Brahms' First

Featuring Low and Lower // October 12 and 14, 2014

Dmitri Shostakovich
Festive Overture, Op.96

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, one of the Soviet Union’s greatest composers, was born in Saint Petersburg on September 12, 1906 and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. Although he composed in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his fifteen symphonies, works that stand among the finest examples of the genre from the mid-twentieth century. His Festive Overture, a work that ostensibly was composed to celebrate the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution, was first performed by the Bolshoï Theatre Orchestra on November 6, 1954 under the baton of Alexander Melik-Pashayev. It is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

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Shostakovich is not known primarily as an “optimistic” composer. Even in his most triumphant scores, such as the finale of his popular Symphony no. 5, one senses an ironic edge surrounding its bravado fanfares and pounding kettledrums. This composer, who lived through and survived the vicissitudes of Soviet Russia, was at his most characteristic when expressing melancholy and sarcasm.

None of these traits, however, mark his unabashedly cheerful and glitzy Festive Overture. The piece was written in great haste when Vasili Nebol’sin commissioned his colleague, Shostakovich, to provide a short work suitable to celebrate the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October (1917) Revolution. According to Lev Nikolayevich Lebedinsky (related in Elizabeth Wilson’s 1994 book, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered), the commission was a lucrative one sought after by many composers. Realizing that the date of the concert for which a commemorative piece was required was rapidly approaching, Nebol’sin beseeched Shostakovich to bail him out of his dilemma. Lebedinsky goes on to relate that Shostakovich worked at lightning-quick speed, producing a “brilliant effervescent work, with . . . vivacious energy spilling over like uncorked champagne.”

After a rousing brass fanfare, the music rushes forward, nodding strongly in the direction of Glinka’s popular overture (1842) to Russlan and Ludmilla, in a highly conventional and conservative form and harmony. The Festive Overture is crowned with a amplified return of the fanfare toward the end.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 2014

Lawrence Dillon
Katabasis

Composer and Educator Lawrence Dillon was born on July 3, 1959 in Summit, New Jersey. According to his website, he “creates works that connect past and present in attractive and unexpected ways, provoking Gramophone to exclaim, ‘Each score is an arresting and appealing creation, full of fanciful and lyrical flourishes within traditional forms that are brightly tweaked.’” His music is characterized by a keen sensitivity to color, a mastery of form, and what the Louisville Courier-Journal has called a “compelling, innate soulfulness.” Despite losing 50% of his hearing in a childhood illness, he began composing as soon as he started piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at The Juilliard School, and was immediately appointed to the Juilliard faculty. Dillon is now Composer in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he has served as Music Director of the Contemporary Ensemble, Assistant Dean of Performance, and Interim Dean of the School of Music. Dillon’s music, in the words of American Record Guide, is “lovely…austere…vivid and impressive.” Three recordings of his music were released in 2010-2011 on the Bridge, Albany and Naxos labels. His works have been commissioned and premiered in the last four seasons by the Emerson String Quartet, Le Train Bleu, the Ravinia Festival, the Daedalus String Quartet, the Lincoln Trio, the Seattle Chamber Music Society, the Cassatt String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, Wintergreen Summer Arts Festival, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Quartetto di Sassofoni d’Accademia, the University of Utah and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra. His Katabasis, which is receiving its world premiere with these performances by the Winston-Salem Symphony, was composed for the ensemble, Low and Lower (Brooks Whitehouse, cellist, and Paul Sharpe, contrabass). These artists hold the principal chairs of their respective sections of the Winston-Salem Symphony. Katabasis is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

The composer communicated the following via email:

For reasons I can’t begin to fathom (though others have), humanity has had a long fascination with journeys into the depths, beneath the surface, in search of meaning or beauty.  From the myth of Orpheus to the dreamlike creations of Haruki Murakami, we keep revisiting this notion of katabasis, a descent into darkness that somehow illuminates.

I’m human (though I’m open to arguments otherwise), so I’m as prone to human fascinations as anyone.  I’ve just completed a double concerto for cello and double bass that serves as a variation on this recurrent theme.  The soloists lead the orchestra into its depths, probing layers of sound in a journey through varying textures and densities.  As is the tradition in this genre, Katabasis has an episodic form, like a series of questions in search of an answer.

Katabasis was commissioned by a consortium of four orchestras (Winston-Salem Symphony, Queens (NY) Philharmonic, Portland Symphony, and Boise (Idaho) Philharmonic) for Low and Lower, which will premiere it with the Winston Salem Symphony on October 12th. It is a companion piece to an earlier humorous work written by Dillon for Low and Lower, POKE: a bagatelle on anit-social media. The popularity of this work on YouTube inspired the composer to write a concerto for the ensemble, but chose instead to write Katabasis as a “contrasting piece.”

