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Casual

2018-2019 Season / Casual / Musical Explorations
All performances at 3:00pm at St. Paul's Syracuse
2018-19Casual3Loh

LAWRENCE LOH | conductor

PROGRAM:
DELIUS: On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a
PART: Frätres
MOZART: Symphony No. 38, K. 504, D major (Prague)

 

This afternoon’s concert has four Symphoria firsts that are disparate
chronologically, geographically, stylistically, and spiritually. And yet, music is dependent on
tradition, convention, and influence. And the more you think about these works, the more
connections you find.

 

Musical Explorations
03.17.19

3:00pm | St. Paul's Syracuse

On most of our concerts, there’s a planned connection among the works. They might
have been written in the same period or the same country. They might have been inspired by the
same author or have similar programmatic concerns. They might feature composers who had
close personal relationships. This afternoon’s concert has four Symphoria firsts that are disparate
chronologically, geographically, stylistically, and spiritually. And yet, music is dependent on
tradition, convention, and influence. And the more you think about these works, the more
connections you find.
We open, appropriately for the date, with On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,
composed in 1912 by 40-year old Frederick Delius (1862–1934). A truly international, Delius
was born in England, moved to America when young, went on to study in Germany (where he
was mentored by Norwegian Edvard Grieg), and spent his final years in France. On Hearing the
First Cuckoo in Spring is his most popular work. Based on a Norwegian folk tune, it’s an
archetypically impressionistic piece. Although the first clarinet does get to imitate a cuckoo, this
quiet, tender, introverted, and low-contrast music is aimed less at imitating particular sounds of
the world than at conveying a mood of peaceful contemplation.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was also 40 when he wrote his Variations on a Theme
of Joseph Haydn in1873. In spirit, this sturdy, extroverted work is totally unlike Delius’s; but
like Delius, Brahms based his work on preexisting thematic material. (It’s not a folk tune,
though. Nor, despite the title, is it even a work by Haydn. Brahms was misled by misattribution,
just as Stravinsky misled about the true origins of much of the music in Pulcinella, which was
featured on the final Casual Concert last spring). Brahms may have been attracted to the tune for
its odd metrical structure. The first part has five-bar phrases rather than the expected four. This
gives the theme a hint of imbalance which Brahms exploits as the piece moves on. The results
are slightly paradoxical. Despite the metrical unevenness, conductor Larry Loh points out, the
variations unravel “naturally. They all have this perfect logic.” Then too, “they all have a lot of
contrast, but they all sound like Brahms.” They sound most like Brahms in the grand finale. Here
Brahms gives us a set of variations within a variation by offering a passacaglia, a device
borrowed from the baroque period in which a repeated pattern (in this case, a melody that begins
in the bass) underpins a work, usually with varied music above it. Most passacaglias have
repeated material every four or eight bars; Brahms’s use of a five-measure theme gives this
passacaglia a singular flavor. It’s a piece, Larry points out, with a real chamber-music quality,
one that demands that the players listen to each other especially carefully—and that, fortunately
for us, is one of Symphoria’s hallmarks.
Arvo Pärt, born in 1935 in Soviet Estonia, started out as a gadfly to the Soviet musical
hierarchy by writing aggressively modernist scores that used such techniques as serialism and
collage. But he eventually found his high modernism as stultifying as the conservatism of Soviet
Socialist Realism that it was intended to resist; and after a fallow period when he studied
medieval and Renaissance music, he developed a distinctive minimalist style that’s closely tied
to his deep Orthodox Christianity. This style is clearly represented in Fratres, originally
composed in 1997 (when he was about the same age as Delius and Brahms were when they

wrote in their pieces), but it has been adapted for a variety of different performing groups since
then.
To be technical for a moment (you can skip this paragraph if your eyes glaze over): Pärt’s
mature pieces are steeped in a technique he calls “tintinnabuli.” As it manifests itself in Fratres,
there are three superimposed planes. At the bottom is a sustained drone (A and E). Overlaid on it
are two voices, one consisting of a mainly-stepwise melodic line (or parallel melodic lines), the
other restricted to the notes of the A minor triad. Besides this vertical structure, Fratres has an
intricate horizontal configuration as well. Each measure has a similar shape, beginning with a
half note (two beats) and ending with a dotted half note (three beats), with a varying number of
quarter notes (one beat each) in between. Because of the music’s very slow tempo, you’ll be able
to hear the beginning and ending of each measure easily. The variations in the lengths of the
measures are not random; they follow a recurring cycle: 7 beats, 9 beats, 11 beats. These are
bound up in a larger pattern as well: nine groups of six measures, each group separated by two
stark measures for claves and drum.
There’s a lot more to the work’s governing principles, but even at this initial level, these
gears within gears may seem arcane and over-intellectual—it’s obvious that Pärt is still inspired
by serial techniques from his early years. But in fact, the basic structures are clearly audible and
the experience of hearing the music transcends its abstraction. Fratres is so meditative that it
makes Delius seem hyperactive, so committed to strict principles of variation that it makes
Brahms seem casual. Yet it has such a hypnotic draw that it is has become, for years now, the
most frequently performed orchestral piece by a living composer. All this is done, too, without
reliance on orchestral color. “The highest virtue of music, for me,” says the composer, “lies
outside of its mere sound. … The essence must be there, independent of the instruments.”
If Delius borrows from folk song, Brahms from faux-Haydn, and Pärt from medieval and
modernist practices, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) cheekily borrows from himself
in his 1786 Symphony No. 38. Written for Prague where he had—and was still to have—some
of his greatest triumphs, the symphony begins with high drama that looks ahead to Don
Giovanni, and concludes with a boisterous finale that grows out of the most madcap episode of
The Marriage of Figaro, which had wowed Prague audiences three years before. It’s only got
three movements, instead of the usual four—but in contrast to the more focused music of the
other composers on our program, it’s so profligate both in its melodic invention and its
counterpoint, so striking in its often-syncopated rhythms, that you’re unlikely to notice. This is
Mozart showing off the full range of his talents to his adoring fans—and if we were to write a
description of what’s happening in the music, it would take longer to read than it takes to play
the piece. So let’s just listen.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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