Selby and Richard McRae Foundation MAGICAL MOMENTS

7:30 PM, Saturday, November 17, 2018
Thalia Mara Hall

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A magical evening combines Mozart’s Magic Flute overture, Strauss’ moving tone poem Death and Transfiguration, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, with its triumphant ending. 

Cash bar in the lobby prior to the concert and at intermission.

Pre-concert lecture by Dr. Timothy Coker on the Mezzanine, 6:45-7:15p

Sponsors

Concert generously sponsored by:

Meyer & Genevieve Falk Endowment Fund
for Culture and Arts of the Community
Foundation of Greater Jackson 

with additional support from:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620 

Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 

Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 

WOLFGANG AMADÉUS MOZART: Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620 

Along with many figures in our country’s history—George Washington, Duke Ellington, Clark Gable, John Glenn (and several Mississippi governors)— Mozart was a member of the fraternal organization that calls itself the Freemasons. His opera The Magic Flute has been called “a barely veiled Masonic allegory,” with secret codes and Masonic themes of “good vs. evil, enlightenment vs. ignorance and the virtues of knowledge, judgment, wisdom, and truth.” Mozart’s librettist for the opera was Emmanuel Schikaneder, a fellow Mason. Even before the opera begins, the Overture is subtly introducing symbols subliminally, one might say. Ever aware of the significance of the number three for Masons, Mozart opens in the key of E-flat (which has three flats), repeating three loud chords at the outset. The highest notes outline the E-flat triad (again, three): E-flat, G, and B-flat, respectively. When the three chords return (after a fast contrapuntal section), we are in B-flat, and Mozart repeats the notes of the B-flat triad in exactly the same way as the opening. Although this is “just” an overture, Mozart’s brilliance is on full display, spinning a never-boring web of polyphonic interchange between winds, strings, and percussion, crafted essentially from one theme.

RICHARD STRAUSS: Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 

Program music has a rich history, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. In the nineteenth century, debates arose over the merits of “program” music—evoking specific images or events—versus “absolute” music. Between 1848 and 1858 Franz Liszt composed twelve “symphonic poems,” a genre of his own creation. Each work’s unique form was dictated by its programmatic idea. Liszt and his followers called this “The Music of the Future.” Forty years later Richard Strauss was writing symphonic poems on Liszt’s model, preferring to call them “tone poems.” Strauss believed almost anything could be portrayed in music. He once said, “I want to be able to depict in music a glass of beer so accurately that every listener can tell whether it is a Pilsner or Kulmbacher!” Death and Transfigurationis the musical portrayal of a dying man who is recalling the loves of his life. Strauss wrote:

The idea occurred to me to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest ideal goals, therefore very possibly an artist, in a tone poem. The sick man lies in bed asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams charm a smile onto his features in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shake with fever – as the attack draws to a close and the pain subsides, he reflects on his past life, his childhood passes before him, his youth with its striving, its passions, and then, while pain resumes, the fruit of his path appears to him, the ideal, the ideal which he has tried to realize, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect, because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfected in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos that which he could not fulfill here on earth.

It is not hard to hear in this work the connections between, say, an irregular timpani rhythm and a faltering heartbeat; or “resolute” music and “the determination of the invalid to withstand death.” Biographer Norman del Mar went so far as to identify “palpitations” and “the moment of expiry” (the gong) in the work’s closing moments, where “the strings soar ever higher.  There is a brief pause, and at last the Ideology theme is proclaimed in full as the transfigured soul realizes in the afterlife the aims which could never be accomplished during its earthly existence.”It is always a dicey proposition to connect specific works to a composer’s biography, but Strauss seemed determined to reveal his inner life through music. We do know that Strauss had earlier battled off a serious illness.Is he the dying man? All these speculations are made more interesting by the documented fact that Strauss did not attach a program to this work until after its composition, when he asked a friend to write a poem to convey the meaning of the music.

JEAN SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

During my second year of college, my horn teacher invited me to his house, eager to unveil his expensive new high-end stereo system. What music did he choose to show it off? The Sibelius Second, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I will never forget the impression those quiet, opening repeated string chords made on me. I was transported. Critics have long remarked on how Sibelius “teases the listener” in this movement, introducing short motifs that gradually combine to form longer ones. “It is as though the Almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together,” Sibelius wrote. This is the opposite of usual symphonic development, where longer themes become fragmented in development sections, returning fully at the end. Listen for the stirring moment about eight minutes in (before the recapitulation) when a full brass choir intones a chorale against string tremolos. The first movement ends as quietly as it began, having gone through a significant musical journey of transformation. The second movement opens with unusual sound combinations: a timpani roll, then low pizzicato strings under a long line in the bassoons. The themes that emerge are dark and pessimistic in character. (The bassoon melody is marked lugubre.) Eventually, quiet tension is exchanged for loud, strident exchanges between strings and winds. The movement seems to end rather abruptly, setting up the brilliant scherzo movement that follows. Its slower middle section (trio) begins with a wistful oboe melody supported by strings, before we return to the exciting Vivacissimo opening. The oboe returns, slowing things down, and near the end of the scherzo, Sibelius moves into a rising line that increases in excitement and emotion, only to spill over into the finale without break, when unison strings and the brass roll out one of Sibelius’ great melodies. The symphony ends triumphantly, with timpani rolls and full brass. 

An admirer of Richard Strauss’s programmatic tone poems, Sibelius, was once asked if the symphony was programmatic. He insisted it was not. When a friend said he heard in the first movement the quiet pastoral life of the Finnish people, overcoming their Russian oppressors in the last two movements, Sibelius became irritated. But, this was a time of rising nationalism, and Sibelius soon became identified with the Finnish independence movement, like it or not. (Finlandia, his most famous work, preceded this by a year.).  A 1927 article in The Musical Quarterly even asserted that the “nationalistic label has acquired something of a leaden weight for the artist to whom it has been affixed.” More than anything, however, it is Sibelius’ admiration for the great German tradition of symphonic writing, with its craft and structural integrity, that comes through here. Sibelius was a genius of the first order, and only in recent years has received his due.

Concert Calendar

November 2018
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