Sax & the Symphony

Sax flier

Sax & the Symphony Concert Flier

Program Notes

All the works on today’s program make reference to geographical locations in their title or sub-title. How much do these geographical locations influence the music? Each composer’s approach is very different. Seville, Spain is the setting of Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The opera, written in Italian, is based on the French play Le Barbier de Seville by Beaumarchais. We might expect that the exotic location would entice Rossini to set the scene with snippets of Spanish folk music or use of exotic instruments like castanets; however this is not the case. His music for the opera focuses on the contrasting characters and comic situations of the plot. Although Rossini had probably been planning this opera for a while, he wrote it in a mere 13 days. He left composition of the overture until last and ran out of time, so he recycled an overture that he had originally composed for his serious opera Aureliano in Palmira. This was a good choice, as the overture is full of contrasting moods from the lyrical to the frenetic and so matches the mood of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. If you listen carefully, you may notice some of Rossini’s trademarks – listen for a section that starts off very quietly and gradually gets louder and louder and for another section that gradually increases in speed and intensity culminating in a grand climax!

Modern-day Italian composer Robert Molinelli takes a very different approach with his saxophone concerto composed in 2001 and called Four Pictures from New York. Unlike Rossini, Molinelli does not have a story with sung words to set the scene, so he has to rely entirely on the music and the descriptive titles that he gives each movement. “Dreamy Dawn” starts the work with a simple string melody that gradually gathers momentum as the rest of the orchestra join in, perhaps suggesting the city awakening. Soon, the soloist joins in on the little soprano saxophone. What images does this evoke for you? I can imagine the saxophone representing the first rays of sunlight breaking through the dawn gloaming.

The remaining movements recreate the musical sounds that Molinelli associates with New York. The exciting rhythms of the tango begin the “Tango Club” second movement. Notice how the string players pluck the string with their fingers rather than using their bows for the opening of this movement, creating a dynamic rhythmic backdrop for the soloist. You will also notice that Molinelli has the soloist play the mellower alto saxophone for this movement. It is the jazz club that is conjured up in the third movement with the rich sound of the (larger) tenor saxophone and an accompanying trio of piano, bass and drums. Notice how the rest of the orchestra supports these musicians with softly sustained back-up in the opening and closing sections, and drops out altogether in the middle part of the movement. From the jazz club we head to Broadway for the final movement which juxtaposes two contrasting Broadway styles – a broad sweeping majestic opening melody and a busy, rhythmic, virtuosic section.

Nineteenth-century German composer, Felix Mendelssohn visited Scotland as part of his “Grand Tour” (a cultural trip taken by wealthy European young men in the nineteenth century to further their education). After spending time in London (where he performed many concerts), Mendelssohn headed to Scotland for a vacation. Like many composers of his day, Mendelssohn was wary of depicting anything too concrete in his music, preferring to create moods rather than to reference specific objects or events. With no opera story to set the scene and no descriptive titles, Mendelssohn paints a picture of his experiences in Scotland entirely with the music. We know from his letters that the opening of the first movement was inspired by a visit to the ruins of Queen Mary’s chapel in the grounds of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s official residence in Scotland). This stately and slightly mournful opening gives way to a lively main section. We know that Mendelssohn heard bagpipes at least once on his vacation, but he makes no attempt to recreate their sound in his symphony except in very subtle ways; however, he does make use of a rhythm that was common in Scottish folk music. The second movement is a vivacious romp. Listen carefully and you will notice the “snappy” rhythms as well as sections that contrast in volume (loud and soft) and in the sounds (timbre) of the different instruments used. The third and fourth movements also tell us of Mendelssohn’s experience of Scotland by creating a mood. As you listen to the slow (third) movement, you might like to ask yourself what you think Mendelssohn was experiencing. It has been suggested that this movement depicts a mournful procession, and yet that is just one possible interpretation. The sound is dark and the rhythms steady and stately – does this depict a procession or some powerful emotion? Do you hear grief or peacefulness? The fourth movement’s vivacious opening is full of energy and perhaps even strife. Listen for the contrasting sections as they alternate in what may amount to a musical disagreement or at very least a lively conversation, indeed Mendelssohn described this part of the movement as “guerriero” (war-like). It is here that Mendelssohn does something rather unusual for the final movement of a symphony. Toward the end of the movement he introduces a new musical theme and texture – a triumphal, hymn-like melody that brings the movement to a resounding and joyful close.

© Alison P. Deadman, July 2014