TACO Classical Series concert is on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m.
Open Rehearsal is on Friday, Jan. 25, at 5:30 p.m.
Pianist Sara Davis Buechner performs R. Strauss Burleske
and Mozart Rondo for Piano and Orchestra
SARA DAVIS BUECHNER
***At a Glance***
TACO Classical Series concert
Viennese Favorites & Beethoven 4
Saturday, Jan. 26, 8 p.m.
The VETS, One Avenue of the Arts, Providence
Tania Miller, conductor
Sara Davis Buechner, piano
MENDELSSOHN: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture
R. STRAUSS: Burleske
MOZART: Rondo for Piano and Orchestra
BEETHOVEN: Fourth Symphony
J. STRAUSS: On the Beautiful Blue Danube
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
It was a dreamy 17-year-old Felix Mendelssohn who wrote to his sister, Fanny, “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden. . . . Today or tomorrow I am going to dream there A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, however, an enormous audacity.” That audacious dream took shape in the following weeks as the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn knew the works of Shakespeare, as had Schubert, through the definitive German translations published in 1801 by Ludwig Tieck and others. Tieck viewed this Shakespearian play as a romantic masterpiece. With its magical elfin qualities, it was the vehicle most perfectly matched to Mendelssohn’s personality, so his attraction was natural.
The overture, Mendelssohn asserted, follows the main points of the story, but it does so in a very general way. The four magical woodwind chords heard at the opening (and twice later) forecast Titania awakening to fall in love with her monster. Immediately then, the strings give us fairy music, interrupted occasionally by a mysterious chord. Suddenly, dawn breaks, and we hear the festive hunting party of Duke Theseus. This music becomes a transition to the lovely and graceful second theme, which typifies Hermia and Helena. As a fourth theme, Mendelssohn anticipates Act V’s lively “Dance of Clowns,” including the braying of donkey-headed Bottom. A wonderful musical development reflects the story development among these elements, and a reprise of the themes solidifies them, using new orchestral treatments. Then, in Mendelssohn’s words, “At the end, after everything has been satisfactorily settled and the principal players have joyfully left the stage, the elves follow them, bless the house, and disappear with the dawn. So, the play ends, and my overture too.”
Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra
RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Romantic Period, it became common for instrumental virtuosos to compose or commission very showy single-movement concertos for their instrument plus orchestra. The range of style for these was broad but the soloist always reigned supreme and the orchestra was used mainly for support. One of the earliest of these was the Konzertstück (Concert Piece or Concertino). In fact, Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra (1821) was among the earliest of such works. Notably, Franz Liszt followed with Malédiction (Curse, 1833) and Totentanz (Dance of Death, ca. 1860).
The tradition of single-movement virtuosic mini-concertos continued throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries—a late example being Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1929). Thus, it was not unusual for Richard Strauss to compose such a piece in 1885-86, originally giving it the title, Scherzo. At the time, Strauss was conductor of the famous Meiningen Orchestra, and he composed this Konzertstück for Hans von Bülow, his predecessor there and closest mentor. Bülow rejected the piece’s virtuosic piano part as Lisztian and unplayable. The disappointed young Strauss himself called the first draft “pure nonsense.”
The composer put the piece aside for four years but resurrected it with the encouragement of composer-pianist Eugen d’Albert. He renamed it Burleske and dedicated it to d’Albert. With Strauss conducting, d’Albert played the Burleske’s premiere in 1890, and the music was an instant success, drawing the attention of a publisher.
What to listen for: Burleske has an unusual opening. We hear its brief main theme, but it is performed unaccompanied on four timpani (kettle drums). We’ll call this the “motto,” and a great many of the musical ideas that follow derive from it. Listen especially for all the things the piano does with snippets of the motto. The second theme, a Rosenkavalier-style waltz, is even derived from part of the motto. Yet, the piano’s pyrotechnics draw most of our attention, even with the timpani’s recurrent prominent appearances. The piano’s many moods throughout the Burleske should be our main focus. Orchestral brilliance must not be overlooked, however. Piano, orchestra and timpani are musical partners—and, at the same time, competitors. As one writer puts it, “At no single moment is the Burleske anything but sparkling and brilliantly ingenious.” Finally, listen very closely to the piece’s ending—quiet, yet wonderfully witty.
Rondo in A Major, K386a
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
After Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart settled in Vienna in the early 1780s, the first compositions he focused on were three piano concertos. With himself as soloist, these were a welcome source of income for his little family. In a letter to his father, the composer described the concertos as:
. . . a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.
