Scandinavian Odyssey

Just like the protagonist of the Odyssey, Odysseus, begin an epic voyage you’ll never forget. With Nielsen playing all around you, drift across the ocean to the shores of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Then be immersed in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto featuring guest violinist Tai Murray and let your mind wander through mountains and fjords during A Nordic Symphony, a unique mix of Nordic compositions featuring the DSSO Chorus.

Nielsen: Maskerade Overture

Sibelius: Violin Concerto                                  

A Nordic Symphony

      Stenhammar: Excelsior!                       

      Grieg: Våren                                                       

      Alfvén: Elegy, op. 38                   

      Grieg: Ave Maris Stella

      Sibelius: Finlandia                          

 

Violinist, Tai Murray

With DSSO Chorus

CARL NIELSEN Overture to Maskarade
BORN: June 9, 1865, in Sortelung, near Nørre Lyndelse, Denmark
DIED: October 3, 1931, in Copenhagen
WORK COMPOSED: 1906
WORLD PREMIERE: Full opera: November 11, 1906, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Nielsen conducting; the overture premiered as a concert piece in 1907 with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Tor Aulin conducting

Carl Nielsen is one of the most important composers from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. His free-spirited compositions cover a wide range of styles that breathe a fresh air into the concert hall. He is best known for his six symphonies and the overture to his comic opera Maskarade, which is considered the Danish national opera.

Nielsen’s opera, Maskarade, is his setting of a libretto by Vilhelm Andersen (1864-1953) based on a work by Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), the poet and playwright best known outside of Scandinavia from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The story is a light comedy filled with intrigue, high-jinks and mistaken identity that leads two young people to meet and fall in love at a masked ball. Nielsen felt that the play was too wordy for use as an opera and approached Andersen, a leading Holberg scholar, to write the libretto. Nielsen began work on the opera during the Christmas season of 1904 and by the late fall of 1905 a premiere in the spring of 1906 was planned. Various delays pushed it back until November and Nielsen finished the overture only eight days before the November 11 premiere! The opera was an instant success and remains immensely popular in Denmark. Originally the overture led directly into the first act of the opera, but in 1907 Nielsen revised it so it could be performed as a concert piece. It is performed around the world and has helped to establish the composer’s reputation.

The overture is the perfect vehicle to reflect the spirit and joy of a carnival. The opera takes place during that time before Lent when people let their hair down and do some hard partying; think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio. Suited well for either place, the overture to Maskarade is an excellent opener for tonight’s concert.

 

A NORDIC SYMPHONY

For tonight’s concert Maestro Meyer has compiled a number of pieces into what he has titled A Nordic Symphony. You will be introduced to some unfamiliar works by familiar and unfamiliar composers as well as a work that needs no introduction at all.

WILHELM STENHAMMAR Symphonic Overture: Excelsior!, Op. 13
BORN: February 7, 1871, in Stockholm, Sweden
DIED: November 20, 1927, in Stockholm
WORK COMPOSED: 1896
WORLD PREMIERE: December 28, 1896, in Copenhagen by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (while on tour), Arthur Nikisch conducting

Wilhelm Stenhammar was born into a musical family and was mostly a self-taught composer and conductor, though he studied music theory with, among others, Emil Sjögren. His debut as a conductor was with his overture Excelsior!. He went on to become the chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony (the first full-time professional orchestra in Sweden) from 1906-1922, a time when the city was transforming into a significant center of Nordic musical culture.

Stenhammar’s early compositions show influences of Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms and Excelsior! is an excellent example of this. In 1896 Stenhammar performed his First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Richard Strauss and this experience most likely inspired him to dedicate Excelsior! to this great orchestra. Although the title is defined as ‘higher’ or ‘towards the heights’ the premiere did not live up to it. Stenhammar wrote to his publisher, “I think that you are all correct, that the piece does not live up to what you have the right to expect from me and from its title.” Nevertheless Stenhammar chose to conduct the work on his directorial debut with the Royal Swedish Orchestra on October 16, 1897. Unfortunately this performance did not make a good impression either; one of Stockholm’s best music critics praised the “technical construction and instrumentation” but felt that the composer was not “speaking his native tongue: this is German.” But we can’t fault Stenhammar too severely; he furthered his music studies in Berlin and was naturally influenced by German culture. As a student in Berlin he attended a theater performance of Goethe’s Faust and the central theme of humanity’s struggle against baser instincts and striving toward loftier goals is the theme of Excelsior!. Stenhammar quotes a few lines from Faust in the score, maybe as a motto for the work itself:

Doch ist es jedem eingeboren,
Daß sein Gefühl hinauf und vorwärts dringt,
Wenn über uns, im blauen Raum verloren,
Ihr schmetternd Lied die Lerche singt;
Wenn über schroffen Fichtenhöhen
Der Adler ausgebreitet schwebt,
Und über Flächen, über Seen,
Der Kranich nach der Heimat strebt.

