Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonore Overture No. 3
The perfectionist Beethoven made numerous major revisions to his only opera, Fidelio, before he arrived at the final version we know today. The overture to the opera underwent even greater transformations. Beethoven wrote four different overtures, all still popular in the concert hall. The first three are called Leonore Nos.1, 2 and 3 respectively, after the name of the heroine of the opera and originally the opera’s title; the fourth is known as Fidelio, the pseudonym she adopts when disguised as a young man. Of course one must consider the history of the opera overture to understand much of an anomaly Beethoven was. Even the best of the genre were last-minute affairs with composers handing pages of score with the ink still wet to parts copiers mere hours before the premiere.
The opera tells the story of Leonore, a brave and faithful wife – hence her adopted name – who saves her husband, Florestan, from his unjust incarceration by his villainous and powerful enemy Pizzaro. Leonore in disguise enters into the service of Florestan’s jailer to be nearer her husband and manages to liberate not only Florestan but a whole band of political prisoners when the prison is inspected by the Minister, who has heard rumors of the illegal incarcerations.
Beethoven’s difficulties with the three Leonore overtures stemmed from the fact that they were too dramatically and musically explicit, thus giving away the most exciting moments of the opera, including the appearance of the Minister. Beethoven composed Leonore No.3 in 1806 for an abridged performance of the second version of the opera but realized at once how inappropriate it was.
Leonore No. 3 is built on much of the same thematic material as Leonore No. 2, one of the factors that makes it difficult for audiences to keep the three overtures apart. Beethoven’s 13-minute work is an instrumental summary of the opera and considerably more dramatic. The opening slow introduction is fraught with tonal ambiguity. It has been suggested that the slow descending scale that opens the introduction represents Florestan’s descent into prison. The ensuing confusion as to where the key of the piece is can, by extension, also suggest the suspense and torment of his unjust confinement.
The Overture contains the most important themes from the opera, including Florestan’s lament as he languishes in prison.
(also used in Leonore Nos.1 and 2).
The Allegro is in classic sonata form, beginning with an original theme that Beethoven had written for Leonore No. 2.
followed by a return to Florestan’s lament. As part of the development section The Overture uses music from the most dramatic scene in the opera: The trumpet call announcing Florestan’s liberation, heralding the arrival of the Minister
and Florestan’s growing realization that his rescuer Fidelio is his beloved Leonore.
As with its two predecessors, Leonore No. 3 concludes with a hectic euphoria that is something more than a standard upbeat ending.
Violin Concerto Orchard in Fog
Not to be confused with the atonal German composer Arnold Schoenberg, Adam is an American composer originally from Massachusetts.
He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 2002 and his Master of Music degree in 2005 and Doctor of Musical Arts degree at The Juilliard School, where he studied with John Corigliano and Robert Beaser. A committed educator, Schoenberg is on faculty of Occidental College where he teaches composition and film scoring.
Orchard in Fog takes its name from a photograph by Adam Laipson of an apple orchard in winter, the same orchard where the composer was married. The photograph hangs in the couple’s bedroom and inspired the narrative for the Concerto. Unlike the typical concerto, Orchard in Fog sandwiches a fast movement between two slow ones.
Schoenberg’s musical language is tonal, melodic, and accessible. It is neo-romantic, particularly resembling that of mid-twentieth-century composers Samuel Barber and William Schumann.
The Concerto is a musical portrait of an old man visiting the orchard where he was once married. The first movement, marked Frail, spins out a series of melancholic melodies. The violin uses a scordatura tuning, where the G string is tuned down to F. The focus is not only given to the low F, but also to the highest register of the E string. Whether the breadth of the tessitura has symbolic meaning is, of course, not clear.
Schoenberg continues the narrative program in the second movement, “Dancing.” “The old man looks back on his life and all of the beautiful, youthful moments he had with his wife.” The movement resembles the Baroque passacaglia (Chaconne), in which contrapuntal voices weave a decorative fabric over a repeated melody. Here, each eight-measure repetition adds more instruments or emphasizes a different combination of instruments. Like its baroque analog, the harmonic structure remains the same through the repetitions. But towards the end of the movement, Schoenberg breaks the pattern to go into new harmonic territory. It also features the solo violin more as a member of the first violins than as a traditional soloist.
