Ehnes and Beethoven’s Fifth

with the NAC Orchestra
Beethoven

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

I. Allegro con brio
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo: Allegro
IV. Allegro – Presto

Whether it’s the first or the umpteenth time you’ve heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (1804–1808), it’s simply impossible not to be grabbed by the explosive opening of first movement: the famous “short-short-short-long” motive, the so-called “fate knocking on the door.” With this germ, the first movement (Allegro con brio) propels forward with furious energy, developing as if organically. The motive becomes like an obsession, and appears in the later movements as well, transformed into different guises: as a triumphant second theme, proclaimed by French horns and trumpets in the second movement; as a militaristic march tune, also intoned by French horns, in the scherzo; and as a vivacious contrasting theme, played by the violins, in the finale.

Indeed, the “short-short-short-long” motive, with its various “characters”, is just one of several methods through which the composer connects them into a cohesive narrative design. Ultimately, the potency of the Fifth Symphony arises from how Beethoven conveys the psychological arc of victory over struggle, or darkness to light, across the work’s four movements. He achieves this through his specific use of mode: from the pathos and stormy drama of C minor in the first and third movements, which bracket a lyrical slow movement in A flat major, to the jubilant C major of the fourth movement.

Moreover, the C major triumph is foreshadowed in each movement—the recapitulation of the second theme in the first, the bright theme in the second, and the energetic trio of the third. A wonderfully mysterious transition that directly connects the third movement to the fourth—beginning with the timpani tapping the main motive on a low C, over a long A-flat in the cellos and basses—further heightens the dramatic progression towards its ultimate fulfillment. Yet, even in the exultation of the finale, Beethoven briefly reminds us—in a recall of the scherzo’s “march” theme—of the darker C minor anguish, before we are finally released into the light, encumbered no more, towards the symphony’s ecstatic conclusion.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

Saint-Saëns

Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 28

Andante (malinconico) – Allegro ma non troppo

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Spanish virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1863, four years after they had met and become friends, and he had written for him a Concerto in A major (published as No. 1). Today, it is probably SaintSaëns’s best-known work for violin and orchestra. He described it as being “in the Spanish style”, alluding, for one, to his use of various Spanish idiomatic rhythms throughout. The piece also channels a certain idea of Spanish character, that of an impulsive passionate spirit, which likely enhanced Sarasate’s own persona as a performer, in addition to highlighting the hallmarks of his playing style: a sweet, pure tone and brilliant technique.

Strummed violins and cellos set the stage for the violinist’s wistful, somewhat pleading melody in the Introduction. An elaborate continuation leads into the Rondo’s main theme, resolutely proud in character, supported by strutting chords in the strings. As per the rondo form, the theme recurs, alternating with contrasting episodes. The first of these features a lively tune with trills in the violin overtop a flamenco-style accompaniment, followed by virtuosic displays of upbow staccato, lightning-fast runs, and arpeggios. The orchestra announces the second with a fiery dance, which the violin takes up, but the mood soon shifts, when it presents a sensual, soulful melody. Another ardent though pensive song for violin appears in the third episode. In the final return of the Rondo theme, the violin accompanies the oboe with arpeggios becoming increasingly extravagant, ultimately culminating in a cadenza of vigorous chords. Then, a pause for a breath, and the violin brings this showpiece to a dazzling close.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

Lili Boulanger

Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra, arr. Sarah Slean

Although her frail health prevented her from pursuing a comprehensive musical education at the Paris Conservatoire, Lili Boulanger had her prodigious musical talent nurtured through private instruction. In 1911, the year she wrote this Nocturne, she was studying with French composer Georges Caussade, preparing to compete for the Prix de Rome (she became the first woman to win the prestigious prize in 1913). The work was originally conceived as a “short piece” for flute and piano although it has been more frequently performed in a transcription for violin and piano. The version you’ll hear tonight has the piano part arranged for string orchestra.

It was the publisher who added the title “Nocturne”, yet the piece certainly shares characteristics with that genre of composition that is evocative of the night—an enigmatic atmosphere, perhaps tinged with anxiousness, as well as connotations of romantic passion. Boulanger masterfully conveys these qualities through her impressionistic use of harmonic colour (here, given a certain richness and subtlety in the orchestral arrangement), which supports a sumptuous violin melody. The beginning is somewhat tentative, but gradually, the violin gains confidence, becoming more impassioned and rhapsodic, while the accompaniment’s sparse texture fills out accordingly. Following an intense climax, the music subsides in a state of blissful peace.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

JESSIE MONTGOMERY

Strum

Jessie Montgomery first conceived Strum for cello quintet formation in 2006. The version performed tonight is for string orchestra and is, she notes, the “culminating result of several versions.” As she further describes, “it was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.”

In the string orchestra version, the original voicing for five instruments is now, “spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound.” “Within Strum,” Montgomery elaborates, “I utilized ‘texture motives’, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati [continually repeated patterns] that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato [i.e., technique of plucking strings] serves as a ‘texture motive’ and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

SARASATE

Zigeunerweisen for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 20 (Gypsy Airs)

Born in Pamplona, Spain in 1844, Pablo de Sarasate was, by the late 19th century, an internationally renowned violin virtuoso, having toured not only across Europe but also throughout North and South America. Many composers admired him and wrote works for him, such as Saint-Saëns and his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso that is also on this concert program. Sarasate incorporated these pieces into his concert repertory, as well as compositions of his own, including Zigeunerweisen. It remains one of his best-known pieces today, in both its original violin and piano and its violin and orchestra versions.

Zigeunerweisen (usually translated as “Gypsy Airs”) was composed in 1878 and premiered by Sarasate that year in Germany. Stylistically, it is intended to evoke the sensual, rhapsodic quality of the music of Romani people, with whom Sarasate’s public had a particular fascination. Above all, the piece was a vehicle to show off the playing style for which he had become famous: a pure, sweet tone and a technical facility with the instrument that made the most difficult hurdles seem effortless.

Zigeunerweisen unfolds in four sections. The orchestra introduces the first part with a forceful, brooding statement, to which the violin responds with an improvisatory rhapsody. In the second section, the violin muses moodily on an impassioned, melancholy melody over hushed, sustained accompaniment. Expressive gestures such as portamentos (slides between notes), and glissandos are featured as well as difficult techniques such as harmonics, left-hand pizzicato, and flying spiccato and ricochet bowings. The brief third section contains a nostalgic tune played by the now-muted violin; recent research has shown this to be an adaptation of a melody originally by Hungarian composer Elemér Szentirmay. Zigeunerweisen concludes with a blisteringly fast dance, a Hungarian csárdás—a final display of brilliant virtuosity by the violinist.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

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