24 Mar 2017

Program Notes: Ocean Dreams

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Program Notes: Halekulani Masterworks Ocean Dreams
Saturday, April 1 @ 7:30 pm
Sunday, April 2 @ 4pm
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017 

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The Little Mermaid [Die Seejungfrau], Symphonic Fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen
Alexander von Zemlinsky
Born 14 October, 1871 in Vienna, Austria
Died 15 March, 1942 in Larchmont, New York

 

Approximate duration 41 minutes

These performances are the HSO premiere

 

Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern are the troika of composers at the center of the so-called Second Viennese School. (The ‘First’ such school, of course, was Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.) But there is another composer who was integral to that Second Viennese School, whose name is often overlooked in discussions: Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Schoenberg’s only composition teacher, Zemlinsky was a key figure in the transition from late romanticism to the Second Viennese School.  Zemlinsky was a composer and conductor of considerable talent.  His later music stretched tonality to its limits without abandoning it, as Schoenberg ultimately did. Earlier works, however, like the symphonic poem that occupies the first half of this weekend’s program, are wonderful examples of post-romanticism, rich in both harmony and emotion.

From 1911 to 1927, Zemlinsky was conductor of the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague.  Under his direction, it became one of the leading opera theatres in Europe.  He stayed in touch with his contemporaries, rubbing shoulders with most of the great musicians of his day, including Gustav Mahler and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as well as Schoenberg’s two principal disciples, Berg and Webern.

For the purposes of The Little Mermaid, Mahler is the most important of those figures, because he and Zemlinsky were, albeit briefly, romantic rivals. For about nine months in 1901, Zemlinsky and Alma Maria Schindler – then his composition student –  were romantically involved. At the time, she was regarded as one of Vienna’s great beauties; one of the ironies of her dalliance with Zemlinsky is that she mocked him for his ugliness. She discarded him after meeting Mahler in November 1901. The new affair developed rapidly, and Alma was already pregnant when she married Mahler in early March 1902.

The time line is significant because Zemlinsky composed The Little Mermaid between February 1902 and March 1903. He was clearly licking his wounds after having been cast aside by the beauteous Alma, and the score has autobiographical echoes of spurned love and renunciation. Another powerful influence was the tone poems of Richard Strauss. Zemlinsky and Schoenberg attended Strauss’s Viennese conducting debut in January 1901, which included performances of both Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Ein Heldenleben. The concept of communicating a detailed story through instrumental music made an impression on both of the younger Austrians. Each one set to work on a large-scale programmatic symphony rooted in literature.

The Story

Zemlinsky based his spacious tone poem on the familiar tale by Hans Christian Andersen. A mermaid rescues a mortal prince from a storm at sea that shipwrecks him. She is so taken with him that she makes a bargain with a sea-witch: she will forfeit her tongue – and thus the capacity for speech – in exchange for human legs to replace her tail. Thenceforth her communication with humans must be through movement, which proves to be critically painful for her. Her love for the prince is unrequited. When he marries a princess, the mermaid must attend their nuptials. Eventually she faces a monumental decision: either kill the prince with a knife in order to return to her marine habitat – or die. She casts the knife into the sea and starts to melt (a bit like the wicked witch at the end of The Wizard of Oz). But Andersen’s mermaid has a happier fate: she is destined to perform good deeds in her afterlife.

The structure and the music

Zemlinsky’s correspondence with Schoenberg documents his thoughts and intentions during the composition process. His original plan was a work in two parts and four sections, but the project evolved into three large, descriptive movements arranged slow-fast-slow.. Rather than being strictly narrative, Zemlinsky’s score is illustrative, with strong thematic connections among the movements.

That stated, certain sonic ‘signposts’ are readily discernible. The opening segment unfolds as if in waves from the bottom of the sea, with repeated ascending scale gestures from the celli and basses. Throughout the score, tender violin solos depict the heroine. Stormy passages in the first movement deliver the tempest at sea. Joyous cacophony in the second movement suggests the Prince’s wedding festivities; a quiet interruption reminds us of the mermaid’s suffering before the celebration resumes. The closing movement features themes of love, longing, and renunciation that are by now familiar. You will hear when the heroine returns to the sea, since Zemlinsky reprises the murky ‘wave’ music from the beginning. At the end, his music is both transcendent and triumphant.

