Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: hope

Saturday March 20, 2010
Sunday March 21, 2010

Schulhoff Double Concerto for Violin and Piano – arranged by Daniel Hope from the original for flute and piano (world premiere)


Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (original 1844 version)


Weill Symphony No. 2


The three composers on tonight’s program were all born of Jewish heritage, and all experienced varying degrees of persecution for it. Mendelssohn’s family converted to Christianity in the 19th century because at the time the conversion afforded German Jews more opportunities in society. Mendelssohn made no effort to hide his Jewish roots, but he himself was a practicing Lutheran. The Mendelssohn family’s conversion didn’t matter to anti-Semites of course, and decades after Mendelssohn’s death, the Nazis kept his music from being played. Kurt Weill was able to leave Germany when Nazi opposition to his music became oppressive. Weill began a new life in the United States, becoming a citizen and fully turning his back on Germany. Erwin Schulhoff was one of many unfortunate artists and composers who lost their lives in concentration camps during World War II. His is a tragic story, made even more so because he is best remembered for the way he died and not for his music.

Schulhoff was born in Prague to a musical family; his grandfather was the concertmaster of the opera company in Frankfurt am Main. Schulhoff showed promise early and began piano studies at the Prague Conservatory when he was just seven, at the suggestion of Antonín Dvořák. Although he spoke German as a child, his first musical connections were mainly to Czech artists, musicians and composers. He learned the Germanic style under Max Reger in Leipzig, but was heavily influenced by Debussy. Touring as a professional pianist allowed him to travel all around Europe, and he got to meet Debussy in Paris. Prague was a major center for music after World War I, and Schulhoff discovered Dadaism and jazz, but he also experimented in an atonal idiom. The 1920s were a great time for Schulhoff as he built his style, being one of the first composers to embrace neo-classicism. He strove to connect art and popular music. His career as a pianist was successful and his compositional efforts were somewhat less so, but he made a name for himself as a great performer and showed an extraordinary gift for improvisation. He also worked in radio, both as a performer and as an arranger and composer. The 1930s were more difficult as Schulhoff’s Jewish heritage and penchant for popular music caused his own compositions to be labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis. Hoping to protect himself from the Nazis, Schulhoff became a Soviet citizen in 1941, but before he had a chance to emigrate he was arrested and taken to Wülzburg, where he died in 1942. Much of his work remains unknown today, especially works from his last stylistic period, known as “Socialist Realism.” In his late 40s when he died, he had been composing for almost 30 years.

His output includes seven symphonies, five piano sonatas, two string quartets, various works for chamber ensembles, an oratorio based on Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto and a number pieces influenced by popular music including sets of jazz collections for piano like Cinq Etudes de Jazz. The version of Schulhoff’s Double Concerto on tonight’s program features violin and piano as the solo instruments, arranged by violinist Daniel Hope from Schulhoff’s original version for flute and piano. Schulhoff was one of the intended soloists, as was Rene Le Roy, flutist. He wrote the Concerto during the 1920s, and the piece positively vibrates with the vivaciousness of the time. The opening movement has a neo-classical feel to it. Schulhoff loved to dance and he loved the pure joy of rhythmic movement; that feeling is evident in the way the first movement rushes along. The music is assured and strong, and strides along with purpose. The interplay between the soloists is magical. The conversation between them speaks of great chemistry, like two friends who have known each other for a long time, who sometimes finish each other sentences. The orchestra finds itself part of the conversation as well, never simply residing in the background as mere accompaniment. The second movement is filled with long-breathed phrases and lyricism. The third movement shows Schulhoff’s jazz influences and his love of highly rhythmic textures. The virtuosic passages for the soloists and the thick texture of the symphonic surroundings make this final movement an absolute delight of motion and color with a brief foray into the blues. We are left to reflect upon how Schulhoff’s style would have grown and changed had he lived past WWII; one wonders how his pictorial and dramatic style would have fared in films.