Movement III, “Farewell Song“, “gradually returns to the present and to the orchard where the old man’s journey first began. This is his farewell song to his love, and to the life that he has known. It is now time for him to leave everything behind and move into the unknown.”
Adam gives an inside look into how he composed this violin concerto.
World Premiere with Anne Akiko Meyers
Enjoy this live-recording from the 2018 world premiere with Anne Akiko Meyers.
Concerto for Orchestra
In the fall of 1940, Béla Bartók fled his native Hungary with his family and sailed for the United States. For a couple of years he eked out a precarious living teaching piano and performing with his wife, Ditta, also a pianist. By the end of 1942 he fell ill with what turned out to be a form of leukemia and his situation looked bleak indeed. Early in 1943 he was too weak to deliver an entire series of lectures at Harvard university, which he counted on to support him and his wife until the fall.
Then, in early summer, things started looking up. At the suggestion of violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner – both fellow Hungarians – Bartók received a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, for a large orchestral work in memory of his late wife, Natalie. The commission so revived the spirit of the composer that after spending the next few weeks at Saranac Lake, New York, he brought back in October the completed score of the Concerto for Orchestra. He finalized the orchestration during the winter in Asheville, NC, and Koussevitzky premiered it with the Boston Symphony in December 1944 to resounding acclaim.
In notes for the premiere, Bartók wrote:
“The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner.”
The five-movement work is a showpiece for orchestra, allowing each of the sections a chance to demonstrate their virtuosity. Its structure is arch-like, as are many of Bartók’s works, with the central Elegy framed by two outer movements in sonata form and two inner intermezzo-like movements. Biographer Halsey Stevens provided an explanation for the huge appeal of this work, saying that it combines such diverse elements as Bach fugues and Schoenberg atonality that had touched Bartók throughout his creative years, while all the melodies, harmonies and rhythms are colored by the peasant music that was Bartók’s great love.
Among its most striking features is the Concerto’s kaleidoscope of orchestral colors emanating from the generally thin texture that showcases only a few instruments at a time in often stunning combinations. The Introduzione opens with an eerie andante, the double basses and cellos accompanied by tremolo on muted high strings.
Gradually other instrument groups enter, adding color. The violins then introduce the main theme with its vigorous rhythm.
A second theme comes in soon after on a solo trombone.
The centerpiece of the movement is a beautiful oboe solo.
The second movement Giuoco delle coppie (Game of Pairs) begins with the side drum that maintains the rhythmic impetus throughout the movement.
Five unrelated (according to Bartók) dance themes are then strung jauntily together, featuring in turn pairs of bassoons
flutes and muted trumpets. A short chorale-like melody follows on five brass instruments
after which the five pairs of wind instruments return in order as before but with more elaborate accompaniment.
The Elegia third movement is the work’s centerpiece, described by the composer as a “Lugubrious death song…of misty texture and rudimentary motifs.” After a mysterious opening
the whole orchestra suddenly enters fortissimo restating the themes
followed by a reprise of the beginning of the movement.
The Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted Intermezzo) is just that. Bartók described its structure as ABA – interruption – BA. It opens with the oboe introducing a lively theme, like a rhythmically asymmetric peasant dance
followed by a cantilena said to be based on a popular Hungarian national melody.
Suddenly the movement is interrupted by what, according to the composer’s son Peter, is a parody of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony, popular at the time because of the war and the devastating siege of the city.
Both Shostakovich and, subsequently Bartók, satirize the Germans with a march partly based on the aria “Nun geh’ ich ins Maxim”
from Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow. Peter says that the banality of the march in the movement irritated his father no end and that he parodied Shostakovich’s parody by writing circus music. As the interruption fades away, the cantilena and then the peasant dance return, but in shortened form.
The finale, Pesante, opens with a riotous horn call
followed by a fiery Romanian dance, a perpetuum mobile figure
by the whole orchestra. A second dance is introduced by the high woodwinds
and then a third on the trumpets.
The themes are developed in a complicated fugue of brilliant orchestral colors.
Originally, the work ended 22 bars short of the version we hear today. Bartók, in spite of his frailty and illness, traveled to Boston to hear the premiere, and realized that his ending was unsatisfactory. He immediately sat down and wrote the brilliant 22-measure coda.