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Overview,

SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE
A Jacobs Masterworks Concert

December 14, 15, 16
Copley Symphony Hall

Jahja Ling, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano

VERDI: Overture to La forza del destino
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467: "Elvira Madigan"
BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

When composer Hector Berlioz thought it might be interesting to pour his obsession for an actress into every note of a symphonic work, classical music was changed forever. Music director Jahja Ling leads the San Diego Symphony in Berlioz's masterpiece, his Symphonie fantastique, last heard here in 2007. Pianist Jeremy Denk (brilliant at violinist Joshua Bell's recital at Symphony Hall a few years back) returns for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, made famous in the 1967 film Elvira Madigan. The concert opens with Giuseppe Verdi's fateful overture to his opera, La forza del destino.

"It was a good night to be a member of the audience.": CLICK HERE to read U-T San Diego's review of this concert!


 

DIALOGUE WITH JAHJA! All Saturday December 15 concertgoers are invited to stay after the concert for a Q&A with music director Jahja Ling and pianist Jeremy Denk.


Notes,

Overture to La forza del destino

GIUSEPPE VERDI

Born October 9/10, 1813, Roncalo

Died January 27, 1901, Milan

 

            Verdi wrote his four-act opera La forza del destino (“The Force of Destiny”) on a commission from the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, where it was first performed in 1862, when the composer was 49. The premiere of the revised version took place in Milan in 1869. The 24th of Verdi’s 28 operas, La forza del destino is a dramatic story of love, revenge and a doomed family, set in eighteenth-century Spain. The opera is built on the relations between three characters: the pure young Leonora, her beloved Don Alvaro (who accidentally kills her father) and her brother Don Carlos, who swears revenge against his father’s killer.

            Verdi wrote a dark and dramatic overture, which he called Sinfonia in the score, in 1869 for the revised version of the opera. It opens with powerful unison E’s from the brass–this is the sound of fate, and it will return several times. The opening theme is restless and surging; Verdi’s short metric units (this opening section is in 3/8) accentuate the overture’s uneasy mood. The lyric material that follows is drawn from Leonora’s aria in Act II, and the overture rises to a dramatic climax on the music that precedes the fatal final duel between Don Alvaro and Don Carlos.

 

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg

Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

 

            The Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467 comes from the summit of Mozart’s fame in Vienna. He completed it on March 9, 1785, barely in time for its premiere the following day, when it was the centerpiece of one of his popular subscription concerts. This was an extremely busy time for the 29-year-old composer. Not only was he working as composer, performer and teacher, but his father was visiting from Salzburg, and the elder Mozart–who had expressed misgivings about his son’s launching a career in Vienna–now was forced to admit that Wolfgang had found dazzling success in his adopted city. It was during this visit that Haydn pulled the elder Mozart aside and offered the most sincere compliment any composer ever paid to another: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

            Though he both led the orchestra and played the piano at the premiere, Mozart did not understand the piano concerto as a vehicle to display his virtuosity. Instead, he conceived the piano concerto as nearly symphonic in nature–in thematic material capable of growth and change, in the close integration of soloist and orchestra, and particularly in their mutual development of the musical argument. Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein notes that Mozart may have written few symphonies during his years in Vienna, but he did not really need to write symphonies–his piano concertos are full of symphonic thinking.

            The symphonic character of this concerto is most evident in its extraordinary first movement, which is as long as the final two movements combined. Mozart marks it Allegro maestoso, a marking that needs to be understood carefully. Majestic it certainly is, but this movement lacks the martial trumpet-and-drums quality that sometimes characterizes Mozart’s music in C Major. Instead, there is nobility in this movement, but there is also restraint. It opens quietly but firmly with a noble little march tune. This march becomes the backbone of the movement, and it serves in many ways–as theme, as accompaniment figure; at one point Mozart even treats it fugally. The entrance of the piano is understated–the soloist here is neither heroic nor a rival of the orchestra–and soon the piano introduces the movement’s other principal ideas: an extraordinary chromatic episode in the “wrong” key of G minor and a serenely simple melody of typically Mozartean grace. The lengthy development of these ideas, shared by soloist and orchestra, runs through a range of mood and expression before the movement concludes on a wisp of the march tune.