Mendelssohn’s last major work for orchestra is the Violin Concerto in E minor. The work was written over six years starting in 1838, and throughout the process of composing the piece, Mendelssohn sought the counsel of Ferdinand David, friend and concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. When Mendelssohn was appointed to lead the Orchestra in 1835 (he held the position until 1847), he brought David in as the concertmaster. The two were actually born in the same house a year apart, and had known each other since their teens. Like Mendelssohn, David was of Jewish ancestry but converted to Christianity. The close relationship between Mendelssohn and David allowed a collaboration that was unusual at the time, but later composers like Brahms, for instance, were accustomed to asking their intended soloists for technical advice while composing concertos. David premiered Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in 1845. The original version—the one Mendelssohn sent to David in 1844—differs in some ways from the version that entered the repertoire a year later. The version from 1844, which came to light just 20 years ago, is the one Daniel Hope will play tonight. The differences are small details, a particular tempo marking, a theme in a minor key instead of a major key, varied articulation, but the charm and chemistry of the work are undisturbed.

Mendelssohn uses the typical three-movement format for his concerto, but it is notable that he doesn’t use the standard form for the first movement. Usually a concerto begins with an exposition of themes played by the orchestra, and then the soloist comes in with his own exposition. But in Mendelssohn’s concerto, the solo violin comes in right away at the beginning. The effect is almost like joining the movement as if it were already in progress. Also unusual for the time are accompanimental passages played by the soloist. The solo part is so thick and textured at times that it sounds like two violins. The first movement, marked Allegro molto appassionato, features the haunting theme that Mendelssohn complained gave him “no peace” while he was composing the work. The violin has plenty of virtuosic moments including a passionate cadenza, which Mendelssohn wrote out explicitly, rather than leaving the improvisation to the soloist, as was customary.

The second movement, Andante, which begins with a solo passage in the bassoon, seems even more emotional and lyrical. The phrases of the violin sing in a way that suggests Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”. The movement ends serenely and is quickly connected to a short transition leading into the animated finale. David must have had an uncommon ability to play quick passages accurately and cleanly and provide contrast with long lyrical phrases because that is what is called for here. The orchestra provides their most accompanimental music in this movement, allowing the soloist to lead the ensemble to an energetic and breathtaking close.

When Kurt Weill was in his late teens and early 20s, before he became known for works like The Threepenny Opera, he tried his hand at traditional forms, writing a string quartet, a cello sonata, a symphonic poem and a symphony, among others. His Symphony No. 2 was composed after The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny had come to the stage. As a composer of Jewish heritage, Weill had experienced interference from the Nazis and finally fled Germany in 1933, living first in Paris and later in the United States. Over the course of his career, Weill produced some concert music that was far overshadowed by his enormously popular stage works. By the time he wrote the Second Symphony, many critics admonished Weill for wasting his energy on concert works and urged him to concentrate on the stage. Weill heeded their advice, and the Second Symphony was Weill’s last work in the genre. Instead of giving the piece a distinct program, Weill chose to concentrate more on forms, specifically the standard forms used by Mozart and Haydn. He called the work a Symphonic Fantasy or Three Night Scenes, which suggests a sort of Ivesian musical ambience.

Weill did make some changes to the Classical tradition, of course. His work has three movements, rather than four, and the instrumentation includes two trombones and a piccolo, unusual for the orchestra of Mozart and Haydn. The style is a synthesis of Classical forms, which had transparent outlines and distinct sections, and Romantic expression, which used colorful harmony and flexible rhythms. The opening of the first movement features a pensive line in the trumpet that cannot quite shake its relationship to the cabaret and to the operatic works Weill was so skilled at writing. The reference to a funeral march is clear and becomes more so in the following movement, marked Largo. There are also solo passages from other instruments, making the movement less like a simple symphony and more like a concerto with multiple soloists. It is not far-fetched to imagine that Weill wrote the second movement in mourning for the loss of his homeland—though he denied a program for the Symphony. But, like all of Weill’s work, this morose and tragic music has a sarcastic, biting edge to it. The third movement takes us out of the sadness and into the joy of a new life. There may be satire here too, with a march at the center, but the end almost sounds like Weill letting go of the anger he must have felt and facing his future with hope.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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