Fanfare! Program Notes


JOHN ADAMS (1947-present)
The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)

John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1947; he lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He composed The Chairman Dances as an offshoot of his opera Nixon in China. Lukas Foss led the Milwaukee Symphony in the world premiere on January 31, 1986. The score calls for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussionists, piano, harp, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes.

John Adams was trained in Massachusetts but moved to California where he began to write in a style then called minimalism (though his own music has long since passed far beyond that term). In 1987 he accomplished a remarkable feat by producing a successful opera, Nixon in China, based on a modern day topic and featuring real people, including a recent American president, as the characters. Jointly conceived by Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and director Peter Sellars, Nixon in China has been staged widely and filmed for television. While working on the opera, Adams created a particular kind of music for a scene in the closing act in Mao Tse-tung was dancing with his wife (a former movie star). He wrote a theme in the style of ’30s movie music, thinking of it as an independent piece. Later he found that the same music worked in a slower, poignant mood, for a scene of Pat and Dick Nixon reminiscing about their early years.

The concert piece, played here, is bouncy and buoyant, offering a modern composer’s idea of a Hollywood foxtrot from, say, seventy years ago.

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born at Tavastehusmeenlinna), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, at his country home near Helsingfors (Helsinki), on September 20, 1957. He began work on his violin concerto in 1902, completed it in short score in the fall of 1903, and finished the full score about New Year 1904. After the first performance, in Helsingfors on February 8, 1904, with Viktor Novaček as soloist and with the composer conducting, Sibelius withdrew the work for revision. In its present form it had its premiere in Berlin on October 19, 1905, with Karl Halir as soloist and Richard Strauss on the podium. The orchestra consists of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, all in pairs; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 31 minutes.

A failed violin virtuoso is responsible for what has surely become the most popular violin concerto composed in the twentieth century. Though he knew he would never play it himself, Sibelius poured into the concerto all his love for the instrument and his understanding of its peculiar lyric qualities.

In September 1902 he wrote to his wife that he had just conceived “a marvelous opening idea” for a violin concerto, and if he was speaking of the way that the work actually begins in its finished form, “marvelous” is indeed the term to apply: against a hushed D-minor chord played by the strings of the orchestra, tremolo, the soloist enters delicately on a dissonant note, yearning as it leans into the chord. The magic begins already during the first few seconds of the piece.

But it takes more than a wonderful opening idea to generate a large-scale work. Sibelius struggled with it for years. He drank heavily. He even virtually insulted the German violinist, Willy Burmester, who had encouraged him to write such a piece. In the 1890s, when Sibelius was beginning to make his mark as a composer, Burmester had spent some time as the concertmaster in Helsingfors, and he had become an early champion of the budding composer. While working on the concerto throughout 1903, Sibelius kept Burmester apprised of his progress, and when he sent him the completed work, Burmester was enraptured “Wonderful! Masterly!” he wrote. “Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto!” At one point Sibelius mentioned dedicating the work to Burmester, too.

The violinist proposed to premiere it in Berlin in March 1904, where his fame as a soloist would have guaranteed something of a splash. But Sibelius found himself in a fiscal emergency (and also perhaps unsure of himself, one of the consequences of his heavy drinking), and he scheduled a concert of his works in Helsinki, with the new concerto as its centerpiece. But Burmester was unable to appear at that time. Instead, Sibelius made a choice that guaranteed failure, by offering the premiere to an undistinguished violin teacher named Viktor Novaček. (As difficult as the work is now, it was even more difficult in its first version.) Neither soloist nor orchestra were up to the demands of the piece, and one of the leading critics, Karl Flodin, a long-standing supporter of Sibelius, wrote that the concerto was “a mistake.”

