Read below for extended program notes on today’s performance.
Read below for extended program notes on today’s performance.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a child prodigy composer. Born into wealth and benefiting from a musically-talented family, Mendelssohn studied and composed rigorously, completing works in his youth that rivaled compositions from the greats of his time. By other means of his wealth, Mendelssohn enjoyed the privilege of traveling often in his youth.
At age 12, Mendelssohn traveled to Scotland with a close friend and took a walking tour of the Hebrides Islands. Mendelssohn was deeply moved by the scenery of the islands—he later wrote to his sister Fanny that the opening bars to The Hebrides came to him while he absorbed these magnificent natural views.
The new form of overture employed in The Hebrides—a stand-alone work not tied to any opera or greater work—emerged in the 19th century. Thus, The Hebrides doesn’t attempt to grab disparate melodies and themes like overtures before it, but instead establishes ideas and develops them meaningfully over a 10-minute run.
The Hebrides employs many iconic Mendelssohn-isms. Notably, rapid-fire motives in the upper strings, lush melodies which burst into dramatic unpredictabilities, and a marathon race to the finish. Listen for Mendelssohn’s masterful command as an orchestrator: his academic knowledge of the instruments in the orchestra allow for many different textures and colors to emerge through the sound.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer who straddled the late Classical and early Romantic eras. Though he lived a short life, Schubert composed a massive catalog of symphonies, operas, art songs, piano solos, and chamber music. It is rumored that a young Schubert was quite shy to share his compositions with peers—a note in history which seems silly when listening to Schubert’s flare for drama and musical storytelling.
Historians speculate that Schubert entered a period of deep self criticism and reflection about his symphonic works—likely influenced by Beethoven’s success with the model—during the last decade of his life. Schubert in this time started and abandoned numerous fragments of musical thoughts and ideas he intended to revisit later.
The “Unfinished Symphony,” with only two movements fully scribed, is Schubert’s last symphony considered large enough to get its own number. The first movement, performed today, opens with a slow, mournful theme in the lower strings. New busy ideas emerges, which are quickly halted by large chords in the orchestra. The movement transitions back and forth between these moments of calm and intensity in a storm-like fashion, capturing the drama and flare in Schubert’s pen which establishes him as a leading composer of the 19th century.
At the young age of 26, Quinn Mason (1996-) has already established prominence internationally. A composer of symphonic works, chamber music, and works for wind ensemble, Mason’s wide-ranging musical interests make him a composer whose works benefit musicians with a spectrum of experience. Mason’s works have been performed by major US orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, and the National Youth Orchestra.
Mason lovingly describes this work—his most frequently performed—as an “overture to an operetta that doesn’t exist.” “Toast of the Town” is an instantly celebratory work, with march-like motives against fluttering, soaring melodies in the upper voices. The work stays generally in this playful area of sound, with moments of excitement given to instruments across the entire orchestra, swelling and soaring to a triumphant finish.
One way “Toast of the Town” mimics the form of an operetta overture is in its sharing of solos with instruments in the orchestra, giving the same idea to voices with different textures and affects. Filled with plenty of character, “Toast of the Town” is fitting proof of Quinn Mason’s ability to channel tradition while simultaneously pushing the music toward a modern, dynamic sound.
Amy Beach (1867-1944) was the first American female composer to achieve fame and recognition for her works in a similar fashion to her male contemporaries. As a solo pianist, Beach enjoyed critical acclaim for staged performances of her own compositions in both the United States and Germany. Beach also wrote for newspapers and other musical publications, readily offering advice of confidence to aspiring composers—one article is titled “To the Girl Who Wants to Compose.”
Beach’s Gaelic Symphony was the first American symphony by a female composer to be staged by major orchestras. Inspired by methods used by her contemporaries of employing folk songs in symphonic music, Beach honored her heritage by including melodies from the British Isles.
The finale movement, performed today, is a triumphant and dramatic movement. Jaunty melodies in the winds and brass over syncopated motives in the strings give the movement an energetic, edge-of-your-seat sound. This upbeat energy is contrasted by a slow, melodic theme which leaps in similar intervals as Irish folk tunes. This finale is a celebration—Beach wrote that, of the Celtic people, it honors “their sturdy daily life, their passions, and their battles.”