            Extraordinary as the first movement is, it finds its match in the Andante, which has haunted audiences for two centuries. Mere verbal description cannot begin to suggest the expressiveness and sudden shifts of mood that mark this endlessly beautiful music. But while this music may be beautiful, it is not relaxed, and beneath the elegant surface are jagged edges, wide skips and stinging dissonances. Particularly striking here is the orchestral sonority Mozart creates: he mutes the upper strings, giving them a silky, dark sound, while middle strings introduce the triplet accompaniment that throbs throughout and lower strings lay out the pizzicato bass line. Over this accompaniment, first violins have a soaring, arching main melody, full of expressive turns and dark shading.

            After two such movements, the finale–a rondo–can seem a little conventional. Strings introduce the tightly chromatic main idea, the piano quickly picks it up, and the music whirls off on its bright way. Of particular interest here is the writing for orchestra. We do not immediately think of Mozart for his orchestration, but this finale is striking for its deft exchanges between winds and strings, for the quiet but effective writing for trumpets and horns, and particularly for the wonderful writing for solo woodwinds, each of whom assumes an individual character here.

 

Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14

HECTOR BERLIOZ

Born December 11, 1803, La Côte-St-André

Died March 8, 1869, Paris

 

            It is impossible for modern audiences to understand how revolutionary Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was in 1830 when it burst upon surprised listeners in Paris. The music has become so overly familiar that we forget that it represented not only a brilliant new use of the orchestra but also an entirely new conception of the role of the composer. For Berlioz subtitled this symphony “Episode in the Life of an Artist” and based it on details of his own life. What made the symphony so sensational was that these autobiographical details were so lurid, private and painful. No longer was music an abstract art, at some distance from the psyche of its maker. When Berlioz created the nightmare journey of the Symphonie fantastique out of his own internal fury, the art of music was all at once propelled into a new era.

            In 1827 an English acting troupe visited Paris, where their performances of Shakespeare created a sensation. Nowhere did these performances have more impact than on a 23-year-old music student named Hector Berlioz, who was as much smitten with the company’s leading lady, Harriet Smithson, as he was with Shakespeare. Berlioz himself recalled the effect of watching the actress play the part of Juliet: “It was too much. By the third Act, hardly able to breathe–as though an iron hand gripped me by the heart–I knew I was lost.” Berlioz resolved on the spot to marry Harriet Smithson and soon mounted a concert of his own works as a way of attracting her attention; she never even heard of the concert. Plunged into the despair of his own helpless love, Berlioz came up with the idea that would–after much revision–become the Symphonie fantastique. He would depict in music the nightmare mental adventures of a love-stricken young musician who took opium as a way to escape his pain.

            Such an idea carries with it all sorts of dangers for unbridled self-indulgence, but in fact the Symphonie fantastique is a tightly-disciplined score. Its unity comes from Berlioz’s use of what he called (borrowing the term from the psychology of his day) an idée fixe, or “fixed idea”; today we would simply call it an obsession. In the symphony, this obsession takes the form of a long melody which Berlioz associates with his beloved. This melody appears in each of the symphony’s five movements, varied each time to suit the mood of the movement and the mental state of the suffering hero.

            Berlioz, an unusually articulate writer, provided program notes of the symphony that are still worth quoting in detail (Berlioz’s notes are in italics in the following paragraphs):

A young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of lovesick despair. The narcotic dose he had taken was too weak to cause death, but it has thrown him into a long sleep accompanied by the most extraordinary visions. In this condition his sensations, his feelings and his memories find utterance in his sick brain in the form of musical imagery. Even the Beloved One takes the form of a melody in his mind, like a fixed idea which is ever returning and which he hears everywhere.

First Movement: Rêveries, Passions. At first he thinks of the uneasy and nervous condition of his mind, of somber longings, of depression and joyous elation without any recognizable cause, which he experienced before the Beloved One had appeared to him. Then he remembers the ardent love with which she suddenly inspired him; he thinks of his almost insane anxiety of mind, of his raging jealousy, of his reawakening love, of his religious consolation.

