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Thomas Zehetmair Conducts Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

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Felix Mendelssohn Watch Video

Felix Mendelssohn

Fair Melusina Overture

Thomas Zehetmair, conductor

In medieval folklore, Melusina was a beautiful girl cursed to take the form of a mermaid one day each week. She married the knight Reymund, and forbade him from ever seeing her on Saturdays. He betrayed her one fateful day, spying on her in the bath, and she disappeared forever from sight of humans, although the sound of her wailing remained.

Franz Grillparzer created a stage version of the Melusina folktale in 1823, and Conradin Kreutzer developed that play into an opera in 1833. Mendelssohn heard Kreutzer’s opera and hated it, but he did the tale justice when he crafted a concert overture inspired by Melusina for the Philharmonic Society in London. The music outlines the basic contours of the story, with a rolling “water” theme in F major that represents the secret mermaid, and a turbulent “galloping” theme in F minor that suggests Reymund’s intrusion during her bath.

Aaron Grad ©2013

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Pierre Jalbert Watch Video

Pierre Jalbert

Violin Concerto (World Premiere, SPCO Commission)

Thomas Zehetmair, conductor
Steven Copes, violin

My Violin Concerto is in two movements of contrasting character. The first movement, begins with a slow introduction and eventually transitions into a scherzando section. The opening explores the violin’s lyrical and expressive qualities as it hovers above an ethereal string and percussion texture. The middle section of the movement is a dynamic scherzo of sorts, almost becoming a separate movement in itself before the opening finally returns to conclude the movement.

The second movement moves freely back and forth between frenetic, pulse-oriented music and freely slow, non-pulsed music. These slower sections contain lyrical quarter-tone pitch-bending in the violin, and this serves as the primary motive in this section. Eventually, the fast music takes over and leads to a fiery cadenza.

Pierre Jalbert ©2017

Intermission
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Ludwig van Beethoven Watch Video

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 7

Thomas Zehetmair, conductor

It is the emotionally volatile Beethoven who holds the popular imagination in his thrall. The Sturm und Drang Beethoven, Beethoven in C minor (the Pathétique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony). In one of Hollywood’s sillier moments, in the film Immortal Beloved, Beethoven-as-played-by-Gary-Oldman explains the ferocity of the Kreutzer Sonata thus: “A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage has broken down in the rain, the wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation.” Such faux-biographical nonsense has nothing actually to do with Beethoven, but reveals much about what we as listeners are drawn to in his music.

Witness, too, the cliché about Beethoven’s even- vs. odd-numbered symphonies: that the odds—the triumphant Third (Eroica); the Fifth, in which “Fate knocks at the door”; the transcendent Ninth, culminating in the “Ode to Joy”—are the profound ones, as though Nos. 2, 4, 6 (Pastoral), and 8 were mere bagatelles, written on the composer’s cigarette breaks from the real work of revolutionizing Western music.

It’s arguably in his sunnier, more extroverted moods that we truly encounter the muscularity of Beethoven’s language. Which is not at all to discredit the thunderous Fifth. Who could live without it? How deficient the vocabulary of Western civilization would seem without that terrifying four-note knock at the door. And as the symphony builds, how Beethoven methodically lays brick upon brick; as that insistent rhythmic motto powers the work’s gripping momentum, the strength of his voice is indisputable.

The Seventh Symphony greets us with music of a starkly different temperament: the opening orchestral tutti, not a threat as in the Fifth, but a buoyant Hello! Happy to see you!—then the oboe, tenderly: My dear, it’s been too long. Tutti: Hello! Clarinets, horns, flutes enter in turn, eagerly inviting us in.

This graceful introduction welcomes us into the Seventh Symphony, unhurriedly pours us a cup of tea—and then, once we’ve been made thoroughly comfortable—Are you sure I can’t get you anything else?—finally, we meet the first theme. In place of the fateful door-knock, Beethoven gives us a jubilant tune whose wingspan far eclipses the Fifth Symphony’s germinal four-note cell. And now we discover that the Seventh Symphony, unexpectedly, stands toe-to-toe with the Fifth. For it is this music—this long-breathed, effervescent “peasant dance,” to quote Hector Berlioz (“ronde de paysans”)—whose galloping rhythm catapults the first movement to such great heights. In the Fifth Symphony, a terse shake of the head grows into a furious roar; with the Seventh, Beethoven lets the light into his charming country chateau to reveal a glorious cathedral.

Each of the symphony’s four movements is defined by its pulse. The first movement’s bright-eyed gallop accelerates to an animated Presto in the third movement, then turns manic in the finale. In each case, the music’s rhythmic character is in the foreground, supporting Richard Wagner’s description of the Seventh Symphony as the “apotheosis of the dance.”

Of course, there’s that unsmiling second movement, a powerful utterance and the Seventh Symphony’s entrée to the company of the other odd-numbered symphonies. (N.B.: This movement figures into another breathtaking instance of Hollywood’s being Hollywood. Search for “Mr. Holland’s Opus beethoven 7” on YouTube.) The bright A-major chord that opens the symphony is here transmuted into introspective A minor, scored for winds alone (sans the bright hue of the flute), struck forte, then immediately decaying to pianissimo. The incessant dactyl-spondee pattern (long-short-short, long-long) that emerges from that A-minor exhalation, and persists throughout the movement, suggests a funeral march. But Beethoven’s tempo marking is Allegretto: slightly less fast than Allegro, and certainly not the Adagio assai of the Eroica Symphony’s marcia funèbre. The word itself, Allegretto (Beethoven could have chosen, say, Andantino), sounds nimble. Even at its most seemingly somber moment, the Seventh Symphony remains fleet of foot. Much as we might wish to assign it an air of solemnity (and, indeed, one often hears it performed this way, at a tragically slow tempo), such gravitas is undue. This Allegretto is simply another side of the dance.

Patrick Castillo ©2014

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

To conclude our 2016-17 season, conductor Thomas Zehetmair led a program of Romantic and contemporary works. The lively dance rhythms of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the fairy tale fantasy of Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusina Overture surrounded the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Houston-based composer Pierre Jalbert, featuring concertmaster Steven Copes as soloist.

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