Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 04, 2014

November 15, 2014 Program Notes

Born Leipzig, Saxony, 22 May 1813; died Venice, Italy, 13 February 1883.

Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III
Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was first performed at the Weimar Staatskapelle under the direction of Franz Liszt, 28 August 1850. The Prelude to Act 3  calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine and strings, Lasting about 3 minutes, the Prelude was most recently played at an SSO subscription concert on 14 May 2005, led by Guy Victor Bordo.

At the end of Act 2 of Lohengrin, Wagner’s opera of medieval pageantry, mysticism, love and betrayal, the forces of Good appear to have triumphed. Princess Elsa of Brabant is about to marry her knight-savior, having promised never to ask him what his name is. The Prelude to Act 3 does not quote music from the opera proper, but is certainly heroic enough to conjure images of knights charging into some kind of action. Opening with a fanfare that leads immediately into the first of two rousing themes, the Prelude has a gentler middle section, but soon a soaring clarinet solo leads us back to the opening section.

In the opera the Prelude leads without pause into the Wedding Chorus as the newlyweds enter their bridal chamber. Some arrangements of the Prelude for the concert hall close with the fateful theme associated with Lohengrin’s name, but tonight’s version follows the opera’s path, ending quietly with the first strain of the Wedding Chorus (probably Wagner’s most famous tune, known to us as “Here Comes the Bride”).  

Die Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music
Wagner’s music drama The Twilight of the Gods was first performed at the Beyreuth Festspielhaus, 17 August 1876, conducted by Hans Richter. Ludwig Stasny’s arrangement of music from Act 3 was written soon thereafter; it calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.

In the last act of Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final opera of Wagner’s monumental four-part cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, the hero Siegfried is treacherously stabbed by Hagen, secret son of the Nibelung Alberich. As Siegfried dies he remembers the glorious moment when he awakened his great love, Brunnhilde, from an enchanted sleep. Following his death, vassals carry him on his shield offstage, to the music of a funeral march that forms a transition to the final scene of the drama. 

Wagner’s musical style had changed greatly in the two-and-a-half decades since Lohengrin. The more foursquare style of the earlier opera had given way to a seamless flow of leitmotifs (musical themes linked to characters, objects and abstractions like destiny) that comment on the drama. In Ludwig Stasny’s arrangement, the first motif we hear, played by the horns, is one connected to Siegfried’s blood-brother pact with Gunther. (In the opera this is the moment when Gunther guiltily sings “Hagen, what have you done?”) The lower strings and then the timpani play a rhythmic figure that will eventually become the Funeral March.

After the horns play the three-note fate motif that plays a major role in the cycle, we hear the ecstatic dawn music from the previous opera, Siegfried, when Brunnhilde, the former Valkyrie, awakens after the hero’s kiss. Siegfried’s delirious dying words at this point in the drama are heartbreaking:  “Holy bride! Wake up! Open your eyes! Who sank you again in sleep? . . . The Awakener came, and kissed you awake! . . . then Brunnhilde’s joy laughed with him! Ah, these eyes forever now open! Ah, this breath wonderfully stirring!” His last words recall the wonder of first passionate love: “Sweet extinction, blessed terror: Brunnhilde bids me greeting!”

During the course of the Funeral March that follows we hear many of The Ring’s most important motifs, as if recapitulating Siegfried’s role in the drama through a series of musical flashbacks. First are several themes recalling the tragic love of his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde. Then, ringing forth on trumpet, the motif of the magic sword, Nothung, which Siegmund pulled from a tree and Siegfried reforged after the god Wotan shattered it. Next, Siegfried’s own heroic motif, and the call of his hunting horn, now played by the brass in unison. Each of these appearances is followed by the powerful rhythm of the funeral march. At the end of the interlude we hear a minor-key version of the once joyful motif of Brunnhilde urging Siegfried to go forth on adventures; an echo of the curse on the Ring (which is still on Siegfried’s finger); and a sad transformation of the hunting-horn motif as the music subsides into silence.

Born near Changsa, China, 18 August 1957.

Crouching Tiger Concerto for Erhu and Chamber  Orchestra
Derived from the soundtrack music for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the Crouching Tiger Concerto was first premiered as a work for cello and chamber orchestra, with Yo-Yo Ma and the London Sinfonietta conducted by the composer, 28 September 2000; then as an erhu concerto on 19 October 2001, with Karen Hwa-Chee Han as soloist and again the composer conducting, at the Barclay Theatre on the University of California Irvine campus. Tonight’s performance is the premiere of a new revision of the erhu version. The score calls for alto flute, piccolo, bongos, roto-tom, tambourine, timpani played with hands and sticks, cymbals played with bows, tam-tam, bass drum, harp, and strings. Performance time is about 18 minutes.

Tan Dun, internationally China’s most famous living composer, was born in a village in Hunan Province. Kept from musical studies as a youth by the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution, he learned folk instruments and became a player and arranger for a Peking Opera troupe. At 20 he was chosen as one of the first students at the reopened Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, and at 29 a doctoral student at Columbia University and participant in New York’s avant-garde downtown music scene.

