Viola Spectacular with Pinchas Zukerman

George Philipp Telemann
Viola Concerto in G major, TWV 51:G9
March 14, 1681, in Magdeburg, Prussia
Died: June 25, 1767, in Hamburg, Germany
Work composed: Unknown
World premiere: Unknown
In brief: Georg Phillip Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major is one of this composer’s most beautiful instrumental works, one that combines Baroque gravity with a more lively modern expressiveness.

The second half of the 20th century saw a resurgence of popular interest in music of the Baroque period (approximately 1600 to 1750). No composer has benefited more from that development than Georg Phillip Telemann. Considered during his lifetime to be the greatest musician in northern Europe — he was regarded far more highly than his contemporary, J. S. Bach — Telemann’s star waned during the 19th century, and his music was long known mainly to a handful of specialists. But the Baroque revival of recent decades has done much to restore this composer to, if not his former eminence, a position of deserved respect and appreciation.

By any standard, Telemann was an extraordinary figure. Possessing apparently boundless energy, he produced an enormous amount of music: some 40 operas, 12 annual cycles of church cantatas (each consisting of nearly 60 individual works), 44 Passion settings and hundreds of pieces for orchestra and smaller ensembles. Somehow, he also found time to direct performances, engage in business ventures, and write a valuable autobiography.

The Viola Concerto that opens our concert is one of Telemann’s most beautiful compositions, its music combining Baroque gravity with a more modern expressiveness. As with so many of Telemann’s works, we do not know when this concerto was written or first performed. The piece follows the venerable design of the “church sonata,” four movements in a slow–fast–slow–fast pattern (as distinct from the more modern three-movement concerto plan advanced so decisively by Vivaldi and Bach). It begins with an extraordinarily expressive Largo whose arching phrases are admirably suited to the rich timbre of the viola.

The Allegro that follows shows the influence of Vivaldi in its rhythmic vigor and use of ritornello construction, in which a recurring thematic idea associated with the orchestra serves as a springboard for the melodic flights of the soloist. Here Telemann employs a particularly lively and Italianate ritornello theme.

The third movement turns to the minor mode with poignant effect. In the finale, syncopated rhythms in the orchestra’s ritornello theme combine with sequential patterns in the solo part (brief phrases repeated as successively higher or lower pitches) to create a wonderful sense of energy that belies any notion that Telemann was a second-rate creator of instrumental music. On the contrary, this fine concerto reveals something of the compositional skill and sheer musicality for which Telemann was so greatly admired in his day.

Scored for harpsichord and strings.

Johannes Brahms
Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16
May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
Work composed: 1858–59
World premiere: February 10, 1860, in Hamburg; Brahms conducting
In brief: Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A major bridges two periods of music history. Composers of the 18th century wrote serenades, often for ensembles of wind instruments, as a form of light music. Completed in 1859, Brahms’ Serenade updates that genre using the rich harmonic palette of the 19th century.

In view of his subsequent achievements in the field of orchestral music, it seems surprising and ironic that Brahms’ initial efforts in this area were decidedly unsuccessful. In 1854, when he was still just 20, the composer began work on a symphony inspired by the most imposing example imaginable: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This was a project born of youthful passion and ambition, and Brahms did not yet possess the experience to carry it out. For several years he struggled with the score before finally abandoning the symphonic format. Eventually, he turned his sketches into portions of his Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, a work that proved a resounding failure at its premiere performance in 1859.

Although Brahms would eventually see his concerto vindicated, he now decided to retreat from the challenge of Beethoven’s late music. Temporarily setting aside his symphonic plans, he turned instead to a lighter and more episodic orchestral format, one that had been extensively cultivated by 18th-century composers: the serenade. An initial work of this type, his Serenade in D major, Op. 11, appeared early in 1858. A second, in the key of A major, followed a year later and was published as the composer’s Op. 16. Brahms revised this Serenade No. 2 in 1875, but made only minor changes at that time.

The A-major Serenade is scored for an orchestra of modest size, one that omits violins. This peculiarity of instrumentation allows the woodwinds to play a more prominent role, as they had in the serenades of Mozart and other Classical-period composers. (Indeed, many 18th-century serenades used wind ensembles exclusively.) The composition’s five-part structure yields a pleasing formal symmetry: substantial opening and closing movements framing a Scherzo and minuet, with a slow movement at the center of the piece.

Brahms begins the work in a relaxed vein, with a melody that rises in stages through the woodwind choir. A pendant to this idea, marked by falling triplet figures, completes the first theme. The second subject is a lilting line introduced by the clarinets in close harmony. Brahms’ juxtaposition and extension of these materials produces music that seems dappled with sunlight and shadow.

The second movement brings a Scherzo with the flavor of a robust folk dance. By contrast, the central Adagio non troppo is deeply felt and finely wrought. Its principal theme is built on an arching figure — this is almost a minor-key variant of the opening subject of the first movement — given out repeatedly by the strings. Brahms leads this idea through far-flung harmonic terrain in a surprisingly intense and poetic journey.

The fourth movement is marked Quasi menuetto. True to the qualification implied by those words, it seems more a Romantic dream of a minuet than the courtly dance itself. The finale brings intimations of hunting music (another tradition of the Classical-period serenade), as well as a joyous melody begun by the oboe and, for the first time in the piece, the bright sound of a piccolo.

Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons; 2 horns, viola, cello and bass.

Robert Beaser (b. 1954)
Ground O (World Premiere)

Robert Beaser emerged as one of the most accomplished creative musicians of his generation and has won a passionate international following for his works in a wide variety of genres. He writes of Ground O: “In early October of 2001, I sat in my Manhattan studio, some three miles from the intersection of Church and Dey streets downtown.…As all of us hobbled around trying to make sense of all that happened the month before, I fought the impulse to write a piece of music in response. Not surprisingly, I lost the fight. Ground O was created soon after. I couldn’t bring myself to use the ‘Zero’ in the title, though, so I skewed it to O.

