Wordsworth: The Prelude
Dickens: Bleak House

Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony

It occurred to me after I typed that title that A Night to Remember was a book about the sinking of the Titanic. Book and film, I find on checking.

But I didn't change the title, because it is perfectly accurate. You can be assured that this night with the Mobile Symphony was not a disaster. On the contrary, it gave me, by means of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of those rare almost-ecstatic musical experiences. This was of course the E Minor concerto--I didn't know until today that it was actually his second, the first having been written when he was thirteen (!). The violinist was Simone Porter, of whom I had never heard, though that doesn't mean anything much. Here's the bio from her web site

I've heard the concerto on record several times, and may have heard a live performance twenty or more years ago, but I'm not sure. I've always liked it but have never been affected by it as I was this past Saturday night. I can't discuss the performance intelligently in the sort of detail that real music reviewers do; all I can say is that I was swept away from the very beginning, and didn't come back until the final notes had faded. I'm often critical of what seems to me the ovation-inflation in which audiences give a standing ovation to almost every performance, and am hesitant to join in if I don't feel that degree of enthusiasm. But in this case I was one of the first out of my seat.

I used to think those too-easy ovations were a reflection of the gratitude felt by our our local audiences for the infrequent opportunity of hearing live classical music and especially of hearing top-notch soloists. But according to this article in The Guardian it's a widespread phenomenon. (Note: I used the term ovation-inflation above before I read the Guardian article. Really, I did.)

The concerto was the second piece. The first was a somewhat peculiar work by Arvo Pärt, "If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper." I had never heard it before and was not especially taken with it, though I consider myself a fan of the composer. Perhaps if I listened to it again I'd like it better. The conductor gave an elaborate explanation of the title which I didn't entirely catch. And the piece also incorporates an elaborate game or puzzle or exercise based on Bach's name, but that sort of thing is over my head. Here's what the program notes say:

Borrowing an old form of musical tribute, Pärt created a cipher on the word “Bach” by spelling the Baroque composer’s name using the German musical alphabet: B (equals B-flat in the German musical alphabet) - A - C - H (B-natural in the German musical alphabet). He then created a formula based on this cipher that results in the close intervals that he desired for Tintinnabuli. The violas play “Bach” (B-flat - A - C - B-natural), while the cellos simultaneously start on A, the f irst violins on C, and the second violins on B-natural (H), each following with the same melodic intervals as the violas. The effect of these closely stacked, dissonant intervals is a harmonic ringing tone, that buzzes like a bee. To further evoke the buzzing insects, the string players perform tremolo, rapidly moving their bows up and down (literally trembling) against the string. The result is truly the sound of a swarm of bees.

I'm like, whatever. Being literal-minded, I object to that last sentence, but there is certainly some buzzing involved.

The after-intermission work was Schumann's Symphony #3, the "Rhenish." As far as I recall I had only heard this work once, and that was about two weeks ago in preparation for this concert: I put it on while I was doing something else, just to get some idea of what it's like. It didn't reach out and grab me, though I didn't dislike it, either. That was repeated in the concert: listening reasonably closely, I enjoyed it, but it didn't rouse any great enthusiasm in me. A little sunny and major-y for my taste, perhaps.


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It sounds like a great concert. My daughter is studying violin and she *loves* the Mendelssohn concerto. She can't play it herself, but she likes to play recordings around the house or in the car. I think it's one of the great ones.

Your reference to the piece by Arvo Part sent me scrambling to see if it was a new piece. But, no, it's from the 1970s. I even have it in my collection, albeit under a German name: "Wenn Bach Bienen gezuchtet hatte". I didn't know what it meant. Listening to it now, I agree with you. Not a high point for him. Generally I find his orchestral music underwhelming.

*Most definitely* one of the great ones. I read somewhere the other day that one of the great violinists had ranked it with three others as the very greatest. The Bruch was one of the others, which mildly surprised me. Not that it isn't good, but I hadn't thought of it as quite on that level. I think Beethoven was one of the others, and now I can't remember the fourth.

I'll confess to not being *quite* as enthusiastic about Part as many are, especially Christians, for good reason. I guess I say that because his range is somewhat limited. But I do in general like him. You may have a point about his orchestral vs choral music--I hadn't thought about it.

Funny you mention the Bruch concerto; that's the other one that my daughter really loves, and is always playing at home. (Nicer than Beyonce or something!)

My own favourite violin concertos would, I think, be Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Sibelius, with Stravinsky's a dark horse candidate. Hard to rank them, but probably Sibelius is my very favourite. I almost never listen to Beethoven's because I can't stand the tune of the last movement!

I'm a big admirer of Arvo Part, overall. His choral music strikes me to the quick, and the same goes, for the most part, for his piano and chamber music. But for some reason the orchestral music just sounds bland to me.

I think the fourth one of that group I mentioned was Brahms. Oh yeah, I just remembered, I saw that on Wikipedia. Joseph Joachim:

"The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's."

So it wasn't THE greatest, but the greatest Germans. Joachim probably didn't know Sibelius's anyway. That's a very idiosyncratic opinion of the Beethoven!

Any list of great violin concertos I would make would have to include the Tchaikovsky.

I've heard it and am pretty sure I like it. I don't think I can venture any such ranking of my own, if only because I haven't heard most of them very recently and so my impressions are muddled.

Don't know if I've ever heard any of Part's full orchestral music, but I think a lot of his stuff for string orchestra is quite good. Didn't most of his orchestral music come before his change to the tintinnabuli style in the late 70's?

I was kind of wondering about that, too--whether Craig meant non-choral music in general, or full orchestra specifically, not including smaller ensembles. The famous Fratres and Cantus are for small string ensembles, aren't they? I like both of those.

Yes, most of Part's orchestral music pre-dates his discovery of tinntinnabuli. He wrote two symphonies (both pretty noisy and dissonant) and a couple of other pieces in those days. His third symphony was transitional, and it's my favourite.

I really like the early tinntinnabuli pieces that you mentioned. Also Arbos, and some other small-scale pieces for string orchestra. When I made my comment above I was thinking mainly of the few large-scale pieces he's written for orchestra since then, such as Symphony No.4, Orient and Occident, and LamenTate. Somehow the alluring sonorities of tinntinnabuli don't come through for me in those pieces as they do with voices. Maybe it doesn't make sense!

Doesn't have to make sense. Taste is taste. :-) As I observed (approximately) on another blog the other day regarding Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Very well-crafted song. I don't much like it. In fact I almost dislike it.

I don't know a single one of the pieces you mention except Arbos. I'm sorta thinking I'm not keen on it but I may be mistaken. I know I haven't heard it for a long time.

"the few large-scale pieces he's written for orchestra since then"

Not sure if I've heard any of those or not. Will have to follow up.

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