Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, Conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, Cello
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”)
(performed without breaks between movements)
Andante con moto—Allegro un poco agitato—Assai animato
Vivace non troppo
Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Adagio ma non troppo
Finale: Allegro moderato
YO-YO MA, Cello
One of today’s most celebrated instrumentalists, Yo-Yo Ma began to study the cello with his father at age 4, later moving to New York and studying with Leonard Rose at The Juilliard School. He sought out a traditional liberal arts education to expand upon his conservatory training, graduating from Harvard University in 1976. Today he is in demand with of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. In 1998 Ma established the Silk Road Project to promote the study of the cultural, artistic and intellectual traditions along the ancient trade route that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In the 2006-07 season, partnering with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony and the City of Chicago, the Silk Road Project presented Silk Road Chicago, a year-long, city-wide celebration through performance, exhibitions and events that explored cross-cultural discovery and the artistic legacy of the Silk Road. Through the Silk Road Project, as throughout his career, Ma seeks to expand the cello repertoire, frequently performing lesser-known music of the 20th century and commissions of new concertos and recital pieces. As an exclusive Sony Classical artist with a discography of more than 75 albums, Ma has earned more than 15 Grammy Awards. All of his recent albums have quickly entered the Billboard chart of classical bestsellers, remaining in the Top 15 for extended periods. Winner of the 1978 Avery Fisher Prize, he has also won the 1999 Glenn Gould Prize, the 2001 National Medal of the Arts, the 2006 Dan David Prize, the 2006 Sonning Prize and the 2008 World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award. This is Yo-Yo Ma’s 14th season at Ravinia Festival, where he first performed in 1982.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”)
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings
Scotland—her land, people, language and history—embodied Romanticism to Felix Mendelssohn. Sir Walter Scott was idolized in Germany as a Romantic poet non plus ultra. Furthermore, a recent vogue in German literature for Scottish subjects (for example, Friedrich Schiller, poet for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, wrote a novel entitled Maria Stuart in 1800) also fueled the young musician’s desire to visit that enchanted country. Mendelssohn met the diplomat Karl Klingemann in London on April 21, 1829. Concert engagements kept Mendelssohn in the English capital for three months. Once his last official responsibility was dispatched in mid-July, Mendelssohn and Klingemann finally made their long-anticipated journey to Scotland.
The travelers followed a zig-zagging route along the east coast (Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth), crossing the island to visit the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast before returning southeastward through Glasgow. Along the way Mendelssohn finally viewed the verdant countryside and craggy mountains previously imagined only in his mind’s eye. An accomplished artist as well, he also made numerous sketches of these natural and historic sites.
Memories of the journey lingered for the rest of Mendelssohn’s life. There was an awe-inspiring visit to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa. Its massive walls carved by the raging sea into stone organ pipes, Fingal’s Cave inspired Mendelssohn to create a dark and Romantic overture. Earlier he and Klingemann had a chance, but disappointing, encounter with the revered Scottish poet: “We found Sir Walter just leaving Abbotsford, gaped at him like imbeciles, drove 80 miles and lost a whole day for the sake of nothing more than half-an-hour’s trivial conversation.”
The visit to Holyrood—palace of Mary, Queen of Scots—left a far deeper impression, as Mendelssohn wrote to his father on July 30: “Today we went in dense dusk to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a small room to be seen, with a winding staircase leading up to it; they went up there, found Riccio in the little room, dragged him out, and three rooms away is a dark corner where they killed him. The roof is gone from the adjoining chapel; a great deal of grass and ivy are growing in it; and at the shattered altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is decayed and smashed, and the clear sky shines straight into it. I think I have found the beginning of my Scottish Symphony today.”
Mendelssohn straightaway developed a basic conception for his orchestral work, but progressed little on the actual composition before setting aside the project. The following February, while in Rome, he briefly reconsidered the symphony, but found Italy too cheerful for the “misty mood” of the imagined work. A dozen years passed before the composer resumed what would become his final symphony. After receiving royal permission, Mendelssohn dedicated the “Scottish” symphony to Queen Victoria, explaining to his mother that “the English name would suit the Scottish piece so charmingly.”
As he had done in his violin concerto, Mendelssohn erected a musical structure that bridged gaps between movements. Thematic material throughout the symphony bears a strong vocal stamp and a sense of longing, expressive traits roughly analogous to the Scottish folk ballad, especially as exemplified in the Romantic poetry of Sir Walter Scott. The opening movement presents a complex format with several changes of tempo and meter. Essentially a slow orchestral “song without words” functions as prelude and postlude to a much larger fast movement. In terms of keys and thematic personalities, the fast 6/8 music conforms to the exposition, development and recapitulation sequence found in sonata-allegro form. Close inspection reveals, however, that nearly every theme descends from a single melodic family, producing a type of continuous variation procedure. The thematic geneology traces back to the slow introductory melody, which leaps upward then outlines a minor third with a dotted rhythm.
