SHAHAM PLAYS BRAHMS
XIAN ZHANG conductor
GIL SHAHAM violin
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
A captivating end to a season of wonders. Fittingly, Mahler’s monumental First Symphony marks Xian Zhang’s first NJSO performance of his music. Gil Shaham, one of today’s greatest and most admired violinists, scales the heights of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with dazzling virtuosity.
BERNSTEIN Overture to Candide
A glittering display of orchestral brilliance and an effervescent tip of the hat to Bernstein’s 100th birthday.
BRAHMS Violin Concerto
Glowing and warm; initially considered unplayable, it has become a cornerstone of the repertoire.
MAHLER Symphony No. 1
Mahler’s magnificent First Symphony seeks life’s meaning in the cycles of nature and the mysteries of love.
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Thu, Jun 7 at 1:30 PM New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark
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Fri, Jun 8 at 8:00 PM New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark
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Sat, Jun 9 at 8:00 PM Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank
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Sun, Jun 10 at 3:00 PM New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark
Prelude Performance—Fri, June 8, before the concert
Come early and cheer on the young performers from NJSO CHAMPS (Character, Achievement and Music Project) as they perform in the lobby of NJPAC.
Prelude Performance—Sun, June 10, before the concert
Come early and hear the extraordinary Anne Lieberson Ensemble from the NJSO's Youth Orchestras perform in the lobby of NJPAC.
The June 7 performance is generously sponsored by Delta Dental.
The June 10 performance is generously sponsored by Bank of America.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2018
BERNSTEIN: Overture to Candide
Born: August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died: October 14, 1990, in New York, New York
Duration: 5 minutes
World Premiere: October 29, 1956, in Boston
NJSO Premiere: 1969–70 season; Henry Lewis conducted.
The French philosopher Voltaire subtitled his 1759 satire, Candide, “Optimism.” Candide mocked the complacent positivism of 18th-century thought and the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 comic operetta based on Voltaire’s novel echoes the satire, parodying many conventions of the traditional operatic stage. Candide’s overture, however, is indeed the essence of optimism.
Rich with singable melodies, foot-tapping rhythms and the exuberant joy of the finest opera buffa tradition, this overture remains Bernstein’s most frequently performed composition. Curiously, it is the only such survivor from a work that otherwise failed to capture the popular imagination. Even the brilliant collaboration of such literary luminaries as Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche and Richard Wilbur was not able to save Candide. The show closed after 73 performances—a modest run for Broadway, and small potatoes by Bernstein's ambitious standards.
Despite the operetta's faltering start, Bernstein’s overture found a place on concert programs almost immediately. Not an ounce of subtlety compromises its brash confidence. From the opening burst of fireworks to the closing, quasi-Rossinian crescendo, Bernstein treats us to nonstop color and glitter. His music is an unceasing flow of French champagne from an American vintner.
Its quicksilver moods admirably reflect the operetta. All the memorable tunes are borrowed from vocal numbers within Candide. Bernstein weaves them together brilliantly into five whirling minutes of orchestral excitement in a compact sonata form. His personal imprints—impossible modulations that work, frequent metric switches that seem as inevitable as the sunrise, sparkling orchestration—all merge effectively with Gallic sophistication. The overture to Candide is a microcosm of Bernstein’s unique American genius.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, xylophone, glockenspiel, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, harp and strings.
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Born: May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
World Premiere: January 1, 1879, in Leipzig. Joseph Joachim was the soloist; Brahms conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: 1927–28 season. Sylvia Lent was the soloist; Philip James conducted.
Duration: 38 minutes
Beethoven and Brahms each composed one Violin Concerto; both are in D major. Parallels between the two works are extensive. D major is a logical and frequent choice for a violin concerto because the tonality lies very favorably for the instrument. More to the point, the two concertos share an atmosphere of dignity, self-confidence and supreme command. Both are gentle without lacking strength, more introspective than showy, and marked with each composer’s individuality.
In fact, Brahms modeled his concerto on Beethoven’s. In the realm of the symphony, he was the acknowledged successor to Beethoven. It was logical for him to look to the earlier concerto when considering one of his own. The overall impression both concertos leave is symphonic, rather than virtuosic, and unfailingly majestic.
Brahms composed his concerto during the summer of 1878, one year following his sunny Second Symphony, also in D. His friend Joseph Joachim—one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century—had wanted a concerto from Brahms for a long while. Brahms sent the first movement solo part to him in Salzburg on August 22, 1878, with a report that the work would comprise four movements. Joachim was delighted, replying within days:
To me it’s a great, genuine joy that you’re writing a violin concerto (in four movements, no less!). I have immediately looked through what you sent, and here and there you’ll find a note and a comment regarding changes— without a score, of course, it can’t really be relished. Most of it is manageable, some of it even very original, violinistically. But whether it can all be played comfortably in a hot concert-hall I cannot say, before I’ve played it straight through. Any chance that one might get together for a couple of days?
