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From the charming and cheerful melodies of Ludwig van Beethoven to the bold and brassy force of Dmitri Shostakovich, this ode to genius led by James Conlon, Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera, has it all. Despite being aware of his impending hearing loss, Beethoven infuses his Second Symphony with an unexpected liveliness and vigor, showing no signs of his internal torment. “This symphony is smiling throughout,” Berlioz once claimed of Beethoven’s most jovial symphony. Brazen patriotism is on full display in Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony, a vivid portrayal of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. This symphony-turned-tone poem comes alive with revolutionary songs, battle music and funeral marches.
This concert is sponsored in part by Ximena Caminos and Alan Faena, David Edelstein of Tristar Capital, Susan D. Kronick and Edward Manno Shumsky, and Liliya "Rose" Mukhamadyarova and William Strong.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Approx. Duration: 34 minutes
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Adagio molto—Allegro con brio
Approx. Duration: 42 minutes
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112, "The Year 1917"
The Dawn of Humanity
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Approximate duration: 34 minutes
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, composed in 1800, was the young upstart’s answer to Haydn’s “London” symphonies, even using the exact instrumentation that appeared in five of Haydn’s final six examples. The symphony that Beethoven began the next year and completed in 1802 kept the same scoring, but it also exhibited a new freedom in its stretched-out forms and expansive contrasts. The backdrop for this pivotal symphony was a terrible change that was overtaking Beethoven: the loss of his hearing.
Beethoven finished the Symphony No. 2 while staying in Heiligenstadt, outside of Vienna. He had hoped that time in the country might improve his spirits and slow the advance of his deafness, but by the end of his visit he was in a nearly suicidal state of agony. That fall he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” an unsent letter to his brothers that was found among his papers after his death. He included this description of his tormented life that year:
If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. … What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.
Beethoven re-entered society in Vienna and soon received a boost in the form of an opera commission. The new partnership with the Theater an der Wien led to a concert on April 5, 1803, at which he conducted the premiere of the Second Symphony, performed the solo part in the Third Piano Concerto, debuted the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives and reprised his First Symphony.
Despite the circumstances of its creation, the Second Symphony is a lively and jovial work. It marks a high point in Beethoven’s early Classical style, moving past the Haydn formula that guided the First Symphony. The opening movement begins with a meaty introduction, filled with shifting rhythms, moody harmonies and jarring accents.
The Allegro con brio body of the movement enters, conversely, with just a wisp of melody in the lower strings.
Whereas Haydn loved the elegant dichotomy of forte and piano intensities, Beethoven’s score asks for the even louder fortissimo and even softer pianissimo dynamics, moving beyond orderly Classical style toward the more volatile spectrum associated with Romantic music.
The Larghetto contrasts the adventurous opening movement with music that is serene, tuneful and unabashedly beautiful. The melodic phrases introduced by the violins and answered by the clarinets lay within the comfortable treble range of female singers, emphasizing the modest, songlike quality of the material.
The third movement brings Beethoven’s inaugural symphonic scherzo (Italian for “joke”), his supercharged answer to Haydn’s minuets. The running joke here is an echoing pattern in which the last repetition is shockingly robust.
In the Allegro molto finale, a somewhat rough and rude main theme provides much of the comedic fodder.
Beethoven’s craftiness really comes through in the playful ways he works back to that snarling motive.
Thoughts on the Second Symphony from conductor David Zinman
Playlist of works from Beethoven’s epic concert on April 5, 1803
Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112, "The Year 1917"
Approximate duration: 42 minutes
The “thaw” initiated by Nikita Khrushchev ostensibly released Shostakovich from the creative constraints he had worked under during the dangerous Stalin years. In reality, Shostakovich still faced intense pressures to conform to Soviet ideals, all the more so as his international reputation expanded. In 1960, a time of failing health and romantic rejection, he finally bowed to pressure to join the Communist Party, which he had previously managed to avoid. This was the environment in which Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 12, a work commissioned by the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party and dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Lenin.
