After an early career as a child prodigy, the 22-year old Mozart traveled to Paris in 1778 seeking his musical fortune. While his job search was ultimately unsuccessful, he did compose a number of works that have come down to us, particularly his splendid 31st Symphony, the “Paris.”
This work was commissioned by the Concert Spirituel, the foremost performing organization in Paris, founded in 1725, during the reign of Louis XV. This was a great opportunity for the young composer. It gave him the chance to write a work for the largest orchestral forces he had encountered to date — a full complement of winds (including clarinets), brass, timpani and strings. Mozart was very much aware of the contemporary French taste in music and wrote his new symphony to meet the expectations of his audience.
It has just three movements (Allegro assai, Andante, Allegro); unlike German works, it did not include a minuet. Most striking, he incorporated the Parisian taste of starting a symphony with a “coup d’archet,” a rising passage played in unison by the entire orchestra. Not only did he start the symphony with it — he made it a recurring theme in the first movement! He also used this technique in the opening of the last movement.
Of note, Mozart composed two versions of the Andante middle movement. We are performing the version which is presumed to be the final one — a lyrical rondo-like movement in 6/8 time.
“Bridges” for orchestra was originally composed in 2006 as a chamber work for two clarinets, erhu, and pipa with influences drawn from the folk music of China and America. The orchestral version was commissioned by Nan Washburn and the Michigan Philharmonic and premiered in 2014.
This suite is organized around five actual bridges: Railroad Trestle Bridge in Galax, Virginia; Stone Bridge Over a Reflecting Pool in Suzhou, China; Golden Gate Bridge; Brooklyn Bridge; and Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge.
Railroad Trestle uses the motoric rhythm of a train and the sound of a fiddle and banjo playing country music. Stone Bridge is based on a traditional Chinese song called Moli Hua or Jasmine Flower. Golden Gate Bridge recalls the folk music of the 1960’s and 70’s in California, particularly a song by Joan Baez. Brooklyn Bridge brings together a second meaning of the word “bridge” in that it refers to the “B” or “bridge”section of a be-bop standard, Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Mackinac Bridge is based on an American folk song, “The Water is Wide.”
Purcell is considered one of England’s greatest native-born composers, flourishing during the Restoration period which followed the accession of King Charles II. Prodigiously talented, he composed hundreds of works, including anthems, hymns, songs, operas, odes, theater music and instrumental works. Purcell composed his incidental music to the play “Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge” in 1695, shortly before his untimely death at the age of 36. Music played an important part in Restoration theater. It marked a play’s opening and closing, scene and mood changes, and highlighted different aspects of the action. For this revenge tragedy, Purcell wrote nine separate instrumental sections — a declamatory overture and many different varieties of dance music. Of all of these, the second movement Rondeau is the most celebrated; it was used by Benjamin Britten as his theme for “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”
Schumann composed this masterpiece for four French horns and orchestra in 1849, one of his most productive musical years. Rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation and difficulty, the Konzertstück is rich in inventiveness and lyricism. While titled a “concertpiece,” it is essentially a concerto for four horn soloists.
There are three interlinked movements, played without a break. The initial “Lebhaft” opens with two strong orchestra chords, immediately followed by rising horn arpeggios heralding the main theme. The slow “Romanze” movement features a tender theme in the oboes, solo ‘cello and violas, picked up in turn by the horns; a flowing chorale movement appears in the middle of the movement. The lively last movement is full of horn figurations. It features brisk dialogue between the orchestra and soloists, and a short chorale interlude based on the middle movement, before drawing to a bravura ending.
A sunny, exciting and powerful masterpiece, this symphony is dedicated to the great Hans von Bülow in gratitude for that conductor’s championing of Dvořák’s orchestral works. Dvořák composed this symphony in just six weeks in 1875, at a fairly early stage in his musical life.
He had just applied for and received an Austrian Empire state grant; members of the judging committee awarding him the grant included his later mentor Johannes Brahms and the famed music critic Eduard Hanslick. Energized by the recognition, Dvořák embarked on a frenzy of composition, including a number of well-known chamber works as well as this symphony.
Although composed in 1875, it was only premiered in 1879 and published considerably later (1888), with a high opus number chosen by his music publisher. That said, this masterful symphony bears all of Dvořák’s hallmarks — rich lyricism, lush melodies, masterful development. The opening Allegro ma non troppo opens with a cheerful pastoral clarinet theme, taken up by winds and strings in turn; it is complemented by an introspective second theme introduced by the violins and oboe.
The slow second movement is soulful with a hint of melancholy, with sudden powerful outbursts from massed strings, winds and brass.
The lively third movement follows with almost no break. At first keeping the same mood of the slow movement, it transitions abruptly to a cheerful folk-like tune, with a lilting trio. The dramatic last movement opens with a powerful eruption from the lower strings, picked up in turn by winds and brass. Its harmonic tension is most unusual. It open in the key of A minor, and stays there for over 50 measures until the main theme makes its emphatic appearance in the main key of F major. A soaring second theme is introduced by the clarinet and second violin; both themes are developed extensively. The first movement theme reappears at the end, first in the high winds and horn, then stirringly in the trombone, before the symphony draws to its triumphant close.
Johannes Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 3 in F Major in 1883 at the age of 50. It is the shortest of his four symphonies, written six years after his Second Symphony, in D Major. During this period Brahms was anything but idle; in fact, these six years were some of the most prolific years in symphonic composition of his life. Masterworks like his Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Violin Concerto were all created in between his two middle symphonies.
