Performance Saturday, March 26, 2011 | 8 PM

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
At Carnegie Hall in 2008, the Toronto Symphony was in “superb shape” under their new music director: “The orchestra has maintained its shine, but now it packs a firm punch as well” (The New York Times). Itzhak Perlman joins them in Bruch’s popular violin concerto. Also on the program is a work with energetic rhythms, quirky melodies, and orchestral verve by an acclaimed Canadian, and the most propulsive of Vaughan Williams symphonies.
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BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913–1976) Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a

About the Composer

Benjamin Britten became widely regarded as the greatest and most quintessentially English composer since Henry Purcell—a tribute to his ability to connect with listeners at every level of musical sophistication. Neither a political nor a musical nationalist, Britten had little sympathy for the patriotic effusions of the pre–World War I generation of composers. In his formative years, he gravitated toward open-minded, iconoclastic composers like Frank Bridge (his teacher), William Walton, and Lennox Berkeley. During the 1930s, work in a government film-production unit brought him into contact with a cadre of left-wing writers and artists who shared his pacifist beliefs and disdain for bourgeois convention.

It was in North America that Britten found his voice in works like the limpid song cycle Les illuminations, the lighthearted folk operetta Paul Bunyan, the powerful Sinfonia da Requiem, and the radiant Ceremony of Carols, destined to be one of his most popular works. But upon returning to England in 1942, he and his lover, Peter Pears, were exempted from military service as conscientious objectors. In his opera Peter Grimes, produced in London at the end of the war, the composer crystallized his signature theme of the individual in conflict with society. It was the first of a series of theatrical masterpieces—including The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Death in Venice—that revitalized British opera and transformed Britten into a major public figure.

—Harry Haskell

About the Music

Perhaps more than any other Britten opera, Peter Grimes demonstrates a mastery of the orchestra equal to that of the vocal forces. Like Wagner and Berg, Britten entrusts much of the drama to the orchestra, which depicts the mystery and violence of the sea—an inexorable force in Peter Grimes parallel to the furies in Greek tragedy. Even before the opera’s 1945 premiere, Britten had planned an orchestral suite.

A Closer Listen

These interludes depict the sea in its various colors and moods: the early light of “Dawn,” the sunlight of “Sunday Morning,” the shimmering glow of “Moonlight,” and the chaos of the “Storm.” Yet a brooding atmosphere pervades the entire piece. Britten’s vision of the sea is close to Edgar Allan Poe’s, even more so than the evocations of Debussy and Ravel, who stated they were strongly influenced by Poe’s literary theories. The dark bitonal chords in the opening immediately establish a sinister tone; the bustle of “Sunday Morning,” acting as a scherzo in the orchestral suite, is shadowed by sinister chimes and plummeting trumpets; and the moonlight scene grows increasingly ominous, forecasting a violent storm that provides a spectacular finale and a workout for the orchestra.

MAX BRUCH (1838–1920) Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26

About the Composer

Bruch’s G-minor Violin Concerto, one of the most popular Romantic concertos in the repertory, represents a fascinating paradox, both in its complicated history and multiple identity crises. Celebrated for its seemingly spontaneous lyricism, the work was 10 years in the making—an initial setting down of ideas in 1857, a year of serious work in 1865, a premature performance in 1866 (after two postponements), another year of revision in 1867(bordering on complete re-composition immediately after a nonpublic premiere of a “new” version), and a final “real” premiere in 1868 with renowned violinist Joseph Joachim.

About the Music

Equally torturous was the bickering over what this slowly germinating work really was. With its passionate, cadenza-like first movement and its lack of a break between the two others, it didn’t strike Bruch as a proper concerto. (Bruch continued to have this problem; his next concerto was denounced by Édouard Lalo as a “shapeless thing” with “no first movement.”) Tentatively calling the G-minor work a “fantasie,” Bruch finally sent it to Joachim for revisions, asking him to call it what he liked.

A Closer Listen

Happily, Joachim found the concerto label fully justified: “For a fantasie, the last two movements are too completely and symmetrically developed. The different sections are brought together in beautiful relationship.” The concerto’s unity, drama, and tunefulness have made it a perennial favorite for audiences and soloists, enough to ensure Bruch a permanent place in the repertory, even though few of his pieces (including two other violin concertos) are programmed with any regularity. The contrast between its convoluted creation and seemingly effortless magic is put in perspective by William Butler Yeats, who once remarked that Romantic art represents only the illusion of spontaneity.

