Sunday, September 10, 2023 / 4:00 PM

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born 1770, Bonn
Died 1827, Vienna

Leonore Overture No. 3, op.72b

No other work gave Beethoven more trouble than his only opera, Leonore, which he retitled Fidelio during its final revision. Beethoven’s problems with the opera, which occupied him over a span of 11 years and took him through three different versions, are reflected in his problems devising a suitable overture: Fidelio is doubtless the only opera in existence to have four different overtures.

In 1803, Beethoven set to work on the opera, which took two years to complete. Leonore premiered in Vienna in November 1805 and was prefaced by what we now know as the Leonore Overture No. 2. It was difficult for the players, so for the premiere of the revised version in 1806 Beethoven completely rewrote it; this is the version known as Leonore Overture No. 3, performed at this concert. Overture No. 1 was composed for a planned production in Prague in 1807 that never took place.

In all three overtures, Beethoven faced what was essentially a dramatic rather than a musical problem: He composed an overture based on music that accompanies the events of the opera’s final act: Leonore’s willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband Florestan, the last-minute arrival of Don Fernando, and the arrest of Pizarro. This is powerful material, but it is far in the future when Act I opens with much more innocent activity: the frothy infatuation of the young Marzellina with the new jailer’s assistant. Any of these violently dramatic overtures is wrong as an introduction to the light opening of the opera. When the powerful third version is used, it “annihilates the first act,” in Donald Francis Tovey’s wonderful phrase. Beethoven was aware of this problem. When he made his final revisions of the opera in 1814 (renaming it Fidelio), he composed a fourth version. A conventional curtain raiser, full of thrust and noble sentiment, it makes no use of musical material from the opera itself.

Nonetheless, the third version has become one of Beethoven’s most popular overtures, preserving some of the high drama of the opera and treating it in taut sonata form. The slow introduction opens with descending phrases (possibly mirroring Florestan’s descent into the dark dungeon), and woodwinds soon echo a phrase from his great aria In des Lebens Frühlinstagen, a sad account of how far he has fallen from his happy early life. Gradually, the introduction grows more animated and settles into the Allegro, where the rising-and-falling melody in C major becomes the main idea. Matters reach a climax, and Beethoven breaks off the development with another quotation from the opera: the offstage trumpet that heralds the dramatic arrival of Don Fernando in Act II. The coda brings one of the most famous (and difficult) passages in the orchestra repertory: A handful of violins (“due o tre violini,” says Beethoven in the score) race ahead over a sequence of rising scales. They are gradually joined by players from the other string sections and then from the full orchestra as Beethoven drives to a heroic close, well suited to this tale of the triumph of good over evil.

Program Note by Eric Bromberger

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born 1756, Salzburg
Died 1791, Vienna

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550

The dismal events that befell Mozart during the summer of 1788 are well-known: The death of an infant daughter, the poverty that drove the family into ever-shabbier dwellings, the demands of creditors, and Mozart’s own pathetic pleas to friends for financial assistance tell the tale. Mozart was too great an artist to let the events of his life seep into his art, and two of his three final symphonies, composed that summer, are miracles of beauty and strength and repose. Yet the Symphony in G Minor, completed on July 25, is unlike any other music Mozart wrote. It is full of troubled and tense moments that do seem to spring from those “dark thoughts” of those months; this is one of the most powerful symphonies ever written.

The most striking feature of this music is its intensity. Mozart reserved the G minor key for his darkest and most deeply felt music, and he accentuates harmonic tension with unexpected key shifts and the striking chromatic grind of his themes. Further, he unifies the symphony with unusual rhythmic patterns and intervals (the last three movements, for example, all begin with the upward leap of a fourth). Yet Mozart achieves this intensity with an utter economy of means, even to the point of eliminating the martial sound of trumpets and timpani from the orchestra.

The beginning of the Allegro molto instantly establishes the character of this music: Over throbbing violas, violins sing the dark, pulsing main idea. Note carefully the first three notes of their theme; it will saturate the movement, knitting it together rhythmically and pushing the music constantly forward. The second idea, divided smoothly between strings and woodwinds, is lyric, but Mozart quickly springs another surprise, moving through the remote key of F-sharp minor into the development. The music will make its way back to G minor, but such harmonic surprises produce the many changes of shade and temperament at the heart of this symphony.

The Andante, in E-flat major and also in sonata form, brings little peace. Mozart’s themes may be graceful, but his chromatic treatment of them and surprising accents give this music a sense of poised unease. In the third movement, Mozart goes back to G minor and drives the music forward, with dissonances stinging off the terraced string entrances. The delicate trio section, with its long lines and beautiful writing for winds, brings the symphony’s one interlude of peace.

