Fall Concert 2019
Fort Worth Civic Orchestra
Kurt Sprenger, Music Director
Michael Shih, violin
Saturday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Josef Suk (1874-1935)
Towards A New Life
Three blasts of a trumpet fanfare, each a step higher than the one before, open this jaunty little march from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Suk had dedicated a version of the piece to the Sokol (Falcon) Society, the youth athletic association that was the pride of his native Czechoslovakia, a dozen earlier. After laying it aside, he revised and entered it in the art competition for the Games of the X Olympiad; from 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded for architecture, literature, music, painting or sculpture. The judges awarded him the Silver Medal even though Gold and Bronze weren’t awarded that year!
Notwithstanding the bright, youthful spirit of this march, Josef Suk’s major works of this period in his life were practically Mahler-like in their darkness and brooding character. His musical reputation largely rests on the symphonic tetralogy: Asrael after the Angel of Death (1906), Suk’s cataclysmic reaction to the loss of his father-in-law, Antonín Dvořák, and his wife, Otilie; A Summer’s Tale (1909), a meditation on nature by a man beaten down by fate; Ripening (1917), an autumnal hymn to life; and a valedictory song of earthly liberation, Epilogue (1929). Seen in the light of those works, the name of his Olympic march resonates with the joy of youth’s promise.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D
Brahms was the composer with the severest case of self-critical paralysis by analysis. By his own reckoning, he labored 21 years over his First Symphony, knowing full well that the concert-going public expected “Beethoven’s Tenth.” When he finally delivered a symphony at age 43, the floodgates finally opened, a second one soon poured out and, two years later, a violin concerto in the same key as Beethoven’s. (Key signatures and notes that spell out names have enormous significance of homage for composers.)
The D Major concerto is closely associated with Brahms’ violinist friend and collaborator, Joseph Joachim, who advised the pianist-composer on technique and playability – and his prints (and bow markings) are all over it. But the unseen hands behind the work belonged to another Hungarian violinist, Ede Reményi, who instilled in a 15-year-old Brahms a lifelong love of Gypsy music. The concerto’s melodies aren’t overtly alla Zingarese, but it has moments that flirt with Roma style (if filtered through a crusty classical sensibility).
Like the Beethoven concerto, the Brahms’ first movement has a double exposition – the first, a long orchestral introduction of principal themes and the second, the main event for violin. The opening theme is a rolling melody of falling and rising triplets; the contrasting one is an angry explosion of dotted rhythms. A passage with turbulent strings builds the tension and sets up the violin’s dramatic entrance, a virtual cadenza inspired by virtuoso Gypsy fiddling. The actual cadenza comes near the movement’s end and is soloist’s choice, the last major violin concerto without a cadenza written down by the composer.
Brahms originally envisioned a four-movement symphonic structure (as in his second piano concerto), but the interior movements didn’t come together. The scherzo may have made its way into the piano concerto, but the adagio was replaced entirely. The Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate famously refused to take up the concerto, not wanting to stand idle while the oboe played the only tune in the second movement. The finale again has a Gypsy feel, though the melody could have been lifted from (or, rather, inspired by) the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch that Joachim introduced a decade earlier. The concerto wasn’t well received at its first performance in Leipzig, and legend has it that Brhams reacted to the critical commentary by burning the sketches of a planned second violin concerto.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
In the spring of 1845, Wagner completed Tannhäuser, his opera about 14th century German Minnesingers and a song contest. A few weeks later, he began sketching the libretto for an opera about 15th century German Mastersingers and a song contest.
But Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was on hold for 16 years while Wagner attended to other distractions: Lohengrin (1848), Das Rheingold(1853), Die Walküre (1856) and Tristan und Isolde (1859). It wasn’t until late 1861 – when a Titian painting in Venice reminded him of the subject – did he return to his Mastersingers. He composed the Prelude to Act I on a train in March, 1862, and premiered it that fall. Another six years went by before the full opera was completed and staged, but the opening prelude introduced many of the principal musical themes associated with its characters.
Wagner cast his opera as a battle of wits between musical progressives and conservatives. His hero Hans Sachs, the historical leader of the Mastersingers guild (and a stand-in for Wagner himself), mentors the young Franconian knight Walther von Stolzing in a song contest to win the hand of the beautiful Eva. Sachs’ nemesis is the musically giftless Sixtus Beckmesser (a stand-in for Wagner’s chief antagonist in real life, the music critic Eduard Hanslick). The prelude opens with two majestic themes representing the Mastersingers and their apprentices. Wagner introduces a contrasting lyrical theme in the violins, Walther’s famous Prize Song. The middle section is a fugue based on the apprentice music, and the work concludes with a return to the majestic theme of the opening bars.