Nonetheless, Burmester wrote to Sibelius, generously overlooked the slight to himself, and offered again to play the piece in October 1904, nobly promising, “All my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be placed to serve this work…I shall play the concerto in Helsingfors in such a way that the city will be at your feet!” But Sibelius was determined to revise the work before allowing another performance. He dawdled with the changes and finally brought himself face to face with his revisions in June 1905, when his publisher told him that he had gotten the concerto scheduled in a prestigious concert series directed by Richard Strauss. But by this time, Burmester’s schedule was full and he was not available. The solo part was given to Karl Halir. After the second slight, Burmester never played the piece that he had been the prime mover in bringing to creation.

The revisions to the Violin Concerto were far more drastic than simply touching up details of the scoring, such as composers usually undertake after a first round of rehearsals and performances of a new piece. Referring to what he considered the flaws in the work as his “secret sorrow,” Sibelius insisted that the revision would not be ready for two years (though in the end, he accomplished them in about a month once he really set to work). Sibelius evidently took Flodin’s critique of the first version very much to heart. He greatly reduced the amount of sheer virtuosic display in the solo part. The first movement had contained two solo cadenzas, the second of which was possibly inspired by Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin; it disappeared in the revision. He also shortened the finale. Only the slow movement, which met with general favor at the premiere, remains substantially unchanged. (It is always extremely interesting to hear an alternate version of a standard repertory work, because it gives us an insight into the composer’s own thought processes; fortunately we can now make a direct aural comparison between the two versions of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, because the original version has now been recorded by violinist Leonidas Kavakos with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Osmo Vänskä.) The original version was more dramatic, more rugged, closer perhaps to the spirit of Beethoven, and certainly more virtuosic. The final version of the concerto, which has become established as one of the handful of most popular violin concertos of all time has more of a lyric quality without denying itself a strong symphonic development in the opening movement, a heartfelt song in the slow movement, or the wonderful galumphing dance (“evidently a polonaise for polar bears,” as Donald Francis Tovey once wrote) in the rondo of the finale.

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He began his Fifth Symphony in May 1888 and completed it on August 26. Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg on November 26, 1888. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, three timpani, and strings. Duration is about 50 minutes.

By 1888, when Tchaikovsky composed the Fifth Symphony, he was far from being the hypersensitive artist—virtually a neurotic cripple—of popular accounts. To be sure, he had gone through a major emotional crisis ten years earlier, brought on by his ill‑advised, catastrophic marriage (undertaken partly in an attempt to “overcome” his homosexuality) and a series of artistic setbacks. The masterly achievement of the Fourth Symphony (premiered in 1878) had marked the end of the real crisis. In the decade that followed, Tchaikovsky had composed the violin concerto, the three orchestral suites, Manfred, four operas, his piano trio, and much else—hardly a sign of inability to deal with life’s pressures!

His decision to write a symphony again after ten years was an overt expression of Tchaikovsky’s willingness to tackle once more the most demanding musical form of his day. He began the symphony in May 1888. By the beginning of July he had started the orchestration, completing the full score on August 17. The premiere, which took place in St. Petersburg that November, was a success, though critics questioned whether the Fifth Symphony was of the same caliber as the Second and Fourth.

In March 1889 Tchaikovsky went to Hamburg for the German premiere. There he found Brahms staying in the same hotel and was gratified to learn that the German composer had remained an extra day in Hamburg just to hear the first rehearsal of his new work. The two composers had lunch after the rehearsal “and quite a few drinks,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest. “Neither he nor the players liked the Finale, which I also think rather horrible.” But this negative mood was soon dispelled. A week later the composer wrote, “The players by degrees came to appreciate the symphony more and more, and at the last rehearsal they gave me an ovation. The concert was also a success. Best of all—I have stopped disliking the symphony.” Later he wrote even more positively, “I have started to love it again.”

Certainly audiences have loved the symphony for nearly a century for its warmth, its color, its rich fund of melody. Tchaikovsky always wrote music with “heart,” music with an underlying emotional significance, though he was wary of revealing that meaning publicly, preferring to let the listener seek it personally. Still, for his own use, before starting in on the composition, he planned a rough program for the first movement—but, characteristically, he kept these notes entirely private, so that the music might make its own case. Still his first ideas are highly suggestive:

‘Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against xxx. (II) Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith???’

