This weekend, we welcome back Maestro Delfs! Excerpts from Mendelssohn’s magical music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream open the concert, followed by Pierre Jalbert’s brand-new Violin Concerto. Vaughan Williams’s soaring A Sea Symphony concludes the program.
(Born 3 February 1809, Hamburg, Germany; Died 4 November 1847, Leipzig, German)
Composed: 1826 (Overture); 1843 (Nocturne, Scherzo)
First performance: First performance: 20 February 1827; Stettin (Szczecin), Poland (Overture)
14 October 1843 (Potsdam, Germany; private) 18 October 1843 (Berlin, Germany; public) (Incidental Music)
Last MSO performance: May 2016; Asher Fisch, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 23 minutes
Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is rightly held to be his most popular work. Born into an affluent German Jewish family, he grew up in a home saturated with music, art, and literature, one frequently visited by notable guests. In this setting, Shakespeare’s best-known plays were often read aloud in A.W. Schlegel’s new German translation; sometimes, they were even acted out.
In 1826, the Mendelssohns added A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the family library. For the at-home performance, 17-year-old Felix wrote the famed Overture—in a piano duet setting for himself and his older sister Fanny. (Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847) was, in her own right, a fine pianist and composer of songs and piano music.) Recognizing his outstanding achievement, he orchestrated it almost immediately. It was heard publicly in less than a year, on a concert that featured the now-18-year-old’s debut as a solo pianist.
In 1843, Fredrich Wilhelm IV, king of Prussia, commissioned Mendelssohn to write incidental music for a new production of the play. The composer left the Overture intact—it is, after all, one of his finest works—and interspersed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with songs, dances, and entr’actes, as well as music to occasionally underlay the spoken words. From these, we’ll hear the Nocturne and Scherzo.
The Overture is vintage Mendelssohn. The woodwinds intone four expectant chords, then the violins transport us on gossamer wings to Shakespeare’s fairyland. Various elements of the play are here represented, including the young lovers and the unmistakable braying of Bottom the Weaver—turned into an ass by Puck’s magic. The acadian Nocturne, which begins with a famous horn solo, depicts the two pairs of lovers—Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius—asleep in the woods. Mendelssohn’s ardent music suggests their tender dreams of love. The featherlight Scherzo opens Shakespeare’s second act. It is a paradigm of the effervescent, sylphlike style for which the composer is so well-known.
Recommended recording: Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics)
(Born 15 November 1967; Manchester, New Hampshire)
First performance: 9 June 2017; Saint Paul, Minnesota
Last MSO performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, xylophone, crotales, bass drum), piano, strings
Approximate duration: 26 minutes
The American composer Pierre Jalbert (pronounced “JAL-bert”) grew up in Vermont (his family was originally from Quebec), where he began piano lessons at age five. In addition to his intense classical training, he often heard English and French folksongs and Catholic liturgical music—in other words, the sort of music that speaks cogently to the listener with an economy of means. Jalbert writes in a tonal idiom that also utilizes modal, and sometimes quite dissonant, harmonies. His instrumental timbres are vivid yet refined, and driving rhythms are frequently juxtaposed with slow-moving, time-suspended sections. His impressive catalog includes orchestral works, chamber music, string quartets, solo piano music, and vocal music (most notably, a song cycle written for mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, From Dusk to Starry Night). Jalbert is professor of composition and theory at Rice University in Houston.
Jalbert’s Violin Concerto is a co-commission by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, intended for their respective concertmasters to play the solo part. Composed in late 2016, Steven Copes gave the world premiere with the SPCO last summer. Following Frank Almond’s MSO performances, the LACO’s Margaret Batjer will give the West Coast premiere on March 17. The composer has provided the following commentary:
My Violin Concerto is in two movements of contrasting character. The first movement begins with a slow introduction and eventually transitions into a scherzando section. The opening explores the violin’s lyrical and expressive qualities as it hovers above an ethereal string and percussion texture. The middle section of the movement is a dynamic scherzo of sorts, almost becoming a separate movement in itself before the opening finally returns to conclude the movement.
