Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ambition and Inertia

Tom Allen framed the evening's musical offerings as Ambition and Inertia.


The Finnish composer Sibelius' first musical ambition was to be a virtuoso violinist. He picked up the instrument at 14, and although a fervent and dedicated student, his audition did not win him a seat with the orchestra. His heart was broken, but eventually he turned his talents to composition.

At 38 years of age, after great success, he wrote the Violin Concerto in D Minor (Opus 47), which  was first performed in 1904. Sibelius had a love-hate relationship with virtuoso violinists, to the point of self-sabotage.

Originally, the much esteemed Willy Burmester had promised to perform the concerto in Berlin, but one thing led to another and Sibelius changed the location of the premiere to Finland and then chose  a date Buermester was unavailable. The composer finished the concerto just in time for the premiere, and the piece was of such difficulty that it would have sorely tested any virtuoso. Given these factors, it was unwise of Sibelius to choose Nováček, who was not even a recognised soloist. Not surprisingly, the premiere was a disaster. Sibelius reworked the piece, and although Buermester offered to perform, he turned him down, once again choosing a lesser violinist.

As the program notes, "This is in many ways an unusual concerto. Though passionate and full of Romantic yearning it conspicuously lacks the sparkle and sensuousness of... Mendelshon... the music is often dark, gloomy, brooding..."

The TSO audience was treated to a performance by violinist Karen Gomyo, who played on a rare Stradivarius ("Ex Foulis" of 1703), that was bought for her exclusive use by a private sponsor. 

This Youtube video showcases Joshua Bell as the star performer of the Violin Concerto in D Minor. If you can, listen to the opening. Such yearning!


Dvorak could have happily stayed in Austria for all his days, which is how Allen's label of inertia applies. This composer had to be lured by an incredibly generous salary from his home to New York City.

The patron responsible was  Jeannette Mayer Thurber, who wanted him to help develop a new musical school at the National Conservatory of Music America.  She essentially offered him an amount comparable to his annual salary every two weeks. Even then, it was Dvorak's wife and children who talked him into accepting the position overseas, in Manhattan, where he lived for three years.

From the New World is Dvorak's 9th Symphony. The melodies were so familiar because they've been borrowed liberally by Hollywood over the years, especially in Westerns. "... Despite its fame, (it) still sounds fresh and original. Its pastoral and elegiac tone and almost heartbreaking poignancy evoke unforgettably America's vast, desolate prairies... Throughout the Largo Dvorak's orchestration offers one extraordinary texture and sonority after another - right up to the very last chord, which is scored, to astonishing effect, for divided double basses alone." You can listen to the Largo here.

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