The movement’s opening, with murmuring woodwinds and muted strings, depicts the artist drifting softly into the drugged dream-state. The animated idée fixe theme, the musical backbone of the entire symphony, is soon heard in the first violins and flute. This undergoes a series of dramatic transformations (this opening movement is in a sort of sonata form) before the movement closes on quiet chords marked Religiosamente.

Second Movement: A Ball. In a ballroom, amidst the confusion of a brilliant festival, he finds the Beloved One again.

Berlioz here creates a flowing waltz, beautifully introduced by swirling strings and harps. Near the end, the music comes to a sudden stop, and the idée fixe melody appears in a graceful transformation for solo clarinet before the waltz resumes.

Third Movement–Scene in the Country. It is a summer evening. He is in the country, musing, when he hears two shepherd lads who play, in alternation, the ranz des vaches (the tune used by the Swiss shepherds to call their flocks). This pastoral duet, the quiet scene, the soft whisperings of the trees stirred by the zephyr wind, some prospects of hope recently made known to him, all these sensations unite to impart a long unknown report to his heart and to lend a smiling color to his imagination. And then She appears once more. His heart stops beating, painful forebodings fill his soul. “Should she prove false to him!” One of the shepherds resumes the melody, but the other answers him no more . . . Sunset . . . distant rolling of thunder . . . loneliness . . . silence . . .

The Scene in the Country is one of Berlioz’s most successful examples of scene-painting, perhaps inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but nothing like it musically. The dialogue of the shepherds’ pipes to the accompaniment of distant thunder is a particularly imaginative touch; the idée fixe is heard during the course of the dreamy summer afternoon in the woodwinds.

Fourth Movement: March to the Scaffold. He dreams that he has murdered his Beloved, that he has been condemned to death and is being led to execution. A march that is alternately somber and wild, brilliant and solemn, accompanies the procession. The tumultuous outbursts are followed without modulation by measured steps. At last the idée fixe returns, for a moment a last thought of love is revived, which is cut short by the deathblow.

This is the most famous music in the symphony, with its muffled drums giving way to the brilliant march. At the end, the solo clarinet plays a fragment of the idée fixe, then the guillotine blade comes down as a mighty chord from the orchestra; pizzicato notes mark the severed head’s tumble into the basket.

Fifth Movement: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. He dreams that he is present at a witches’ revel, surrounded by horrible spirits, amidst sorcerers and monsters in many fearful forms, who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, shrill laughter, distant yells, which other cries seem to answer. The Beloved Melody is heard again, but it has lost its shy and noble character; it has become a vulgar, trivial and grotesque dance tune. She it is who comes to attend the witches’ meeting. Riotous howls and shouts greet her arrival. She joins the infernal orgy. Bells toll for the dead, a burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The witches’ round dance. The dance and the Dies Irae are heard together.

Here is a nightmare vision in music: the horrible growls and squeaks of the beginning give way to the grotesque dance for witches and spirits. Berlioz here takes his revenge on the Beloved who had scorned him: her once-lovely tune is made hideous and repellent. The orchestral writing here is phenomenal: bells toll, clarinets squeal, the strings tap their bowsticks on the strings to imitate the sounds of skeletons dancing.

            The first performance of the Symphonie fantastique on December 5, 1830 (six days before the composer’s 27th birthday) was a mixed success: the work had its ardent defenders as well as its bitter enemies. The storybook climax of this whole tale was that Harriet Smithson finally recognized the composer’s great passion for her, and they were married three years later. If this all sounds a little too good to be true, it was–the marriage was unhappy, the couple was divorced, and Harriet died after a long struggle with alcohol.

            But this in no way detracts from the musical achievement of the Symphonie fantastique: Berlioz looked deep within the nightmare depths of his own agonized soul and found there the material for a revolutionary new conception of music, music that was not an artistic abstraction but spoke directly from his own anguish, and he gave that torment a dazzling pictorial immediacy. Composers as different as Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the many who would be directly influenced by this new conceptualization of what music might be.

- Program notes by Eric Bromberger

 

WHY THIS PROGRAM?

