2011–2012 Season

Brahms & Sibelius

  • October 16, 2011

  • Sunday | 3:00 PM
  • First Free Methodist Church
    3200 3rd Ave W
  • Jayce Ogren, conductor
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Nänie (Lament), Op. 82
Johannes Brahms
Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), Op. 89
Johannes Brahms
Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54
—Intermission—
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers open the 2011–2012 season with three rarely heard choral works of Johannes Brahms and the stirring Symphony No. 2 of Jean Sibelius. The Brahms pieces on the first half of the program each contrast highly emotional texts with gorgeous, often deeply moving choral and orchestral writing. The second symphony of Sibelius, perhaps his most popular composition next to Finlandia, employs musical forms of the 19th century romantic tradition while breaking new ground with hallmarks of the great Finnish composer’s highly individualistic style. Guest conductor Jayce Ogren, a native of Hoquiam and former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, returns to the Pacific Northwest to lead OSSCS in this concert.

About the Conductor

Jayce Ogren is rapidly developing a reputation as one of the finest young conductors to emerge from the United States equally at home in both symphonic and operatic repertoire. In recent seasons he has conducted the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony and the Grand Rapids Symphony. Mr. Ogren also made his New York debut in two programs with the International Contemporary Ensemble under the auspices of the Miller Theater, resulting in an immediate re-invitation. In addition, he stepped into a last-minute cancellation for James Levine, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a challenging program that included the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s song cycle Songs of Love and Sorrow (with Gerard Finley). European guest engagements have included the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Aarhus Symphony and the Asturias Symphony.

On the opera stage, Mr. Ogren made his Canadian Opera Company debut with Stravinsky’s The Nightingale & Other Short Fables. Following an invitation from New York City Opera to conduct a staged production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, he was subsequently re-invited last season for a critically acclaimed new production of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, which was a resounding success. This season, Mr. Ogren will make his debuts with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Napa Valley Symphony, Berkeley Symphony and—following a highly successful debut with the Asturias Symphony—he will return to that orchestra during two separate periods (with pianist Joaquín Achúcarro and baritone Gerald Finley). Mr. Ogren’s critically acclaimed performances with New York City Opera have led to another re-invitation and he will return there to conduct the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna.

A native of Hoquiam, Mr. Ogren concluded his tenure in 2009 as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and as music director of the Cleveland Youth Orchestra, having been appointed by Franz Welser-Möst. In May 2009, Mr. Ogren made his subscription debut with the Cleveland Orchestra and, in August of that year, made his debut at the Blossom Festival.

Mr. Ogren previously served as a conducting apprentice with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, working with chief conductor Alan Gilbert. As a result, he conducted the orchestras of Gävle, Helsingborg and Norrköping, the SAMI Sinfonietta, Swedish National Orchestra Academy and Stockholm’s Opera Vox. He has also conducted Finland’s Vaasa City Orchestra. In the U.S. he has appeared with the New World Symphony, Boston’s Callithumpian Consort, the Harvard Group for New Music and the New England Conservatory Opera Theater.

Jayce Ogren received a bachelor’s degree in composition from St. Olaf College in 2001 and a master’s degree in conducting from the New England Conservatory in 2003. Aided by a U.S. Fulbright Grant, he completed a postgraduate diploma in orchestral conducting at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. He has been invited to participate in conducting courses and master classes in both the U.S. and Europe, including two summers at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. His principal teachers have been Steven Amundson, Jorma Panula, Charles Peltz and David Zinman.

Mr. Ogren is also a published composer whose music has been premiered at venues including the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music, the Brevard Music Center, the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, the American Choral Directors Association Conference and the World Saxophone Congress. His Symphonies of Gaia has been performed by ensembles on three continents and serves as the title track on a DVD featuring the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra.

Jayce Ogren is the founder of Young Kreisler, a band performing Ogren’s own work, as well as music ranging from Mahler to Piazzolla to Kurt Cobain. Devoted to education, Mr. Ogren has worked with student musicians throughout the United States, appearing as a guest composer/conductor at the 2004 Washington All-State Music Festival. In 2001, the Minnesota Music Educators Association named Jayce Ogren their Composer of the Year.