Performance history

The first performance of Die Seejungfrau took place in Vienna on 25 January 1905, on the same program as the premiere of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Critical reception was positive, especially for Zemlinsky’s delicate orchestration. Performances of his new piece soon followed in Berlin and Prague; however, by 1910 he had withdrawn the work. It lay fallow and unperformed for three quarters of a century, and the score was long believed to have been lost.

In the early 1980s, two British musicologists working independently – one in a private collection in Vienna, the other at the Library of Congress – rediscovered and reunited the parts of the score that were thought missing. The first modern performance took place in 1984. A commercial recording soon followed, along with overdue acknowledgment of Zemlinsky’s mastery. Today, Die Seejungfrau [The Little Mermaid] is his most frequently performed composition.

 

Postscript

Zemlinsky fled the Nazis in December 1938. He settled in New York City, but – unlike some other refugees from Europe – was not greeted by warmth or opportunity. Following a stroke in 1939, he lingered for three years then died, before the tide of the war had turned. In the second decade of the 21st century, several of his works are getting a well-deserved fresh look and hearing. These performances of The Little Mermaid will be a revelation to audiences discovering Zemlinsky for the first time. Lush and romantic, this is gorgeous music.

The score calls for four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, three bassoons, six horns, three trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, glockenspiel, chimes, and strings.

 

Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64
Felix Mendelssohn
Born 3 February, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died 4 November, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany

 

Approximate duration 26 minutes

First performed by the HSO in 1944

Early in 1856, Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann from Düsseldorf, while on a concert tour with the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms was then twenty-three, and Clara’s husband Robert was confined to a mental asylum in Endenich, near Bonn. Schumann had but five months to live. Schumann’s contemporary Felix Mendelssohn had been dead for more than eight years and Felix’s beloved sister Fanny nearly nine. Brahms and Joachim paid a courtesy call on Mendelssohn’s younger sister Rebekah, who was married to Gustav Pieter Lejeune Dirichlet, a prominent German mathematician. Brahms reported to Clara:

The evening after the concert in Göttingen, we were all at Dirichlet’s. I most reluctantly, for I have a veritable dread of all cliquish ways. Joachim naturally played the Mendelssohn Concerto, during which the woman cried a lot. All rooms are hung full of pictures and sculptures of the brother. Even a drawing of him dying was hung there, and it was her brother, after all. . . . I played the Chromatic Fantasy [of Bach], ‘which Felix also liked to play so much’ and the [Wanderer] Fantasy by Schubert which she did not know and also did not seem to interest her all too much. It must have been difficult to be the surviving sister of a young genius who died, like Mozart, in his thirties. Rebekah Mendelssohn Dirichlet’s devotion to her brother’s memory and music was certainly understandable. At the time, it was widely shared by the general public. In Germany and England, Mendelssohn’s music remained especially popular. Joachim, at age twenty-five, clearly had the Violin Concerto in his repertoire and at the ready for this type of impromptu performance. He continued to play the Mendelssohn in public throughout his career, calling it “the heart’s jewel” among German violin concertos.

From the year 1835, Felix Mendelssohn planned to compose a violin concerto for Ferdinand David, a Hamburg-born violinist who had studied with Louis Spohr.  Mendelssohn and David met in the late 1820s and played chamber music together. By the time David became leader (we would call it concertmaster) of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836, they were close friends and associates. The demands caused by Mendelssohn’s growing fame, however, particularly his extensive conducting obligations, forced him to postpone the concerto project for almost ten years.  He completed most of the work on the concerto during the second half of 1844. David played the premiere at the Gewandhaus on 13 March 1845; the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted.

It is apparent from surviving correspondence that the composer relied heavily on David’s advice.  The sketches show extensive revisions to the work.  Mendelssohn’s letter to David dated 17 December, 1844 reveals a great deal about their collaboration.

Today I must ask you a favor.  I have sent the score of  the violin concerto to Breitkopf and Haertel and I have lately made several alterations in it with pencil, which can be copied into the parts.  I have changed a number of things in the solo part, too, and I hope they are improvements.  But I would particularly like to have your opinion about all this before I give up the music irrevocably to the printer.  First of all, do you agree with the alteration in the cadenza and its being lengthened in this way?  I like it far better, but is the part now written correctly and smoothly?. . . Do not laugh at me too much, I feel ashamed in any case, but I cannot help it;  I am just groping around. . . . Thank God that the fellow is through with his concerto!  you will say. Excuse my bothering you, but what can I do? How surprising to find so much anxiety and self-doubt in the composer of such a self-assured composition!

