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Mark O'Connor's Old Brass

Ludwig van Beethoven  (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria
March 26, 1827)
Leonore Overture No. 3 —1806

    In 1804. Ludwig van Beethoven was living in an apartment in the Theater an der Wien, where he could readily observe many stage productions.  There the composer already known for his dramatic, emotion-filled improvisations and orchestral works wrote his only dramatic composition for the stage: the opera Fidelio.  The opera centers on themes of undeserved suffering and redemption through loyalty and heroic resolve.  Leonore, the loving, ever-faithful wife, disguises herself as a man -- Fidelio – and enters the jail where her husband Florestan is held a political prisoner in order to free him by stealth. 

    The process of composition was never easy for Beethoven, as his copious sketchbooks and multiple versions illustrate; but perhaps most difficult for him was writing music for the stage.   Still one of the best-loved and most frequently performed rescue operas in the repertoire, Fidelio was such a struggle for Beethoven to compose that he took the entire opera apart and reassembled it at least twice, and seriously considered doing it a third time.  Part of this endless restructuring included the composition of no fewer than four separate overtures.  They have taken on a life of their own, and millions of people unfamiliar with the opera itself know these beautiful instrumental works.  Three of the overtures bear the name Leonore, Beethoven’s initial title for the opera. (Fidelio was finally chosen to avoid confusion with a contemporary French work based on the same story.)  Leonore Overture No. 1 is played less often than the other two.  The second Leonore Overture accompanied the premiere of the opera in 1804.  For the next run of the opera, in 1806, Beethoven wrote a completely different work, the third Leonore Overture.

    The score of Leonore No. 3 is for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.  The complete dramatic mastery with which Beethoven handles the orchestra is evident from the work’s first explosive chord.  Slow, quiet scales ripple downward as if descending into Florestan’s dungeon.  The winds soon lapse into a hushed rendition of the aria in which Florestan, believing himself abandoned, recalls the happiness he shared with Leonore.  The overture continues with themes of urgency, deep pathos, a haunting off-stage trumpet call announcing deliverance, and toward the end, the glad strains of triumph.   

    This roller coaster of a work covers an enormous emotional range, and Beethoven sensed almost at once that it simply overwhelmed the opera’s quiet beginning.  For a performance in 1814, he wrote yet another, less monumental, overture, the only one that bears the name of the opera itself; and the Fidelio Overture is the one still in use today to introduce the opera.  Leonore Overture No. 3, however, eventually became the most popular of the four versions, and it lives on as a separate concert piece.  Actually an extended symphonic poem, it seems to justify a statement Beethoven once made to a friend: “…though I am well aware of the value of my Fidelio, I know just as well that the symphony is my real element.”

Mark O’Connor (b. Seattle Washington, August 5, 1961)
Violin Concerto No. 6 Old Brass—2002

Mark O’Connor’s notes on Old Brass:
    During a lovely visit to a plantation in South Carolina designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Fall of 2002, I was inspired with the principal ideas for a new concerto.  I wanted to somehow “plant” the music I wished to create, right there at the plantation. The buildings and layout were largely hexagonal so I thought of groupings in six note musical phrases, as well as measures in 6/8 time. I also developed what I call six sided musical ideas swinging back and forth between counts of two, and phrases in groups of three to create a musical shape of a hexagon.  I tried to apply this music notation in ways that Wright spoke of in his desire for the six sided shape to interact with nature.  These ideas make up most of the first movement.

For the slow second movement, I wanted to concentrate on how Wright’s vision of a “black water” lake was instrumental in his overall layout of the South Carolina plantation.  After concentrating on the lake for some time, the combinations of the black, gray, and dark green water slowly won me over, and I found it very beautiful. Mysterious, as “the South” can be, but hauntingly rich with another kind of serene beauty that I noticed a lot in this region of the world.  I wanted to develop the colors I saw into musical harmonies.  And the vision of paddle boats floating through the trees full of Spanish Moss dangling down in the swampy lake was the artistic muse for the music.

    The third movement is a six measure-long theme, cycles back to pick up on the hexagonal shape of the first movement.  This theme, however, is developed as a fugue, applying the traditional rules of fugal writing, primarily a single fugue in six parts. This is followed by a solo violin cadenza which will be improvised from the previous material, and then the final coda is a multiple part fugue combining all the major themes of all three movements overlaying each other for the final statement.

