Brahms' First SymphonyArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
- Allegro non troppo
- Theme and Variations: Andante tranquillo
- Rondo: Allegro molto
- Jennifer Koh, violin
- Un poco sostenuto—Allegro—Meno allegro
- Andante sostenuto
- Un poco allegretto e grazioso
- Adagio—Più andante—Allegro non troppo, ma con brio—Più allegro
THE CONCERT CONVERSATION, conducted one hour before each performance, will be presented by Music Director Carlos Kalmar and Robert McBride, host for the stations of All Classical FM. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit the web site allclassical.org to watch the video on demand.
FRANZ VON SUPPÉ
Overture to Die schöne Galathee (The Beautiful Galatea)
Composer: born April 18, 1819, Spalato, Dalmatia (now Split, Croatia); died May 21, 1895, Vienna.
Work composed: 1865
World premiere: The operetta premiered at the Meysels-Theater in Berlin on June 30, 1865, and quickly became one of Suppé's most popular works for the stage.
Oregon Symphony premiere.
Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle and strings.
Estimated duration: 7 minutes
During his lifetime, Franz von Suppé wrote more than sixty operas and operettas. Despite his prolific output, however, today Suppé is known primarily for a handful of his operetta overtures that have entered the orchestral repertoire.
When Suppé premiered his first opera in 1841, a local review described the music as "melodious, rich in tender ideas [and] fine nuances, clearly and effectively orchestrated … The whole composition has traces of the Italian style but now and then goes in for thoroughly vernacular, simply handled themes." This description could apply to most of Suppé's operettas, including tonight's selection, the overture to Die schöne Galathee. The specific plot of the opera has been lost to history, but Suppé simply appropriated the basic storyline from French composer Jacques Offenbach's comic operetta La belle Hélène, which had premiered six months before Suppé's The Beautiful Galatea. (Suppé's nickname, "the Viennese Offenbach," is no accident.)
This overture acquired a different and perhaps more lasting claim to fame as part of the soundtrack to the classic 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Long Haired Hare," in which Bugs impersonates conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Violin Concerto No. 2
Composer: born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Rumania); died September 26, 1945, New York City.
Work composed: Bartók wrote the work for his long-time friend, Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely, in 1937–1938.
World premiere: Willem Mengelberg conducted the premiere with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and violinist Zoltán Székely in Amsterdam on March 23, 1939.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February, 2001; Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting; Kurt Nikkanen, violin.
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, gong, snare drum, celeste, harp and strings.
Estimated duration: 36 minutes
When violinist Jennifer Koh talks about Béla Bartók, it's as though she were speaking of an old friend. Which, in one sense, he is. Koh has been playing Bartók's music since she was a teenager, and her affinity for his style comes across in her performances and recordings.
Koh has known the Violin Concerto No. 2 since she was about fifteen; as a college student, she introduced musicians and non-musicians alike to Bartók's music with a series of informal listening parties in her dorm room. "There's such imagination in Bartók's music," she says. "He really knows how to use the orchestra as an incredible color palette, in addition to his writing for the solo violin, which is very virtuosic and difficult."
For listeners who may be less familiar with Bartók's music than Koh, she suggests one should listen to each work as a totality, rather than focusing on discrete aspects like harmony, rhythm and structure. "With Bartók's music, you just have to hear it. There's something so primal, yet human and vulnerable about his work; it encompasses the total emotional spectrum of humanity." Koh also notes the seeming contradiction between Bartók the man and Bartók the composer. "People see Bartók's music as very aggressive, but by all accounts he was the gentlest human being."
From the opening notes, we can sense the range of Bartók's expressiveness. The solo violin enters over a series of pulsing harp chords and pizzicato strings and takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of highs and lows, both actual and emotional. Koh likens this concerto to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra in the way the composer uses all the ensemble instruments to paint shifting pictures and atmospheres. "I like listening for everybody's different licks," says Koh.
When he began writing this piece, Bartók wanted to create a series of themes and variations for violin and orchestra, rather than a conventional concerto. His friend, violinist Zoltán Székely, convinced Bartók to stick to the concerto structure, but Bartók retained the theme-and-variations idea in the second movement. The solo violin plays the initial melody, a lyrical evocative tune. This is followed by six variations, also executed by the soloist, of strikingly different shape and color. One variation in particular is rather subdued, accompanied by an ethereal grouping of high woodwinds, celeste and harp, while another features sharp, discordant double stops. In the final movement, Bartók continues with the variation structure (he described this movement to Székely as "a free variation of the first") but infuses the whole with faster tempos and the coarse, primal vitality of a Hungarian gypsy dance.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Composer: born May 7, 1833, Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, Vienna.