Yet ’tis inborn in everyone, each fancies
His feeling presses upward and along,
When over us lost amid the blue expanses
The lark sings down his showering song,
When over rough heights of firs and larches
The outspread eagles soaring roam,
And over lakes and over marshes
The crane strives onward toward his home.

Stenhammar was extremely critical of himself and therefore he was frequently disappointed in his accomplishments. The Stockholm premiere of Sibelius’ Second Symphony caused him to lose all confidence in himself; how could he ever compare with such grandeur. As we listen to Excelsior! we hear the story of Stenhammar’s life: always striving for loftier heights.

EDVARD GRIEG arr. Beck/Meyer Våren (The Last Spring), Op. 33, No. 2
BORN: June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway (then part of Sweden)
DIED: September 4, 1907, in Bergen
WORK COMPOSED: 1880
WORLD PREMIERE: Undocumented

In the spring of 1880 Grieg composed a set of songs to words by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje; the second song in this set is Våren. A short time later he arranged Våren for string orchestra without the voice and published that version in 1881 as the second of a pair of string arrangements titled Two Elegiac Melodies. The title translates to Spring but has become better known in English as The Last Spring. The theme of the poem is of one who senses that life is coming to a close and that this spring will most likely be the last. Grieg’s simple and pure lyricism, which also conveys a sense of deep longing, makes one think of the fullness of life and not so much the end of it.

Enno ei Gong fekk eg Vetren at sjå
for Våren at røma;
Heggen med Tre som der Blomar var på,
eg atter såg bløma.

Enno ei gong fekk eg Isen å sjå
frå Landet at fljota,
Snjoen at bråna, og Fossen i Å
at fyssa og brjota.

Graset det grøne eg enno ei Gong
fekk skoda med Blomar;
enno eg høyrde at Vårfuglen song
mot Sol og mot Sumar.

Ei gong eg sjølv i den vårlege Eim,
som mettar mit Auga,
ei gong eg der vil meg finna ein Heim
og symjande lauga.

Alt det som Våren imøte meg bar,
og Blomen, eg plukkad’,
Federnes Ånder eg trudde det var,
som dansad’ og sukkad’.

Derfor eg fann millom Bjørkar og Bar
i Våren ei Gåta;
derfor det Ljod i den Fløyta eg skar,
meg tyktes at gråta.

Aasmund Olavsson Vinje (1818-1870) Once again I watched winter
retreat at the arrival of the spring;
Cherry trees with clusters that had bloomed,
I again saw blooming.

Once again I watched the ice
floating away from the shore,
snow melting, and the currents and river
flowing and breaking.

The green grass and meadows, I again
have seen blooming;
again I heard the birds sing
to the Sun and to Summer.

Again I find myself drawn to the spring fragrance,
that pleases my soul,
Again I will make it my home
and bask in it.

Spring carries me to that place,
each flower that I plucked,
I thought I could feel the spirit of my father there,
dancing and humming.

And so I found among the birch and the spruce
a mystery in the spring;
and the sound from the flute I had carved,
was like crying.

Translation: Richard Robbins
HUGO ALFVÉN Elégie: At Emil Sjögren’s Funeral, Op. 38
BORN: May 1, 1872, in Stockholm
DIED: May 8, 1960, in Falun, Sweden
WORK COMPOSED: 1918
WORLD PREMIERE: 1918; Tonight’s performance is the North and South American premiere.

Hugo Alfvén was a Swedish composer, conductor and violinist who also studied painting. His compositions are almost entirely programmatic and often influenced by the Swedish archipelago. He considered his most important works to be his first four symphonies and his oratorio Herrans bön (The Lord’s Prayer).