Program Note by David B. Levy/Lawrence Dillon, © 2014

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. One of the dominant composers of the late nineteenth century, Brahms greatly enriched the repertory for piano, organ, chamber music, chorus, art song, and orchestra. His Symphony no. 1 was composed between 1862 and 1876 and received its first performance in Karlsruhe on November 4, 1876 under the direction of Felix Otto Dessoff. The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

The four symphonies of Johannes Brahms stand as monuments to Beethoven. No composer of symphonies after Beethoven could escape the shadow of his nine masterpieces. Mendelssohn’s solution to the problem was to circumvent them by returning to a Mozartian ideal. Robert Schumann struggled consciously to measure up by attempting to synthesize a historical perspective with novel innovations. Berlioz and Liszt followed the path of the “program” symphony, attaching extra-musical ideas to their purely musical inventions, while Richard Wagner self-servingly decreed that after the choral Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, purely instrumental symphonies were an impossibility. Musicians such as Joachim Raff, Niels Gade, or Louis Spohr also penned symphonies, but these are regarded nowadays as historical curiosities. Some composers, such as Chopin, became specialists who avoided the issue entirely by writing no symphonies at all.

Brahms was so acutely aware of the problem, that for a long time it seemed that he, too, would avoid composing symphonies. His sketches for the Piano Concerto No. 1 indicate that the first movement of that mighty work was at one time intended to belong to a symphony. His subsequent works for orchestra – A German Requiem, the two Serenades (op. 11 and 16), and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn (St. Anthony chorale), and other choral works – all veered away from the title symphony. In the early 1860s Brahms began to sketch ideas for what would emerge as his Symphony No. 1, but he did not finish work on it until 1876. An early draft of the first movement omitted the powerful Un poco sostenuto introduction, one of the many great inspirations of the work. But now in his forties, Brahms felt confident enough to take the plunge.

The wait was worthwhile. Few first attempts at composing a symphony, except, perhaps the one by Gustav Mahler, were as imposing as this one. Sure of his craft and purpose, Brahms approached the Beethovenian model head on. The most obvious points of reference for this symphony were Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. The latter must be included for the obvious similarity between the melody of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the principal theme in the finale of Brahms’s Symphony. Brahms was roundly criticized by some for cribbing this tune directly from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to which the composer replied in his typically gruff manner: “Any jackass can see that!” More recently, musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has suggested that Brahms’s purely instrumental finale represented an alternative to Beethoven’s choral last movement. As was the case in Beethoven’s Symphonies nos. 5 and 9, Brahms begins his symphony with a dramatic and tragic first movement, ending in a triumphant finale representing the victory of light over dark.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 begins solemnly with a slow introduction that presents not only the main ideas of the first movement, but those of the entire work – two chromatic lines that pull in contrary motion. At the outset, the descending line is heard in the winds, while the strings surge upward. The tension that this creates is intensified by the throbbing pulse of the timpani that tenaciously hangs on to one note, refusing to yield ground. These frictions are exploited in the sonata-form Allegro, but now these opposing lines are given an angular rhythmic profile. The movement concludes with a shortened version of the introduction, with the minor mode yielding, almost in exhaustion, to the parallel C major (a characteristic found at the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, op. 111). The Andante sostenuto that follows offers relief from the first movement’s tension in a serene distant key of E major, well prepared by the first movement’s last moment shift to C major. Its mood derives from the hymnal quality of its opening theme. A particular beautiful timbre is created by the oboe, horn, and solo violin at the end of the movement. Once again, the composer prepares the ear for a shift to a foreign tonality (A-flat major) by having the solo violin cling to the note G sharp (G sharp=A flat) at the end of the Andante sostenuto. The third movement, Un poco allegretto, provides further contrast of mood and tonality (A-flat Major, with a central section in B Major). Brahms wisely avoids the demonic energy of a Beethovenian scherzo at this point, saving that energy for the finale to come. The final movement begins with a moody Adagio, reminiscent of the introduction to the first movement. Listeners should pay close attention to its first few notes, as they are a minor-mode prefiguration of the wonderful and familiar tune that will dominate the finale. As the introduction builds to a climax, a Piú andante ensues with a new – and brighter – theme in the horns, presented over rustling string accompaniment. The trombones then intone a noble and solemn “chorale.” Now follows the famous Allegro non troppo ma con brio that comprises the main body of the finale, as the listener luxuriates in the affirmative tune that the opening of the introduction had prefigured. The Symphony closes with a jubilant coda, crowned by a powerful restatement of the trombone “chorale.”

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 1991, 2001, 2014

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