Marked Allegro assai (“Very fast”), the finale opens with the violins’ graceful leap upward and the full orchestra’s explosive response. This movement too is in sonata form, and it matches the mood and complexity of the first movement. The opening of the development, with its striking shift of gears, is a surprise, and rather than opting for the expected “happy” ending, Mozart stays in G minor and drives this movement to a close in which the symphony’s tensions are never fully resolved.

This symphony exists in two versions. In its original form (being performed today), the symphony had no clarinet part, but there is a second, seldom-performed version that adds two clarinets and revises the oboes parts, giving some of their music to the clarinets. This version was likely created for concerts put on by the Tonkünstler-Societät in Vienna shortly before Mozart’s death, and it was probably the only time he ever heard one of his final three symphonies

Program Note by Eric Bromberger

GINA GILLIE
Born 1982, Madison, Wisconsin

Philharmonic Fanfare

Philharmonic Fanfare (2019) was commissioned by Adam Stern and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and was written as a symphonic fanfare for the Seattle Philharmonic’s 75th anniversary celebration. The piece, originally scored for an orchestral brass section, employs quartal harmony, snappy fanfare rhythms and flowing melodies. The opening seven-note motif represents the letters in “Seattle,” and this motif weaves in and out of the contrasting melodies throughout the duration of the fanfare. Exciting and uplifting, this fanfare was also scored for a saxophone ensemble―three soprano saxophones (alternate part: alto sax for 3rd soprano), three alto saxophones, three tenor saxophones, two baritone saxophones, and one bass saxophone.

―Program Note by Gina Gillie

SERGEI PROKOFIEV

Born 1891, Sontsovka, Russia
Died 1953, Moscow

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, op.26

There were several quite different sides to the young Prokofiev. One was the enfant terrible who took delight in outraging audiences with abrasive, ear-splitting music. When the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1913 produced a salvo of jeers and hisses, Prokofiev walked on stage, bowed deeply, and sat down to play an equally assaultive encore. Yet there was another Prokofiev, a very traditional composer drawn to the form and balance of another era. 

Prokofiev had been planning for some time to write what he called “a large virtuoso concerto” when he finally found time during the summer of 1921, only a few months after his 3oth birthday. That summer he rented a cottage on the coast of France and pulled together themes he had been collecting over the previous decade, some of them dating back to his days as a student in Czarist Russia. He was able to weld this variety of thematic material into a completely satisfying whole, a score that fuses his strength and saucy impudence with his penchant for classical order. Completed in October, the concerto was first performed on December 16, 1921, with Prokofiev as soloist and Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

For all its steely strength, this concerto begins with deceptive restraint. First one and then two clarinets lay out the innocent opening idea, which is briefly taken up by the strings before the music leaps ahead at the Allegro. The piano makes a slashing entrance here, suddenly breaking into the flurry of orchestral motion, and this opening episode pounds its way directly into the second subject, for woodwinds and pizzicato strings over clicking castanet accompaniment. A vigorous extension of these materials brings a surprise: The music rises to an early climax on the reticent tune that had opened the concerto. Solo piano leads the way back to the “correct” themes of the Allegro, and the movement drives to a muscular close.

The second movement is in theme-and-variation form. Solo flute lays out the lilting and nicely spiced theme, which extends over several phrases. In the five variations, the piano usually occupies the foreground while the orchestra accompanies with lines woven from bits of theme. Particularly striking is the fourth variation, in which, Prokofiev notes, “The piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion.” This variation is in fact marked Andante meditativo, and Prokofiev specifies that individual phrases should be delicatissimo, dolce, espressivo, and freddo (cold). The movement concludes with the unusual combination of a quiet piano chord accompanied only by the stroke of a bass drum.

The finale begins with the dry sound of bassoon and pizzicato strings stamping out what will be the main theme of the movement, but the piano has already intruded before this theme can be fully stated. A second subject, sung by the woodwinds in the wistful manner of the concerto’s opening, is also quickly violated by the piano, which has what Prokofiev describes as “a theme more in keeping with the caustic humor of the work.” But this flowing second theme “wins”: It swells to an expansive statement that becomes the soaring climax of the piece. The ending is brilliant: Piano and full orchestra come hammering home on repeated chords that seem to create a halo of light, shimmering and burning through the hall. It is a perfect conclusion to a concerto that appeals to our minds and our senses ―and finally satisfies both.

Program Note by Eric Bromberger