Tan Dun is known particularly for music that combines Chinese and Western traditions, often pairing folk instruments with those of a modern symphony orchestra. He has composed several operas, including one for the Metropolitan Opera starring Placido Domingo, and often uses very unusual instruments, as in his concerto for “Water Percussion,” his Paper Concerto, and an Earth Concerto featuring stone and ceramic percussion. His music for the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gained him an Oscar for Best Original Score and a Grammy for Best Soundtrack album.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was Taiwan-born director Ang Lee’s homage to classic films about martial-arts heroes. For the music score Tan Dun at first planned to feature a solo erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument played with a bow, though it is very different from the Western family of viols. The square or hexagonal sound box, traditionally fronted with snakeskin, rests on the player’s thigh; the bow does not leave the strings, which number only two; the neck is long like a stick, and the player’s fingers do not press the strings against it.

Ultimately, instead of an erhu, the soundtrack featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Project had already involved him in music combining East and West performing styles. Tan Dun soon arranged for Ma a Crouching Tiger Concerto which they performed even before the film opened in the West; but within a year the composer had written an alternate version for erhu after all. Early performances of both versions included scenes from the film projected behind the orchestra, but this practice has been put aside in recent years. Tonight’s performance is the premiere of Tan Dun’s latest revision of his Crouching Tiger Concerto for Erhu and Chamber Orchestra.

The three movements of the concerto evoke Lee’s film, particularly its scenes of unrequited love and yearning for an unattainable perfection, but stand as pure music as well. The delicate and plaintive sounds of the erhu are supported by the warm body of strings and echoed by alto flute, piccolo and harp, while the percussion includes a prominent part for bongos and the subtle sound of a bow drawn over the edge of a cymbal resting on a kettledrum.

Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Composed June-October 1877 and premiered 30 December by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter (who had led Götterdämmerung the previous year). The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 43 minutes. The SSO played the Brahms Symphony No. 2 under the direction of Guy Victor Bordo on 2 February 1993.

Brahms struggled for two decades to complete his First Symphony, but the very next year he needed only four months to compose his Second. He was spending the summer and early fall in an idyllic Austrian village near a lake with mountain views, and wrote to a friend, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.” Many listeners have called the Second Brahms’ “Pastoral” Symphony because so much of it sounds alternately relaxed and high-spirited—especially when one contrasts the genial melody for horns that opens the Second with the ominous, tension-filled start of the First Symphony, dominated by incessant drumbeats. 

But many a shadow passes over the sunlight of the Second Symphony, including near the beginning when a soft timpani roll introduces the dark sounds of trombones and tuba. (This is the only symphony where Brahms used that lowest of the brass instruments.) Two years later, when asked by a conductor why he darkened the color of the first movement with these instruments, Brahms wrote back, “I would have to confess that I am, by the way, a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us.”

Still, commentators have found it notoriously difficult to attach any kind of “program” or autobiographical drama to Brahms’ non-vocal music. Like all four of Brahms’ symphonies the Second is intensely emotional and seems to shift in mood not only from bar to bar but from note to note, with every alteration of a harmony or rhythm. Perhaps this voyage in music is a struggle between melancholy and joy (with joy winning in this case); but one might say with equal validity that it is “about” its endless play of rhythmic patterns, 3 against 2 and 4—or about how the first three notes of the symphony, D-C#-D, can be transformed, weaving their way through all the other movements.

Those three notes are played by the cellos and basses just before the horns enter with their lovely melody. Following the first appearance of the timpani and low brass, the first violins offer a radiant melody of their own, and later the cellos play a tune that has, for many listeners, a kinship with Brahms’ famous Lullaby, written a decade earlier. But along with the abundance of melodic material in this movement (“so thick you could step on one”) is a constant symphonic fragmentation and transformation of them: for example, the gentle horn melody becomes intensely dramatic during one climax of the movement.

The Adagio movement begins with a long melody for the cellos, descending in its first phrases against an ascending counter-theme for the bassoons. The mood is solemn, noble, almost grieving, but later contrasted with a more graceful section for the woodwinds. There are intensely powerful climaxes before the last quiet statement of the opening theme.

The brief third movement (Allegretto grazioso) with its unusual structure occupies the place of a scherzo. The opening section, reminiscent of the Austrian slow country waltz called a ländler, is led by the oboe; it is followed by a brisker version of itself in duple time. After a return of the opening section, with new material, an even brisker variation in 3/8 time follows. Finally, the opening music returns, ending the movement with an especially wistful passage.

The finale begins quietly but with a forward-driving theme that soon leads to an exuberant outburst. The second major theme of this sonata-form finale is warm and rich in its string scoring. Of the many striking moments in the finale one might single out a mysterious passage in triplet rhythm, marked Tranquillo, which is a variation on the finale’s opening phrase and also an echo of the symphony’s opening three notes. The final bars of the symphony build to a blazing triumph, with the “dark” trombones now brightly proclaiming the final D major chord.


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