William Walton (1902-1983) was a British composer of a wide range of musical styles ranging from film scores to opera. The child of a choir master and a singing teacher, Walton naturally grew up studying voice and choral studies. Though there is record of Walton studying conducting at Oxford during his undergraduate studies, it has been suggested that, as a composer, Walton was nearly self taught.
Walton’s Viola Concerto certainly would not lead one toward this conclusion. Its unique sound stems from its contrast of moments of intensity and lyricism, and particularly in its use of the viola as the solo voice. Walton’s Viola Concerto takes the lesser-heard solo instrument to places of brilliant voice-like lyricism, and does it with a mostly sparse orchestral arrangement underneath. But the viola also receives its fair share of film-like dramatic treatment, soaring through marathon runs and biting rhythmic motives in between sections of wailing double stops.
The first movement of this exciting work is performed today by 2019-20 Concerto Competition Winner Hideaki Shiotsu.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer of the Modernist era. His massive success across various genres has earned him a distinction as one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century. Prokofiev ruminated later in life that his output as a composer featured distinct periods—classical, modern, motoric, and a final lyrical period. He reflects that throughout the majority of his career, he was not credited for being particularly lyrical.
The opening to his Violin Concerto No. 1 challenges every critic reticent to offer Prokofiev a title as lyricist. The violin emerges almost timidly, from a mist—Prokofiev directs the soloist with “Sognado,” or “dreaming.” In due time, and with some asymmetrical drops and shifts, the solo violin peels off with the orchestra into quirk-like runs, bursts of sound, complicated rhythms, and meter changes—the motoric and modernist Prokofiev return to play.
The first movement of this solo concerto is performed this afternoon by Annie Song, 2020-21 Concerto Competition Winner.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a German composer and violinist. As one member of a massive family of musical greats, Richard was subject to strong opinions on music and art in general. Richard’s father, famed horn player Franz Strauss, rejected most forms of music of the late-Romantic era.
It is in this universal parent-child tension that Richard Strauss’s Don Juan came into being. Formally, Don Juan is a tone poem, or an extended work for orchestra inspired by characters or stories. This type of short-form, programmatic music stands in opposition to the more traditional form of the symphony: three movements of distinct nature and storytelling arc. Thus, many historians note that Don Juan, in form and in parallel narrative, was Richard’s bold-faced rejection of traditional—and particularly his father’s—musical preferences.
The titular character in Don Juan has prevailed as a cultural symbol of masculinity, extreme lust, and self-prescribed downfall. Though many reworkings and retellings of the story prevail to date, it was 19th-century German poet Nikolas Lenau whose fragmented version of Don Juan influenced Strauss’s composition. Though at the front of the work Strauss includes various quotes from Lenau’s Don Juan, Strauss offers no narrative alongside the music. Connections to the story are merely interpretations by academics, and naturally tied to the quotes and ideas Strauss pulled from Lenau’s retelling.
Immediately, Don Juan is a work requiring extreme virtuosity from the orchestra. It opens with quick-footed runs which pass among voices. It is a fantastic breadth of sound, triumphant and powerful—this is our hero, and as many interpreters note, the theme embodying his quick-paced whirlwind of lust. A silly transitional passage follows, perhaps Don Juan’s many conquests, is barely over before a flirty solo violin takes the stage. The sound transitions into a pulsating, lush soundscape. Simply put, it takes very little time for Strauss to launch listeners into the raunchy narrative of Don Juan’s personal life. For our purposes today, we won’t go into finer details—but if the sound grows and you hear that opening theme return, music historians consider these to be Don Juan’s, well, moments of expression with various partners.
A darker moment later in the work mirrors a scene in Lenau’s play in which Don Juan reflectively confronts a long list of women he’s seduced. In this contemplative state, he swears to divide his estate equally among all these women. At this same time, he is confronted by Don Pedro, a man whose father Don Juan previously killed in a duel. Don Pedro seeks revenge; Don Juan, burdened by his self reflection, tosses his rapier and willingly faces his death. The work reaches a hair-raising final peak before quickly devolving into its fluttering, shaky ending. In an intensely dramatic fashion, the epic ends in a state of weak, dying sound: a completely opposite expression than the massive sounds which open the story.