Concert I – Drumroll, Please… Program Notes

October 23, 2016

Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868): La gazza ladra (overture)

Philharmonia Northwest begins its 41st season quite literally with a drumroll—the opening of Rossini’s overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie). This was one of four (!) operas by Rossini that premiered in 1817, and the composer, at this time only twenty-five years old, had already written more than twenty (!!) operas. This particular overture is generally regarded as one of his finest and it illustrates perfectly the composer’s famous stylistic fingerprints. It opens, typically, with a grand slow introduction, which not only serves as a contrast to the rest of the movement but signals to the enthusiastic, even rowdy, opera audience that it is time to settle down. The opening drumrolls suggest a military march, replete with other percussion to punctuate the presentation of the opening motif. The drumrolls then take us into a quick crescendo after which we land on the overture’s two main themes; the second theme, as is typical in Rossini, introduced by a woodwind instrument, here an oboe. A brief buildup takes us to a truncated reprise of both themes. Although we can sense what is coming—that famous Rossini crescendo—we can’t resist the excitement as he increases the density of the orchestra and intensifies the rhythmic drive, building with relentless control and finally ending with a loud brass fanfare to conclude the music at its peak. Rossini’s nineteenth-century biographer, the writer Stendhal, said that “it would be almost impossible to describe the enthusiasm and the delirium of the Milanese audience on first hearing this masterpiece.” The magic still works and the overture is a brilliant way to greet our returning audience members and welcome our new ones.

Ney Rosauro (1952 – ): Concerto for Timpani and String Orchestra

The Rio-born Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro has written many pieces for percussion instruments, but the work on our program is his first concerto for timpani. The composer describes the piece as exploring “the lyrical potential” of the instrument, which “plays singing melodies rather than drum patterns.” Our soloist, Matt Drumm, echoes this, explaining that this focus on melody is one of the reasons he wanted to perform this concerto.

The work is laid out in the three movements—fast, slow, fast—that are typical for a concerto. The first movement is called “Bachroque,” which the composer explains “is a play-on-words describing its Baroque mood and is also an homage to Bach.” It features Baroque-style imitation, with incisive motifs stated first by the timpani soloist and then tossed back and forth by the orchestral ensemble. The lyrical middle section provides a release, and it introduces some unusual effects, for example, playing with the wooden ends of the mallets. The movement concludes with a reprise of the opening theme.

The second movement, “Aria,” introduces additional innovative techniques. As the composer says, the performer “must display fine pedaling skills, as the timpani sing lyric melodies.” The pedals at the base of each of the timpani can raise or lower the pitch, and we will hear how Matt accomplishes these pitch changes in several places in this movement. In addition, not only will Matt play the instruments with his hands, but he will also put a cymbal on top of one of the drums and then play a roll on the cymbal, which thus also vibrates the drum head. He also places small tuned cymbals or discs called crotales on top of one of the drums; by shifting the pedals while striking the crotales he creates a colorful glissando effect.

The jazzy finale is a tour de force in which, as the composer says, “the soloist must show off chromatic tuning abilities as well as quick drumming between the five timpani.” The phrase “quick drumming” is a massive understatement: the movement has a spectacular cadenza that produces a blur of sound and movement. Matt will also play on the rims of the timpani as well as on the sides of the bowls in order to produce still greater sonic variation. At the conclusion of the work, which features some prominent glissando effects by the soloist, we will all certainly agree that every jazz piece needs at least five timpani!

Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809): Symphony No. 103, “Drumroll” 

Franz Joseph Haydn made two trips to London in the 1790s, for which he wrote a series of twelve symphonies. The Drumroll Symphony (no. 103) premiered to great success in March 1795; Haydn himself conducted a well-trained orchestra of about 60 musicians. This work, along with his other compositions for these London concerts, revolutionized the genre of the symphony. As historian Richard Taruskin puts it: “When Haydn found it [in the 1760s] the symphony was just a distinguished sort of party music. He left it a monumental genre that formed the cornerstone of a canon, a publicly recognized body of works deemed by lovers of art to have universal or defining value within their culture.”

The Drumroll Symphony is obviously named after the opening timpani statement, which introduces a somewhat ambiguous motif: is it in duple or triple meter? major or minor? And how is the drumroll itself to be played—there are no dynamic indications in the score. One also hears what sounds like the “Dies irae” melody (from the Mass for the Dead) in these opening notes. At the end of this unsettling introduction, we move into a clearly defined presentation of the two primary themes, but in the transition between the bouncy first theme and the more dance-like second theme there is a burst of rhythmic displacement, as if Haydn continues to delight in keeping us off balance. This movement also features a series of dramatic pauses. In the central development section, a big pause introduces a rapid-fire presentation of the motif from the introduction, and this motif appears again, also after a big pause, at the conclusion of the movement.

The slow second movement continues the ambiguity. It is constructed as a set of variations on two different motifs, alternating one in minor and another in major. But how different, really, are these two motifs? As the historian D. Kern Holoman writes, “You will usually read that this is a set of variations on two themes, the minor one and the major one, but it all amounts to natural transformation of [just] the first theme.” There is a distinct folk element to the melodies, reinforced by the use of a drone effect (repeated held notes in the lower strings) in one of the variations.

The third movement features a strongly accented opening section and, in the center section (called the trio), we hear lovely melodic braiding that is particularly effective because the texture is, according to tradition, much thinner. The lively last movement masterfully demonstrates the powerful effect of economy of means. The entire movement is based on a single theme, a procedure for which Haydn is justly famous, with continual melodic and imitative invention spun out from this main idea. It opens, like the first movement, with a solo statement, this time by the french horns, after which this motif is fully integrated into the remaining elements of the theme. Although we never hear the solo horns again, this initial presentation makes it possible for us to follow this idea throughout the movement.

Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen