Tonight we hear music from three different centuries. The earliest work on the program is also the one that is best known. Mozart composed the Symphony No. 41, nicknamed “Jupiter” in 1788. It was to be his last effort in the genre, and many would argue, one of his best. Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1, written nearly 90 years after Mozart’s final Symphony, represents the 19th century. Surrounding the concerto is the West Coast premiere of Joseph Hallman’s 21st-century composition, imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres.
Joseph Hallman received a 2014 Grammy nomination for his album, Sprung Rhythm, featuring the Maryland-based Inscape Chamber Orchestra. Hallman has worked with other notables including cellist and MacArthur Fellow, Alisa Weilerstein, and he has connections to both the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Hallman’s imagined landscapes: six Lovecraftian elsewheres is a set of six miniature pieces that draw upon the pioneering work of American horror writer, HP Lovecraft. Speaking of the genesis of the work, Hallman says, “There was no intention of writing the piece at first. I had insomnia and then read the Lovecraft (armed with the dictionary for all those arcane and archaic modifiers). The Lovecraft helped me sleep somehow. Then I had these dreams after having read the Lovecraft stories. In the dreams, they weren’t really about the stories so much as they were about settings. I had a vivid sense of the colors, smells, etc. They were super weird, but all familiar in a way. These pieces are basically an aural tableau for the Lovecraftian universe. I am hoping one day to write a dramatic work and incorporate the language I made here.” In addition to playing their instruments, Hallman’s score calls for the members of the orchestra to sing and chant in rhythm.
Camille Saint-Saëns became something of a controversial figure when he taught at the École Niedermeyer, because he opted to teach new music alongside the classics of the established curriculum He championed the new music of the late Romantic period, including Liszt and Wagner, and advocated for performances of fellow French composers. Saint-Saëns explored some new ideas when he composed the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor in 1872. He did not follow the three-movement format that had been common in Classical and early Romantic concertos, choosing instead to write the piece in one continuous movement. Another novel feature is the way the piece begins. In this Saint-Saëns’ work, the orchestra plays a single chord, and then the soloist begins the main theme. There isn’t an exposition of themes for the orchestra and then one for the soloist.
Saint-Saëns had Belgian cellist and instrument-maker Auguste Tolbecque in mind when he composed the Concerto. Tolbecque had done a great deal to raise the profile of the cello as a solo instrument, writing an exercise book for cello students, as well as some of his own pieces for the instrument. By working with Saint- Saëns—who was already well known in France—Tolbecque hoped to bring more attention to the cello, while Saint-Saëns aimed to reach a greater audience with the work. The critical acclaim for the Cello Concerto proved that both Tolbecque and Saint-Saëns had achieved their goals.
The unique opening allows the soloist to take on the dramatic weight of the music right away. The form itself is not so unusual, with the presentation of musical themes and the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra, but Saint-Saëns brings beautiful chromatic harmony into the mix. Unexpectedly, he pauses in what would be the development section. Instead of continuing to develop the themes, it’s almost as if a second movement begins. The meter changes from duple to triple, and the tempo changes from Allegro to a stately Allegretto con moto. This new section has the character of a minuet and trio, and its dancelike mood provides a charming contrast with the opening Allegro. Instead of moving to a third section, Saint-Saëns brings back the themes of the beginning, finishing out that interrupted development and recapitulation.
Mozart’s last three symphonies were all written in a single season, the summer of 1788, a difficult year for the great composer. In the middle of 1788, he and his family were grief-stricken due to the death of six-month-old daughter Theresia. Meanwhile, financial troubles forced Mozart to borrow money from fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg to keep his family afloat. Mozart had planned a concert series at which the Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” was to be played, but there is no historical evidence to prove the premiere of “Jupiter” took place at the series.
The “Jupiter” has the traditional four movements of the Classical symphony. The opening Allegro starts out with a definitive statement from the whole orchestra, followed by a more lyrical theme in the strings. The second theme sets up some dynamic contrasts. The first movement is in the traditional sonata form, and although Mozart makes no great innovations, he develops and recaps his themes with enormous skill. One of the highlights in the movement is a set of dignified fanfares. The noble character of this movement quite possibly inspired the “Jupiter” moniker, as it refers to the king of the gods.
In the second movement, an andante cantabile, Mozart again creates conflict, this time between the serene first theme and the dramatic second theme. There are hints of strife, but in drawing upon a French dance form, the Sarabande, Mozart is able to overcome that discord with charm and enchantment. The third movement is also a tribute to stylized dance forms with a rollicking Minuet and Trio. But the heart of the Symphony is the final movement.
The finale, marked Molto allegro, contains an imitative fivevoice fugato. Mozart combines five musical ideas in the finale, including the main four-note theme. He displays supreme control of the counterpoint here, creating music that is accessible and enjoyable. The result is a breathtaking swansong for Mozart the symphonist. Sir George Grove, music scholar and the founder of the sweeping music dictionary that bears his name, called the finale of the “Jupiter,” “As pleasing as it is learned,” and suggested that Mozart marshaled all of his skills in writing this finale, as if he knew it was his last.