A more tangible influence of Scottish music appears in the Vivace non troppo, a movement scherzo-like in its playfulness but formally a sonata. The clarinet offers a joyous pentatonic (five-note scale) melody whose phrases end with the stereotypical Scottish-snap rhythm (short—long). The string ensemble presents a graceful contrasting theme, an ascending scale played staccato and delicatedly ornamented.
The Adagio conveys an inescapable sense of tragedy. Perhaps here lies Mendelssohn’s musical response to the calamitous story of Mary, Queen of Scots. The opening measures offer melodic fragments and a key change to A major. Eventually the entire violin melody emerges above a pizzicato accompaniment. The music reverts to minor for a wind-ensemble theme, whose march rhythms portend the Queen’s fate at the executioner’s block.
One senses a close kinship between the finale and the opening movement, but this relationship remains obscure at first. Mendelssohn revived earlier motivic patterns but assembled them in different order. The dotted march rhythm emerges first. Only in string phrases do familiar melodic outlines appear. The oboe’s contrasting theme, though, unites both elements for an undeniable relationship to first-movement material. An expansive coda—adorned with luxurious horn writing—offers a final theme transformation in 6/8 and A major.
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
In many respects, the Cello Concerto in B Minor is a valedictory work. Dvořák sketched the concerto between November 8, 1894, and February 9, 1895, in New York, during his tenure as director of the National Conservatory of Music. He had begun this work at the request of cellist Hanus Wihan, the composer’s old friend and dedicatee of the concerto. Dvořák had left an earlier Cello Concerto in A Major (1865) unorchestrated, convinced of the cello’s unsuitability as a solo instrument. However, his opinion changed after attending performances of Victor Herbert’s cello concerto with the New York Philharmonic. With the complete cello score packed in his luggage, Dvořák bade farewell a second (and final) time to the U.S. on April 16, 1895. Although Wihan received the dedication of Dvořák’s cello concerto, another soloist, Leo Stern, gave the premiere in 1896. Wihan did not play the work publicly until three years later.
Like many of Dvořák’s “American” compositions, the cello concerto contains a prominent, albeit unhappy, Old World connection. Distressing news of his sister-in-law Josefina Kaunicová’s grave illness reached Dvořák in New York during composition of the concerto’s slow movement. Many years before, Dvořák confessed his love for Josefina—at that time, the unwed Josefina Čermáková was his piano student—which she did not requite. Instead she married Count Kaunic, and Dvořák later wed her sister Anna. In 1880 the Dvořáks built their Villa Rusalka on a one-acre corner plot purchased from the count. Josefina’s illness had a crushing personal impact on the composer. In the concerto’s slow movement, he introduced a melodic variation of his song “Lasst mich allein” (“Leave Me Alone”), Op. 82, No. 1—one of Josefina’s favorites. One month after Dvořák returned to Prague, Josefina died. He promptly reworked the ending to his Finale, adding a 60-measure quotation from the same song. This concerto became Dvořák’s farewell to his first love, Josefina.
After reading through the concerto, Wihan presumptuously recommended corrections to the publisher Simrock. The composer vehemently rejected these (especially a suggested solo cadenza) as violating the work’s fundamental design. Dvořák wrote to Simrock on October 3, 1895: “I do not agree with my friend Wihan in regard to a number of places. I do not like many of the passages—and I must insist on my work being printed as I have written it. I shall only then give you my work if you promise not to allow anybody to make changes—my friend Wihan not excepted—without my knowledge and consent, and also not the cadenza that Wihan has added to the last movement. In short, it must remain as I felt it and as I imagined it. There is no cadenza in the last movement either in the score or in the piano arrangement. I told Wihan straight away when he showed it to me that it was impossible to stick bits on like that. The finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh—with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down to pianissimo‚ then swells again. The last bars are taken up by the orchestra, and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That was my idea and I cannot depart from it.” Though Dvořák did not elaborate upon his objections, this cadenza would have mutilated his memorial to Josefina.
The Allegro modifies slightly the traditional double-exposition concerto form. Clarinets and bassoons submit a surging figure, whose melancholy expression the orchestra soon intensifies. A gentle, lyrical second theme is heard in the horn. The solo cello lends rich tenor tones to these melodies and expands the gaps between themes with melodious dialogue with the orchestra. A relatively succinct development section builds in passion as Dvořák conveys the movement to a reversed recapitulation of his principal themes (second, then first).
Orchestral woodwinds offer an effortless melody, which the solo cello continues. Strings contribute a light harmonic support. A passionate string outburst leads to the “Lasst mich allein” melody—transformed from 4/4 time to 3/4—played by the cello. The opening theme returns in an elaborated form.
A march theme, heroically scored for three horns and low strings, opens the Finale. (Dvořák may have remembered the use of three trombones in Herbert’s cello concerto.) The solo cello embraces this melody. Thematic contrast first occurs in the melancholy clarinet idea, filled with longing for the Czech homeland. Dvořák repeats his opening theme. Accompanied by woodwinds, the solo cello offers further lyrical material. A variation of the refrain emerges one final time. The cello partners with a solo violin in a quotation from “Lasst mich allein,” interspersed with fragments of the first movement’s opening melody. A short, brassy fanfare concludes the concerto.
--Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009