The Symphony Orchestra will share the stage with brilliant violinist Jinjoo Cho, recent winner of the Gold Medal at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Her technical talents will be shown to perfection in Glazunov’s infamously challenging Violin Concerto, once again led by The Symphony’s new Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa. Another Romantic-era piece with a reaching scope will conclude the evening, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a majestic and transformational work.
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SUNDAY, MARCH 19, 2017, AT 4:00 PM
Alexander Glazunov is one of those composers who have virtually disappeared in the sharp division between nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. As a young man, Glazunov was friends with Borodin, Balakirev, and Tchaikovsky, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and he was taken to meet Liszt in Weimar. He became director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905 and lived well into the twentieth century, struggling to maintain standards at the Conservatory during the strange new era of communist rule. If Glazunov’s world was transformed politically during his lifetime, it was turned on its head musically. Glazunov had achieved an international reputation as a young composer, but his nineteenth-century idiom was regarded as hopelessly conservative by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and other young Russian composers, and he found himself almost irrelevant in the strange new century. On a long tour of Western Europe, he took an apartment in Paris in 1928 and never returned to Russia. He was virtually forgotten at the time of his death in 1936, though in 1972 his remains were exhumed and returned to Russia, where they were buried with honor.
Glazunov composed his Violin Concerto in 1904–05, just as he took over the St. Petersburg Conservatory and just as he was approaching his fortieth birthday. Around him, the world of music was in ferment: at this same moment Debussy was composing La mer, Mahler was writing his sixth symphony, Schoenberg was completing Pelleas und Melisande, and Strauss was producing his opera Salome which would send shock waves across Europe. Coming from this period of musical transformation, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto is a serenely conservative piece of music, one that looks back to the order of the nineteenth century rather than touching the strange new currents of the twentieth.
This is a virtuoso concerto, full of attractive melodies and demanding some very accomplished playing from the soloist. Glazunov did not play the violin, and he wrote the concerto specifically for Leopold Auer, professor of violin at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and teacher of such violinists as Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, and Zimbalist. Auer gave the premiere in St. Petersburg on March 4, 1905, and the concerto was soon played around the world; Heifetz and Milstein were among its most notable performers. The concerto is compact (about twenty minutes long), and the only feature that might be considered unusual is its structure. Rather than being divided into separate movements, it is in four sections that are played without pause—virtually the entire work grows out of themes announced in its opening section, which then reappear in varied forms in subsequent sections.
Over murmuring woodwinds, the violin soloist enters immediately with the main idea, a long theme of dark and Slavic character. This is extended briefly before Glazunov presents the second subject, a falling lyric melody marked both dolce and tranquillo. At just the point we expect the development to begin, Glazunov moves on to the second section, marked Andante sostenuto. Set in glowing D-flat major, this section begins with a soaring violin melody that at first seems entirely new, though it is in fact related to the opening theme. Gradually the music grows more complex and animated, then proceeds directly into the third section, marked simply Tempo I. Dark lower strings now begin what seems to be the “development”: themes from the opening section return and are extended and combined. This section concludes with a long cadenza full of some really wicked writing for the soloist. The orchestra returns, the tempo accelerates, and the concluding section, marked Allegro, bursts to life in a great blaze of trumpet fanfares. The writing for solo violin here (and throughout the concerto) is full of technical hurdles like passages played in octaves, long runs, complex chording, artificial harmonics, and left-handed pizzicatos. A quick-paced coda rushes the concerto to its exciting conclusion.
Symphony No. 5
In the summer of 1901 Mahler retreated to the new chalet he had built at Maiernigg, on the southern shore of the Wörthersee in central Austria. At age forty-one, he was ready for new directions, and now, looking out over that sunny lake, he turned away from the manner of his first four symphonies, which had been inspired by the Wunderhorn folk-legends and based on the music of his own songs. That summer Mahler composed a single movement, a huge symphonic scherzo, and he himself seemed stunned by what he had created. To a friend he wrote that this was music of “unparalleled strength” showing “man in the full light of day who has reached the summit of his existence.” He went on to describe it as “totally unlike anything I have written before . . . Each note in it is profoundly alive, and the whole thing spins like a whirlwind or a comet’s tail.” Yet this movement was not part of a preconceived symphonic plan, and Mahler faced the task of creating a symphony that incorporated this movement.