Alfvén dedicated his Swedish Rhapsody No. 2, Op. 24 (1907) to Emil Sjögren (1853-1918), who was a Swedish composer and served as organist at the Sankt Johannes Church in Stockholm from 1890 until just before his death. The Elégie: At Emil Sjögren’s Funeral is Alfvén’s tribute to him. Alfvén’s contemporary, Stenhammar, studied music theory with Sjögren but there is a difficulty finding any link between Alfvén and Sjögren except for these two compositions; nevertheless the depth of emotion in the Elégie suggests that they must have known each other quite well.

EDVARD GRIEG arr. D. Meyer Ave, Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea)
WORK COMPOSED: 1893
WORLD PREMIERE: November 1899, in Copenhagen, Cæciliaforening (St. Cecilia Society), Frederik Rung conducting

This plainsong Vespers hymn to Mary was popular in the Middle Ages and the creation of the original hymn has been attributed to several people, including Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century), Saint Venantius Fortunatus (6th century) and Hermannus Contractus (11th century). Grieg composed this work for voice and piano in 1893; in 1898 he dedicated his Two Religious Choral Songs, At the Bier of a Young Wife, Op. 39, No. 5, and Ave, Maris Stella, to the Madrigal Choir of the St. Cecilia Society in Copenhagen under the direction of Frederik Rung.

Ave, maris stella,
Dei Mater alma,
Atque semper Virgo,
Felix caeli porta.

Solve vincla reis,
Profer lumen caecis,
Mala nostra pelle,
Bona cuncta posee.

Vitam praesta puram,
Iter para tutum,
Ut videntes Jesum,
Semper collaetemur.

Sit laus Deo patri,
Summo Christo decus,
Spiritui Sancto:
Tribus honor unus. Amen. Hail, star of the sea,
loving Mother of God,
Ever-virgin,
The happy gate of heaven.

Break the bonds of sinners,
Bring light to the blind,
Drive away our evils,
And ask for all that is good.

Keep life pure,
Make safe the journey,
So that, seeing Jesus,
We may rejoice together forever.

Praise be to God the Father,
To Christ, the highest honor,
And to the Holy Spirit,
The blessed Three in One. Amen.

Translation: Richard Robbins
JEAN SIBELIUS Finlandia, Op. 26
WORK COMPOSED: 1899, revised 1900
WORLD PREMIERE: July 2, 1900, in Helsinki with the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, Robert Kajanus conducting

Finlandia was composed for the Press Celebrations of 1899, which was a covert protest against the Russian Empire’s increasing imposition of censorship on the press, and it was the last of seven pieces performed as accompaniment to a tableau depicting Finnish history. The work was originally titled Suomi herää (Finland Awakens) and that version is the one that was performed. Sibelius revised the work in 1900 and gave it its current title. Although no folksong material was used, its patriotic fervor has led to it becoming a symbol of Finnish nationalist aspirations. More than any of his other compositions, Finlandia is the most recognized around the world and the hymns This Is My Song and Be Still My Soul, found in numerous church hymnals, use its melody.

Oi, Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa,
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois,
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa,
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois.
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa,
Sun päiväs koittaa, oi synnyinmaa.

Oi, nouse, Suomi, nosta korkealle,
Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen.
Oi, nouse, Suomi, näytit maailmalle,
Sa että karkoitit orjuuden,
Ja ettet taipunut sa sorron alle,
On aamus alkanut, synnyinmaa.

Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, 1941 O Finland, behold, your day has arrived,
The night’s threat has already been banished,
And the skylark of the glorious morning sings,
Causing the heavens themselves to hum.
The night’s powers are defeated by the morning light,
Your day is come, o my native land.

O rise, Finland, stand tall,
Your head is crowned with great memories.
O rise, Finland, you showed the world,
You drove out slavery,
And you do not bend under oppression,
Morning has come, my native land.

Translation: Richard Robbins

Program Notes © Vincent Osborn, 2015

 

JEAN SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
BORN: December 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna, in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957, in his home, Ainola, at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää, Finland
WORK COMPOSED: 1903-04
WORLD PREMIERE: February 8, 1904, in Helsinki, Helsinki Philharmonic; Victor Nováček, violin; Sibelius conducting. Final version: October 19, 1905, in Berlin, Berlin Court Orchestra; Karel Halíř, violin; Richard Strauss conducting.