JOHN ESTACIO (b. 1966) Frenergy

About the Composer

One of Canada’s most frequently performed and broadcast composers, John Estacio has served as composer in residence for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Calgary Opera. He has written numerous works in various genres, including A Farmer’s Symphony and Borealis for orchestra, the operas Filumena and Lillian Alling, and the choral work Eulogies. Frenergy typifies the decisive re-embrace of tonality by a number of young composers (and some older ones as well) in the 1980s and ’90s. It was premiered by the Edmonton Symphony in 1998.

In the Composer’s Own Words

The bulk of the musical material found in this piece comes from sketches for my Triple Concerto. These sketches were to be part of the proposed final movement for the concerto, a fast-paced scherzo to bring the piece to a wild close. However, for various reasons, this ending did not make it to the final draft of the concerto, so I decided to mount this music on its own as a short overture for orchestra.

The title comes from an amalgamation of the words “frenetic” and “energy,” which were the two qualities I desired for the ending of the concerto. The tempo is brisk and the pacing of melodic ideas is often a bit frantic, befitting the title.

The work begins with a thunderous introduction by the percussion, who establish an infectious 6/8 pulse. The score calls for various drums and cymbals, including two Japanese taiko drums. After an orchestral tutti¸ the winds introduce a chromatic melody that is quickly tossed throughout the section. This quirky little melody often complements an ostentatious tune frequently performed by the brass. The third melody, introduced by the flutes, is perhaps the most substantial tune of the work and is strongly characterized by the 6/8 lilt of the piece. A restless string passage leads into a return of the opening material. Frenergy concludes with a full-force orchestral tutti along with the pounding drums of the opening.

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958) Symphony No. 4

About the Composer

“I don’t know if I like it, but it is what I meant.” That’s what Vaughan Williams said about his most “modern,” least characteristic symphony. Vaughan Williams is widely known as an avatar of English folk music and church modes in serene works such as The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves. The Fourth Symphony is something else, a work of uncompromising turbulence and darkness, all the more striking in that it comes between two of his calmest symphonies, the Third (aptly named the “Pastoral”) and the intensely lyrical Fifth.

Yet the Fourth, premiered in London by the BBC Symphony in 1935, has come into its own as one of Vaughan Williams’s most frequently played symphonies outside Britain. Its electrifying tension and dramatic momentum seem to work better—at least on these shores—than what Peter Warlock famously described as the tendency of Vaughan Williams’s music to sound “just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate.” The Fourth was championed by Leopold Stokowski, and by both Dmitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic; it is by no means a mainstay of the repertory, but as this performance demonstrates, it keeps coming back.

About the Music

From the first dissonant blast (a “crib” from the finale of the Beethoven Ninth, Vaughan Williams said) and stinging fanfares, the symphony thrusts the listener into a dark maelstrom of sound and emotion based on a few motifs that bolt all four movements together. Vaughan Williams’s beloved church modes appear throughout in distorted, ghostly guises. His predilection for polyphony is present in the acrid, Bachian slow movement, the trio of the grotesque Scherzo, and the monster double fugue that ends the finale. In the latter, elaborate counterpoint works not to build stability, as in the noble finale of the Fifth Symphony, but as a nightmarish deconstruction that leads toward a final restatement of the symphony’s opening assault, completing a grim circle.

But there is more to the symphony than loud energy. Some of the most memorable and emotionally complex moments are quiet ones: the long fade-out of the first movement, which consists of an achingly slow version of the violent fanfare theme wavering between major and minor before settling (against all odds) on the former; and a spectral recap of the same material just before the climactic fugue in the finale. An uneasy calm pervades these sections—a haunting stillness that forecasts the post-apocalyptic triple pianissimos in the composer’s Sixth Symphony, written during the final paroxysm of World War II.

A Forecast of Fascism?

Is there any truth to the often made claim that the Fourth was an uncanny forecast of fascism and World War II? Not wanting to be pinned down to a particular meaning, Vaughan Williams rejected the “war” notion when he saw it in print. Still, the symphony is so singular and startling that something must have been on the composer’s mind. Composers, like all artists, base their work to some extent on psychological associations, not all of them conscious; there is an “extra-musical” element in any piece, even if it cannot be verbally paraphrased. The statement by Vaughan Williams’s wife Ursula is definitive: “Written at a time when Europe was darkening with the threat of war, by a man who had read history as an undergraduate, it is a personal statement of great strength, in no way particularized, and its meaning indeed too precise for words, beyond temporal limitations ...”
Jack Sullivan © 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation