2012–2013 Season

Bach & Shostakovich

  • October 6, 2012

  • Saturday | 7:30 PM
  • First Free Methodist Church
    3200 3rd Ave W
  • Jeremy Briggs Roberts, conductor
  • Catherine Haight, soprano
  • Kathryn Weld, mezzo-soprano
  • Cheryse McLeod Lewis, mezzo-soprano
  • James L. Brown, tenor
  • Charles Robert Stephens, baritone

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Chorale Variations on the Christmas Song Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her
Johann Sebastian Bach
Magnificat, BWV 243
—Intermission—
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

The 2012–2013 season kicks off as we welcome the first of six candidates for OSSCS music director: Jeremy Briggs Roberts, currently music director of the Washington Idaho Symphony in Pullman. The concert opens with Stravinsky’s sparkling orchestration of a Bach organ work and continues with one of Bach’s choral masterpieces, the Magnificat. After intermission comes one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century, the Symphony No. 10 of Dmitri Shostakovich—a work filled with hidden meanings, including a demonic scherzo that purportedly provides a musical portrait of Joseph Stalin, a secretly encoded love letter to the composer’s muse, and the Russian master’s own melodic signature (DSCH).

About the Conductor

Guest conductor Jeremy Briggs Roberts serves as music director and conductor of the Washington Idaho Symphony in Pullman. Prior to this appointment, he served as associate conductor of the Philharmonisches Kammerorchester Berlin, music director of the Icicle Creek Youth Symphony and Summer Symphony, music director of the University of Washington Opera, associate conductor of the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the University of Washington Baroque Ensemble and Contemporary Group.

A member of the conducting faculty at the 2009 Marrowstone Summer Music Festival in Bellingham, he has led such ensembles as the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Spokane Symphony, London Soloists Chamber Orchestra, Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Thüringen Philharmonie, Sofia Festival Orchestra and the Bacau Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. His opera credits include productions of Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges, Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, Die Zauberflöte, Le Nozze de Figaro and Der Schauspieldirektor, Salieri’s Prima la Musica e Poi le Parole, and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.

Mr. Briggs Roberts was a prizewinner at the 2006 Vendôme Academy of Orchestral Conducting in Paris. He has studied and worked closely with many of today’s leading conductors including Peter Erös, Janos Fürst, Gerard Schwarz, Jorma Panula, John Nelson, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Gianluigi Gelmetti. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and music from the University of Puget Sound and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Washington, where he also studied piano with Craig Sheppard and Patricia Michaelian.

About the Soloists

Soprano Catherine Haight is well known to Seattle audiences for her performances of Baroque music. She is an accomplished performer of the oratorio repertoire, including all of the major works of Handel and Bach, as well as music by Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and others. Ms. Haight has been a guest soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in their acclaimed production of Carmina Burana, traveling with them to Australia’s Melbourne Festival in 1995, and to the Kennedy Center in 1996. Her recordings include Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang with Philharmonia Northwest, Orff’s Carmina Burana with Seattle Choral Company and Handel’s Messiah with OSSCS.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld has performed extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Her expertise extends from Baroque ornamentation to bel canto opera, from Mahler song cycles to world premieres. She has made two solo appearances with the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Charles Dutoit (de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat) and Kurt Masur (Grieg’s Peer Gynt). She made her Carnegie Hall debut to critical acclaim in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor with Musica Sacra. The Seattle P-I praised her performance of Alexander Nevsky with the Seattle Symphony for “beauty of tone, a long line and a handsome shaping of Prokofiev’s phrases.” Learn more: northwestartists.org

Mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis has been praised by the Asheville Citizen-Times for her “stunning vocal power,” and commended by Opera News Online for her “rich lyric-mezzo sound.” Her operatic appearances include the title role in Carmen, Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, and the Jazz Singer in the world premiere of Libby Larsen’s Picnic. Ms. Lewis also performs with the Inspirata Quartet and has appeared as soloist with ensembles such as the Eastern Music Festival, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Greensboro Symphony and North Carolina Symphony. Recently relocated from the east coast, she sings Handel’s Messiah with Ballet Bellevue in December. Learn more: CheryseMusic.com

