Nashville Symphony Plays Smetana, Berg, and Dvořák, with Special Guest Gil Shaham
On Sunday January 13, 2019, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra gave the final of three concerts playing Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau (or Vltava), Alban Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op.95, “From the New World.” The concert series featured the culmination of a three-part project by film-maker Duncan Copp, The Cosmos which is preceded by The Planets, and The Earth.
The Moldau (or Vltava) is the second in a set of six symphonic poems that Smetana wrote in the mid-1870s entitled Má Vlast (or My Homeland). The set, as the name suggests, depicts various scenes of Smetana’s Czech life and homeland. The Moldau is a depiction of the river Moldau that runs through Prague.
The piece opens with the two streams that come to form the Moldau, one cold and one warm, depicted by the beautifully flowing sixteenth note lines in the flutes and clarinets, handled wonderfully by the musicians. This scene continues with increasing participation, topped with a simple melody reminiscent of old Czech folk songs in a luscious e minor. The river flows for a while and stumbles upon a peasant wedding marked by a very rustic theme, beginning with a rather short staccato introduction from the second violins and violas. The theme itself defies the staccato expectation, becoming just as lush as the river before it, but with a different feeling to it. One can feel the charm of the little wedding and the happiness from all involved. There is an abrupt shift back to the transitional material taking us out of the peasant wedding and into a new section.
What follows is my personal favorite part of the piece, the moonlight dance of the nymphs. Starting with slowly building chords, it moves into an echo of the beginning of the movement with passing sixteenth notes in the flutes alone initially but joined quickly by the clarinets. This time, however, the clarinets do not match the rhythm of the flutes, instead offering a triplet figure against the sixteenth notes provided. This creates a quite off-putting effect, not only denying the expectation set up in the beginning, but questioning the meter of the section entirely. Towards the end, the sixteenth notes of the flutes seem to win over when the clarinets match their figure in a swirling harmony serving as a transition into the next section.
Though we feel as though the sixteenth note line has triumphed, the next section, the broad flow of the Vltava, greets us with the theme from the beginning in a meter much more akin to the triplets throughout the clarinet line. Finally, the Moldau flows around the castle Vyšehrad, which happens to be the first poem in the Má Vlast set. We hear the theme from the Vyšehrad alone at first, but eventually joined by the Moldau’s theme from the beginning leading us into the final cadence and conclusion of the piece.
Next on the concert was the Berg Violin Concerto. Alban Berg (1885-1935) was a part of the Second Viennese School of composition lead by Arnold Schoenberg. The Second Viennese School had an emphasis on moving past what they saw as the limitations of tonality as it existed at the time. Schoenberg devised a system in which all twelve chromatic tones were to be arranged so as none repeated before all twelve had been played. This has become a very basic definition of serialism in music.
Berg subscribed quite heavily to this system and used it to create his Violin Concerto in 1936 at the request of Russian-American violinist Louis Krasner, but was expedited by the death of Viennese icon Manon Gropius, with whom Berg was particularly associated. The actress, Gropius, was the daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband. The entire Second Viennese School was particularly close to the Mahler family, but Berg was especially close with Alma, so the loss was felt quite hard by the composer. Gropius’s death sparked the Violin Concerto’s importance to Berg (he put aside his opera Lulu for it) and inspired the subtitle: “To the Memory of an Angel.”
Atonal, and particularly serial, music can be difficult to digest and rather academic at times, but Berg has always been particularly accessible while still relying on the serial system, bringing in romantic themes and melodies as well as adapting his tone rows to echo tonal systems. The Violin Concerto is a wonderful synopsis of Berg’s compositional life. The tone row shows quite clearly this link to tonality, being a series of alternating minor and major triads, finishing with a series of whole steps, as opposed to Schoenberg’s rows which tend to be more sporadic.
The Nashville Symphony had guest violinist Gil Shaham in to perform the piece with them. Shaham has quite an impressive bio and it is immediately evident why as soon as he begins to play. The piece opens with arpeggios outlining the open strings on the violin, which should be nothing impressive to the listener, but for Shaham it outlined exactly what you will hear for the rest of the piece, being a stunning sound even in the face of incredibly challenging passages to come.
Beyond, as the program notes put it, flawless technique, Shaham’s deep knowledge of the piece was put immediately on display. It is clear at all times what not only the conductor, but the soloist, Shaham, thought was the most significant line at all times. With Shaham on stage, it seemed that nothing else was necessary, it seemed as though it were a natural thing that the group had been performing for years. Shaham’s involvement with the orchestra, musically and emotionally was evident. There were two particularly notable moments in the performance that shined above the rest of near perfect music making: the violin cadenzas at the beginning of the second movement were jaw-dropping and the introduction of Bach’s Es ist Genug chorale in the second movement will always be one of my personal favorite musical moments of the twentieth century. If you missed the performance, Shaham has recordings of Violin Concerti from the 1930s easily accessible through Spotify and iTunes which are well worth the listen.
The night finished with Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” The New World is by far one of the favorite works of Dvořák’s. It is one of those pieces that every orchestra has played a thousand times and every audience member has heard almost as much. Still, though, the performance was quite good. In particular, the famous English horn solo in the second movement was played brilliantly by Roger Weismeyer, being by far the highlight of the piece.
The program has followed in an interesting trend from the NSO this year. That being the pairing of a twentieth-century work that can be at times a bit less accessible than others with either a late-classical or Romantic work (or works). This program of Smetana, Berg, and Dvořák, the program of Corigliano’s First Symphony and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, and the program of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Adams’s Harmonielehre all show a consideration for the audience’s taste for classics and want for modern music in the Symphony Hall.