mozart & mendelssohn

Mozart was very busy in 1786 and 1787. He fathered two children: Johann Thomas Leopold (1786) and Theresia Constanzia (1787), and also grieved the death of his father (1787). In this turbulent environment he composed two operas (The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni), a Piano Concerto (No. 25), and tonight’s Symphony No. 38 in D major. Mozart composed the Symphony in Vienna, but at that time the city was less than enthusiastic about his work, so he decided to premiere it in another city that more eagerly welcomed his music, Prague. The city’s patrons were already enamored with The Marriage of Figaro, so when Mozart arrived to conduct the opera he brought his new Symphony with him.

Most symphonies of the Classical era conform to the standard four-movement structure: a lively first movement, a slow second movement, a minuet and trio third movement, and a fast fourth movement. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, however, contains just three movements, omitting the minuet. Though it does not feature voices, the Symphony is noticeably influenced by Mozart’s operas. The first movement juxtaposes sections of imitative counterpoint by individual instruments with powerful statements by the whole ensemble, evoking the dramatic flourishes of an opera overture. The next movement provides a lyrical contrast to the first. Its shifting moods and colors add a larger sense of dramatic weight. The finale provides ample evidence of Mozart’s brilliant gift for counterpoint. However, its themes are interrupted by stormy interjections, once again evoking the operatic overture, where the mood can turn from joyous to tragic in the blink of an eye. Despite this, the music’s effervescence shines through, beautifully capturing the theatrical flair that made Mozart the toast of Prague in the late 1780s.

Adam Schoenberg is an award-winning composer who has garnered success with both his concert and film music. Educated by John Corigliano and Robert Beaser, and carrying degrees from both Juilliard and Oberlin, Schoenberg exemplifies the 21st century style: his music is full of bold ideas. It is able to create mystery and evoke color, but still entertains listeners of all sorts. Scatter is a work written for PROJECT Trio, a three-piece chamber ensemble formed by flutist Greg Pattillo, cellist Eric Stephenson, and double bassist Peter Seymour. The concerto features traditional instruments coupled with electronic sounds which add layers of new colors to a traditional orchestra. It opens subtly, with brief fragments of melody seeming to rise out of the atmospheric, electro-acoustic drone. Eventually, however, the piece takes off, and each soloist brings out different repeated “grooves” throughout the vibrant and energetic first section. One might term the style dynamic minimalism, as the work’s repeated phrases always seem to lead somewhere new. Each soloist has their moment to shine, but certain members of the orchestra are also given chances to emerge from the sound. Schoenberg draws upon idioms from jazz, funk, and fusion in addition to classical music, allowing room for much improvisation. The sectional structure of the single-movement work contrasts moments of quiet ambiance with lively, rhythmic, melodic passages. As many of the musical decisions are left to the players’ discretions, every performance will be a little bit different.

As a young man, Felix Mendelssohn was deeply motivated by his travels. A trip to Italy inspired his Fourth Symphony, and a trip to Scotland in 1829 planted the seeds for two works, The Hebrides Overture and his Third Symphony, Op. 56, “Scottish.” He began sketching the music for both pieces right away; he wrote down a couple dozen measures of the Hebrides Overture almost immediately! When it came to the Symphony, however, Mendelssohn took his sweet time. The bulk of the writing came much later on, and he didn’t actually finish the work until 1842. The orchestration calls for a traditional Classical ensemble: winds and brass in pairs, timpani, and strings, but the Symphony also expresses quite a bit of Romantic spirit in two significant ways. First, there’s a decidedly Romantic feel in the work’s dark and stormy sections. Second, Mendelssohn switched the traditional middle movements, normally a slow movement followed by a minuet and trio. In the “Scottish,” the second movement is a quick scherzo to replace the minuet and trio, while the third movement is a mournful, emotional Adagio.

The piece begins with a brief Andante that quickly gives way to an agitated Allegro that comprises the majority of the first movement. Here, Mendelssohn subjects the theme to several variations in which the stormy weather and rough seas of Scotland manifest repeatedly. All of the harmonic and melodic touches typical of Mendelssohn are present: lightly chromatic harmonies and jaunty rhythms and lyricism. The character of the second movement, however, couldn’t be more different. It is loosely based on Scottish folk music, and although Mendelssohn didn’t quote any specific tunes, the movement paints a clear picture. To him, it was the best way to evoke the lifeblood of the country and its people. The movement features several buoyant, playful melodies that are not easily forgotten. One can expect to be humming them for some time afterwards. The third movement, a melancholy Adagio, definitely draws on the dark mood, if not the actual musical material of the introduction. Mendelssohn drives the Symphony to a bombastic close with an energetic fourth movement. More folk-like melodies eventually yield to the same stormy themes heard in the first movement. However, Mendelssohn does not simply recapitulate. Instead, he reinvigorates the music by adding a feeling of majesty, ultimately transforming the earlier gloomy passages into a grand fanfare. The finale perfectly expresses the glory and wonder of Scotland through the lens of Mendelssohn’s music.