PROGRAM NOTES: Vivaldi Four Seasons
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November 10 & 11, 2018
Christopher Theofanidis, b. 1967
Visions and Miracles
Born in Dallas, TX and a graduate of Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, Christopher Theofanidis has been the recipient of the Masterprize, the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship, among others. He is a former member of the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the Juilliard School in New York City, and currently teaches at Yale.
Many of Theofanidis’s works draw inspiration from meditative or spiritual sources that cross cultural boundaries. Rather than working with singable themes, he creates soundscapes based on rhythmic and melodic cells, which he continually and subtly transforms in a similar fashion to those of Middle Eastern and Asian traditional music. Theofanidis composed the three-movement Visions and Miracles for string quartet in 1997 and adapted it for string orchestra in 2002. Each movement bears a title that reflects its musical character.
1. “All Joy Wills Eternity” is an exuberant dance in which the syncopated rhythm is the most important element.
2. “Peace, Love, Light YOUMEONE” is based on the writings of Timothy Leary, the LSD guru. It is a kaleidoscopic meditation on an ascending major scale – with a few unexpected digressions into new modes.
3. “I Add Brilliance to the Sun” returns to the dance-like rhythms of the first movement but derives its principal melodic elements from reversing the direction of the fragmented scale of the previous movement. The movement incorporates some Middle Eastern modal melodies and harmonies. Although it vacillates between energetic and slower passages, it progressively accelerates in tempo until reaching a “dervish-like” conclusion.
Today is the Stamford Symphony premier of this piece.
Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847
Sinfonia No. 8 in D major
If ever there was a composer who did not fit the romantic picture of the struggling artist fighting for his physical and artistic survival, it was Felix Mendelssohn. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was raised in affluence and comfort. His cultured and highly supportive family recognized and nurtured his precocious musical talent. His home was a cultural Mecca where Europe’s most famous poets, artists and musicians had a standing invitation, and where the many family visitors encouraged the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny.
The Sinfonia No. 8, composed in the winter of 1821-22, is one in a series of 12 such works that Mendelssohn composed between the ages of 12 and 14. Already an accomplished pianist, organist and violinist, by then he had also written a piano trio, a cantata, two violin sonatas, four piano sonatas, a few operettas and numerous lesser works. He composed the Sinfonias for the musical soirees held every Sunday in his parent’s palatial home in Berlin. Later, Mendelssohn was embarrassed by these youthful works and suppressed them, considering them products of his “apprenticeship.” They remained unpublished until the late 1950s and were first recorded in 1971.
The first six sinfonias are three-movement works reflecting the influence of C.P.E. Bach, Haydn and Mozart. Subsequently, Mendelssohn incorporated the more modern harmonies of Beethoven into the Classical framework and switched to the four-movement structure.
No. 8 has a special significance in Mendelssohn’s works. A few days after finishing it he modified and re-orchestrated it for strings, woodwinds, horns, trumpets and timpani, making it his first symphony for full orchestra. Three years later saw two masterpieces, the Octet, Op. 16, and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which launched Mendelssohn’s public career.
Today is the Stamford Symphony premier of this piece.
Antonio Vivaldi, 1678-1741
The Four Seasons
Beginning in 1703 and intermittently for many decades, Antonio Vivaldi served as music factotum at the Pio Ospedale della Pietá in Venice, an institution devoted to the care and education of abandoned, orphaned and indigent girls – mostly “inconvenient” children of upper class parents – with a special emphasis on musical training (no Dickensian work house or Dotheboys Hall this). In addition to his duties as virtuoso violinist, violin teacher, orchestra director and instrument purchaser, Vivaldi served as resident composer, producing hundreds of works for various instruments and ensembles, including nearly 450 concerti, usually at a rate of more than two per month.
The four concertos, known as The Four Seasons, are part of a group of eight violin concertos published in Amsterdam in 1725 as Op. 8. They are also among the earliest examples of program music: Vivaldi provided sonnets in Venetian dialect, probably his own, to head each of the four concertos, marking with capital letters sections of the sonnets and their corresponding music. It is clear from the detailed notes Vivaldi made on the score that he enjoyed composing these concertos as well as performing them.
Concerto in E major, Op. 8, No. 1, Spring
Setting the mood of the opening movement, the opening ritornello (recurrent phrase) is marked in the score “Spring has returned.” The first violin solo is marked “Song of the birds,” while after a return of the ritornello, comes a soft murmuring on the violin. After the next ritornello comes the lightning and thunder, followed by an extensive return to the singing birds and gaiety.
The slow movement is a musical description of the snoozing goatherd, watched over by his dog, whose bark is imitated throughout the movement on the violas with repeated notes to be played “very loud and abruptly.”
The third movement, a rustic dance, opens with a suggestion of rustic bagpipes, complete with an imitation of their drones by sustained notes on the low strings.
Concerto in G minor, Op. 8, No. 2, Summer
The opening phrases droop in sympathy with the suffering people. Suddenly the violin depicts the singing of the birds. The zephyr’s voice is heard gently on the violins and violas, interrupted by the wind squalls depicted by rapid scales on the violins and bursts by the entire ensemble. A lonely violin solo describes the weeping shepherd’s apprehension of an impending storm.
In the second movement, the shepherd’s rest (solo violin) is interrupted repeatedly by his fear of distant thunder (strong tremolo by the whole orchestra). He tries to sleep again, but the gnats and flies (repeated dotted notes on the strings accompanying the solo violin) don’t let him rest.
The third movement describes the violent storm, justifying the shepherd’s fears. Darting scales in the violins describe the lightning while the cellos and basses portray thunder.
Concerto in F major, Op. 8, No. 3, Autumn
The concerto begins with the rhythmic dances and songs of the peasants, followed by uncertain lurches by the solo violin to depict their drunkenness, which gets wilder and wilder, alternating with the dance music. With a sudden shift to Larghetto, some of the revelers go to sleep while the dances continue. In the second movement, the muted strings become increasingly gentle as the slumber becomes deeper and deeper.
Violins imitate the hunting calls in the third movement. A wild melee in the orchestra describes the confusion of the hunt, the fleeing prey and its death, with the strings imitating the baying dogs.
Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4, Winter
The strings, with trills in the violins, describe the shivering in the winter cold. Swift arpeggios and scales by the solo violin describe the horrid wind, while a series of abrupt chords suggest stamping feet and running to get warm. But rapid tremolos show that all this activity is useless, since the teeth continue to chatter.
Violin pizzicatos depict the falling raindrops, after which a warm melody on the solo violin describes the pleasant indoors with its roaring fire.
The finale opens with sliding phrases by the violin - walking and slipping on thin ice. The orchestra joins with a slower rhythm to indicate the hesitant steps and fear of falling. But then we are back indoors, enjoying the warmth while the winds howl outside.
Most recent Stamford Symphony performance: March 12th, 2011
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018