Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic – Program Notes, By Peter Wynne

NOVEMBER 14, 2015 | 8pm
Theater at Lackawanna College 

We continue our 2015-16 season with music director Lawrence Loh leading the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic in music firmly rooted in three different centuries. We open the program with Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks,” a 20th-century orchestral piece that looks back to the music of J.S. Bach. Then we jump back nearly 165 years to an 18th-century gem by W.A. Mozart, his Bassoon Concerto in B-flat. And after intermission, we leap forward some nine decades to wrap up the evening with an early orchestral masterpiece of Johannes Brahms, his Serenade in D.

Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks”

Igor Stravinsky (born Oranienbaum [now called Lomonosov], Russia, 1882; died New York City, 1971) was the son of a leading bass with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Although he began studying piano as a child, the composer-to-be showed no great musical talent early on, and his parents expected him to study law, which he did.

Feodor Stravinsky had created major roles in operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, notably the Frost King in Rimsky’s The Snow Maiden and, thanks to that connection, Igor was able to pursue private studies in composition with the composer of the Capriccio Espagnol and Scheherezade. Indeed, Rimsky became a second father to Stravinsky after Feodor died in 1902.

Within three or four years of Feodor’s death, Stravinsky had turned his back on law and now concentrated on music. He had composed a handful of pieces for voice and piano and, in 1907, produced what he designated his Opus 1, a symphony in E-flat. But it was a work he completed the following year that marked the beginning of his rise to eminence: his Feu d’artifice or Fireworks (Opus 4).

The piece was performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg in February 1909 and, in the audience was a distant cousin, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was planning to present a season of Russian opera and ballet in Paris. Diaghilev was sufficiently impressed by Fireworks to ask Stravinsky to do some orchestrations for him and then to compose a full-length ballet score.

The Firebird was a huge success when the Ballets Russes premiered it in Paris in June 1910, and it led to several more notable collaborations with Diaghilev, including the 1911 Petrushka; The Rite of Spring, which caused a near-riot at its 1913 premiere, and seven years later, Pulcinella, a work of particular interest to us because it presages the work we’ll hear tonight.

Basically, Stravinsky’s works can be grouped into three different periods or styles. The first is often called his Russian phase, epitomized by the scores for the ballets Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. These were works reflecting Stravinsky’s interest in Russian folk music and the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov. The scores demanded big orchestras and were marked by the use of constantly changing and unusual rhythms.

Pulcinella, however, was something different. Diaghilev had asked Stravinsky to prepare a ballet that would be based on the Italian commedia dell’ arte and, for the music, to arrange and orchestrate about a dozen and half works that the impresario believed had been written by the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736). As it has since been determined, the pieces were actually composers by Pergolesi and half a dozen other 18th-century composers, but all were working in the so-called Baroque style.

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past,” Stravinsky says in Expositions and Developments, a book he wrote in 1962 with conductor and writer Robert Craft, “the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course — the first of many love affairs in that direction — but it was a look in the mirror, too.”

Stravinsky used the melodies those composers provided, but he rewrote the music, taking his cue from Classical composition, emphasizing symmetry, balance and a certain coolness. At the same time, he used some of the rhythms he had devised in his earlier ballets and also the harmonies he had learned from Rimsky. It was a new kind of music that came to be known as “Neo-Classical.” This approach to composition would dominate Stravinsky’s output until the 1950s, when he took an abrupt turn and began using the serial or 12-tone procedures pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg three decades earlier.

The years surrounding the composition of the concerto we’ll hear — 1937-38 — were fraught with emotional pain for Stravinsky. His wife, Katya, had been diagnosed with tuberculosis more than two decades earlier, and now he and their eldest daughter, Ludmila, had caught the disease from her. Ludmila was mortally ill and wouldn’t survive; he ended up in a hospital for nearly half a year.

The composer had been in the United States in early 1937, to conduct the premiere of his ballet Jeu de cartes (Card Game), which had been commissioned by the recently founded American Ballet (later American Ballet Theater). While in this country, he visited Robert Woods Bliss, a diplomat, and his wife, Mildred, at their estate, Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown section of Washington. The Blisses were generous patrons of the arts and had commissioned Stravinsky to compose a celebratory piece for performance the following year in the music room of their grand, early 19th-century mansion to mark their 30th wedding anniversary.

Back in Europe, surrounded by disease and death during the months he worked on the commission, Stravinsky found comfort in the music of J.S. Bach. “I played Bach regularly during the composition of the concerto,” he later recalled, “and was greatly attracted to the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos.” Indeed, echoes of the Brandenburgs can be heard throughout Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, which can be seen as a reinvention of the Baroque concerto grosso.

Following Bach’s example, Stravinsky’s concerto has three movements, in the typical fast-slow-fast pattern, but with the movements flowing one into the next without pause, linked by only a few quiet chords. In all three movements, short motifs are developed contrapuntally, thrown back and forth from one group of musicians to another in concerto grosso fashion, and each of the fast movements includes a fugue-like section near its conclusion. The music is spare and bustling in the Baroque manner, but the repeating bass rhythms, the shifting meters and the syncopation are pure Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was too ill to conduct the premiere performance at Dumbarton Oaks on May 8, 1938. French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger deputized for her friend and colleague, who recovered sufficiently to conduct the public premiere of the work, in Paris, a month later. His daughter and wife did not fare as well: Ludmila died in November 1938 and Katya the following March.

