Midori plays the Mendelssohn Concerto
Presentation of the concert
ZEMLINSKY, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid)
MENDELSSOHN, Violin Concerto
BRAHMS, Variations on a Theme by Haydn
When she was still but a child the talent of Midori was recognized by conductors around the world, including Charles Dutoit, who went on to invite her to perform on many occasions. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote about her: “I know of no violinist with a more sensitive or respectful sense of vibrato.” She comes back to us at last, in the famous and virtuoso Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.
James Conlon, recognized for among other things his interpretations of the music of Zemlinsky, here conducts the large-scale symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid), one of the composer’s most performed works, which takes up the narrative thread of the Andersen story. Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn complete the program.
OSM preconcert conferences
Wednesday, April 30 and Thursday,
May 1st – 7 p.m.
Parterre level of the Maison symphonique
Hosted by Katerine Verebely, reporter and host on ICI Radio-Canada Première and Espace musique
James Conlon, conductor
Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis, musicologist and assistant professor on the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal
Music by two composers who spent most of their careers in Vienna – Zemlinsky and Brahms – frame a concerto by a composer who spent little time there (Mendelssohn). Least familiar of these three works is surely Zemlinsky’s symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau, yet is safe to say that few, if any, concertgoers will remain unmoved by its surging romanticism, splendiferous orchestration, plangent play of tonal colors, yearning melodies, and huge array of dynamics and textures ranging from diaphanous chamber music to great billowing clouds of sound.
Born in Vienna, October 14, 1871
Died in Larchmont, New York, March 15, 1942
Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid)
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” published in 1837, was but one of about 170 stories the great Dane wrote throughout the mid-nineteenth century, a collection that ranks among the finest achievements in world literature. Such is the popular attraction of this story that her bronze statue, perched on a rock in Copenhagen’s waterfront, has become Denmark’s best known icon. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky set this story to music in a 45-minute symphonic poem of ravishing beauty and sumptuous orchestral colors.
Die Seejungfrau was composed between 1901 and 1903 and first performed in Vienna on January 25, 1905 on the same program with the premiere of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, another 45-minute symphonic poem drenched in hyper-romantic expressivity, based on a tale of long ago and far away, and written for oversized orchestra. There was a further performance in Berlin in 1907, and then nothing until 1984, when Peter Gülke conducted the work with the Austrian Youth Philharmonic in Vienna.
The story, briefly recounted, is this: Part I – A mermaid, living deep in the sea, yearns for an immortal soul, just like people have. One day she sees a ship bearing a handsome young prince. A storm destroys the ship, and the mermaid saves the prince from drowning. Being a mermaid, she cannot leave the water, and when the prince revives, he believes that a mortal has saved him. Part II – As for the mermaid, she has fallen desperately in love with the prince, and is willing to make a great sacrifice to be with him. She goes to the sea witch, who gives her a potion that will replace her tail with human legs, but in the process will leave her without a tongue. The mermaid goes to the prince, but cannot tell him that it was she who saved him from the storm, and he eventually marries another. Part III – The mermaid seeks advice from the witch, who instructs the mermaid to plunge a knife into the prince, thus releasing blood that will turn her feet back into a tail so she can return to the sea world. The mermaid is about to follow these instructions when, at the critical moment, she throws the knife away, plunges into the sea and begins to dissolve. As she looks up, she sees thousands of points of light, the daughters of the air flying about. The mermaid has, through her nobility of soul and honorable character, become one of them, and though these creatures are not yet immortal, they have the capacity to become so. The little mermaid has fulfilled her quest – she will attain immortality, just like humans.
Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809
Leipzig, November 4, 1847
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
The facility, polish and effortless grace found in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto totally belie the creator’s struggle to compose it. This enormously popular concerto, Mendelssohn’s last major composition, occupied him for over five years (1838-1844), during which he carried on a lively exchange of ideas about the structural and technical details with the concerto’s dedicatee, violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873). When Mendelssohn became conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he instated David as his concertmaster. At the concerto’s premiere on March 13, 1845, David was of course the soloist.
Mendelssohn, trained in the classical tradition, nevertheless possessed a romantic streak which manifested itself in the poetic fantasy that infuses his music, and in the liberties he took with regard to formal construction. For example, there is no opening orchestral introduction. The soloist enters with the main theme almost immediately. All three movements are joined, with no formal pauses to break the flow. A cadenza, which normally would appear near the end of a concerto’s first movement, in this work is placed before, not after, the recapitulation.
The term “well-bred” is often invoked to describe this concerto, and it is nowhere more appropriate than in describing the quiet rapture and poetic beauty of the second movement’s principal theme. A moment of sweet melancholy in A minor intrudes briefly, with trumpets and timpani adding a touch of agitation. The principal theme then returns in varied repetition, and a gently yearning passage, again in A minor, leads to the finale. As in the two previous movements, the soloist announces the principal theme, one of elfin lightness and gaiety.
Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833
Died in Vienna, April 3, 1897
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a
Musicology being what it was in Brahms’s day, i.e., virtually non-existent, it is hardly surprising to learn that the “theme by Haydn” Brahms used as the basis of his variations is not by Haydn at all. It is probably by one of Haydn’s students, Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), and even Pleyel had taken it over from an old pilgrims’ hymn known as the St. Anthony Chorale. This information came to light only in 1951 in an article by the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon.
Brahms was forty years old when he wrote the Variations. He had still not composed a symphony, and had produced no orchestral works at all in well over a decade. But the success of the “Haydn Variations,” first performed at a Vienna Philharmonic concert on November 2, 1873, proved to be the catalyst that dissolved his inhibitions about the orchestra; his First Symphony appeared three years later, followed by three more over the next decade, everyone a masterpiece.
It is easy to understand this turn in Brahms’s life in light of the superb craftsmanship and assured handling of the orchestra as displayed in the Haydn Variations. There is not a note out of place, nor a note too many. Each instrument is exploited for its special tone quality, and each is perfectly integrated into the whole. Notice for example the extra richness the contrabassoon contributes to the blend in the opening presentation of the chorale theme, the special touch of color the two trumpets make as they join in at the end of the first phrase, and the subtle support given by the cellos and double basses playing pizzicato.
The first variation begins where the chorale presentation left off – with gently pulsing chords echoed by horns, bassoons and timpani, as strings spread outward gracefully. The sense of organic unity is complete. The sound of the woodwind choir (often with horns added) is another prominent feature found throughout the work – note for example the gently weaving arabesques of combined oboes and bassoons at the beginning of Variation III; or the buoyant, skittering effect of flutes, oboes and bassoons at Variation V. Masterful touches are found on every page of the score, giving rise all the more to amazement that Brahms first composed this music for two pianos. The latter version was not performed until long after the orchestral one; hence its opus number 56b.
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