Tenor James L. Brown maintains an eclectic career as a singer, conductor and stage director, and serves as Chair of Vocal Studies at Pacific Lutheran University, overseeing a large and diverse voice program. Praised by Opera News and Early Music America, Mr. Brown has sung with New York City Opera, Seattle Early Music Guild, Pacific Musicworks, Aspen Opera Theater and Italy’s Spoleto Festival, working with conductors such as James Conlon, Richard Hickox and Robert Spano. As a concert soloist, he has appeared at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Seattle’s Town Hall, Harris Concert Hall at the Aspen Festival, the Ravinia Festival, and the Music Academy of the West. Learn more: northwestartists.org

Baritone Charles Robert Stephens has enjoyed a career spanning a wide variety of roles and styles in opera and concert music, with Opera News praising him for “committed characterization and a voice of considerable beauty.” At New York City Opera, he sang the role of Prof. Friedrich Bhaer in the New York premiere of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, and was hailed by The New York Times as a “baritone of smooth distinction.” He has sung on numerous occasions at Carnegie Hall in a variety of roles with Opera Orchestra of New York, the Oratorio Society of New York, the Masterworks Chorus and Musica Sacra, as well as with ensembles throughout the Pacific Northwest. Learn more: seidelartistsmgmt.com

Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach
Igor Stravinsky
Chorale Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her

Stravinsky was born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum (near St. Petersburg), and died April 6, 1971, in New York City. He began work on his setting of Bach’s BWV 769 in New York on December 29, 1955, and completed it in Hollywood on February 2, 1956. Robert Craft conducted the premiere at the Ojai Festival, assisted by the Pomona College Glee Club, on May 27 of that year. Stravinsky employs pairs of flutes, oboes and bassoons (plus English horn and contrabassoon), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, harp, violas, double basses and chorus.

In 1738, Lorenz Christoph Mizler, a German physician, mathematician and amateur composer, founded the Korrespondierenden Sozietät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences), an elite fraternity limited to 20 members. Telemann joined the next year, with Handel following in 1745. The society welcomed Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747, three years before his death.

Bach no doubt delighted in the fact that he was the 14th member to join the society, as the number 14 was a special one to him. He often employed symbolism in his music, and in the numerical alphabet equivalency prevalent at the time (A = 1, B = 2, C = 3,…, H = 8, I = J = 9,…, S = 18,…), B+A+C+H = 14 while J+S+BACH = 9+18+14 = 41, an inversion of the digits in 14.

To demonstrate his mastery of the “musical sciences,” Bach presented the society with a set of canonic variations for organ on Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, a 1539 chorale tune by Martin Luther with a text (derived from Luke 2) created for a Christmas Eve festivity. Bach had made previous use of the chorale in the original version of his Magnificat, as well as an organ prelude (BWV 606) and some of the cantatas that form his Christmas Oratorio.

The work, which Raymond Erickson describes as “a compositional tour de force, a display of the most rigorous techniques of strict canon,” consists of five variations, each of them a canon—a musical form with two voices, in which the second voice is displaced both horizontally (delayed by, say, a quarter note or a full measure) and vertically (at a specified interval, such as an octave or perfect fifth). Bach includes the chorale tune as a cantus firmus sounding in long notes above or below the other voices. Many scholars rank this work among the composer’s other great contrapuntal achievements: the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue.

In 1955, Igor Stravinsky composed his Canticum Sacrum, a 17-minute choral work, as the result of a commission for a piece to be premiered at Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral the following September. To extend his musical contribution to roughly half an hour, Stravinsky turned to Bach’s Vom Himmel hoch variations, orchestrating them for an unusual instrumental ensemble similar to the one he employed for Canticum Sacrum. In his 2006 memoir Down a Path of Wonder, Robert Craft (Stravinsky’s musical assistant from 1948 until the composer’s death) asserts that he suggested the Bach project to Stravinsky. Craft, to whom the work is dedicated, reports that Stravinsky deemed the result a ”recomposition” rather than a mere orchestration or transcription.

Although Stravinsky retains all of the notes from Bach’s original, he adds a few of his own by inserting additional canon voices during some of the variations. Bach began directly with the first variation, but Stravinsky opens his version with a statement of the chorale tune in a harmonization drawn from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and scored for brass. Retaining the original work’s key of C major for the outer variations, Stravinsky creates an arch form by transposing the second and fourth to G major and the central variation to the remote key of D♭.

