Program Notes – April 22, 2022 Concert

Evening in the Palace of Reason
Libby Larsen (b. 1950)

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Larsen has three degrees from the University of Minnesota, where her teachers were Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler. She has served as composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, and the Colorado Symphony. She is co-founder (with Stephen Paulus) of the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composer’s Forum).

Evening in the Palace of Reason was written for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in honor of Lowell Noteboom. The premiere was given by that orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, on February 22, 2008.

In her program note, Larsen writes: “Its title, Evening in the Palace of Reason, is taken from the title of a book by James R Gaines. The book is centered on the meeting of Frederick the Great and Johann Sebastian Bach.

“My interest lies in the story, a story which lies at the crossroads of the Age of Reason and the Romantic Era or, musically speaking, the crossroads of music that values reason and prefers discipline, order and control and music that values feeling and prefers passion, individuality, and spontaneity.

“Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six voice fugue on a theme which ‘he’ composed. Actually, Gaines posits that as Frederick’s court composer, C.P.E. Bach composed the theme perhaps having something to prove to his father. It did indeed trip up his father who, on the spot, could only improvise the theme into three-voice contrapuntal pieces. Bach left the palace to return to Leipzig, where he transformed the theme into his multi-movement masterpiece, The Musical Offering.

Evening in the Palace of Reason is composed for the strings of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, singling out the first chair players to form a string quartet that dialogues with the string orchestra throughout each movement. I’ve woven the famous and dastardly theme into the fabric of the entire piece, sometimes in ways that are evident, sometimes in very subtle ways. I want to pay homage to J.S. Bach while placing both his and Frederick the Great’s musical language preferences in the ever morphing continuum of pitch, harmony, and texture. And so within the context of my own musical ear, I explore counterpoint, fantasy, monophonic and polyphonic texture, and in general, music governed by reason versus music governed by emotion.”

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (Turkish)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Within a period of nine months in 1775, Mozart wrote five violin concertos, either for his own use as concertmaster of the Salzburg orchestra, or for his successor in the post, Antonio Brunetti. The fifth of the set was finished on December 20. It is subtitled Turkish because of the so-called “Turkish music” in the last movement, which Mozart lifted from his own opera Lucio Silla.

Alfred Einstein considers the Fifth Concerto “unsurpassed for brilliance, tenderness and wit.” Describing all five violin concertos, H.C. Robbins Landon writes: “Melody is piled upon melody, and new ideas succeed each other in blissful insouciance of each other and of any strict formal pattern. What immediately captivates the listener is the matchless elegance of conception and execution, the suavity of orchestration–which even at this comparatively early stage has that natural brilliance which is so characteristic of mature Mozart–and the luxurious delight in pure melody.”

Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 21 & Incidental Music, Opus 61
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

The Mendelssohn family loved their Shakespeare. “From our youth on we were entwined in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said Fanny Mendelssohn, “and Felix particularly made it his own. He identified with all of the characters.”

In July, 1826, at the age of seventeen, Felix wrote to his sister: “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden…. Today or tomorrow I am going to start dreaming there A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” By August 6, he had finished the Overture to Shakespeare’s play. Its original piano duet version was introduced by brother and sister at a private party in Berlin in November. The orchestral version was first performed on April 29, 1827 in Stettin, with Karl Loewe conducting.

The Overture is an amazing achievement, especially for a teenager. Seventeen years later, Frederick Wilhelm IV, recently crowned regent of Prussia, commissioned incidental music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Potsdam. To his youthful Overture, Mendelssohn added thirteen more numbers, including the famous Wedding March, and in that form, the music was introduced on October 14, 1843.

~ program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2022