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Johann Sebastian Bach Watch Video

Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

(Duration: 11 min)

Instead of the typical concerto grosso setup of a solo group within the orchestra, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto treats all members of the ensemble as soloists, with independent lines for three violins, three violas and three cellos supported by the basso continuo accompaniment. The equitable distribution of the material is especially clear in the first movement, in which the primary motive — a three-note figure that drops to the lower neighbor note and then returns to the starting pitch — cascades through the different voices.

The central Adagio movement consists simply of two linking chords, sometimes elaborated by an improvised cadenza. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale, its tempo and character matching the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.

Aaron Grad ©2021

Anders Hillborg

Bach Materia for Solo Violin and Strings

Pekka Kuusisto, director and violin
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Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn

Symphony No. 99

(Duration: 27 min)

After Franz Joseph Haydn’s longtime patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy died in 1790 and his successor disbanded the court orchestra, Haydn was left with a reduced salary and more freedom than he had enjoyed in decades. Seizing the opportunity, a German impresario active in London enticed Haydn to England with a generous contract for the 1791.92 season. Haydn’s London residency was a tremendous success, and he arranged a return engagement as soon as he could.

Haydn prepared the Symphony No. 99 during the interval between his London visits, when he attended to some Esterházy business in Vienna and also taught a few lessons to a young Ludwig van Beethoven. Just days after Haydn’s return to England, a concert featuring the premiere of the Symphony No. 99 confirmed his sterling reputation, as demonstrated by a review published in The Morning Chronicle: “The incomparable Haydn produced an overture [symphony] of which it is impossible to speak in common terms. It is one of the grandest efforts of art that we ever witnessed. It abounds with ideas, as new in music as they are grand and impressive; it rouses and affects every emotion of the soul.”

Symphony No. 99 features all the hallmarks that made Haydn’s London symphonies the gold standard for composers in his wake, most especially Ludwig van Beethoven. In the first movement, a slow introduction sets the stage, and the inclusion of clarinets adds a robust tone to a woodwind section that is granted more independence than in earlier symphonies. The Adagio is light and graceful, while the Minuet (an addition to the symphonic form that Haydn helped standardize) has a bit of a rustic character borrowed from the Ländler folk dance of Austria. The lively finale demonstrates Haydn’s verve and wit, starting with one of his favorite tricks: The orchestra restrains itself to a quiet dynamic for a long opening stretch, until the first loud arrival lands with maximal impact.

Aaron Grad ©2023

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Sergei Prokofiev Listen to Audio

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

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

Twin Cities audiences have a chance to hear this program that Artistic Partner Pekka Kuusisto and the SPCO will bring to New York’s Lincoln Center in May of 2020. Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, with its rapid-fire counterpoint and interplay between each musician, serves as the inspiration for Anders Hillborg’s violin concerto, Bach Materia, written specifically for Kuusisto and his improvisational abilities. On the second half of the program SPCO musicians will lead symphonies by Prokofiev and Haydn. Prokofiev was inspired by Haydn and Mozart symphonies in writing his effervescent Classical Symphony, and there is no more compelling example of the classical symphonic form than Haydn’s Symphony No. 99.


SPCO concerts are made possible by audience contributions.


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