CLASSICAL NOTES: Concert worth $6 million violin

Columnist Jim Elderton reviews Okanagan Symphony's recent performance

Sunday’s concert by Okanagan Symphony opened with Beethoven’s Overture for Goethe’s stage play Egmont.

Goethe’s script had specified musical accompaniment. Thus it was that, over 100 years later, Beethoven was asked to provide it for the play’s revival.

He created nine pieces for this including the Overture.

The play was heavily influenced by Shakespearean tragedy, and depicts the downfall of a man trusting in the goodness of those around him.

When Holland is under Spanish occupation, the local resistance leader Egmont is imprisoned and condemned to death. As a result, his grief-stricken wife takes her own life, then she appears to him in a dream. Inspired by this vision, he faces his execution with dignity, his death as a martyr transformed into a victory against oppression.

After a stately opening section, we heard edgy themes, full of foreboding. Underscoring by the brass gave a sense of urgency. Finally, after a dramatic pause, there was a build up to a triumphant (typically Beethoven) conclusion.

The Overture was played at the memorial service commemorating the kidnapping and murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Music director-conductor Rosemary Thomson introduced Antonín Dvorák Symphony No. 6 as a composition dedicated to Hans Richter, conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. Richter had been impressed by Dvorák and asked him to write a symphony.

Although it should have been premiered in Vienna, Richter repeatedly postponed the performance.  Eventually Dvorák learned that orchestra members objected to performing works by the relatively new Czech composer.

Instead,  Adolf Cech conducted the premiere in Prague. Richter did eventually conduct the symphony, but never in Vienna, and the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t perform it till 60 years after its debut.

The four-movement piece was one of the first of Dvorák’s larger works to draw international attention. In it he captured something of the Czech culture, thus developing his unique style – one that satisfies both the purists and the fans.

Opening with a beautiful and sweeping theme establishing its pastoral nature, here were rich, powerful textures –– unfamiliar music perhaps, yet recognizable as the composer’s style: rich in brass and woodwind, backed by strings.

The stately second movement again recalls the brilliance of Dvorák’s orchestrations: sometimes featuring the horns, sometimes the cellos, sometimes the woodwinds –– his music accessible to any audience.

The fun came in the third movement, Dvorák’s first symphonic version of a Bohemian folk-dance called a “furiant.” The excitement of this brilliant movement is created by cross‑rhythms within the bar – likened by Thomson to the complex 3-3-2-2-2 beat from West Side Story’s America chorus. (At Dvorák’s premiere, the audience had demanded an encore!)

The fourth, quiet at the start, rapidly built to a grand and energetic statement, with broad strokes in the brass, and magnificent chords provided a resounding finish.

The highlight of the evening was Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5, played by internationally acclaimed Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

In the usual three-movement structure, this concerto is probably Mozart’s most unusual. It is named “The Turkish” because of the instrumentation in the final movement.

In a minor key section half-way through the movement, Mozart instructed that the cellos and basses should use the wood of the bow to strike their strings, also that the soloist should show virtuoso pyrotechnics.  (Hou rose to the occasion!)

This section was typical of Turkish military music, at that time popular in Austria.

Hou used a violin loaned by the Stradivari Society of Chicago – the Ex-Mary Portman, made in Cremona by Guiseppe Guarneri in 1735.

Originally owned by Fritz Kreisler, this instrument is valued at $6 million, which, I believe, happened to be the cost of building our Performing Arts Centre!

Brought back for an encore, Hou played The Devil’s Laugh #13 of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices For Solo Violin –– the most challenging violin pieces ever written.  (And yes, we could really hear the laugh!)