We can find here some hint as to the composer’s ideas, his emotional condition, at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. The mysterious “xxx” probably refers to the same thing usually discussed in his diary as “Z” or “That”—namely his homosexuality (if revealed publicly, this could have been very embarrassing, or worse, for the composer). The program for the first movement and the music of the symphony as a whole suggest a somewhat philosophical acceptance of his nature, coming by the finale to the realization of some peace of mind.

The first movement opens with a motto theme that might be identified with “Providence,” if only because it is somewhat less assertive than the “Fate” theme of the Fourth Symphony. The motto features a dotted rhythmic figure in the clarinet, supported by a plagal harmony suggesting resignation. It recurs, in some form or other, in each of the symphony’s four movements. The soft tread of this introduction yields to a syncopated tune in the clarinets and bassoons, answered by variants of the same material and sudden fortissimo outbursts. At a moment of sudden quiet, a new theme rises expressively in the strings (with a delicate answer in the woodwinds), to be repeated with the instrumentation reversed. Using Tchaikovsky’s preliminary plan as a guide, it might well be possible to identify the murmurs, the reproaches, the embrace of faith in the various sections; but though Tchaikovsky insisted on the expressive character of his work, it is equally misleading to try to read too much beyond a certain emotional quality into a movement or a phrase. What, for instance, of the intense soaring theme that is yet to come? After these themes have been developed and restated, the movement dies away in a subdued march, still retaining a degree of tension as it fades away into silence.

The second movement contains one of the most famous instrumental solos ever written, an ardent song for the horn, with an important pendant for oboe.  The opening is marked by emotional intensity, calling for subtle adjustments to the tempo every few measures. The contrasting middle section seems more objective at first, but it soon builds to a feverish climax dramatically interrupted by the motto theme blared out by the full orchestra. The strings softly sing the horn’s melody with the oboe’s gentle countermelody.  Gradually this theme builds to another climax and seems to be dying away, when the motto theme bursts in again, pounding all to silence and allowing only a few broken phrases, devoid of energy, to bring the movement to a close. By this point, the motto suggests more precisely “Fate” than “Providence.”

Traditionally the third movement of a symphony is in some sort of dance meter, usually in triple time, but few composers have written a full‑scale waltz at this point, and even fewer have managed one of such grace and breadth, so evocative of the ballet. A gossamer thread of staccato sixteenth‑note figures runs through the middle section deftly supported by the remainder of the orchestra. Its momentum carries it on as an accompanying figure under the first return of the waltz theme in the oboes. The full waltz is heard again (in new scoring), only to be undercut at the end by a hushed reminder of the motto theme in clarinets and bassoons.

The finale is the most problematic movement of the symphony; Tchaikovsky was at best ambivalent about it, and others have pointed out the prime weakness of what has otherwise been a most effective use of the motto theme throughout the symphony: Having just heard a reminder of it, understated and threatening, at the end of the waltz movement, we suddenly encounter the motto at the opening of the finale firmly in E major, as if the earlier minor mode had simply been an accident. There is no hard‑won battle of major over minor here, as in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the evident model for this symphony).  The victory seems too easily won.

Fortunately, the motto and its development soon give way to the main formal structure of the movement (sonata form again, for the first time since the beginning), with a vigorous E-minor chordal theme in the strings and a broader melody in the woodwinds; the motto leads off the development section ever more forcefully (in C major), though the development thereafter continues working out the other themes.

Following the recapitulation, the rhythm of the motto builds a massive climax and a grand pause. Now the motto appears in an apotheosis of marching chords and swirling woodwind figures with a rich counterpoint in the brass instruments. The last strain of the coda is a statement, now ringing and heroic, of what had been a nervously syncopated little tune early in the first movement. The doubts and tensions of the earlier movements have been overcome by putting on a bold front, and there is no question that it has all been bravely done. But Brahms, at least, had his doubts, and Tchaikovsky, in certain moods, anyway, did not disagree. He knew at heart that he was whistling in the dark—but it is a brave whistle that provides the courage to go on.

 

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)