Beginning in the second variation, Stravinsky employs a unison chorus to sing the first verse of Luther’s text to each iteration of the cantus firmus. But preceding each choral phrase in the second variation, he adds a rhythmically compressed inversion (that is, faster and upside-down) of that phrase, played by a solo trombone or trumpet.

The first two variations feature a two-part canon over the cantus firmus; in the third variation, the two-part canon joins an independent melody (introduced by flute, and to which Stravinsky adds florid ornamentation) that brings to mind the vocal line of a Bach aria. Meanwhile, Stravinsky adds his own canon (in isolated notes played by muted trumpet or trombone) to the cantus firmus, displaced by a mere eighth rest and at an interval of a major seventh above or below the chorale tune—creating striking dissonances.

In the fourth variation, Bach answers the eighth notes of his canon’s first voice (introduced by the first trumpet) with an “augmented” second voice (stretched out to quarter notes, first played by bass trombone) an octave below, with a third voice sandwiched in between. Four bars from the end, Bach inserts his musical signature into the work, spelling out B–A–C–H in eighth notes: B being the German name for B♭ and H the German name for B♮ (although the note names differ in Stravinsky’s transposed version).

For the canon voice in the final variation, Bach uses the actual chorale tune in rhythmically compressed form (quarter notes instead of half notes), answering it with an inverted (that is, upside-down) second voice. Bach splits the final movement into four sections, with the second voice initially answering at an interval of a sixth, next a third, then a second, and finally a ninth. Stravinsky holds the chorus in reserve until this final segment and wraps up the work with brilliant polyphonic brass textures.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. He composed the original version of his Magnificat for use during church services on Christmas Day 1723, revising the work sometime between 1728 and 1731. In addition to SSATB soloists and SSATB chorus, Bach utilizes 2 flutes, 2 oboes (both doubling oboe d’amore), 3 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo.

In 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach took up a new post in Leipzig, where he would reside for the rest of his life—in spite of the often unpleasant treatment he received from city officials, which caused him to actively seek other employment on more than one occasion. As cantor of St. Thomas’ School and music director for the city’s four churches, his responsibilities included producing roughly 60 cantatas a year for weekly services and feast days. During his first year in Leipzig, Bach composed almost 40 new cantatas and re-worked about 20 others from among his pre-existing compositions. In addition, he planned extra-special music for both Christmas 1723 (a Magnificat) and Good Friday 1724 (the St. John Passion).

In Luke 1, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s greeting, the child leaps inside Elizabeth’s womb, prompting the expectant mother to commend Mary’s faith. Mary’s response (Luke 1:46–55) in praise of the Lord forms the text of Magnificat, to which the Doxology is appended. Churchgoers during Bach’s time would typically sing this canticle in German (and in plainchant), but high feast days dictated the use of Latin, sung to fully composed music.

The original 1723 version of Bach’s Magnificat, in E♭ major, interpolated four Christmas hymns, the first of them being Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her. A few years later, Bach reworked the piece slightly, excising the interpolations to allow the piece to be used on any feast day, not just at Christmas. His other significant modification involved transposing the work down a half-step to D major, a highly festive key that benefits from the sound of open strings and better suits the brilliant trumpet writing that opens and closes the work.

In the opening movement, a jubilant orchestral ritornello bookends a concise 45-measure choral setting of Mary’s assertion of her faith (“My soul magnifies the Lord”). There follows an aria for the second soprano, still in D major and in a sprightly 3/8 meter, featuring a central minor-key episode for a 41-note vocal run on the word “salutari.” The rejoicing gives way to a more contemplative aria (in the somber key of B minor) in which the first soprano sings Mary’s words about her “low estate,” engaging in a duet with solo oboe d’amore (pitched a minor third lower than a standard oboe). In the last segment, the vocal line becomes simpler as Mary predicts that future generations will consider her blessed. Bach takes advantage of the fact that the words ”all generations” fall at the end of the Latin phrase, using this moment to bring back all of the voices in the choir, which initiates a brief but thrilling fugue with a musical motive that appears exactly 41 times. Bach repeats the first of the two words (“omnes, omnes generationes”) so that, as Kenneth Kilfedder has noted, each new “omnes” overlaps the preceding “-tiones,” just as the generations overlap throughout time.

