After Mr. Kwok's speech, we split into panel discussions--I attended "Life Onstage: Careers in Orchestral and Operatic Performance" with Robert Hanford, Concertmaster of the Lyric Opera; Sheila Hanford, free-lance orchestral violinist; Pamela Hinchman, New York opera performer; and Jim Smelser, a Chicago Symphony horn player. They all had great practical advice, particularly to develop and maintain a healthy network of contacts, and to really approach all the ups and downs of a career with determination and perseverance.
Good news--I will be taking my laptop to the National Arts Centre Young Artists Programme in Ottawa, Canada, from June 10th to July 3rd, and should be able to update from there about my experiences with the camp this year!
Finally, in the spirit of shameless marketing--a couple tracks of my playing are available online through my high school's annual arts magazine, Renaissance, which includes an audio CD. One is a Bach movement I recorded four years ago, when I was about a freshman or sophomore in high school, and which I now find a bit too labored and Romantic. The other is the first movement of Beethoven's 7th Sonata. Tatyana Stepanova is the pianist.
"The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the most uncompromising, is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's." ~Joseph Joachim
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
“I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter,” wrote Felix Mendelssohn to Ferdinand David in 1838. “One in E minor runs through my mind, the beginning of which gives me no peace…I feel that in every fresh piece I succeed better in learning to write exactly what is in my heart and after all, that is the only right rule I know. If I am not adapted for popularity I will not try to acquire it.” Despite the composer’s reservations, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has been one of his most beloved works and a cornerstone of the concerto repertoire since its successful premiere with David as soloist in 1845.
Mendelssohn met David when the two were just 16 and 15 years of age, respectively, in the same year Mendelssohn wrote his sparkling Octet. Appointed director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836, Mendelssohn soon elected David leader, and their ensuing friendship parallels that of Brahms and Joachim a generation later. The concerto, pushed aside for other commitments until six years after its conception, was crafted specifically for David’s virtuosic and interpretive talents. The flowing lyricism and Mozartean freshness in virtually every passage of the piece, one of Mendelssohn’s last symphonic works, calls for a harmonious integration of technique and artistry.
Though the concerto as a whole reflects Mendelssohn’s sunny disposition, it is easy to see why the restless opening theme left its composer no peace. The introduction of this searching melody by the soloist after one-and-a-half bars of hushed accompaniment is one of Mendelssohn’s many innovations throughout. The second theme begins lovingly in the woodwinds over a long, held low note in the violin, while the dramatic cadenza, said to be at least partially penned by David, provides a surprisingly seamless bridge between the development and recapitulation sections.
The second movement emerges from the first as the bassoon holds its B, and this single note transforms the atmosphere from stormy E minor to serene and tender C major as the note resolves. The violin enters with an unfailingly sweet and expansive melody over a bed of swaying arpeggios in the accompaniment. A more passionate middle section calls for double-stops as the violin accompanies its own lyrical theme with an undercurrent of agitated thirty-second notes. When the emotional intensity gives way to the return of the first theme, it is even more intimate than before.
The second movement is connected to the third by means of an introductory bridge that sounds almost like a recitative, with material reminiscent of the opening of the concerto. A touch of fanfare reveals the movement’s true character: good-natured, light-hearted humor in the spirit of Puck and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The solo part dazzles with fleeting sixteenths and buoyant themes, the coda driving headlong towards a vigorous ending flourish.