Shostakovich hoped to have the Symphony ready in time to commemorate Lenin’s 90th birthday in 1960, but a broken leg and other setbacks delayed its premiere another year. What he finally released was not the biographical testament to Lenin he had spoken of in advance, but rather a programmatic account of the October Revolution, as specified in the subtitle.
The approach resembled his 11th Symphony, subtitled “The Year 1905,” which depicted a heroic moment for the motherland in an accessible musical language peppered with song quotations that any Russian would recognize—exactly the kind of “Socialist Realism” the Communist party expected from its artists. And yet at the same time, Shostakovich’s tribute to that popular uprising put down by a brutal oppressor (Tsar Nicholas II) had uncanny parallels to more recent events in Hungary, where Soviet forces had killed thousands of protestors. Thus the 11th Symphony was one of those coded, ambiguous works that could appeal both to the Politburo who took it at face value and also to ideological opponents who interpreted it as a veiled political critique.
This ideological tug-of-war over Shostakovich is probably overblown on both sides; even with its subtitle and descriptive movement headings, the 12th Symphony is first and foremost a symphony in the purest sense. The four interconnected movements fulfill the same functions that had been in place since Haydn and Beethoven, and the opening movement is a particularly clean example of the Classical sonata-allegro form. It begins with a slow introduction (the same device heard earlier in Beethoven’s Second Symphony), and the chant-like melody intoned in octaves by the lower strings is not so far off from the dark themes that begin Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony or even Rachmaninoff’s Second, those epic symphonies from a bygone Russia.
According to Shostakovich’s heading of “Revolutionary Petrograd,” this opening movement is meant to evoke the tense, agitated mood in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg, later renamed Leningrad) before the October Revolution. When the fast body of the movement enters with an enormous crash, that same chant theme from the introduction returns in a shifty new variant introduced by bassoon.
In sonata-allegro form, this primary theme needs a counterweight in a contrasting key, and sure enough a lyrical new strain emerges in the lower strings, at first echoing the chant-like texture of the introduction but gradually building to a noble anthem with martial undertones.
In a manner befitting Beethoven, these two main themes impact the course of the symphony beyond the first movement. Once the plucked strings and snare drum peter out, the slow movement makes a subtle entrance with a reworked version of the second theme, stated once again in octaves from the low strings.
This figure becomes a platform for a simple but ominous horn theme, the first of many lonely and austere melodic statements within this tense, restrained slow movement.
According to Shostakovich’s heading, we can see this episode as a depiction of Razliv, the location where Lenin hid out in the summer of 1917 and planned for the revolution.
The transition from second to third movement is again barely perceptible, marked only by a quickening of the timpani and pizzicato figures that launch this scherzo-like section.
As layers of sound amass, we are confronted with vaguely familiar versions of themes we have heard before that all build toward the long-awaited cataclysm.
This climax represents the moment on October 25 when Bolsheviks aboard the Russian battleship Aurora fired the shot that signaled the revolutionaries to begin their attack on the Tsar’s palace.
The finale begins without a lull in the fervent music, and the horns bring in a powerful theme, one borrowed from a boyhood composition Shostakovich titled Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.
As in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this finale completes the transformation from a fateful minor-key beginning to a triumphant major-key conclusion, rehashing familiar themes and arguments along the way. If it is taken solely at the face value of its heading, “The Dawn of Humanity,” anyone who disagrees with that assessment of the events of October 1917 is sure to be rankled. Or we can simply hear it as the wizardry of the 20th century’s greatest symphonist, one who appended whatever words the situation demanded so he could continue practicing his craft.
Article by Alex Ross for The New Yorker on the lingering impacts of a discredited and ideologically slanted Shostakovich memoir
A fan site dedicated to countering the Cold War-era myths surrounding Shostakovich
-- Copyright © 2017 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
Audio clips provided by Naxos of America, Inc.
