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PROGRAM NOTES 2018-2019

Series 4: May 15 – May 19

Conductor:

Mélisse Brunet

Soloist:

Amit Peled, Cello

Program:

Hidden Gems
Mendelssohn Overture in C Major
Saint-Saëns Symphony in A Minor, Op.55
Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op.33
Kodály Dances of Galánta
Mélisse Brunet and Amit Peled, cellist will make their Cleveland debut with CityMusic Cleveland in a wonderful program called “Hidden Gems”

 

Notes on the Program by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

 

Overture in C major

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847)

Composed around 1830.

It would be difficult to find a more illustrative example of the genteel social engineering of the 19th century than Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, older sister of the renowned Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny was only six (Felix was one) when the family was forced by the Napoleonic juggernaut to abandon their native Hamburg for Berlin, but she had already been endowed with good genes and disciplined piano instruction by her talented mother, Lea, a student of the noted German theorist and pedagogue Johann Philipp Kirnberger, himself a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Lea’s sister, Sara Levy, was a gifted harpsichordist and a patron of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. It was through that association that a copy of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion descended to Felix, who revived the work in 1829.) Felix and Fanny were given equal privilege in the family’s cultured life — the best tutors, intensive musical study with outstanding teachers, travel, elaborate concerts for invited guests at which they displayed their talents as composers and performers, access to the finest strata of German artists and literati. Brother and sister blossomed — in an 1825 letter to Felix, Goethe asked his young friend to “give my regards to your equally talented sister.” That same year Felix went off to university while Fanny attended Humboldt’s lectures on physical geography and Holtei’s talks on experimental physics in Berlin, but thereafter their lives — but not their loving devotion to each other and their mutual respect — went different ways. Felix became one of the most highly regarded musical figures of his day, while Fanny stayed at home, taking part in the family’s Sunday musicales but otherwise discouraged by both her brother and father from pursuing the life of a professional musician. “You must prepare earnestly for your real calling, the only calling for a young woman — I mean the state of a housewife,” pronounced Papa Abraham. “Music should be an accomplishment, and never a career for women.” In 1829, Fanny married Wilhelm Hensel, a painter at the Prussian court, who urged her to continue composing, which she did, though with little public recognition. The Berlin publisher Schlesinger issued one of her songs in an album for voice and piano in 1837; one volume of Lieder and another of piano pieces were published in 1846. (Felix published two other of Fanny’s songs in a collection of his own works. When Queen Victoria expressed special pleasure at one of them, Felix quickly admitted that it was not his.) Fanny’s only formal concert appearance was as pianist in her brother’s G minor Concerto in 1838. While leading a rehearsal of Felix’s Die erste Walpurgisnacht on May 14, 1847, she suffered a massive stroke and died later that day; she was 42. Felix, already ill and exhausted from punishing overwork, was prostrated by her death; he died six months later. Fanny composed some 400 works in the conservative style that also informs much of her brother’s music, mostly songs and piano pieces, but also cantatas, a string quartet, a piano trio, a piano quartet, two organ preludes, and the Overture in C major for orchestra.

The Overture in C major, dating from around 1830 (when Fanny was 25), was intended for performance at the Mendelssohn Sunday concerts. A lovely slow theme serves as introduction. A sweeping violin passage leads to the Overture’s formal main theme, a galloping melody full of energy and joie de vivre. The woodwinds carry the music to its subsidiary subject, a succession of short string phrases that are nicely threaded into a handsome melody. The darkly colored development section rises to peaks of considerable expressive intensity before the Overture is rounded out by a full recapitulation of the earlier themes.

 

Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Composed in 1859.

Premiered on March 25, 1860 in Paris by the Société des Jeunes Artistes, conducted Jules Pasdeloup.

Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the most prodigiously gifted musicians France ever produced. Saint-Saëns’ father died just three months after the boy was born in Paris in 1835, and little Camille went with his mother to live with her aunt, a piano teacher who started the toddler on the instrument when he was three and taught him so effectively that he was composing little pieces by five and two years later was accepted by the noted pedagogue Camille-Marie Stamaty, a student of Kalkbrenner and Mendelssohn and the teacher of Gottschalk. Saint-Saëns made his formal debut in the Salle Pleyel at the age of ten playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Mozart’s Concerto in B-flat major, K. 450 (for which he wrote his own cadenza) and then offered as encores any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas; he played everything from memory. He soon thereafter gave a command performance for King Louis Philippe, demonstrated remarkable precocity in theory and composition, studied French classics, religion, Latin, Greek, mathematics, astronomy, archaeology and philosophy, and in 1848 was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he won the friendship of Bizet, Gottschalk and Guiraud and the admiration of Liszt, Rossini and Berlioz (who quipped that “he knows everything but lacks inexperience”). He wrote a Symphony in A major (not numbered) in 1850, even before he had started formal composition lessons with Fromental Halévy at the Conservatoire, and his First Symphony, Op. 2, three years later.

