Program Notes: Hofstra Symphony Orchestra, December 7, 2013

Hofstra Symphony Orchestra 
Adam Glaser, Music Director
Saturday, December 7, 2013, 8:00pm 
John Cranford Adams Playhouse, 

Program Notes by Adam Glaser

While the Viennese composer Franz von Suppé (1819 – 1895) may not be a household name, or his Dichter und Lieber (Poet and Peasant) a frequently mounted work of the theater, the Overture to his 1846 operetta has taken on a life of its own, beloved and well-known to concert audiences around the world. And what a comprehensive curtain raiser it is, served in generous portions. The Overture begins with a brass chorale whose grounded, well-spaced texture and regal dotted rhythms evoke a serene confidence and nobility. Suppé wastes no time before introducing an exquisitely lyrical melody sung by a solo cello. This is something of a miniature “aria” that develops with such grace, and finishes so convincingly, one might imagine its conclusion to be the end of the Overture. But it is not, for the orchestra launches into a series of dramatic fireworks and tuneful toe-tappers, interrupted by the sorbet of a charming waltz, and builds to a rousing finish. Packed with flavor, this is no plate of light mesculin greens – a “Suppé salad,” if you will – but rather a rich, hearty appetizer and a delicious way to start an evening of music. 

From here, we move onto some real soup – a rich, dark consommé from American composer John Corigliano (b. 1938). His “Elegy for Orchestra” (1965) is derived from an off-Broadway production to which the composer had written an incidental score – Wallace Frey’s “Helen,” which explores the aging of Helen of Troy. Dedicated to another American composer, Samuel Barber, Corigliano suggests this music is within the “neo-romantic American style, typified in a diversity of works by Barber himself, Walter Piston and William Schuman.” He tells us that the work “begins quickly with a key passage for paired flutes, builds during its course to two double forte climaxes for full orchestra, and finally subsides for a pianissimo close for strings and woodwinds.” This thoughtfully presented dish finishes delicately with a quiet, unresolved harmony that lingers on the palette. 

Our primi piatti is a musical recipe originally served as “breakfast in bed” on a Christmas morning in 1870. A young woman named Cosima slowly wakes up to the sounds of beautiful music emerging from the hallway, and her new husband and children appear at her bedside with a present for her birthday (which happened to fall the day before, December 24). The gift is a musical score – a “symphonic birthday greeting” -- the premiere of which has just taken place on the staircase outside her bedroom door. Her husband is none other than Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), one of the most influential figures in Romantic music. Originally known as Triebschen Idyll after the Wagners’ lakeside house, the work would ultimately take on the name Siegfried Idyll, in honor of the couple’s baby boy, Siegfried, born eighteen months prior to that special morning. Scored originally for a small chamber ensemble of 15, the work features highly sensitive, colorful orchestration. The melodies are quintessential Wagner, with themes borrowed from Siegfried (the opera, not the baby) and Die Walküre. With gift-giving a top priority this time of year – witness the crowds at the Roosevelt Field Mall! – one imagines the present was well-received, holding a special place in the hearts of the Wagner children and music lovers to follow. 

It’s a bit sad to consider how German composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770 – 1827) shadow would loom so large over so many composers to follow him. Surely he did not intend to antagonize or intimidate his successors. He had bigger challenges on his plate toward the end. Nevertheless, with the arrival of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, a gauntlet had been thrown down. Johannes Brahms, no creative slouch himself, would keep his cards close to the vest for over two decades before dipping his toe in the water with his own First Symphony, largely out of respect for (and fear of) the enormity of Beethoven’s final symphony. Such pressure! One wonders if the younger Beethoven felt something similar earlier in his career. In his Symphony No. 1 in C major, op. 21, premiered in 1800, he does embrace established traditions of such giants as Mozart and Haydn, but not without revealing early signs of a fiercely innovative spirit. 

