It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Kit Dodd (1955-2016) for Symphoria. A long-time member of the viola section in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra—as well as the orchestra’s librarian—he was one of the people most devoted to keeping orchestral music alive in Syracuse after the SSO went bankrupt. In fact, it’s fair to say that Symphoria would not exist as it does today without, to borrow Music Director Larry Loh’s apt words, Kit’s “passion and vision, his influence on our creative programming and his persevering spirit.”
We honored Kit at the end of last season with a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, one of his favorite works. But as was clear to anyone welcomed into the librarian’s office (and anyone who wandered by was welcomed), he was just as likely to be listening to baroque music as to romantic works, and today, we honor him again with two early works that have a special connection to him.
One of Kit’s favorite composers was the under-recognized Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644–1704). Biber, a virtuoso violinist, is perhaps best known for his “Rosary Sonatas” (or “Mystery Sonatas”), each inspired by a different Mystery of the Rosary, and each but the first and last employing a different scordatura. (Scordatura refers to a tuning of the strings that’s different from the traditional one.) But Biber also wrote large choral works, including the Missa Salisburgensis featuring two eight-part choirs and half a dozen separate instrumental groups antiphonally placed. He wrote works for orchestra, too, the most popular of which is probably the one we’re featuring this afternoon, Battalia (1673). An early example of the long-running genre of battle music, it’s a wildly imaginative piece, one that furthers its descriptive ends with a variety of unusual techniques. For instance, you’ll hear col legno (playing the strings with the wood of the bow), snap pizzicatos (plucking the string so hard that it rebounds against the finger-board) to imitate gun-fire, and the use of paper behind the strings to imitate drum sounds. The most striking movement, though, is the second, which represents a group of alcohol-inspired carousers singing a number of different folk tunes, in clashing keys and rhythms, at the same time—a moment that looks ahead to Charles Ives. Yet Battalia is not entirely frivolous, and the closing Lamento Adagio leaves us with a sober perspective.
As our centerpiece, we’re offering the Concerto for 2 Violas and Strings (c.1740) by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). Telemann was close to Handel and to Bach (in fact, he was C.P.E. Bach’s godfather), and was one of the most prolific composers ever, adept in a wide variety of genres including opera. Like most composers of his time, he was more or less forgotten after his death. But even during the great baroque revival that began with Mendelssohn’s resurrection of Bach and that hit its stride in the 1950s, he never achieved the popularity of Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi, and this is his first appearance on a Symphoria program. Listening to this inventive work, you’re apt to wonder why.
Viola concertos—much less double concertos for viola—are of course rare; after all, the viola itself is probably the most unappreciated instrument in the orchestra. Physically, the viola section is often placed out of the way, in the middle of the ensemble. And as violist Carol Sasson, Kit’s stand partner for decades, reminds us, it’s “in the middle of everything musically, too.” The viola rarely gets the main melody and rarely provides the bass line. “As a result,” continues Carol, “nobody really notices us. They don’t even notice the notes that we play in the middle of the piece.” Yet the instrument is important, even crucial, nonetheless. “If you took those notes out and we didn’t play, you would notice something was wrong.” Indeed, the music would probably fall apart.
This splendid concerto, written in the key of G, gives the instrument a chance to shine. Why does the key matter? Carol explains: “The four strings on the viola are C-G-D-A”—and an open string that’s not being played at any given moment may vibrate more or less strongly in response to the note that is being played. “If I play a note D that’s high up, my D string which is tuned to a lower D will ring and support my high note.” As a result, if you’re in a key where “the notes that you play frequently match the pitch of the strings, the instrument will sound big and lush.” G Major is such a key, and it shows the instrument at its best. The concerto follows the four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast convention; and if the third movement Largo can serve as an elegy to Kit, it’s the fourth that best reflects his exuberant spirit.
The concert ends with the Symphony No. 3 in F, composed in 1883 by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Besides being Brahms’s most compact symphony, the Third differs from its siblings in many ways. It is, for instance, the only one that ends quietly—without the despair of the Tchaikovsky Sixth, certainly, but without the heroic uplift that marks the other three Brahms symphonies. In fact, all the movements of the Third end quietly. Then, too, there’s far more thematic integration here than there is in his other three symphonies, a stronger sense of a larger organic whole. But while, in the end, it is the least extroverted and perhaps most formally intricate of the cycle, its overall character is neither gentle nor relaxed nor emotionally distant. As Larry points out, “the last movement has so much angst”—and he singles out the beginning of that movement as an ideal case of “how brilliant Brahms is for using harmonies to create tension.”
Whether or not this unease reflects Brahms’s ghostly triangular relationship with his mentor Robert Schumann and Robert’s pianist-composer wife Clara (and Larry does see a lot of connection between this work and Robert’s Third Symphony), it certainly gives the work a sense that we’re overhearing some deep autobiographical secrets. In any case, it is, in many ways, Larry’s favorite of the Brahms symphonies—in part for autobiographical reasons on Larry’s part. He first conducted it in a workshop with Finnish conductor Jorma Panula and the National Arts Center Orchestra. Panula and Pinchas Zuckerman picked four students from the group, with Larry chosen to conduct the last movement. “That was a formative experience. Every time I conduct that movement, my stomach drops a little bit, because of the circumstances of the first time I conducted it.” Even without that background, the finale is apt to have a profound effect on you, too.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org