In planning the music for the Wilmington Symphony’s Fall 2021 season, I avoided works scored for large orchestra because of uncertainties regarding the number of players allowed under pandemic restrictions. This stimulated some exploration of masterworks with modest performing forces and led me to works like Johannes Brahms’s Serenade No. 2, which calls for eleven wind players and a string section comprising only violas, cellos, and basses. What it lacks in sheer decibels is made up for by its graceful beauty and charm.
Written when the composer was 25 years old, the serenade is cast in five movements, differing from the typical four-movement work in having two scherzos instead of one. The absence of violins (which tend to dominate symphonies) allows the wind instruments to be showcased, starting with the serene quartet of two clarinets and two bassoons that begins the first movement. The second movement features some humorously dislocated accents, the third is slow and yearning (Clara Schumann was enormously fond of it), the fourth a more gentle minuet, and the fifth a cheery and energetic Rondo (a form unified by a recurring tune). In this final movement Brahms seems to have remembered that he had a piccolo player in the ensemble and makes brilliant use of the instrument.
We had scheduled a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (his sole composition in this genre) to coincide with the composer’s 250th anniversary year in the fall of 2020, so we’re offering a happy belated birthday celebration. The concerto, written for Beethoven’s colleague Frank Clement in 1806, is spacious in its time scale. The measured tread of the timpani solo that creates such a distinctive beginning lets us know that the music will unfold at a leisurely pace. The violin solo weaves complexity into the melodies heard in simpler form during the three-minute orchestral introduction, often spinning out rapid scalar and arpeggiated lines over the orchestra. The four steady notes introduced by the timpani insistently return a number of times, often played by the string section using four consecutive upward bow-strokes.
The second movement is hushed, almost suspended in mid-air, the violin solo tracing ethereal responses over the expressive melody in the orchestra. Later on, when the solo part plays the main melody, it is supported by sparse punctuations in plucked strings. It is one of Beethoven’s more daring creations in the way it does so much with so little.
The concentrated spell of the slow movement is broken by the dance-like theme of the Finale, which, like the last movement of the Brahms Serenade, is a Rondo. Soloist and orchestra take turns playing the main theme and the contrasting episodes. At the end, Beethoven makes us think the work is fading away, but two emphatic tutti chords proved the final punctuation.
Georges Bizet wrote the Symphony in C Major in 1855 as a 17-year-old student at the Paris Conservatoire while studying with Charles Gounod. He shelved the manuscript and it was not until its rediscovery in 1933 that it was brought to the world. Scholars have pointed out the degree to which Bizet emulated and even quoted elements of his teacher’s Symphony in D, which may explain why he suppressed the work, but in its concert life it has far eclipsed Gounod’s work. It is fresh and attractive, and although much simpler than the Beethoven symphonies Bizet might also have been aware of, it gives strong hints of the master tunesmith Bizet was to become later in operas like Carmen.
Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was written in 1829 when the composer was 19 years old (despite the numbering, it was actually his first). Many of the characteristics of the later Chopin style are already evident- dramatic use of the full range of the keyboard, highly ornamented (almost improvisatory) flights of ornamentation in the right-hand part, and colorful shifts of harmony. Commentators have criticized the relative unimportance of the orchestra’s contribution, but this concerto was conceived as a showpiece for the soloist in the manner of other contemporary works which reflected the move from aristocratic circles to large public concert halls.
After the brooding first movement, the second offers a dreamy and tranquil style later seen in the composer’s nocturnes (Chopin confessed to having been inspired by his distant love of a young woman at the Warsaw Conservatory “whom I dream of”). The final movement is in a rapid three beats-to-the-bar meter evoking Polish mazurkas (the accents on the second beats coincide with vigorous heel taps when danced). A surprise in the home stretch is an announcement by a solo French horn and a shift from minor to major, the pianist leading the way to a brilliant finish.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Dr. Steven Errante.