Exhilaration Program Notes

by Claudia Jensen and Bradley Clem

The theme of exhilaration runs throughout this concert, beginning with the opening fanfares by Giovanni Gabrieli, who explored, famously and joyfully, the sonic possibilities of a performance space, which is, in a sense, exactly what Philharmonia Northwest is doing in these virtual concerts (although, unfortunately, not in the resplendent sound world of Gabrieli’s Venice!).

We will hear two compositions by Giovanni Gabrieli (d. Venice, 1612), Canzon I ‘La Spiritata’ and Canzon II, both of which were published in 1608 in a collection of instrumental works. A canzona is an instrumental genre developed in the later 16th and through the 17th century, based originally on songs (the word canzona is derived from chanson); in Gabrieli’s time, it signaled a piece for instrumental ensemble. Gabrieli, in fact, was a practitioner of what might be called the original social distancing, creating works that were designed to take advantage of the spatial geography of Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, where Gabrieli was the organist. Thus, in the works on our program, we’ll hear lots of echo effects, tossing motifs back and forth among the instruments, and playing with dynamics. This approach is often described as cori spezzati, separated choral effects. The exhilaration is palpable as the composer molds these blocks of sound to surround the listener and fill the space.

After this exuberant opening, Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile provides a point of repose. The meditative atmosphere offers a quiet exhilaration in the beautifully sculpted melodic lines played in the soaring cello part. The Andante cantabile originated as the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 (1871), an early work that was immediately popular. The andante movement was chosen for performance a few years later (1876) for an evening honoring the writer Leo Tolstoy, who responded to it with great emotion. (In a letter to the writer, thanking him for his praise of the work, Tchaikovsky wrote: “I cannot express how honored and proud I felt that my music could make such an impression on you.”) The arrangement we’ll hear was made a number of years later, for a performance by the Russian cellist Anatoly Brandukov in Paris in February 1888.

We jump back into the more obvious sense of exhilaration with the virtuoso display offered by David Popper’s Fantasy on Little Russian Songs (published in 1881). Although Popper entered the Prague Conservatory at age twelve as a violinist, he switched instruments and graduated as a cellist. He became the principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic at age twenty-five; later, Franz Liszt appointed him as cello professor at the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music. Most of his concert pieces are for cello, demonstrating his own spectacular technique. A retrospective by Mark Moskovitz notes that, although Popper was sometimes considered as the “Paganini of the cello,” he worked hard to avoid virtuosity simply for the sake of virtuosity. Moskovitz describes Popper’s playing as “refined and elegant,” observing that in spite of the brilliant technique, he strove for melodicism and brought “integrity and a powerful lyricism to everything he played.” In the Fantasy on Little Russian Songs we see all the elements of his playing — an essentially conservative, 19th-century approach to the treatment of the folk tunes, with dramatic tempo changes and pauses, slides on single strings, extraordinary melodic leaps, extreme high register, and rapidly moving double stops, yet throughout, one never loses the melodic line, never becomes entangled in the detail.

The theme of exhilaration comes to the fore in a different way in Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, with its pulsating, propulsive writing. Montgomery is a much-honored young composer and violinist who combines music and advocacy through her writing and performance. She is composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, a touring ensemble associated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young string players of color and with which Montgomery has been affiliated since 1999. Her music was chosen for inclusion in the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, honoring the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and she is currently a graduate fellow in music composition at Princeton University. Montgomery’s growing body of works has been performed widely, and the piece on our program, Strum, is one of the best known, as it was the title work on her debut album (Strum was composed in 2006 and revised in 2012; the album was issued on the Azica label in 2015). In some ways, Strum echoes the rhythmic and sonic exuberance introduced by the Gabrieli pieces that opened our program. As one reviewer said, the rhythmic vitality of Strum “propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending.” Another reviewer, in the Washington Post, characterized the piece as “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life,” saying that the piece “sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another.” Exhilaration is the perfect word to capture the invigorating experience of hearing Strum!

In Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 2, we experience the special exhilaration of a wunderkind finding his voice. This symphony is one of twelve short works all written in the astonishingly short period between 1821 and 1823 by the equally astonishingly young composer, who was twelve years old when he wrote the piece on our program. The group of twelve string symphonies was written in the context of Mendelssohn’s composition studies with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the director of the Berlin Singakademie chorus, in which both Felix and Fanny, his older sister, took part. Both siblings began studying with Zelter around 1819. Fanny’s compositional focus, however evident her talent, was on smaller genres, because her parents considered music as an ornament, not a profession, for a young woman. For Felix, though, these small symphonies contributed to his growing experience handling larger genres and especially an appreciation of counterpoint — Zelter particularly encouraged him to study Bach. Over the twelve string symphonies, we see Mendelssohn experimenting with overall structure (for example, in the numbers and characters of the movements), with formal elements (for example, the use of slow introductions), and with technique. The composer was probably able to hear these efforts in more-or-less real time, as they were likely performed by musicians who frequented his family home in Berlin. The first group of six were all written in the summer to early September of 1821 — an important point of distinction when a composer’s progress is measured in months, not years! In fact, this isn’t all he composed during that year, and a listing of his output is quite simply astounding, including his third (!) Singspiel, sacred choral works, a piano sonata, and several self-standing fugues for string quartet. This first group of string symphonies are the most compressed in their overall layout, all in three movements (fast-slow-fast). Zelter’s didactic focus on counterpoint is evident in No. 2, in which each of the movements explores imitation or contrapuntal writing in different ways. The opening Allegro is buoyant and busy, propelled by scalar motion with bits of imitation sprinkled throughout. The Andante, the weightiest movement, is a heartfelt interlude, also with some imitative interplay among the voices; it provides a kind of centering effect quite literally in the center of the work. The final Allegro vivace returns to the high spirits of the opening movement, again fragmented by imitation but offset by some striking unison writing, providing a truly exhilarating conclusion to a concert that surveys so many facets of this mood.