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Maestro’s Choice Notes

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
BORN: December 16, 1770. Bonn, Germany
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (including piccolo) 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (including contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 31 minutes

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has spoken forcefully and directly to many listeners—trained and untrained—over the years. This is the symphony that, along with an image of Beethoven as agitated and disheveled, has come to represent greatness in music. Beethoven began to sketch this symphony in 1804, completed the score in the spring of 1808, and conducted the first performance in Vienna on December 22 of that year. For a while it was somewhat overshadowed by the Ninth Symphony, but the Fifth has never really lost its appeal.

Symphony No. 5 occupies a place that only a handful of works in the history of music have retained, and knowing the immense influence of the piece has somewhat blinded us to the originality of Beethoven’s boldest music. The 4-note motive appears in almost every section of the symphony, and the four movements of the symphony combine into one unified design.

There’s no way to know what the first audience thought. The concert was so inordinately long (lasting some 4 hours in the bitter cold) and jammed with so much important new music that no one could truly have taken it all in. The performance was certainly rough and unsympathetic.
The celebrated opening, which Beethoven likened to Fate knocking at the door, is bold and simple. The first movement is full of energy and urgency from the first notes and has an extensive coda that is particularly satisfying because it uncovers still new depths of drama and power at a point when that seems unthinkable.

The Andante con moto is a distant relative of the “theme and variations” that often occur as slow movements in classical symphonies. But unlike the conventional type, it presents two different themes and varies them separately. The sequence of events is so unpredictable and seductive that, in the least assertive movement of the symphony, Beethoven still commands our attention to the final stroke.

The Scherzo begins in the low strings, then stumbling on the horns who let loose with their own rendition of Fate at the door. Beethoven was the first to notice the Scherzo’s resemblance to the opening of the finale of Mozart’s great G minor symphony—he wrote out the Mozart opening on a page of sketches for this music.

Now, one of the most ingenious passages in all of classical music is the transitional passage into the Finale. The drumbeat is the first sign that something momentous is about to happen.
The arrival to the Finale is a moment that composers have struggled ever since to match; not just of binding movements together, but of emerging so dramatically from darkness to light. Before the end the ghost of the scherzo quietly re-appears. But Beethoven still finds it necessary to end the symphony with fifty-four measures of the purest C major material, resolving any lingering doubts and reminding us of the conquest, not the struggle.

Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra

HENRI TOMASI: Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra
BORN: August 17, 1901. Marseille, France
DIED: January 13, 1971. Paris, France
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets,
3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, and strings
DURATION: About 18 minutes

Henri Tomasi was a prolific composer and conductor. He was born in the French seaport city of Marseilles on the 17 of August, 1901. When Tomasi was a young man he dreamed of being a sailor, just like his uncles. However, Henri’s father Xavier was a flautist and bandleader that recognized his son’s talent and encouraged him to pursue music. At the age of eighteen, Henri enrolled into the Paris Conservatory, studying with such names as Vincent d’Indy and Paul Dukas.

Tomasi joined an avant-garde group named Le Triton, in 1922. The European music community regarded Tomasi as a distinguished conductor. He conducted several major radio concerts, operas, ballets, symphonic works, and festivals. Throughout his conducting career and until his retirement from conducting in 1957, he was especially fond of works by the French masters.

He is considered an independent and very versatile composer. His son described his creativity and innovation by saying, “He could express everything, either tragic or comic, and use all kinds of forms, such as dance, voice, and instrumental in a variety of styles.” Some people classify his works as Modern Impressionist which were influenced by Ravel and Debussy.

Some of the elements that exist within his compositions include the following: mysticism, great emotional intensity, brilliant orchestration, Impressionism, and an atmospheric style. His music uses oriental sounds (pentatonic scales), neo-Impressionistic effects (whole-tone scales, modal scales, and augmented chords), quartal harmonies, occasional jazz inferences, and even isolated, highly chromatic sections that hint at atonality.

Tomasi’s Concerto Pour Saxophone Alto et Orchestra (1949) consists of two movements. A highly lyrical Andante introduces the first movement, followed by an Allegro with a more intense melody and a quick, jaunty feel, situated in an odd 5/4 time signature rendering a feeling of imbalance. Present within the entire composition is bi-tonality, or two completely unrelated chords which shift in parallel motion and are played at the same time.

The second movement, subtitled “Giration” and marked Vif (lively), frequently shifts meters and tonality, keeping with the off-balance feel of the first movement. A call-and-response section is a highlight of the second movement, alternating between the saxophone and the orchestra. The concerto concludes with a supercharged Largo, which mildly imitates the work’s opening theme.

Suite from the Firebird (1919 Version)

IGOR STRAVINSKY: Suite from The Firebird (1919 Version)
BORN: June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City, USA
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (including piccolo), 2 oboes (including English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, piano, celesta, and strings
DURATION: About 23 minutes

The famed Ballets Russes run by Sergei Diaghilev was one of the greatest ballet companies in history. It is also recognized for uniting the world’s most illustrious dancers within one company. Diaghilev had the soul of a brilliant artist with the mind of a shrewd businessman. He was committed to exciting and innovative productions, and he sought out the best modern artists and composers of the day. He collaborated with Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Prokofiev, and many others. However, he never made a more important musical discovery than when he hired the 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky to compose the music for Michel Fokine’s new ballet, The Firebird.

To create a story of an appropriately exotic flavor, Fokine and his collaborators used several Russian fairy-tales in the scenario of The Firebird. To describe the magical world of fairy-birds and evil sorcerers, Stravinsky had a remarkable tradition to build on, a tradition he inherited from his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Both the story and the musical style of the ballet seemed highly original in the West; although, in fact, both grew out of an authentic Russian culture.

The 1919 Suite is in five movements. The mysterious “Introduction” leads into the “Dance of the Firebird,” followed by the slow and solemn Khorovod (round dance) of the captive princesses, based on a melancholy Russian folksong first played by the oboe. “Kashchei’s Infernal Dance” is next, started by a fast timpani roll and dominated by a syncopated motif that arises from the lower voices, then taken on by the entire orchestra. This is the longest movement in the suite, including a lyrical countersubject symbolizing the plight of Kashchei’s prisoners. The “infernal dance” returns, concluding with a wild climax. Offering a moment of extreme contrast, the Firebird’s Berceuse (“Lullaby”) is a delicate song for solo bassoon. It leads directly into the Finale (the wedding of Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess), where the principal horn introduces one of the most famous Russian folksongs in the ballet. This beautiful melody swells and then changes asymmetrically to 7/4, bringing the music to its final exhilarating close.

Program notes by Matthew Troy.