Wednesday, May 25, 2011

mendelssohn, tchaikovsky and the miramichi

I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.      
Felix Mendelssohn to Ferdinand David, July 30, 1838

After being appointed principal conductor to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, Mendelssohn had appointed his childhood friend violinist Ferdinand David as the orchestra’s concertmaster.   It would be 1844 before Mendelssohn would fulfill his promise to David and deliver the Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op 64.   But if I had to choose an opening theme to run through my head for six years, this would be a strong contender.  While working on the concerto Mendelssohn was in constant contact and discussion with David. The resulting concerto benefits great from having been composed with the input of a professional violinist.  

From the almost immediate entrance of the violin – an unusual feature in a concerto - this is a take-no-prisoners kind of concerto.  And with Symphony New Brunswick, Moncton-born violinist Jasper Wood tore into the challenge.   His physicality makes him a delight to watch – at times playful, at time fierce and at times with the wide stance and springy knees that draw to mind East Coast fiddlers.  But this is no kitchen party.  Wood is a virutouso.  One of the great testaments to his skill came six minutes into the first movement when the orchestra fell completely silent.  For the next minute and a half, it was just one man and one violin.  I’ve never heard a crowd so breathless in the Playhouse.   The audience could barely contain their enthusiastic applause in the final seconds of the Concerto and delivered Woods a well-deserved standing ovation.

I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky following the second performance of his fifth symphony
In the spring of 1888, 11 years since his last symphony, Tchaikovsky set out to write his fifth symphony.  He struggled from the beginning despairing at one point that he was completely finished as a composer.   But once he broke through this creative block Tchaikovsky composed rapidly completing the symphony by August 1888.   The initial reception of the symphony was mixed and after the second performance the composer himself declared the work a failure.  He was particularly troubled by the ending in which after a taut 40 minute struggle optimism wins out over the sorrowful resignation to Fate.  He worried that it was “insincere.”  But the symphony is abundant in such sincere moments of beauty and texture, especially the splendid second movement, that you want to forgive him for possibly taking the easy way out.  

And indeed by 1889 audiences, critics and Tchaikovsky himself had come around and it has remained a hugely popular orchestral work.   The triumphant finale led to it becoming particularly popular during the Second World War.  It was wonderful on Tuesday night to sit in what is, relatively speaking,  a smallish concert hall as a larger-than-usual Symphony New Brunswick enveloped you in the sound of this monumental work.


One of the great surprises of the evening actually came early on.  In their programming Symphony New Brunswick includes works by New Brunswick composers. They opened last night's concert with Miramichi Ballad, a 12-minute suite from composer Kelsey Jones.  In 1950 Jones was the founding conductor of the Saint John Symphony Orchestra, a forbear to today’s Symphony New Brunswick.
From the opening horns, this suite hit grabbed me physically in the same way as Copeland’s Appalachian Spring; that is to say somewhere around the heart and reaching up to the lump in my throat.  Like Appalachian Spring this is music for a ‘New World’; a land defined by geographic vastness, by rushing rivers and forests primeval and by the people who build their lives there.  Based on folk songs of the Miramichi, it’s a beautiful work that deserves to be better known by New Brunswickers.   I am now on a hunt for a recording. 

The 2010-2011 Symphony season wraps up tonight at the Imperial Theatre in Saint John.  Looking  forward to what the orchestra offers us in 11-12!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you are still looking for a recording of Miramichi Ballad, there is one on LP at ebay (