Kodály, Dvořák, Beethoven
SATURDAY, FEB. 23, 2019 AT 8 P.M.
Mei-Ann Chen, guest conductor
Alexi Kenney, violin
The three very distinct composers presented on this concert all found great inspiration in connecting with their roots. Zoltan Kodály pioneered the field of ethnomusicology while exploring the music of his native Hungary. His Dances of Galánta are a collection of village dances reimagined as a symphonic work and transformed with colors of the modern symphony orchestra. Next, Alexi Kenney, winner of the 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, brings his unique perspective to Dvořák’s Violin Concerto — full of lyricism inspired by the rich Czech folkloric tradition. The concert’s centerpiece is Beethoven’s beloved “Pastoral” symphony, which was inspired by the composer’s love of the countryside.
Kodály Dances of Galánta
Dvořák Violin Cocnerto
Beethoven Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”
Praised for her dynamic, passionate conducting style, Taiwanese-American conductor Mei-Ann Chen is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm and high-level music-making, galvanizing audiences and communities alike. Appointed Music Director of the MacArthur Award-winning Chicago Sinfonietta in 2011, Ms. Chen’s contract has been extended through the 2020-2021 season. She also serves as Artistic Director & Conductor for the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival, a post she has held since 2016. Highly regarded as a compelling communicator and an innovative leader both on and off the podium, and a sought-after guest conductor, she continues to expand her relationships with orchestras worldwide.
North American guesting credits include appearances with the Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, National, Nashville, Oregon, Pacific, River Oaks Chamber, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver, to name a few.
Recognized as someone who has redefined the orchestra experience, amongst Ms. Chen’s honors and awards are being named one of the 2015 Top 30 Influencers by Musical America, (the bible of the performing arts industry); a 2012 Helen M. Thompson Award from the League of American Orchestras; Winner, the 2007 Taki Concordia Fellowship; and First Prize Winner, the prestigious Malko Competition in 2005. Ms. Chen is the recipient of several ASCAP awards for innovative programming during her tenure as the Music Director of Chicago Sinfonietta & Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregon (2002 – 2007). Ms. Chen is also Conductor Laureate of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, having served as Music Director from 2010 to 2016.
Born in Taiwan, Mei-Ann Chen came to the United States to study violin in 1989 and became the first student in New England Conservatory’s history to receive master’s degrees simultaneously in both violin and conducting. She later studied with Kenneth Kiesler at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting. Ms. Chen participated in the National Conductor Preview, National Conducting Institute, Aspen American Academy of Conducting, and Pierre Monteux School.
The recipient of a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, violinist Alexi Kenney has been named “a talent to watch” by the New York Times, which also noted his “architect’s eye for structure and space and a tone that ranges from the achingly fragile to full-bodied robustness.” His win at the 2013 Concert Artists Guild Competition at the age of nineteen led to a critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut recital at Weill Hall.
Highlights of Alexi’s 2017-18 season include debuts with the Detroit, Columbus, California, and Amarillo symphonies, return engagements with the Santa Fe Symphony and the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and recitals with pianist Renana Gutman on Carnegie Hall’s ‘Distinctive Debuts’ series, at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and at Lee University (TN) and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University (CA). Alexi has appeared as soloist with the Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Portland, Riverside, Santa Fe, and Tulare County symphonies, the Staatstheater Orchestra of Cottbus, Germany, and A Far Cry. He has appeared in recital at Caramoor, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Jordan Hall in Boston, and at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. He has been profiled by Strings magazine and the New York Times, written for The Strad, and has been featured on Performance Today, WQXR-NY’s Young Artists Showcase, WFMT-Chicago, and NPR’s From the Top.
Chamber music continues to be a main focus of Alexi’s life, touring with Musicians from Marlboro and musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Institute and regularly performing at festivals including ChamberFest Cleveland, Festival Napa Valley, the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, the Marlboro Music Festival, Music@Menlo, Open Chamber Music at Prussia Cove (UK), Ravinia, and Yellow Barn. He has collaborated with artists including Pamela Frank, Miriam Fried, Steven Isserlis, Kim Kashkashian, Gidon Kremer, and Christian Tetzlaff and is a new member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS 2 program beginning in the 2018-19 season.
Born in Palo Alto, California in 1994, Alexi holds a Bachelor of Music from the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he is currently completing his Artist Diploma as a student of Donald Weilerstein and Miriam Fried. Previous teachers include Wei He, Jenny Rudin, and Natasha Fong.
INTERACTIVE PROGRAM NOTES
Dances of Galánta
Composers have always loved to integrate folk melodies into their works both for popular appeal and to show their ability to manipulate a simple tune. The practice was already common in the Middle Ages. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often made the mistake of equating the popular music of the day with authentic traditional folk melodies. The melodies that Brahms and Liszt used in their Hungarian dances and rhapsodies, for example, were not indigenous melodies, but were in reality the popular street and café music of their time – often played by Roma (Gypsy) bands.
