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SOARING STRINGS

Livestream and broadcast performance without in-person audience. 

Juraj Valčuha conducts the works by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn.

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This program series is made possible in part by a generous lead gift from
Kathryn and Charles Cunningham.
 

With additional support from Cynthia and Jay Ihlenfeld. 

Sponsored by Best Buy.

Artists

Program

    • Jessie Montgomery
    • Voodoo Dolls
      • Helen Chang Haertzen, violin
      • Sophia Mockler, violin
      • Gareth Zehngut, viola
      • Erik Wheeler, cello
      • David Williamson, bass
    • ca. 5’
    • Jessie Montgomery
    • Source Code
      • Helen Chang Haertzen, violin
      • Sophia Mockler, violin
      • Gareth Zehngut, viola
      • Erik Wheeler, cello
    • ca. 9’
    • Sergei Prokofiev
    • Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 63
      • I. Allegro moderato
      • II. Andante assai
      • III. Allegro, ben marcato
        • Juraj Valčuha, conductor
        • James Ehnes, violin
    • ca. 26’
    • Felix Mendelssohn
    • Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian
      • I. Allegro vivace
      • II. Andante con moto
      • III. Con moto moderato
      • IV. Saltarello: Presto
        • Juraj Valčuha, conductor
    • ca. 26’

Profiles

Minnesota Orchestra

The Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, founded in 1903 and led since its centennial by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, is recognized for distinguished performances around the world, award-winning recordings, radio broadcasts, educational engagement programs, and commitment to building the orchestral repertoire of the future. The Orchestra tours regularly throughout Minnesota and nationally, and has also toured abroad in Australia, Canada, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and South Africa. Its 2020-21 concert season began in October with a series of Friday night concerts in Orchestra Hall featuring smaller ensembles of Minnesota Orchestra musicians performing for TV, radio and online audiences, a series that will continue with two concerts in January and another two in March. In addition, in February the Orchestra will present a new Young People’s Concert Experience for online viewing.

At Home Video Collection

Juraj Valčuha, conductor

Juraj Valčuha is the music director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples and first guest conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchester Berlin. From 2009 to 2016 he was chief conductor of Italy’s RAI National Symphony Orchestra, with which he toured to music centers including the Vienna Musikverein and Berlin’s Philharmonie. He has also conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, Vienna Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, Orchestre National de France, Orchestre de Paris and Philharmonia of London, as well as major American orchestras from coast to coast. Highlights of his recent engagements include a return to the New York Philharmonic; debuts with the Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra; and a tour of the Baltic countries with the Konzerhaus Orchester Berlin.

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James Ehnes, violin

Canadian violinist James Ehnes is a favorite guest of many of the world’s orchestras, including the Boston, Chicago, London, NHK and Vienna symphony orchestras, the Los Angeles, New York, Munich and Czech philharmonics, and the Cleveland, Philadelphia, Philharmonia and DSO Berlin orchestras. He first performed with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993, playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen under the direction of William Eddins, and was the Orchestra’s featured artist throughout the 2017-18 season. His extensive discography has won many awards, including a Grammy in 2019 for his live recording of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, and a Gramophone Award for his live recording of the Elgar Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis.

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Sarah Hicks, host

Sarah Hicks, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall, has led a broad range of programs since joining the Orchestra as assistant conductor in 2006. This fall she has served as host of the “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” series of Friday night live concert broadcasts. Her other notable projects with the Orchestra have included co-creating the Inside the Classics and Sam & Sarah series with Orchestra violist Sam Bergman; conducting a live-in-concert recording with singer-rapper Dessa, released in 2019 on the Doomtree Records label; leading numerous original Orchestra programs including Home for the Holidays, A Musical Feast and A Scandinavian Christmas; and conducting many of the Orchestra’s Movies & Music concerts. Away from Orchestra Hall, she recently conducted performances of Disney Pixar’s Coco at the Hollywood Bowl as well as the orchestra in ABC’s live televised production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

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Program notes

  • Voodoo Dolls

    Jessie Montgomery

    • Born
      1981
      New York City

    Voodoo Dolls

    • Premiered
      June 2008

    Music is never composed in a vacuum. The work that concludes tonight’s program, Mendelssohn’s ebullient Fourth Symphony, was dreamt up during the composer’s grand tour through Italy, and the piece that precedes it, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, hints at the folk traditions of Russia and Spain.

     

    Contemporary American composer, violinist and educator Jessie Montgomery also takes inspiration routinely from the worlds she witnesses. In the two chamber works for strings that open this concert, Voodoo Dolls and Source Code, she summons sound worlds that call to mind West African drumming and chanting, as well as African American spirituals that originated in the Southern United States. In doing so, she evokes not only geographic locations, but entire cultural landscapes.

