Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series
Captivating: Brahms’ Symphony No. 1
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Yaniv Dinur, guest conductor
Edvard Grieg – Peer Gynt Suite No. 1
Carlos Chávez – Symphony No. 2 “Sinfonia India”
Johannes Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Saturday, February 4, 2023 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
The works presented on this program of orchestral music are delightfully kaleidoscopic in their variety. Three works from three quite different composers reveal a depth of expressive and descriptive possibility. Both Grieg and Chávez are recognized for their importance as composers whose music reveals the richness of the traditional culture of their homelands. Greig, probably the most well-known Norwegian composer, was interested in bringing Scandinavian folk music into greater display. Similarly, Chávez, undoubtedly spurred by political and social upheaval, was drawn to the sounds of the indigenous peoples of his native Mexico. The differences between these two cultural sources could not be starker as represented by Peer Gynt and Sinfónia india, yet both are thoroughly compelling. The inclusion of “folk” elements is also not foreign to Brahms’ music and some of his most familiar works include “gypsy” elements, though Brahms had no ancestral tie to that culture. His First Symphony, however, is self-consciously Germanic, created in the shadow of his predecessors, and is one of the great symphonic utterances of the 19th century.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) is mainly known for a handful of familiar works, most famously his tuneful and Romantic Piano Concerto and the music known by most through a pair of suites from the drama, Peer Gynt. In 1867 Henrik Ibsen wrote a play entitled Peer Gynt about a roguish vagabond troubled by life’s most essential questions of existence. Peer travels the world over in search of answers with scenes from the drama occurring in far flung places like Morocco, Egypt, living with Bedouins and Trolls, and, of course, Norway. In 1874 Ibsen asked Grieg to compose incidental music to accompany the drama. The result was some of Grieg’s most familiar and memorable music. All in all, Grieg composed some 23 pieces for the play, which he arranged into two concert suites using a total of 8 original sections. Much of the music is based on folk song and dances arranged as preludes to each of the 5 acts of the play and descriptive melodramas intended to accompany the stage action. The music to the suites has no program and the selections are arranged for musical purpose rather than narrative flow. Consequently, the order of the movements of the suites does not correspond to Ibsen’s drama. The Suite No. 1 is in four movements, each with its own distinct musical character. The first movement is a famous selection entitled “Morning,” which was originally composed as the opening to Act IV of the play. Its lovely wind melody conjures an image of pastoral calm and natural splendor, in the play depicting the majestic expanse of a North African desert. The second movement, titled “Åse’s Death,” is a mournful lament for Peer’s mother. Muted strings sing the sorrowful tune, at first softly then with growing intensity as the sense of grief becomes almost overwhelming. Gradually the tone recedes leaving the listener with a feeling of hollow resignation. The mood lightens with “Anitra’s Dance.” Anitra is a young Bedouin woman to whom Peer, acting the role of a Bedouin Shiek, has taken a shine. Anitra and two companions dance for the entertainment of the men in attendance. The final movement, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” begins innocently enough, but the music builds in speed and volume and quickly becomes menacing and fierce as Peer, who has nearly accepted a chance to become a leader of the Trolls, is nearly killed by them as he narrowly escapes with his life.
Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) is perhaps the most important Mexican musician of the 20th century. He came onto the Mexican cultural scene at a time of great upheaval in both Mexico and European music. The early part of the century was transformative in Mexico as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) brought about dramatic changes to Mexican society affecting all forms of the arts as well as social and political circumstances. One of the main consequences of the revolution was to create greater opportunities for the marginalized majority of people who were of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage, so-called mestizos. As in European music, a trend toward the incorporation of indigenous culture into mainstream society and arts resulted in the development of new and influential musical, literary, and artistic trends. Mexican novels reflected the struggles of the peasants for recognition and enfranchisement. An artistic movement exemplified by the muralists, such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957), created art with a powerful social message—art for the people that reflected their values and concerns. Similarly, Chávez was affected by a nationalist and indigenous impulse. Having had experiences with Aztec culture from early in his life, Chávez composed a number of scores that employ themes derived from or directly borrowed from various Mexican tribal peoples. In addition to his compositional career, Chávez played a pivotal role in the musical life of Mexico serving as founding music director of the Orquestra Sinfónica de México and the Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional, director of the Conservatorio Nacional de México, and as a music journalist advancing the cause of Mexican music. Ironically, Chávez spent a significant portion of his career working outside of Mexico, especially in the United States were cultivated important relationships with contemporary American composers, like Aaron Copland, and conducting various symphony orchestras here.
It was while living and working in New York City in 1935 that Chavez composed one of his most well-known and frequently performed works, his Symphony No. 2, Sinfonía india. In this work Chávez incorporates melodies taken directly from indigenous sources that provide colorful and characteristic melodies marked by irregular and shifting meters and striking rhythms, some typical of certain types of Latin American music. Perhaps most unusual in the sound of this music is the use of several unusual percussion instruments, including a water gourd (jicara de agua), the guiro, a metal rattle (cascabeles), the tenebari (string of butterfly cocoons), grijutian (string of deer hooves), and several other native drums. The music unfolds in a series of brief, continuous sections each marked by a distinctive theme. The first is energetic and comes from the Cora people. A slow, lyrical idea follows. It comes from the Yaqui tribe. The third main idea comes from the Sonora people. The first two ideas make a brief reprise before the rousing and rhythmic theme, taken from the Seri Indians, brings this vibrant and colorful work to a close.
In 1872 Brahms wrote, ” I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!” The giant Brahms is referring to is, of course, Beethoven. And the ghost of Beethoven haunts this symphony as it did Brahms’ whole career. Most obvious are the allusions to Beethoven in the choice of key. Like Beethoven’s 5th, Brahms First begins in a dark and brooding C minor before resolving in the last movement to a triumphant C major. And it is at that triumphant moment Brahms gives us a hymn-like theme strongly reminiscent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. For these and other reasons the eminent 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow called Brahms’ First “Beethoven’s Tenth.”
These resemblances aside, Brahms’ symphony is a masterwork in its own right. After the opening tense and agitated introduction, a hopeful solo oboe leads into the surging Allegro that swings from dark angst to the most tender lyricism before the pulsing introduction is briefly recalled at the end.
The second movement begins placidly with lush strings leading to a lovely theme in the oboe. More string music follows taking the reverie of the opening to a more passionate level. The movement closes with tender music led by flute, horn, and an especially mellifluous solo violin.
A relaxed theme in the clarinet begins the third movement and is later recalled leading into the bolder middle section which builds in waves to its exciting climax. The return of the opening clarinet theme rounds out the movement followed by a recollection of the middle section at the close.
Tension returns once again to begin the symphony’s finale. A pair of musically contrasting sections are counterposed leading to a noble horn call over undulating strings. A new idea comes from the trombone and bassoon followed by the horn theme and then the strings begin the majestic hymn tune. The movement proceeds through exciting turns working out the themes presented in the introduction as it takes us through a complex development section where disparate themes intertwine and unravel. The movement momentarily relaxes one last time before momentum builds for the glorious conclusion. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.