Tag Archives: Felix Mendelssohn

Other 1809 birthday boys needed more days than Mendelssohn got

 
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On Sunday,  I heard a great performance of the Mendelssohn F minor string quartet in a concert in Palm Beach by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and besides the musical excellence of what I heard, I also thought about the two other 200th-birthday boys: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Mendelssohn’s last string quartet was written in the summer of 1847, three months after the death of his sister Fanny and four months before he died after a series of strokes. The Mendelssohns had a history of fatal strokes in the family, and it’s likely Felix, Fanny (as well as their father, Abraham, and grandfather, Moses) died of what was an inherited condition.

The quartet is a great piece, and I remember on hearing the six mature quartets of Mendelssohn how astonished I was at how good these pieces are. I’m happy to be hearing them more often this year, but this last one is particularly remarkable, and it’s worth thinking about where that might have led him had he lived past 38.

I mentioned this idea in an earlier post when I talked about Lincoln, but after the concert I started thinking about the same question from the vantage point of Mendelssohn: What were Lincoln and Darwin doing at this point? Lincoln and Darwin were both born on Feb. 12, 1809; Mendelssohn was born nine days earlier.

If Lincoln and Darwin had the exact same lifespan as Mendelssohn, they would have died in mid-November of 1847, and their legacies would have been profoundly different.

Lincoln was in Washington, waiting to take his seat in the 30th Congress, which assembled in December 1847 for its first session. The former four-term state legislator had been elected on the Whig ticket, and remained a loyal party man during his sole Congressional term, working hard in 1848 to get out the vote for Zachary Taylor. 

But in November 1847, he was living in a Washington boarding house with his family and other Congressmen-elect, and had made only a limited impact on the national stage.  Only historians would have heard of him had he departed the scene when Mendelssohn did.

Charles Darwin was living in Kent, in the house he had moved to a few years earlier., and was working on barnacles, the study of which helped buttress the opinions he had laid out in an 1844 sketch for a paper that would form the basis on which he would build On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

 Darwin had written a note to his wife in 1844, essentially staking the claim for the species theory, and instructing her to get it published if he were to die. But he was not ready to publish, and it took him the barnacles study plus a painstaking review of his work aboard the HMS Beagle, not to mention pressure from the work of Alfred Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same conclusion.

Had he died in November 1847, certainly historians of science would have given him credit for the 1844 paper as well as his Beagle memoir, and he would be recognized as an early proponent of a theory that perhaps would now be associated with Alfred Wallace instead.  But again, the world at large would not have heard of Charles Darwin.

As it happened, the world is familiar with the work of all three men, and for me, it says something about the essential unpredictability of life and the part that luck plays in it. And it also says that while Mendelssohn’s life was far too short, he was in those 38 years granted to him to leave a large body of great work that secured his posthumous legacy.

It is certainly easier with an art like music to make a strong impression early in life and leave something of your time on the earth for future generations; the history of music is full of short lives that contained tremendous accomplishments. But it’s often been noted that even someone like Mozart, who lived an even shorter life (only 35 years), was a late bloomer artistically, and what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven (56 years, which would have meant Mozart dying in 1812) remains a tantalizing what-if that music lovers like me can’t resist speculating about.

The most important thing to do is celebrate the life and music of Mendelssohn as it was and is, and appreciate a masterpiece like the F minor quartet without asking for more. Still, it’s worth remarking that had Mendlessohn lived as long as Darwin, he would have died in April 1882 — just a couple months before the birth of Igor Stravinsky.

Reviews: Here are some other recent reviews (all positive, as it turns out) I’ve done of violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the Mozart Piano Quartet and the Palm Beach Symphony. The season’s in full swing here, and it’s only going to get busier next month.

2009: A Mendelssohn, Haydn year (also Albeniz — and Holmboe)

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This year marks two important bicentenaries: the birth of Felix Mendelssohn and the death of Franz Joseph Haydn.

In both cases, and I suppose this is true of most composers, there is in their collected works a great deal of music that I never hear in concert. Here’s what I’d love to hear:

Mendelssohn: First and foremost, the Lobgesang Symphony (No. 2, but really No. 5), Mendelssohn’s homage to the Beethoven Ninth, but a beautiful and absorbing piece that no doubt would be thrilling in concert, if anyone would bother to play it. Also sorely neglected are the string quartets, which to my mind are among Mendelssohn’s finest pieces. I have a recording of the complete quartets (I think by the Ysaye Quartet, but I can’t lay my hands on it right now), and they are always revelatory.