The choice of a slow introduction to begin a symphony is nothing new, but in Beethoven’s kitchen, this classic recipe gets a pungent twist. Rather than the expected tonic chord of C major, he starts the Adagio molto introduction with a C dominant 7th chord – the musical equivalent of an unstable gas on the Periodic Table of Elements, as it leads us away from the home key before we have even had a chance to take our shoes off. From there, Beethoven teases us with fleeting tastes of C major, but never lets us settle there comfortably until we reach the Allegro con brio. Here, a focused and stoic primary theme – most definitely in C major -- is introduced in the strings, with an ascending dotted rhythm motif at its core. A descending stepwise motif is later introduced in the woodwinds, forming a lyrical secondary theme. Spinning these essential components into a cohesive and vibrant opening movement, we start to notice Beethoven’s penchant for choosing simple, organic ingredients and exploring their full potential. 

The second movement, marked Andante cantabile con moto, begins with a rising arpeggio in F major in the Second Violins – an unmistakable thematic statement we will hear in several guises before the movement is finished. If we distill this music down a little further to its melodic “atom” (i.e. the smallest particle that retains the properties of an element), we discover an incredibly simple rhythmic piece of DNA – an opening pickup connected to a downbeat. Again, this is an ordinary musical ingredient, but Beethoven chops, shreds and dresses it in so many creative ways that one forgets how very basic and healthy this salad really is. 

For his third movement, Beethoven follows the time- honored recipe with a Minuet/Trio. But like any chef worth his salt, he makes a few substitutions. Famed music critic and historian George Grove writes, “Beethoven forsook the spirit of the minuet of his predecessors, increased its speed, broke through its formal and antiquated mould, and out of a mere dance- tune produced a Scherzo.” Is this some kind of joke? Hardly. What appears on the surface to be a trivial, lighthearted jig is actually crafted with astonishing insight and flair. 

As we have seen before, Beethoven has a taste for ingredients that are simple and organic, and he is not afraid to fashion something tasty from the cutting board scraps. The Minuet charges out of the gate with another two-note “pickup/downbeat” rhythmic motif, though this brisk tempo (Allegro molto e vivace) and crisp articulation give the flavor some serious “kick.” This morsel soon becomes a garnish, tossed gently between the strings and woodwinds, before the lower strings bring the broth to a boil. A charming Trio follows, as a chamber choir of winds engages the violins in some after-dinner conversation – Grove calls this a “delicious dialogue.” The tutti orchestra overhears and decides to join the party, and the whole gang heads back to the Minuet for “seconds.” 

Interestingly, the third movement begins with a rising scale, fragments of which will permeate the Minuet throughout. Is this entirely new? Not quite, as the rising scale idea was foreshadowed, briefly and subtly, right at the end of the Adagio molto. Sure enough, as you might now expect, the chef has not quite exhausted the ingredients’ full potential. 

That is where the fourth movement comes in. After a boldly flavored, multi-textured meal, it would almost be a disappointment to finish with some light, fluffy confection. Beethoven has never been one to disappoint. In fact, he prepares us for dessert with a grand, tutti announcement from the kitchen, a unison “G” to gather our attention. Suddenly, all is quiet, and the First Violins begin a slow, unsteady climb up a rising scale. The line keeps falling, dusting itself off and trying again, sweetening the proposition each time, and always gaining ground. This whole thing sounds improvised, with a rhythmical ambiguity and shyness that is disarming. Is Beethoven evoking a young child’s first attempt to play a scale, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the composer’s first attempt at a symphony? No matter how we interpret this brilliant preface, it is certainly an effective palette cleanser, preparing us for our final course -- a spirited Allegro molto e vivace. After several tries, the melody takes a deep breath, buckles down and completes the scale with startling energy, shepherding us into a spritely primary theme firmly planted in the home key of C major. A second theme built on a rising sequence engineers a sense of forward motion. Ultimately, we are served with a multi- layered thicket of those scales bouncing around the orchestra until the tutti orchestra brings this lovely, complex but highly cohesive multi-course meal to an exhilarating close. 

Now, time to digest. 

--Adam Glaser, December, 2013