Mozart rarely agonized over his compositions, but for some reason the first of these concertos (in A major, K. 414) troubled him. Getting the rondo finale to be distinct enough from the first movement seems to have been the issue. Thus, we now have one complete A Major Concerto plus a Rondo in A, which he had discarded despite its distinction and attractiveness.
Courtliness rather than Mozartian playfulness informs the main theme. Restraint also shows in distinctly pastoral passages. In the orchestra, strings dominate but for good reason. Mozart had told publishers that his A Major Concerto could be performed either with or without wind instruments. In the Rondo, we might wait in vain for humor or playfulness, but aristocratic graciousness abounds instead.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
It has been said that Ludwig van Beethoven stood, figuratively, with one foot in the eighteenth century and the other in the nineteenth. Translated, that comment merely means that some of his music is strongly influenced by the more balanced sound of the Classic Period (i.e., tinged with shades of Haydn and Mozart), while other Beethoven works look forward to the more emotionally based Romantic Age, which was just then dawning in music—and which Beethoven helped to define. Very generally, Beethoven’s symphonies no.1, 2, 4,7 and 8 are more Classic, while those numbered 3,5,6 and 9 have stronger Romantic tendencies. The Fourth Symphony, composed mostly during 1806, could be called a textbook example of the Classic side.
The symphony opens with a slow introduction (a throwback to Haydn). However, Beethoven infuses it with dark mystery and what analyst Donald Tovey calls a “sky-dome vastness.” In the main Allegro vivace, Beethoven forms some themes simply on chord outlines, the notable exception being the second theme, a folk-like conversation among the woodwinds. About half the development section hovers in the remote key of B major, a particularly wonderful effect when the music lands back in B-flat major at the recapitulation.
The rhythmic opening of the Adagio movement moves to the background for the aria-like principal theme. This melody returns after digressing to alternate material. Yet, the alternates are every bit as lovely as the main theme, which the composer varies in melody or instrumentation with each recurrence.
Beethoven’s boisterous sense of humor comes to the fore in the Scherzo (third movement). Though its quickness and near-constant rhythmic shifts lift it from the strictly Classical minuet tradition, the woodwind-centered Trio section harks back to the older type. Beethoven then repeats the Trio and main Scherzo sections, concluding with a short passage in the horns that “blow the whole movement away,” stated Donald Tovey.
As in Haydn’s finales, Beethoven’s concluding movement is effervescent and fun. Its main theme is closer to a scurrying idea than a clear-cut theme, the effect bordering on perpetual motion. Other themes are more lyrical, but Beethoven keeps returning to the first one, allowing it to submerge and reappear like a comedian’s “running gag.” Composer Hector Berlioz commented that this movement is “one animated swarm of sparkling notes, presenting a continual babble.”
JOHANN STRAUSS (1825-1899)
On the Beautiful Blue Danube
Johann Strauss, the younger, inherited his father’s mantle as the “Waltz King.” Between the mid-1840s and early 1870s, Strauss became not only Vienna’s most popular composer but also the most universally popular composer of light music ever. He reached his peak as a waltz composer during the 1860s with a string of “hits” such as Morning Papers, Wine, Women, and Song, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Vienna Blood (Wiener Blut), Roses from the South and, of course, On the Beautiful Blue Danube.
Strauss composed On the Beautiful Blue Danube, his most famous waltz, in 1867 at the request of a choral conductor who wanted something cheerful to brighten the spirits of the Viennese, who had recently been defeated in battle against Prussia. Strauss wrote the waltz and then searched his mind for a title that would give his compatriots some pride in their homeland. He recalled the ending of a poem by Karl Isidor Beck dedicated to Vienna, which read, “On the Danube, the beautiful blue Danube.” Since the piece was originally intended for a men’s chorus, the conductor commissioned someone to write words (not considering the original poem at all). The text turned out to be rather ridiculous, contributing to The Blue Danube’s lukewarm initial reception. Once the publisher released the music in instrumental form, however, it became an instant hit throughout Europe, selling more than one million copies.
In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the buoyancy and transparency of Strauss’s famous waltz are used to illustrate a spaceport located near the Moon. The almost imperceptibly rotating satellite, seen from some distance, slowly accepts and later emits a rocket ship from Earth.
Source: J. Weyl, 1867; F. von Gernerth, 1890. Language: German
PROGRAM NOTES BY DR. MICHAEL FINK © 2018. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Tickets are $15-$100, and can be purchased online at tickets.riphil.org or from the RI Philharmonic Orchestra Box Office in East Providence–in person or by phone 401.248.7000 (Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. -4:30 p.m.). On concert day, tickets are available at The VETS Box Office, Friday, 3:30 p.m.–showtime; Saturday, 4 p.m.-showtime. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. Questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.