GIL SHAHAM PLAYS MENDELSSOHN
Recipe for magic: mix the exhilarating William Tell Overture with a dynamic, spirited performance from the NJSO and serve for maximum thrills! Musical wizardry continues with Mendelssohn’s brilliant, impetuous Violin Concerto performed by the charismatic Gil Shaham. Franck’s lovely and emotional symphony closes a spellbinding program.
JACQUES LACOMBE conductor
GIL SHAHAM violin (pictured)
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
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Classical Conversation: Oct 25
A Classical Conversation with NJSO Associate Conductor Gemma New and NJSO Violinist Héctor Falcón begins one hour before the performance (free to ticketholders).
Classical Conversation: Oct 26
A Classical Conversation with NJSO Associate Conductor Gemma New and NJSO President & CEO James Roe begins one hour before the performance (free to ticketholders).
The October 25 concert is sponsored by The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2014
Poetry is at the heart of all three works the NJSO performs this weekend. Music Director Jacques Lacombe has chosen music with multicultural influences, challenging our expectations even as these pieces tug at our heartstrings.
The program begins with Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, a French opera by an Italian composer, set in Switzerland and based on a poetic drama by a German author. Lacombe is struck by the piece’s unusual architecture. “The William Tell Overture is in four clear parts, starting with the wonderful introduction by the cello section. That sets the tone; of all Rossini’s overtures, this is the most poetic. Then you have the dramatic storm, followed by the more intimate duet between English horn and flute, before the famous finale.”
He finds the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto equally expressive: “Mendelssohn is difficult to classify. He was a Romantic, but one with a strong Classical background. You hear his poetic side most clearly in the slow movement, which I find very moving.”
Lacombe is pleased to be working again with NJSO favorite Gil Shaham. “Gil is such an honest musician, so versatile in a wide range of repertoire.” Shaham has played Berg and Korngold with the NJSO in recent seasons. This weekend, he turns his gift to the poetry of the Mendelssohn concerto.
Rounding out the program is César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Lacombe points out that Franck was Belgian-born but worked most of his career in France. That stated, he was strongly influenced by the German school. “I hear poetry again in this symphony. It is darker at the beginning, and it lightens up in the last movement. His handling of the orchestra is very attractive. I think I am drawn to it because Franck was an organist—and so was I.”
ROSSINI: William Tell Overture
Born: February 29, 1792, in Pesaro, Italy
Died: November 13, 1868, in Passy, near Paris, France
World premiere: August 3, 1829, at the Paris Opéra; François-Antoine Habeneck conducted.
NJSO premiere: 1963–64 season; Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted.
Duration: 12 minutes
Rossini’s overture to William Tell might well be the most popular classical work in the entire literature. Thanks to the old radio and television show “The Lone Ranger,” whose theme music adapted the overture’s final segment, Americans have for generations identified Rossini’s music with the excitement of Wild West heroism.
The William Tell Overture actually has a fascinating history apart from its radio and television fame. The opera for which it was written is based on a drama by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller. The main themes of Schiller’s play are the inherent balance and grandeur of nature, and man’s intrusion upon that natural order via his political and economic concerns. Rossini’s William Tell made superb use of both ideas.
Rossini was, of course, an Italian composer, and he established his reputation in Italian opera houses. In 1823, he moved to Paris, eventually settling there permanently. William Tell was his fourth production for the prestigious Paris Opéra, but it is the only work Rossini composed that fully embraces the French 19th-century convention of a five-act grand opera, complete with ballet. Most important, it proved to be his swan song. After William Tell’s successful 1829 premiere, Rossini retired from the operatic stage, enjoying the fruits of his considerable reputation for another 39 years.
