Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: beethoven's second

Saturday November 10, 2012
Sunday November 11, 2012

Elgar Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47


Wallfisch Violin Concerto (world premiere)


Beethoven Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Our concerto theme continues with the first two works on tonight’s program. Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings is scored for a string quartet and string orchestra, an unusual arrangement, but Elgar uses the ensemble almost like the concerto grosso of the Baroque period: a group of soloists vie for prominence with a larger symphonic group. Tonight’s concert also marks the world premiere of a brand new violin concerto by Benjamin Wallfisch in a more traditional solo concerto structure. This work has been composed especially for our own Tereza Stanislav, who is celebrating her tenth year as assistant concertmaster of LACO. Wallfisch’s concerto displays the unique talents of Stanislav as a soloist, as she engages in a musical conversation with the Orchestra. We round out the evening with Beethoven’s Second Symphony, a charming work that does not reveal the tumult from which it was born.

The year 1899 turned out to be something of a breakthrough for Sir Edward Elgar, who toiled away writing choral music for festivals in an attempt to make a name for himself. It was in 1899 that he published the Enigma Variations, a work that gained him notice not just in England, but also in other parts of Europe. A year later, Sir Arthur Sullivan died, and the mantle of “Greatest Living English Composer” seemed to fall squarely on the shoulders of the 43-year-old Elgar. He was called upon to write music for the coronation of Edward VII in 1901. His music was celebrated in a three-day festival at Covent Garden in March 1904, and he was knighted a few months later. His fame in the United States hadn’t quite taken hold yet, but Samuel Sanford, a pianist and professor at Yale, was about to change that. Sanford arranged for Elgar to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1905, and it was at the ceremony that Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was first played in such a context. Now no graduation seems complete without Elgar’s music.

In 1905, Elgar composed the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, which he dedicated to Samuel Sanford. The intended players were part of a newly formed, independently self-governing group of musicians that called themselves the London Symphony Orchestra. Impressed with the string players, Elgar wrote the Introduction and Allegro for Strings to showcase their talents.

The Introduction opens with a fanfare of sorts, but it is serious rather than celebratory. The transition into a major key brightens the mood. Out of the texture, a solo viola emerges playing a lovely theme. The source of this theme, Elgar claimed, was a song he heard at Cardigan Bay in Wales while on vacation. He heard a voice in the distance singing this melody, and it proved so haunting he remembered it. The group plays with the lyrically romantic themes until the beginning of the Allegro.

The Allegro builds up tension right away with a passage of non-stop motion until Elgar revisits the opening fanfare, this time with different rhythmic accents and in a major key. The Welsh tune returns, giving us a brief respite before Elgar begins what he once called “a devil of a fugue.” He had envisioned the fugue to take the place of the traditional development section, and wrote his friend AJ Jaeger about the idea in 1905. Jaeger, who was the inspiration for one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (“Nimrod”), was actually the one who had suggested to Elgar that he write a short, lively piece in the manner of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto. After the fugue, Elgar brings back the earlier themes—what we would call the recapitulation—all in a major key. He gives special attention to the Welsh tune, which appears in the joyous coda. The ending of the piece features a major chord played pizzicato by the orchestra. It is Elgar’s definitive punctuation at the end of his triumphant statement.

Award-winning composer Benjamin Wallfisch has written concert music and film music and has conducted some of the world’s greatest orchestras. And he has accomplished all of this by the tender age of 33. The concerto we present tonight is a world premiere Wallfisch composed for Tereza Stanislav, now in her tenth year with LACO. Wallfisch describes his piece:

“I’ve always been fascinated by the duality of the violin. On the one hand it’s arguably the most expressive, lyrical instrument known to man; on the other it is capable of executing some of the most ferociously dramatic material with more fire than any other. In writing a violin concerto I set out to capture these extremes, as well as some of the extraordinary breadth of color in between them, with the orchestra as a true partner to the soloist on the journey.”

“The introduction presents the key DNA of the rest of the piece; the lines heard in the solo violin form the basis of almost all the material that follows. The first movement takes us through a prism of sound, with a complex pianissimo solo fleeting through aharmonic tapestry that is ever shifting. In the second movement I wanted to bring to the fore the most expressive capabilities of the violin with an emphasis on falling lines that serve to contrast what is to come. After a cadenza our soloist launches us into the Finale, in which I interpret the Rondo form in the context of the Zingarese style. In the piece’s conclusion we hear the questions raised earlier in the piece answered con fuoco.”

Beethoven had first noticed the ringing of severe tinnitus in his ears in 1796, but no treatment brought him relief. In 1800 Beethoven wrote a detailed letter to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend and physician, in which the composer reveals the extent of his impairment and explains his reluctance to participate in social events. In April of 1802, Beethoven took up residence in the small town of Heiligenstadt (now part of Vienna) at the urging of his doctor. After six months, he wrote a letter to his brothers, telling them of his difficulties coming to terms with his deafness. In this letter, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven mentions what should be done in the event of his death, alluding perhaps to suicide. He was just 32 years old.

It was in this state of mind that Beethoven completed his Symphony No. 2, revisiting the original sketches and composing while in Heiligenstadt. One might expect that a work of art born in this milieu of desperation and sadness would reflect a storminess of mood. It is all the more amazing then that Symphony No. 2 is such a joyous piece. The work is often overlooked in favor of the First and Third Symphonies, but No. 2 is not merely a placeholder between the composer’s first work in the genre and the “Eroica.” It is a complex, challenging work that is already pointing the way to Beethoven’s greatness as a symphonist. He dedicated the work to a patron, Prince Karl von Lichnowsky. The first movement opens with a slow introduction that is noble and graceful, punctuated by serious moments. Composer Hector Berlioz, in describing this piece, attributed the stormy intervals not to depression, but to the passions of youth. He also said that “everything in the symphony smiles.” After the introduction, a quick theme begins, almost like the galloping of horses, rushing fearlessly forward. Beethoven uses his considerable gifts as a composer to develop and explore the musical material he has laid out in the opening section. The ending of the movement is so definitive, one might imagine it is the end of the entire piece, but more follows. The tenderness of the Larghetto with its serene bearing is a striking contrast to the first movement. There are elements of folk music, perhaps foreshadowing the pastoral mood of Symphony No. 6. Beethoven presents the simple melody and then varies it with flourishes in different sections of the orchestra. The theme, which calls to mind the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance, begins with the strings and then moves to the woodwinds. The strings then take on an accompanimental role, providing a throbbing backdrop to the sweetness of the woodwinds. As the movement progresses, Beethoven takes care to offer a few contrasting themes in between variations to keep things fresh. A minor key theme even adds some drama, which is quickly diffused by the return of the bright major mode. The end of the movement is quiet, beautifully setting up the following scherzo.

In the third movement, Beethoven replaced the traditional Minuet and Trio with a Scherzo. The youthful passions Berlioz saw in this work are in full evidence here. Quick dynamic shifts and continuous motion speak of boundless energy. There are surprises at every turn, unexpected loud phrases and sweet melodies that seem to come out of nowhere. The energy of the third movement is matched and bested by that of the fourth movement, which bursts into bloom. The quick passages for the strings require control and skill to maintain the clarity of Beethoven’s themes. The music rushes forward, headlong, at a pace that reveals no hesitation, no doubt, no desperation. It was as if Beethoven put all of the joy he could not feel into this composition. His life at the time was difficult, and this work might have served as his escape, or represented his hope for the future. As Berlioz said in observing the piece, “The author still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion.”

– Christine Gengaro, PhD

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