Program Notes: The Colburn Orchestra Plays Shostakovich and Brahms

Photo: Kim Long Vo

The following program notes are for The Colburn Orchestra's performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" and "Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major," and Johannes Brahms' "Symphony No. 3 in F major." The program airs on KCET on March 29, 2012 at 9 p.m.

Festive Overture In A Major, Op. 96
1954
by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the most innovative and heroic composers of the 20th century due, in large part, to the circumstances he had to endure under the reign of Joseph Stalin.

In Stalinist Russia it was very common for creative artists to be persecuted for being outspoken about the oppressive conditions. It was expected that all works created be in agreement with the Soviet Union's aesthetic and non-compliance could mean imprisonment or even death for artists such as Shostakovich. Written just months after Stalin's death, the Festive Overture is full of ebullience reflective of the relief Shostakovich must have felt at this time.

Immediately after the death of Stalin in March 1953, Shostakovich's priority was to release works that he had been forced to suppress, including his fourth and fifth string quartets. The Tenth Symphony, one of his most renowned masterpieces, was also written in this year, some of its material taken from his 1950 score for the film Fall of Berlin. Shortly before the Symphony's premiere in December 1953, Shostakovich received an unexpected request to write a short orchestral piece for the anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. The request for the overture was not only unexpected, it came just three days before the November 6th premiere when the conductor realized they lacked an opening piece for the anniversary concert. Even though Shostakovich was at the 11th hour, his genius allowed him to complete this joyful masterpiece in time. According to his close musical friend Lev Nikolayevich, Shostakovich humored him by allowing Nikolayevich to watch the rapid composition of the overture. Nikolayevich said, "He started composing. The speed with which he wrote was truly astounding. Moreover, when he wrote light music he was able to talk, make jokes and compose simultaneously, like the legendary Mozart. Although he laughed and chuckled, the work was under way and music was being written." The piece was barely finished for the dress rehearsal, with ink still drying on the page. Nonetheless, there is not a hint of carelessness or poor writing to be found in this effervescent work.

The Festive Overture opens with a ceremonial trumpet fanfare as a curtain call. He later adds woodwinds and strings with joyful flurries of bright, quick gestures. It is a high-spirited celebratory work, and the true expression of long-suppressed joy is unmistakable as it bubbles throughout this vivacious overture.

written by Conservatory student Titus Underwood, oboist in the Artist Diploma program



Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107
1959
by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

The cello concertos of Dmitri Shostakovich, like many other contemporaneous works featuring the cello, were written for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). Rostropovich, apart from his legacy of utmost artistry and effortless mastery of the cello, is also responsible for inspiring a very large portion of the 20th-century repertoire for the instrument. In addition to Shostakovich's two concertos, Rostropovich had already inspired such great and well-known staples of the repertoire as Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 and Symphony-Concerto, op.125 and continued to inspire works from composers as diverse as Aram Khachaturian, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and Witold Lutosławski. Rostropovich's relationship with Shostakovich began in 1943 in his student days at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Shostakovich. Friendship between the two men followed, as did a recording of Shostakovich's 1934 Cello Sonata with the composer at the piano. Shostakovich stated that his inspiration for his Cello Concerto No. 1 came from hearing Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, a work Rostropovich persuaded Prokofiev to write while Rostropovich was working as the composer's secretary at the Conservatory.

Composed in 1959, Cello Concerto No. 1 has assumed a place as not only one of the most popular and often-performed works for cello, but of all of Shostakovich's oeuvre as well. Along with the concerti of Dvořák, Schumann and Elgar, it comprises the core of any concert cellist's repertoire. It was written toward the end of Shostakovich's life and is the fourth of his six concerti, following the two piano concerti and the first violin concerto. The work opens with an altered but instantly recognizable version of the "DSCH" motif for which Shostakovich was famous. This signature motive is derived from the German transliteration of his initials (D. Sch.), consisting of the notes D-E-flat-C-B (the S phonetically from Es and H become the note B as it is in German notation) similar to the famous musical transcription of B-A-C-H. The altered DSCH motive is introduced in the first movement and subtly modified throughout the rest of the concerto, appearing in all movements but the second, serving as a common thread that thematically connects one movement to the next. The opening theme, with which the concerto is identified, was clearly very important to Shostakovich. He uses this theme again in his somewhat autobiographical String Quartet No. 8, one of the only instances of "self-quoting" by the composer. Like his first violin concerto, the work features an extensive cadenza which stands on its own as a separate movement and leads attacca into the finale. As in the Violin Concerto cadenza, the cadenza movement for the Cello Concerto blends thematic material from the entire composition and serves as a sort-of linchpin that ties the work together. The finale is a short, extremely virtuosic rondo of sorts, with the main theme based on the chromatic scale. The theme, which is rather frantic sounding, appears three times, interspersed by extremely virtuosic scalar passages, before the work explodes in a furious conclusion.