Zoltán Kodály and his colleague Béla Bartók, both pioneers of modern ethnomusicology, were among the first (in 1907) to use the newfangled invention, the wax cylinder recorder, to collect folk melodies at their source. They traveled extensively to the most rural backwaters of Central and Eastern Europe to collect their examples and were careful to authenticate their research. Critical to their systematic approach was to seek the variations in music and text from different locales, in the attempt to figure out the origin of the melodies and follow the geographical spread of both music and words. They avoided one of the great pitfalls in authenticating folk music, recognizing the fact that the simpler the melody, the greater the possibility that similar ones arose independently and were not necessarily derived from a common source. Like Bartók, Kodály used many of the collected folk melodies as themes for his compositions. Of the two, Kodály was the more conservative and the more Romantic. While his international reputation is generally overshadowed by that of Bartók, his music has become a national treasure in his native Hungary.
Kodály’s ethno-musicological research notwithstanding, the themes for Dances of Galánta, first performed in 1933 for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, did indeed originate from street and café music. Galánta, a small town now in Slovakia, was part of Hungary when Kodály lived there as a child. In the eighteenth century Galánta had been a center of sophisticated Roma musicians who performed from notated scores, rather than from memory, and played in the orchestras of the gentry. Although their fame had waned by Kodály’s time, the composer wanted to revive the old tradition. The themes for Dances of Galánta came from a historical collection, Selected Hungarian National Dances of various Gypsy from Galánta.
Kodály selected five different melodies and rhythms, giving them a brilliant orchestral dressing that provided a special showcase for the upper winds. The five dances employ different modes, themes and rhythms, but they are strung together in such a way that the final measures of one dance serve as an introduction to the next. The opening dance begins with a long introduction that has the effect of a warm-up or flexing of musical muscles.
The first three dances feature an orchestral soloist; in the first movement, the clarinet introduces a slow modal theme that will reappear in later movements to unify the set.
The second dance features the flute and is faster and more flowing than the first
but returns to the theme from the first dance, finally blending seamlessly into the third, which features the oboe
and contains a dialogue between the upper winds and strings. The fourth dance picks up in tempo and pits the violins against the upper winds in a kind of contest as the dance becomes wilder and wilder.
Suddenly everything shifts gear with a new slower, almost humorous, melody in the lower brass and then in the clarinet,
slipping into the final dance. Here again the tempo is fast, with the theme bouncing around the entire orchestra and including quotes from the previous dances.
A long pause nostalgically brings back the refrain in the upper winds, ending with a cadenza for clarinet “rudely” interrupted by the rest of the orchestra for a rousing conclusion.
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53
The son of a Czech innkeeper and butcher from a small town in Bohemia, Antonín Dvořák showed his musical talent at a very early age. However, as a member of a minority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was looked upon as a second-class citizen. He sensed condescension in the support and encouragement of the Austrian musical establishment and was resentful at being forced by economic necessity to accept government stipends. Beginning with the 1870s, influenced by the emerging Czech demand for self-rule and of Bedrich Smetana’s nationalistic music, Dvořák applied a decidedly more nationalistic style to his musical language.
In 1875 Dvořák met and became a disciple of Brahms; the admiration was mutual. Brahms urged Fritz Simrock, the most famous music publisher in Berlin, to publish Dvořák’s Moravian Dances and the first set of the Slavonic Dances. Brahms supported him when he entered – and won – the competition for the Austrian State Prize in music for young, poor and talented artists (Dvořák won the competition twice more.) The committee report stated that “…the applicant, who has never yet been able to acquire a piano of his own, deserves a grant to ease his strained circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.”
By the time Dvořák started the Violin Concerto in the summer of 1879, prizes, honors and commissions were pouring in. The suggestion to write a violin concerto came from Simrock, and Dvořák hoped to enlist the help of the famed violinist Joseph Joachim to evaluate and edit the concerto. Joachim, who had also helped Brahms and Max Bruch with their concertos, suggested after a trial rehearsal that the composer start from scratch. Dvořák rewrote the Concerto and destroyed the original version. He finally completed it in 1882, stating, “I have retained the themes, and composed some new ones too, but the whole concept of the work is different.” But still the two friends did not see eye to eye. Joachim, although the dedicatee, did not premiere the finished work.
There is no specific information regarding Joachim’s objections to Dvořák’s Concerto. On the surface, it shares many elements with the concertos of Brahms, Bruch and Mendelssohn, frequently performed by Joachim. Unlike these works, however, the Concerto strays from the more conventional forms in the first and second movements, in which Dvořák reveals an intensely emotional, almost elegiac side of his musical personality.
The Concerto is in the conventional three movement form, but the first two are played without interruption. A short orchestral fanfare followed by a lyrical melody on the solo violin present the material from which this extensive first movement is built,
although a second theme is introduced much later.