A stately bass aria in A major, accompanied by continuo only, leads to an E-minor duet for alto and tenor in 12/8 meter against sighing phrases from flutes and muted strings. The choir and the full force of the three trumpets and timpani return to evoke “strength.” Bach staggers the vocal entrances for the word “dispersit” but the choir aligns to shout a single “superbos,” at which point the tempo suddenly switches gears from an implied allegro to an expansive adagio for seven of the most amazing measures not only in this piece—but in all of Bach’s choral writing.

Solo tenor engages in a stern aria, marked by descending phrases on the opening word “deposuit” (answered by running sixteenth-note figures from unison violins) as the mighty are deposed from their seats of power. Two flutes provide a pastoral accompaniment for the alto aria that follows; at the very end, Bach sends the flutes “away empty” along with “the rich” by omitting their final cadence, concluding with a single note from the continuo. Next, the three solo female voices (parts sung by boys in Bach’s time— the Latin word “puerum” translates literally as “boy”) create a magical texture against which unison oboes intone the melody of the chorale Meine Seel’ erhebt den Herren (a German-language setting of the Magnificat text familiar to Leipzigers of Bach’s time).

The chorus returns for a fugue in an “old-fashioned” style (with only continuo accompaniment) employed by Bach’s musical predecessors, perhaps in response to the mention of “our fathers” dating back to Abraham: unlike “Omnes generationes,” this fugue looks backward rather than forward. The final movement opens grandly, with ascending vocal lines rising toward the heavens in praise of the Holy Trinity. At the words “as it was in the beginning,” Bach reprises 23 measures of material from the opening movement to conclude in a joyful blaze of D major.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93

Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in the premiere of his tenth symphony on December 17, 1953. Composed earlier that year, the work calls for triple woodwinds (including 2 piccolos, English horn, E♭ clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, military drum, snare drum, gong, triangle, xylophone) and strings.

In 1925, 19-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich completed his first symphony, a graduation exercise that would attract the attention of conductor Bruno Walter and earn him acclaim (not only in the Soviet Union but in the West as well) at a fairly young age. Two more symphonies, both of which included chorus, followed in 1927 and 1930; although their musical language was far more experimental, their subject matter (the October Revolution and May Day) helped deflect any adverse reaction from the Soviet establishment.

Shostakovich began work on his fourth symphony in September 1935. The following January, he was summoned to attend a performance of his own opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, then enjoying a successful two-year run at the Bolshoi Theater—Joseph Stalin was to be in attendance. Stalin departed before the final curtain without a word to the composer. Two days later, Pravda published an unsigned editorial titled “Muddle Instead of Music” that lambasted the opera and concluded with a threat that Shostakovich’s present course “may end very badly”: Shostakovich was on notice, but may not have entirely understood the ramifications. Official reaction to rehearsals for his Symphony No. 4, completed in May 1936 and scheduled for a December premiere, resulted in Shostakovich “withdrawing” the work (it would not be heard in public until 1961).

Shostakovich responded the following year with a fifth symphony designed (according to an article published under the composer’s byline prior to the work’s premiere) as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”; the music itself—modeled after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5— remains open to a vastly different interpretation, but nevertheless received a magnificent response from both the public and the establishment. A 1939 sixth symphony premiered with less fanfare, while the seventh symphony, a massive work of Mahlerian scale, debuted during March 1942, eliciting enthusiastic responses both at home and throughout the West, in part because of its subject matter (the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad in which 25 million Soviet citizens perished).

Another massive wartime symphony (the eighth) followed in 1943; official reaction at the time was positive, if unenthusiastic, although Soviet officials would retroactively criticize it five years later, when Shostakovich had once again fallen into disfavor. The prospect of a ninth symphony brought with it much baggage—not only the challenge of living up to other great ninths (Beethoven’s being a major case in point), but the superstitions surrounding ninth symphonies (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler, for example, all died before completing a Symphony No. 10) and the official expectation that Shostakovich’s ninth would be a suitably victorious celebration to mark the end of World War II. Initially, Shostakovich began sketching just such a work, scored for quadruple winds and including a massive choir, but before long scrapped that approach, producing “a merry little piece” (to be performed by Orchestra Seattle on February 9) that, upon its November 1945 premiere, earned him only scorn from the Soviet hierarchy.