Here is a Mendelssohn with grit and fire, particularly in the F minor, Op. 80, his last major piece. This is a masterful quartet in every significant sense, and why it doesn’t get played more often I don’t know. Add to that a wish for an art song recital with some Mendelssohn lieder included. And for fun, how about the Double Piano Concerto in A-flat?

Here’s part of the Lobgesang, in a performance by Montreal’s Orchestre Symphonique de L’Isle:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r38_C9Zgb4&hl=en&fs=1]
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Haydn: Opera, in short. Haydn wrote many of these works, and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one on stage. The argument advanced by many critics is that they don’t work too well in the theater because the music is too self-contained and doesn’t move with the characters (as Bernard Holland argues here), but I’d certainly like to see something like Il Mondo Della Luna, which has some lovely music and a funny story.

But other than that, I don’t hear enough of his piano music or chamber music such as the piano trios. The piano sonatas are where a solitary player can really understand the genius of Haydn. It’s a kind of sly wit that underlines not only the harmonic surprises but seemingly the melodies themselves. Playing them one after another truly brings that home. And many of the piano trios (there are close to four dozen of them) have engaging, delightful music that deserve to be heard much more often.

Here are Peruvian tenor Luigi Alva and the Italian soprano Mariella Adani in a duet from Il Mondo della Luna. The video looks quite old, but it’s a beautiful piece:

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There are also some centenaries being observed this year: the death of Isaac Albeniz, and the birth of the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe.

Albeniz: In the coming year, it would be good to hear more of Albeniz outside Iberia; although his opera Pepita Jimenez was albenizwritten to an English-language libretto, it sounds to me like it would sound better in Spanish, and I’d like to hear it that way.

French pianist Patrick Hemmerle plays Albeniz’s El Polo in a concert from the Iturbi Competition in Spain in 2006:

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Holmboholmboee: I’ve always enjoyed the chamber concerti of Holmboe, and those pieces are truly never played on concert programs here. If you like the Dumbarton Oaks concerto of Stravinsky, or the chamber music of Martinu, there’s no reason why you won’t like these works.

I find them more appealing than a lot of the pieces I’ve heard in recent years, and it’s time for chamber players to give Holmboe a chance.

Here’s a link to a site where you can hear the finale of the Chamber Concerto No. 9.

Review: Master Chorale’s ‘Elijah’

POMPANO BEACH — In its first concert under the hand of a new director, the Master Chorale of South Florida delivered a steroid-fueled reading Friday night of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah in which the drama of the text was painted in broad strokes of color and the music delivered atop nothing less than a sonic wallop from the Boca Raton Symphonia.

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Joshua Habermann, who took over the chorus this year from founding artistic director Jo-Michael Scheibe, directed the proceedings at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach with a firm, precise hand, and he clearly enjoys the affection of his singers, who did their utmost for him.

Most noticeable in Habermann’s approach is attention to diction and dynamic detail: In  the opening chorus, Help, Lord!, at the words Will then the Lord be no more God in Zion?, the words were crisp and clear, and there was a nice forte-piano effect on the word Zion.

Unity like that is important to bringing out the emotion in the text, and it paid off in moments such as The Lord has exalted thee, in Part II, where the singers made the most of the line We heard it with our ears, giving just the right sense of an excited crowd talking over each other. And it was hard to resist the big, smooth sound in the major choruses; He, watching over Israel, for instance, where halfway through the song, the entrances of each section were so liquid as to be unnoticeable, and that is choral singing of a distinctly higher order.

Of the four soloists, baritone Donnie Ray Albert had the lion’s share of the singing as Elijah, and he was a granitic presence, with a huge, creamy voice which he put through the paces of a strong theatrical instinct. It was fun to see him wheel around to the chorus of Baal worshipers and bark: Call him louder!, and to hear the great pathos he brought to It is enough, the severely beautiful aria of an exhausted prophet. He sang tirelessly and well, and as the central voice of the oratorio, he moved the action along compellingly.

Tenor Glenn Siebert has something of an Irish tenor sound to his essentially lyric instrument, and it made for very pleasant listening, especially in the aria If with all your hearts. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Sharene Penn’s dark, round sound was particularly effective in the arioso Woe unto them who forsake Him.

Soprano Angela Cadelago sang well, adding a nice, pleading touch to Hear ye, Israel, but she was underutilized. This Elijah was given with far fewer cuts than other performances I’ve heard, and the excisions here — the widow with the sick son in Part I, the second half of Hear ye, Israel, and the pretty quartet in Part II, O come, everyone that thirsteth — eliminated most of the other soprano work, and were basically pointless given that virtually everything else was kept.