Some critics have castigated Mendelssohn for an alleged flagging of inspiration in his mature works.  Certainly that is not the case in the violin concerto.  Melodically it is a triumph, overflowing with delicious ideas, all splendidly violinistic and ingeniously developed.  In its form, Mendelssohn’s concerto was a trendsetter for the balance of the nineteenth century.  Foregoing the customary orchestral exposition, he plunges his soloist directly into the fray in the opening measures.  Another break from tradition is the unusual — and unprecedented — placement of the cadenza at the end of the development section, instead of just before the end of the first movement.

A single bassoon note connects the first movement to the Andante, defusing the agitation and drama of the opening.  Emotionally this rapid transition demands a great deal from both soloist and orchestra.  As a unifying device it is the essence of simplicity, and it works.  No less satisfying are the latter two movements, seamlessly bound by a glorious transitional passage that eases us into the joyous finale.  Before we have even noticed that we have changed key, tempo, and mood, the exuberance of the finale sweeps us up into a maelstrom of irrepressible energy.  It is exceptionally difficult not to smile during this movement, one of Mendelssohn’s greatest strokes of genius.

Mendelssohn’s score calls for woodwinds in pairs, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, solo violin and strings.

Kumulipo Reflections
Anders Paulsson (b.1961)

 

Approximate duration 17 minutes

This performance is the world premiere

Music has frequently been combined with other arts. Sometimes musical works are inspired by a painting or work of literature. Opera synthesizes stage, costume, drama, and music. Performance art can be all over the map. A connection to the environment, however, is something different, and very special. Anders Paulsson is a virtuoso soprano saxophonist – who also happens to be a gifted composer with an environmental social conscience. Kumulipo Reflections is one of several works that Paulsson hopes will “inspire better Biosphere Stewardship globally and resonate with many other Creation legends throughout the World.”

His symphonic tone poem Kumulipo Reflections is a powerful symbol to native Hawai’ians of reconciliation and restitution, as our sacred ecological creation chant Kumulipo is presented and uplifted in a soloistic position with the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra to a new audience. Mr. Paulsson’s composer’s note explains:

My intention as a composer is to create music that can inspire audiences to strengthen their commitment to environmental stewardship and also be symbols of understanding and reconciliation between cultures. When Narrissa Spies, a native Hawai’ian doctoral student at Kewalo Marine Laboratory, introduced me to Hawai’ian Oli and the poetic beauty of the Hawai’ian creation chant Kumulipo, it inspired me to conceive a tone poem as a symphonic reflection.

As a devoted environmentalist, I love that the Kumulipo illustrates humanity’s intimate relationship with every living creature and plant as our beloved ancestors, and that Hawai’ians regard the Coral Polyp as the most basic unit of life. In order to proceed in harmony with Hawai’ian culture, I sought the mentorship of Maestro Aaron Mahi, former conductor of the Royal Hawaiian Band, the Honolulu Symphony, and a cultural specialist. This fruitful collaboration evolved so that Aaron Mahi is performing the Kumulipo chant Ka Wa Akahi as the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra reflects and embraces the creation epic from a Westerner’s perspective.

Sacred Hawai’ian pahu drums made of shark skin set a ceremonial rhythm that evokes the spirits of ancient Hawai’i, as the evolution of species grows exponentially into a mighty celebration of life. Kumulipo Reflections mirrors the architecture of the first creation chant: Prologue to the Night World, First Kane and Wahine, Coral Fugue, Procession of Invertebrates, Ritornell of Guardians, and God of Abundance.

Mahalo nui loa,

Anders Paulsson

 

Paulsson’s evocative score captures the timelessness and beauty of the Hawai’ian landscape and seascape, the endless lap of the sea upon our beautiful shores, and the meditative peace available within these islands’ unique heritage and culture. Anders Paulsson studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and the Conservatoire de Bordeaux in France. He was then awarded a Fulbright ITT International Fellowship to study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He made his debut as a soprano saxophonist in Carnegie Hall in 1992. Since then, he has performed internationally and been active in commissioning new works. He has graciously decided to present Kumulipo Reflections as a goodwill donation to the Native Hawai’ian Community and the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra.

The score to Kumulipo Reflections calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion [sacred ceremonial Hawaiian Pahu drum, rainbow wind chimes, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum, tam tam, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, timpani, marimba, glockenspiel], celeste, harp, and strings.

 

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