Program Notes: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op. 84

A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany (exact date unknown), and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827. He composed the incidental score for Goethe’s stage drama Egmont between October 1809 and June 1810. The work runs approximately 13 minutes in performance and is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and orchestral strings.

Beethoven received several commissions for music to accompany theatrical presentations. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the celebrated author of Faust, completed his play Egmont in 1778. He specified that it be accompanied by music, and even indicated precisely where he wished it to be heard. Several composers took up the challenge prior to Beethoven, but none succeeded.

In 1809, the directors of Vienna’s Burgtheater shrewdly approached Beethoven, whose catalogue of works by that time included six symphonies and the opera Fidelio, to provide music for a revival of Egmont. He accepted the offer eagerly, Goethe being one of his favourite writers.

His score included nine pieces: entr’actes, songs, melodramas (music heard under speech) and an overture. The introductory music was the last to be finished – too late, in fact, for the revival’s first performance. Uncharacteristically, he refused payment, presumably out of reverence for Goethe. The author experienced the play with Beethoven’s music for the first time in 1814. He expressed enthusiastic approval, especially for the final scene. “Beethoven has followed my intentions with admirable genius,” he said.

The play is set in Brussels during the sixteenth century, when the Netherlands lay under Spanish occupation. The local resistance leader, Count Egmont, is imprisoned and condemned to death. His grief-stricken wife takes her own life. The night before Egmont’s execution, she appears to him in a dream, transformed into the goddess of freedom. She foretells that his death will inspire his countrymen first to rebellion, then to the re-establishment of their liberty. Heartened by this vision, Egmont is able to face his execution with dignity. Beethoven’s Egmont Overture transcends its specific inspiration to make a stirring, uplifting statement on human affairs.

Program note by Don Anderson

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Richard Strauss: Serenade in E-flat Major

A photo of Richard Strauss

It is often forgotten, but Strauss was one of the greatest prodigies in music history—on the level of Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and, yes, even W. A. Mozart. He began composing at age six, and by the time he completed the Serenade in E-flat Major, Op. 7, in November 1881, at age seventeen, he had written over a hundred pieces in just about every contemporary genre. Unlike the mature Strauss, whose tone poems and operas reflected his absorption, in his twenties, of radical currents in late-nineteenth-century music and thought—Liszt, Wagner, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—the juvenile Strauss wrote well-behaved music in traditional genres: symphony, concerto, sonata, quartet, fugue. His education had been supervised by his father, an eminent orchestral horn player whose musical tastes were so conservative he considered even late Beethoven outré.

The Serenade was modeled on the wind-ensemble works of Mozart—in particular, the great, sprawling, seven-movement Serenade (“Gran Partita”) in B-flat Major, K. 361, from the early 1780s. It, too, is scored for thirteen instruments, though not the same thirteen: Mozart calls for paired oboes, clarinets, basset horns, and bassoons, four horns, and a double bass; Strauss calls for paired flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, and a contrabassoon. (He suggests a tuba on the bass line where a contrabassoon is not available, and, curiously, adds a fourteenth part, for double bass, in just the last two bars of the piece. He is usually, and sensibly, ignored.) Strauss’s Serenade is a single movement in sonata form. There is only a wisp of a development section in the middle, though it is striking: it opens with a sort of recitative for solo oboe before plunging into the remote key of B minor. Mostly, however, this is a melodious, affable piece, full of charm.

The Serenade was the first work by Strauss to be introduced outside his hometown, Munich; it remains the earliest of his pieces to maintain a place in the concert repertory. The première was given in Dresden, by the local Tonkünstlerverein [musician’s association], on November 27, 1882, a few months after Strauss graduated from high school; other performances soon followed. In 1883, the influential pianist, conductor, and composer Hans von Bülow, after seeing the score, declared Strauss to be “by far the most striking personality since Brahms,” and programmed the Serenade when his own Meiningen Orchestra toured in Berlin, in February 1884. Bülow was so impressed, in fact, that he commissioned Strauss to compose a second piece for the same instrumental forces: the Suite in B-flat Major, Op. 4.

The Serenade is technically polished and ingratiatingly scored, yet Strauss, in later life, dismissed it as “respectable work of a music student,” and thought he had miscalculated the balance of woodwinds and horns. Still, thoughts of his decades-old Serenade apparently at least partly inspired the two large Sonatinas for wind instruments that he composed during the Second World War, and as late as July 1947, two years before his death, he conducted the Serenade for a Swiss radio broadcast (of which a recording survives). Perhaps, after all, he had a soft spot for this relic from the dawn of his professional career.

