30 Jan 2017

Program Notes: Brahms Double Concerto

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Program Notes: Halekulani Masterworks Brahms Double Concerto
Saturday, February 4 @ 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 5 @ 4pm
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017

Indulge in the beautiful music of Brahms as the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra  proudly features two of its own musicians – Concertmaster Ignace (Iggy) Jang and Principal Cellist Mark Votapek – in the Brahms Violin and Cello Concerto in A minor (also known as the Brahms Double Concerto) under the baton of Maestra Xian Zhang at 7:30 pm on Saturday, February 4 and at 4 pm on Sunday, February 5. Zhang, who was recently appointed music director of the New Jersey Symphony beginning with the 2016-17 season, makes her second appearance with the HSO in this concert. In 2016, Zhang was appointed principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales. She is the first female conductor to hold a titled role with a BBC orchestra.

Vocalise for Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born 1 April, 1873 in Oneg, Novgorod District, Russia
Died 28 March, 1943 in Beverly Hills, California

Approximate duration 6 minutes

These performances are an HSO premiere

As its title implies, Vocalise has its origins in vocal music. It first appeared in a collection of 14 songs published as Rachmaninoff’s Opus 34.  While most music lovers associate Rachmaninoff primarily with his orchestral and piano music, he also composed for solo voice through much of his early career.  Between 1890 and 1916, Rachmaninoff produced some eighty songs for voice and piano, many of which set poetry by Russia’s great authors, including Pushkin, Tolstoi, and Lermontov.

Vocalise is unlike any of them, simply because it has no text.  There is only one known precedent for this concept, and it came from one of Rachmaninoff’s countrymen: Igor Stravinsky’s Pastorale of 1907.  Vocalise has become much more widely known than the Stravinsky work, and served as a model for another Russian composer, Reinhold Glière, in his Concerto for Coloratura and Orchestra, Op. 82 (1943).

Although published with the Opus 34 songs, Vocalise was written in April 1912, some three years after any of the other 13 songs in that group, and fully ten years after the earliest of Opus 34.  The song is dedicated to Antonina Nezhdanova, a soprano Rachmaninoff accompanied during the 1912-1913 season.  Initially, she questioned why it had no words.  “What need is there of words,” Rachmaninoff asked her, “when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively by your voice and interpretation than anyone could with words?”  Evidently this compliment to her artistry satisfied her, for Vocalise remained textless.

Rachmaninoff is said to have liked the idea that the piece would be performed like a Bach aria.  Nikolai Struve, a composer who was also on the editorial board of Editions Russes de Musique, recommended that he do the orchestral version.  Rachmaninoff  recorded it with the Philadelphia orchestra in 1929.  While the mournful substance of the music, including its references to the Dies irae chant, remained unchanged, the texture inevitably changes.  Violins play the solo line originally assigned to soprano; the balance of the orchestra accompanies.

Vocalise is scored for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings.

Concerto for Violin, Violoncello & Orchestra (“Double Concerto”), Op.102
Johannes Brahms
Born 7 May, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died 3 April, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

Approximate duration 32 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1951

Brahms’s sole concerto for more than one instrument is unique not only among his works, but also among those of the nineteenth century.  While he was certainly acquainted with Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto, Op.56 (1803-04) for piano, violin and cello, his models for the so-called Double Concerto (or, among musicians, simply the “Brahms Double”) lie in the eighteenth century:  in the Sinfonie concertante of Mozart and his contemporaries, and even earlier, among the Baroque concerti grossi so popular in the first half of that century.

The concerto was Brahms’s swan song for orchestra.  After this work he turned his attention exclusively to the more intimate domain of chamber music, solo piano pieces, and songs, eschewing larger ensembles. It is impossible to say whether Brahms knew, when he composed the Double Concerto in summer 1887, that it was to be his last major work for orchestra.

He was aware that integrating two solo instruments would present problems. The violin tone can hold its own over full orchestra, whereas solo cello runs the risk of being overpowered.  Furthermore, both of Brahms’s piano concertos and his Violin Concerto had been criticized for being overly symphonic, to the detriment of the soloist.  Brahms was not daunted by such criticism, and saw a special challenge in the prospect of a double concerto.