Program Notes

Johannes Brahms
Nänie, Op. 82

Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He made sketches for this “Lament” during the summer of 1880, but composed most of the work the following summer, completing it by August 22 and conducting the premiere with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra on December 6 of that year. In addition to SATB chorus, Brahms calls for pairs of woodwinds, 2 horns, 3 trombones, timpani, harp and strings.

The Latin word “nenia” (“Nänie” in German) refers to a funeral song, usually performed in praise of a deceased individual by professional female mourners or by the recently departed’s female relatives, to the accompaniment of one or more instruments. In 1799, the celebrated German author, dramatist and poet Friedrich Schiller (on whose “Ode to Joy” Beethoven based the final movement of his Ninth Symphony) composed the poem “Nänie,” in which he employs allusions to Greek myths to lament the transitory nature of even the most perfect beauty that conquers both gods and humans. The poem’s first section refers to the death of the handsome hero Adonis, adored by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice describes how Zeus, ruler of the Greek pantheon and hence lord of the “Stygian” realm—the Underworld across the River Styx—had once permitted a loved one to leave the world of the dead. But Orpheus, in his anxiety about his wife Eurydice, glanced behind him to see if she was following him to the Upper World, and so lost her forever. Aphrodite, however, is not allowed to heal the wounds of Adonis. The last section of the poem references the inability of the sea nymph Thetis to rescue her god-like son Achilles, who is slain in battle at Troy’s Scaean Gate. The grief-stricken Thetis rises from the Mediterranean Sea with the other daughters of Nereus, one of the Titans, to mourn in song the death of her son. As the poem concludes, the gods and goddesses bewail the inevitable fading of Beauty and the death of Perfection, but Schiller observes that a threnody in the mouth of a loved one is a lordly thing, for common people descend to the Underworld without a lament being sung for them.

Brahms found in Schiller’s “Nänie” the perfect text for a musical memorial to the neo-Classical painter Anselm Feuerbach, a friend of his who often painted scenes from Greek mythology. Brahms might have heard Hermann Goetz’ setting of the poem at a performance in Vienna during February 1880, within a month of Feuerbach’s death. In July of that year, Brahms wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg that Biblical texts did not fire his imagination because they failed to be “heathenish enough” for him, but he did recall Schiller’s poem with its references to the myths of ancient Greece. When Brahms completed his choral-orchestral setting of the poem a year later, he dedicated the work to Henriette Feuerbach, the artist’s stepmother.

A sweetly singing oboe introduces a tranquil, undulating melody in D major and 6/4 meter as the work begins. This melody, so beautiful that its death is almost unthinkable, is sung first by the sopranos and then by other voices, weaving a rich contrapuntal tapestry that decorates the path of Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice as they make their way toward the light, before Zeus snatches back Orpheus’ bride. Tenors and basses—imitated by sopranos and altos—describe Aphrodite’s attempt to heal Adonis’ wounds. The voices join together to anoint his injured body, but cannot save the youth, and neither can a shield of somewhat martial music protect Achilles as he falls, with the musical line, at the gate of Troy. In the composition’s central section—as Achilles’ mother, Thetis, and her sisters rise from the sea to join their voices with those of the gods in chromatic lamentation that features emotional octave leaps from sopranos—the musical texture becomes homophonic, and the meter shifts to 4/4 and the key to a consoling F# major. With an initial crescendo of protest that soon diminishes into hushed resignation, the chorus reiterates that beauty fades and the perfect die, before Brahms rounds out the work in A–B–A form by a return to the original key, meter and thematic material. As the work concludes, Brahms affirms that—although ordinary mortals descend silently to the grave—an elegy in the mouth of a loved one is “a marvelous thing.”

Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89

Brahms composed his “Song of the Fates” during the summer of 1882, completing it by the end of July. He conducted the premiere in Basel, Switzerland, on December 10 of that year. In addition to six-part (SAATBB) chorus, Brahms calls for pairs of woodwinds (with one flute doubling piccolo) plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

For this compact, thick-textured, darkly chromatic work—his last piece for chorus and orchestra—Brahms chose a seven-stanza text describing the helplessness of humanity in the face of the gods’ implacable power. It comes from a monologue in Act 4 of the 1779 drama Iphigenie auf Tauris, a reworking by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Germany’s most illustrious literary figures, of Euripides’ tragedy. Brahms dedicated the work to Duke Georg von Sachsen-Meiningen, in gratitude for his hospitality when Hans von Bülow, conductor of the famous Meinigen Court Orchestra, made the ensemble available to Brahms for rehearsals.

