Youth Orchestra Spring Concert Program Notes

Grant Griffin: Russian Overture

I was inspired to write this piece while I was listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. I love the majestic feeling of the piece, and how he uses different timbres to create interesting effects, so I stylistically modeled my overture after his. However, I also drew influence from other Russian composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky. In addition, I took elements from some more contemporary composers, such as Dmitry Kabalevsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The combination of all these Russian styles, from the sweeping melodies of Tchaikovsky to the brash dissonance of Prokofiev, gave me vision to compose Russian Overture.

~ Russian Overture notes by Grant Griffin

Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881): “Andante” (first movement) from Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

A child prodigy, Vieuxtemps made his debut as a violinist at age six. From then on, his life was one of constant travel, first to Liege and Brussels, then Paris and on to Germany and Austria.

Vieuxtemps made three triumphant tours of the United States, even composing a set of Variations on Yankee Doodle. He was soloist to the Czar of Russia and professor at the Brussels Conservatory.  He died in Algiers in 1881.

Vieuxtemps’ countless performances as a virtuoso violinist created a tremendous demand for music, most of which he wrote himself. Of his seven violin concertos, the fourth was his personal favorite. He wrote it in St. Petersburg in 1849 and dedicated it “To His Majesty Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.”

Vieuxtemps introduced the concerto in December, 1851 in Paris. Berlioz noted that the soloist “showed himself no less remarkable as a composer than he was incomparable as a virtuoso.” He called he work “a magnificent symphony for orchestra with principal violin.”

The concerto is in four movements. After an orchestral introduction, the solo violin enters with an extended recitative, followed by an accompanied song and a brilliant cadenza.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Capriccio Italien, Op. 45

Early in 1880 Tchaikovsky was in Rome, writing music and letters. To his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he mentioned “a rough sketch of an Italian Caprice based on popular tunes. Some I found in published collections, some I picked up with my own ears in the streets; the whole thing should sound effective, and I think ought to be successful.”

Tchaikovsky was staying at the Hotel Constanti, which overlooked the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirassiers, whose bugle calls inspired the opening fanfare of Capriccio Italien. Begun on January 16, 1880, the work was sketched in a single week, but not completely finished until May 27, after his return to Russia.

Capriccio Italien was first played by the Russian Musical Society, under Nikolai Rubinstein’s direction, on December 18, 1880 in Moscow. “Its success was incontestable,” Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck, “although criticism varied greatly as to its merits, and the least favorable described it as being marred by `coarse and cheap’ effects. In St. Petersburg, where it was given a few weeks later, it met with scant appreciation.”

After the St. Petersburg performance, composer César Cui wrote: “The Capriccio is certainly no work of art, but it is a valuable gift to the programs of open-air concerts.” Tchaikovsky reciprocated with his own left-handed compliment: “Cui is a gifted amateur. His music is not original, but it is graceful and elegant. We cannot deny that he is talented.”

Biographer Edwin Evans writes: “The Capriccio Italien is a bundle of Italian folk-tunes…a piece of music which relies entirely on its orchestration for its effects; its musical value is comparatively slight, but the colouring is so vivid and so fascinating, and the movement throughout so animated, that one does not realize this when listening to the work. It is only afterwards that one experiences certain pangs of regret that such a rich garment should bedeck so thin a figure.”

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904): Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

In August of 1889, Dvořák remarked that his “head was so full of ideas” for a new symphony that he could hardly write them down fast enough. By the following November, his Eighth Symphony was finished. The first performance was given in Prague, under the composer’s direction, on February 2, 1890.

The work is sometimes called the “English” Symphony, for a number of reasons. First, during his sixth visit to London, Dvořák conducted it on April 24, 1890. A year later, Dvořák conducted the Eighth Symphony when Cambridge University gave him an honorary Doctor of Music degree. “I do not like these celebrations,” he later recalled, “and when I have to be in one of them, I am on pins and needles…. Nothing but ceremony, and nothing but doctors. All faces were serious, and it seemed to me as if no one knew any other language than Latin.”

Despite its English connections, biographer John Clapham notes that “there is nothing in the music itself that by any stretch of the imagination can be described as English. Its spirit and thematic basis are thoroughly Czech…. Starting with an expressive funereal melody in G minor, the sunshine suddenly breaks through when the flute plays a light-hearted theme in the major key…. In the next movement, it is the Adagio’s quiet initial phrase which for a while shatters the idyllic peace. A gracious waltz with a rustic trio takes the place of a scherzo; and the work is rounded off with a somewhat freely organized set of variations.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2016.