The idea came to him on the heels of his Second Cello Sonata, Op.99, which he completed in 1886. He wrote it for Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joseph Joachim’s string quartet.  Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann:

I have had the amusing idea of composing a concerto for violin and cello.  If it is at all successful it might give us some fun.  You can well imagine the sort of pranks one can play in such a case.  But do not imagine too much.  I ought to have handed on the idea to someone who knows the violin better than I do (Joachim has unfortunately given up composing).

An excellent pianist himself, Brahms was keenly aware how important it was to understand the particular capabilities of each solo instrument.

He also had an ulterior motive in involving the violinist Joseph Joachim.  They had been estranged for some seven years, and Brahms was hoping for a reconciliation.  Joachim had been one of Brahms’s closest friends and important professional collaborators since the 1850s. Unfortunately his personality was often irrational and he was prone to jealousy. In 1880, he had accused his wife Amalie of adultery with the publisher Fritz Simrock and, convinced of her guilt, filed divorce proceedings.

Appalled at Joachim’s behavior, Brahms took Amalie’s part, writing a letter of support for her that was eventually introduced as character evidence when the matter came before the court.  Because Brahms was both famous and known to be Joachim’s good friend, his letter proved decisive in a ruling against the violinist.  Joachim was publicly embarrassed and promptly severed personal relations with the composer. He and Amalie remained married in name only, and the couple separated permanently. It is a measure of Joachim’s artistic integrity that he continued to champion Brahms’s music in spite of their personal rift.

Some seven years later, the Double Concerto did patch the quarrel, and Brahms conducted Joachim and Hausmann in the premiere in Cologne on 15 October 1887.  The work was coolly received, and while it must be considered standard repertoire, it has never caught the public imagination to quite the extent of the other Brahms concerti.  The mostly likely reason for this oversight is practical.  The concerto requires two superb virtuosi who can work together and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  Similarly, the conductor has the added challenge of following two soloists.

The music is vintage Brahms, full of passion, rich with melody and superbly crafted.  After a resolute orchestral flourish to open, Brahms placed his cadenzas at the beginning, a ploy borrowed from Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.  As in the Beethovenian model, the movement proceeds in more conventional sonata form.

The slow movement is the Double Concerto’s happiest inspiration, with a luxuriant and warm theme delivered in unison by the two soloists and developed with Brahmsian richness by the supporting orchestra.  The woodwinds have a particularly rewarding role in the movement’s middle section.  Brahms closes the concerto with a vigorous rondo that shows considerably more humor than we generally expect from Brahms, along with a dash of Hungarian spice.

Brahms scored the Double Concerto for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo violin and cello, and strings.

Suite from The Sleeping Beauty, Op.66a
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
Born 7 May, 1840 in Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia
Died 6 November, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia

Approximate duration 21 minutes

These performances are an HSO premiere

Few ballets are more beloved than Tchaikovsky’s three masterpieces:  Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.  These scores are chock full of delightful miniatures, brilliantly orchestrated.  They are so rich in melodies that the fertility of Tchaikovsky’s imagination boggles the mind.  Ironically, in his own day he was not acknowledged to be the ballet composer par excellence. Russian dancers objected to his music as being overly complicated.  They even called it obscure and, that most damnable of sins:  undanceable!

Were such accusations ignorant?  Perhaps, but an understanding of ballet’s importance in Russian artistic culture is helpful in placing them in perspective.  Russian ballet emerged in the 18th century, about the same time that other western European arts were finding their way to Moscow and especially St. Petersburg.  When the first Russian school of ballet was established, the director was French.  France, which has the strongest ballet tradition of any western European country, continued to exert a powerful influence on Russian dance.

In 1847, a French ballet master from Marseilles named Marius Petipa (1818-1910) showed up in St. Petersburg, initially as a premier danseur.  He was promoted to second ballet master in 1858.  By 1869, he led the Russian Imperial Ballet.  Petipa was the dominant figure in Russian ballet for the balance of the 19th century, bringing Russian dancers up to world class standards.  He choreographed almost 50 ballets, including several that have remained in the permanent repertoire.  Petipa developed his own type of ballet, in which music was subservient to the needs of the choreographer.  Thus an assertive score with its own distinct personality did not find immediate friends among the dancers, who expected the music to conform to the balletmaster’s decisions.

