Special Performances: New Ordway Concert Hall Opening Celebration
- March 5, 2015
- March 6, 2015
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
The composer has provided the following program note:
Coraggio for String Orchestra is a nine-minute work based on the first movement of my String Quartet #3, which is subtitled “Coraggio.” I have altered several sections of the work for the new idiom and have integrated a double bass part where appropriate. A version for full strings was premiered in Athens by the Athens Camerata in 2007, and this new arrangement was commissioned in 2014 by the SPCO specifically for the opening of their new Concert Hall at the Ordway.
An insight relating to the evocative title is offered in the liner notes, written by the late American composer George Rochberg, to the American String Quartet recording (on New World Records) of my Third and Fourth string quartets:
“In the program note to his Third String Quartet,” Rochberg wrote, “George Tsontakis acknowledges the great contrasts between his Second Quartet (composed for the Emerson Quartet in 1983) and the Third, which followed two years later. While the Second is a ‘severely introverted and intense semitonal work, submerged in the seemingly inescapable malaise of our time,’ the Third, which he calls “Coraggio” (courage), ‘offers a certain exuberance and brightness, an optimism that might be based on our blindness –a—momentary lapse into forgetfulness—to what surrounds us, or else perhaps on the tenacious human spirit we have inherited, where even in the worst of times there is a taking of heart and welling up of courage.’
Rochberg continued: “I don’t think it is too farfetched to suggest that in composing his Third Quartet Tsontakis was stating, in purely musical terms, a credo which arose from a hard-won conviction that modernism and modernity had to be broken with—set aside by an act of will. He acknowledges freely his ‘reliance on the stability of diatonically triadic harmonies’ and his debt, ‘gesturally...to the work of the late classical masters.’ The great physical energy of [this work] is an important part of, and is intensely related to, Tsontakis’s gifts as a composer; he has the ‘luck’ of having concrete musical ideas that the ear can perceive and the mind hold in memory—expressed in concentrated, densely packed, nodule-like motives that the composer treats obsessively, and which, as they spread out in time and spin in tight figurational, centripetal orbits, create structure and gesture.”
George Tsontakis ©2014
In May 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven had admired as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution, crowned himself Emperor. “So he is no more than a common mortal!” an outraged Beethoven exclaimed to his confidant Ferdinand Ries. “Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” On the composer’s desk lay the manuscript to his recently completed Third Symphony, “intitolata Bonaparte;” Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication with a knife, tearing a hole in the paper. When the grand symphony was published in 1806, it appeared as Sinfonia Eroica, “…composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” (heroic symphony…composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).
Befitting the grandeur of the composer’s inspiration before his eventual disillusionment, the Eroica Symphony loudly broke new ground for the symphonic form; it is not hyperbolic to credit the Eroica with changing the course Western music at large. Indeed, for Beethoven, where Napoleon disappointed, his musical vision would soar. The Eroica is one of the first works to distance Beethoven from the influence of Haydn and Mozart, as evidenced by the baffled critical responses it elicited. One reviewer wished that “Herr van B. would employ his admittedly great talents in giving us works like his symphonies in C and D, his ingratiating Septet in E-flat, the ingenious Quintet in C, and others of his early works that have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers”—works, in other words, that continued the tradition of eighteenth-century Classicism. Beethoven had something else in mind: in 1803, he had declared to a friend, “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.”
With the Eroica, Beethoven realized his intention. Among the symphonic repertoire, it is without precedent in magnitude and in the degree of virtuosity required of the orchestra. Each of its four movements is an individually colossal statement; together, they form a work twice as long as many early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Surrounded by similarly epic works in various genres, including the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Eroica is the signature work of what has become known as Beethoven’s “heroic” period.
The symphony’s iconic opening gesture of two forceful E-flat major chords sets the tone for the monumental opus that ensues. The cellos introduce the first theme: a seemingly innocuous melodic arpeggiation of the same E-flat major chord—but, agitated by urgent syncopations in the first violins, the melody dips strangely to C-sharp, placing the listener immediately on notice that convention will not contain Beethoven’s imagination.
