Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   October 6, 2018 Prog...
September 27, 2018

October 6, 2018 Program Notes

Born 11 December 1803 near Grenoble, France; died Paris, 8 March 1869.
Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9.
Le carnaval romain, written early in 1844, was derived from Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini, itself written 1836-38. The concert overture was first performed in Paris at the Salle Herz, the composer conducting, 3 February 1844. The score calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, triangle, 2 tambourines, harp, and strings. Performance time is about 9 minutes.

FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE: 13 December 1959, Don Radmer conducting, North High (now Urban Middle School) Auditorium.

MOST RECENT SSO PERFORMANCE: 19 October 1985, Manuel Prestamo conducting, Kohler Memorial Theatre.

A major project of Berlioz’ early maturity was his opera Benvenuto Cellini, based on the life of the late-Renaissance sculptor, goldsmith and memoirist. At the climax of Berlioz’ comedy-drama the Pope himself forces the hero to meet a deadline for casting his famous statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa--or else be arrested on murder charges and forbidden to marry his truelove! Unfortunately, the opera failed when it opened in Paris, and even a revised version premiered in Weimar under the direction of Franz Liszt did not lead to international success. But Berlioz did devise a concert overture from themes from the first act, and it quickly became a favorite in the concert hall. (The actual Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, utilizing different themes, has remained popular as well.)

Carnival—i.e., Mardi Gras—is the setting for Act I. The rousing opening of the Roman Carnival Overture gives a brief preview of things to come, but the festivities quickly settle down for a romantic serenade offered by the English horn. Taken from a love duet between Cellini and his beloved Teresa, the tune is the sort of long-arched yearning melody of which Berlioz was a supreme master.

With a swirl of woodwind color the Mardi Gras celebration arrives: first quietly as if heard several streets away, then boldly upfront. Sung by the chorus in the opera (quite a vocal challenge), the main theme is a saltarello, a “jumping tune,” with some tricky offbeats in the strings and prominent tambourines in the percussion section. Just when the music seems to fade away, the bassoons and then trombones bring back the English horn melody, but now with the Carnival rhythm underneath. A final outburst ends the celebration.


Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77.
Composed in 1878 and premiered New Year’s Day 1879, with violinist Joseph Joachim and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra led by the composer; revisions followed until publication in October 1879. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, plus solo violin. Duration is about 40 minutes. 

PREVIOUS SSO PERFORMANCE: 4 February 1995, Emanuel Borok, violinist, with Guy Victor Bordo, Kohler Memorial Auditorium. 

The history of Brahms’ Violin Concerto cannot be told without reference to Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), the composer’s close friend and indeed collaborator, as well as first performer of the concerto. Born to a Hungarian Jewish family, Joachim gave concerts in Budapest, Vienna and Leipzig while still a child, and became internationally famous at the age of 12 when he played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—then considered a strange, even “incomprehensible” work—with Felix Mendelssohn leading the London Philharmonic. In his early 20s Joachim became close friends with Robert and Clara Schumann and the 20-year-old Brahms, who soon would be asking him to critique several drafts of his First Piano Concerto.

Joachim was also a composer (he dedicated his 1861 Second Violin Concerto to Brahms), conductor and leading champion of chamber music, including the late Beethoven quartets and Brahms’ own chamber works. Schumann and later Antonin Dvorak wrote their Violin Concertos with him in mind, though he never performed either. He gave Max Bruch an extensive critique of the latter’s First Violin Concerto (1866-67) and premiered it with his revisions. And perhaps most famously, he offered Brahms (whose own instrument was the piano) detailed advice on the violin writing of the Opus 77 Concerto. Brahms took some but not all of his advice, while inviting him to compose the cadenza for the first movement. Other violinists have composed alternate cadenzas, but Joachim’s is still widely performed, and has been chosen by tonight’s soloist.  

Brahms’ Violin Concerto was not an immediate success with the public or the critics, despite Joachim’s promotion of it. Many found it—like the composer’s Second Piano Concerto two years later—too symphonic, i.e., not enough of a virtuoso display piece with the orchestra taking a modest background role. Another celebrated violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, refused to play it because he claimed Brahms had given the best melody to the oboe in the slow movement. But at the dawn of the Twentieth Century Joachim proclaimed that the greatest German violin concertos of the preceding century were the Beethoven and the Brahms, along with the Mendelssohn and the Bruch First, and very few concertgoers of today would disagree.

I. Allegro non troppo. The “not too fast” first movement miraculously feels both intimate and monumental. Following tradition, Brahms cast this first movement in sonata form, including a full exposition of the themes on the part of the orchestra before the soloist enters for a second exposition, then the development and “recap.” But such a technical description gives no idea of the lyric beauty and symphonic complexity of the movement. Brahms was, after all, a master of song-writing as well as symphonies.

The movement’s three-quarter-time rhythm allows for both lyrical flow and vigorous outbursts. It begins gently, with the opening melody played by bassoons and lower strings, its second half voiced by the oboe, but there will be powerful energy in the drama to come. The constantly evolving themes, in the words of one critic, “blossom before us like opening flowers in a richly stocked garden.”

II. Adagio. Woodwinds alone, with the support of two horns, open the slow movement, with the oboe stating the poignant main theme. The solo violin eventually enters with the first notes of that theme but immediately takes it soaring in a new direction. This relatively brief movement is essentially a fantasia upon the oboe theme, which is taken into a minor key during the middle portion of the movement.

