February 2019 Program Notes
Roses and Thorns
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite
Strauss’ comic opera Der Rosenkavalier (Knight of the Rose) brought him his greatest fame and financial success. Audiences flocked to Dresden to see Der Rosenkavalier; in fact, when the opera premiered in 1911 it was so well attended that special “Rosenkavalier” trains were chartered to shuttle audiences to Dresden from Berlin.
Strauss was not only one of the foremost composers of his time, but also a well-respected conductor. He programmed a wide spectrum of works, and had a particular affinity for the music of Mozart. After the 1909 premiere of Strauss’ uncompromisingly modern opera Elektra, the composer declared, “I shall now write a Mozart opera.” Der Rosenkavalier is the result. It resembles The Marriage of Figaro in its convoluted plot twists, comic romantic entanglements, and highly singable melodies. Some critics dismissed it as old-fashioned and accused Strauss of abandoning the modern idiom in a grossly commercial attempt to appeal to audiences. Accurate or not, this criticism had no effect on either Strauss or the public, which adored Rosenkavalier from its first performance. The opera remained so popular for the next 30 years that at the end of WWII, Strauss identified himself to the American soldiers who knocked on his door simply as “the composer of Der Rosenkavalier.”
Of the several orchestral arrangements of music from Der Rosenkavalier, this version, prepared by the conductor Artur Rodzinski (with Strauss’ approval) is the best known. The music excerpted for this suite opens with the opera’s signature horn solo and introduction, then recounts the exploits of the title character, Octavian, as he woos the aging Marschallin and later seals the engagement of his kinsman, Baron Ochs, to the youthful Sophie by presenting her with a silver rose. Strauss’ incomparably beautiful Viennese waltzes are woven throughout the Suite like silken threads in a tapestry. The specific excerpts of the opera featured in the suite are the Prelude to Act I, the Presentation of the Silver Rose (Act II), the Arrival of Ochs and Waltzes from Act II; “Ist ein Traum” (It is a Dream) from Act III, and the Grand Waltz.
Andrea Tarrodi: Highlands – Cello Concerto
Since 2009, when she received the Ensemble for New Music Composer Competition’s first prize, Andrea Tarrodi has become one of Sweden’s young composers to watch. Tarrodi has served as Composer-in-Residence with Swedish Radio and the Västerås Sinfonietta, and last year her string quartets received the Swedish Grammy Award for Best Classical Album.
“‘Highlands’ was inspired by the landscape of the Scottish Highlands: the green mountains, the heights and the steep cliffs by the coast,” writes Tarrodi. “On some level ‘Highlands’ is also connected to force and struggle – mainly nature’s force and struggle, but also, in some ways, one’s own … The piece was written for the Västerås Sinfonietta and cellist Jakob Korányi whose playing technique and numerous suggestions have been a great source of inspiration.”
The concerto’s five movements each bear a descriptive title referring to scenic areas connected by the North Highland Way, an 80-mile walking trail stretching across the northernmost part of the Scottish mainland coast. Cape Wrath, on the northwestern end of the trail, lives up to its name with fearsome cliffs hammered by wild ocean currents. The Duncansby Stacks, just off the shore of Dunnet Head, on the northeast section of trail, are sea stacks formed by ocean erosion. Their dramatically colored geologic layers catch the eye, as do the many birds that use them as a haven for nesting.
In “Bird Cathedral” vibraphone and winds create a gently rippling background and the solo cello, using extended performance techniques, mimics the wild cries of seagulls and other sea birds. Without pause, we hear the orchestra grow denser and louder as the horns and brasses are added to create the sound and feel of the waves crashing at Dunnet Head.
“Here, nature is both magically fascinating and fearsomely brutal, with ingenious contrasting strings and blows, and sometimes the solo cello seems to freeze time and portray man’s mixed feelings before the wonderful … A great premiere of a work that is deserved to be heard by many.” – Dagens Nyheter (Today’s News), 2014.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
“I desperately want to prove, not only to others, but also to myself, that I am not yet played out as a composer,” wrote Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his patron Nadezhda von Meck in the spring of 1888. With the benefit of hindsight, the idea that Tchaikovsky could think himself “played out” is puzzling; after he completed the Fifth Symphony he went on to write Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and the “Pathétique” Symphony. All artists go through periods of self-doubt, however; and Tchaikovsky was plagued by creative insecurity more than most.
If you ask a Tchaikovsky fan to name their favorite symphony, they’ll most likely choose either the Fourth, with its dramatic “Fate” motif blaring in the brasses, or the Sixth (“Pathétique”). Sandwiched in between is the Fifth Symphony, often overlooked or undervalued when compared to its more popular neighbors. But the Fifth is a monument in its own right, showcasing Tchaikovsky’s undisputed mastery of melody; indeed, the Fifth rolls out one unforgettable tune after another. Over time, the Fifth Symphony has earned its place in the canon of orchestral repertoire itself, but Tchaikovsky, as did 19th century music critics, wavered in his opinion of its worth. At the end of the summer in 1888, Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck, “It seems to me that I have not blundered, that it has turned out well,” and to his nephew Vladimir Davidov after a concert in Hamburg, “The Fifth Symphony was magnificently played and I like it far better now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time.” After a performance in Prague, however, Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck, “I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated color, some insincerity of fabrication which the public instinctively recognizes.”
Critics dismissed the new symphony as beneath Tchaikovsky’s abilities, and one American critic damned the composer with faint praise when he opined, “[Tchaikovsky] has been criticized for the occasionally excessive harshness of his harmony, for now and then descending to the trivial and tawdry in his ornamental figuration, and also for a tendency to develop comparatively insignificant material to inordinate length. But, in spite of the prevailing wild savagery of his music, its originality and the genuineness of its fire and sentiment are not to be denied.”
The Fifth Symphony features a theme that recurs in all four movements. We hear it first in the lowest chalumeau register of the clarinet, which conveys an air of foreboding. The late critic and scholar Michael Steinberg described the theme’s effects in all the movements: “It will recur as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, as an enervated ghost that approaches the languid dancers of the waltz, and … in majestic and blazing E major triumph.”
Tchaikovsky’s gift for melody reached beyond the classical music world in 1939, when the poignantly wistful horn solo in the Andante cantabile morphed into the popular song Moon Love, which became a hit for Glenn Miller.
— © 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz
NOTE: The program notes attributed to Elizabeth Schwartz are published here by the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com. Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and music historian based in Portland, OR. She has been a program annotator for more than 20 years, and her clients include the Oregon Symphony, the Spokane Symphony, and Chamber Music Northwest, among others. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).