Lucia Micarelli Plays Sibelius
The violin takes mainstage as Lansing Symphony Orchestra features style-bending, virtuoso soloist Lucia Micarelli performing Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Rounding out this thrilling concert are modern composer Jessie Montgomery’s nostalgic and celebratory Strum for string orchestra and romantic master Robert Schumann’s tuneful Symphony No. 4.
Jessie Montgomery (1981–)
Written: 2006, revised 2008, 2012
Style: Contemporary American
Duration: Seven minutes
Montgomery was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s during a time when the neighborhood was at a major turning point in its history. Artists gravitated to the hotbed of artistic experimentation and community development. Her parents—her father a musician, her mother a theater artist and storyteller—were engaged in the activities of the neighborhood and regularly brought Montgomery to rallies, performances, and parties where neighbors, activists, and artists gathered to celebrate and support the movements of the time. It is from this unique experience that Montgomery has created a life that merges composing, performance, education, and advocacy.
Since 1999, Montgomery has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latinx string players. She currently serves as composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the Organization’s flagship professional touring ensemble. She was a two-time laureate of the annual Sphinx Competition and was awarded a generous MPower grant to assist in the development of her debut album, Strum: Music for Strings (Azica Records). She has received additional grants and awards from the ASCAP Foundation, Chamber Music America, American Composers Orchestra, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization.
Montgomery began her violin studies at the Third Street Music School Settlement, one of the oldest community organizations in the country. A founding member of PUBLIQuartet and currently a member of the Catalyst Quartet, she continues to maintain an active performance career as a violinist appearing regularly with her own ensembles, as well as with the Silkroad Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi.
Montgomery's teachers and mentors include Sally Thomas, Ann Setzer, Alice Kanack, Joan Tower, Derek Bermel, Mark Suozzo, Ira Newborn, and Laura Kaminsky. She holds degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University and is currently a Graduate Fellow in Music Composition at Princeton University. Here are some of her remarks about Strum:
Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.
Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.
©2021 Jessie Montgomery and compiled by John P. Varineau
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Duration: 31 minutes
“I wanted to be a celebrated violinist,” Jean Sibelius told a friend. “From the age of fifteen, I played my violin for ten years practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink and, unfortunately, preferred an elegant violin bow. My preference for the violin lasted quite long, and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of an eminent performer too late.” Instead, Sibelius became the most celebrated composer from Finland. He wrote seven symphonies and many other orchestral works, a host of songs and choral works, lots of incidental music for the theater, a fair number chamber and piano pieces, and only one concerto—for the violin.
He began work on his Violin Concerto in 1902 at the pleading of the violinist Willy Burmester, the concertmaster in Helsingfors. Sibelius’ life was in turmoil. He was heavily in debt, his marriage was in trouble and, as his friends put it, he preferred partying and drinking to composing. When he finally finished the concerto, he sent it off to Burmester. “Wonderful! Masterful!” was his reply. “Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.” But, for some strange reason, Sibelius intentionally scheduled the premiere on a date when Burmester couldn’t appear. Instead, Victor Novàček, a violin teacher of little repute, gave the premiere and the results were disastrous. Sibelius revised the concerto. Again Burmester offered to play it and again Sibelius passed him over, this time in favor of Karl Halir, the concertmaster in Berlin. Offended, Burmester never touched the work for the rest of his life.
In spite of Bermester’s initial appreciation of the concerto, others were not quite so positive. The great Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote his violin concerto, called it “abominable and boring.” One critic wrote:
Even in its revised form the concerto will not, I think, win wide appreciation. With the exception of the Adagio, the concerto is far too complex, far too busy, dark and dingy, rhapsodic in spite of its tauter form, and above all it is laden with technical and rhythmic difficulties of such a kind that even the greatest master of the instrument will be hard put to make a successful repertoire work of it that will really catch the public ear.
The critic was right about the technical demands. It is one of the most challenging in the repertoire. He was wrong about its fate. It stands as the greatest violin concerto of the 20th century.
The entire first movement is in minor. It has a haunting and somber quality. The low instruments—the clarinets and bassoons and the low brass—seem to predominate. Even the violins play in their low register. The solo violin spins out its rhapsodic statements over this somber accompaniment. There are two solo cadenzas: one near the beginning of the movement and the other right in the middle where a development section would normally occur. Olin Downes, one of this work’s early champions, described this first movement as, “Bardic songs heard against a background of torches or pagan fires in some wild Northern night.” The second movement is broad, and deeply expressive. While still dark in quality, it’s at least in a major key! Finally, the last movement lets loose with a relentless driving rhythm in what Sibelius himself described as a “Danse macabre.”
©2021 John P. Varineau
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Written: 1841; revised in 1851
Movements: Four, played without pause.
Duration: 29 minutes
Robert Schumann had an almost manic way of working on music. In the same year that he married Clara Wieck—after a prolonged and bitter battle with her father—he wrote his first symphony (in four days), started his piano concerto, wrote the Overture, Scherzo and Finale for orchestra, finished his second symphony and started a third. Then he started working on an opera. Incidentally, his “real” job was as editor and chief writer of the New Journal for Music.
In her diary entry for May 1841, Clara wrote, “Robert began yesterday another symphony, which will be in one movement, and yet contain an adagio and a finale. I have heard nothing about it, yet I see Robert’s activity and I hear the D minor sounding wildly from a distance, so that I know in advance that another work will be fashioned in the depths of his soul.” Robert presented the symphony “which I have quietly finished” to his wife on September 13, 1841—her birthday. The premiere took place three months later. Ferdinand David—a prominent violinist, a teacher of Joachim, and the dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto—conducted it. Apparently, things did not go well. On the same concert, Robert and Clara performed a now forgotten work by Liszt for two pianos. Audiences love husband and wife teams, so they had to repeat the performance without delay, upstaging the new symphony. The Schumann’s complained about each other’s playing and about David’s conducting. The orchestra did not perform the symphony well. Schumann put the symphony—which he called his Second Symphony— away without publishing it.
Over the next ten years, Schumann wrote two other symphonies and had them published. Then, in 1851, Schumann began work on revising his second symphony, principally by re-orchestrating it. It was later performed, well received, and finally published. Schumann felt that his musical style had changed over the past ten years so he was uncomfortable calling it a new symphony. However, his publishers insisted that he rename it as his fourth.
Romantic composers such as Schumann experimented with symphonic form. They were concerned with connecting the “movements” of a symphony so that an audience could experience the work as a whole. By carrying themes and motives over from one movement to the next and by insisting that the movements be played without pause, a symphony can be less disjointed. Schumann did just that. There are four movements to this symphony, but there aren’t the normal opportunities for audiences to change positions, cough, etc. (At least there will be no doubt when to applaud!)
The symphony begins with a somber introduction played by the strings. It leads to a lively faster section where the violins play a flashy theme made up of short, fast notes—the basis of the first movement. The second movement is a melancholy romance with a plaintive melody played by the oboe and cello. The theme from the introduction returns here, then there is a gorgeous violin solo. The third movement is a standard scherzo and trio. The scherzo is robust, featuring the strings. The woodwinds get the tune in the trio. A solemn and mysterious transition leads to the fourth movement. The theme from the first movement returns, but this time in a smoother rendition. The brass proclaim in strong chords an important motive of the upcoming finale. It is a fantasia alternating between a march-like tune and a more playful melody. The symphony ends with a final outburst of flamboyant scales played by the strings and woodwinds.
©2021 John P. Varineau