NAC is extending performance and event cancellations and postponements until June 30

Lisiecki & Orpheus Chamber Orchestra


Mendelssohn’s concertos may sometimes be disregarded due to their brevity or a perceived superficiality, but a closer look at the music exposes the depth and genius of Mendelssohn’s ideas. As in any concerto, I pay close attention to the collaboration required with the orchestra, both as a whole and with individual musicians, and Mendelssohn provides ample opportunity to create moments of intimate beauty. I could not imagine better partners to make this happen than the musicians of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

To me, working with Orpheus is truly chamber music, only with an unusually large group, in which every musician knows not only their part, but also the role they play within the orchestra. Everyone brings insights that serve the composition, leading to an overall picture that is cohesive, vibrant and fresh. The experience recording and performing with Orpheus has been rewarding and inspirational, and I truly appreciate the way the musicians dedicate themselves to the art.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is making its first appearance at the NAC.

Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations: Canadian premiere, commissioned by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Program notes: In brief

Felix Mendelssohn grew up in bustling Berlin, where the family’s posh urban compound served as a musical incubator and private concert hall to showcase the young prodigy. A true urbanite, Mendelssohn soaked up inspiration in each great metropolis he visited, and his talents as a composer and pianist ultimately made him a star throughout Europe. His memories of Rome, Florence and Naples shaped the ebullient “Italian” Symphony, while the high expectations of his admirers in Birmingham (England’s second largest city) pushed Mendelssohn to new heights of passion and beauty in his Second Piano Concerto, played here by another well-traveled virtuoso at the keyboard, Canada’s Jan Lisiecki. Composer Jessie Montgomery, a lifelong New Yorker and Orpheus’ first Artistic Partner, returns with a new work steeped in the cycles and seasons of the human experience.

– Program note by Aaron Grad

Jessie Montgomery

Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations

Born in New York City, 1981
Now living in Princeton, New Jersey

Jessie Montgomery began classical violin lessons at age four, but she learned just as much from the days she spent at her father’s rehearsal studio for rock and jazz bands in Manhattan’s East Village. Since studying violin performance at The Juilliard School and film scoring at New York University, she has established herself as an essential composer, performer and educator within New York’s dynamic music scene, and she brings all of those talents to her new role as Orpheus’ first-ever Artistic Partner. Montgomery’s previous Orpheus commission, Records from a Vanishing City, helped spark her meteoric rise in the orchestral world; that work has received an exceptional number of follow-up performances for a contemporary score, and further commissions from the likes of the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra will keep Montgomery’s orchestral catalogue expanding for years to come. 


Taking inspiration from another Orpheus Chamber Orchestra project this season, her new arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Montgomery saw this commission as “a great opportunity to contribute to the tradition of writing a piece based on seasons, as change and rotation is something that we all experience as humans.” She describes the work as “a musical exploration of both the external and internal seasons, which at times seem to be changing along the same axis.”

Droning and pulsing harmonies anchor this work’s cyclical structure in a tempo marked “slow, chanting,” appearing at the beginning and end, and also between the contrasting episodes. One melodious section at a walking pace introduces a variety of slurs, slides and harmonics, and another portion in a “quick” tempo explores agile woodwind phrases and multi-layered string textures, all orchestrated with a visceral clarity that speaks to Montgomery’s depth of experience performing in virtuoso ensembles.

– Program note by Aaron Grad


Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809
Died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847

Mendelssohn was a pianist of the first rank and wrote much music for his instrument, particularly during his early years. One contemporary, Ferdinand Hiller, described his execution as follows: “He played the piano as a lark soars. He possessed a great adroitness, sureness, strength, fluency, a soft full tone,” all qualities found in much of his piano music, including the Concerto in G minor. Schumann called Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century.”

This concerto shares with its successor in D minor and with the Violin Concerto several notable characteristics: a first movement in the minor mode with a compressed exposition section, a brilliantly virtuosic finale, the use of transitions between movements rather than clean breaks, and a happy blend of romantic and classical elements: melancholia and bravura on the one hand, textural transparency and formal clarity on the other.

“A thing rapidly thrown off,” was how Mendelssohn described his G-minor concerto. The concerto was composed in 1830–1831 and was dedicated to a beautiful young woman with whom the composer was in love, Delphine von Schauroth. The composer played the solo part at the premiere in Munich in 1831 at the age of 22.