     

    “My connection to the world”

    A native of New York City, Montgomery has made a point throughout her career to take on projects that explore historically marginalized voices and encourage a wider awareness of what is happening in the world around us. “Music is my connection to the world,” she writes on her website. “It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand.” Her music, in turn, takes us all on a journey.

     

    Voodoo Dolls, for string quintet (a bass is added to the standard string quartet instrumentation), was commissioned in 2008 by the JUMP! Dance Company of Rhode Island. In her preface to the score, Montgomery writes of the project: “The choreography was a suite of dances, each one representing a different traditional children’s doll: Russian dolls, marionettes, rag dolls, Barbie, voodoo dolls…”

     

    Drumming patterns, chant motives and improvisation

    Voodoo is a collection of spiritual practices stemming from traditional religious beliefs in several West African nations, primarily Benin, Togo, Ghana and Nigeria, and further developed in parts of the African diaspora in North America. Montgomery’s Voodoo Dolls is, in her words, “influenced by west African drumming patterns and lyrical chant motives, all of which feature highlights of improvisation within the ensemble.”

     

    Those patterns are noticeable from the first notes, when players start knocking at their instruments. Soon after, they pick up their bows to articulate the driving rhythm in the same way, with the first violin indulging in some freewheeling improvisation. Eventually a lilting viola solo arrives, ultimately joined by the cello. More spirited knocking effects announce a section marked Wild! in the score. After a final burst of energy, the frenzy of the dance magically fades away.

     

    Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, cello and bass

     

    Program note by Emily Hogstad.

  • Source Code

    Jessie Montgomery

    • Born
      1981
      New York City

    Source Code

    • Premiered
      November 2013

    Jessie Montgomery’s string quartet Source Code was composed in 2013. The composer notes in the score’s preface that the work originated with her “transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era in the United States.” She writes about how she took the “gestures, sentences, and musical syntax” of giants like Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald and others, and then re-imagined them “into musical sentences and tone paintings.”

     

    The quartet begins with all four performers playing a sustained A. “A” is the pitch that string players tune their instruments to, so it has both literal and metaphorical resonances. Small sliding gestures start climbing out of this primordial drone. The first violin plays a line marked songlike and expressive. It sounds like the ghost of an African American spiritual, and it reappears again and again. It is, however, inevitably weighed down. Sometimes it’s by haunting, chromatic sighs in the other strings; other times it’s by their troubled repeating trills and chords. The cello is the final instrument to tackle the theme. The ghost gradually collapses in the cellist’s hands, leaving behind a haze of hushed, sustained tones that mirror the work’s opening. In the final measures, the players employ sul pont, a bowing technique that creates an otherworldly whistle. As that whistle hangs suspended in midair, we hear the echo of the spiritual, now only in our inner ear.

     

    Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola and cello

     

    Program note by Emily Hogstad.

  • Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 63

    Sergei Prokofiev

    • Born
      April 23, 1891
      Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav Province, Ukraine
    • Died
      March 5, 1953
      Moscow, Russia

    Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 63

    • Premiered
      December 1, 1935

    Like many other Russian musicians, Prokofiev fled to the West in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution of 1917, eventually making his home in Paris, where he wrote music that was brilliant—and often abrasive. The young composer appeared to take delight in assaulting audiences: when one of his early premieres was roundly booed, he walked onstage, bowed deeply to the jeering audience, sat down and played an equally harrowing encore.

     

    Gradually, though, Prokofiev began to feel homesick for Russia. He made the first of many return visits in 1927, began keeping a Moscow apartment in 1933 and moved back completely in 1936. He knew that if he returned to Russia, he would have to relax his style: Socialist Realism demanded music that was lyric and attractive to a mass audience. Whether for this or other reasons, his music grew more lyric and accessible as he made the decision to move to Russia, and once there, Peter and the Wolf and the ballet Romeo and Juliet were among the first things he wrote.

     

    Classical, lyrical and varied

    The Second Violin Concerto also dates from the years when his style was evolving. In 1935 Prokofiev was asked by friends of the French violinist Robert Soëtens to write a violin concerto for him. The composer noted that the unsettled circumstances of his life caused this music to be written in many different places: “the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid, in December 1935.” Prokofiev and Soëtens then took the concerto on a wide-ranging tour, performing it in Portugal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

     

    Prokofiev had at first planned to write a “concert sonata for violin and orchestra,” something smaller-scaled than a concerto; what he produced was a violin concerto conceived on a somewhat intimate scale. It is scored for what is essentially Mozart’s orchestra (pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, plus strings), but that Classical sound is enlivened by a percussion complement larger than that of Mozart’s time that includes castanets, an instrument heard infrequently in orchestral music of the Classical period.

