Performance Wednesday, May 23, 2012 | 8 PM

The Cleveland Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Hear one of America’s greatest orchestras perform exemplary music from three centuries. The Cleveland Orchestra and Maestro Franz Welser-Möst are joined by acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham for a program that includes the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a work inspired by the autobiography of Ingmar Bergmann, and works by Brahms and Shostakovich.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

Johannes BRAHMS
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77

In the summer of 1878, the great violinist Joseph Joachim received a note from his old friend Johannes Brahms, saying "a few violin passages" would be forthcoming. At the time, it may or may not have occurred to Joachim that Brahms was apt to be most flippant when he was most serious. One can imagine Joachim's surprise, delight, and trepidation when the mail brought him the solo part of a huge concerto movement in D major, the first of a planned four movements. It was an invitation for a collaboration, and Joachim was ready to oblige. He knew, after all, that this concerto was essentially being written for his violin, his sound, his style.

Their collaboration was nothing new. Joachim met Brahms when they were both in their early 20s. Before that, Joachim had been a stupendous prodigy, enjoying his first triumph at age 12 with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he helped establish in the repertoire. When Brahms emerged from his hometown of Hamburg in 1853 on a small concert tour, Joachim was one of the first important musicians he met, and Joachim was one of the first to be stunned and ravished by the music this youth had written.

Joachim advised Brahms on the scoring of his first major orchestral work, the D-Minor Piano Concerto. Joachim also stood by Brahms in the years of emotional chaos that stretched from his discovery by Robert and Clara Schumann, to Robert's breakdown and Brahms's passion for Clara, to the denouement of Robert's death and Brahms's flight from Clara.

Joachim was also an accomplished composer. His Hungarian Concerto was part of his repertoire and a piece Brahms admired. When they began working on the new concerto, Joachim was determined to help his friend fashion the solo part in a more playable and idiomatic way than Brahms could manage on his own. Brahms, for all his devotion to craftsmanship, had always been impatient with strings and bows and other matters of the musical kitchen. He always said he was never fully comfortable with any instrument outside his own, the piano. So that, in theory, he was all for the idea of working on the solo part with Joachim. The practice was another matter.

They set to work, swatches of music going back and forth—sometimes in the mail and sometimes in person—Joachim with violin in hand to try out passages. It was clear that Brahms wanted a solo part much like the one in the First Piano Concerto—continuous, intense, part of a basically orchestral dialogue—but this time including more forthrightly bravura passages. With Brahms's encouragement, Joachim made extensive suggestions and rewrote pages of virtuoso figuration, only to find Brahms ignoring the suggestions even as he demanded more. Often as not, Brahms would draft a passage, Joachim would revise it, then Brahms would produce a third version, sometimes again awkward to play. The violinist was exasperated, but Joachim kept at him with dogged patience.

Joachim was pressing for the piece to be finished for a gala concert in Leipzig on New Year's Day 1879, when word came from Brahms that "the middle movements are bust—naturally they were the best ones [before Joachim's revisions]! I'm writing a wretched adagio instead." (One of the rejected movements, a massive scherzo, went into the Second Piano Concerto.)

When the now three-movement piece was nearly done, Brahms paid Joachim a great compliment: For the single cadenza in the piece, he asked the violinist to write his own. While the manuscript of the concerto still has passages in Joachim's hand, the final solo part was not as idiomatic as he surely had hoped.

Another headache was the problem of balance. Brahms wanted a big, full-throated orchestral sound, as in the First Piano Concerto. But a violin cannot make as much noise as a piano. During the rehearsals for the first performances, Brahms had to spend more time than usual revising the orchestration, paring away at the textures to allow the soloist to be heard. Meanwhile the violinist and composer kept tinkering with the solo part.

The premiere actually did take place in Leipzig on New Year's Day 1879, but Joachim was flummoxed by the last-minute revisions and Brahms was tense on the podium. The response was chilly. Boston composer George Whitefield Chadwick, studying in Leipzig at the time, reported in a letter that, late at night after the performance, he encountered Brahms and Joachim tumbling out of a tavern "in an advanced state of merriment." Their laughter reflected probably more relief than celebration. After revisions, the Vienna premiere was received with great applause two weeks later.


© 2012 Jan Swafford

Laterna magica

Kaija Saariaho is a prominent member of the group of Finnish composers and performers who are now, at the height of their careers, making a worldwide impact. Born in Helsinki, she studied at the Sibelius Academy there with the pioneering modernist Paavo Heininen, and was one of the founders of the progressive Ears Open group, alongside (among others) Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. She continued her studies in Freiburg with the avant-gardists Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber, at the Darmstadt summer courses, and, beginning in 1982, at the IRCAM research institute in Paris-the city where she has since made her home.