William Tell is indisputably Rossini’s finest achievement in the realm of the operatic overture, an area in which he excelled. Unlike his sprightly Italian overtures, this one does not adhere to modified sonata form, nor does it derive its momentum from a signature “Rossini crescendo.” This one is divided into four segments, each with its own character. The cellos open quietly, evoking the lovely Swiss countryside and painting an aural picture of calm before storm. The famous storm ensues, a masterly musical canvas of nature’s dramatic summertime wrath. Next is a pastorale, featuring one of the most coveted English horn solos in the orchestral literature. Finally, the overture concludes with the martial and patriotic galloping section so well-known from the television show. Curiously enough, Rossini’s signature music—this irresistible finale—began as a quick-step he composed in July 1822 for a Viennese military band! One wonders what Rossini would have thought of his music’s extraordinary extended life.
Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals and strings.
MENDELSSOHN: Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64
Born: February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, in Leipzig, Germany
Composed: Primarily in 1844, drawing on sketches and ideas dating back to 1838.
World premiere: March 13, 1845, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Ferdinand David was the soloist; Niels Gade conducted.
NJSO premiere: 1925–26 season. Ruth Breton was the soloist; Philip James conducted.
Duration: 27 minutes
Early in 1856, Johannes Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim paid a courtesy call on Felix Mendelssohn’s younger sister Rebekah Mendelssohn Dirichlet. Felix had been dead for more than eight years, and his beloved sister Fanny nearly nine. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann:
The evening after the concert in Göttingen, we were all at Dirichlet’s. I most reluctantly, for I have a veritable dread of all cliquish ways. Joachim naturally played the Mendelssohn Concerto, during which the woman (Rebekah Mendelssohn Dirichlet) cried a lot. All rooms are hung full of pictures and sculptures of the brother. Even a drawing of him dying was hung there, and it was her brother, after all. … I played the Chromatic Fantasy [of Bach], “which Felix also liked to play so much” and the [Wanderer] Fantasy by Schubert, which she did not know and also did not seem to interest her all too much.
It must have been difficult to be the surviving sister of a young genius who died, like Mozart, in his 30s. Rebekah Mendelssohn Dirichlet’s devotion to her brother’s memory and music was certainly understandable. At the time, it was widely shared by the general public. In Germany and England, Mendelssohn’s music remained especially popular. At age 25, Joachim clearly had the violin concerto in his repertoire and at the ready for this type of impromptu performance. He continued to play the Mendelssohn in public throughout his career, calling it “the heart’s jewel” among German violin concertos.
From 1835, Felix Mendelssohn planned to compose a violin concerto for Ferdinand David, a Hamburg-born violinist who had studied with Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn and David met in the late 1820s and played chamber music together. By the time David became leader (we would call it concertmaster) of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836, they were close friends and associates. However, the demands caused by Mendelssohn’s growing fame—particularly his extensive conducting obligations—forced him to postpone the concerto project for almost 10 years. He completed most of the work on the concerto during the second half of 1844. David played the premiere at the Gewandhaus on March 13, 1845; the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted.
It is apparent from surviving correspondence that the composer relied heavily on David’s advice. The sketches show extensive revisions to the work. Mendelssohn’s letter to David dated December 17, 1844, reveals a great deal about their collaboration:
Today I must ask you a favor. I have sent the score of the violin concerto to Breitkopf and Haertel and I have lately made several alterations in it with pencil, which can be copied into the parts. I have changed a number of things in the solo part, too, and I hope they are improvements. But I would particularly like to have your opinion about all this before I give up the music irrevocably to the printer. First of all, do you agree with the alteration in the cadenza and its being lengthened in this way? I like it far better, but is the part now written correctly and smoothly? … Do not laugh at me too much, I feel ashamed in any case, but I cannot help it; I am just groping around. … Thank God that the fellow is through with his concerto! you will say. Excuse my bothering you, but what can I do?
How surprising to find so much anxiety and self-doubt in the composer of such a self-assured composition!