A largely homophonic work, Gesang der Parzen takes the form of a five-part rondo (A–B–A′–C–A″) introduced by a menacing, harmonically unstable orchestral prelude that warns mortals to fear the ruthless gods, whose will must not be contravened. In the A section, chorus sings the first three verses of the text—initially by the men with women answering, and then by all the voices together—in an unhurried, relentless marching rhythm that emphasizes the gods’ power and cruelty. The B section (verse four of the text) moves from a somber D minor tonality to a lighter F major as the gods continue to feast at their golden tables, to the accompaniment of dance-like motives tossed from the lower voices to the upper and back again. A chromatic gloom descends, however, at the mention in the fifth verse of the deep abysses from which steams the Titans’ acrid breath; the minor mode of the work’s A section then returns with the text of the poem’s first verse. A sudden shift from 4/4 to 3/4 meter and a brighter D major tonality occurs as section C begins, as if Brahms could not bear to present the painful words of the sixth verse of the poem without clothing them in a comforting musical garb reminiscent of a gentle waltz, thus mitigating the melancholy mood of the text. The stark concluding section echoes the D minor tonality and the funeral-march–like rhythms of the A section. The opening melodic figures appear in the violins, while the voices of the chorus chant the phrases of the poem’s grim final stanza through an unusual harmonic cycle of major thirds (D–F#–B♭–D). The exile, banished by the Fates, shakes his head in despair, and the music sinks into a mysterious silence.

Schicksalslied, Op. 54

Brahms began sketching his “Song of Destiny” in 1868, completing a preliminary version by May 1870. He conducted the work’s premiere in Karlsruhe on October 18, 1871. In addition to SATB chorus, Brahms employs pairs of woodwinds, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

This powerfully dramatic work for four-part chorus and an orchestra has as its text German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1798 poem “Hyperions Schicksalslied,” originally part of the novel Hyperion, or The Hermit in Greece. While visiting some friends at Wilhelmshaven in 1868, Brahms discovered Hölderlin’s poem in a book of verse and was “stirred to his depths.” The poem has three verses that form two parts, the first (verses one and two) describing the blissful immortality of the gods, and the second (verse three) contrasting this serenity with the tumultuous sufferings of human beings. Brahms struggled over the course of three years to arrive at a satisfactory manner in which to conclude his setting of this text, finding that the despair in which the poet ends his work clashed with the composer’s desire to glimpse dawn’s hopeful glow beyond the poem’s desolate darkness. Moreover, the text’s bipartite intellectual architecture was at odds with his inclination to shape the music into a balanced ternary form that pleased him structurally.

The solution to this conundrum was Brahms’ recapitulation, in the orchestral coda, of music from the work’s warmly radiant instrumental introduction, with its gently pulsating timpani triplet figures. The altos first meet the blissful gods in the realm of eternal light, but the other voices soon join them in softly glowing harmonies. As the two-verse initial section ends, an ominously unsettling woodwind chord shakes the E♭ major tonality of the first section into the tempestuous C minor of the second part, in which the entire chorus cries out in agonized defiance against the blindness, suffering and rootlessness that characterize the human condition. Its chords crash against our ears like a cataract hurtling from one cliff to another while the strings seethe and swirl and the triple meter’s shifting accents further unsettle those who can find no resting place. The chorus finally staggers into the silence of the unknown depths, but the music of the orchestra’s opening returns, this time in C major, to provide a measure of solace—will the gods have mercy upon tormented mortals after all?

Lorelette Knowles

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

Sibelius was born in Tavestehus, Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää on September 20, 1957. He began work on this symphony in early 1901, completing it a year later. Sibelius conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in the first performance on March 8, 1902. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

In March 1900, Jean Sibelius received an anonymous letter from an admirer of his music. The writer suggested that the composer title one of this recent compositions Finlandia and—after some revisions to the work—Sibelius did so. That summer, when the Helsinki Philharmonic (accompanied by Sibelius) set sail on a tour to the Paris World’s Fair, the mysterious correspondent showed himself at the pier. Finlandia proved a rousing success and, after returning home, Sibelius finally discovered the identity of his anonymous admirer: Baron Axel Carpelan. A Swedish-speaking Finn (as was Sibelius), Carpelan possessed a title but little money. His parents had thwarted his plans to become a violinist, so in protest he smashed his instrument, refused to attend university and took up a habit of writing letters of advice and praise to artists in whom he identified the potential for greatness.