After completing his studies at the Conservatoire in 1853 (he was seventeen), Saint-Saëns was appointed organist at the Church of St. Merri, burial place of the 7th-century Saint Médéric, and there composed several pieces of service music, a piano quartet, songs, a concert overture and a symphony titled “Urbs Roma” (“City of Rome”), which won a competition and which he performed in his conducting debut but then withdrew and never published. (It became available only in 1974 and, like the A major Symphony of 1850, bears no number.) In 1857 he assumed the prestigious organist’s post at the Church of the Madeleine, where he became known during the two decades of his tenure as one of his generation’s foremost performers and improvisers on that instrument while also establishing himself among Europe’s leading composers and piano virtuosos.

In 1859, Saint-Saëns composed his Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55, the fourth of his five works in the form, a series capped by the justly celebrated Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” of 1886. The work was premiered on March 25, 1860 by the Société des Jeunes Artistes, an orchestra recently formed from young Conservatoire graduates by the influential conductor and faculty member Jules Pasdeloup. The A minor Symphony was published by Durand in 1878, and performed with great success during Saint-Saëns’ tour the following year to Leipzig, Milan, London and other European music capitals. The first movement is woven almost entirely from the chain-of-thirds motive that rises and falls through the halting gestures of the introduction before being forged into the strongly rhythmic and rather stormy main theme. The theme is given a precise fugal treatment (Saint-Saëns, only 24 and still a relatively new Conservatoire graduate, was not averse to showing off his excellent training in counterpoint) and becomes the subject of almost continuous development as the movement unfolds; the only additional thematic element is a smoother phrase in dotted rhythms first heard in the strings when the music’s mood temporarily brightens. The brief Adagio, an intermezzo rather than a full-scale movement, is in the nature of a quiet minuet, more memory than dance, with a complementary strain led by the English horn providing a wistful intervening moment. The Scherzo follows the expected progression through its energetic opening section and its contrasting trio, which features an infectiously syncopated melody in the woodwinds, but suddenly becomes curiously introverted and almost mysterious, with soft pizzicatos and thematic fragments suggesting a ghostly development of the trio rather than the usual reprise of the initial Scherzo. The finale, probably inspired by the last movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, is a propulsive tarantella, the traditional Italian dance whose exertions were said to rid the body of the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider. The movement is based, rondo-like, around the returns of its whirling theme, with an extended development section at the center and a slow passage inserted just before the end that echoes the Adagio’s minuet. The Symphony comes to a quick and fiery close.

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33

Camille Saint-Saëns

Composed in 1872.

Premiered on January 19, 1873 in Paris, with Auguste Tolbecque as soloist.

 Much of the history of 19th-century music could be written in the terms of Beethoven’s influence. Beside exploding the emotional and expressive boundaries of earlier music, he also bequeathed the composers who followed a whole arsenal of technical weapons with which to do battle against those devilishly recalcitrant musical notes: rich harmonies, complex textures, expanded instrumental resources, vibrant rhythmic constructions. Not the least of his compositional legacies was the process of total musical structure. His symphonies were created as great single spans of tightly integrated music rather than as four separate movements, as had been the models he inherited. He accomplished this structural unity in two ways. One was by connecting movements directly together, as in the closing two movements of the Fifth Symphony and the last three of the Sixth. The other was by recalling themes from earlier movements during the unfolding of the piece.

Most of the important Romantic composers followed the lead of Beethoven in finding such integrated structures for at least some of their large, symphonic works. Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, First Violin Concerto and this A minor Cello Concerto all exhibit carefully integrated formal structures. The Cello Concerto is in a single movement. It begins with an impetuous theme in rushing triplets for the soloist that recurs throughout the piece; the cello presents a contrasting, lyrical second subject. The vibrant motion of the opening theme soon returns and encourages the entire ensemble to join in a developmental discussion. The lyrical theme is heard again, this time as a transition to the Concerto’s central portion, a slow movement with the spirit of a delicate minuet. This mood is broken by a resumption of the rushing triplet theme acting as a link to the Concerto’s last large division. After a brief pause, the finale-like section begins with the cellist’s introduction of a gently syncopated theme. The music builds on this theme, and adds another in the cello’s sonorous, low register. One final time, the rushing triplet theme returns, to mark the beginning of the coda and launch the Concerto on its invigorating dash to the end.

Dances of Galánta

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)

Composed in 1933.

Premiered on October 10, 1933 in Budapest, conducted by Ernst von Dohnányi.

Kodály devoted his career to preserving and nurturing the musical culture of his native Hungary, collecting indigenous songs and dances and devising a system of music education based on Hungarian folksong and utilizing its stylistic components in his compositions. When the Budapest Philharmonic commissioned him to write a work for its 80th anniversary, Kodály dipped once again into his inexhaustible folk treasury for melodic material, turning to some books of Hungarian dances published in Vienna around 1800 that contained music “after several Gypsies of Galánta,” his childhood home. The Dances of Galánta follow a structure of alternating slow and fast sections. The introduction consists of a series of instrumental solos. The first dance, a slow one begun by the solo clarinet, displays a restrained Gypsy pathos. The quicker second dance, for solo flute, is based on a melody circling around a single pitch in halting rhythms. The first dance returns in the full orchestra as a bridge to a spirited tune first heard in the oboe. The finale is a brilliant whirlwind of music.

©2018 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

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