Program note by Kevin Bazzana

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Florence Price: String Quartet No. 2 – Mvt. II

A photo of Florence Price

The A-minor string quartet is Florence Price's second contribution to the genre. It was preceded by her G-major quartet (1929) and followed by her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for string quartet (1951). Stylistically, the melodic and harmonic language of A-minor quartet more obviously invokes midtwentieth-century idioms than does either of the other quartets. The first movement begins with a quiet, brooding ostinato whose combination of a pedal point with a narrow, chromatically descending and ascending motive strongly contrasts with both the extensive chromaticism of the transition and the warm lyricism of the second subject—a theme whose evocative blue thirds directly bespeak Price's African American heritage. This movement seems to be driven by the tension between the narrow constraints of its opening ostinato and the melodic breadth of its main subjects—a tension that finally breaks free into a tempestuous coda that is a testament to Price's sure-fire dramatic pacing. That emotional drama gives way to a gentle, rocking lyricism of the second movement—likewise infused with melodic and harmonic turns that bring the melancholy beauty of Black idioms into the tradition-bound stylistic vocabulary of the midtwentieth-century string quartet. The second movement, too, employs extensive dissonances that are more a part of the modernist idioms of the early twentieth century than they are of traditional African American culture. The main theme of the third movement is in the style of a Juba dance or hambone, a patently African lively dance that involved body-slapping, foot-stomping, and hand-clapping; this section frames a more relaxed allegretto that is likewise based on African American dance idioms. The last movement puts Price's advanced harmonic technique on display in a rondo form of remarkable emotional breadth—a variety further emphasized by the searching, quasi-improvisatory Andantino featuring the solo viola, violin, and cello in mm. 120-35 and recast, abbreviated, as an interruption including the entire ensemble in mm. 187-92.

Note by John Michael Cooper from “Florence Price: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor” © 2019 G. Schirmer, Inc., reprinted with permission.

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

A photo of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Eighteen seventy-seven was a fateful year for Tchaikovsky. He began a long and fruitful (though purely epistolary) relationship with the wealthy arts patron Nadezhda von Meck, and in July entered into a disastrous marriage, the strain of which drove him to a nervous collapse and an attempt at suicide. To recover, he fled to Western Europe, and at Clarens, Switzerland in the spring of 1878 he was joined by a Russian friend, the violinist Joseph Kotek. The two began playing violin repertoire together, and Tchaikovsky, stimulated in particular by their rendition of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, was inspired to write a violin concerto. He composed it in just eleven days—the first movement “sprang suddenly into my head,” he recalled—and orchestrated it in two weeks. This was still enough time for him to write an entirely new replacement for his original slow movement, which became the separate Méditation for violin and piano, Op. 42, No. 1.

The intended dedicatee, violinist Leopold Auer, pronounced the solo part awkward to the point of being unplayable, and several years passed before the concerto was performed. It finally had its premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881, with a new soloist and dedicatee, Adolf Brodsky. It was not well received. Conservative critic and theorist Eduard Hanslick, an ardent partisan of Brahms, wrote a famously damning review. He called Brodsky a martyr, sneering: “the violin is no longer played, but rent asunder, beaten black and blue.” He dismissed the music itself as long, tasteless, undiscriminating, wretched, pretentious, crude, brutal, deplorable, coarse, and vulgar; at the end of the review, he actually used the word “stink.” Tchaikovsky was deeply hurt; apparently, he could recite this review by heart for the rest of his life.

It is difficult to fathom how this concerto, of all pieces, could invite such a torrent of invective, for it shows Tchaikovsky at the height of his inspiration and technique. It has become one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire, and yet still manages to sound fresh—a testimony to the strength and vitality of Tchaikovsky’s ideas. The concerto is most remarkable for its gentleness, charm, and melodic beauty. The virtuosity seems almost reluctant, as in the Clarinet Concerto by Mozart (a composer Tchaikovsky revered). In the first movement, every principal theme is of a lyrical and intimate nature; only in the process of extending and intensifying these themes does Tchaikovsky permit a more extroverted style.

The orchestra is small by late-nineteenth-century standards—a classical orchestra, larger by only two horns than that of Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, composed exactly a century before. But Tchaikovsky uses these modest forces with great discrimination. In the exposition of the first movement, the tutti is heard only a few times in passing. It is only after a hundred and ten bars, more than a third of the way in, that there is an extended statement from the full orchestra, and it does not last long. Much of the movement, indeed, sounds like chamber music.

There are two striking departures from an otherwise conventional classical sonata form. The first is the short orchestral introduction, which begins with an attractive eight-bar melody, mostly in the strings, which could have served perfectly well as one of the main themes. But it is never heard again, neither is it needed again-—its sole function is to set the lyrical, pastoral tone of the movement, while dramatically delaying the entrance of the soloist and the first main theme. The second departure is the placement of the solo cadenza just before, rather than after, the recapitulation, where it serves partly as development, partly to intensify the return to the main key and the first main theme.

The lyricism of the first movement is given a fuller voice in the second—the Canzonetta (“little song”). It opens with a chorale-like melody in the woodwinds that will return to herald the recapitulation (strings), to make a coda (woodwinds), and to effect a striking transition to the finale (strings and woodwinds in dialogue). The somber main theme, in G minor, introduced by the violin, has a folk-like character enhanced by repetition-—each four-bar phrase of the theme begins with the same two-bar motif. A new theme in E-flat major creates a brief, sweet diversion in the middle of the movement.