Carpelan managed to function as something of a patron for Sibelius by recruiting wealthy individuals to the cause. Even before their first face-to-face meeting in October 1900, Carpelan wrote in one of his many letters that Sibelius should travel to Italy, as the country had provided great inspiration for Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. “Everything there is beautiful—even the ugly,” Carpelan insisted, in spite of the fact that he himself had never traveled outside Scandinavia.

Sibelius arrived in Rapallo, near Geonoa, in February 1901, remaining there until May. The Italian scenery proved beneficial both to his spirit and to his compositional output. He began sketches for what he initially envisioned as a suite of four tone poems on the subject of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and also worked for a time on a project related to Don Juan. But after his return to Finland these disparate elements evolved into a four-movement symphony devoid of overt programmatic associations. On November 9, Sibelius reported to Carpelan that the symphony was nearing completion, and he delivered the score to a copyist in early 1902. The premiere of the work, which Sibelius dedicated to Carpelan, resulted in immediate and resounding acclaim, with one reviewer describing it as “a definitive masterpiece, one of the few symphonic creations of our time that points in the same direction as Beethoven’s symphonies.”

While the symphony does bear some hallmarks of Beethoven’s approach to symphonic form, it differs in important—often miraculous—ways. Beethoven typically began a work with fully laid-out themes that then undergo deconstruction in an extended development section. Sibelius, by contrast, introduces building blocks—sequences of chords or short musical motives—that he later combines and extends into longer-lined thematic statements. “It is as though the Almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together,” the composer once wrote. The symphony opens with the first of these pieces, a sequence of three chords spread across 11 notes in the strings. Woodwinds answer with a dance-like melody, interrupted by horns with a duple-meter phrase that questions the prevailing 6/4 time signature. These elements repeat and intermingle before a bassoon fanfare leads to an impassioned violin phrase. Pizzicato strings soon drive the tempo faster (to poco allegro) and the music surges forth in earnest. The initial musical ideas return again and again, but always modified or developed to some extent, from the full brass section taking up the bassoon fanfare at the movement’s climax, to the quiet coda, in which the strings recall the symphony’s opening gesture.

The second movement—beginning in D minor to contrast with the cheerier D major of the symphony’s opening—originated with Sibelius’ Don Juan sketches. A timpani roll leads to an extended pizzicato passage in 3/8 time for double basses, which yield to cellos. Bassoons, playing in octaves, challenge the established meter with a theme in 4/4 over the pizzicato triplets. The music builds in urgency, then subsides for a magical passage of hushed strings that introduces a key change to F# major. Much of the rest of the music develops the string theme, shedding a tragic light on the initially hopeful melody.

Strings launch the frenetic scherzo—in 6/8 time but with one beat to each bar—over which woodwinds chime in with duple-meter phrases that struggle to form a theme. Solo timpani provides a bridge from G minor to the trio’s exotic key of G♭ major. Solo oboe, answered by clarinets, intones a relaxed melody in 12/4 time over sustained chords in horns and bassoons. Strings attempt to join in, but the oboe melody returns briefly until trumpets shatter the calm by announcing a return to the scherzo. The fragmentary woodwind motive finally resolves into a complete theme as the strings generate ever more frenzy. A return of the trio and its oboe theme is short-lived, but this time the music remains in 12/4, building inevitably and powerfully toward the opening bar of the fourth movement.

The symphony’s finale begins triumphantly and ends even more so. Not long after the work’s premiere, some listeners set forth an interpretation of the symphony as a musical evocation of the battle for Finnish independence, with the D major finale representing a victorious conclusion to the struggle. The composer himself discounted such notions, preferring to think of his most famous and enduring symphony in purely absolute terms. Program or not, the work’s conclusion remains among the most beloved passages in all of Sibelius’ music.

The contrast of this composition with Sibelius’ fairly traditional Symphony No. 1, premiered three years earlier, is striking. The composer would further refine his “mosaic” approach in his next five symphonies, the last of which debuted in 1924.

Jeff Eldridge