They did indeed get together, and Joachim played a significant role in the evolution of the solo part. He also made substantive recommendations about the orchestration, recommending a reduction in forces or a thinning of texture in key places that allowed the violin to deliver its argument with more authority. The cadenza is also Joachim’s, and it remains the one most frequently performed.
Brahms continued to work on the score throughout the autumn, eventually abandoning sketches for the two central movements in favor of a single adagio that he described—a bit coyly—as “feeble.” He sent Joachim the final score on December 12. Remarkably, Joachim played the premiere barely three weeks later, on New Year’s Day 1879, in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. We know the size of the orchestra both from contemporary reports about the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and, more particularly, from a letter written by Heinrich von Herzogenberg specifying the number of string parts that had been copied for the first performance: enough to accommodate 10 first violins, 10 seconds, six violas, six cellos and three double basses. It is a startlingly modest complement, especially given the larger orchestras that we hear in most modern performances.
The principal themes of all three movements are clearly built on triads, giving the concerto a strength of motivic unity that further relates it to its Beethovenian model. Brahms opens with a broad orchestral exposition, taking an unusual amount of time to introduce his thematic material and build up to the soloist’s entrance. Dramatic and cadenza-like, the violin’s opening statement is the more noteworthy for being in minor mode. Brahms’s mastery is evident in the way he asserts the violin’s parity with the orchestra. Throughout the powerful first movement, he reduces the ensemble to just strings, or even partial strings, to highlight a judicious contribution from the woodwinds. Without compromising the integrity of the orchestra’s material or the inherent drama of the music, the soloist is able to hold his own, with majesty and dignity.
Brahms’ placement of his lovely slow movement in the pastoral key of F major further underscores the generally sunny disposition of this work, so obviously reflective of a peaceful summer and comparatively happy time in the composer’s life. The oboe theme at the beginning of the Adagio is one of the instrument’s finest moments in the Brahms canon. A wind chorus supports it, recalling lovely moments in Brahms’ early Serenades, but actually building upon scoring ideas in his own subtle first movement orchestration. One of the Adagio’s strokes of genius is that Brahms has his soloist depart from the theme after only three notes, tracing its own embroidery in many different fashions. Author Ivor Keys calls it “variation by elongation.” At the end, pizzicato triplets outlining arpeggios hint at the underpinning of the last movement.
Joachim’s Hungarian roots surface in the finale, which is flavored with a tinge of Gypsy rhythms and harmonies. Brahms was returning a compliment from the violinist, who had written his own Concerto in the Hungarian Manner, Op. 11, in 1861 and dedicated it to Brahms. Double stops abound in the main theme, which—like a true Viennese waltz—requires a certain amount of élan to deliver with just the right hesitation and plunge in its rhythm. Brahms has written earthy music, a joyous dance for the people, cleverly enclosed within a rondo structure. His coda, a brisk final statement of the main idea, switches neatly to 6/8 meter and accelerates to poco più presto, introducing a jocose hunting horn aspect to the concerto’s final moments.
Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings and solo violin.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan”
Born: July 7, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911 in Vienna, Austria
Duration: 53 minutes
Composed: 1884–88; revised from 1893–96 and again in 1906
World Premiere: November 28, 1889, in Budapest. The composer conducted.
Bruckner and Mahler are so often mentioned in the same breath that music-lovers who probe a little deeper are startled to discover how remarkably different they really were. One similarity holds, however: both composers revised their symphonies frequently and extensively. The stories and reasons vary, of course, for each man and each of his works. Only rarely was Bruckner or Mahler satisfied with a first effort.
Mahler established that pattern even before composing his First Symphony. His early song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer, occupied him on and off for almost 13 years, from 1883 to 1896. The First Symphony took even longer to bring to final form. His first sketches date from 1884, about a year after completing his initial draft of Songs of a Wayfarer, one of whose songs (“I Went This Morning over the Field”) figures as the principal theme of the symphony's opening movement. Mahler had completed the first version by spring 1888. After it received a chilly reception at the Budapest premiere in November 1889, he shelved it. Between 1893 and 1896, the symphony underwent extensive revision, and Mahler chose not to publish it until 1899.