Brahms’ orchestral forces for his symphonies are actually quite modest in comparison to the ones that are used in other romantic compositions from this period. In this F Major symphony, he uses 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 1 contrabassoon for the woodwind section. Besides the usual string section, the brass and percussion have 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and timpani, and are used rather sparingly throughout the entire work.
Many people consider this symphony to be rather “pastoral,” given the key for the work and the two lovely and lyrical center movements; yet the outer movements provide insights that the symphony is anything but “tranquil.” The symphony’s first movement, for instance, is well known for its rhythmic juxtapositions. Written in 6/4, it is filled with syncopations, hemiolas and strong accents, which purposefully and successfully blur the bar lines and create illusions to the regular meter, leaving listeners with a sense of instability. At the same time, the key of the first movement constantly straddles between F Major and f minor. Both conflicts in rhythm and tonality don’t seem to settle until the end of the movement.
On the other hand, even though the last movement is seemingly more stable rhythmically, its tonality remains largely in f minor. Not until the last 43 bars of the work does it settle into the home key of F Major. Regardless of how listeners may perceive the moods of the work, the one thing that will give us the feeling of completion is that the opening theme in the first movement, first in f minor, returns at the very end of the fourth movement in F Major.
Sir Edward Elgar was a dominant force in English music at the turn of the 20th century. His magnificent ‘cello concerto was composed in 1919; more recently, it has become identified with the great ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who made it into her signature piece (and is used in the movie Hilary and Jackie).
This four movement work displays an astonishing sweep of emotion and melody, from tragedy and pathos to exuberance. After a declamatory ‘cello opening, the first movement settles into an introspective lilt, punctuated by solo flourishes and dramatic orchestral statements. It is followed without a break by the witty second movement, with its brilliant solo passagework and lightly textured accompaniment. A romantic adagio allows the ‘cello to display its singing qualities to the fullest. The dramatic last movement is at times almost operatic, with the ‘cello and orchestra playing off each other’s themes; towards the end, themes from the adagio and opening movements make an encore appearance before a dash to the dramatic finish.
This is Dvořák’s last concerto, largely written in 1894-5 during his time in New York. Dvorak had come to the United States in 1892 in response to an invitation to become the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and stayed here until 1895. Dvorak composed a number of his best-know works during his American interlude, including his 9th (“New World”) Symphony, the “American” String Quartet (Op. 96), and the ‘cello concerto. He was not initially inclined to write a concerto featuring the ‘cello; he changed his mind after attending a concert in New York of a ‘cello concerto by Victor Herbert, which inspired him to write his own.
The first movement opens with a quiet statement of the theme in the woodwinds, gradually rising to a boisterous rendition by the full orchestra. The wistful second theme is introduced by the horn. Both themes are featured in the solo ‘cello, the first theme now reappearing as a heraldic restatement. There is a constant interweaving and interplay of soloist and orchestra, punctuated by solo pyrotechnics that grow out of the thematic material. A number of “grandioso” passages by the orchestra also feature the first theme in heroic fashion.
The introspective second movement begins softly with clarinets; the lyrical melody is picked up in turn by the soloist. The middle of the movement is based on a theme from a Czech song (“Leave me Alone”), written as an homage to his beloved sister-inlaw Josefina, who was in failing health. A solo cadenza is accompanied by flute and other woodwinds; a hushed passage featuring ‘cello harmonics brings the movement to a close.
The third movement is based on a robust theme introduced by the winds, then picked up by the soloist and orchestra in turn. The end of the movement also features another section of the song “Leave me Alone,” this time in the solo violin accompanying the ‘cello. The movement gradually winds down into a sighing whisper; a short rousing conclusion brings the concerto to a triumphant close.
Born into a musical family, Márquez has become one of Mexico’s best-known composers.
Danzon No. 2 was commissioned in 1994; like his other “Danzon” compositions, it is based on Cuban and Mexican dance motifs. It caught the musical world’s attention in 2007 when it was performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth orchestra; it is now one of the most popular and frequently performed works by Mexican composers.
It starts off with a wistful clarinet melody against a soft percussion background; is joined by oboe and strings; and then transforms into a percussive frenzy with full orchestra, interrupted with a sweet passage in the piccolo. A calmer interlude features solo violin and winds, morphing into a romantic statement of the theme by the strings. A sharp attack by the strings brings back the piece’s percussive frenzy, which hurtles to a rousing climax.
Composed in 1768, this tempestuous minor-key work is the first of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” symphonies. “Sturm und Drang” (literally “storm and stress”) was a pre-Romantic movement that arose in German literature and music in the mid-18th century. Characterized by emotional and individualistic expression, it was perceived as a reaction to the cool rationality of the Enlightment.
While most of Haydn’s other symphonies (104 in all) were written in major keys, many of his works between 1768 and 1797 were written in minor keys. This work is scored for strings, oboes and 4 horns, an unusual combination later imitated by others, including Mozart (in his “little” G minor Symphony No. 25).
The first movement of this piece is agitated and episodic, with sudden stops, starts and explosive contrasts, reinforced by the winds. The second movement is an elegant Andante, played by strings only. The third movement features a melodic trio, with soloistic writing for oboes and (especially) horns. The final Allegro molto features impassioned violin leaps, played against a furious inner-string accompaniment, and brings this symphony to a frenetic conclusion.