Performance Tuesday, February 14, 2012 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
For James Ehnes, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is a piece that exemplifies “so quintessentially who he was as a composer … once he found his voice, that voice was perfect.” Ehnes brings this exemplary work of youthful 19th-century genius to Carnegie Hall with The Philadelphia Orchestra. As one of the world’s great ensembles, the orchestra showcases its own virtuosity in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
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The Program

Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments

At once proudly Swiss and international, receptive both to Stravinsky-style Neoclassicism and to Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, steeped in Bach but also in Debussy and Ravel, as well as Bartók, Frank Martin fused many of the 20th century’s cultural conflicts into a music as clear as glass. His first published works date from his early 20s, but he had to wait three decades and more before he found a worldwide audience with his Petite symphonie concertante for harp, harpsichord, piano, and strings. That work had its first performance in 1946, and the same year Martin left Switzerland for Amsterdam.

In 1949, in one of his occasional essays on the nature and purpose of art, Martin took his cue from what he could see out of his studio window in the Dutch capital: gulls on the canal and automobiles on the road alongside. A work of art, he concluded, “must grow and develop from the inside, in keeping with the mysterious function by which organisms grow,” and it must do so in order to be itself alive. But it must also be “directed and controlled by our intellect, so that at the same time it is built like a machine.” The present concerto, dating from the same year as this essay, is a perfect gull-automobile. It shows every evidence of careful design in its patterns, its structure, and its adherence to historical models, especially those offered by Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos, which it resembles in its soloists-plus-tutti scoring and in its scale. But it is also capable of flight.

A Closer Listen

One of the work’s traditional features is three-movement form, in a fast-slow-fast sequence. The opening Allegro introduces the seven soloists (one each of the regular orchestral woodwind and brass instruments), beginning with the oboe and continuing with the clarinet, then the brass trio in a canonic passage, and finally the flute and bassoon together. All the instruments carry with them their conventional traits, the oboe being quick and nervous, for instance, the clarinet more relaxed, and the trumpet rapidly repeating notes in the manner of a military signal. Their themes, though, share family resemblances; the subject of the brass canon, for instance, starts out from a rising scale motif—half-step, whole step, half-step—from the oboe solo at the start. As the music continues, the solo instruments start picking up each other’s themes, and the strings do so, too. Instruments not spotlit before come to receive their chances—the bassoon in a long solo and at last the trombone. At the same time, the solo instruments have their normal places in the orchestra, not least in the gesture of propelling chords that keeps reappearing between or beneath the solo episodes. Hints of popular music appear, and cohere into a grand waltz. Just as this, joined by reminiscences of earlier themes, seems to be pushing the movement toward a decisive close, the oboe takes the music off to a calmer place, where it ends with the oboe high above the diminishing outline of dance rhythm.

Certain ways of behaving that are established in this opening movement—the seven wind players appearing as soloists or in small ensembles, each instrument expressing its own personality though motifs may be shared—remain binding for the rest of the work, starting with the slow movement (Adagietto: Misterioso ed elegante). The strings set the scene: a “tick-tock” accompaniment in the violas, cellos, and basses that goes on through most of the movement, and that might suggest a slow march or the inexorable flow of time, above which muted violins sing the movement’s main melody, in an unplaceable exotic scale. Here we have an instance of Martin’s informal interest in serialism, which coincided with his interest in how elementary shapes are worked and reworked in Bach, since the first strain of this melody is a decorated twist on the scale motif from the first movement. Development of the melody leads into music of steadily increasing gravity and passion, from which the clarinet leads an escape, into a clearer landscape, where the melody can reassert itself. Once again, the trombone is a latecomer, arriving here like a nightwatchman to call everyone else to sleep.

