November 5, 2022
My collaboration with the WCP goes back to February 2020, when I met with violinists Rick and Fred at a local coffee shop to discuss my concert, which was to happen in the following October of. The next month, of course, the pandemic shut everything down and the performance was rescheduled a couple of times until… here we are in November 2022! While the program has changed, I consider myself fortunate to have had 2.5 years to look forward to my collaboration.
The music that we chose is very familiar to me and I’ve been lucky to perform every piece several times. The Grieg for example, was on a program on which I performed a few years ago with the late Boris Brott conducting in Hamilton. The Mozetich was one of many on a KW Symphony Baroque & Beyond concert which I curated and hosted in 2019. The Mendelssohn was performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada in Stratford on my first tour with them twenty years ago. I’m ecstatic to have so many well-known melodies played by this group and welcome you all to this concert, now that this vibrant and innovative community are back in-person together to share the gift of music.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture op. 21
While the overture “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was by no means the first major composition of the young composer, it is one of his first great and lasting works. Completed in 1826, just one year after his genius E♭ Octet, Mendelssohn had already written thirteen string symphonies, one full symphony (C minor) and many chamber works. Toward the end of his short life at age 37, he wrote incidental music (i.e., movements performed between acts of a stage play) which is often performed in concert with the orchestra. Many memorable movements make up the complete work, including the famous Wedding March. Not yet of legal drinking age in present-day Ontario, the 18-year-old Mendelssohn travelled to what is now Szczecin, Poland for the premiere. A February snowstorm raged as the composer made his way the equivalent distance of Elmira to Scarborough (presumably without the modern annoyance of constant roadwork) then performed two concertos on piano following the premiere of his overture. That comprised only the first half of the concert! Following the intermission young Felix joined the first violins in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The 10-minute overture begins with introductory chords from the woodwind section: first two flutes and with clarinets, bassoons, oboes, and horns entering after. The violins sneak in under the winds and take over with a swirling passage, imitating the magical fairies of the play. The rest of the orchestra joins when the music switches to a representation of the Athenian court and the many tales of love (and lust) in the story. A particularly memorable moment is the “donkey bray” from the character of Nick Bottom, whose head has been turned into that of a donkey by the mischievous Puck.
The fairies return and their dance music is developed, fragmented, and mixed with motives from Athenea as in the play, where the fantastic and real storylines are intermingled. The music slows and the strings sing a more intimate version of the lovers’ music from earlier. The opening chords return and re-introduce the fairy theme and music heard previously. Following the climax, a final fairy dance leads to a slower and affectionate rendition of the royal music, perhaps signifying that life is once again harmonious in the court.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 op. 46
More incidental music comes from the Grieg’s setting of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. The Ibsen play was completed in the year of Canada’s confederation and the original the 26 movements of music by Grieg, eight years later. Ten years after that, just as the Last Spike was being driven to complete Canada’s first coast-to-coast railway, Grieg removed eight movements from the work to create two suites.
While not at all chronological with the drama of Ibsen’s creation, the movements nonetheless contain some of the most recognizable melodies in western music.
I. Morning Mood: While modern audiences often associate the famous melody with the lush Scandinavian landscape, this part of the play take place in the Moroccan desert. Peer has exiled himself from Norway following a series of unfortunate choices involving the opposite sex. Despite the serene nature of the melody, Grieg intended it to represent the stranded anti-hero in a tree using a stick to defend himself from a group of attacking monkeys.
II. The Death of Åse: In Act III, Peer is living in a cabin in the woods with a woman who had previously rejected his advances. A visiting troll-woman, who is the daughter of the Mountain King, reveals that Peer has (at least in his imagination) fathered a child with her. Rather than face his actions head-on (“To Thyself Be True” from Hamlet), he obeys a voice he hears telling him to avoid the consequences. He lies to his partner and flees, arriving back home in time for the death of his mother. Following this scene, he exiles himself, first to Morocco. The simple but heart-wrenching music by Grieg depicts the passing of a mother who was abandoned by both her husband and son.
