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Kernis, Mendelssohn, Mahler

New Era Dance
Aaron Jay Kernis
b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania / January 15, 1960

First performed by the RPO on October 26, 1995; Robert Bernhardt, conductor. Last performed on May 12, 2003; Jeff Tyzik, conductor.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis studied composition in San Francisco, Manhattan, and at Yale with John Adams, Jacob Druckman, Morton Subotnik, and Charles Wuorinen. He employed rigorous compositional processes until the early 1980s, when a growing sense of intuitive freedom became increasingly evident in his work. From 1990, his style took on a new transparency and emotional eloquence, as in the exquisite Musica Celestis. His is a truly eclectic musical language, as willing to incorporate the influences of Latin rhythms, jazz, and rap as to use harmonic worlds of the Romantic masters, the Renaissance, and Hildegard von Bingen.

Composed in the summer of 1992, New Era Dance was jointly commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary, and by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. David Zinman conducted the BSO in the world premiere on April 8, 1994. In seeking to write, in his words, a “larger-than-life work,” Kernis incorporated the many types of music one would hear in the neighborhood where he was living at the time, the Washington Heights district of New York. Hence the strains of salsa, rap, folk, disco, and jazz that pop up throughout this kinetic and vividly entertaining piece – not to mention the police whistles, taped sound effects, and orchestral chanting.

Events of the day, such as the Los Angeles riots and an impending presidential election, influenced the music, too. “All these things,” says Kernis, “represent new eras in one form or another. New Era Dance is dedicated and written in celebration of a new era of leadership at the New York Philharmonic, in anticipation of the new millennium to come in the year 2000, in hope for a time of imperative political and social change in this country.”

Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Felix Mendelssohn
b. Hamburg, Germany / February 3, 1809
d. Leipzig, Germany / November 4, 1847

First performed by the RPO on March 21, 1940; José Iturbi, conductor; Mischa Elman, soloist. Last performed on November 13, 2010; Larry Rachleff, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, soloist.

Mendelssohn lived during a period of transition in music. The purity of expression and the sense of form established by the great figures of the Classical period – Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven – were gradually giving way to the more emotional, more brightly colored Romantic style of Berlioz, Weber, Chopin, and Schumann. His particular gift was to stake out a middle ground between these two schools. He combined elements from both of them into a style distinctively his own.

In 1835, he took up the post of music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. Under his patient, exacting supervision, only a few years passed before that ensemble's concerts came to be considered the finest given anywhere in Europe. The orchestra’s concertmaster, Mendelssohn’s old friend, Ferdinand David, made important contributions to that upgrading process. In gratitude, Mendelssohn composed this Violin Concerto for him. David performed the premiere, in Leipzig on March 13, 1845. Mendelssohn being too ill to conduct, his assistant, Niels Gade, performed the honors instead.

The concerto is a beautifully polished work of art, combining sureness of construction with passion, warmth, and playfulness. Mendelssohn directed that its three sections be played without any breaks between them, a typical Romantic practice designed to increase the music’s cohesiveness and sense of momentum. The majority of the concerto’s dramatic content unfolds during the urgent first movement. The second movement is an interlude of gentle melodic beauty. A brief bridge passage then ushers in the impish finale. Its solo fireworks are backed by the kind of light, gossamer orchestration which became a Mendelssohn trademark.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “The Titan”
Gustav Mahler
b. Kalischt, Bohemia / July 7, 1860
d. Vienna, Austria / May 18, 1911

First performed by the RPO on January 25, 1951; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor. Last performed on October 8, 2005; Peter Bay, conductor.

Reactions to Mahler’s First Symphony reflect a century’s worth of change in musical taste. He conducted the premiere himself, during his tenure as director of the Royal Budapest Opera. This was the first time that one of his orchestral works was heard in public. Given that the audience was accustomed to little save mainstream Italian opera, the indifferent, if not hostile, response came as no surprise. Press reaction was almost unanimously negative. One critic claimed that only Mahler’s friends had applauded the “incomprehensible and disagreeable cacophony,” the “succession of formless, impersonal, atmospheric tableaux.”

But what struck so many ears as shapeless and vulgar in 1889 has become loveable, even quaint. This robust score bursts with the boldness and fire of youth, proudly displays a burgeoning mastery of orchestration, and flirts cheekily with traditional ideas of good taste. Echoes of Weber, Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz can be detected, but they are already well-digested, even though Mahler was just 28 at the time.

For Mahler, the close intertwining of song and symphony would become a regular practice. In the First Symphony, he utilizes two themes from the vocal cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which he had composed a short time before. Their appearance in the symphony marks the melodies’ debut in orchestral dress – he orchestrated this voice-and-piano cycle only after completing the symphony.

At first, Mahler referred to the work as a symphonic poem rather than a symphony, and gave each of the five movements a programmatic association – nature’s awakening after the long sleep of winter (first movement); the hunter’s funeral procession (third movement); from the inferno to paradise (fourth movement), and so forth. At other times, he associated the symphony with The Titan, a novel by one of his favorite authors, Jean Paul. He eventually disavowed all these outside inspirations, confessing that he made them up after composing the music, in the sole hope of making the pieces easier to understand.

In the first movement, he builds a crescendo of sound and emotional awakening. It grows from a quiet beginning dotted with bird calls, through a warmly flowing melody for cellos drawn from the second of the Wayfarer songs, to a jubilant conclusion. Mahler dropped what was originally the second movement in time for the symphony’s publication. It didn’t resurface until the 1960s. It is now occasionally performed separately under the original title: Blumine, or Flower Piece.

What we now know as the second movement is a hearty “peasant” scherzo. Its strong accents and rustic themes, with their echoes of yodeling, recall the mid-European country dances Mahler had known and loved from childhood onwards. A solo horn introduces a trio section soaked in sentimental Viennese schmaltz, before the peasant dance resumes with renewed vigor.

Timpani set the pace for the third movement, an ironic funeral march. The solo double bass introduces a minor-key version of the old French children's round song Frère Jacques, or Brüder Martin, as Mahler knew it. A witty, klezmer-like parody of military band music intrudes, then a tender interlude based on the fourth Wayfarer song. The march resumes, only to fade away into silence.

The finale bursts in abruptly with an explosion of heated emotion. Romantic yearning wages battle with darker sentiments, but positive feelings win the day. Mahler reprises materials from the symphony’s opening movement, adds a passing quote from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (And He Shall Reign For Ever and Ever), and crowns the symphony with a lengthy, unreservedly triumphant coda.

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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