Performance Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | 8 PM

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Perspectives artist Tetzlaff demonstrates all that makes him a leading virtuoso on his instrument, taking the lead on every piece of this program. He probes deeply into the full range of the repertoire, including Mozart, British composer Harrison Birtwistle, and Bartók.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger will replace James Levine for this performance. Maestro Levine is forced to cancel his appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra due to ill effects from a recent procedure addressing his ongoing back issues, further complicated by a viral infection.

For further information, ticket holders may contact CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.
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WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791) Rondo in C Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373

“Mozart the performer” means most of all “Mozart the pianist,” very likely the greatest pianist of his time. But he was no novice violinist either. On October 4, 1777, for example, he took part in a private concert in Munich, playing not only a couple of piano concertos but also the demanding violin solo part in the B-flat–Major Divertimento, K. 287 (271h), and playing, as he wrote to his father, “as though I were the greatest violinist in all of Europe. They all opened their eyes.”

Bragging? Yes, of course. Exaggerating? Almost surely not. Mozart had a sober sense of his gifts and accomplishments. He was, moreover, writing to the most knowledgeable and exigent connoisseur of string-playing alive—Leopold Mozart, himself a first-rate violinist, a prolific and able composer, and whose Essay on the Fundamental Principles of Violin-Playing (which appeared the same year as baby Wolfgang) affirmed his standing as one of Europe’s premier musical minds, and remains one of our most important keys to 18th-century music-making.

Playing the violin was Mozart’s meal ticket during the galley years of working for Count Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg, something of a violinist himself but, from Mozart’s perspective, a patron of unsurpassed boorishness. In justice one should point out that Mozart, with his constant requests for extended leaves of absence, was not an easy employee. This unhappy relationship came to a violent end, literally, on June 8, 1781, with Colloredo’s chief steward kicking Mozart down the stairs of the Count’s Vienna palais. One of the ways Mozart celebrated his liberation was to give up the violin. When he played chamber music with friends he took the viola part, and the inventory of his possessions at his death shows that he no longer even owned a violin.

We cannot be absolutely sure that Mozart wrote any or all of his five violin concertos for himself. A name that often comes up in connection with those works is that of Colloredo’s Neapolitan concertmaster, Antonio Brunetti. Since he only joined the Salzburg establishment in March 1776, he cannot have been their original recipient. We know, however, that Mozart did write some pieces for him, including a substitute Adagio in E Major (K. 261) for his last violin concerto (the A-Major Concerto, K. 291) and the present piece, the attractive Rondo in C Major, K. 373, a bright-eyed charmer. The autograph is dated April 2, 1781, and the Vienna concert at which Brunetti introduced it six days later also included another new work by Mozart for violin, the G-Major Sonata, K. 379 (373a), with the composer at the keyboard.
Michael Steinberg   © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

HARRISON BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934) Violin Concerto

 Knighted in 1988, Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in Lancashire, in the northwest of England. In the course of his life, he has spent long periods in Manchester, in the United States, in London, and in France. When he returned for good to England, he settled in Mere, in the south-central English county of Wiltshire, not too distant from Wardour Castle, where he taught at the Cranborne Chase School in the early 1960s and started the Wardour Castle Summer School.

Playing clarinet in a local military band and later in his military service, Birtwistle early on experienced the solid, functional directness of public music. An encounter with Olivier Messiaen’s then very recent Turangalîla-symphonie and studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music exploded his musical boundaries. At the RMCM, he formed the New Music Manchester Group with several future leaders of English music: Elgar Howarth, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, and John Ogdon. In the mid-1960s he traveled to the United States for further study and attended the lectures of Milton Babbitt at Princeton University. He later felt that learning about serialism and set theory allowed him to reject such ideas to find his own way (although the methods were nonetheless influential for him).

Birtwistle stopped performing as a clarinetist after his school years in order to concentrate on composition. His experience with the nuts and bolts of music production includes the founding of the Pierrot Players and his work, for many years, as music director and subsequently assistant director of England’s National Theatre (1975–1982), where he provided music for numerous plays, including several of Shakespeare’s and, most significantly, a spare, ritualistic production of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. (He also wrote music for Sidney Lumet’s film The Offence, starring Sean Connery.)

An inclination toward the archetypal narratives of collective consciousness has quite apparently been the basis of all of Birtwistle’s musical theater works, and, though more abstractly, much of his instrumental music. Greek drama underlies his major instrumental works Trageodia and Theseus Games as much as it does his operas The Mask of Orpheus, the chamber opera The Io Passion, and The Minotaur. Fundamental English narratives are behind his first opera, Punch and Judy, as well as Gawain, Down by the Greenwood Side, and Yan Tan Tethera. He has also based several works on the music of the iconic English lutenist-composer John Dowland, and the visual arts remain a longstanding source of inspiration.

