Santa Monica Symphony 70th Season Opening Concert
October 18, 2014
Overture to Oberon (1826) – Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon was the first piece ever performed by the Santa Monica Symphony, opening the first season in 1945. It seems only right to begin the 70th season with this same piece.
Weber was phenomenally successful as an opera composer. His Der Freischutz was the first truly German opera. (Mozart’s earlier operatic masterworks were essentially Italian in style, for all his Germanic heritage.) Weber was influential as well: in the opera Euryanthe, he introduced the idea of giving each character a Leitmotif, (leading motive) associated with the character throughout, an idea that became a mainstay of Wagner’s operas.
Oberon, which was Weber’s last opera, has a libretto written originally in English; it shares the characters of Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but the story is quite different. Perhaps because of the somewhat erratic story line, unconvincing even by operatic standards, Oberon was less successful than Der Freischutz, but it has brilliant and beautiful music, and its overture has remained a concert favorite.
Cello Concerto no. 2 in D major (1783) – Joseph Haydn (1732 -1809)
Haydn once said of himself that he was too cheerful a person to be a really great composer. He was wrong of course, but his music does tend to be cheerful, and this concerto surely illustrates the point. The graceful ensemble writing and spectacular virtuoso passages for the soloist of the extended first movement, the serene melodic beauty of the middle adagio, and the brief but joyous concluding rondo movement please listeners today as much as in 1783 when the concerto was composed.
The Esterhazy family, who employed Haydn as their court composer for some forty years, also had an orchestra of their own and a concert hall in their palace. (Rich people really knew how to be rich in the 18th century!) Haydn composed both of his cello concerti for the principal cellist of the Esterhazy orchestra, Anton Kraft. By all accounts, Kraft was an astounding virtuoso, and Haydn surely felt free to ask anything of his cellist that stuck his fancy, to the point that even by today’s standards there are passages to which the word pyrotechnics can appropriately be applied.
Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor (1872) – Camille Saint-Saëns(1835-1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns was a virtuoso pianist and organist as well as a composer. The cello solo “The Swan” from his Carnival of the Animals is one of most beautiful of Saint-Saëns’ (or anybody’s) melodies, and the Cello Concerto no. 1 shows Saint-Saëns at the peak of his powers both in technical polish and inspired melodic line. The music seems to arise almost spontaneously, without any apparent effort from the composer, like an aspect of the natural world. Saint-Saëns, like Haydn, sometimes expressed concern that his music lacked heroic, tragic depth. And his famous remark “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music” has a certain defensive ring. But in this concerto, he takes the elegant lines, harmonious colors and beautiful successions of chords to a transcendent level. There are passages where the word heavenly comes irresistibly to mind and any concern that the music is not “deep” enough is swept away.
The concerto is one continuous whole though there are sectional indications of tempo change, with something resembling a classical minuet separating the exciting opening section and the concluding section, which in some version of “cyclic form” reuses the opening material. But the moment to moment magic rather than the formal structure is the real point of this remarkable piece.
Pines of Rome (1924) – Ottorino Respighi(1879-1936)
Ottoino Respighi had his modernist side, writing neoclassical pieces in Stravinskian style and a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But his three great Roman tone poems in the 19th century tradition of nationalistic pictorial music, Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928), are the most beautiful, powerful, and enduring expression of his genius.
There are four sections: 1. The Pines of the Villa Borghese: Children playing in the gardens of the villa of the famous Roman family Borghese. 2. Pines near a catacomb: Religious in feeling, the catacombs being the site of many early Christian burials and early Christian art. 3. The Pines of the Janiculum: A nocturne portraying a moonlit night on the Janiculum, a high hill in the area around Rome which includes a recorded nightingale song, the first use of a recording in symphonic music. 4. Pines of the Appian Way: The Roman Imperial Legions on the march. The score calls for six bucinas, ancient circular trumpets , which one sees on Trajan’s Column in Rome—and in the cartoon strip version of the conflict between ancient Rome and the Gauls, Asterix the Gaul.
Program notes by music critic Robert Greene who moonlights as a Professor of Mathematics at UCLA and a violinist with the Santa Monica Symphony.