     

    Allegro moderato. The intimate, lyric nature of this concerto is evident from the first instant of the Allegro moderato, where the solo violin, all alone, lays out the opening theme. This concerto veers between extremes—murmuring and muted one instant, full of steely energy the next—and this contrast is reflected in the bittersweet second subject, also announced by solo violin. The development of this sonata-form movement is extremely energetic, and the movement finally snaps into silence on abrupt pizzicatos.

     

    Andante assai. Pizzicato strings also open the second movement, where they provide a pointillistic accompaniment to the violin’s long cantilena. This melody, which changes meters smoothly between 12/8 and 4/4, evolves through a series of variations until a pair of clarinets introduces the singing central episode. The opening material returns, and Prokofiev closes with an imaginative touch: he has the solo violin take over the pizzicato figure from the opening and “accompany” the orchestra to the quiet close.

     

    Allegro, ben marcato. Briefest and most adventurous of the movements, the finale demands virtuoso playing from both soloist and orchestra to solve complex problems of coordination and balance. Here Prokofiev makes distinctive use of his percussion instruments, particularly the castanets. The closing pages are particularly exciting, alternating measures of 7/4, 5/4, 2/2 and 3/2 with the basic pulse of 3/4, and Prokofiev drives the concerto to a saucy close.

     

    Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, triangle and strings

     

    Program note by Eric Bromberger.

  • Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian

    Felix Mendelssohn

    • Born
      September 8, 1841
      Hamburg, Germany
    • Died
      May 1, 1904
      Leipzig, Germany

    Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian

    • Premiered
      May 13, 1833

    Felix Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, the Italian, is so popular among performers and audiences alike that even the composer’s rivals gave it lofty praise. Hector Berlioz, who found Mendelssohn priggish and unlikable, called it “admirable, magnifique,” and thought it deserved a gold medal. Surprisingly, though, the composer himself was not satisfied with the symphony, one of his most famous creations.

     

    Mendelssohn revised his Fourth Symphony after its first performance in London in 1833, introducing changes that distressed both his sister, Fanny, and his friend the composer, conductor and pianist Ignaz Moscheles. Furthermore, he remained dissatisfied, never conducted the work again and refused to publish it. When he died in 1847, he left behind detailed plans for further revisions to the first three movements. We have no clue why this perfectly poised symphony displeased him so.

     

    A spirited work

    Mendelssohn began work on it during an extended journey through Italy in 1830-31, referring to it as his “Italian symphony” and remarking that it was the most cheerful piece he had yet composed. The impetus to complete the piece came in the form of a resolution passed November 5, 1832, by the general membership of the London Philharmonic Society, “that Mr. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy be requested to compose a symphony, an overture and a vocal piece for the Society, for which he be offered the sum of one hundred guineas.” Mendelssohn conducted the first performance with the Philharmonic Society, London, on May 13, 1833, and the public success of the new symphony was immense.

     

    Allegro vivace. That the new symphony made such a splash is no wonder. The first movement is music of architectural genius and the highest of spirits. It presents one captivating invention after another.

     

    Andante con moto. The Andante is a chaste processional, perhaps a souvenir of one of the religious ceremonies that captured Mendelssohn’s imagination on his Italian journey. He invents utterly simple, utterly fresh sounds for his gently melancholic hymn, first oboe, bassoons and violas in octaves, then violins in octaves with the two flutes adding a decorative counterpoint. Fragments of the chant-like introductory measures and of the hymn reach us as though carried by a capricious wind, and so—most beautifully—the procession moves beyond our hearing.

     

    Con moto moderato. Next, Mendelssohn gives us a minuet, at least a Romantic translation of minuet, delicate and surely quite un-Italian. Distant horns and bassoons color the gentle trio. The minuet returns and drifts to an enchanting, lightly sentimental close.

     

    Saltarello: Presto. Last comes a rarity, a minor-key finale to a symphony in major. This movement is brilliant in every way, perfectly gauged for exhilaration to the end. A saltarello is literally a leaping dance, but the continuously running music that begins a minute or so into the movement is that of a tarantella, so named because it was believed that the only cure for the bite of a tarantula was to keep the victim in perpetual motion.

     

    The tarantula, it seems, has been maligned: its bite, though painful, is harmless. At harvest-time, though, fiddlers would walk through the fields of Italy, hoping for therapeutic engagements, and who after all would wish to knock anything that provides musicians with gainful and reasonably honest employment?

     

    Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

     

    Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

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