When James Levine was making plans for his upcoming seasons after committing in 2002 to take on the music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Englishman Birtwistle stood out among a group of mostly American composers on his wish list for newly commissioned works. Since he was in the midst of composing The Minotaur, the composer was unable to begin right away; in the interim, the purely orchestral work that was originally proposed morphed into a violin concerto, written primarily during the middle part of 2010 and completed in the fall. Unique among Birtwistle’s works to date, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra reveals no extramusical clues in its title. His several earlier concerted works received such titles as Melencolia I (inspired by a Dürer painting) for clarinet and strings, Endless Parade for trumpet, The Cry of Anubis for tuba, and Panic (referring to rites of Pan) for saxophone. The Violin Concerto’s prosaic title, by contrast, allows for the possibility of any interpretation: It is a blank canvas. Although the concerto lacks a specific narrative armature, it is indebted to classical Greek drama—the violin soloist as protagonist and the orchestra as chorus.

For Birtwistle, each instrument has a constant personality regardless of context, beyond its technical and idiomatic capabilities, retaining that personality even from one piece to the next. The solo violin role here is thus a consistent character, not precisely opposed to but different from the collective personality of the chorus. The solo plays almost without pause throughout, and although flashy difficulty and virtuosity are not the point, the piece is nonetheless a workout. The ensemble-chorus is a malleable body; only when its material is very clear can the whole chorus “speak” at once, while more complex material or layers of material are given to sub-groups within this accompaniment. Musically, the ensemble establishes the constant, but irregular and sometimes conflicting, foundation of ostinatos, which the composer calls the “continuum,” beneath the foreground music of the soloist, called the “cantus.” During the course of the piece, which is primarily fast and very difficult for the violinist, there are five true duets, in which a “chorus” member emerges in conversation with the violin solo: first flute, followed by piccolo, cello, oboe, and bassoon. The composer describes these duets as “a way of focusing the dialog.”

Igor Stravinsky, Harrison Birtwistle’s most important single influence, frequently resorted to generic or quasi-generic titles for some of his most intriguing works—Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a provocative title, “Symphony in C” perhaps more so. Like these “symphonies,” Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto—a work of unquestionable imagination, drama, and significance—will inevitably demand comparison with the great works in the genre.
Robert Kirzinger   © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

BÉLA BARTÓK (1881–1945) Violin Concerto No. 2

More than 10 years after his death in 1945, it came to light that Bartók had composed a violin concerto in 1907–1908 for a young violinist, Stefi Geyer, with whom, it is said, he had been in love. He gave her the manuscript, but she did not play it, and it remained unknown until her death in 1956. Until that revelation, the Bartók violin concerto for which he was known was a mature masterpiece written for his longtime friend, the great Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely, in 1937–1938 and now designated No. 2. Székely was a leading European virtuoso and in 1937 became the leader of the Hungarian Quartet, renowned for its interpretations of the classic quartet repertoire, and also the prime interpreters of the six Bartók quartets.

Having finished the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in 1936, Bartók turned his attention to the violin concerto. He at first had in mind merely a set of variations, but in the end wrote a significant three-movement work of the conventional design, responding freely to the violin’s lyrical voice and to his new ideas for orchestration. At his villa in Budapest, he was thoroughly disturbed throughout this time by the deterioration of the political situation and wondered when and how he should emigrate. The concerto was finished at the end of 1938 and scheduled for the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s season in Amsterdam, where Székely in the meantime had moved with his wife. Composer and soloist met in Paris to work on it together, then parted, not knowing that they would never meet again. Bartók was unable to attend the premiere on March 23, 1939, and never heard Székely play the piece.

Bartók eventually left for America in 1940. Tossy Spivakovsky was the first to play the concerto in the US, with The Cleveland Orchestra in 1943. When he played it in Carnegie Hall later that year with the New York Philharmonic, Bartók was there to hear it for the first and only time. “The performance was really marvelous,” he wrote (in English), “all the three factors (soloist, conductor, orchestra) were the best a composer could wish for his work.”

The most striking feature of the music is the kaleidoscopic range of moods and language. The pure, throbbing chords laid down by the harp at the opening prepare us perhaps for the lovely, wide-ranging theme with which the soloist opens, but not for the squealing and snorting that occasionally intrude. The tone is predominantly lyrical, alternating with a vigorous brilliance that marks all of Bartók’s music. There are some remarkable sounds, including glissandos, quarter-tones, and wild chromaticism.

The central movement is a set of six variations, each clearly distinguishable from the next. The orchestra’s closing echo at the end of the first statement of the short, beautiful theme is vintage Bartók, a preview of the haunting phrases that will recur in all his last works.

The finale’s theme is a sprightly version of the theme from the very beginning of the concerto. The brisk pace is broken by a central slow section in which the soloist alternates with some remarkable mirror-writing on the strings, the upper octaves being an exact reflection of the lower voices.

As in the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartók’s last major work, the printed score includes two versions of the ending. Székely described the ending as a “big fortissimo orchestral apotheosis, more like the conclusion of a symphony.” He wrote to Bartók about this and was astonished to get a reply saying the composer had rewritten the end of the concerto, incorporating some orchestral effects he didn’t want to lose, but aiming toward a more favorable role for the soloist. “Now everyone plays it in the version he corrected,” said Székely, with some satisfaction.
Hugh Macdonald   © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

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This performance is part of Concertos Plus, Orchestral Splendor, and Great Orchestras Mix.

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