written by Conservatory student Matthew Cohen, violist in the Artists Diploma program



Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
1883
by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Written in a burst of creative energy in 1883, Brahms' Third Symphony was completed in a matter of months in Wiesbaden while he was on summer holiday. The relatively short amount of time taken to complete the symphony is in stark contrast to the 20 years Brahms spent composing his First Symphony, giving the Third an organic unity throughout. His close friend Clara Schumann remarked that "All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart." The work's premiere came on December 2nd, 1883 with Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic. The performance was a great success (with the exception of a handful of Wagnerians intent on sabotaging its reception), Richter declaring it "Brahms' Eroica." Though Brahms is not generally regarded as an innovator of form and structure, the composer breaks from tradition in his Third Symphony, most notably in his harmonic scheme. Much of the tension in this symphony is derived from the major/minor struggle that pervades the work, bypassing many typical expectations of harmonic development. Another significant characteristic that sets this symphony apart, not only from the composer's other works, but from most other symphonies of this era, is the size and scope of the composition. It is relatively short, lasting only 35 minutes in a typical performance, and it is Brahms' only symphony to end quietly -- this contemplative conclusion has been seen as an elegy to his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Notably, it is also the first romantic symphony to end quietly, the evocative technique found later in the symphonies of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Even the seemingly heroic and extroverted sections of the symphony have a feeling of restraint that directly counters the critical perception of Brahms' music as overbearing and excessive. The musical unity Brahms achieves with his unique and subtle writing sets it aside as one of his most original compositions and a gem of the symphonic repertoire.

A believer in "absolute music"-- as opposed to the Wagnerian ideal of program music -- it is rare, if ever, that one finds extra-musical meaning behind motives in Brahms' works. However, as early as the winds' opening chords we hear the motive: F-A flat-F. This motive is derived from the musical motto of Brahms' dear friend, violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim adopted the signature F-A-E, "Frei aber einsam" (free but lonely); Brahms then adapted it to his F-A-F, "Frei aber froh" (free but joyful). With the introduction of A-flat in m. 2, giving the feeling of F minor, Brahms immediately sets the framework for what will be the major/minor struggle of the work. As the strings enter in m. 3, the F-A flat-F motive becomes the bass line supporting the violins. This repeated use of the motive will define much of the symphony as it unfolds. Very quickly the unsettled heroism of the opening Allegro con brio dies away, as Brahms moves to the unexpected key of A major (later becoming A minor for further major/minor struggle), once again referencing the F-A-F motive. In fact, Brahms avoids the typical dominant key (in this case C major) of classical sonata form as long as possible, moving there only in the coda. The development quickly turns to the darker side of things and wanders mysteriously before reaching the recapitulation. After an extended coda, the opening descending violin figure returns and ends the movement, this time exploring its gentler and lyrical side.


While the first movement was unsettled and impassioned, we are given a release with the pastoral Andante. For the middle movements, Brahms uses C major and C minor, respectively, as the tonal centers. In taking the dominant key for these two movements, while all but leaving it out in the first movement, Brahms forms what scholar Walter Frisch calls a "dominant plateau", resembling an expanded sonata form over the entire symphony. The second movement stays primarily in the major mode throughout, the clarinet leading with a peaceful melody, violas and cellos echoing at the end of each phrase. After a modified sonata form is played out, the woodwinds bring in ominous minor chords, preparing C minor for the intermezzo to follow.

The theme of the third movement intermezzo, Poco allegretto, is one of the most beautiful and organically flowing melodies in Brahms' symphonic repertoire. It is first taken by the cellos with minimal accompaniment and then expanded upon as the contrapuntal texture thickens. After a dance-like middle section, the theme returns as a gorgeous horn solo with flute and strings supporting. The final statement of the theme is heard in the violins and cellos, creating a powerful effect with a wide range of three octaves before quietly fading away.

The fourth movement finale, Allegro, begins in an ominous F minor. After a short chorale-like section in the strings, the orchestra erupts into a fiery transformation of the movement's opening material, creating an especially unsettled feeling with displaced rests and rhythmic variation. The minor mode clears and is replaced with a confident triplet melody in the cellos. However, as throughout the entire symphony, neither major nor minor lasts long without being interrupted by the other. After much turmoil, the pace is slowed with a marking of Un poco sostenuto and we are finally brought back to the F-A flat-F motive of the first movement played by the oboe and horn. The descending violin line from the first movement returns softly, passed then to the violas and cellos as the symphony fades away, F major finally prevailing.

written by Conservatory student Avi Nagin, violinist in the Bachelor of Music program

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