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Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 1, Classical

The external trappings of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1—its compact four-movement structure, friendly D-major tonality, and, of course, the Classical moniker—amount to something of a Trojan horse. An example of the composer’s Neoclassical style, the Classical Symphony is in fact a work of biting modernism, rife with Prokofiev’s characteristically devilish wit. (The Classical subtitle was Prokofiev’s idea: a bit of fun, perhaps, echoed years later by Britten’s harmonically restless Sonata “in C” for cello and piano.) “I thought that if Haydn were alive today,” Prokofiev remarked, “he would compose just as he did before, but at the same time would include something new in his manner of composition. I wanted to compose such a symphony: a symphony in the Classical style.” Prokofiev’s orchestration (double winds, no low brass) is perfectly Haydn-and-Mozart-sized. As per the Classical style, the opening Allegro and concluding Molto vivace are tightly wrought sonata-form movements. The third movement, a gavotte, even harkens back to the Baroque. Yet the Classical Symphony’s lasting impression is indeed of something unmistakably new.

Though based in traditional tonality, the music’s tonal center is a constantly moving target. The D major starting pistol fired at the top of the Allegro is heard again in the eleventh measure, in C major (close in proximity, but harmonically quite remote from D). The opening melody of the Gavotte wends its way from D major to G major in short order—then takes an even stranger route, via C-sharp major, back to the home key.

Consider, too, Prokofiev’s melodic contours: triadically based, as per the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but with a sly wink nevertheless. The Allegro’s second theme, uttered con eleganza by the first violins, is decorated with cheeky two-octave grace note leaps. The Larghetto’s featherweight opening melody, set against gossamer string textures, seems at first to nod to the sublime slow movements of Mozart’s piano concerti—yet as it unfurls, the long-breathed tune seems giddily erratic, dawdling like a carefree youth flouting a missed curfew.

Packaged in a symphony of Haydn-esque proportions, the mischievous strokes that give the Classical its spice are made all the more startling. The wolf comes in sheep’s clothing, its bite made fiercer as a result. A century later, among audiences who continue to disdain the early twentieth century’s most audacious scores, the seemingly harmless Classical remains a perennial favorite. Prokofiev’s subterfuge is complete.

Patrick Castillo ©2014

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Felix Mendelssohn

Violin Concerto in E Minor

Steven Copes, director and violin

Felix Mendelssohn was a teenager when he met Ferdinand David, a virtuoso violinist one year his junior. Later, when Mendelssohn became music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he invited David to join the orchestra as concertmaster. In 1838 Mendelssohn suggested to David, “I’d like to write a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.” The piece gestated for six years, until Mendelssohn fleshed it out in the summer of 1844. While writing the work, he corresponded frequently with David about violin technique, even asking for further advice after sending the score off to be published. David debuted the concerto in 1845, accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn died two years later following a series of strokes, leaving the Violin Concerto as his last completed orchestral work.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is full of innovations in form and texture, but perhaps its most radical quality comes from what it lacks: gratuitous showmanship. While the violin protagonist certainly encounters technical challenges and brilliant passages, every gesture is at the service of a shared musical discourse with the orchestra. Some of the most magical moments are those that defy conventional responsibilities, as when the violin launches immediately into the brooding first theme, or when it leaves that same melody to the orchestra after the cadenza, instead countering with ghostly arpeggios.

A single held bassoon note links the first movement to the second, blooming into a heartbreaking “song without words” crooned by the violin. As the slow movement recedes, a dramatic transition provides a link to the finale, with the home key recast as a sunny E major. The buoyant material affords ample opportunities for glitzy passagework, while a regal contrasting theme introduces a note of grandeur. It is fitting that this last major theme reworks the rhythms and intervals of the violin’s initial melody: What first appeared in the concerto as a lonely, searing question returns transformed into a knowing answer, expounded together in a mood of communal cheer.

Aaron Grad ©2014

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 2

Beethoven attempted a symphony in 1795-96, after hearing Haydn’s London symphonies, but he did not complete one until 1800. The following year he began his Second Symphony, which he finished in 1802 while living in Heiligenstadt, outside of Vienna. Beethoven had hoped that time in the country might slow his encroaching deafness and improve his spirits, but by the end of his stay he was in a nearly suicidal state of despair. That fall he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” an unsent letter to his brothers that was found among his papers after his death. He included thisdescription of his tormented life that year:

If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. … What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

Beethoven re-entered society in Vienna and soon received a boost in the form of an opera commission. His new association with the Theater an der Wien led to a concert on April 5, 1803, at which he conducted the premiere of the Second Symphony, performed the solo part in the Third Piano Concerto, debuted the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and reprised his First Symphony.

Despite the circumstances of its creation, the Second Symphony is a lively and jovial work. It marks a high point in Beethoven’s early Classical style, moving past the long shadow of Haydn that guided the First Symphony. The opening movement begins with a meaty introduction, filled with shifting rhythms, moody harmonies and surprising horn blasts. The Allegro con brio section begins, conversely, with the barest trace of a melody in the lower strings, but it surges to music of an even wilder nature, pounding with offbeat accents and extreme dynamic contrasts. Whereas Haydn loved the elegant dichotomy of forte and piano intensities, Beethoven’s score asks for the even louder fortissimo and even softer pianissimo dynamics, moving beyond tidy Classical style into the more volatile spectrum associated with Romantic music.

Aaron Grad ©2014

About This Program

Led by SPCO musicians and featuring symphonies by Prokofiev and Beethoven, this unconducted program showcases the orchestra's talent, versatility, and teamwork.

This concert is part of our complete Beethoven symphony cycle.