MENDELSSOHN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO
DIMA SLOBODENIOUK conductor
NING FENG violin (pictured)
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Beauty comes in many forms. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is a sparkling, ever-flowing river of melody. The rugged landscape of Finland beckons in a pair of compelling scores, including Sibelius’ transporting Fifth Symphony.
FAGERLUND Isola (NJSO Premiere)
Ferocious, astounding, calling geological forces to mind: the piece’s title means “island.”
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto
Every note casts a spell in this much-adored concerto; the Andante’s caressing tune is a treasured highlight.
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5
Seemingly hewn from Finland’s forests and mountains, this arresting work is filled with the grandeur of nature.
Talkback—Thu, May 3, after the concert
NJSO Behind the Scenes: don't miss a panel of NJSO musicians describe the often grueling, but genuinely fascinating audition process.
Classical Conversation—Sat, May 5 at 7 pm and Sun, May 6 at 2 pm
Enjoy a lively Classical Conversation before the performance. Learn more about the music from NJSO musicians, guest artists and other engaging insiders.
Talkback—May 6, after the concert
NJSO Behind the Scenes: Ever wondered how the orchestra is put together for a concert? Listen as Personnel Manager Adria Benjamin describes the process of assembling the orchestra each week.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2018
Born: December 6, 1972, in Parainen, Finland
World Premiere: July 3, 2007, at the Korsholm Music Festival. Dmitri Slobodeniouk conducted the Vasa Symphony Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: These are the NJSO premiere performances.
Duration: 16 minutes
Sebastian Fagerlund is one of Finland’s bumper crop of exciting young composers who have gained international renown. Last season, he was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s composer in residence, only the second individual to occupy that prestigious post. His music is a fusion of post-impressionism and modernism, with a dash of minimalism. He often juxtaposes meditative, trance-like stasis with jagged rhythms.
Isola is an example: two connected movements based on related material, but treated in almost diametrically opposite manners. The contrast is intentional, for Fagerlund sought to illustrate the dichotomy of the Seilo Island in Finland’s Turku archipelago. Beginning in the 1620s, lepers were deported there, presumably to die. Legend holds that they were permitted to carry only wood and nails to make their own coffins. In 1785, the facility became a mental hospital, and remained a place of confinement until 1962. Today the Archipelago Research Institute is based on the island, focusing on the ecologies of the Baltic Sea.
Fagerlund’s tone poem explores the disconnect between this dark history and the natural beauty that is host to intellectual pursuits—and a thriving tourist industry. One feels the tension of mental instability, the dread of impending death and the uncertainty of existence among those with afflictions both psychological and physical.
Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes (second doubling English horn), clarinet, two bass clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, trumpets, trombone, timpani, tam tams, suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, vibraphone, crotales, tom toms, bass drum, wood blocks, triangle, metal chimes and strings.
MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E-Minor, Op. 64
Born: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany
Composed: 1844; revised 1845
World Premiere: March 13, 1845, in Leipzig. Ferdinand David was the soloist; the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: 1925–26 season. Ruth Breton was the soloist; Philip James conducted.
Duration: 26 minutes
The beauty of an old favorite like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is that familiarity breeds delight rather than the proverbial contempt. Instead of wearing threadbare, great works of music continue to prove up their quality with repeated hearings. Violinists love this work because it lies so well in the instrument. Mendelssohn composed with a clear understanding of the violin’s capabilities.
From the year 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. The demands caused by Mendelssohn’s growing fame, however, 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.
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!
The work is remarkable for its formal structure. We tend to think of Mendelssohn as the most classic of the romantics, one who favored clarity, transparency of orchestration and a Mozartian devotion to traditional form. Surprisingly, this concerto was trendsetter for the balance of the 19th century. Foregoing the customary orchestral exposition, Mendelssohn 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. This effervescent close merges sonata form with a scherzo character. So superbly integrated are his irresistible themes that we barely notice how fine is his counterpoint. This movement easily prompts both smiles and foot tapping, for it is one of Mendelssohn’s greatest strokes of genius.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani, strings and solo violin.
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5, Op. 82
Born: December 8, 1865 in Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957 in Järvenpaa, Finland
Composed: 1915; revised 1916 and 1919
World Premiere: 8 December 1915 in Helsinki. The composer conducted the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra
NJSO Premiere: 1938–39 season; Rene Pollain conducted.
Duration: 30 minutes
Sibelius advocates are passionate about their composer. They love to hear recordings of his work and discuss his music, or better yet, to argue over it. What does it mean? Why does it reach, or fail to reach, the listener? How does it differ from an earlier or later work? In the case of the Fifth Symphony, the discussion has centered on something altogether mundane: how many movements does it have?
Early analyses of this symphony discuss that apparently simple question at length. For example, Harold E. Johnson, in his 1959 biography, cautiously observes: “Although the movements are not numbered in the published score, it appears that there are three: 1. Tempo molto moderato; 2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto; and 3. Allegro molto, and the pauses are indicated between them.”
Sibelius himself declined to take a firm stand as to three versus four movements. He told his early biographer Nils-Eric Ringbom that he was “unwilling to take part in a controversy in which both sides were justified in maintaining their respective views.”
That equivocal stance applies just as readily to an audience’s reaction to Sibelius’ music, for each listener is apt to hear something different in this piece. “Organic process” is a phrase one reads repeatedly in assessments of Sibelius. Clearly defined melodies are less likely to be cited. The Fifth Symphony confounds both these generalities, for its overall structure is daring and original, and it has some wondrous, inspired themes that linger in the ear long after the music has ended.
Sibelius began work on his Fifth Symphony after the Great War had started, completing the first version Sibelius by his 50th birthday in December 1915. He revised it the following year, then again in 1919, when he rearranged it to its present configuration. The symphony was his major accomplishment of the war years.
The music historian Gerald Abraham once observed that the symphonies are the way that we understand Sibelius, and he predicted that they would be the music for which he would be valued by posterity. Abraham considers the Fifth “perhaps the most approachable of all Sibelius’s later symphonies.” Its complex first movement is a synthesis of formal experiments the composer made in his earlier symphonies. Changes of tempo and time signature abound, but we notice them less than we do the rich, colorful sound and vibrant textures.
This is a composer who loved woodwinds and reveled in the broad spectrum of colors they bring to a symphony orchestra. He awards them the first two of four principal thematic ideas in the opening movement. Other Sibelian hallmarks are present, including searching melodies in parallel thirds and shimmering tremolandi passages in the strings. At nearly 14 minutes, this is the lengthiest of the symphony’s movements, largely because the brilliant manner in which the composer integrates his scherzo into the development section.
The woodwind section has a field day in the central movement, which opens with a wind chorale supporting a joyous pizzicato theme in the strings. Parallel thirds recur, lending a tender, melodious character to the music. Structurally, the Andante mosso, quasi allegretto is a theme and variations, but what the listener is likely to notice is the extended, organ-like pedal points that help bind it together.
Sibelius’ conclusion takes a while to make its statement; no specific melodic idea jumps to the fore. Instead, we hear strings in perpetual motion, their humming activity a curious combination of positive energy and negative restlessness. Once the triumphant motive of the finale establishes itself, all the surging movement that has led to it comes into focus. Using another pedal point to anchor the orchestra’s seething activity, Sibelius sustains continuous energy in his drive toward the emphatic, punctuated chords that close the Fifth Symphony.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Learn more about the works on the program at www.njsymphony.org/notesMay3-6.