This he did over the following summer, also spent at Maiernigg. There had been many changes in Mahler’s life since the previous summer. He had met and married Alma Schindler and they were expecting their first child, he had conducted the premieres of his third and fourth symphonies, and he had begun to re-study the music of Bach. Now he returned to his Symphony No. 5 and completed it by working outward from the scherzo he had composed the previous summer. He placed the scherzo at the center of the symphony, prefacing it with an opening section consisting of two movements that share thematic material and concluding with another
two-movement section, again based on shared material. The result was a five-movement symphony in three massive parts, and its premiere in Cologne on October 18, 1904, was a complete failure with an audience unprepared for its stupendous power and dramatic scope. Yet a century later, the Fifth has become one of Mahler’s most popular symphonies, and one critic has gone so far as to call it “one of the seven wonders of the symphonic world.”
The structure of the Fifth Symphony is completely original. The first part opens with a movement Mahler calls Funeral March, and he specifies that it should be played “At a Measured Gait, Heavy, Like a Cortege.” Solo trumpet sounds an ominous fanfare, and a mighty orchestral explosion leads to the grieving funeral march in the strings. This march will return throughout this episodic movement, which is interrupted by two interludes: a strident outburst and, near the end, a gentle dance derived from the funeral march. The music rises to a searing climax marked “Grieving,” then subsides to conclude with a single pizzicato stroke.
The lamenting second movement, which Mahler marks “Moving Stormily, With the Greatest Vehemence,” treats material introduced in the first movement; back come reminiscences of the funeral march and other bits of themes, now developed with frenzied violence. This frantic atmosphere is broken by haunting interludes, also derived from the first movement, before the music rises to what seems to be a triumphant chorale. But this chorale brings no true release, and the music falls away to the same sort of ambiguous ending that concluded the first movement.
At the center of the symphony is that mighty scherzo, in which the solo French horn plays a central role. This movement is a vast symphonic celebration, built around a series of dances that pitch between the wild energy of the ländler and the sinuous lilt of the waltz. The solo horn binds together the various sections of this scherzo, the longest movement in the symphony, and finally leads it to a close on two mighty strokes derived from the opening horn call.
The final part begins with a complete change. Gone suddenly are the seething energy and violence of the first three movements, and in their place Mahler offers music of delicacy and restraint. The Adagietto, scored for strings and harp, is an island of calm; this movement was often performed by itself during the decades before Mahler’s music became popular. Its bittersweet melodies sing gracefully, rise to a soaring climax, and fall back to a quiet close. Out of that quiet, a single horn note suddenly rivets attention, and the concluding movement stirs to life.
In the brief introduction to this finale, Mahler offers much of the material he will use here, and then this Rondo-Finale surges into motion as horns sing the rondo theme. This movement overflows with energy, new ideas, and contrapuntal writing (do we hear the results of Mahler’s Bach studies here?), and along the way the main theme of the gentle Adagietto is swept up in the fun and made to sing with unsuspected energy. The movement culminates in a great chorale—here, finally, is the true climax—and the Fifth Symphony drives to an earthshaking close.
Music so dramatic seems to suggest a program, some extra-musical drama being played out across the span of this intense symphony. Some critics have heard it as the triumph of life over death. Others, picking up Mahler’s cue that the central movement depicts a “man in the full light of day,” see it as the tale of a hero who moves from the tragedy of the opening to life in the scherzo and to celebration in the finale. Yet another offers an even more philosophical reading, believing that the symphony is almost “schizophrenic, in that the most tragic and the most joyful worlds of feeling are separated off from one another, and only bound together by Mahler’s unmistakable command of large-scale symphonic construction and unification.”
Such searches for “meaning” can seem ludicrous, even as one sympathizes with the effort to try to come to terms with this music in mere words. One wonders what Mahler would have made of these interpretations. For, despite his occasional use of a program in the generative stages of the symphony, he finally conceived of this music as abstract, as absolute music complete in itself. Rather than straining for cumbersome interpretations that might be true, it is far better to enjoy Mahler’s Fifth as the great symphonic adventure it actually is.
Critically acclaimed violinist Jinjoo Cho has established herself as one of the most vibrant, engaging, and charismatic violinists of her generation. Read more!