III. Anitra’s Dance – In the Moroccan desert, Peer attempts to seduce the daughter of a Bedouin (nomadic Arab tribe) chief. She, in turn, dances for him then steals his money while he is in a trance. The music for strings and triangle depicts the sensual but hypnotizing dance.
IV. In the Hall of the Mountain King: The final movement depicts the earliest scene of the eight chosen for the two suites. In a state of extreme hungover-ness, Peer hits his head and enters a dream-like state, in which he visits a cave filled with strange creatures. The translation of the Norwegian Dovregubben to Mountain King is not quite accurate and was intended by Ibsen to mean troll (gubben) from Norway’s mountainous region (called Dovre). While the music undeniably creates the atmosphere of a fantasy with cave-dwelling trolls, the themes of egotism, truth and cowardliness are revealed in this sense of the play more than any other. Grieg said that he couldn’t bear to listen to his own music because it “so reeks of cowpats [manure], ultra-Norwegianism, and “to-thyself-be-enough-ness [as opposed to “to thyself be true]”.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) St. Anthony Variations op. 56a
While Liszt was writing symphonic poems and Wagner, dramatic opera cycles, Brahms was much more of a traditionalist. He composed using the forms of yesteryear: formal symphonies and chamber music with traditional counterpoint. While the chorale as a composition by Haydn makes for a good story, the St. Antony chorale for winds was likely not written by the father of the string quartet and its origins are not totally clear. Fortunately for us is that Brahms found this theme in a published score of woodwind music and laid out a set of eight variations and finale following its presentation.
The theme itself is comprised of two short sections both of which are repeated in some capacity in each variation. Most of the variations stay in the home key of B♭ major although three are in minor key, including the haunting and unsettled eighth variation. The finale is created by the combination of the theme with a figure that begins in the double bass and cello. The repeated line – four measures, in this case – that starts in the low string is a composition technique called Passacaglia which was heavily used in the Baroque period. The Passacaglia tune is passed around different sections of the orchestra until the climax, where it is heard together with the Antony chorale in a fortissimo dynamic.
Marjan Mozetich (1948-) Postcards from the Sky
Born in Italy, Mozetich spent his youth in Hamilton, ON studying piano and composition with aspirations of a concert career. Although his future writing style would be much less so, he was influenced by the avant-garde style in his early career and even studied with the prominent Italian composer Luciano Berio, among others. Following a half-completed degree in psychology at the University of Waterloo, Mozetich once again found music and decided then that his career would be as a composer.
His vocabulary encompasses romantism and lyrical melody with a touch of minimalist rhythm and harmonic motion. Postcards from the Sky is a perfect combination of these elements as each of the beautiful yet melancholic movements includes a gentle but consistent rhythmic push.
The piece begins with the second violins providing a cushion of clouds for the solo cello’s calm melody. The music remains calms even when the rest of the strings join. It isn’t until almost halfway through the movement the melodic voices are given faster notes and these are gently passed from low to high instruments as colours in the sky blend to create the most beautiful sky at dawn or dusk.
The next movement also begins with calm motion from the second violins. The melodic element presented first in the violins then but also heard later in the low strings is a written acceleration of one note and possibly represents the volatility of the sky when stormy weather is in the air. Like in the opening movement, ascending and descending passages are passed from one section to the another but this time, plucked, as if to depict gentle rain drops.
The solo (the grammatically correct Italian is “sola”, actually) viola introduces the theme of the last movement and plays the part of the sky’s messenger (the sun, perhaps, more esoterically, a spirit from beyond). The cellos give intensity to the moving line when they join while the second violins add intense counterpoint to the violas. The emotions that come with the messenger’s news are heard at the climax of this movement from the high- register first violins and ecstatic second violins. Before long, peace is found as the harmony remains static and the dynamic quiets. The music ends as the other movements did: peacefully and gently but without slowing, perhaps intimating that the beauty of the sky will return tomorrow and for eternity.