Friday, October 24, 2014

Symphony Preview: Jewels and imaginary landscapes at Powell Hall, October 24 and 25, 2014

Mendelssohn in 1839
James Warren Childe
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“The Germans," observed the great violinist Joseph Joachim, "have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising, is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.”

Last week Leonard Slatkin and David Halen seduced us with Bruch. This week we get the jewels—Mendelssohn's E minor "Violin Concerto" with John Storgårds and Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris.

Mendelssohn's jewel apparently required a lot of polishing. Although the composer announced his intention to write the concerto in a letter to his friend, the violinist Ferdinand David, in 1838, it wasn't until March of 1845 that the E minor concerto finally saw the light of day. Mendelssohn was ill at the time, so the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (where Mendelssohn had been Principal Conductor since 1835) with David as the soloist. Which was only fair, as the composer sought David's technical and compositional advice throughout the concerto's six-year gestation period.

The concerto was an immediate success and is now one of the most frequently played violin concertos in the repertoire. Audiences never seem to tire of it and fiddlers never fail to find something new (or at least personal) in their interpretations. SLSO Concertmaster David Halen certainly put his stamp on it the last time the orchestra played the piece in February of 2012, with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski on the podium. This time around the soloist will be Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris, whose previous starring roles with the SLSO have included Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Leonard Slatkin) and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 (with David Robertson). So it will be fascinating to see what her take is on this well-worn masterpiece.

Sibelius in 1891
If the Mendelssohn concerto is, as George Schaun once observed in program notes for the Baltimore Symphony, "sweet-flowing yet fiery," then the other big work on this weekend's program, the 1899 "Symphony No. 1" by Jean Sibelius, is craggy and wintery. From 1892 until his death in 1957, Sibelius lived and worked in a home made entirely of wood (he didn't want to hear the sound of rain in metal gutters) on Lake Tuusula in the Finnish forest, where he often went for long walks. The love of nature informs much of his work and figures prominently in his symphonies. It's impossible to hear his music and not conjure up images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds.

"The orchestral compositions of Sibelius," wrote Paul Rosenfeld in "Musical Portraits," "seem to have passed over black torrents and desolate moorlands, through pallid sunlight and grim primeval forests and become drenched with them. The instrumentation is all wet grays and blacks, relieved only by bits of brightness, wan and elusive as the Northern summer, frostily green as the polar lights. The works are full of the gnawing of bassoons and the bleakness of the English horn, sinister rolling of drums, the menacing reverberation of cymbals, the icy glittering of harps."

It is, in short, powerfully dramatic stuff, the first big work by a composer who, in his early 30s, was already something of a Finnish hero for his unabashedly nationalist "Karelia Suite" and "Finlandia." With this symphony, as Eddie Silva points out in his program notes, Sibelius "hit the big time."

Andrzej Panufnik
I don't know whether or not this week's guest conductor, John Storgårds, is as outdoorsy as Sibelius was, but as the Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic he presumably knows the Finnish landscape. And since his recording of the complete Sibelius symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic was released last spring (on Chandos), it's a safe bet he knows Finland's most celebrated composer pretty well. He has already recorded the Sibelius violin concerto, along with music by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, Finland's Kaija Saariaho and, most recently, discs of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and a Grammy-nominated disc of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara who, like Sibelius, draws heavily on nature for inspiration.

The concerts open with a local premiere—"Landscape" a 1965 revision of a 1962 piece by the Polish-born composer Andrzej Panufnik. Quoted in Mr. Silva's program notes, the composer says the work is “an attempt to convey musically a landscape of my imagination, similar to those I have seen in Suffolk or remember from Poland... a boundless landscape which evokes melancholy—where the far distant, evanescent horizon induces a sense of space and unconfined contemplation.” Scored for strings only, the piece has the kind of stark beauty I associate with Sibelius. Its foundation in an A-minor triad (the notes A, C, and E) produces echoes of both modal folk music and blues, at least to my ears. And the final measures, as the music quietly fades to silence, are truly captivating.

The essentials: John Storgårds conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Heidi Harris in Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto" Sibelius's "Symphony No. 1," and Paufnik's "Landscapes" Friday and Saturday, October 24 and 25, at 8 p.m. The Saturday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio. For more information, visit the web site.

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