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Featuring Beethoven’s cheerful Symyphony No. 4, and Symphoria musicians Arvilla Wendland and Peter Rovit in Mozart’s delightful Sinfonia Concertante.

 


PROGRAM

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio: Overture, op.72c
MOZART: Sinfonia concertante, K.364 (320d), E-flat major
 BEETHOVEN: Symphony No.4, op.60, B-flat major

 

PLEASE NOTE: This program will also be presented by Geneva Concerts at 7:30PM on February 29th at Smith Opera House in Geneva, NY.   More information can be found HERE.

 



PROGRAM NOTES

Concertos for multiple soloists and orchestra—often in the form of a concerto grosso—were common during the baroque period. The genre slowly died out in the classical and especially the romantic periods, in part because the virtuoso model of the heroic individual soloist battling the orchestra became increasingly suited to the spirit of the times. Still, there are a number of post-baroque examples, and one of the greatest of them is the Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K. 364, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791).

It was composed in 1779, at a slightly bitter time in Mozart’s life, ...
Concertos for multiple soloists and orchestra—often in the form of a concerto grosso—were common during the baroque period. The genre slowly died out in the classical and especially the romantic periods, in part because the virtuoso model of the heroic individual soloist battling the orchestra became increasingly suited to the spirit of the times. Still, there are a number of post-baroque examples, and one of the greatest of them is the Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K. 364, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791).

It was composed in 1779, at a slightly bitter time in Mozart’s life, when he returned to Salzburg after a failed attempt to find better employment in Paris. Mozart was, however, not one to whine—at least in his music; and this is easily the most self-assured concerto he had written up to that time. It’s a true double concerto where, as viola soloist Arvilla Wendland puts it, “the interactions are seamless” in such a way that the two soloists emerge as absolute equals. “The two solo instruments play exactly the same material, too, except in the cadenzas”—although Mozart takes pains to switch things up. Thus, says Arvilla, “if one plays the first part of a phrase and the other finishes, in the recap it’s the opposite.” If that back and forth reminds you of an “operatic dialogue,” says concertmaster Peter Rovit, well that’s typical of the vocal way Mozart often treats solo instruments.

The Sinfonia concertante is in the key of E-flat Major, generally a rather bold key for Mozart—and the outer movements are confident and grand. The heart of the concerto, though, is the sublime middle movement. As Arvilla puts it, “Those harmonies at the opening of the second movement are so dark”—enriched by Mozart’s decision to write for divided violas (as he does in his string quintets), which “brings so much richness to the inner voices, thickening the harmonies and drawing the listener in.” Peter agrees: “Mozart is usually so sparkling, so when he does plumb the depths it’s all the more affecting.” Peter and Arvilla are especially gratified to be playing the work with their colleagues in Symphoria: there’s room for far more subtle interaction with the orchestra, since they’ve “played chamber music with half the people on the stage.”

The Mozart comes between two middle-period works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)—whose 250th anniversary is being commemorated by six Symphoria concerts this season and next. First is the overture to Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. The opera—which centers on a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to rescue her husband, a political prisoner—stands, along with such works as the Ninth Symphony, as one of Beethoven’s great tributes to human liberty. Beethoven, though, had a lot of trouble getting the opera into shape. The first version, under the title Leonore, was composed in 1805. It took a decade of revision, however, before it showed up in the form in which it’s now known. Particularly problematic was the overture. The first three versions (known as the Leonore Overtures Nos. 1, 2, and 3—although they were not composed in that order) were all sensational pieces, but they didn’t work as an introduction to the opera, in part because they’re too long and emotionally draining (especially Nos. 2 and 3), even more because they don’t match the opera’s unconventional plot trajectory. Fidelio begins lightly, almost as a comic opera, with the kind of gender confusion that marks so many farces. It moves slowly to high drama (the suspense in the rescue scene is palpable), before exploding in an infectious celebration as the prisoners are released. The Leonore Overtures, in a sense, presaged the ending instead of introducing the initial situation. The Fidelio Overture is less massive—and it sets up the opening of the opera more successfully.

After intermission, we have Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, composed in 1806, during the years when he was rethinking Fidelio—and it has a similar kind of wide-ranging character. That character, however, is not always recognized. Conventional wisdom often suggests that listening to music puts us in direct communication with the composer. In practice, though, the way we consider (and even experience) a piece of music is influenced by the contexts surrounding it—which include, among other things, the immediate context of the other works on the program, the broad historical information that we bring to it, and even the catchphrases that have been attached to it. In the case of the Fourth, our understanding and appreciation have been thwarted by an epigram penned by Robert Schumann. Noting that it stands between the “Eroica” Symphony and the Fifth, he wittily described it as a “slim Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” Schumann may have been a great music critic, and was certainly a great composer—but he was way off the mark here. Still, the image is so memorable that the mischaracterization has defined the symphony for many listeners over more than a century and a half.

In fact, though, it’s just as radical as the siblings that flank it—it’s just that, as conductor Larry Loh puts it, it offers “a different way of being revolutionary.” For example, the slow introduction—so different in spirit from the hammer blows that open the Third and Fifth—might appear “to be looking back. But it’s not at all Mozartian. Rather, the opening is so subtly adventurous with its quiet sustain, its shifting harmony”—and its minor-key cast. What does it prepare us for? Well, if it its shifting harmonies promise a work where anything can happen, the symphony that follows surely delivers. It’s got a brisk, high spirited first movement, followed by an Adagio that Hector Berlioz (who had his own way of being revolutionary) called “irresistibly tender” and a surprisingly knockabout scherzo (anachronistically called a “minuet”) with tremendous syncopated kick. And if you’re looking for sheer Beethovenesque thrills, the finale will meet your needs.

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

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