for Concerts on December 7 & 8, 2013
JENNIFER HIGDON (b. 1962)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2008)
Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most frequently performed composers, with a list of commissioning orchestras that include the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Born in New York City, she grew up in Atlanta and Tennessee and holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Bowling Green State University, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she is professor of composition. Her music has been widely praised for its lyricism, brilliant orchestral colors, and rhythmic dynamism.
Quad City Symphony audiences first heard Higdon’s music in 2007 when the orchestra performed her extraordinarily moving blue cathedral to great acclaim. In the time since, Higdon’s reputation has only grown, with several recordings by prominent orchestras and hundreds of performances of her compositions. She is currently working on her first opera, an adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel Cold Mountain.
In 2008 Higdon completed her Violin Concerto, written for and dedicated to American violinist Hilary Hahn, who presented the premiere performance with the Indianapolis Symphony in 2009. The concerto was later honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2010. This weekend’s performances of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto feature Quad City Symphony concertmaster Naha Greenholtz as soloist. She is only the third violinist to perform the concerto.
The Violin Concerto has three movements, each with a somewhat enigmatic title. The first movement, "1726,” refers to the street address of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where Higdon teaches and where she first met violinist and dedicatee Hilary Hahn as a student in her 20th-Century Music class. The address numbers also describe the musical scale intervals of Higdon’s thematic material. The movement opens quietly with fragmentary whistle-like notes by the solo violin. Tinkling metallic percussion sounds join in as the violin draws out its lowest, most somber note. Quickly the violin ascends to the heights, still accompanied by metallic percussion. The orchestra gradually emerges to support the solo violin, as the tempo and intensity soon increase. Strong pulses propel the music forward as orchestral outbursts intertwine with the violin’s constant rhythmic motion. Midway through the movement, the tension relaxes and the texture thins to expose the piccolo and violin interacting over plucked notes from the strings. Calm, almost pastoral writing for winds accompanies the violin until suddenly the propelling rhythm re-emerges, culminating in an aggressive orchestral section that gives way to a violin cadenza of extraordinary, demonic energy. At the end of the cadenza, the orchestra returns in a restatement of the fragmented, atomized notes of the beginning, while the solo violin sings quietly over top. With introspection and gentle percussion and harp accompaniment, the movement fades away.
The concerto’s lyrical second movement is titled "Chaconni,” alluding to its use of several chaconnes or repeated chord sequences. The orchestral colors are primarily dark and warm, focusing on the cello, English horn, and low ranges of the clarinet and solo violin. Orchestral outbursts twice interrupt the pastoral mood and gradually overwhelm the violin, which each time returns to its lyrical note-spinning, eventually playing ever higher until the sound evaporates.
The third movement, "Fly Forward,” is the shortest of the concerto and is a driving perpetuum mobile. For some five minutes the music hurtles along, alternating orchestral interjections with furious fiddling by the violin, until the concerto reaches its final, explosive, chord.
SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27
In 1909 the United States was host to its first visit by the gifted Russian pianist, composer, and conductor, Sergei Rachmaninov. Acutely unhappy at leaving his wife and children in Russia, Rachmaninov nevertheless performed in numerous American cities to the amazement and delight of audiences and critics everywhere. His exhausting tour included solo piano recitals, performances with orchestras of his newly-written Third Piano Concerto, and conducting engagements for which he programmed his equally new Symphony No. 2 in E Minor.
Written over a 12-month period in 1906-07, the symphony gave Rachmaninov great difficulty. Many starts and stops and interruptions for family crises delayed the work’s completion. When he finally did complete it, he wrote to a friend, "I finished the Second Symphony a month ago and immediately put it aside. I am heartily sick of it and I’m not going to think about it any more.”
He did think about it, of course, and the symphony received its first performance in St. Petersburg in January 1908. Its many performances in the United States during Rachmaninov’s tour and also on a similar 1910 tour of England helped assure the work’s success.
Rachmaninov was very much a man of 19th-century musical traditions. His training took place in the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories and he was strongly influenced by the music of Tchaikovsky. He had an extraordinary gift for melody and used the full resources of the modern orchestra to achieve profound emotional effect.
His great skill at melodic invention is wonderfully illustrated by the Second Symphony. Written in four movements, the symphony begins with a simple seven-note theme which, in turn, generates many other melodies heard throughout the work. Following the lengthy, slow introduction, the first movement reaches its major part, an exciting and highly developed allegro moderato.
The second movement is a rapid scherzo whose opening theme features the horn section. Several sections of contrasting music intervene before the opening music returns to conclude the movement.
With the third movement, Rachmaninov presents some of his richest and most expressive melodies. The solo clarinet is featured in a prominent role to the accompaniment of luxuriant string writing. The overall mood is one of leisurely and serene contemplation.
The final movement brings all of Rachmaninov’s many elements together as fragments from earlier movements return. Through extended development, intensity, and rhythmic urgency, the symphony drives to its emotional conclusion.
Program notes by Dennis Loftin