III. Allegro giocoso ma non troppo vivace. The finale—"playful but not overly lively,” as the tempo marking advises—has a bit of a Hungarian or Gypsy flair, like a good number of Brahms finales. It is a rondo, with the main theme returning after each contrasting episode. Joyful and bold as well as playful, the finale is full of surprising shifts of mood, including some bars in a vigorous march tempo right near the end.


Born Bologna, Italy, 9 July 1879; died Rome, 18 April 1936.
The Fountains of Rome, symphonic poem for orchestra
Composed in 1916, Fontane di Roma was premiered 11 March 1917 in Rome at the Teatro Augusteo, Antonio Guarnieri conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tubular bell, glockenspiel, celesta, piano, organ, 2 harps and strings. Performance time is about 15 minutes.


The Fountains of Rome was the first of Ottorino Respighi’s celebrated “Roman trilogy” of symphonic poems. With Fountains he set for himself a practice of “painting” four related landscapes in one orchestral piece. (Compare Claude Debussy’s fondness for three panels in his La Mer, Nocturnes and Images for Orchestra.) The four sections of Fountains, played without pause, are unified furtherby a time scheme taking us from dawn to dusk.

The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn. In the composer’s words, this movement is meant to “evoke a pastoral landscape: herds of sheep pass by and disappear into the fresh, damp mists of a Roman dawn.” With uncanny vividness Respighi translates an impression of dawn into music, with woodwind solos suggesting both a shepherd’s piping and awakening birds, the delicate harmonies magically conveying a sense of freshness. (The “Valley of Julia” is just below Rome’s Villa Borghese; different claims have been made as to the exact fountain Respighi had in mind.)

The Triton Fountain in the Morning. Horn fanfares alternating with high-register trills from piccolo, glockenspiel, piano and violins introduce the Triton Fountain, a masterpiece of the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. A triton—a sea-god in the form of a merman—poised on a platform of dolphins raises his head high to blow through a conch-shell, with a jet of water shooting up from it. Respighi calls this movement a “joyous call to sea nymphs and other tritons . . . mingling in a frenetic dance between the jets of water.”

The Trevi Fountain at Noon. The Trevi, Rome’s largest baroque fountain and surely its most famous, was named for a crossroads (tre vie = three roads) and built to celebrate the aqueducts of Rome that brought fresh water into the city. It is a gushy fountain, water pouring from several sources, and Respighi creates surging music to picture a procession of Neptune in his chariot.

The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset. This fountain, in contrast, is calm and plain with a wide circular basin. “The air is filled with the sounds of church bells, twittering birds, rustling leaves. Then everything sinks softly into the silence of the night.”

The Pines of Rome, symphonic poem for orchestra
 Composed in 1924, Pini di Roma was premiered 14 December of that year in Rome at the Teatro Augusteo, Bernardino Molinari conducting. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, ratchet, glockenspiel, recording of a nightingale, celesta, piano, organ, harp and strings, plus offstage 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones. Performance time is about 23 minutes.

FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE: 27 January 1996, Guy Victor Bordo conducting, Kohler Memorial Theatre.

MOST RECENT SSO PERFORMANCE: 2 October 2004, Bordo conducting, Weill Center.

Following the success of his Fountains of Rome, Respighi created the even more acclaimed Pines of Rome. Again there are four movements played without pause.

The Pines of the Villa Borghese. A riot of color and youthful energy bursts upon us in the first bars of The Pines of Rome. We are in the park adjoining the Villa Borghese (now an art museum), where children “dance around in circles, play at soldiers” and rush around in “swarms like swallows,” according to the composer’s description. With its shifting rhythms, dazzling instrumentation and snatches of children’s songs, the movement is quite breathtaking—until the scene shifts abruptly.

Pines Near a Catacomb. With the swiftness of a cinematic cut, we are suddenly in the shade of an entrance to a catacomb on the outskirts of the ancient city. The mood is solemn, almost haunted. The steady rhythm of a mournful chant arises, grows steadily in volume, then gradually fades.

The Pines of the Janiculum. We now find ourselves on the Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo in Italian) west of the Tiber River, where, the composer tells us, a full moon shines above the pines. After a dreamy flourish from a solo piano (“a quiver runs through the air”), a clarinet hauntingly impersonates a nightingale. The music becomes increasingly rhapsodic with other solo instruments joining in. At the end of the movement the clarinet returns with its melody, now followed by a real nightingale—i.e., a recording of the actual birdsong, a first in symphonic music history. (The score lists “gramophone” in the percussion section.) A gesture that could have sounded tacky is in fact magical in the way that Respighi uses it.

The Pines of the Appian Way. One can still see long stretches of the Via Appia, the Roman road leading southeast from the capital. Respighi imagines a procession of ancient Roman soldiers marching through a misty dawn, as “solitary pines guard the landscape.” As the sun blazes its way through the mist and the procession nears us, the music reaches an overwhelming climax. The score calls for six “buccine” in the final pages: a buccina was an ancient Roman brass instrument whose horn curved up and over the back of the player, like the arch of a gigantic bow. But the composer expected modern instruments to be used, as in tonight’s performance.

Respighi completed his trilogy in 1928 with Roman Festivals—which, perhaps with a tip of the hat to Berlioz, does not include a Roman Carnival in its four scenes. In between Pines and Festivals he composed three other multi-paneled tone poems: Church Windows, Botticelli Triptych and Brazilian Impressions.

Share this on: