SCHUBERT’S “GREAT” SYMPHONY
XIAN ZHANG conductor
JENNIFER KOH violin (pictured)
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Violinist Jennifer Koh “combines a questing spirit with tonal refinement and a kind of fearless virtuosity” (San Jose Mercury News). She’s sure to shine under the baton of Xian Zhang in Sibelius’ lofty yet visceral concerto.
MOZART Così fan tutte Overture
Vivacious and sly, this overture completely embodies the opera’s effervescent spirit.
SIBELIUS Violin Concerto
Glistening, ominous, symphonic. Koh’s fiery technique serves her well in this concerto, which confounded violinists in Sibelius’ day.
SCHUBERT Symphony No. 9, “Great”
Schubert conjured a robust heir to Beethoven’s masterpiece with his splendid Ninth, written only a year after its predecessor.
Sing-along—Thu, May 11, before the concert
Arrive early and sing the great songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, then enjoy the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by another great team, Jennifer Koh and Xian Zhang. Free for ticketholders.
This weekend's concerts are generously sponsored by the Investors Foundation.
NJSO Accent events in Newark are sponsored by the Prudential Foundation.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2016
MOZART: Overture to Così fan tutte, K. 588
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born: January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, in Vienna, Austria
Composed: September 1789 to January 1790
World Premiere: January 26, 1790, at the Vienna Burgtheater.
NJSO Premiere: Summer 1968; Henry Lewis conducted.
Duration: 5 minutes
Così fan tutte is the least known of Mozart’s “big five” operas: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, The Abduction from the Seraglio and Così. Part of its mystery and mystique undoubtedly lie in its untranslatable title, which means something to the effect of “thus do they all,” with “they” alluding to the female population. The opera deals with the fickleness of women shifting their romantic interest from one suitor to another with startling rapidity.
Mozart’s overture adheres to 18th-century convention by opening with a slow introduction and proceeding to a zesty Allegro in sonata form that encapsulates the flirtatious chatter of the opera. While the slow introduction links this overture formally with Don Giovanni, the sparkling syncopated themes that follow are spiritually far closer to those of Figaro. Mozart allots a surprisingly prominent role to flute, an instrument of which he was not particularly fond but for which he wrote magnificently. His energetic syncopations lend the overture a jaunty forward momentum that fairly bursts with energy.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani and strings.
SIBELIUS: Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47
Born: December 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus), Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää, Finland
Composed: September 1902–January 1904; revised 1905
World Premiere: February 8, 1904, at Helsingfors (Helsinki), Finland. Victor Nováček was the soloist; the composer conducted the Helsingfors Philharmonic. The revised version was first performed in Berlin on October 19, 1905. Karl Halir was the soloist; Richard Strauss conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1954–55 season. Samuel Antek conducted; John Corigliano Sr. was the soloist.
Duration: 31 minutes
Nationalist beacon: the legacy of Sibelius
The name of Jean Sibelius is inextricably linked with his homeland. Through his seven symphonies and numerous symphonic poems, notably The Swan of Tuonela (Op. 22), Finlandia (Op. 26), Pohjola’s Daughter (Op. 49) and the rarely heard Tapiola (Op. 112), he established a school of Finnish music that remains among the most important modern manifestations of musical nationalism. His impact and influence on others has been equally far-ranging, particularly among Scandinavian and British composers, and his formal ideas must be counted among the most innovative of the 20th century. Nearly a decade into the 21st century, he remains Finland’s most celebrated composer and arguably most famous figure.
In light of these impressive achievements, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is something of an anomaly. We do not remember him for his concerted works, but rather for his symphonic legacy; the concerto is his only work for a solo instrument plus orchestra that has entered the repertory (though the six Humoresques for violin and orchestra, Opp. 87b and 89, are unjustly neglected). How do we account for the existence of this popular work, which is so unlike anything else written by its composer?
Sibelius’ obvious aptitude for the violin manifested itself clearly when he was a child. Although he undertook violin lessons too late to consider a performance career, his natural gift for the instrument found a happy outlet in the rarely heard Humoresques and this popular violin concerto.
Conundrum: virtuoso vehicle vs. coherent symphonic composition
The piece was originally intended for the eminent German violinist Willy Burmester, but once Sibelius completed it in 1903, he chose not to wait for Burmester’s next tour to Finland in order to introduce the new composition. Victor Novacek played the first performance in Helsinki in February 1904, under the composer’s baton. A critical review from the powerful Finnish critic Flodin caused Sibelius to withdraw the concerto for extensive revisions. The following year, in a revised version, the concerto received its debut in the German musical capital, Berlin. This time the soloist was Karl Halir, violinist of the Joachim Quartet, and the conductor was the celebrated German composer Richard Strauss. Sibelius wrote:
In October 1905 my violin concerto, in its revised and final form, stood its baptism of fire in Germany at a concert in the Singakademie in Berlin. The solo part was conducted by none other than Richard Strauss. As an instance of Strauss’ extraordinary conscientiousness in performing the works of other contemporary composers, it should be mentioned that he had three rehearsals with the orchestra for practicing the accompaniment. But the violin concerto requires it.