Having pulled off the trick of a waltz in 4/4 time in the first movement, Martin begins his finale (Allegro vivace) conversely as a march in 3/4 time, led off by a rising four-note scale again, only with a shift so that the intervals are half-step, half-step, minor third. (These things are always easier to hear than to describe; they just provide one means by which a composition can sound all of a piece, like a gull.) This time it is the wind group that kicks off the action, with the timpani, sounding like a band (later perhaps a circus band). As before, wind instruments come forward for characteristic solo spots, beginning briefly with the trumpet (which really cannot get out of uniform) and, at greater length, a flowing clarinet. Becoming more developed, the music finds room for a dialogue between the signaller trumpet and beautiful woodwind melody, until the timpanist takes over for what becomes a cadenza for timpani and percussion. Out of this comes a new march, now in march time, and with the upward scale motif at last openly in the major mode. March rhythms are combined with long melodies, first in the strings, until there is a return to 3/4 time and the movement’s initial march. Now the music, though still festooned with agile and expressive solos, is heading for home, which becomes more and more clearly identified as F major.

—Paul Griffiths

Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association and/or Paul Griffiths.


Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64

As early as 1838, Felix Mendelssohn envisioned a violin concerto for his friend Ferdinand David, Leipzig’s leading violinist, whom the composer had named concertmaster upon being appointed music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. “I have a concerto in E minor in my head,” he wrote to David that July. “The opening gives me no rest.” Alas, Mendelssohn’s furiously paced activities as conductor, pianist, and educator prevented him from finding the time to sketch out the concerto until six years later in September 1844. He completed most of the piece in a few weeks that year while on a tranquil holiday with his family in Bad Soden near Frankfurt. “Thus I am once more on German soil,” he wrote to his brother, Paul, on July 19. (Mendelssohn had recently returned from an English tour.) “Having returned home happy and healthy and merry, I found all my family in good health as wished! … We are enjoying cheerful, pleasant days in this exquisite spot.”

Mendelssohn completed the concerto that fall, and David performed it in Leipzig in March 1845, with Niels Gade conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra in place of the ailing composer. It was an instant success. The 36-year-old Mendelssohn, at the peak of his creative powers, could never have suspected that the work would be his last orchestral piece; two years after its first performance, he suffered a series of debilitating strokes that would claim his life.

A Mature Concerto

The E-Minor Concerto serves as a confident summation of Mendelssohn’s musical achievement. It infuses the Classical style in which his music was rooted with the full-blooded Romanticism of the operas of Weber and the lyrical charm of the chamber music of Schubert. Its moods span a wide range, from the passionate dramatics of the opening movement, through the unadorned lyricism of the slow movement, to the dashing sparkle of the finale.

Mendelssohn’s autograph manuscript for the concerto was among the cache of musical treasures that had vanished from the Berlin Royal Library during World War II, and were “rediscovered” in the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow during the late 1970s. Earlier, during the early 1950s, another violin concerto was discovered as well, a work in D minor that Mendelssohn composed at the age of 14; the early piece has now come to be called No. 1, and thus the E-minor work is sometimes referred to as the Second Concerto.

A Closer Listen

The E-Minor Concerto begins with the perennial theme (Allegro molto appassionato) that was doubtless the melody that gave Mendelssohn no rest; it is at the same time mournful and defiant, plaintive and aggressive. There is no “orchestral exposition” here, as in the Classical concerto. Instead, the solo violin begins with the orchestra, and its continued presence throughout the movement looks back to the Baroque concerto grosso, and at the same time forward to the 20th-century violin concerto.

As in several of Mendelssohn’s concertos, the movements in the E-Minor Concerto are linked into a single flow with no pauses between. The second section is ushered in by a wayward bassoon, which holds its pitch from the first movement’s final chord by way of transition into the key of C major for the Andante (reminiscent, perhaps, of a similar situation in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto for piano, where the bassoon effects the transition from slow movement to rondo). Again the soloist leads the proceedings through this tuneful interlude, and the finale (Allegro molto vivace), full of wit and irresistible charm, follows without pause.

—Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association and/or Paul Griffiths.