All in all, the movement combines elaborate virtuosity with moments of intense pathos. A brief passage over pulsing tympani recalls two famous predecessors of the violin concerto repertory, Beethoven and Max Bruch. There is no real recapitulation, only a six bar fragment that leads to the transition to the second movement.
The slow movement is in the customary ABA’ song form of so many slow movements, but Beethoven had opened up vast possibilities for elaborating on the two or three themes that normally make up the form. In this vein, Dvořák opens with a gentle melody on the solo violin, accompanied by the oboe. But the initial folk-like simplicity of the melody is deceiving; starting from the second phrase, he suddenly darkens it.
And as he spins out the theme, it becomes increasingly passionate. It is true that Dvořák produces intense emotional affect by the soaring violin line, but the “catch in the throat” comes with the abrupt and surprising harmonic shifts under a simple melodic line.
In the middle (or “B”) section, he again ramps up the emotional intensity.
Listeners familiar with the later and better known Cello Concerto will perceive the same tragic sensibility the composer used there to pour out his grief upon hearing of the death of his old love. The movement is largely a personal conversation between the violin and the upper winds; in one case, the oboe “suggests” a new harmonic variation on the principal theme.
The movement also presents the soloist with an opportunity for some delicate figurative passages, but always subdued, in keeping with the wistful mood.
In the Finale, it’s time to put the handkerchiefs away. Dvořák reveals his Bohemian roots; the soloist introduces a lively dance, a furiant, that recurs as a rondo throughout the movement, each time with a different instrumental mix.
The violin also introduces and develops a second theme.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastorale”
How and why did this symphonic tone poem come from the pen of a composer of primarily “absolute music?” To answer that question one must realize that Beethoven and his audience were more readily able to attach literary, specific emotional or extra-musical concepts to music. Beethoven himself had conjured the image of Napoleon, and then when the little emperor let him down, simply a hero in his Third Symphony. His Wellington’s Victory was the latest in a long tradition of musical battles dating back to the Renaissance. And of course, there were musical models for many of the images in the Pastorale Symphony – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, bucolic Christmas pastorals with bagpipe drones, such as those from Handel’s Messiah or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto – not to mention an extensive vocabulary of rhetorical musical figures from the Baroque, bird calls and other perennial tone painting devices.
But Beethoven seemed to be searching for something different, an ideal way to portray and “express” nature. “Any painting, if it is carried too far in instrumental music, loses expressive quality…The overall content, consisting of more feelings than of tone paintings, will be recognized even without further description,” he wrote in his sketchbook while working on the Sixth Symphony. This and other notes to himself as he worked reveal the Symphony as more than a sentimental outpouring. The Pastorale Symphony was another of the composer’s projects, another creative challenge to be met in the context of his trajectory of self-fulfillment as an artist. As Beethoven’s biographer, Barry Cooper, puts it: “He was faced with two main problems in writing a symphony in the pastoral style: the first was to prevent the music from degenerating into scene-painting or story-telling; the second was to combine the pastoral style, leisurely and undramatic, with the thrust and dynamism of the symphonic style.”
Nevertheless, Beethoven wrote more words about this symphony than about any of his other compositions. He provided descriptive titles to each of the five movements, while at the same time commenting that the music was self-explanatory and needed no titles. The first movement, “Cheerful feelings awakened on arriving in the country,” builds up none of the intense tension so common in Beethoven’s first movements, being instead an unhurried study in tranquility.
The second movement, “Scene by the brook,” is full of soft, murmuring accompaniment, which captures the sound of a flowing brook,
interspersed with the birdcalls and chirping insects – all within a tradition in tone painting common since the renaissance.
In a break with the classical symphonic structure, the last three movements run together as a continuous whole. The third movement, “Merry gathering of country folk,” suggests a village band with the lower strings imitating the drone of a bagpipe.
The dance is interrupted by the “Thunderstorm,” a superb impressionistic evocation of lightning, thunder and howling winds.
As the storm approaches, the thunderclaps come faster and faster
and then slow down as the storm passes. After the final rumbles, a solo clarinet, followed by a solo horn, lead into the “Shepherd’s song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.”
The developing peaceful and bucolic scene ends in the final chords with the shepherd’s pipe figure fading away into the distance.
Beethoven started the Symphony in the summer of 1807 and finished it in June 1808. It was premiered at a concert (Musikalische Akademie) of his recent compositions in the Imperial Theater in Vienna on December 22, 1808. The program, which was over four hours long, also included the premieres of the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the concert aria “Ah Perfido,” some improvisations by the composer, three movements from the Mass in C major and, to top it all off, the Choral Fantasia, which Beethoven composed as a grand finale to the occasion. Such monster concerts were the norm in the early nineteenth century, with people coming and going in the middle as they pleased. Not surprisingly, few stayed for the duration.
The gentle atmosphere of the Sixth Symphony is in sharp contrast to the high voltage and intensity of the Fifth, completed only a few weeks earlier. With his cantankerous nature, Beethoven fought, quarreled and argued with everyone, friend, foe or patron. But with nature he was at peace.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018