Saturday, October 14, 2017– 7:30 p.m.
Lancaster Middle School Theatre, Kilmarnock
The season kicks off this fall with Rossini’s rapid-fire Overture to The Barber of Seville, a performance of Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto and Beethoven’s endearing Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral.
Program Notes by Nancy Rowland (8/23/17)
Welcome to the opening concert of the Northern Neck Orchestra’s second season under the direction of Michael Repper. For tonight’s autumnal musical feast Maestro Repper has selected an energetic overture, a virtuosic concerto, and a beloved symphony.
Any overture by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) is a perfect warmup to an evening of symphonic music. Tonight we will hear the overture to the opera The Barber of Seville (1816). Rossini was a prolific composer, writing an average of two operas a year, until he retired in 1829 at the age of 37 while he was still at the top of his celebrity. He wrote at lightning speed, finishing Barber in less than three weeks. The Barber of Seville is the operatic adaptation of the first story of the Figaro Triology – three plays about the adventures of Figaro by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The second story is told in the opera The Marriage of Figaro, infamously set by Mozart.
Rossini loved theater and he loved writing overtures – his music draws you in so that you can just feel that the curtain is about to rise. He admired his own overtures so much that he recycled them. The one for Barber had been written three years earlier and used for two of his previous operas. After his retirement he was asked by a young composer for advice on the best way to write an overture. Rossini’s reply: “Wait till the evening of the day the opera is scheduled for performance. Nothing excites the imagination more than necessity, the presence of a copyist waiting for the music, and the pressing of an impresario in despair tearing out his hair.”
The music in tonight’s overture follows Rossini’s sure-fire formula. First, it begins with a moody, slow and majestic (andante maestoso) introduction that builds anticipation. Next is the fast (allegro) main section, with several melodies introduced. Lastly comes the famous “Rossini crescendo” in which the melodies are repeated with increasing tempo and volume until the music reaches a glorious climax.
Next we will hear Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1872) by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) with Sarah Tindall as soloist. This work is considered by some to be the greatest of all concertos for cello, and one of the most demanding for soloists.
Saint-Saens composed this work when he was at the peak of his fame at 37 years old (the same age at which Rossini retired). He had an enormous composing output, spanning many instruments and genres. He was also a concert pianist and church organist. He grew up a child prodigy, probably exceeding anything Mozart or Mendelssohn ever did. He memorized all 32 Beethoven sonatas, and for his first concert at age 10 he offered to play any of them at the audience’s request.
He had a clear idea of his musical style early in his career and did not change much as he grew older. His emphasis was on the form of music. He said, “An artist who does not feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction with elegant lines, harmonious colors or a perfect progression of chords has no comprehension of true art.” Because of this viewpoint, he was charged with being all technique with no ideas, elegant but superficial. Yet there is a vitality in his music, evidenced by the fact that it is still played.
Even though Saint-Saens was known in musical circles as a young radical, the cello concerto was well-received because it was seen as being free from his “modernist tendencies.” Ironically, late in his life in the first decades of the 20th century, he became known as a reactionary against new musicians (such as Stravinsky) and was looked at as a fading relic of romanticism.
The concerto is in one movement with three sections. The cello begins playing immediately, with only a single chord as the orchestra’s introduction. The soloist is always in the musical foreground, with the orchestra shimmering in the background.
During the development of the first section, the music slows and stops and then starts up again as a graceful and charming minuet which forms the second section. After a while, the turbulent music of the first section reappears as if nothing had happened in between. Thus the composer mimics a three-movement work. The fast coda has the soloist playing a lyrical and dramatic concluding flourish.
The second half of the program is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808). The title comes from Beethoven’s own notes about the symphony and its five movements (pieces, as he calls them):
Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting. 1st piece: pleasant feelings which awaken in men on arriving in the countryside. 2d piece: scene by the brook. 3d piece: merry gathering of country people, interrupted by 4th piece: thunder and storm, into which breaks 5th piece: salutary feelings combined with thanks to the Deity.
Beethoven (1770-1827) was writing both the sixth symphony and the fifth when he was 38 years old, nearly the same age at which Saint-Saens wrote his concerto. Both symphonies were first performed together, plus the fourth piano concerto, with a deaf Beethoven conducting a very long but not-very-glorious concert. He had by this time come to terms with his deafness, but was still a cranky personality, arguing with soloists, giving inadequate rehearsal time, and insisting on presenting such a marathon concert.
The shock value of the sixth symphony was that Beethoven chose to write “programmatic” music instead of “absolute” music which was considered more pure and valuable. He certainly was not the first to use descriptive music writing, since even in the Baroque era Vivaldi wrote Four Seasons and Handel had recently composed his oratorios Creation and The Seasons.
As usual Beethoven was innovative in this symphony, writing five movements instead of the usual three or four and splicing the last three movements together. His most inventive approach was to write music that combines explicit country sounds (such as bird calls and thunder) with music that evokes a pastoral feeling without the literal details.
The first movement, allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too much), expresses the spirit of nature, conveying the idea of a long, healthy, relaxed walk in the country such as Beethoven loved to take. The melodies are woven together in a complicated counterpoint which actually conveys simplicity.
The second movement, andante molto mosso (slow with much movement), features the constant undulating motive of a running brook. On top of this, the woodwinds bring in the first melody, the strings the second, each with occasional trills to indicate birds high in the trees. The brook then halts, and three explicit bird calls are heard in a sort of woodwind cadenza: the flute as nightingale, oboe as quail, and clarinet as cuckoo.
The third movement is fast (allegro) dance-like music, lively and appealing. The oboe adds a simple melody based on a German folk song. The rustic character of the music (the bassoon plays only two different tones!) suggests a small town band such as the one that played at Beethoven’s favorite country inn. Their dance music is suddenly interrupted by the fourth movement (also allegro) which conjures storm, wind, and rain. Trombones and piccolo are introduced here for the first time, and the timpani of course make thunder. As the storm dies away, the fifth movement (allegretto, moderately fast) has a broad, solemn feeling meant to convey awe and thanksgiving. The symphony closes in characteristic Beethoven fashion with a long coda. But then, unusual for Beethoven, it comes to a peaceful, serene ending.