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The Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra

Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 2 PM

By Steven Ledbetter

Notes on the Program

HECTOR BERLIOZ Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9

Born December 11, 1803, in La Côte Saint André, Isère; died March 8, 1869, in Paris.

Composed in the fall of 1843, Le carnaval romain Overture was based on music from Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini. The Overture was first performed on February 3, 1844, in Paris, under the composer’s baton. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on April 24, 1892, with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch.

Scoring: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, 2 tambourines, cymbals, triangle, and strings.

Berlioz conceived this piece as an afterthought to his opera Benvenuto Cellini, a fictionalized treatment of the life of the famous Renaissance sculptor, which reaches its climax in the casting of his great bronze “Perseus.” The opera had been performed in 1838, without much success, owing to the politics of French musical life. In this, Berlioz was perpetually an outsider; no matter how hard he worked, he was simply too witty, too honest, and too talented to make his way easily in a world of backstabbing and self-promotion by entrenched musical figures (though he himself was no mean self-promoter). The opera had been seriously hampered in performance by poor conducting from François-Antoine Habeneck, who was hostile to the work. The catastrophic experience of Benvenuto Cellini had a sobering effect on Berlioz, and he never forgot the humiliation of that opening night.

The experience convinced Berlioz that every composer owed it to himself to become a conductor, too, so he could have some control over the treatment given his new pieces. He took his own advice to become active as a conductor and wrote a series of effective concert pieces for use on his tours. To that end he returned to the lively second-act finale of Benvenuto Cellini, which takes place in Rome during the unbuttoned pre-Lenten period known as carnival time and drew upon it for Le carnaval romain (The Roman Carnival) described as a “characteristic overture.” It became one of Berlioz’s most popular compositions.

For this concert showpiece, Berlioz begins with a brief outburst of the main saltarello theme at a devil-may-care speed, followed by an exquisite slow, lyrical melody in the English horn (drawn from the duet between Cellini and Teresa in the opera’s first act). The third time through, we hear it in tight canonic imitation. Once into the Allegro, the material comes almost literally from the Act II finale of Cellini for nearly 200 measures. The brief fugato that comprises the development keeps the galloping saltarello rhythm constantly present while the lyric melody recurs in sustained notes. The climactic moment involves the combination of all these elements—saltarello, canon, lyric passages, and tricky phrase elisions—to make a wonderfully invigorating close that leaves the listener, as well as the performers, breathless with its non-stop, headlong rush.

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FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21

Born March 1, 1810, in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw; died October 17, 1849, in Paris.

Composed in 1829, the F Minor Concerto was first performed on March 17, 1830, in Warsaw, with the composer as soloist. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on December 2, 1893, with Richard Burmeister, piano, and the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch.

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, one trombone, timpani, and strings.

Chopin composed his two piano concertos within a year of each other, when he himself had barely finished his formal studies. He had begun composition work at the age of 12 with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, in 1822. His pianistic talent had been recognized even earlier: he had appeared in public playing a concerto of Gyrowetz a month before his eighth birthday. And even then he had begun to compose little piano pieces. When Elsner took him in hand, he hoped that his gifted pupil would one day compose the great Polish national opera, but it was not to be. Eventually Elsner realized that the young man had such remarkable gifts that it was useless to impose an outside taste on them.

Chopin never composed a work that did not include the piano, but on his chosen instrument he was most original, always inventing new sonorities and techniques that set him apart. In 1829, at the age of 19, he went to Vienna and attracted a great deal of attention with his overtly Polish works. He began the F Minor Concerto on this trip (despite its numbering, it was the first of his two concertos to be written), and when he returned to Poland, he concentrated on finishing the piece. He wrote to a friend that his Adagio had been inspired by tender feelings for one Constantia Gladkowska, a vocal student at the Warsaw Conservatory, “whom I dream of.” He finished the work that winter and premiered it at a program of his recent works the following March.

It would be unrealistic to expect a piano concerto written by a budding young virtuoso not out of his teens to display a command of the symphonic style of concerto writing, especially because the most advanced concertos of the day—Beethoven’s, for example, were still unknown in Poland. Hummel was the major composer, and it was his flashy, decorative concertos that provided the model for Chopin’s early works.