Concerto for Orchestra

The Concerto for Orchestra of Béla Bartók came in the twilight of a career, as the composer struggled with the upheaval of exile and with life-threatening illness. He was perhaps the least successful of the major emigré composers in establishing a new life in the United States: When he arrived in 1940, hardly anyone seemed to know about his rich career in Europe as pianist and composer. To wartime America, Bartók was just another great artist driven from Europe by the fascists, and partly as a result of this insouciance, his last years were marked by sorrow and chronic monetary worries. Nonetheless, the Concerto for Orchestra brought a flurry of attention that would help secure a place for his works in American concert halls; its warm reception was the closest thing to a “happy ending” that one could have hoped for.

A Decade of Speaking Out

From the early 1930s, Bartók had been outspoken in his criticism of fascism; he defended Toscanini against censure, and after 1933 he refused to perform in Germany. As a result, he began to be attacked in the Hungarian press. At first he considered moving to England, but during concerts in America in the late 1930s, he entertained the notion of settling in the United States. This idea was solidified in 1940 through the offer of a temporary appointment as research associate at Columbia University, a position he assumed in 1941, settling into New York with his wife, Ditta.

After a year, he was told that this position would not be renewed; the Bartóks fell into financial straits. Meanwhile, Bartók was growing gravely ill. In 1943, after becoming so sick he could no longer concertize, he was diagnosed with leukemia (although doctors told him that it was polycythemia, a less serious illness of the red blood cells).

Friends of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) stepped in and offered to pay for his treatment, and he was sent to a sanatorium at Saranac Lake, where he showed marked improvement. It was there, in the summer of 1943, that he began working on the commission he had received from conductor Serge Koussevitzky for an orchestra piece.

Work as Medicine

He later wrote to his close friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti, of how the commission had proceeded: “At the end of August I experienced an improvement in the state of my health. Presently I feel quite healthy: I have no fever, my strength has returned, and I am able to take long walks in the wooded hills around here. In March I weighed 87 pounds, now 105. I’m gaining weight. I’m getting fat. I’m getting limber. You won’t recognize me anymore. Perhaps the fact that I was able to complete the work that Koussevitzky commissioned is attributable to this improvement (or vice versa). I worked on it for the whole of September, more or less night and day. It is supposed to be performed around March 17 or 18 [1944], on the same concert in which you are to be soloist.” The work’s first performance took place in Boston on December 1, 1944, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Koussevitzky. The Concerto proved such a triumph that almost overnight it became standard orchestral fare.

If Bartók did not invent the idea of the concerto for orchestra, he created what is clearly the 20th century’s most brilliant example of it. The roots of this concept lay in the Baroque concerto grosso, a favorite form of Vivaldi and Handel that featured multiple soloists contrasted with a full ensemble. Although the exaggerated Romantic manner of pitting heroic soloist against orchestral horde formed a sort of momentary diversion from this earlier concept, the Neoclassicists of the 1920s and ’30s tried to revive the collaborative Baroque model. Paul Hindemith and Zoltán Kodály both composed works they called “concertos for orchestra” as early as 1925, and others followed suit—including Stravinsky, whose “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto of 1938 openly emulated the Baroque.

A Closer Listen

But none of these achieved the central place in the repertoire that Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra has. This five-movement piece is constructed in the composer’s familiar “arch,” with a central slow movement flanked by two scherzos, each surrounded in turn by elaborate outer movements. The direction of this arch reflects Bartók’s outlook in 1943: “The general mood of the work,” he wrote in a program note, “represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.”

At the same time, the piece pays apt tribute to the virtuosity of American ensembles, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner,” the composer writes. The initial Introduzione: Andante non troppo—Allegro vivace is a sort of modified sonata-form, beginning with a slow introduction and concluding with a highly imitative coda. The second movement (Giuoco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando) is a brilliant and witty scherzo, consisting of a chain of sections played by pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets.

The mournful third movement (Elegia: Andante non troppo) gives way to the second scherzo (Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto), in which Bartók openly parodies the so-called invasion section of the first movement from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which he happened to hear on the radio while composing the passage. Bartók’s Concerto concludes as it began: with a sonata-form movement. “The exposition in the finale (Pesante—Presto) is somewhat extended,” he writes, “and its development consists of a fugue built on the last theme of the exposition.”

—Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association and/or Paul Griffiths.

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Benenson in support of the 2011-2012 season.