Thus Shostakovich retreated, and over the next eight years most of the music he presented for public consumption was of the sort (film scores, patriotic choral works) that would attract little official chastisement. Stalin’s death, on March 5, 1953, helped Shostakovich feel somewhat safer (although far from completely safe) in sharing his more personal music with the public, and within a few weeks he began work on his Symphony No. 10, finishing it well in advance of its December premiere.

The work’s lengthy opening movement begins with cellos and basses playing E–F♯–G—D♯–F♯–A (the first three tones of a minor scale, followed by a diminished triad). Out of these notes, Shostakovich develops the material that occupies the opening “paragraphs” of his symphony, until solo clarinet introduces a melody that Klaus George Roy later identified as a paraphrase of a theme from the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). The meaning of this near-quotation is unclear: perhaps it was inadvertent, perhaps Shostakovich viewed this work as his own resurrection symphony (with new possibilities in the wind after Stalin’s death), or maybe the composer had in mind the lyrics Mahler set to this music (“Man lies in direst need! Man lies in direst pain!”). This second section builds to the work’s first loud climax before returning to solo clarinet. Suddenly, the pace quickens and solo flute states a nervous waltz-like theme that receives subsequent treatment from the strings and other solo woodwinds. Solo bassoon picks up the Mahler theme, while the second bassoon and contrabassoon answer with variants of the movement’s opening motive. This leads to an increasingly furious development of material from all three major themes, eventually subsiding into a clarinet duet that initiates a coda by singing variants of the Mahler and waltz themes. The movement concludes quietly with a pair of piccolos—and finally just one—over hushed accompaniment from strings and timpani, during which cellos and basses utter one final statement of the opening motive, here transposed to C minor: C–D–E♭—B♮–D–F.

The second movement explodes onto the scene with two savage string chords, followed immediately by three notes that should sound familiar (the first three tones of a D♭-minor scale, that is, C–D–E♭ raised a semitone). The scherzo, which according to Testimony (a controversial 1979 book that claimed to be the memoirs of Shostakovich) serves as a musical portrait of Stalin, is unrelenting in its fury—and with its relative brevity provides further contrast to the lengthy opening movement.

The third movement, in 3/4 time, opens with a much more relaxed demeanor as violins present a theme that begins with four now-familiar notes (C–D–E♭—B♮). Flutes introduce a second subject characterized by a rhythm (two eighth notes followed by a long half note) that mirrors the spoken word “Mityenka”—a diminutive form of “Dmitri” and Shostakovich’s childhood nickname—followed by the notes D–E♭–C–B♮: those same four notes again, now in a different order. Here for the first time we have the composer’s musical signature, derived from the German transliteration of his name (Dimitri Schostakowitch) and the German names for E♭ (“Es”) and B♮ (“H”), much as Bach did with his own name two centuries prior. This DSCH motive pervades the rest of the work and would play important roles in other Shostakovich compositions (including the at-this-point-unperformed second violin concerto and the subsequent String Quartet No. 8). After solo bassoon reprises the opening violin theme, solo horn announces another motive (E–A–E–D–A), which appears a total of 12 times through the remainder of the movement. For nearly four decades the meaning of these notes remained a mystery, until Elmira Nazirova, an Azerbaijani pianist and composer who had studied with Shostakovich during the late 1940s, revealed that while working on his tenth symphony, Shostakovich began a correspondence with her, calling her his muse and explaining that he had included her in the work. Replacing the three central notes with their solfeggio equivalents (La, Mi, Re), the horn solo becomes EL(a)MiR(e)A, or ELMIRA.

The final movement begins quietly in low strings, leading to an exotic oboe solo, answered by statements from flute and bassoon, each of which is interrupted by clarinet, which eventually succeeds in launching the strings in a scurrying allegro. A playful mood persists, hinting at a Tchaikovsky-esque rondo finale for the duration of the symphony, until elements of the scherzo intrude, leading to a triple-forte blast of DSCH. Suddenly, all is quiet: DSCH hovers in the background, alternating with woodwinds that take up the oboe melody from the movement’s opening bars, until a jaunty bassoon solo once again lightens the mood and Shostakovich reprises some of the earlier rondo material. In the coda, the timpani repeatedly pound out DSCH, but the rest of the orchestra—and the key of E major—wins the battle.

Jeff Eldridge