James Conlon, conductor
James Conlon, one of today’s most versatile and respected conductors, has cultivated a vast symphonic, operatic and choral repertoire. Since his 1974 debut with the New York Philharmonic, he has conducted virtually every major American and European symphony orchestra. Through worldwide touring, an extensive discography and videography, numerous essays and commentaries, frequent television appearances and guest speaking engagements, Mr. Conlon is one of classical music’s most recognized interpreters.
Mr. Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera and Principal Conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, Italy, where he is the first American to hold the position in the orchestra's 84-year history. He served as Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival for 37 years (1979–2016), holding one of the longest tenures of any director of an American classical music institution, and is now Conductor Laureate. Mr. Conlon has also served as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (2006–15); Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera (1995–2004); General Music Director of the City of Cologne, Germany (1989–2002), where he was Music Director of both the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne and the Cologne Opera; and Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1983–91). He has conducted more than 270 performances at the Metropolitan Opera since his debut there in 1976. He has also conducted at Teatro alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Mariinsky Theatre, Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, Teatro del Opera di Roma, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
At the Los Angeles Opera, where he has been Music Director since 2006, Mr. Conlon has conducted 48 different operas including 24 company premieres, two U.S. premieres and one world premiere. Highlights of his tenure include conducting the first Ring cycle in Los Angeles, initiating the groundbreaking Recovered Voices series and spearheading Britten 100/LA, a citywide celebration honoring the centennial of the composer’s birth. His pre-concert lectures at the Los Angeles Opera consistently attract capacity crowds. During the current season at the Los Angeles Opera, Mr. Conlon conducts Verdi’s Macbeth, Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Strauss’ Salome and Puccini’s Tosca. This summer he opened the Italian Spoleto Festival with The Marriage of Figaro, the second opera of a three year Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy and returns to conduct the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in St. Petersburg.
Mr. Conlon’s orchestral engagements in the 2016–17 season include conducting the RAI National Symphony in Italy and on tour in China in his first season as Music Director, and the Montreal Symphony, National Symphony and New World Symphony in North America. In Europe he leads the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in Britten’s Requiem and the Galicia Symphony in Spain. Other European engagements have included leading the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestre National de France and the New Year’s concert for live television in Venice’s Teatro La Fenice.
In an effort to call attention to lesser-known works of composers silenced by the Nazi regime, Mr. Conlon has devoted himself to extensive programming of this music throughout Europe and North America. In 2013 he was awarded the Roger E. Joseph Prize at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for his extraordinary efforts to eradicate racial and religious prejudice and discrimination; in 2007 he received the Crystal Globe Award from the Anti-Defamation League; and in 1999 he received the Zemlinsky Prize for his efforts in bringing that composer’s music to international attention. His work on behalf of suppressed composers led to the creation of The OREL Foundation, an invaluable resource on the topic for music lovers, students, musicians and scholars, and the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School. His appearances throughout the country as a speaker on a variety of cultural and educational topics are widely praised.
Mr. Conlon’s extensive discography and videography can be found on the Bridge, Capriccio, Decca, EMI, Erato and Sony Classical labels. His recordings of LA Opera productions have received four Grammy Awards including Best Opera Recording and Best Engineered Album, Classical for Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles released on the PentaTone label, and Best Classical Album and Best Opera Recording for Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny on EuroArts. His recent recordings also include the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony in Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses recorded live at Carnegie Hall on Bridge Records.
Mr. Conlon was among the five initial recipients of the Opera News awards and was honored by The New York Public Library as a “Library Lion.” His other honors include the Sachs Fund Prize from The ArtsWave Organization for his artistic achievements and outstanding contribution to the cultural life of Cincinnati (2016), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Los Angeles (2010), the Music Institute of Chicago’s Dushkin Award (2009), the Medal of the American Liszt Society (2008) and Italy’s Premio Galileo 2000 Award for his significant contribution to music, art and peace in Florence (2008). He holds three honorary doctorates. Mr. Conlon was named Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture and, in 2002, he received the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest distinction, from then-President of the French Republic Jacques Chirac.