Sleeping Beauty is the most important representative of the Petipa-style ballet; indeed, it is the quintessential romantic ballet.  It is also arguably Tchaikovsky’s most successful theatre piece.  While accommodating Petipa’s exacting choreographic instructions, the music stands admirably on its own merits.  Stravinsky called this score “the convincing example of Tchaikovsky’s great creative power.”

Tchaikovsky’s orchestra is unusually large for a ballet.  It is in keeping with the large dimensions of the scenario, which consists of a Prologue and three acts.  Sleeping Beauty has a total of 29 numbers, some of which subdivide into as many as six separate variations.  (In ballet, “variation” refers to a solo dance; they are different from their musical cousin of the same name.)

For these performances, Xian Zhang has selected four of the five numbers in the Suite, Op.66a from the ballet. The Introduction opens with brilliance and drama, initially depicting the evil Carabosse, who embodies the darker, threatening aspects of the tale about to unfold. In orchestral tumult and grandeur, this opening recalls the sweep of Tchaikovsky at his symphonic best. Carabosse’s music gives way to the Lilac Fairy’s lovely theme, which dominates the balance of this first movement and foretells the eventual triumph of good over evil.

Panorama is from Act II, when the Lilac Fairy has guided Prince Désiré through the enchanted forest to the castle where Princess Aurora has been sleeping for 100 years. Pulsing woodwinds provide gentle forward momentum, while the elegant string theme assures us the journey will be smooth and successful.

Next we hear the famous Valse, which takes place during the birthday celebrations in Act I. Tchaikovsky was the undisputed Russian master of the orchestral waltz, and this one – arguably the most beloved theme from this marvelous score – is one of his finest.

Xian Zhang concludes with the famous Rose Adagio. In the ballet, the music frames the presentation of a rose by four of Aurora’s suitors, on the occasion of her coming of age at 20. The movement features an important role for harp, including a substantial introductory cadenza.  Prior to Tchaikovsky’s ballets, orchestral cadenzas for harp were not idiomatic for the instrument. He marked the parts ad libitum, freeing the harpist to play the part in a manner that worked best for the instrument. Following the cadenza, Tchaikovsky introduces another glorious romantic theme, demonstrating once again his genius for writing a great melody. He uses full orchestra to magnificent effect, building to a grand and satisfying close.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, harp, and strings.


Marche slave, Op.31
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
Born 7 May, 1840 in Votkinsk, Viatka District, Russia
Died 6 November, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia

Approximate duration 10 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1972

In June 1876, Turkish soldiers massacred a group of Slavic Christians in the Balkans.  Montenegro and Serbia immediately retaliated in protest, and war broke out.  To the north, Russia observed the conflict with keen interest.  Pro-Serbian support ran strong in Russia, a nation of Slavs.  Tsar Alexander sided with Serbia, with an eye toward reclaiming land he had forfeited during the Crimean War.  By autumn, organized aid for war victims had sprung up.

In early October, the conductor and pianist Nikolai Rubinstein asked Tchaikovsky to write a special piece to be presented at a benefit concert on behalf of Serbian soldiers who had fallen in battle and Russian volunteers going to help them.  Swept by patriotic fervor, Tchaikovsky responded with unaccustomed rapidity.  First he obtained a collection of Serbian songs in search of appropriate thematic material.  He then adjusted three of the melodies he found, in order to suit his compositional needs.  Within days, he had composed and scored the Marche slave [Slavonic March].

The resulting composition is a mish-mosh of Serbian tunes that sound strikingly like Tchaikovsky’s original themes.  He also incorporated the Russian national anthem, “God Preserve the Tsar,” which he used in several other compositions, most notably the 1812 Overture.  The rabble-rousing coda to the Marche slave was specifically designed to stir the audience and encourage their support for the military cause.  Tchaikovsky knew that the March was not a great work, yet he recognized the effectiveness of his fine orchestral setting.  As Ralph Wood has observed:

It is an expert, in a superficial way extremely stirring, piece of work — conventional in essence but with a veneer of striking originalities.

The Serbs were defeated by the Turks, which resulted in Russia’s declaration of war on Turkey in 1877, a conflict that very nearly pitched all of western Europe into war; that crisis was averted by the Congress of Berlin in 1878.  Tchaikovsky’s March has outlived its initial jingoistic function because of characteristic themes, brilliant orchestration, and the spirited conclusion.

Tchaikovsky scored the Marche slave for woodwinds in pairs (including 2 piccolos), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam and strings.