Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Great Romantics

In programming for orchestral concerts, there are composers whose works go especially well together. I feel that the combination of Mozart and Richard Strauss always has the making of a fine programme.

The young musicians of the University of British Columbia’s Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Girard played just such a programme last night, with Strauss’s youthful Don Juan, Op. 20 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425, “Linz”, coupled with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, with faculty member David Gillham. The concert was given the title "The Great Romantics".

In August of 1887, young Richard Strauss visited his Uncle George Pschorr, where he met Pauline, the daughter of a certain General de Ahna. According to Norman del Mar in his biography of Strauss, the young composer was completely captivated by the young woman. The effect of this love affair, according to del Mar, “was electrifying, for he quickly translated the experience into musical terms, composing his first love music. “ And what beautiful love music he wrote in Don Juan!

Norman del Mar went on to comment that Strauss had chosen, “as a vehicle for the expression of his sexual desire,” the greatest lover and erotic subject of all time, the Don Juan legend. This music, for me, is as much a portrait of young Strauss as it is for the legendary lover – from the swagger of the opening theme, to the ardent, even erotic, love music, and to the grand and heroic theme for the horns, every measure of this music is a reflection of a young man in love for the first time.

For me, there is nothing more scary for violinists than the opening measures of Don Juan, with its upward sweeping theme. The violinists acquit themselves extremely well in this extremely exposed passage. The principal subject, itself a composite theme to be isolated and extensively developed throughout the work, presents the figure of Don Juan, with all his passionate glory and lust for life. I felt that perhaps the players leaned into the strings a little too much in this passage, and that they could have played this incredible theme with a little more lightness. The beautiful love music was played by the entire orchestra with great warmth and beauty, and the horn players of this young ensemble played the heroic theme with great confidence, even panache. In the great climax of the piece, I feel that the brasses could have been toned down a shade, so that the colours of the string writing could have been better heard. The musicians certainly responded to the youthful ardor of Strauss’s score, and gave a performance that excites as well as moves.

It is so wonderful and daring for Jonathan Girard to give his young players the opportunity to play a Mozart symphony. Again, the talented players of this orchestra rose to the challenge and played this, one of Mozart’s greatest symphonies, with the grandeur and majesty that the music calls for. Girard used a large body of strings for the performance, but kudos to the players for not falling into the trap of making the music ponderous, so easy to do with a “big band” performance of Mozart.

When listening to any performance of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, I always try to erase from my mind the sounds of past performances of this work and listen to it with open ears and mind. David Gillham certainly rose and surpassed the very considerable technical challenges laid down by the composer. For me, what was missing in last night’s performance was richness in the sound of the solo instrument, especially when the music was written in the lower register of the violin. I also miss a sense of daring that the music calls for. This is as much a piece for the conductor as it is for the violinist. Jonathan Girard was an impeccable accompanist. If he had “pushed” the soloist a little more, perhaps the performance would have really sizzled.

The orchestra played this piece extremely well, and Girard’s timing was perfect. I very much enjoyed how Jonathan Girard brought out the beauty of the colours of the writing for woodwinds in the Canzonetta movement.

So, bravo to the UBC Symphony Orchestra! And bravo to great music, and to youth. What a great gift and privilege it is for young musicians to play these great scores, and for us to be recipients of their love and effort.

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