August 1 & 2 2024 : Augustin Hadelich & Dvořák 7

May 8, 2024

Peter Oundjian, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Kevin Puts, Two Mountain Scenes (2007)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

Antonin Dvořák, Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

Kevin Puts, Two Mountain Scenes (2007) 

Visitors to 2023 edition of the Colorado Music Festival may recall The Elements, a suite inspired by the natural world and featuring five leading American composers as contributors. Among them was Kevin Puts, whose expansive Earth and Earth (Reprise and Finale) bookended the piece. Commissioned by Joshua Bell and introduced here in Boulder, The Elements went on to receive performances in Hamburg, Hong Kong, New York, and several other cities.  

Puts’ 25-year career has spanned numerous formats and sources of inspiration. His debut opera, Silent Night — about a Christmas Eve truce during World War I — won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music and has been staged in two-dozen productions. His fourth opera, The Hours, played to full houses at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in 2022, and starred sopranos Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (the Met revived it this past spring). No less substantial is Puts’ orchestral catalog, which includes works for the St. Louis, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Fort Worth Symphonies, among others. When Musical America named him its Composer of the Year in 2023, an accompanying article cited his gift for cinematic, narrative lines, “treating musical themes as protagonists and guiding audiences through metaphorical journeys.” 

Two Mountain Scenes (2007) was jointly commissioned by the Bravo! Vail Music Festival and the New York Philharmonic. Puts writes the following: 

With the impressive backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in mind, I set out to create a true showpiece for the stellar musicians of the New York Philharmonic. The first movement, marked maestoso, begins with a quartet of virtuoso trumpets combined to create the sonic illusion of a single trumpet reverberating across the valley. The strings answer with lyrical melodies which rise and fall in long-breathed arches, suggesting the silhouettes of mountain peaks.

The second movement (Furioso) begins in the swirl of a mountain storm, with torrents of arpeggios played by the strings. Distant bells ring out in the valley far below; the woodwinds adopt their rhythms and press forward insistently, gaining momentum as the music builds to a climactic finish.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 

Tchaikovsky completed his dazzling Violin Concerto in just 11 days and following one of the most difficult periods in his tumultuous life. The 37-year-old composer had fled Russia following the recent failure of his marriage to a troubled ex-pupil. The brief but unhappy relationship had driven him to a halfhearted, unsuccessful suicide attempt, in which he stood waist-deep in the freezing Moskva River, hoping to catch a cold and to die from pneumonia. He settled in at the Swiss resort of Clarens, on Lake Geneva.  

In this idyllic locale, Tchaikovsky’s emotional state improved, and before long he summoned Iosif Kotek, a violinist and former composition student living in Berlin. Kotek arrived with a suitcase stuff with scores, including a violin-and-piano arrangement of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which they played through with relish. In a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky raved about Lalo’s “freshness, lightness, piquant rhythms and beautiful, superbly harmonized melodies.” Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Kotek was much more than platonic, and with the Lalo in his ear, he found the catalyst needed to finish the Violin Concerto.

Still, other obstacles awaited. The work’s dedicatee, the Russian violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer, declared that the concerto was “unplayable,” and turned down the composer’s request to perform its debut in 1879. Two years later, the Russian virtuoso Adolf Brodsky gave the premiere with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Hans Richter. However, the orchestra was unprepared, and Tchaikovsky’s ultra-Russian style divided the conservative audience. Reviewers had a field day. The concerto “brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear,” wrote influential critic Eduard Hanslick.  

Brodsky did not give up, however, and the work’s fortunes steadily improved with performances in London and Moscow. The piece eventually became a favorite of many violinists, in part because it sits so comfortably on the instrument, its virtuosic passages couched in music of lyricism and warmth. The first movement’s two main themes are both songful and lead to a development section full of virtuosic fireworks. The second movement, Canzonetta, unfolds with a lyrical, songlike theme, first delivered over muted strings and then in duet with flute and clarinet. The finale casts the soloist as a folk fiddler, striking up a vigorous Cossack dance embellished with dizzying scales, leaps, and trills, before building to a tremendous conclusion. 

Antonin Dvořák, Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70  

Although the New World Symphony is Dvořák’s best-known symphonic score, the Seventh is often cited — by scholars, musicians, and the composer’s Czech biographer— as his greatest. There were several motivating factors behind the work. London’s Royal Philharmonic Society had elected Dvořák an honorary member in June 1884 and at once commissioned a new symphony. The composer had recently heard Brahms’s latest symphony, the Third, which gave him a new benchmark to aim for. Brahms had been a constant source of advice, support, and tough love and Dvořák told his publisher, Fritz Simrock, that he didn’t want to let his mentor down.  

For his part, Simrock was not particularly helpful in nurturing Dvořák’s talent. The publisher was hoping for another set of Slavonic Dances that he could easily print and sell. But others in the Dvořák circle, including the critic Eduard Hanslick, pressured him to compose in a more cosmopolitan, less provincial manner—even if this meant denying the very Bohemian traits that brought him success in the first place. Simrock offered a paltry 3,000 marks for the Seventh Symphony and insisted on printing Dvořák’s name using the German “Anton” rather than the Czech “Antonín,” deeply offending the composer. They eventually compromised on “Ant.”  

Amid the fray, Dvořák fell back on a favorite hobby—trainspotting. He claimed that the main theme of the first movement came to him as he stood at the Prague railway station. He had gone there to see the arrival of a train bringing several hundred anti-Hapsburg Hungarians to a national theater festival. A graceful woodwind melody then provides contrast to the stormy atmosphere; both themes are tightly developed before the movement ends with the principal theme dying out over an unbroken low D.  

After opening with a sumptuous clarinet melody, the second movement is rich in themes and counterpoint, spiced with some pungent dissonances. The Scherzo third movement suggests a Czech national dance called a furiant, and moves with zesty and vigorous cross-rhythms. The finale sums up the symphony’s assortment of moods as several themes are explored, before building to an affirmative D major conclusion. 

— Brian Wise

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