Work composed: Brahms began working on his first symphony in 1856 and returned to it periodically over the next 19 years. He wrote the bulk of the music between 1874 and 1876.
World premiere: November 4, 1876, in Karlsruhe, Germany, with Otto Dessoff conducting.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September, 2005; Carlos Kalmar conducting.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.
Estimated duration: 42 minutes
"There are fewer things heavier than the burden of a great potential."
– Linus van Pelt, Peanuts
In 1853, Robert Schumann wrote a laudatory article about a 20-year-old composer from Hamburg named Johannes Brahms, whom, Schumann declared, was the heir to Beethoven's musical legacy. Schumann wrote, "If [Brahms] directs his magic wand where the massed power in chorus and orchestra might lend him their strength, we can look forward to even more wondrous glimpses into the secret world of the spirits." At the time Schumann's piece was published, Brahms had composed several chamber pieces and works for piano, but nothing for orchestra. The article brought Brahms to the attention of the musical world, but it also dropped a crushing weight of expectation onto his young shoulders. "I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven," Brahms grumbled.
Brahms took almost 20 years to complete his first symphony. It is commonly supposed that Brahms' feelings of in-timidation about composing a symphony worthy of the Beethovenian ideal kept him from finishing the symphony more quickly. However, this theory, on its own, does him a disservice. Brahms wanted to take his time, a reflection of the serious regard he felt for the symphony as a genre. "Writing a symphony is no laughing matter," he remarked.
Brahms began composing the first movement of his Symphony No. 1 when he was 23, but he was handicapped by his lack of experience composing for an orchestra. Over the next 19 years, as he continued working on his first symphony, Brahms wrote several other orchestral works, including the 1868 German Requiem and his popular Variations on a Theme of Haydn. The enthusiastic response both works received bolstered Brahms' confidence in his ability to handle orchestral writing. Furthermore, in 1872, Brahms was offered the conductor's post at Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music). The opportunity to work directly with an orchestra gave Brahms an invaluable first-hand understanding of how the different sections of an orchestra interact. Twenty-three years after Schumann's article first appeared, Brahms premiered his Symphony No. 1 in C minor. It was worth the wait.
Brahms' friend and critic, Eduard Hanslick, summed up the feelings of many: "Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer's first symphony with such tense anticipation … The new symphony is so earnest and complex, so utterly unconcerned with common effects, that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding … [but] even the layman will immediately recognize it as one of the most distinctive and magnificent works of the symphonic literature."
Hanslick's reference to the sym-phony's complexity was a polite way of saying the music was too serious to appeal to the average listener, but Brahms was unconcerned; he was not trying to woo the public with pretty sounds. "My symphony is long and not exactly lovable," he acknowledged, but it is Brahms' most emotional and personal musical statement. The symphony is carefully crafted; one can hear Brahms' compositional thought processes through-out, especially his decision to incorporate several overt references to Beethoven. The moody, portentous atmosphere of the first movement, the short thematic fragments from which Brahms spins out seemingly endless developments, are all hallmarks of Beethoven's style, as is the choice of C minor, a key closely associated with several of Beethoven's major works, such as his Symphony No. 5, Egmont Overture and Piano Concerto No. 3. And yet, despite all these deliberate references to Beethoven, this symphony is not, as conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed it, "Beethoven's Tenth." The voice is distinctly Brahms', especially in the inner movements.
The tender, wistful Andante sostenuto contrasts the brooding power of the opening movement. Brahms weaves a series of dialogues among different sections of the orchestra, and concludes with a duet for solo violin and horn. In the Allegretto Brahms relaxes Beethoven's frantic scherzo tempos. The pace is relaxed, easy, featuring lilting themes for strings and woodwinds. In the finale, a strong, confident horn proclaims Brahms' victory over the symphonic demons that may have beset him. Here Brahms also pays his most direct homage to Beethoven, with a majestic theme, first heard in the strings, that closely resembles the "Ode to Joy" melody from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. When a listener remarked on this similarity, Brahms (never one to suffer fools) snapped, "Any jackass could see that!"
Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland-based free-lance writer, researcher and musician. In addition annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony and other ensembles, she has also contributed to NPR’s Performance Today (now heard on American Public Media). Schwartz also co-hosts The Portland Yiddish Hour, heard at 10 a.m. Sundays on KBOO 90.7 FM. Email: email@example.com.
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
Suppé-Overture to The Beautiful Galathea
Zubin Mehta-Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sony Classical 44932
Bartók-Violin Concerto #2
Pierre Boulez-Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 459639
Otto Klemperer-Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Classics 67029
Carlo Maria Giulini-Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Newton Classics 8802063
These recordings are available for purchase during intermission in the lobby of the concert hall.