What strikes the listener as the Allegro con brio unfolds is the combination of its majestic sonority and thematic coherence with the constant, jarring defiance of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expectations. A propulsive sequence of two-beat chords over the movement’s triple-meter tempo (with the true downbeat never accented) sets up a grand restatement of the theme by the full orchestra; this passage is outdone at the end of the exposition with an utterly disorienting series of dissonant sforzando chords. The development section is equally bewildering, not least of all for the notorious “wrong” entrance by the first horn, which quietly anticipates the recapitulation two measures before the rest of the orchestra. (In intended commiseration with Beethoven, Ries asked during a rehearsal, “Can’t that damned horn player count?”—nearly earning him a box on the ears from the temperamental composer.)
The second movement is a funeral march for the mythical hero at the center of the symphony. The theme appears first in the violins, pianissimo e sotto voce, and then is taken over with especial poignancy by the oboe, accompanied by somber triplet drumbeats in the strings. The sobriety of this music is only modestly relieved by a gentle secondary theme.
A contrasting middle section in C major takes a moment of lyrical respite to an exultant climax of trumpets and timpani. The march returns, quickly giving way to a contemplative fugue on an inversion of the earlier secondary theme.
After further drama, marked by numerous harmonic twists and turns, the movement ends quietly defeated. Hector Berlioz would later write of this affecting Adagio assai, “I know few examples in music of a style in which grief has been so consistently able to retain such pure form and such nobility of expression.”
The caffeinated energy of the scherzo draws a measure of anxious expectancy from the whispered staccato of its opening measures. Its eventual fortissimo outburst is resplendent, leading some commentators to hear it as the hero’s resurrection. Indeed, the horn chorale in the trio section is a triumphant transfiguration of the second movement funeral march theme.
The finale provides the culmination of the Eroica’s magnificent scope, solidifying the symphony’s spirit of heroism that would come to define this period of Beethoven’s career. It is a set of variations on a theme Beethoven had previously used in The Creatures of Prometheus and in his Fifteen Variations and a Fugue for Piano, op. 35 (henceforth often called the Eroica Variations). The theme itself—whose melody and bass line Beethoven extensively works over throughout the movement—is not only repurposed material but, considered on its own, frankly unremarkable.
But in the theme’s straightforwardness lies its potential, and especially so given the breadth of Beethoven’s imagination: for, just as in such works as the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies—whose melodic ideas cannot themselves be called inspired, while Beethoven’s treatment of them is transcendent—the magic resides not in the bricks and mortar but in the monument. How fitting a conclusion indeed do these variations provide—an obvious melody, put through the paces of a traditional Classical form but thereby transfigured beyond what any but a visionary on the order of Beethoven could have foreseen—for a landmark symphony conceived on the premise of heroism and revolution and whose mammoth compass would chart a new horizon in Western music history.
Patrick Castillo ©2012
Please note: These concerts are currently SOLD OUT. If you would like to attend one of these performances, please select one of the waiting lists below and we will contact those on the waiting list should additional tickets become available.
Join us one hour before any of these special performances to hear SPCO President and Managing Director Bruce Coppock and Concert Hall Acoustician Paul Scarbrough discuss the design of the hall and the acoustical tuning process.
Join us for these historic concerts and you’ll also enjoy free champagne and live jazz after the performances.
Have questions about the new Ordway Concert Hall? Visit thespco.org/concerthall for information about our new downtown Saint Paul home.
ROCK THE ORDWAY this March with an unprecedented mix of eclectic artists and performances specifically chosen to shake things up while also showcasing the state-of-the-art acoustics and intimacy of the new Concert Hall. Whether you’re into classical, R&B, opera, show tunes, Latin-fusion, love songs, the sounds of South Africa or choral music, please help us open the doors, raise the roof and celebrate Minnesota’s newest world-class performance hall. Learn more at ordway.org/rocktheordway