“This little piece has morphed into several other forms as part of an evolving collection over the past years. When Maestro Schwarz recently asked me to contribute something in celebration of his Farewell Season as Music Director of Seattle Symphony, I was immediately drawn to the idea of enlarging this work for full orchestra with solo violin obbligato and having it stand on its own — particularly in light of the tenth anniversary of the [events of September 11] this year. Somehow, the perspective of a decade’s time had served not to diminish this tragedy, but to illuminate it for all of us in complex and poignant new colors.”

Scored for flute and piccolo; 2 oboes, 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons, the second doubling on contrabassoon; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba; timpani and percussion; harp, piano, celeste and strings.

Hector Berlioz
Harold in Italy, Op. 16
December 11, 1803, in La Côte-Saint-André, France
Died: March 8, 1869, in Paris, France
Work composed: 1834
World premiere: November 23, 1834, in Paris, by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire; Chrétien Urhard, viola; Narcisse Girard conducting
In brief: Part viola concerto, part symphony, part narrative tone poem, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is, like so many of this composer’s works, unprecedented and unique. Its title references Lord Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Taking his cue from that work, Berlioz conceived his composition as a series of scenes that the solo viola observes or participates in. Their details stem from the composer’s travels through central Italy.

Harold in Italy could be called Hector Berlioz’s second symphony, his only concerto, and the greatest concertante work for viola and orchestra of the 19th century. It is all of these and more.

Early in 1833, Berlioz was on the threshold of success as a composer, and he was fairly seething with energy and ambition. He recently had returned to Paris following a stay of nearly two years in Italy, his reward for winning the Paris Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome competition in 1830. Berlioz had languished in the south. Rome’s monuments bored him, and the current state of Italian music struck him as dismal (as it had Mendelssohn around the same time). His only pleasure was in escaping the Roman villa that housed the Prix winners and going off alone into the countryside. There, among the peasants and pastoral landscapes, he felt relaxed and rejuvenated. Eventually, though, even these sojourns were not enough to sustain him, and he cut short his proposed stay in Italy by nearly a year.

Once back in Paris, Berlioz quickly set about organizing concerts to bring his works before the public, the principal offering being his Symphonie fantastique. The composer already had something of a reputation in the French capital, and the audiences at these performances included such illustrious musicians as Chopin, Liszt and the great violinist Nicolò Paganini. The latter was especially impressed with what he heard and subsequently approached Berlioz to request a viola concerto. Paganini had just acquired “a wonderful viola, an admirable Stradivari,” as he described it to the composer, and needed a vehicle to display it.

Berlioz agreed to take on this assignment, but not without some hesitation. His strongest abilities, he knew, lay in the area of program music, in giving aural expression to dramatic or pictorial ideas. A concerto was something else altogether, and his imagination led him to something quite unlike a conventional work in that genre. When the composer showed the first movement of this piece to Paganini, early in 1834, the latter could not conceal his disappointment. The Italian musician was a virtuoso through and through, and he delighted in shotwing off his prowess as an instrumentalist. The solo part in the piece Berlioz produced had too few notes, he complained, it was not nearly flashy enough.

Paganini abruptly lost interest in the project. Berlioz, however, grew more engrossed. As he recalled in his memoirs, he decided to “carry it out in another way, without troubling myself how the solo part might be brought into brilliant relief. I conceived the idea of writing a series of scenes for the orchestra in which the viola should find itself involved to a greater or lesser extent, like an actual person....The background I formed from my recollections of my wanderings in the Abruzzi countryside, introducing the viola as a sort of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold.”

The work that Berlioz now proceeded to write entailed no allusions to Byron’s long narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage other than the idea of a Romantic protagonist commenting on passing scenes. But even that very general scenario proved sufficient to fire the composer’s imagination and shape his musical ideas. In particular, the notion of a character, represented by the viola, justified the use of a recurring theme — an idée fixe, as Berlioz called it — a device the composer had successfully employed in the earlier Symphonie fantastique. In Harold in Italy, as Berlioz titled his new work, this recurring idea is heard at the first entrance of the solo instrument. It indeed suggests the poetic dreamer of Byron’s verses, and it indeed reappears in different scenes as the music unfolds.

The four movements of Harold in Italy form a set of musical tableaux, which the composer described in the titles he assigned to them. It is not difficult to connect these descriptions with the music, for Berlioz was a superb tone-painter. Even music as ostensibly abstract as the fugal passage that opens the work seems to convey the weight and ruggedness of the mountains where we first encounter the work’s imaginary protagonist.

The second movement, March of the Pilgrims, takes the form of a long crescendo and diminuendo, as chanting pilgrims draw near and then fade into the dusk. The third movement, Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountaineer to his Beloved, brings a melodious instrumental aria.

In the finale, the composer pauses periodically to recall passages heard earlier in the work. Berlioz was among the first French musicians to champion Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony provided the model for this retrospective procedure. The movement’s title, Orgy of the Brigands, must be understood in a 19th-century context. Berlioz held a rather Romantic view of “brigands.” To him, they were not so much thieves as gypsy-like figures living enviably close to nature, and the bacchanal at which he imagines them is not an outburst of sexual abandon but a celebration of their freedom from the strictures of society. This, of course, accords with the Romantic notion of the noble outlaw. Conveniently, it also provided a premise for exactly the sort of exciting conclusion Berlioz would have wanted for the work he called “my symphony with viola.”

Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo; 2 oboes, the first doubling on English horn; 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets and 2 cornets; 3 trombones and tuba; timpani and percussion; harp and strings.

© 2011 Paul Schiavo

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