Sunday, February 12, 2006

Valentine's Day (early, of course) through orchestral music

So, it’s Friday night at 9:05 pm. I have been waiting for this concert to air for roughly one hour and 45 minutes now. Every Friday night, MPR broadcasts the Minnesota Orchestra live from Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. Tonight’s concert program includes pieces that honor Valentine’s Day (yes, they acknowledged that they were celebrating five days early) through music.

The first piece played was Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Whether it is your first time hearing the piece or your 81st, it is seven minutes of pure passion through music. The piece’s strength and intensity is created in a very short amount of time through mostly harmonic and melodic tension and the consequent release throughout the entire piece.

The piece starts off with a quiet ascending three note ascending line in the violins and violas. The lower strings are only added once the piece has developed the motive further, increasing the overall dynamic and intensity range. The climax occurs after about five minutes of tension followed by release. The entire string orchestra, in a very high tessitura for their respective instruments, holds an intense tension-filled chord. This chord, after a short break, is followed by a release as the upper strings return to the original ascending line, which is calm and introspective. The piece ends as quietly as it starts, leaving the audience with a feeling of serenity after the emotional intensity of the work.

One of the most surprising parts of the live performance with the Minnesota Orchestra was the unusual, yet effective long grand pause that the conductor, Gilbert Varga, took. It seemed to serve as a “clearing of the air” or a break from the emotional work. Most conductors take a grand pause at that point in the piece, but this one seemed to last for at least twice as long as normally heard performed. It would be interesting to find out why he decided to take that long a break at during that moment.

Barber was one of the first students to come through Curtis Institute and his classical training can be heard clearly through this piece. Although full of thick chords and unusual harmonies, it is very much within the classical framework which he was taught.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

To Tchaikovsky, his Symphony No. 4 was one of his greatest works and most time-consuming works. When asked about the piece, he stated that he considered this work to be a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, stating, “I, of course, have not copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.” The motive of “fate” is introduced in the first movement by the brass returns in the last movement.

The work opens with the famous unison brass line that is in every brass player’s excerpt book (and yes, one of the trumpet players still fracked it…pesky trumpet players). Tchaikovsky stated that the opening brass line was “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.” This line was heard throughout the first movement and will return in the middle of the last movement. After the brass opening, the movement is quite animated and parts are quite playful. These lively runs in the strings and woodwinds slowly develop into hurried lines, seemingly running away as the trumpets and horns approach again with the call of “fate.”

The second movement begins with a solo oboe, evoking a feeling of solitude and stability. The solo is slowly joined by a multitude of other instruments, each contributing to a calming and settling feeling after the tumultuous first movement.

The third movement begins with quiet pizzicato strings (hence, the title pizzicato ostinato). This movement seems to be filled with many small vignettes, which flow together throughout this movement.

The fourth movement begins with a joyous feeling with running, jubilant lines throughout the first part of the movement. Quite suddenly, the solo oboe returns followed by the frantic running lines of the woodwinds and strings as the brass forebodingly return with the “fate” motive originally presented in the first movement. About two minutes from the end of the movement, the brass finally overpowers the running lines of the strings, sounding the call of “fate” once more. The call dies down in the horns, who ironically, build up the joyous feeling in the next phrase, increasing in dynamic. The movement ends jubilantly, as if Tchaikovsky may be hoping that joy and happiness have had the last word even in music.

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