert Association Orchestra. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. The work lasts approximately 21 minutes.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1949 short story “History Lesson” a tribe of future humans, attempting to flee the glaciers of a new ice age, carry with them a parcel of sacred objects whose historical meanings are lost to them. One of their treasures is a book: a “score of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony printed, according to the flyleaf, by H.K. Chu and Sons, at the City of Pekin [Bejing] in the year 2371 A.D.”

Did Clarke personally think Sibelius’ Seventh one of the supreme human achievements, worthy of being “shored against our ruin”? At the least, besides assuming there would be books in 2371 he imagined the Seventh esteemed enough to be reprinted 446 years after it was first published. And Clarke was not alone: for many admirers, the art form known as the symphony, developing from the gallant overtures and suites of the mid-1700s and expanding into the titanic (detractors would say over-blown) canvases of the Late Romantics, found its ultimate expression in the white-hot compression of Jean Sibelius’ 21-minute single movement.

Many years earlier, Franz Liszt, whose music Sibelius admired, wrote two piano concertos and a piano sonata that were each in one overarching movement; but the concertos do fall into separate movements with musical transitions, and the Sonata in B Minor does follow sonata form. In contrast, Sibelius’ Seventh shows a tendency of his earlier symphonies: its music seems to be in a continual state of transformation rather than following traditional patterns of development and repetition. Sibelius himself called the piece Fantasia sinfonica on its premiere, but chose the title “Symphony No. 7 (in one movement)” for its publication in 1925.

Despite the constant transformations and many shifts of tempo, the Seventh does offer a good number of recurring and quite memorable musical themes, including material at the very beginning that will reappear at the very end (a figure for woodwinds, for example). Especially significant—and thrilling each time--is a soaring trombone solo that appears three times in the course of the symphony. Structurally, we discern scherzo-like passages, but they soon merge with other episodes. Tonally, the symphony moves in and out of C major, with the final C reached only after what seems like an intense yearning toward it.

Critics have long debated possible extra-musical meanings or “programs” for the Seventh, claiming it is a portrayal of Finnish landscapes (if so, perhaps during a rather stormy November) or more abstractly is about Life’s Struggles; or it contains some hidden autobiography, since the trombone theme is marked with the name of the composer’s wife in some of the drafts of the score. Even the meaning of the final chord has been debated: Sir Simon Rattle finds the ending “pessimistic” and even apocalyptic, while fellow English conductor Sir Colin Davis has called it “a very bleak affair,” implying that “all human ideas are doomed to the most appalling failure.” But others hear triumph: one critic claims that with the final chord we hear “one final paean to universal life itself” and are “delivered from the bonds of earthly understanding . . . thrust into the chordal Om of the universe, to where the stars dwell.” Another says, more simply, it’s “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was!”

Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia, 6 November, 1893.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Composed in 1874-75 the concerto was premiered in Boston, 25 October 1875, with Hans von Bülow as soloist and an orchestra led by Benjamin Johnson Lang. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration about 35 minutes. The SSO’s most recent performance was on 14 May 2005, led by Guy Victor Bordo, with Yakov Kasman, pianist.

One of the most notorious negative “reviews” in classical music history was in fact a private critique, which we know about because the outraged composer, still wounded three years later, reported it to his patroness. On Christmas Eve, 1874, Tchaikovsky performed his concerto, not yet orchestrated, for his colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolai Rubenstein, who had conducted the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two symphonies and was a virtuoso pianist as well. Tchaikovsky was hoping for technical advice on the writing for piano, but instead was told that the whole thing was “worthless and unplayable . . . beyond repair . . . in places stolen from other composers; only two or three pages worth preserving.” In response, Tchaikovsky exclaimed, “I shall not alter a single note! I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” And in fact he did, though he made minor alterations in later editions (1876, 1889). Rubenstein came to change his mind, conducting the work in its Russian premiere and later performing the piano part.

Rubenstein might well have been startled by the opening of the concerto, with its grand theme in D-flat major (though the introductory chords suggest that the piece will be in B-flat minor), played by the orchestra molto maestoso and punctuated by thundering chords by the pianist. After the theme is repeated with flourishes by the pianist and eventually given an even grander statement by the orchestra, the mood shifts radically: a quiet, then downright solemn transition leads to the main part of the movement. The grand theme will not be heard again, though echoes of it appear subtly in the material of all three movements.

That main section, marked Allegro con spirito, begins with a sprightly Ukrainian folk tune Tchaikovsky had notated near Kiev. Soon two more themes in a more lyrical mood are heard: the first stated by the woodwinds, the second (with a gently rocking motion) by the strings. Tchaikovsky goes on to vary these themes and play with their rhythms, following sonata form though breaking many of the traditional rules; but no amount of analysis can convey the movement’s emotional extremes, its many breathtaking moments of brilliance and passion.

The slow movement, marked Allegretto semplice, indeed opens with a simplicity that contrasts the dramatic complexity of the first movement. We hear one of Tchaikovsky’s great gentle melodies, played by flute against pizzicato strings, then taken up by the piano. The middle part of the movement is another contrast: a fleeting scherzo with fantastic swirls of sound from the piano, and in the midst of that, a quotation of a popular French song (“One must have fun, dance and laugh!”). The movement closes as it began with the gentle melody, though now passed between piano and various winds.

The finale alternates between two themes, again borrowed from actual folk songs. The first is another lively Ukrainian tune, stated by the piano and repeated with wild energy by the orchestra. The second is a Russian melody, more romantically ardent, first played by the strings. After several returns to the Ukrainian tune, repeated phrases of the ardent theme build to a huge climax, topped by a solo piano outburst that leads to a grand restatement of the ardent theme. But the energetic rhythms of the first tune take us to the final bars.


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