National Masters Orkestdirectie - Final Concert - Noord Nederlands Orkest
The first time I visited Groningen I was a lanky 21 year old, who couldn’t pronounce a guttural ‘G’. This was for the final round of auditions for the NMO in November, 2019. I remember standing up on the podium in front of the NNO with a complete lack of composure. I remarked to the orchestra during Wednesday’s rehearsal that each time I get off the train at Groningen, my stomach churns as I am reminded of this first visit. Thanks to the expert guidance of my mentors and professors Jac van Steen, Ed Spanjaard and Kenneth Montgomery as well as guest professor Antony Hermus - I feel at home with my music making, and am able to collaborate with orchestras freely. I was a naive 21 year old - three years later I am beginning to understand what the art of conducting - but it will take a lifetime to master. The three pieces you will hear tonight showcase two years worth of musical growth and maturity inspired by the wonderful mentors I have had. Thank you to my colleagues and friends; Chloe Rooke, Ed Liebrecht and Sasha Scolnik-Brower for always inspiring me to be better whilst also making the process ridiculously fun. Thank you to Jaike Bakker who has guided us all through the NMO and is one of the reasons for this programs incredible success. Thank you to my family and extended family who have always pushed me to reach further whilst not letting my head get too high up in the clouds. Thanks to all those that have made it to Groningen from Amsterdam tonight - the train ride is a killer!
Cheers to good music and great people,
Giuseppi Verdi - La Forza Del Destino - Overture
Verdi’s overture is one of his best known - a tour de force introducing some of the operas’ main musical and conceptual themes. The tragic opera was premiered in 1862 in St Petersburg; however underwent serious musical and dramatic revisions to become the version we best know today - first performed in 1869 at La Scala in Milan - also the first time this overture was heard.
In brief, the opera follows two protagonists - Don Alvaro - a young nobleman from South America and Donna Leonora from Spain - the pair have fallen in love; however, Leonora’s father doesn’t approve due to Alvaro’s heritage. Love overcomes Leonora’s duty to family and she is ready to cut ties in order to elope with Alvaro. At the last minute of their escape Leonora gets ‘cold feet’ and begins to regret her decision. Her father, the honourable Marchese di Calatrava conveniently charges into the room at this moment seeing the lovers together - assuming the worst he threatens Alvaro - Alvaro surrenders and flings down his pistol which as though guided by fate; unfortunately, fires and shoots the Marchese in the chest. Whilst he is dying he curses his daughter and the lovers flee.
The rest of the opera takes place about a year later - the lovers have lost each other after they fled. Leonora has resolved to admit herself into the monastery of the Madonna of Angels to seek atonement. Alvaro believes Leonora to be dead and has joined the Spanish army where he meets Don Carlos (Leonora’s brother). Destined to reunite, the pair eventually find each other with a healthy dose of dramatic battles and gypsy song along the way. The tragic drama ends in a duel outside the monastery between Alvaro and Carlos, of whom is mortally wounded. Hearing the drama Leonora rushes out and comforts her dying brother who stabs her in the heart for betraying her family.
Just as Beethoven uses a fate idée fixe (da,da,da,dummmm) in his Fifth Symphony, Verdi uses a recurring three note brass motif hailing the tragedy to come. This is proceeded by the main theme which is an undulating, restless melody that is superimposed throughout the overture. This theme is first heard in the opera proper just before the Marchese is shot, emphasising its stressed and nervous character. Whilst listening to this music, I would suggest taking note of how this theme manifests during the performance. Verdi transforms the role of this melody as both an accompaniment figure, or an interjection - it is opressingly present throughout the music. This repetition and the cyclic nature of the melody expands on the notion of fate - it is inescapable.
Other notable themes in the overture are that of the fragile tremolo strings refrain which we first hear in ‘Chie Sieste’ played by a lonesome clarinet accompanied by a bed of tremolo strings as Leonora resolves to enter the monastery. This tune is transformed throughout the overture and is the nexus point for one of the main climaxes - round, golden and triumphant - a symbol of love and passion. The harp and clarinet duet midway through the overture is also taken from Leonore’s previously described decision, albeit slightly earlier where she confesses her devotion to God in an attempt to absolve her of her wrongdoings. The character of this iteration of the theme is very similar to that of the opera proper though it is shortly interrupted by a fiendish fugato which is reminiscent of swords clashing together - perhaps prophesying the battle between Carlos and Alvaro. The overture ends in an highly charged allegro molto reminiscent of Rossini wielding a large armful of fireworks - a true coda in Italian operatic overture style.
Samuel Barber - Violin Concerto
“Notes!? I’ll give you notes!”