Dr. Beth Fleming adds:
    Virtuoso violinist and composer Mark O’Connor makes it virtually impossible to categorize his eloquently eclectic blending of styles and genres into one concise description.  His music encompasses everything from fiddling in the folk tradition to the heights of symphonic classical traditionalism, and seamlessly blends these widely divergent musical languages into a finished product that is engaging, inviting and decidedly original. 

    O’Connor’s Violin Concerto No. 6 Old Brass was commissioned by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and premiered in 2002.  ‘Auld Brass’ was the term used in early colonial South Carolina for people of mixed African and Native American descent; and it is also the name of a beautiful Beaufort, South Carolina plantation designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1939. It was his only such work, and the Auld Brass plantation is one of a kind.

    "It just put me into a mood for images and ideas. This is my sixth concerto so I thought it was interesting that I ended up visiting this place that was designed with six sides.  Then I started thinking of musical sixes--6/8 meter, six note motifs and even themes that last six measures--making musical spinning hexagons, just flying through the air."

The concerto is scored for strings, flute, oboe, two bassoons and two horns.  It is thoroughly tonal and rooted strongly in American folk tradition, yet there are strong moments of chromaticism that mark it as a modern work.  Near the end of the third movement, an extensive, unaccompanied cadenza is breathtaking, requiring extraordinary technique from the player.

    The Auld Brass plantation in South Carolina is only open to the public every two years.  The Old Brass Concerto is soon to be recorded and will remain for years to come an readily available evocation of a unique place, a reminder of how musical brilliance in both composition and performance can reflect architectural beauty and complexity.

Antonin Dvorák (b.Nelahozeves, Bohemia September 8 1841; d. Prague, Czechoslovakia May 1, 1904)
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, B. 141 Opus 70--1885

    The London Philharmonic Society elected Antonin Dvorák as an honorary member late in 1884, and in mid-December of that year the composer began work on the Society’s commission for a new symphony to commemorate his election.  Dvorák approached the commission with zeal, hoping to create a sensation with the work to demonstrate his pleasure at the honor bestowed on him by the Society.  The premiere took place under the composer's baton at St. James's Hall in London on 22 April, 1885, and was a huge success.  Contemporary critics hailed the symphony as one of the greatest achievements in the genre.  On his way home to Czechoslovakia following the premiere, Dvorák shortened the second movement and on 29 November 1885, Symphony No. 7 was heard in Prague's Rudolfinum concert hall in the form we know it today. 

     Symphony No. 7 is the earliest of Dvorák's nine symphonies to have captured and held popular approval, and it remains unsurpassed among his works for profundity of conception and consummate craftmanship.  The development in inspiration and mastery that it shows is one of those miracles of creative progress that can only be explained in terms of genius rather than logic.  Dvorák mentioned in one of his letters about this work that he wanted to write a piece that would "shock the world."  In the same letter he mentions that he had just heard Brahms's recently composed third symphony and that he wanted to write a symphony that was the equal to his mentor and friend's.  Many experts give Dvorák’s 7th pride of place on their lists of symphonic masterworks. 

    The symphony’s dramatic flow from one movement to the next, each filled with a pent-up sense of inner tragedy and strength, is remarkable. The first movement is an arch of magnificently compact symphonic thought, filled with bold, direct, urgent themes. The restless, hushed opening is mirrored in the calm and relaxed closing measures of the movement; while in between rages a passionate and menacing tempest of immense, uncompromising power. The second movement is the longest of the work, a succession of inspired melodies woven into an unbroken chain of majestic music with amazing emotional appeal.  An exquisite horn solo comes as an ecstatic and uplifting surprise.  The movement ends, dying gently away, filling the listener with a sense of absolute peace.

    The scherzo movement is nationalistic in character, reminding us of a Czechoslovakian folk dance.  An idyllic, pastoral trio section contrasts with the more vigorous scherzo sections.  The symphony’s final movement gives the impression of successive waves crashing tempestuously against the shore. The tragic mood of the rest of the work is maintained in the movement’s first section. The second theme, however, sounds in the major key, lightening the melancholy mood.  Heard in the cellos, with a high filigree of delicate ornamentation in the violins, its melody is broad, warm, and confident, contrasting with the more violent ideas that interlace with it throughout the rest of the movement.  Wave after wave of harmonic and melodic tension builds until the pent-up fury disperses magically into chords of joyful release, concluding the symphony in triumph.  
                                                                       Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming



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