Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
"Absolutely phenomenal"... words used by the legendary Yehudi Menuhin to describe violinist Yi-Jia Hou. Performing Mendelssohn’s masterful and beloved Violin Concerto, Hou is sure to leave the audience in awe. In his Symphony, Korngold brings to the concert stage the same sweeping and reminiscent musical style for which he was recognized by the film industry as among the first Academy Award Winning composers.
Yi-Jia Susanne Hou
The Marriage of Figaro Overture
Pierre-August Caron de Beaumarchais wrote his comedy sequel to “The Barber of Seville,” entitled “The Marriage of Figaro: The Madcap Day,” in 1782. Louis XVI was shocked when he read it and banned it from the French Court. Then he had it performed privately, with his queen, Marie Antoinette, in the role of Susanna. It was translated into German and performed in Vienna, but was later again banned by the Emperor. When Mozart decided to fashion it into an opera, he approached the celebrated librettist—and official court poet—Lorenzo da Ponte. Lorenzo had to convince the Emperor of its worthiness. “But I have already forbidden the German company to give this play, Figaro,” his Highness replied. “I know it,” Lorenzo said, “but in turning it into an opera, I have cut out whole scenes, shortened others, and been careful everywhere to omit anything that might shock the conventionalities and good taste. As for the music, as far as I can judge, it seems to be a masterpiece.”
What were the Emperor and Louis XVI afraid of? Sex and violence on stage? Hardly. In pre-democratic Europe, the real danger was allowing the riff-raff to see plays where the commoners were smarter and more noble than the nobility. There is no doubt that, in spite of Lorenzo’s editing, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro shows the valet Figaro and the maid Susanna as more virtuous than their superiors. Incidentally, the women also come off much more levelheaded than their lovesick men.
Mozart was one of the great innovators of the opera, and the same can be said of his treatment of the opera overture. Less concerned with the compositional form than with the evocative power of the music, he was able to accomplish both. As with his later symphonies, his mature overtures can communicate emotion and meaning without sounding trite or contrived. Where drama and eloquence were required, the overture would set the stage. Where breathlessness, humor and surprise were the subject of the plot, as in The Marriage of Figaro, the overture would somehow transcend the mere musical, becoming more than a call to order.
The music for the overture begins with a whisper, like some dark deception or hidden lover peering around the next corner. Suddenly, the full orchestra hits, complete with trumpets and timpani. Is the secret exposed? A madcap section follows, alternating with gossiping violins and flutes and oboes flitting back and forth. There is a lyrical theme as well, but it never really develops fully. All the while, the chase continues, ends suddenly, and the curtain opens.
Banning of plays couldn’t stem the revolutionary tide. The French Revolution began just three years after Mozart completed this opera. Beaumarchais made a fortune selling arms to the American revolutionaries, and Lorenzo da Ponte moved toNew York where he taught Italian at Columbia College. As for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: It remains one of the great comic operas of all time and what Paul Robinson calls “the perfect symbol of an age that believed, with alarming lack of ambiguity, in the possibility of human virtue.”Program notes by John Varineau
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto ranks as one of the most-often performed pieces in any orchestra’s repertoire. It is easy to understand why. The concerto combines technical brilliance with romantic lyricism into a compact musical frame. There is virtually nothing in this work that a newcomer to classical music wouldn’t understand, even when it comes to knowing when to applaud!
Mendelssohn was one of those child prodigies, who Schumann called “the Mozart of the nineteenth century.” He composed at least twelve symphonies before the age of fifteen, the ebullient Octet for Strings when he was sixteen, and the justifiably famous Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was seventeen. In 1838, he announced to his friend, the virtuoso violinist Ferdinand David, that he was writing a concerto for him. When David asked him about it a year later, Mendelssohn replied, “If I have a few propitious days, I’ll bring you something. But the task is not an easy one. You ask that it should be brilliant, and how can anyone like me do this?” Five years later, he settled down and wrote it.
Mendelssohn’s concertos follow a plan that differs markedly from the template created by Mozart and Beethoven. He dispensed with the long orchestral introductions and interludes. There are no pauses in between the movements (and no guessing when to clap!). What results is 25 minutes of some of the most sparkling writing for the violin.
After just one short measure of orchestral introduction, the violin states the broad and singing first theme of the concerto. The second theme is quieter and more longing in mood. After working through both themes in a development section, the soloist plays a cadenza and then there is a restatement of both themes. The ending of the first movement is somewhat tempestuous in character and then a short orchestral section acts as a bridge to the slower second movement. Here the first theme is broad and simple, while the second theme is more heated and restless. Again, the orchestra provides a brief connection to the third movement. The orchestra will always have to hurry to keep up with the speed of the solo violin. In spite of the unrestrained tempo, the character of this last movement is light and airy, so typical of the elf-like Mendelssohn.Program notes by John Varineau
Symphony in F-sharp
We know of Erich Wolfgang Korngold today because of his brilliant Hollywood movie scores, but they are only half the story. Before emigrating from an unstable Europe in 1934, he was one of the most popular and successful composers in Europe.
There is no doubting that Korngold was a child prodigy. At the age of ten, he played his cantata Gold for Gustav Mahler, who declared him a genius. He premiered his ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman) when he was thirteen, and a year later Arthur Schnabel championed his Second Piano Sonata. By the time Korngold was fifteen, Richard Strauss had pronounced his orchestral music “amazing,” adding that “One’s first reactions . . . are awe and fear.” He was a respected opera composer by the time he was nineteen.
In 1934, Max Reinhardt brought Korngold to Hollywood—just for “six to eight weeks”—to arrange music of Felix Mendelssohn for Reinhardt’s film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold returned to Hollywood in 1935 to write the score for Captain Blood, the film that launched Errol Flynn’s career. A year later, Korngold won an Oscar for Anthony Adverse. He was working in two worlds, opera in Europe and film scoring in America, but was somewhat ashamed of his film work because it wasn’t “serious” music. The Nazi Anschluss ended this split reality.
Fleeing to America with his family, he vowed that he would not write any serious music until Hitler was removed from power. The Adventures of Robin Hood, the first film score that he wrote in exile, won him his second Oscar. At the end of the war he wrote, “I lookback over my life, and I see three phases: first, the child prodigy; second, the opera composer in Europe; and now third, composer of film music. I believe I must make a decision right now, if I do not want to remain a Hollywood musician for the rest of my life.” He said goodbye to film with his String Quartet No. 3, and then went on to write his Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz, his Cello Concerto, and then the Symphonic Serenade. When he finally returned to Europe in 1949, it was no longer interested in his music. The world he once knew was gone forever. He returned to America feeling like a “has-been.” While he was in Vienna, he started work on a symphony. In many ways it is his tribute to the two worlds he traversed. It is an “old-world” symphony, an extension of the “end-of-century” romanticism of Gustav Mahler. But it is also a “new-world” work because themes from his movie scores inhabit the symphony. (The second movement has motives from Juarez, the third uses themes from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Captain Blood and Anthony Adverse and the last movement uses Kings Row.)
The Symphony in F-sharp Major received a radio broadcast premiere in Vienna in 1954, but the reviews were not good. Korngold was accused of being “Mahlerian” and “atonal.” He returned to the U.S. in 1955, completely disillusioned and convinced that the world had forgotten him. On the other hand, the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos proclaimed, “During my whole long life, I have searched for the ideal modern work. I have found it in this symphony. I shall conduct it during the next season.” He died, however, before he could fulfill that pledge. The symphony finally received its concert hall debut in 1972. That, along with stand-alone recordings of his film scores, has brought Korngold the fame he deserves.Program notes by John Varineau