Some critics have castigated Mendelssohn for an alleged flagging of inspiration in his mature works. Certainly that is not the case in the violin concerto. Melodically, it is a triumph, overflowing with delicious ideas, all splendidly violinistic and ingeniously developed. In its form, Mendelssohn’s concerto was a trendsetter for the balance of the 19th century. Foregoing the customary orchestral exposition, he plunges his soloist directly into the fray in the opening measures. Another break from tradition is the unusual—and unprecedented—placement of the cadenza at the end of the development section, instead of just before the end of the first movement.
A single bassoon note connects the first movement to the Andante, defusing the agitation and drama of the opening. Emotionally this rapid transition demands a great deal from both soloist and orchestra. As a unifying device it is the essence of simplicity, and it works. No less satisfying are the latter two movements, seamlessly bound by a glorious transitional passage that eases us into the joyous finale. Before we have even noticed that we have changed key, tempo and mood, the exuberance of the finale sweeps us up into a maelstrom of irrepressible energy. It is exceptionally difficult not to smile during this movement, one of Mendelssohn’s greatest strokes of genius.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani, strings and solo violin.
FRANCK: Symphony in D minor
Born: December 10, 1822, in Liège, Belgium
Died: November 8, 1890, in Paris, France
World Premiere: February 17, 1889, at Concerts du Conservatoire (Paris Conservatory Concerts) in Paris; Jules Garcin conducted.
NJSO premiere: 1930–31 season; Rene Pollain conducted.
Duration: 41 minutes
César Franck was one of the most influential musicians of the late 19th century. He gathered many disciples around him, including important composers such as Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc and Louis Vierne. Like Mendelssohn before him, Franck was one of the key figures to acknowledge and make known the rich musical legacy of the past, from Gregorian chant and the Renaissance master Palestrina through Bach and Beethoven. He was also a champion of Richard Wagner in France.
A more unlikely candidate for such weighty accomplishments can hardly be imagined. Franck was born in Belgium, but came to Paris in his teens to take advantage of the French capital’s superior educational opportunities in music. His father had initially determined that he should become a concert pianist, but Franck’s performing career veered more sedately toward organ. He spent most of his professional career serving as organist in various lesser Parisian churches—hardly positions that would make it likely for him to attract a circle of France’s most promising young composers!
Franck’s final maturity yielded virtually all the works for which he is best remembered: his piano quintet, violin sonata, Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra, string quartet and, of course, the D-minor symphony.
He was not an established symphonist. He was 66 when he completed his first and only symphony in 1888. At the time, Brahms reigned supreme among living Austro-German composers and had completed his four symphonies. Antonín Dvořák was at work on an eighth. While Franck was well versed in the Viennese symphonic tradition and thoroughly understood the accepted norms of symphonic structure, he broke from those conventions in his symphony, imposing a highly personal stamp.
The most obvious manifestation of his individuality is his limitation to three movements instead of the customary four. The first movement shifts back and forth between Lento and Allegro, crossing elements of slow introduction, conventional first movement sonata form and slow movement. The central movement, which is generally regarded to be the most successful of the three, combines slow movement and scherzo; its consistency of tempo lends it a smoothness that is somewhat lacking in the outer movements. Franck’s finale opens with the most straightforward theme in the entire work, but its structure becomes more complex as Franck reintroduces material from the previous two movements.
Historian Martin Cooper has written:
The symphony marks the peak of the first phase of Germanic influence in France. … There is no questioning its emotional power, although its musical vitality oscillates between two great extremes (cf. the first and second subjects in the first movement), and the cut of phrases is often too rigidly four-square to be satisfactory.
Despite these criticisms, Franck’s symphony has enormous emotional appeal, and it remains an audience favorite. From an historical standpoint, the work’s importance lies primarily in the composer’s highly chromatic musical language and in the application of cyclic theory (the use of related thematic material in all or some movements of a multi-movement work) to unify the symphony. Franck adapts his opening motive with skill and effectiveness, reinforcing the sweep and power of his symphony.
Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.