Perhaps this was Samuel Barber’s exclamation when violinist Iso Briselli requested a more virtuosic finale to be added to his heart warming first and bitter-sweet second movement. Commissioned in 1939 by Samuel Simeon Fels for his ward Briselli, this concerto is perhaps one of the lesser known ‘neo romantic’ concertos - often being likened to the Korngold. Interestingly enough, when Briselli received the first draft of the third movement he decided it had not enough substance compared to the first and second - he urged Barber to re-write it. Luckily Barber stood his ground and dismissed Briselli’s complaints who eventually decided not to give the premiere of the concerto which was performed instead by Albert Spalding (violin), Eugene Ormandy (conductor) and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941.
Barber as a composer is perhaps nowadays not immediately regarded as of the ‘American School’ as much as his contemporaries; Copland and Bernstein - perhaps we can consider Barber more European; however, like those two, Barber is compelled by blues music, jazz and rhythm. During his lifetime he enjoyed ragingly successful premieres by The Met and had a strong relationship with Toscanini who premiered many of his orchestral works with the NBC Symphony including that of his famous Adagio for Strings.
The first movement is set in a sunny G major and explores the lighter side of the violin albeit with some stressed, gripping climaxes. The movement focusses on two main themes - a lyrical first subject played without introduction by the solo violin and then an almost nonchalant, distracted melody first introduced by the solo clarinet. Barber follows an expanded sonata form structure throughout the movement where the solo violin is almost always at the forefront of the action. The second movement is of the most tender character - its principal theme being introduced by a lonesome, faraway oboe, answered by gorgeous, thick tutti cellos. The second theme is of a more unnerving character and explores the rhapsodic side of concerto style - much more free in tempo than before and with a strong brushstroke of dissonance. This leads to a triumphant wail of the primary theme before the music almost collapses in on itself. A short cadenza precedes a brief coda which feels as though a collective sigh from the orchestra after the drama it has just experienced. The third movement begins with a bang (literally) - hurtling solo timpani sets up this whirlwind moto perpetuo finale that could easily be described as a ‘bull in a china shop.’ Virtuosity is on full display here and is a blistering conclusion to a heartfelt work.
Tonight my friend Hannah Solveij Gramß takes the solo part and performs with utmost attention to character. It’s a privilege to perform alongside her. I recently found out that Kenneth (my teacher) knew Barber and drank with him in Mykonos. I like to imagine the first chord of the concerto accompanying their toast on a Greek Island.
Paul Hindemith - Symphonic Metamorphosis on themes by Carl Maria von Weber
II. Scherzo (Turandot): Moderato
Renowned ballet choreographer Léonid Massine was attracted to music for four hands at the piano by Carl Maria von Weber (Opus 10 and 80) and asked German composer Paul Hindemith if he would write a set of variations on these themes to serve as music for ballet. Intrigued by the idea, Hindemith set out to do so creating a piano version of movements 1 and 3 in 1940. Again we encounter friction between composer and commissioner, Massine was disheartened by how free Hindemith’s arrangements were. After receiving this feedback, Hindemith attended a performance of one of Massine’s choreographies and decided that it was also not to his taste and abandoned plans for the music to become a ballet. He went about the second and fourth movement on his own and the four movements became the Symphonic Metamorphosis completed in 1943.
It is what it is… - Hindemith and Gebrauchsmusik
Gebrauchsmusik is a term that was coined in the modernist period for music with a purpose; Hindemith being one of the greatest exponents of this style. It exists for its own sake and can often be composed for a specific occasion or event. The music doesn’t need an emotional agenda to rationalise it and its meaning is what we interpret at face value.
The four movements of this piece have distinct characteristics that make for exciting listening. The first is a folk like stomp with almost eastern european qualities - a driving pulse remains throughout the movement but a whirling sense of frivolity remains throughout. The second movement is almost Bolerian in its form. We hear the Turandot theme first introduced by the solo woodwinds; then, as Ravel’s Bolero does - the theme remains stubbornly unchained and persistent whilst Hindemith invites us to instead examine orchestral texture and colour rather than thematic development. A midway climax provides the first respite from the Turandot tune leading us into an almost bluesy brass fugato. The Turandot tune returns culminating in a rhythmically bent percussion climax. The third movement could be categorised as the most heart felt, but I like to think of it as a very slow, droopy waltz. Its second theme is of a singing nature and for me is one of the highlights of this piece - it finishes with a reprise of the first theme with a stunning flute obligato, as though a fish darting through a pond. Movement four is an infectiously sarcastic march that nags, and nags … and nags. The woodwind and brass are in full flight and I hope you leave the hall humming the tune.