Mozart: Bassoon Concerto No. 1 in B-flat, K. 191

From an historical point of view, little can be said about this charming concerto by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (born Salzburg, 1756; died Vienna, 1791). For whom it was written is a mystery, and when it was first performed is equally unknown. We do know it was composed in 1774 and that Mozart was all of 18 that year, but this, the earliest woodwind concerto we have by him, is anything but the work of a composer just learning his craft.

Mozart’s original manuscript score was lost, but the concerto’s initial publisher, J. A. André, had acquired more than 300 manuscripts from the composer’s widow, Constanze, and apparently was able to reconstruct the full score from a set of performance parts. As for whom the work may have been composed, scholars have offered three names as possibilities: Thaddeus von Durnitz, a wealthy aristocrat and fine amateur bassoonist who commissioned works from a number of composers, including Mozart, and Heinrich Schultz and Melchior Sandmayr, the bassoonists in the court orchestra in Salzburg, where Mozart served as first violinist. Both were regarded as first-class musicians, and Mozart may have been delighted with the thought of one of them playing the piece.

I. The opening movement (Allegro) shows off the bassoon’s agility, its ability to trill, repeat notes rapidly and leap octaves. Also on display are the instrument’s lyrical middle voice and its hearty, full-throated low notes. Throughout, Mozart has the bassoon behaving like a gracious host or hostess, able to lead the musical conversation most of the time, but also willing to let instruments with more assertive voices have their say.

II. The aria-like slow movement (Andante ma adagio) is built around a gentle melody floated above muted strings. More than a few commentators have noticed — as you may, too — that the music can call to mind the Countess’s aria “Porgi amor” in The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart had actually used the same theme, slightly elaborated, in the slow movement of his first violin concerto, which he composed the preceding year, and scholars say the theme appears first in a sketchbook Mozart kept while on a visit to London in 1764, where Leopold took his 8-year-old son to show off his prodigious skills as a performer.

III. The final movement (Tempo di menuetto) is based on the lilting court dance and in rondo form, with the orchestra playing the recurring theme and the solo bassoon providing the more elaborated, contrasting melodies.

In tonight’s performance, our soloist will be Maureen Strenge, the Philharmonic’s principal bassoonist and a member of our orchestra since 1983.

Brahms: Serenade No. 1 in D, Opus 11

Between 1856 and 1859, Johannes Brahms (born Hamburg, 1833; died Vienna, 1897) spent several months each autumn in the town of Detmold in west-central Germany. There he conducted the court orchestra of Leopold III, Prince of Lippe, a free principality within the Kingdom of Prussia. The prince maintained an excellent 45-member ensemble and had hired Brahms at the urging of the young man’s friend Clara Schumann, widow of composer Robert Schumann and a fine composer in her own right.

Brahms had begun his musical career as a pianist, and his time in Detmold gave him the chance to gain experience as a conductor and to enlarge the scope of his efforts as a composer. The piece we’ll hear tonight, his Opus 11, is one of the first he composed for an instrument other than his own. Brahms wrote the Serenade in D in Detmold in 1857 and ’58 and orchestrated it for an ensemble of eight or nine players, a version that Brahms and several colleagues played in a private performance in Gottingen soon after its completion.

But then in September of 1858, Brahms showed the score to his friend Joseph Joachim, the celebrated violinist whom he had met in Hanover some five years earlier. Joachim urged Brahms to enlarge the piece for full orchestra, which the composer did, seeking his friend’s advice on some of the orchestration. Joachim conducted the premiere of this final version of the serenade in Hanover in March 1860. The performance did not go well in Brahms’s opinion, but the audience of 1,200 didn’t seem to notice or care, continuing to applaud the piece at its conclusion until the composer had come out and taken a bow.

Although Brahms included in his works the sort of emotional content Romanticism had introduced into music, he looked back to the Classical era for form and style and perhaps had some of Mozart’s serenades in mind when he penned his own, which makes up the entire second half of our program tonight. Several of Mozart’s serenades are like symphonies that have been expanded with an extra minuet and maybe a theme and set of variations. Brahms’s serenade, which is in six movements, is like this, with a scherzo inserted between the opening allegro and the slow movement and a second scherzo placed between the dance movement and the rondo finale.

I. The serenade begins on a cheery pastoral note with drones in the bass and a properly rustic horn call above them. This first movement (Allegro molto) is the most musically elaborate portion of the serenade, written in sonata-allegro form — with exposition, development and recapitulation – as would be the first movement of a classical symphony.

II. Written in triple meter, the second movement (Scherzo-Allegro non troppo) is lilting and dancelike, but mostly pensive and dark in hue.

III. The serenade’s slow movement (Adagio non troppo) is calm and idyllic, with Brahms making extensive use of wind instruments and, especially, the french horns — four of them, rather than the pairs the composer specifies for the other winds and as his Classical-period forebears would have stipulated.

IV. The brief dance movement (Menuetto) is actually made up of two minuets: The first is graceful and cheery; the second, cast in a minor key, is tenderly expressive, even poignant.

V. A duet for solo horn and cello introduces the brief, energetic second scherzo (Scherzo-Allegro) with its echoes of hunt music and of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Here Brahms’s prowess as a contrapuntalist is vividly displayed.

VI. The finale of the serenade (Rondo-Allegro) continues the energetic spirit of the preceding scherzo and is in the rondo form so frequently used to wind up Classical-era symphonies and concertos. A sprightly main theme is contrasted with more lyrical passages as movement and serenade lope to a conclusion bright with festive brass.