Sibelius wrote that from the age of fifteen he played his violin morning and night in hopes of becoming a great virtuoso but, by the middle of 1892, he had to admit that he had started his training too late for such an exacting career. He had also premiered his composition Kullervo in Helsinki and it was an enormous success; Sibelius would become Finland’s national composer and well known around the world.

The famous violinist, Willy Burmester, was a longtime fan of Sibelius’ music and helped convince the composer to write a concerto for him. Sibelius’ love for the violin made this an easy task for Burmester and by the autumn of 1903 the first version of the concerto was finished. Burmester was sent the score and immediately fell in love with it: “I can only say one thing: Wonderful! Masterly! Only once before have I spoken in such terms to a composer, and that was when Tchaikovsky showed me his concerto.” Burmester had promised to play the concerto in Berlin, however, for financial reasons Sibelius decided the premiere would take place in Helsinki. Burmester was unavailable to travel to Finland so Sibelius engaged Victor Nováček (1873-1914), who was the violin teacher at the Helsinki Institute of Music (now the Sibelius Academy). The premiere was on February 8, 1904, and as Sibelius had barely finished the work, Nováček had little time to prepare. Although he wasn’t a poor player, he also was not the virtuoso this composition demands. The premiere was a disaster.

Sibelius kept the first version from publication and began making substantial revisions, deleting a lot of material he felt did not work well. (By the way, that first version of the concerto remained virtually unknown until 1991 when Sibelius’ heirs finally permitted one live performance and one recording: Osmo Vänskä conducted the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and the soloist was Leonidas Kavakos.)

With the new version ready for premiere, Burmester offered to play it, writing to Sibelius “All of my 25 years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work. I shall play the concerto in Helsinki in such a way that the city will be at your feet.” But the German publisher had a different idea: they wanted the concertmaster of the Berlin Court Orchestra, Karel Halíř, to be the soloist. Although Sibelius was reluctant, since he had promised and dedicated this work to Burmester and now this promise would be broken yet again, he finally agreed. Richard Strauss conducted this premiere on October 19, 1905, to mixed reviews. The Deutsche Zeitung described it as “the Nordic winter landscape painters who through the distinctive interplay of white on white, secure rare, sometimes hypnotic and sometimes powerful effects.” Another critic stated that he did not think it would be much appreciated and except for the Adagio he wrote, “it is far too complex, far too busy, dark and dingy … above all it is laden with technical and rhythmic difficulties of such a kind that even the greatest master of the instrument will be hard put to make a successful repertoire work of it that will really catch the public ear.” So much for their tastes… the most recorded violin concerto written in the 20th century is the only concerto Sibelius wrote!

Burmester was incensed, understandably, and he was so offended that he vowed never to play the concerto and he kept his vow. Therefore Sibelius re-dedicated it to Ferenc von Vecsey, a twelve year old Hungarian ‘wunderkind’. Vecsey first performed the concerto when he was only thirteen but could not really manage all its extraordinary technical demands.

The tradition of the concerto features the soloist with the orchestra providing a supporting accompaniment, but that is not what we have with this concerto: Sibelius treats the soloist and the orchestra almost as two separate entities that somehow do work well together. The soloist begins with a bold sequence of ideas and invites the orchestra to join in and provide some sense of unity. The first movement is this constant exploration and development that shows off the brilliance of the soloist. The Adagio is some of the most moving and emotional music Sibelius ever wrote. In his program notes Michael Steinberg writes, “Between its introductory measures and the main theme there is a fascinating disparity. Clarinets and oboes in pairs suggest an idea of rather tentative tone, a gentle beginning leading to the entry of the solo violin and to a melody of vast breadth.”

Donald Tovey said of the finale that it is “evidently a polonaise for polar bears.” He wasn’t intending to be derogatory as he further remarked that he had not heard a “more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto.” The finale begins with a driving rhythm that provides the foundation for the soloist to show what the violin is truly capable of and much of the writing for the soloist is purely virtuosic. Duluth native James Hepokoski, who is an authority on Sibelius, writes that “one could also regard the work as a deepening of the tradition – a virtuoso concerto simultaneously affirmed and transcended by a thoroughgoing seriousness of purpose and ‘surplus’ density of compositional pondering.” As we listen to this concerto, there is no question that it is Sibelius; the sound that transports us to Finland is unmistakable.

Program Notes © Vincent Osborn, 2015

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