Gioachino Rossini was the greatest opera composer of his generation. From his first farsa comica written at age 18 to his crowning work for the stage, William Tell, he dashed off an astounding 39 operas in 19 years. Then, at the height of his fame and creative powers, Rossini withdrew almost entirely from composing, never writing another opera in his remaining 40 years.
La scala di seta was Rossini’s sixth opera, a sure-handed work from a composer just 20 years old. It was his third commission from Venice’s Teatro San Moisè — the venue that had launched his operatic career in 1810 — and one of a series of early comic farces. Venice loved this type of light opera, which generally played out in a single act and featured a small cast. Typically, the action would center on a pair of lovers with various supporting comic roles, requiring performers as adept at comedic improvisation as singing. Rossini’s clear and exuberant music suited the style perfectly.
The title prop of La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) is the means by which the protagonist, Dorvil, maintains a secret affair with Giulia, climbing up through her bedroom window each night. The opera begins in the morning, with Dorvil blocked from his usual means of egress by the appearance of Giulia’s cousin and servant. The overture that prepares this scene begins with a lively flourish, and then quickly settles into a lyrical introduction led by the oboe. The violins re-enter with scurrying material, launching an energetic perpetual-motion theme.
The second thematic group especially showcases Rossini’s musical wit. The flute and clarinet begin a lovely duet that stumbles into a hiccuping descent. This is answered in turn by finger-wagging commentary from the oboes, and finally closes with a round of chuckles from the clarinets, echoed by the oboes and flute. Incredibly, the opera’s entire plot seems to have been summarized in a few seconds of music: a romantic ascent, a faltering exit, an exchange of reproaches, and, ultimately, a chorus of laughter.
Aaron Grad ©2010
From Robert Schumann, one of the quintessential figures of music’s Romantic era, we have a Piano Concerto proudly bearing all the hallmarks of Romanticism. It is explosively virtuosic: As he did much of his piano music, Schumann intended the Piano Concerto for his wife and muse, Clara Schumann, perhaps the most brilliant keyboard virtuoso of her generation; this Concerto’s demands testify to her ability. But what’s more, it is a work rife with searing expressivity, discernible, as with much of Schumann’s music, as a dialogue between the composer’s alter egos: Florestan, the masculine (in eighteenth-century parlance) and extroverted; and Eusebius, the feminine voice of tenderness and pathos. Contained within the Concerto’s pyrotechnic vigor, then, is a deeply human statement, as dramatically compelling as it is sheer thrilling to the ear.
The Concerto begins with an emphatic proclamation, the opening volley clearly belonging to Florestan: the full orchestra strikes a forte E, the dominant of the home key of A minor providing a launching pad for an impassioned cascade of chords in the piano. Eusebius answers with a keening melody in the oboe, marked by a memorable descending three-note motif. This exquisite theme reveals Schumann to be, if not quite the equal of Mozart and Schubert, whose fonts of melodic invention seemingly never ran dry, nevertheless one of the nineteenth century’s most gifted melodists when inspiration struck.
So too is the Concerto remarkable—and, again, irrefutably human in its expressive intent—for its thematic unity, as the three-note motif introduced by the oboe guides the listener through a vast emotive landscape. The motif unfurls into a brighter, C-major tune in the clarinet—animato, but still audibly nursing doubt; later, it commences an amorous dialogue between piano and clarinet, surrounded by the soft luminescence of flutes and strings. The music turns abruptly più animato; the motif gives rise to Florestan’s heroic reply.
The short Intermezzo that serves as the Concerto’s second movement is fully given over to Eusebius. The piano and orchestra trade graceful staccato fragments; the flute sits prominently atop featherweight ensemble textures. Even when the music slows to more earnest strains, the luxuriant string lines remain tender and warm. At the Intermezzo’s conclusion, Schumann recalls the consequential three-note motif of the opening movement, which sends the Concerto without pause into its triumphant finale.
Patrick Castillo ©2014
“I'm always fascinated how Schubert lets his charm, wit and sweetness compete with an almost feral, violent quality. In this symphony, Schubert demands the highest degree of empathy and skill from the musicians, an ability to make a compelling arc, and a willingness to be really present and flexible in every moment.” – Steven Copes, SPCO Concertmaster
At 17, Schubert took a full-time job as a teaching assistant at the school where his father worked. The aspiring young composer still attended lessons with Antonio Salieri twice a week, played viola in a student orchestra, and managed to write new music at an astonishing rate that averaged out to at least 65 measures of music every single day.
Among his efforts that winter was the Symphony No. 2, composed between December 1814 and March 1815. Schubert dedicated the score to his school’s headmaster, and presumably the student orchestra read through the work. Neither this symphony nor any of his others received a public performance before Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31.
As a student composer in Vienna, Schubert could not help but be engulfed by the towering achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In Schubert’s Symphony No. 2, the instrumentation, slow introduction and the use of a minuet third movement instead of a Beethovenian scherzo all point to the influence of Haydn’s London symphonies in particular. In the Allegro vivace body of the first movement, the trick of presenting the main theme in the strings at a pianissimo dynamic and then repeating it fortissimo with the full orchestra channels Haydn’s sense of humor.
The Andante second movement takes the form of a theme and variations. The theme is simple and song-like, but its second half adds a playful extra measure that keeps the phrasing from getting stale. The climactic fourth variation moves to C minor, which returns as the surprising key center for the Menuetto. Before the finale launches, four introductory measures bridge the harmonic distance back to the home key of B-flat major. Then, like horses on the hunt, the orchestra gallops off at a Presto tempo, starting quietly and building suspense until the accumulated tension explodes in a forte declamation.
Aaron Grad ©2016
About This Program
Artistic Partner Jeremy Denk has endeared himself to SPCO audiences with his distinctive and refreshing interpretations of the Classical repertoire. In the opening concert of the 2019.20 season, Denk and the SPCO set their sights on the great Romantic piano concerto of Robert Schumann, a composer especially dear to Denk’s heart. Denk writes in his blog, Think Denk, “Schumann may not be so much a composer of pieces, as he is of visions, visions breaking through obscurity.” On the first half of the program, the SPCO raises the curtain on a new season with a conductorless performance of Rossini’s humorous romp, the Overture to The Silken Ladder. Schubert’s effervescent Second Symphony closes out the concert.
Join the orchestra and fellow SPCO supporters after the concert on Saturday to celebrate The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 61st Season! Separate ticket purchase required – please click here for more information.