Jahja Ling stated, “This is the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, and I chose this particular, very exciting overture to honor him as well as to show off the orchestra.” Continuing, he pointed out that the Mozart C Major concerto has not been played here for too many years, and it is especially appropriate in this concert to be placed between the brass-heavy pieces on either side of it. “Of course, Mozart is always appropriate.” Regarding the Sinfonie fantastique, our maestro waxed enthusiastic. “Unbelievably, so near the time of Beethoven, Berlioz wrote this piece, a composition so wildly outside the rules that many people thought he was insane. Who else would write such extreme music about his own obsession over an actress? Crazy or not, his music will last forever, and his orchestration of the piece is a textbook in itself.”

Earl Bernard Murray led Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino when he introduced it to the SDSO repertoire during the summer of 1962. Yoav Talmi led the SDSO’s seventh and most recent performance of the work during the 1990-91 season.   With Peter Eros on the podium, Paul Badura-Skoda played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 for its San Diego premiere during the 1976-77 season. Stanislav Ioudanitch was the soloist when the piece was most recently played here under James de Preist during the 2001-02 season. An audience favorite, Berlioz’s Sinfonie fantastique was programmed by the SDSO twice during Earl Bernard Murray’s tenure as our music director, in the 1960-61 and 1965-66 seasons. Yoav Talmi also programmed it twice and recorded it with the SDSO for Naxos. (The excellent CD is available at our lobby gift counter.) Jahja Ling led it here most recently during the 2007-08 season, its 11th outing here over the years.

- Melvin G. Goldzband, Symphony Archivist

Artists,

American pianist Jeremy Denk has steadily built a reputation as one of today’s most compelling and persuasive artists with an unusually broad repertoire. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination — both for his penetrating intellectual engagement with the music and for the generosity of his playing.”   

He has appeared as soloist with many major orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and London. He regularly gives recitals in New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and around the United States. This season he makes solo appearances in venues including Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium and London’s Wigmore Hall, and plays concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Ravel. Denk is known for his witty and personal music writing, which has appeared in The New Yorker, the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Newsweek and on the website of NPR Music. He looks forward to performing and curating as Artistic Director of the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, for which he is also composing the libretto to a semi-satirical opera.

In 2012 Denk made his debut as a Nonesuch recording artist with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Ligeti’s highly complex Études and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata. This album was featured on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, while BBC Music’s review concluded: “All in all, it’s a marvel.” The pianist also plans to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations over the winter for release on the storied, innovative label. Besides his enduring devotion to the Baroque master’s work, Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two Piano Sonatas was selected for many “best of the year” lists. Last season, he was invited by Michael Tilson Thomas to appear as a soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s “American Mavericks” festival, and he recorded Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto with the orchestra. Denk has cultivated relationships with many living composers and has several commissioning projects currently in progress.

An avid chamber musician, the pianist has most recently spent considerable time touring with violinist Joshua Bell, and French Impressions – their recording of Franck, Saint-Saëns, and Ravel – was recently released on the Sony Classical label, winning the 2012 Echo-Klassik award. (Denk and Bell are fondly remembered here for their 2010 recital at Symphony Hall.) Denk also regularly collaborates with cellist Steven Isserlis. He has appeared at numerous festivals, including the Italian and American Spoleto Festivals, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music, Verbier, Tanglewood, Aspen and “Mostly Mozart” Festivals, besides spending many summers at Vermont’s Marlboro Music School.

Denk’s blog, unfortunately titled Think Denk, has been praised and referenced by many in the music press and industry. There the pianist recounts his touring, performing and practicing experiences, as well as delving into detailed musical analyses; Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, described him as “a superb musician who writes with arresting sensitivity and wit…This is a voice that, effectively, could never have been heard before the advent of the Internet: sophisticated on the one hand, informal on the other, immediate in impact. Blogs such as this put a human face on an alien culture.”

After graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory in piano and chemistry, Denk earned a master’s degree in music from Indiana University as a pupil of György Sebök, and a doctorate in piano performance from the Juilliard School, where he worked with Herbert Stessin. He lives in New York City. Denk’s web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.

SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE (MW)
December 14 - December 16, 2012
COPLEY SYMPHONY HALL

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