Though essentially a lightweight concerto of no serious pretensions, three special qualities should be noted: First, there is no initial presentation of the principal themes by the orchestra; only a brief introduction – a fiery crescendo by the strings – precedes the soloist’s entrance. Second, the three movements are played without pause, with brief rhythmic fanfares acting as bridge passages (Mendelssohn, like Schumann, particularly liked to connect individual movements of a larger work in the interests of formal unity). And third, there are no formal cadenzas. The finale in particular is so imbued with dashing brilliance that a cadenza here would be all but superfluous.

– Program note by Robert Markow


Symphony No. 4, “Italian”

Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809
Died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847

Unlike many other composers, Mendelssohn was born to wealth and creature comforts. One of the advantages this brought to him was the opportunity to travel widely. His thorough education in the liberal arts and fine arts prepared him for keen observation of the sights, people, culture and spirit of any place he visited. In Italy, he was particularly impressed by the art of the old masters like Michelangelo, Titian and Giorgione; by the magnificent buildings of Rome; and by the natural beauty of the countryside. He began working on a new symphony in December 1832, and within a few weeks was referring to it in letters as his “Italian” symphony. It was first performed by the Philharmonic Society of London on March 13, 1833.

Italy’s sunny vitality and Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the land are immediately apparent in the opening bars of the symphony. An exuberant theme in the violins is accompanied by a continuous fusillade of notes from the wind section. The second theme (clarinet and bassoon) is more lyrical, but still imbued with restless animation. The development section features a new theme in the minor mode, appearing first in a delicately tripping manner, but growing to fearsome intensity. Then, as if with a touch of magic, Mendelssohn dispels the mood of anxiety with a sustained note for the oboe.

Much has been made of the penitential character of the Andante movement. The possibility exists that Mendelssohn borrowed the plaintive tune from a pilgrim chant he heard in a procession in Naples. The second theme (clarinets) is somewhat more cheerful, less severe. The chant then returns and eventually fades away in the distance “like a procession quietly turning the corner” in the words of Klaus G. Roy.

The graciously flowing third movement returns to a mood of warmth and sunshine. The central section evokes a gentle sylvan setting and features a solo unit of two horns and two bassoons, which are cleverly combined to sound like a horn quartet.  

The finale is a fiery, whirling dance movement that unites two different Italian dances. The saltarello, which opens the movement, is a jumping dance from Rome, while the Neapolitan tarantella is characterized by smooth, even triplets. The movement is in A minor, a most unusual key to end a symphony that began in the bright and breezy key of A major. Yet hardly one listener in a thousand stops to worry about such an irregularity, so thrilling is Mendelssohn’s rush to the finish.

The NAC Orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony for the first time in 1970, under the direction of Mario Bernardi, and most recently in 2014 with Pinchas Zukerman on the podium.

By Robert Markow

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Ronnie Bauch
Abigail Fayette
Laura Frautschi
Emma Frucht
Bryan Hernandez-Luch
Liang-Ping How
Adelya Nartadjieva
Francesca dePasquale
Richard Rood
Miho Saegusa
Stephanie Zyzak

Christof Huebner
Dana Kelley
Nardo Poy
Wendy Richman

Melissa Meell
Sarah Rommel
James Wilson

Gregg August
Jordan Frazier

Keisuke Ikuma
Kemp Jernigan

Julietta Curenton
Catherine Gregory

Nuno Antunes
Alan Kay

Gina Cuffari
Adrian Morejon

David Byrd-Marrow
Stewart Rose

John Sheppard
Maximilian Morel

Samuel Budish

Richard Goode
Elizabeth Newman
Richard Prins
Connie Steensma

Martha Caplin, violin
Sarah Clarke, viola
Nicolas Danielson, violin
Matt Dine, oboe
Guillermo Figueroa, violin
Maureen Gallagher, viola
David Jolley, horn
Joanna Jenner, violin
Kyu Young Kim, violin
Julia Lichten, cello
Charles Neidich, clarinet
William Purvis, horn
David Singer, clarinet
Naoko Tanaka, violin

Dennis Godburn, bassoon
Charles William Henry, violin