With the intermission, the concert lasted about two hours. Lengthening it by another 10 minutes wouldn’t have bothered anyone, and Cadelago would have had more to do.

The Boca Raton Symphonia was most impressive Friday night, mirroring the chorale’s intense engagement in Mendelssohn’s colorful score. The brass section was exceptionally muscular, the horn section most of all, and when the whole ensemble — chorus, orchestra, organist Mark Jones — was going all out in the resonant Pink Church acoustics,  it was easy to understand, and identify with, the passion for oratorios that seized Victorian audiences in the 19th century.

But it wasn’t only about brute force. The orchestra was equally at home in the quietest sections of the piece, such as the mournful clarinets against hushed strings in Hear ye, Israel, or the plangent cello solo in It is enough. The ensemble played well enough to ramp up the appetite for its season, which begins Dec. 7, and to provide reminders of the old Florida Philharmonic at its best (that group’s former director, James Judd, was in the audience Friday night).

There were some trouble spots Friday night: the first quartet after Help, Lord!, was quite weak, and in general the male voices, particularly in the lower regions, are underpowered, as they have been in the past. Still, things look promising for the Master Chorale in this new season. I like most of all the energy Habermann brings to the group; this Elijah was more powerful, more emotional, more involving, then any I’ve heard in a long time. There was little trace here of the reverent churchiness that often attends this music.

This version was more like opera, and it was more interesting because of it.

(The Master Chorale and the Boca Raton Symphonia perform Elijah at 8 p.m. today at Trinity Episcopal Church in Miami and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Pine Crest School in Boca Raton. Tickets are $35 at the door, $30 in advance.)

For the weekend: ‘Elijah,’ jazz, Vivaldi and organ music

The classical season hereabouts is heating up, and here are the things I’m thinking about seeing:

Tonight: The Master Chorale of South Florida introduces its new director, Joshua Habermann, in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a full performance of this oratorio, and I’m looking forward to it. The Mendelssohn bicentenary next year hopefully will bring some other serious Mendelssohn to the fore.

Saturday: Rachael Price, jazz singer, takes the stage at the Willow Theater in Boca Raton’s Sugar Sand Park. Price is just 23, but she’s already finished work on her fourth CD, and has a hot trio behind her as she navigates the standards. I like her voice, and you can hear some more of it at her Website; I particularly like her version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, which has a lyric by Johnny Mercer, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.

Sunday: Camerata del Re at St. Paul’s in Delray Beach, doing an all-Vivaldi program. Some interesting things on the program including the cantata Vengo a voi, luci adorate (with soprano Anita Smith) and the popular flute concerto known as Il Gardellino.

Also Sunday afternoon is the third and final concert in the organ series at Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach. On the program are organists Brian Wm. Davey, R. Steven Gorden, and duo organists Diana Akers and Irena Kofman. Music by Rutter and Alan Rawsthorne is on the program for the 3 p.m. recital.

My must-sees for the classical season, Part 2

Here’s the second installment of my must-see concerts for the season. I’ll have to do a third one tomorrow or the next day:

Master Chorale of South Florida: The one-time chorus of the defunct Florida Philharmonic has a new director, Joshua Habermann, who will lead the group in Elijah, Mendelssohn’s best-known oratorio in performances Nov. 14-16. Next year is Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday, and presentations of Elijah are mounting (the Palm Beach Atlantic University Oratorio Chorus presents the work on Nov. 8 in North Palm Beach, and the Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches presents excerpts from the work in a concert on April 5.)

The bicentenary offers musicians and performing groups a good opportunity to reassess Mendelssohn’s place in musical history. You never hear much Mendelssohn outside the Italian and Scottish symphonies, the Midsummer Night’s Dream music, Fingal’s Cave, and the Violin Concerto. These are all fine works, but I’d like to hear someone do any of the string quartets, which are marvelous pieces, or a good sampling of his rich archive of art song. Or the organ sonatas.

Or best of all, the Lobgesang Symphony, listed as No. 2 but really his fifth, a gigantic half oratorio-half symphony that was clearly inspired by the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, but which is a gorgeous work nonetheless. It’s a great piece, people would love it, and Mendelssohn deserves much more of his music to be regularly played. Info: 954-418-6232.