Yet despite the young composer’s relative inexperience, his concertos are extraordinary in that special way that makes his music personal and immediately identifiable. The opening movement begins with a series of typical concerto gambits, but when the soloist enters, Chopin’s personality at once takes over. While obviously influenced by the decorative art of Hummel and Moscheles, Chopin’s highly ornamented writing is far more expressive, far more poignant. In form, his first movement is simple and straightforward, but its content proclaims the budding master.

The slow movement already reveals the genius; Chopin’s teacher Elsner praised its originality, and he was right to do so. It has a simple A B A outline that Chopin decorates with extraordinary freedom. The finale is related to that Polish country dance, the mazurka, that Chopin made so wonderfully his own. The traditional mazurka was in triple time accompanied by strong accents on the second or third beat (when danced, the accents are reinforced by a strong tap of the heel). This movement is a rondo with several sharply contrasting themes in mazurka style, closing with a dramatic coda.

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LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

Baptized December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Germany; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna.

Completed in the spring of 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was first performed on December 22, 1808, with the composer conducting. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on May 9, 1891, with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, as part of the Hall’s Opening Week Music Festival.

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was first heard in a long concert that he gave at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien to present an amazing series of his own works, all first performances. The evening began at 6:30 PM with the Sixth Symphony, followed by the concert aria “Ah, perfido!,” two movements from the Mass in C, and the Fourth Piano Concerto (with the composer himself as soloist) on the first half. After intermission, the audience heard for the first time the Fifth Symphony, a piano fantasy improvised by the composer, and the Choral Fantasy. The last piece did not end until 10:30!

Given the length of the evening, most reports on the event detail the one real catastrophe of the evening—when the orchestra fell apart in the middle of the Choral Fantasy and the whole piece had to be started over. Thus, the most important and influential reaction to the Fifth Symphony did not come until a year and a half later, when the famous writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (who was also a composer) gave an enthusiastic appraisal of the Fifth Symphony as a landmark in the history of music.

Early audiences were stupefied or exhilarated. When someone asked Beethoven, “What does it mean?” he replied, “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” As such things go, it was appropriate enough. Fate working out a path to victory has long been associated with the piece. The “victory” is inherent in the music itself. This is why the score grips us today no matter how many times we have heard it.

Is it possible, at this late date, to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth not as if it were the most familiar of symphonies, but rather as if it were brand new? The opening four-note figure assumes great importance from the outset, but we gradually realized that this musical atom is not a theme in itself; it is the rhythmic foreground to an extraordinarily long-limbed melody, made up of a chain of four-note atoms. We hear a long phrase, but no one in the orchestra actually plays it. Instead one section overlaps another, then another. The tensely climbing phrase is an aural illusion. The rapid interplay of orchestral sections, a constantly boiling cauldron in which each has its own brief say before yielding to the next, lends a dramatic quality to the sound of the orchestra from the very opening.

The drama in the Fifth Symphony is musical: How to achieve a coherent and fully satisfying conclusion in the major mode to a symphony that begins in the minor? Throughout the four movements of this symphony, C major keeps appearing without ever quite exorcizing the haunting sense of C minor—never, that is, until the end of the last movement. In the opening Allegro, the C major appears right on schedule where it is conventionally expected—at the recapitulation of the secondary theme. But then the lengthy coda goes on—in C minor—to show that there is still a struggle ahead.

In the Andante, Beethoven keeps moving with a surprising modulation from the home key of A-flat to a bright C major, reinforced by trumpets and timpani. But that C-major idea is never once allowed to come to a full conclusion; rather, it fades away, shrouded in harmonic mists and sustained tension.

The very unjoking scherzo (in C minor) turns to C major for a Trio involving some contrapuntal buffoonery, but the fun comes to an end with a hushed return to the minor key material of the opening. Finally we begin to approach the light, moving through the darkness of a tense passage linking the movements to a glorious sunburst of C major that opens the finale. Even then we have one more struggle. Beethoven recalls the scherzo and the tense linking passage just before the recapitulation (another shift from gloom to bright day). Only then have we safely arrived in C major. An extended coda—an extraordinary peroration—needs to be as long as it is because it is not just the conclusion of the last movement, but rather of the entire symphony, culminating a demonstration of unification on the very grandest scale to which virtually every composer since has aspired, though few have succeeded.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Steven Ledbetter, musicologist and program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998, writes and lectures widely on many aspects of classical music.

© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation