Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Tonight’s concert begins with the overture to one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most successful works, The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), K. 492. Composed in 1786, this opera buffa was the first of Mozart’s three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The opera is based on a 1784 play by Pierre Beaumarchais, a sequel to his The Barber of Seville, following the same characters over the course of a single madcap day at the palace of Count Almaviva. Da Ponte transformed the play into an opera libretto in about six weeks, after which Mozart composed the music for a May 1 premiere in Vienna. The overture begins unusually quietly—the strings and bassoons conspire with a flurry of eighth notes, like the opera’s numerous schemes and secrets. Just as the characters’ plans inevitably lead to outrageous confrontations, before long the frenzied line runs directly into a huge statement from the entire orchestra. This manic energy carries over into the second theme, which starts in the first violins and quickly spreads like a rumor to the oboes and flutes, only to be cut off by an abrupt chord. Each time the violins attempt to start a new theme, a similar chord interjects; the bassoons, violas, cellos and basses, however, are able to complete their phrases successfully. After a sweet line from the first violins and an unlikely display of lyricism by a bassoon, the unforgettable opening material returns. Though the melodies careen all over, the overture maintains high spirits throughout.
Just two years after this great success, the summer of 1788 proved to be a difficult one for Mozart. Having moved his family to a new apartment in June, he faced financial ruin, begging a fellow Freemason for a loan to help him through the difficult time. Mozart had set up a series of subscription concerts featuring his latest string quintets, but it was canceled due to lack of interest. On top of his financial woes, he had to cope with the loss of his fourth child, Theresa, in June. Despite all this hardship, Mozart still managed to compose his final three symphonies; however, historians have not been able to determine exactly what prompted them. They are works of the highest quality, causing some to romanticize their genesis as Mozart being impelled purely by his own genius, writing his “appeal to eternity,” as musicologist Alfred Einstein put it. But this scenario is at odds with the way Mozart tended to work—he generally wrote with performance in mind, ideally as a way to get paid. Nevertheless, these symphonies have captivated audiences and musicologists alike, particularly the penultimate one, the Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K. 550, completed on July 25.
Of his forty-one symphonies, Mozart only wrote two in minor, and both of them are in G minor. Here he uses the key to dramatic effect as the Allegro molto opens with a wavering melody over agitated accompaniment. The nervous energy of the first theme is counterbalanced by a gentle second theme, its falling lines like genial bows. Mozart manages the movement with the deftness he honed as an opera composer; every event follows in a logical progression to either build tension or pay off on its release. The Andante builds layer upon layer, creating a graceful, gliding melody that gains dainty embellishments as it progresses. The stern Menuetto: Allegretto makes frequent use of a rhythmic technique called hemiola, in which the regular triple meter is obscured by rhythms that reach over the barline, giving the illusion that the meter is twice as slow as it actually is. This makes the melody feel ponderous, even while the accompaniment dutifully pushes forward. The contrasting Trio section comes back down in size for a charming dance before the massive Menuetto returns. The Allegro assai finale bustles with energy, building to a complex contrapuntal development section before the blunt conclusion.
Although Felix Mendelssohn was himself a competent violinist, as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he built close associations with some of the finest musical talents of Europe. So, in 1838, when he had the idea to compose a violin concerto, he wrote to the orchestra's concertmaster, Ferdinand David, saying, “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” David was a long-time friend of the composer—they had grown up together in Berlin, and they had even been born in the same house in Hamburg, albeit a year apart. Mendelssohn did not have the concerto ready for David that winter. Instead, it took six years to write, with Mendelssohn consulting with his soloist throughout the process. The result was the Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64, which David premiered with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on March 13, 1845. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn was sick and unable to conduct the orchestra, those duties falling instead to his protégé, Neils Gade. The concerto has become a staple of violinists' orchestral repertoire, appearing on concert programs consistently since its premiere.
The Allegro molto appassionato begins with restless strings accompanying a pleading melody from the solo violin, which transforms into tempestuous runs. Though the second theme allows the violin to find some tranquility with the flute and clarinet, virtuosic runs reestablish the tumultuous character of the movement. Mendelssohn strays from classical conventions in his placement of the violin cadenza; traditionally, the cadenza had been at the end of the first movement to make a final statement. Mendelssohn instead moves the cadenza to the end of the development section, making it a structurally crucial element as it forms a transition to the recapitulation. After the main themes have been revisited, a bassoon holds onto its note, carrying over into the Andante. The winds and strings creep out slowly, like the sun after a storm, and the solo violin returns to lead the strings in a tender, simple song. The entire ensemble encourages the violin to reveal more of its power, and it obliges with a series of oscillating double stops. It returns to the simple song to close out the movement. The third movement begins with a Allegretto non troppo that seems to recapture the tragic character of the first movement, but it soon evaporates into an Allegro molto vivace of a completely different sort. A brief brass fanfare propels the violin into an effervescent rondo theme that recurs throughout the movement, interspersed with contrasting passages called episodes. These episodes are at times triumphant, at times dreamy, but overall bursting with energy to put a sparkling finish on this masterful concerto.