Program Notes: Jennifer Koh

Tonight’s concert opens with music by Anna Clyne. At age 35, she already boasts an impressive résumé, one that includes composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Following Within Her Arms, we’ll hear Jennifer Koh play Bartók’s vibrant Violin Concerto No. 2. Ms. Koh premiered Clyne’s The Seamstress with the CSO last spring. Rachmaninoff’s much-loved Symphony No. 2 comprises the second half of the program.

Within Her Arms

Anna Clyne
(Born 9 March 1980 in London, England)

Composed: 2008-09

Premiere: April 7, 2009; Los Angeles

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: strings

Approximate Duration: 14 minutes

The young British composer Anna Clyne grew up in Abingdon, near Oxford, where her mother earned a living as a midwife. Though music was not a regular part of the family’s life, she took cello lessons and later studied music at the University of Edinburgh. Composition lessons commenced during a year abroad at Queen’s University in Ontario. “It was late to start,” she said in an interview last year, “but I already knew what I wanted to say.”

Ms. Clyne’s mother died in 2008. Shortly after the funeral, Ms. Clyne was in Oxford. There, she spotted a baroque-style violin in the window of a thrift shop. The instrument’s ornate scroll was carved in the shape of a gargoyle. She bought it for about nine dollars. That violin inspired several pieces for strings, works that express a profound sense of grief. Stylistically, they bring to mind several influences: the intertwining voices of consort music by English Renaissance composers like Byrd and Gibbons, folk traditions, and even Benjamin Britten.

Within Her Arms was commissioned by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009, as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series. This poignant lament for string orchestra has prompted music writers to draw comparisons to Barber’s elegiac Adagio. The composer has provided the following information:

Within Her Arms is music for my mother, with all my love.

Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one –
So that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers –
This flower smiling quietly in this morning field –

This morning you will weep no more dear one –
For we have gone through too deep a night.
This morning, yes, this morning, I kneel down on the green grass –
And I notice your presence.
Flowers, that speak to me in silence.

The message of love and understanding has indeed come.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Recommended Recording:


Violin Concerto No. 2

Béla Bartók
(Born 25 March 1881 in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania); Died 26 February 1945 in New York City, New York)

Composed: 1937-38

Premiere: March 23, 1939; Amsterdam

Last MSO Performance: June 2001; Andreas Delfs, conductor; Frank Almond, violin

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion ( bass drum, cymbals, gong, 2 snare drums, suspended cymbals, triangle), harp, celeste, strings

Approximate Duration: 36 minutes

Béla Bartók wrote his second violin concerto in 1937–38. A passionate anti-fascist, the composer was under attack from the Hungarian and Romanian newspapers at this time for his firm political stance. It wouldn’t be long before he left his native land, ultimately spending his last years in the United States.

The concerto was premiered by Zoltán Székely, who had requested the work from Bartók, in Amsterdam on 23 March 1939. Willem Mengelberg conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The master had wanted to write merely a set of variations, but Székely insisted on a three-movement work. Bartók figured out a way to please both himself and his friend: the slow movement is a formal set of variations.

The opening theme of the concerto conveys a distinctly Hungarian tone. In an early manuscript, Bartók headed it “tempo di verbunkos,” referring to an 18th-century Hungarian dance that derives its rhythmic vitality from the brilliant performing style of gypsy violinists. The second theme of this expansive movement is a 12-tone row, repeated in ever-changing permutations. “I wanted to show Schoenberg that one could use all 12 tones and still remain tonal,” Bartók reportedly told violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1943.

The Andante tranquillo is hauntingly atmospheric. After the statement of its serenely placid G major theme, there follow six variations, perhaps the most formal set of variations the composer ever set down. The movement abounds in orchestral colorings and shadings; its coda ends in quiet dissolution, only to be interrupted by the animated opening of the Finale. Though we might expect a closing rondo, the final Allegro molto is in sonata form. Its principal melody is a rhythmically remodeled version of the first movement’s main theme.

Recommended Recording: Gil Shaham; Pierre Boulez, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(Born 1 April 1873, in Semyonovo, Russia; Died 28 March 1943 in Beverly Hills, California)

Composed: 1906-07

Premiere: February 8, 1908; St. Petersburg

Last MSO Performance: October 2009; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum), strings

Approximate Duration: 60 minutes

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony dates from the years 1906–07, more than a decade after his D minor symphony of 1895. It was composed in Dresden, where he had moved with his wife and infant daughter to escape the celebrity of his native Russia. Of the three completed symphonies, No. 2 is by far the most familiar and the most loved. Its sumptuous romantic melodies have even been incorporated into popular music. Think, for instance, of Eric Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” (1976), which borrows from the symphony’s slow movement. In addition to his warm melodic style, the master’s multi-hued orchestral colors are on full display in this work. The instrumentation is opulent, but always varied and always discerning; nothing is overblown. Rachmaninoff handles the large-scale structures with confidence.

The long first movement opens with mysterious pianissimo low strings introducing a motto theme that will recur at various places in the symphony, at times more apparent than others, and serve as a unifying device. The second movement Scherzo brings Rachmaninoff’s genius for orchestral color into plain sight and also offers one of his broad, lush tunes. The second violins launch the trio with an imitative passage, and when the scherzo returns, we hear the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) chant the composer was fond of quoting. The A major Adagio begins with a beautifully sighing violin melody that soon gives way to a long-phrased clarinet solo; the violins continue this even further. The Finale, set in E major, rushes headlong into playful music and continues with a big lyric tune that will return at the work’s triumphant close. But before we get there, there’s much more to come, including a six-measure return of a melody from the Adagio. The development reaches its highpoint with a passage of descending scales that cascades from different heights at different speeds, creating a bell-like swirl of sound. And, as promised, the big lyric melody returns to bring the symphony to a heart-pounding conclusion.

Recommended Recording: Edo de Waart, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (Philips)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.