In Mahler’s original conception, the work was a symphonic poem in two parts and five movements. Mahler discarded his original second movement, known as “Blumine” (“A Chaplet of Flowers”) in the early score, in 1898, shortly before the symphony was published. “Blumine” was an Andante in C major that appears to have been adapted from incidental music Mahler composed in 1883 for Joseph Viktor Scheffel’s poem, The Trumpeter of Säckingen. The symphony’s autograph manuscript was missing for many years. It turned up in 1967, revealing significant differences in orchestration from the published score. The previously unknown “Blumine” movement also explained the origin of one of the themes used in the section of the finale that quotes from the preceding movements.
Jean-Paul Richter’s novel Titan, a personal favorite of Mahler’s, was the source of the symphony’s subtitle. In this context, it was intended to connote a “vigorous, heroic man.” Mahler later abjured the subtitle altogether. In 1896, he told a friend that his First Symphony had been inspired by “a passionate love.” Most scholars believe he drafted the work while embroiled in an affair with Marion von Weber, wife of Carl Maria von Weber’s grandson, but at least two other women—Johanna Meier and Josephine Moisl—are associated with the two Gesellen songs he quotes in the symphony. With Mahler, a simple explanation rarely suffices, and there is always more than initially meets the eye or ear. His love interest at the time is only one aspect of the autobiographical aural canvas this symphony paints. Mahler once wrote of his first two symphonies, “My whole life is contained in them.”
Mahler’s First overflows with the excitement and anticipation of youth. In spite of its sardonic slow movement, it is resolutely optimistic, triumphant and spiritually uplifting. The symphony is cosmic in nature, addressing weighty topics such as love and life itself.
A pregnant slow introduction to the first movement pulsates with the pastoral sounds of a glorious alpine summer morning. Mahler wants us to feel light breezes ruffling our hair, to hear the chirp of birds, the call of shepherds. All these sensations are part of everyday experience in the rural setting that remained dear to Mahler his entire life. Their decisive placement as the opening gesture of this highly gestural symphony reveals much: Mahler put a lot of his cards on the table with this first symphonic hand, and he continued to play them out during his entire career. Equally important from a motivic standpoint is the method of delivery: an insistent falling fourth that develops into a significant building block of the musical structure.
The famous D-major theme of the first movement comes from the second song in Songs of a Wayfarer. In that earlier context, a dejected lover is impervious to the delicious appeal of nature’s charm in the early morning hours. No such lovelorn blindness blocks the listener’s appreciation of this symphonic movement, which seems to dance with anticipation and untrammeled joy.
The festive atmosphere continues in the second movement, which functions as a scherzo. Mahler borrows both from elegant Viennese ballrooms and country villages; their shared quality is the sheer pleasure of the dance. Ultimately, the Austrian peasant Ländler prevails over the waltz in this compound gesture of homage to Haydn, Schubert and Bruckner. This movement is the most traditional in the symphony, and thus it is fitting that Mahler should pay his respects to his distinguished symphonic predecessors. In the trio section in F major, the music calms down considerably, permitting the dancers to catch their breath. One cannot help but wonder whether Strauss had the strains of this distinctly more waltz-like passage in mind two decades later when he penned the score to Rosenkavalier.
The third movement opens with what is arguably the best-known string bass solo in the orchestral repertoire. Accompanied by timpani, the bass solo becomes a funeral march crossed with a nursery song, followed by a Jewish street tune. With searing irony and bitter humor, Mahler casts a spell, drawing the listener into a hypnotic, singsong parody by means of a mocking oboe. In the process, he makes the ridiculous sublime: “Frère Jacques” consorting with a vulgar street fiddler in a bizarre contrapuntal duet.
The finale is monumental, nearly as long as the three prior movements combined. Mahler likened its opening to the cry of a wounded heart. He makes the listener suffer—as he presumably did—before he yields to the victorious strains of D major in which the symphony resolves. There are parallels with Beethoven’s Fifth (in triumph emerging from struggle) and Ninth Symphonies (quotations from each of the preceding movements establishing cyclic unity). All the quotations are prelude to the jubilation of a spectacular climax.
From the standpoint of orchestral size, both in terms of number of players and variety of instruments, Mahler’s First Symphony was a landmark work. Other factors make this symphony historically important. Mahler consolidated trends that developed during the second half of the 19th century, such as the cross-pollination of themes among various movements (a technique that is particularly evident when the discarded “Blumine” movement is considered as a part of the whole).
Also, the emphasis on the last movement, rather than the first, completely altered the symphony’s emotional impact and psychological weight. While Mahler was not the first to expand a finale to this extent, he carried it further than anyone had beforehand. More than any of the other movements, this is the one in which we hear most clearly the passionate, personal voice that was to ripen into the rich harvest of the symphonies that lay ahead.
Instrumentation: four flutes (two doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, four trombones, tuba, four timpani (requiring two players), cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, bass drum, harp and strings.