Boca Raton Symphonia: Director Alexander Platt is on board for four of the five concerts this season, and each of the concerts has fresh, welcome programming, built around the work and legacy of Tchaikovsky. The Feb. 8 concert, for instance, features the Sonnets from the Portuguese, a song cycle on the Barrett Browning poems by American composer Libby Larsen, who will be returning to South Florida in April for the second half of her residency at Florida Altantic University. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy will sing the Larsen songs, and Platt will conduct the first of Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites, beautiful pieces that orchestras have ignored for years.

I’ll also want to catch the Shostakovich Ninth on March 22, and the final concert of the season, which offers a violin concerto by the young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff and the Three Botticelli Pictures of Ottorino Respighi, clearly the most important Italian composer after Puccini but never recognized as such. Laura Jackson, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, will lead the Boca Symphonia for this concert, which looks like one of the group’s most interesting to date. Info: 561-376-3848.

Boca Festival of the Arts: Now in its third year, this 11-day celebration of literature and music (March 5-15) continues to attract the heavies: Salman Rushdie and Jamaica Kincaid are among the literary stars, and violinist Itzhak Perlman dominates the music side of things, with performances of the Beethoven concerto plus and an evening of klezmer music, and then Perlman closes things by leading the Master Chorale of South Florida and the Russian National Orchestra in the Beethoven Ninth on March 15.

Perlman is not one of my favorite players, so I might check out the excellent pianist Jeremy Denk in the Beethoven Fifth Concerto on March 10 (the Russian National led by Mikhail Pletnev), or cellist Nina Kotova in the Lalo concerto (when’s the last time you heard that?) on March 13 (with the young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra).Other than that, there’s a little too much Beethoven this year, and I might wait until next year to attend more of the events. Info: 866-571-2787.

Festival Miami: The University of Miami’s Frost School of Music scores a big coup tonight with its tribute to composer John Corigliano, who will be on hand to hear Jennifer Koh as soloist in his Red Violin Concerto, taken from his music for the film. Corigliano’s L’invitation au voyage for chorus is on the bill, as his Symphony No. 3 (Circus Maximus), a brass-drenched wind ensemble work already legendary for its loudness (here’s a review of its world premiere three years ago in Austin, Texas). Tonight’s concert will be one of the more important in recent South Florida classical music memory.

The festival also offers blues (Honeyboy Edwards), jazz (the Joshua Redman Trio) and pop (Bruce Hornsby returns to his UM roots), but if I can get to any of the concerts, I’d be most interested in the Faculty Composers concert (Oct. 12), a chamber music night Oct. 13 featuring excellent players in piano quintets by Schumann and Brahms, and the Ritz Chamber Players on Oct. 10, an all African-American group that will play a Dvorak piano quartet and the Cello Sonata of George Walker. The last two concerts, on Nov. 2-3, also look interesting: A tribute to the Argentine master Alberto Ginastera. Info: 305-284-4940.

Cleveland Orchestra: The Ohio band returns to Miami for another of its winter residencies, featuring two guest conductors along with director Franz Welser-Most. The most intriguing of the three concerts looks to be the ones Jan. 30-31, with the rising Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman singing the lovely Wesendonck Lieder of Richard Wagner on a program with the Shostakovich Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony.

Kurt Masur leads an all-Beethoven program with pianist Louis Lortie in the First Concerto on March 6-7, and violinist Nikolaj Znaider plays the Brahms concerto with the orchestra under Pinchas Steinberg on April 3-4. Info: 305-949-6722.

Florida Grand Opera: After the high-water mark of its 2006-07 season, when it presented a world premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina, the FGO sticks to solid box office for the new season: La Traviata, Le Nozze de Figaro, Madama Butterfly. The company also is offering Rossini’s La Cenerentola on Jan. 24-Feb. 7, but the one that will draw me this year is Lakme, which along with the ballet score Coppelia is the only work of Frenchman Leo Delibes that has stayed in the repertory.

But it’s a lovely piece, and the soprano Leah Partridge, a local audience favorite, should help bring some good crowds. Lakme is set for performances Feb.21- March 7. Info: 800-741-1010.

Palm Beach Opera: An all-Italian quartet of operas this season, though one of the composers was an Austrian (Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro). Also on the bill are La Boheme and Rigoletto, but I might be tempted by Norma, the Bellini opera more famous today for excerpts (Casta diva) than for the full show. But here’s my chance to see it in full Jan. 23-26; Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and Jennifer Check alternate duties as the Druid priestess. Info: 561-833-7888.