Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra Spring Concert

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957): Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

A child prodigy, Korngold was born in Moravia and grew up in Vienna. At five, he was playing four-hand piano pieces with his father; at seven he started composing; at nine he played his cantata Gold for an amazed Gustav Mahler.

In 1934 Max Reinhardt invited him to Hollywood, where he was filming Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold’s adaptation of Mendelssohn’s music inspired Warner Brothers to offer him a contract. Korngold settled permanently in the United States four years later, and a string of film scores followed. He won two Academy Awards.

In the mid-1940s Korngold returned to concert works. Encouraged by Bronislaw Huberman, Korngold wrote the Violin Concerto during the summer of 1945. The work was introduced by Jascha Heifetz with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann’s direction on February 15, 1947.

In a program note, Korngold wrote, “In spite of its demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work, with its many melodic and lyric episodes, was contemplated rather for a Caruso of the violin than for a Paganini. It is needless to say how delighted I am to have my concerto performed by Caruso and Paganini in one person: Jascha Heifetz.”

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

“In the summer I shall certainly write a symphony,” wrote Tchaikovsky to his brother Modeste in 1888. This was the first mention of what would become his Fifth Symphony. As early as May of that year, he complained: “To tell the truth, at present I’ve no inclination at all to create. Have I really finally used myself up? But I hope that little by little materials for a symphony will accumulate.”

A month later, Tchaikovsky mentioned to a conductor that he was “working fairly assiduously on a symphony, which if I’m not mistaken will be no worse than the previous ones. But perhaps it only seems so. Recently I’ve been haunted by the thought that I’ve written myself out.”

Despite the composer’s doubts about his inspiration, the Fifth Symphony was finished in August. It was first performed on November 17, 1888 at a concert of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society, with Tchaikovsky conducting.

Typically, Tchaikovsky’s opinion of his own work changed. After the third performance he wrote to his patroness, Nadejda von Meck: “I have come to the conclusion that it is unsuccessful. There is something repellent about it; too much patchiness and insincerity, fabrication. And the public instinctively recognizes this. It was very clear to me that the ovations of which I was the object were on account of my previous works and that the symphony itself doesn’t give pleasure.”

However, after a successful performance of the Fifth in Hamburg, Tchaikovsky had changed his mind: “I no longer find the symphony bad, and love it once again.”

Tchaikovsky never revealed a program for the Fifth Symphony, but Nicolas Slonimsky discovered the following note among Tchaikovsky’s sketchbooks: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against XXX…. II. Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith???” What this note means is the subject of some speculation. “Whether or not XXX refers to an actual person,” writes John Warrack, “it seems certain that Tchaikovsky is alluding to his central emotional problem, his homosexuality.”

The Symphony begins with a slow introduction, whose theme acts as a motto in the other three movements. Biographer Edwin Evans writes: “The slow movement is a perfect poem, and more than one writer has professed to find here the finest symphonic movement Tchaikovsky has bequeathed us. The waltz, which takes the place of the scherzo, is also a triumph.” In the finale, according to Ernest Newman, “the motto phrase, which has appeared like a sinister intruder, an unwelcome guest at the musical feast, emerges as the chief thematic factor, not only of the introduction to the Finale, but of the whole movement.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2017.