Even in the dazzling rondo finale, a lyrical element emerges prominently—the main theme is bustling and vivacious, subjected to imaginative and unpredictable development as the movement unfolds. However, its progress is twice interrupted at length by a slower, more soulful and brooding complex of related motifs. All of the melodic ideas in the finale, as the composer acknowledged, have a strong Russian flavour, sometimes emphasized by rustic effects in the scoring—drone basses in the cellos, for instance, and certain features of the solo-violin part (throaty melodies in the low register, portamento, high harmonics) conjuring the sounds of a peasant fiddle.

Program note by Kevin Bazzana

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Performers

Peter Oundjian, conductor

TSO Conductor Emeritus conducts the Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall

Recently named conductor emeritus of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian has been hailed as a masterful and dynamic presence in the conducting world. Oundjian has developed a multi-faceted portfolio as a conductor, violinist, professor, and artistic advisor. He has been celebrated for his musicality, an eye towards collaboration, innovative programming, and an engaging personality.

Oundjian’s 14-year tenure as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has been marked by a reimagining of the TSO’s programming, international stature, audience development, touring, and a number of outstanding recordings. Credited for his long association with the Orchestra, Oundjian helped establish the TSO as one of the world’s top ensembles and served as a major creative force for the city of Toronto. Oundjian led the orchestra on several international tours, including to Europe and the US, and he conducted the first performance by a North American orchestra at Reykjavik’s Harpa Hall in 2014. Oundjian and the TSO’s recording of Vaughan Williams’s Orchestral Works won a JUNO Award for Best Classical Album: Large Ensemble in 2019.

From 2012–2018, Oundjian served as Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, during which time he implemented the kind of collaborative programming that has become a staple of his directorship. Oundjian led the RSNO on several international tours, including North America, China, and a European festival tour with performances at the Bregenz Festival, the Dresden Festival, as well as in Innsbruck, Bergamo, Ljubljana, and others. His final appearance with the orchestra as their Music Director was at the 2018 BBC Proms where he conducted Britten’s epic War Requiem.

Highlights of past seasons include appearances with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Detroit, Atlanta, Saint Louis, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras, with visits to Cincinnati and Milwaukee planned for winter 2020. In January 2019 he transitioned from artistic advisor to music director for the Colorado Music Festival, commencing a five-year tenure.

Oundjian has been a visiting professor at Yale University’s School of Music since 1981, and in 2013 was awarded the school’s Sanford Medal for Distinguished Service to Music. A dedicated educator, Oundjian conducted the Yale and Juilliard Symphony Orchestras and the New World Symphony during the 2018/19 season.

An outstanding violinist, Oundjian spent 14 years as the first violinist for the renowned Tokyo String Quartet before he turned his energy towards conducting.

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Timothy Chooi, violin

A photo of violinist Timothy Chooi

Powerful and finely nuanced interpretations, sumptuous sonorities, and a compelling stage presence are just a few of the hallmarks of internationally acclaimed violinist Timothy Chooi. A popular soloist and recitalist, he is sought after as much for his passionate performances as for his wide-ranging repertoire. Recent honors include Second Prize, Belgium’s world-renowned 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition, First Prize, the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition in Germany, and the First Prize, the 2018 Schadt Violin Competition in the USA, In 2018 Chooi also won the ‘Prix Yves Paternot’ of Switzerland's Verbier Festival, a prize which recognizes the most promising and accomplished musician of the annual Academy for young professional musicians, earning Chooi his future debut as a solo artist in the 2022 Verbier Festival.

Future engagements include returns to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra Ottawa, and the Belgian National Orchestra, as well as debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra and Mikhail Pletnev, DSO Berlin, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Saarländisches Staatsorchester, and the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra. Upcoming recitals see Chooi performing in cities worldwide, including a European tour with Anne-Sophie Mutter.

In addition to having already performed with every major orchestra in his home country of Canada, Chooi has also played with the Brussels Philharmonic under Stéphane Denève, with Santa Barbara Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonique de Liége, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also made an extensive recital tour with Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, appeared at the Ravinia Festival, and made his Carnegie Hall debut.

Chooi studied at the Juilliard School under the tutelage of Catherine Cho. His mentors include Ida Kavafian, Pamela Frank, Pinchas Zukerman, and Patinka Kopec. He is currently enrolled in Juilliard’s prestigious Artist Diploma program studying with Catherine Cho and a Professional Studies candidate at the Kronberg Academy with Christian Tetzlaff and lives in Philadelphia, USA. Chooi is a Professor of Violin at the University of Ottawa. He performs on the 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius on a generous loan from the Canada Council for the Arts and is a recipient of the Nippon Music Foundation Rare Instrument Project from the Government of Japan.

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