The second movement moves freely back and forth between frenetic, pulse-oriented music and freely slow, non-pulsed music. These slower sections contain lyrical quarter-tone pitch-bending in the violin, and this serves as the primary motive in this section. Eventually, the fast music takes over and leads to a fiery cadenza.
Recommended recording: Steven Copes; Thomas Zehetmair, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Online at content.thespco.org)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(Born 12 October 1872; Down Ampney, England; Died 26 August 1958; London, England)
First performance: 12 October 1910; Leeds, England
Last MSO performance: November 2010; Edo de Waart, conductor; Christine Goerke, soprano; Hugh Russell, baritone; Milwaukee Symphony Chorus
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones (3rd doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle), 2 harps, organ, strings
Approximate duration: 63 minutes
Ralph Vaughan Williams was the most important English composer of his generation—that between Elgar and Britten—and a key figure in the revival of English music. His voluminous compositional output includes nine symphonies and other orchestral pieces, operas, songs, choral music, film and theatre music, and chamber music, as well as Christmas carols and hymn tunes. Among his best-known works are The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” and the piece on this evening’s concert, A Sea Symphony.
As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Vaughan Williams was introduced to Walt Whitman’s poetry by his classmate Bertrand Russell. The American poet was to remain a lifelong source of inspiration to the English composer. As early as 1903, Vaughan Williams began sketching out his First Symphony—at that time tentative titled Songs of the Sea—taking passages from Leaves of Grass as his text, lines of poetry that likened an ocean cruise to the soul’s journey. The work underwent a long gestation period, one that included the composition of Toward the Unknown Region (using words from Whitman’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death”) and three months’ study in France with Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in early 1908.
The French composer’s influence on his older British colleague was of great benefit, bolstering Vaughan Williams’s self-assurance and giving him the compositional technique he needed to resume work on the languishing symphony. Its musical language is indebted to Edward Elgar, C.H.H. Parry, and Arthur Sullivan, as well as the English folksongs Vaughan Williams had begun to collect. Without doubt, A Sea Symphony contains some of the finest choral writing of its era.
The work commences with a fanfare, a harmonic progression (“Behold the sea”: B-flat minor to D major) that will recur as a unifying element in the symphony. (If this brilliant opening doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, check your pulse.) Vaughan Williams vividly evokes the sea’s immensity and primal force. Later in the movement, there’s an elegy for those who have lost their lives at sea. This leads to the final section (“Emblem of man elate above death”), then a powerful climax, after which calm is restored.
“On the Beach at Night Alone” is an affecting nocturne for the baritone soloist, who ponders humanity’s place in the cosmos. The altos sing a rocking song that recalls the earlier poetic image of the sea as “husky nurse.” Toward the movement’s end, a great choral outburst, referencing mankind’s existence, proclaims, “This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned. And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.” The orchestral postlude gives us leave to ponder these words.
The third movement scherzo, “The Waves,” is a tour-de-force for both chorus and orchestra. It begins with a nod toward the work’s opening fanfare. Vaughan Williams’s pictorial, virtuosic writing portrays the wind, the waves, and the great vessel furrowing its way through the ocean.
The expansive finale, “The Explorers,” boasts some of the composer’s noblest music. And here, Whitman’s metaphor of the soul as a ship moving through the sea of life is most plainly declaimed: “O my brave soul! O farther sail! O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?” The British writer and music critic Michael Kennedy, biographer of Vaughan Williams—and, as a young man, a close friend of the elderly composer—stated: “Vaughan Williams was to write greater choral works than the Sea Symphony, but none of them has become so popular with choral societies as this early work, written at the zenith of English choral singing... It passes the test of all great music—one finds more in it, not less, as the years go by... profuse in melodic invention, [it has] enough tunes to last some composers for three symphonies.”
Recommended recording: Shelia Armstrong, John Carol Case; Sir Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.