The Journey Begins
Maestro Sewell kicks off his tenure and the season with the Aotearoa Overture by New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn. Aotearoa is the Maori name for the islands and the majestic pride of the piece sets the tone for the concert.
Along with the dramatic Dvorak Cello Concerto in B minor featuring Grammy nominee and Tchaikovsky Competition medalist Bion Tsang and Brahms Symphony No. 2, you’ll enjoy Opening Night’s big, brave start to a new era in the history of your Symphony.
Repertoire: Click on the piece to hear the music
Intermission l 15 min.
Brahms l Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 l 38 min.
Douglas Lilburn: Aotearoa Overture (1940)
Peter Jackson’s films of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit introduced world audiences to the stunning beauty of New Zealand. All that luxuriant majesty wasn’t generally known to non-Kiwis in 1940, the year that North Island native Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001) wrote Aotearoa, shortly after his days at London’s Royal College of Music as a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and just two months before his return to New Zealand. Eventually Lilburn settled at Victoria University in Wellington, where he nurtured young Kiwi composers and furthered the cause of a native New Zealand music. Ever a lover of New Zealand’s exquisite landscapes, he died peacefully amidst the lush native greenery of his home in Wellington.
Aotearora is Maori for “land of the long white cloud,” the indigenous name for New Zealand. A prime example of British pastoralism along the lines of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending or George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, Aotearora evokes not only the mountains and flowing landscape of New Zealand but also the richly textured lives of its people. Even if the musical language might remind listeners less of Lilburn’s teacher Vaughan Williams and more of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, Aotearora’s evocative nature painting warrants its well-earned status as a mainstay of New Zealand orchestral music.
Antonín Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Dvořák composed more during his American years than just the “New World” symphony or the “American” string quartet, wonderful though those works are. Dvořák’s masterful Cello Concerto, bedrock repertory for the instrument, is also a product of his time in New York as director of the National Conservatory, even if it partakes more of old world than new.
Writing a cello concerto is no small challenge. The instrument’s fine baritonal voice is all too easily drowned out by even a modestly-sized ensemble, much less a full-scale late Romantic orchestra with its array of brass, woodwind, and percussion. But Dvořák, a superb craftsman and skilled orchestrator, was well up to the task—even though he had long claimed that the cello lacked the solo quality required for a concerto.
He may have been particularly inspired by his National Conservatory colleague Victor Herbert (1859–1924), nowadays remembered (if at all, sadly) for sweet but faded operettas such as Babes in Toyland and The Red Mill. But Herbert was a formidable musical presence in his day, composer of a wide range of works including the first-rate Cello Concerto No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 30. A skilled cellist himself, Herbert was able to prove Dvořák that such a concerto was, indeed possible.
For which posterity may be duly grateful. “The most beautiful one we have,” claims Michael Steinberg. “The success is brilliant, both in form and in dramatic expression,” writes ace British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey. “Why on earth didn’t I know one could write a cello concerto like this?” Johannes Brahms is reported to have exclaimed. “If I’d only known, I’d have written one long ago!”
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 (1877)
“I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how disheartening it is for us to hear such a great giant marching behind,” griped Johannes Brahms to conductor Hermann Levi. Brahms wasn’t the only composer active in the mid-nineteenth century suffering from a severe case of Beethoven Envy. Europe’s newly-founded municipal orchestras were doing their best to satisfy a deep public yen for the Beethoven symphonies—up to then largely inaccessible to most music lovers—and in their zeal had brought about an unfortunate side effect: the symphony had been more or less killed off as a living genre. Before 1850 both Schumann and Mendelssohn had contributed superb specimens to the repertory, but as of the 1860s those few new symphonies in the pipeline were dutiful graduation exercises or starchy prestige items, sleepwalking retreads all.
Even prior to his 1862 arrival in Vienna Brahms had been just about everybody’s prime candidate for the Prince Charming who would administer an awakening kiss to the slumbering symphonic beauty. But Brahms was a reluctant hero, to say the least. He hemmed, he hawed, he delayed. Eventually he did write that symphony, and it was every bit the world-beater that had been prophesied. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor of 1876 is a massive, sweeping, and altogether lofty work that inaugurated a renaissance of late Romantic symphonies by composers such as Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Mahler.
And Brahms himself. Just one year after the C Minor Symphony Brahms followed up with Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73. From its premiere under Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic, commentators have recognized that the Brahms Second stands in relation to the First much as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sixth Symphony does to his Fifth—the winsome yin to the brawny yang. However, the D Major’s effulgent lyricism is a bit misleading, given that the symphony is forged from solid rock, imbued throughout with uncompromising organic unity. It only sounds effortless and spontaneous.
Two more symphonies were to follow, each a consummate masterpiece in its own way. Yet there remains something particularly lovable about the D Major Symphony, perhaps in its witness of a Brahms at peace with himself, less haunted by the Beethovenian specter and more secure about his place in the musical scheme of things. The once elfin Hamburg youth was now morphing into that bearded dignitary of spherical profile so loved by Viennese caricaturists, the ash-trail of his ubiquitous stogie marking the path of his daily constitutional through the heart of Vienna. The monolithic ruggedness of his earlier style had evolved into an art of nobility in which supreme technical skill was dedicated to the service of beauty. “We do well to honour such music,” wrote the perceptive English critic Samuel Langford in the early 1920s, “and to love the genius and nobility of heart which went into its making.”
Program Notes copyright Scott Fogelson