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Wednesday, 05 February 2014 01:15

Symphony Preview: Friends Again + Video

Edinburgh, circa 1829 Edinburgh, circa 1829 antiquaprintgallery.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend (February 7-9) marks the return to the Powell Hall stage of Lucerne Symphony Chief Conductor (and fellow Rice University alum) James Gaffigan for a program of music by Mendelssohn and Brahms that puts two of the symphony's own in the spotlight.

The concerts open with "Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusina) Overture," op. 32 from 1833.  It's not, as you might think from the title, the overture to an opera or play but rather a stand-alone concert work based on an extra-musical subject.  It's the sort of thing Liszt would later call a "symphonic poem." That wouldn't happen for another decade, though, so back then such pieces were simply called "concert overtures."  Mendelssohn's far more well-known "The Hebrides" op. 26 (a.k.a. "Fingal's Cave") is a classic example.

The story of "The Fair Melusina" comes from the realm of the supernatural.  "The eponymous heroine," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "derives from a medieval French tale about a water nymph, or mermaid, who can pass as a human being. She falls in love with a human prince and agrees to marry him on the condition that he leave her alone one day every week, when she secretly reverts to her half-fish form. When her husband discovers her true identity, their happiness ends and Melusina is exiled to an aquatic fairy realm." 

This is not unfamiliar territory for classical composers; a similar story drives Dvoƙák’s 1901 opera "Rusalka" (the Metropolitan Opera live HD broadcast of which is, coincidentally, showing at the Art Museum on Saturday afternoon).  As Robert Schumann noted, though, Mendelssohn doesn't attempt literal storytelling here so much as he “portrays only the characters of the man and the woman, of the proud, knightly Lusignan and the enticing, yielding Melusina."  You hear the latter in clarinet arpeggios and the former in a more heroic theme for the strings.  Nice stuff, and not heard as often as "Hebrides"; the last symphony performance was in 2008.

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey's nave in August 2011

The other Mendelssohn piece on the program—the "Symphony No. 3 in A minor", op. 56, “Scottish”—is much more well known and is frequently heard in concert halls and on the radio.   Although most of it wasn't written until 1842, Mendelssohn got the idea for the slow introduction to the first movement when he visited the ruined Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh on 1829 walking tour of Scotland.  “In the evening twilight," he wrote, "we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved…Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.” 

That opening theme aside, though, the "Scottish" nature of the symphony is a subject of some debate among critics and program annotators.  Some, like the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Eric Bromberger, feel that "no one is sure what that nickname means. This music tells no tale, paints no picture, nor does it quote Scottish tunes."  British composer and conductor Julius Harrison, on the other hand, thought the symphony "illustrates the near-scenic aspect of Mendelssohn's romantic art" and felt that the jaunty clarinet theme of the Vivace non troppo second movement has "a touch of 'Charlie is My Darling' about it's dotted quavers—something Mendelssohn may have remembered and set down."

I fall more into the late Mr. Harrison's camp, but wherever you come down on the "Scottishness" of this music there's no getting around its unflagging appeal and elegant construction.  To hear this music is to love it.

Love played a part in the composition of the second work on this weekend's program, the "Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (Double Concerto)", op. 102.  "The lovable side of Brahms' nature," write Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock in their chatty "Men of Music," "is nowhere better illustrated than in the circumstances surrounding the composition" of this piece.  Brahms wrote in in 1887 in an attempt to mend fences with his friend and musical collaborator Joseph Joachim.  Brahms had taken (or appeared to take, anyway) the side of Joachim's wife in an ugly divorce suit six years earlier and Joachim refused to forgive him despite repeated attempts at reconciliation.

A commission for a concerto from Robert Hausmann, the cellist Joachim's string quartet, finally gave Brahms the opening he needed.  Brahms approached Joachim for advice on the concerto and, as it evolved from a cello concerto to an unusual concerto for violin and cello (harking back to the old Baroque concerto grosso), the old musical partnership between the two men was rekindled.  "This concerto is a work of reconciliation," noted Clara Schumann in her journal. "Joachim and Brahms have spoken to each other again for the first time in years."

Daniel Lee and David Halen

It's a remarkable piece due in part—as Mr. Schiavo notes—to "its insistence that the cello and violin are equal partners, paradoxically both solo, yet conjoined. Like all great pairings, the union engenders something entirely new—in this case a crazy hybrid super-stringed instrument that can plummet as low as a cello and soar as high as a violin in one delirious run."  It opens with a dramatic declaration for the cello, followed by a more lyrical theme on the violin.  The cello quickly joins in and soon they're off on a rapturous duet that will continue, in various forms, for the next 33 minutes or so.  "They are having an intimate conversation,' writes Mr. Schiavo, "really listening to each other, supporting, and forgiving each other. Together they make a better person."  It really is a labor of love, and that comes through is every measure.

That said, Brahms himself was somewhat dismissive of the concerto and lacked confidence in his writing for the solo instruments.  "It is quite a different matter," he wrote to Clara Schumann, "writing for instruments whose character and sound one can only incidentally imagine than for an instrument which one knows totally—as I do the piano." 

And he wasn't alone in his misgivings.  As Peter Gutmann writes at Classical Notes, Edward Hanslick (normally a fan) dismissed it as “a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of creative imagination and invention.”  Brockway and Weinstock go ever further: "It is of appalling difficulty both for soloists and audience: playing it may give the pleasure of obstacles overcome, but there is no such reward for most listeners."

Listening to the Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony now, I find it impossible to agree with that assessment.  The give and take between the soloists that Mr. Schiavo describes is irresistible to my ears. 

Brockway and Weinstock are right about the technical challenges, though.  Fortunately this weekend's performances will feature concertmaster David Halen and principal cellist Daniel Lee in the solo roles, so technique isn't likely to be an issue.  And there will be the additional appeal of watching these two colleagues work together.

The Essentials: James Gaffigan conducts the St. Louis Symphony with soloists David Halen (violin) and Daniel Lee (cello) in the Brahms "Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (Double Concerto)", op. 102, along with Mendelssohn's "Die schöne Melusine (The Fair Melusina) Overture," op. 32 and "Symphony No. 3 in A minor", op. 56.  Performances are Friday at 10:30 AM (a Krispy Kreme coffee concert with free doughnuts), Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM, February 7-9, at Powell Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.  The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and streaming from the station web site.  But, of course, it’s best heard live.

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