"It speaks in tones we know well and that touch us deeply, and it took me years of knowing it before I realized that the world, the gesture it evokes is Beethoven's.... Sibelius himself never found, perhaps never sought such a melody again." ~Michael Steinberg, of the Sibelius Adagio
Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
“Dreamt that I was twelve years old and a virtuoso,” wrote Jean Sibelius in his diary in 1915, then fifty years old. Best known for his masterful work as a symphonic composer and his affinity for his native Finland, Sibelius nevertheless harbored an undying dream of success as a violinist. Despite a late start at age fourteen, “the violin took me by storm, and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition to become a great virtuoso.” Yet after an audition for the Vienna Philharmonic in 1891, “he got back to his room, broke down, and wept. Afterwards he sat at the piano and began to practice scales.” His only concerto, then, completed in 1904 and revised to its final version the following year, is deeply imbued with both his love for the instrument and his anguish at this final farewell. While Mendelssohn relied on the technical advice of Ferdinand David, Sibelius understood too well the workings of the violin and required no outside help, save several nightly visits to local taverns. He wrote his concerto—a piece he himself would never be able to play—for what musicologist Michael Steinberg calls “a kind of ghostly self.” Of the great violin concertos, the Sibelius is set apart by its emotional darkness and pain.
“In no violin concerto is the soloist’s first note—delicately dissonant and off the beat—so beautiful” (Steinberg). The soloist’s dreamy opening line over a barely audible accompaniment in the violins evokes an almost palpable image of the harsh beauty of the frozen north. A mini-cadenza leads to the first tutti, which showcases one of the movement’s several orchestral climaxes that remind us of the composer’s brilliance as a symphonist. The agonizing second theme is “an impassioned, superviolinistic recitation in sixths and octaves” (Steinberg). The following tutti subsides from determined anger to ominous, rumbling darkness, out of which the cadenza erupts. Structurally, the rhapsodic cadenza plays a central role, taking the place of the development section. With the re-entry of the orchestra, the violin embarks on a fervent Ging passage that continues to develop the first theme. The coda is a ruthlessly stern exercise in relentless octaves.
According to Steinberg, “The second and third movements proceed from another level of ambition, which does not mean, however, that the Adagio is anything other than one of the most moving pages Sibelius ever achieved.” The introductory measures feature only clarinets and oboes in pairs, suggesting a gentle and timid melodic idea. The main theme of the violin, however, begins with immediate warmth and continues up the G string, ever expanding. The middle section drives ahead, building towards the orchestra’s restatement of the opening melody as the violin soars above. Far from the peaceful transcendentalism of the Mendelssohn second movement, this movement’s climax—on a minor ninth with an A in the orchestra and B-flat in the violin—is one of the richest and most searingly real concerto moments in the repertoire. In its aftermath, we find perhaps the first sense of some emotional resolution thus far in the piece.
“Evidently a polonaise for polar bears,” said musicologist Donald Tovey of the finale. Sibelius himself characterized it as a “dance macabre,” with its diabolical rhythmic drive, aggressive opening theme, and ghostly harmonics. The movement’s gypsy-like bravura builds dramatically to a triumphant conclusion—“victory over a long and difficult battle.” As annotator Robin Hillyard writes, “No doubt the soloist feels this more intensely than anyone else!”
Copyright (c) 2004 Jessica Hung
I'm immensely looking forward to transferring to CIM in the fall. I love orchestral playing and would particularly love to shoot for a concertmaster position in my career, so I'm really excited to start learning from Mr. Preucil. The quarter here at Northwestern is nearly over, and I'm sad to have to say goodbye to some close friends I have made, but as the music world is small I hope we will stay in touch or cross paths again. In the meantime, lots of musical things going on: my quartet is giving a recital on Sunday with Bartok 2 and Brahms 1 in C minor. Our last NUSO concert on June 3rd features Shostakovich 4, which we began reading this week. I have scheduled my sophomore recital for May 31st, with the ambitious program of the Beethoven Concerto and the Brahms G Major Sonata. I will be performing the Mendelssohn Concerto with the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra on May 14th. We had our first rehearsal this past week and I felt pretty comfortable--this is my third time reworking the piece and I really enjoy growing with it, though I feel as though I will not know the peace required of the second movement until decades from now. Peace is one emotion I don't feel quite so well-versed in portraying as the rest.
I've been in a practicing slump most of the year, but I hope that will change as my life moves in a welcome new direction. For now, I will soon have no choice but to work hard in the next month on my solo rep!
More entries: May 2005
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