The challenge Sibelius faced was to create a virtuoso vehicle that would meet his own high standards and adhere, at least generally, to the formal guidelines expected of a major symphonic composition. In fulfilling this challenge, Sibelius avoided the daring formal experimentation associated so strongly with his orchestral works; the form of the concerto is fairly conventional, excepting the rhapsodic nature of the first movement.
Affinity for the fiddle
The orchestra is allotted a rather subordinate role, readily ceding the spotlight to the soloist. Sibelius wrote gratefully for violin; he understood the instrument from the inside out through his own extensive study. Equally important, he understood the technique of his intended first soloist, whose formidable command of the instrument is presumably reflected in the lengthy cadenza.
Sibelius is little known as a composer of songs, probably because of language difficulties outside his native Finland. His vocal gift finds an instrumental outlet in the intense and emotionally evocative Adagio that constitutes the concerto’s slow movement. (The English writer Donald Francis Tovey thought Sibelius’ music suggested “a Bruckner gifted with an easy mastery and the spirit of a Polar explorer.”) The finale—a pulsing hybrid of polonaise and rondo with some Gypsy flavor thrown in for additional color—is a thriller: rhythmically vibrant and brilliantly virtuosic without being acrobatic.
Instrumentation: woodwinds and trumpets in pairs, four horns, three trombones, timpani, strings and solo violin.
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944 (“The Great”)
FRANZ PETER SCHUBERT
Born: January 31, 1797, in Liechtenthal, Vienna, Austria
Died: November 19, 1828, in Vienna, Austria
Composed: probably summer 1825 to early 1826
World Premiere: March 21, 1839, in Leipzig; Mendelssohn conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: 1936–37 season; Rene Pollain conducted.
Duration: 48 minutes
From the standpoint of orchestration, rich thematic material and sheer majesty, the “Great” Symphony in C Major is the undisputed pinnacle of Schubert’s symphonic maturity. In The New Grove, Maurice J. E. Brown calls it “his greatest masterpiece.” British composer and writer Harold Truscott considers the symphony “a summing up of Schubert’s instrumental thinking from 1811 onwards.” Schubert himself thought the work represented his striving for the highest art.
Ironically, he never heard the symphony performed. He began work on it in 1825, finding time to compose despite travels to Steyr, Linz, Salzburg and Gastein. After he presented the manuscript to Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music in 1826, he was rewarded by a stipend “in recognition of his achievements and for further encouragement.” In 1827, Schubert had the manuscript copied for the society, still vainly seeking a performance. The Vienna Philharmonic rejected the work, deeming it overly long and too demanding for the players. Even after Schubert’s death in 1828, his brother Ferdinand was unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the score to a publisher.
That changed when Robert Schumann called on Ferdinand Schubert during the winter of 1838–39. Schumann examined the score and was awed by its genius. The discovery prompted his famous letter to Felix Mendelssohn that has given musical posterity the phrase “heavenly length.” (Schumann was describing Schubert’s inexpressibly lovely Andante.) The Leipzig premiere created a sensation despite extensive cuts. Publication followed in 1840, and the “Great” Symphony has been standard symphonic repertoire ever since.
About the music
Schubert was clearly emulating Beethoven’s enormous scale. Though he would not have placed such labels as “classic” or “romantic” on his own music, the duality between the two styles is one of the symphony’s most compelling fascinations. Scoring details such as the use of trombones in all four movements make it unusual. Formal departures from the norm—for example, the full sonata form of the scherzo movement—break from tradition and confirm the individuality of the symphony.
Even the slow introduction, brought to such perfection in the late Haydn symphonies, takes on new character in Schubert’s asymmetrical, heroic opening horn theme. Its second-measure dotted rhythm provides the impetus for the entire Allegro to follow; his re-integration of that theme into the development section and the coda is one of many felicitous touches in this work so suffused by genius.
The balance of the symphony adheres to classical models. Principal oboe has the main theme in the Andante con moto, which balances march-like elements and brief string outbursts with wistful woodwind writing. In climactic moments, the brass play with surprising force. Schubert’s writing almost foreshadows Mahler.
Vigorous rhythms drive the Allegro vivace portion of Schubert’s Scherzo. He balances the rambunctious opening gesture with a gentler Austrian Ländler (a slow waltz). The central Trio transports us to the world of folk song and rural village dancing. Schubert’s sudden key changes and gentle use of the brass add interest throughout.
The grand finale is like a force of nature: as if Schubert had gathered up all world energy and invested it in his orchestra. The glory of Alpine Austria and the great outdoors pulses through this Allegro vivace, bringing Schubert’s magnificent symphony to an exuberant close.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani and strings.