Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony and Violinist James Ehnes

Program Listing

Saturday, March 9, 2024, 7:30 PM
SUNDAY, March 10, 2024, 2 PM
MONDAY, March 11, 2024, 7:30 PM

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Jonathon Heyward, Conductor
James Ehnes, Violin

Johannes Brahms

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77
Allegro non troppo
Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace
James Ehnes
Camille Saint-Saëns
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”
Adagio – Allegro moderato
Poco adagio
Allegro moderato – Presto
Maestoso – Allegro


Conducted one hour before each performance, the Concert Conversation will feature Violinist James Ehnes and Raúl Gómez-Rojas, host of All Classical Radio.


Program Notes

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”

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Johannes Brahms

Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77

Work composed: Summer 1878. The Violin Concerto was written for and dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony with violinist Vadim Gluzman on March 17–19, 2018, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 36 minutes

Johannes Brahms’ decades-long friendship with virtuoso violinist/ composer Joseph Joachim changed both men’s personal and professional lives. Joachim’s exceptional musicianship inspired Brahms to write his only concerto for violin, which Joachim subsequently performed to great acclaim throughout Europe. Since Brahms had only a passing familiarity with the violin’s capabilities, Joachim’s technical expertise proved essential to the concerto’s creation. The collaboration between the two men resulted in what Joachim later termed one of the four great German concertos (the others were Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Max Bruch’s G minor concerto).

A year after Brahms completed his Second Symphony, he returned to the lakeside town of Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in southern Austria near the Italian border, and spent the summer writing his Violin Concerto. In a letter to the critic Eduard Hanslick, Brahms wrote, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.”

Brahms intended Op. 77 to be a truly symphonic concerto; that is, a concerto that fully integrates the orchestra, rather than a showy piece designed to display the soloist’s virtuosity, while the orchestra is relegated to simple accompaniment. Even without conventional solo pyrotechnics, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, written for Joachim’s prodigious technique, presents formidable challenges to any soloist.

The unusual format and style of the concerto elicited harsh comments from critics at its premiere. Perhaps the most famous is that of conductor Hans von Bülow, who remarked that Brahms had composed a concerto against the violin, whereupon violinist Bronisław Huberman responded, “It is a concerto for violin against the orchestra – and the violin wins!”

The Allegro non troppo is a true collaboration between orchestra and soloist. The slow orchestra introduction contains the seeds for most of the subsequent themes presented in the movement. The soloist enters with dramatic flair, almost cadenza-like in its style, before presenting the expansive warmth of the main theme and its counterpart, a yearning, searching melody. Overall, this movement combines Brahms’ laser-like intensity with gentler passages, and it ends with a cadenza composed by Joachim.

Although Brahms, in his usual self-deprecating way, described the second movement as “a poor Adagio,” for some listeners it is the most beloved of the three. A solo oboe presents the main theme, one of immutable tranquility. In the words of a French critic, “Le hautbois propose, le violon dispose.” (The oboe proposes, the violin disposes). The violinist echoes and elaborates on the theme, tracing airy arabesques of sound.

In the Allegro giocoso, Brahms gives us drama and fire. The main theme showcases Joachim’s extraordinary facility with double-stops and other violin techniques, but as with the preceding music, the violin and the orchestra blend their combined abilities to create a sound full of irrepressible joy.

Wardrobe malfunction

On the day he premiered the violin concerto, Brahms apparently forgot his dress trousers and conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a pair of ordinary gray pants. This faux pas was bad enough, but, in addition, Brahms’s suspenders were either broken or not properly fastened, which elicited murmurs from the audience. One hopes, for Brahms’ sake, that the power of the music and Joachim’s stupendous playing overcame these sartorial mishaps.


Camille Saint-Saëns

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”

Work composed: The London Philharmonic Society commissioned Saint-Saëns’ third and final symphony in 1886. In the published score, Saint-Saëns dedicated his Symphony No. 3, “Á la mémoire de Franz Liszt,” who died two months after its premiere.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Sascha Goetzel led the Oregon Symphony on April 21–23, 2018, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, organ, piano (4 hands), and strings.
Estimated duration: 34 minutes

When the London Philharmonic Society commissioned a symphony from Camille Saint-Saëns in 1886, the composer was interested, but also wary. In a letter to his publisher, Saint-Saëns wrote, “You ask for the symphony: you don’t know what you ask. It will be terrifying … there will be much in the way of experiment in this terrible thing …” Despite his concerns, Saint-Saëns never wavered from his original conception of this symphony as an extraordinary work, and with the addition of both piano and organ to the large orchestra, as well as the innovative structure of the work, his “experiment” became clear.

Op. 78 pays homage to Franz Liszt in more than its dedication. In Liszt, Saint-Saëns found nothing less than inspiration for a new style of French symphonic writing. Liszt’s influence is most clearly seen in the construction of the symphony, which distills the usual four movements down to two, each with its own two sub-sections. When listening to the Symphony No. 3, however, we hear it more as tone poem, a genre Liszt invented and which remains his most important contribution to the evolution of orchestral composition. The Romantic arc of the music, the unifying presence of the opening movement’s agitated, rustling violin theme, which recurs throughout the symphony, and the grand apotheosis of the organ finale, all suggest a compelling musical narrative, a journey filled with adventure.

The second movement, where the strings and timpani utter doom-laden prophecies, attracts particular notice. After this initial statement, Saint-Saëns observes, “there enters a fantastic spirit that is frankly disclosed in the Presto. Here arpeggios and scales, swift as lightning, on the piano, are accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the orchestra … there is a struggle for mastery [between a fugal melody for low brasses and basses and the “fantastic spirit” theme], and this struggle ends in the defeat of the restless, diabolical element.” All turmoil is settled by the pomp and majesty of the organ, which announces itself with a monumental C major chord. Saint-Saëns unleashes the full power of his contrapuntal inventiveness in this final section, which gives each family of instruments, from strings to winds to brasses, a chance to shine.

Although critics were unsure what to make of the Symphony No. 3, audiences responded with enthusiasm. After Saint-Saëns led the first Paris performance, his colleague Charles Gounod declared, “There goes the French Beethoven!” a reference to Saint-Saëns’ standing as France’s pre-eminent composer. Saint-Saëns thought otherwise; he once famously declared, “I am first among composers of the second rank.” Unlike Beethoven, who wrote nine symphonies, Saint-Saëns’ third symphony was also his last. He later explained, “With it, I have given all I could give. What I did, I could not achieve again.”


© Elizabeth Schwartz