At IRCAM, Saariaho developed techniques of computer-assisted composition and acquired fluency in working on tape and with live electronics. Another important French influence was that of the "spectralist" school of composers, whose compositional techniques are based on computer analysis of the sound-spectrum of individual notes on different instruments. In more recent years, the demands of writing for voices-notably in a highly successful series of operas-have led her to explore a new vein of simpler, modally oriented melody, often accompanied by regular repeating patterns. But she has never abandoned her habitual precision of detail and intense expressivity.

The title Laterna magica is that of the autobiography of the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, which Saariaho says "caught my eye after many years when I was tidying my bookcases in autumn 2007" (which, in fact, was shortly after Bergman's death). The "magic lantern," she explains, was "the first machine to create the illusion of a moving imageas the handle turns faster and faster, the individual images disappear and instead the eye sees continuous movement." This suggested the idea of a piece based on "the variation of musical motifs at different tempos." In particular, there are obvious musical allusions to the magic lantern in passages in which very fast-moving figuration forms itself into nearly static, slowly changing ribbons of texture.

There is also a musical reference to one specific film by Bergman, the tautly dramatic 1972 Cries and Whispers. That film uses a good deal of saturated red color, for example at changes of scene. Saariaho's score is similarly "colored" by the use of the horn section, playing in six-part harmony, as a kind of recurring refrain.

Saariaho also drew on Bergman's book itself for a description of the different kinds of light that his favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, was able to capture: "gentle, dangerous, dream-like, living, dead, clear, hazy, hot, strong, naked, sudden, dark, spring-like, penetrating, pressing, direct, oblique, sensuous, overpowering, restricting, poisonous, pacifying, bright light." These words are included in Saariaho's score, in German, either spoken into woodwind instruments fingered at a specific pitch or more often whispered clearly by whole sections (you'll hear the recurring word Licht, or "light").

It's significant, though, that the whispered words disappear after those first 10 minutes or so, leaving half the piece without verbal intervention-as if music alone is being allowed to take over to express the strong human emotions of Bergman's films. Different characters are allowed greater room for expansion and are sometimes combined.



© 2012 Anthony Burton 

Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54

Shostakovich began composing his Symphony No. 6 shortly after the triumphant premiere of his Fifth Symphony. The appearance of that work, in the autumn of 1937, had marked a critical juncture in Shostakovich's difficult career as a Soviet artist. During the late 1920s and early '30s, Shostakovich had established himself as one of his nation's most imaginative and resourceful composers, and also, it seemed, an exemplary "socialist" musician. Apparently a sincere supporter of the Soviet regime, Shostakovich had no objection to composing large-scale hymns to the Revolution, and he did just that in his Second and Third symphonies (to give two notable examples), respectively titled "To October" and "May Day."

But with Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1930s, the liberal artistic climate that had prevailed during the first decade or so of Soviet rule gave way to a new conservatism that demanded optimistic and easily accessible art. Modernist complexity in music was especially frowned upon, even when this was ventured by one of the brightest stars in the Soviet Union's artistic firmament.

For Shostakovich, matters reached a crisis in 1936. In February of that year, the official Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, denounced his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which had enjoyed tremendous enthusiasm with audiences, as "a confused stream of sounds," "cacophony," and "musical chaos." One week later, a second Pravda review attacked his ballet The Limpid Stream.

The effect of this critical about-face on Shostakovich's status was dramatic. Within days, the composer fell from his position as one of Soviet Russia's most esteemed young artists to that of cultural pariah. In the face of such criticism, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsal, and retreated to the privacy of his study. Nearly two years passed before he again brought a major work before the public.

When he did, it was with a workthe Fifth Symphonythat used an accessible style and presented an apparently optimistic tone to gladden the hearts of Party officials. Whether that style and tone were meant ironically, and whether or not the symphony embodied serious artistic compromises, have been widely and heatedly debated. In any event, the Fifth Symphony's triumphant first performance in November 1937 saved Shostakovich's career.

The composer then announced that his next symphony would be an epic tribute to Lenin, complete with soloists and large chorus. Although Shostakovich had publicly supported the Revolution and had previously composed works to honor it, the Pravda attacks of the preceding year had proven that he could not take his safety for granted. Announcing his intention to write another patriotic composition helped deflect any lingering suspicion on the part of the Party's cultural guardians.

As it happened, however, Shostakovich never finished his "Lenin" Symphony. Instead, he produced a very personal work, one in which political or representative elements are entirely absent. Because it was so different from what the composer had originally announced, this Sixth Symphony was accorded a cool critical reception when it appeared in 1939 (and this despite an enthusiastic audience response at the work's premiere in Leningrad that November-the listeners even demanding an encore of the final movement). Nevertheless, it has been almost universally accepted as a strong musical statement and a worthy companion to Shostakovich's other symphonies.


© 2012 Paul Schiavo 

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel R. Lewis in support of the 2011-2012 season.
Kaija Saariaho is the holder of the 2011-2012 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall.
Duff and Phelps 115 x
The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.
Macy's 95x
This Carnegie Hall Live broadcast is supported by Macy's.

Part of