2012–2013 Season

Puccini & Shostakovich

  • February 9, 2013

  • Saturday | 7:30 PM
  • First Free Methodist Church
    3200 3rd Ave W
  • Johan Louwersheimer, conductor
  • Stephen Wall, tenor
  • Steven Tachell, bass-baritone

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Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826)
Overture to Euryanthe
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Messa a 4 Voci
—Intermission—
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV Anh. 159
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 9 in E♭ Major, Op. 70

Our first concert of 2013 welcomes another of the six candidates for OSSCS music director to the stage of First Free Methodist Church: Johan Louwersheimer, currently music director of the Octava Chamber Orchestra and artistic director of the Handel Society in White Rock, British Columbia, and the Chilliwack Metropolitan Orchestra. The program opens with an a cappella Bach motet, followed by a rarely heard mass by Giacomo Puccini, a youthful work he composed as a graduation exercise, which then languished in obscurity for over 70 years. After intermission, a dramatic Weber opera overture leads to the Haydnesque ninth symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich.

About the Conductor

Guest conductor Johan Louwersheimer possesses a unique musical background and training that have provided him with the enviable ability to stand in front of both professional and community orchestras and choirs. Mr. Louwersheimer began his training in conducting during his late 30s, when he received an international scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Washington with renowned conductor Peter Erös. In Seattle, Mr. Louwersheimer initiated the University Summer Orchestra program, which he conducted for three consecutive years, toured with the University Symphony and received the Warren Babb Memorial Award. In 1991, he co-founded the Octava Chamber Orchestra, touring Washington and the Fraser Valley in British Columbia and performing with renowned soloists such as Béla Siki and Steven Staryk.

After moving back to Canada, Mr. Louwersheimer became artistic director of the Handel Society in White Rock, British Columbia, with whom he has performed large-scale choral-orchestral masterworks including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Mozart’s Requiem. In 1995, he founded the Abbotsford Symphony Orchestra and Abbotsford Symphony Orchestra Chorus, serving as their artistic director from 1995 until 2007. At the ASO he collaborated with outstanding Canadian musicians such as Judith Forst, Anton Kuerti, Robert Silverman, Stéphane Lemelin, Jonathan Crow, Jennifer Lim and Ian Parker, and developed educational Discovery Concerts to promote orchestra music to school-age children. In 2007, Mr. Louwersheimer received the Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Abbotsford Rotary club for his commitment promoting music in the community. In September 2009, he helped found the Chilliwack Metropolitan Orchestra, where he currently serves as artistic director. His other achievements have included an award-winning high school music program and a stint as artist-in-residence at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

About the Soloists

Tenor Stephen Wall has appeared frequently with Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers since 1985 and can be heard on the OSSCS recording of Handel’s Messiah conducted by George Shangrow. During that time he has also been featured in leading and supporting roles with Seattle Opera, in addition to roles with Portland Opera, Utah Festival Opera and Tacoma Opera, and appearances with the symphonies of Seattle, Vancouver, Spokane, Everett, Bellevue, Yakima, Pendleton, Great Falls and Sapporo (Japan). Mr. Wall has also served as the director for many musical theater productions in western Washington and maintains an active voice studio in Seattle.

Bass-baritone Steven Tachell studied at the University of Washington and at the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts. His initial professional experience included two summers with the Santa Fe Opera in their Young Singers Apprentice program, and continued with his engagement as resident bass-baritone with the St. Gallen Opera Theater in Switzerland. He appeared as soloist in concerts and operas throughout Bavaria and performed frequently with the Munich Savoyards. In the United States, Mr. Tachell has performed with the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler, as well as Opera New England, Arizona Opera, New Jersey Opera and Chattanooga Opera. He has also performed frequently with Seattle Opera.

Program Notes

Carl Maria von Weber
Overture to Euryanthe

Weber was born in Eutin, near Lübeck, Germany, on November 18, 1786, and died in London on June 5, 1826. He completed his opera Euryanthe on August 29, 1823, finishing the overture six days before the October 25 premiere in Vienna. The overture calls for pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

To follow the success of his opera Der Freischütz, Carl Maria von Weber turned to Wilhelmina von Chézy to supply a libretto. Unfortunately the convoluted plot (based on a 13th-century French story previously adapted in Boccaccio’s Decameron and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) involving the noble Adolar and his bride-to-be Euryanthe, along with von Chézy’s inexperience (she had done no prior work in the field of opera) contributed to a libretto that Donald Francis Tovey called “an unholy mess.” As a result, Euryanthe rarely appears on opera stages, despite Weber’s forward-thinking approach (a through-sung “romantic opera,” rather than a dialogue-laden Singspiel in the German tradition) and his often magnificent music (with harmonic innovations that would inspire Richard Wagner).

The overture’s eight-measure introduction—marked by excited triplets—establishes the heroic key of E♭ major, before woodwinds present the first theme, drawn from Adolar’s aria near the end of Act I, Scene 1: “Ich bau’ auf Gott und meine Euryanth’!” (“I trust in God and my Euryanthe”). Violins introduce the B♭-major second subject, adapted from another Adolar aria that opens Act II, Scene 2, in which he sings “O Seligkeit, dich fass ich kaum!” (“O bliss, I scarce can fathom”). The first subject returns vigorously before subsiding, yielding to an eerie Largo episode for eight muted violins, which heralds the appearance of a ghost (Adolar’s sister). Basses initiate a fugal development of the first subject (heard initially in inverted form), followed by recapitulations of both principal themes and capped by a jubilant coda.

Jeff Eldridge

Giacomo Puccini
Messa a 4 Voci

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Lucca, Tuscany, Italy, on December 22, 1858, and died in Brussels on November 29, 1924. This mass, completed during the summer of 1880, received its premiere in Lucca on July 12, 1880, at a church service celebrating the feast of Lucca’s patron saint, San Paolino; Puccini revised the work in 1893. In additon to SATB chorus with tenor and baritone soloists, it employs pairs of woodwinds (plus piccolo), horns and trumpets, plus 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

“I am a mighty hunter of wild birds, opera librettos and beautiful women!” Thus Italian composer Giacomo Puccini described himself. The life story of the man who wrote some of the world’s most popular operas, made and lost millions of dollars, indulged an insatiable appetite for attractive women and fast boats and cars, and exterminated his villa’s population of wild geese reads like the plot of a soap opera based on his favorite theme: “He who has lived for love, has died for love.”

Puccini, generally considered the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi, remains best known for 12 operas that include La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. One of eight children, he was expected to become a church musician who would continue the musical dynasty that had furnished Lucca’s Catedrale di San Martino with a maestro di cappella for 124 years. But after entering the Istituto Musicale Pacini during his early years, he was struck so powerfully by hearing Verdi’s Aïda that he decided in 1880 to leave his forebears’ world of church (“serious”) music for that of opera (“popular music”), and to develop his particular gift for writing theater music through the study of orchestral and opera composition at the Milan Conservatory. After a wildly successful musical career and a scandalous personal life, the chain-smoking Puccini was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1924 from a heart attack that followed an experimental radiation treatment.

Puccini produced a large-scale mass (which would be his longest non-operatic composition) as a graduation exercise when he left the Istituto Musicale Pacini. Written when he was only 21, his idiomatic operatic style is nevertheless evident throughout this complex work. Although Puccini correctly called his composition Mass for Four Voices and Orchestra, the work became known as Messa di Gloria, probably because of the extravagant second movement (“Gloria”), which occupies nearly half of the work’s performance time. (A true messa di gloria consists only of the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” movements.) The Messa’s premiere generated great critical enthusiasm, but—although Puccini reused some of its themes in his operas—the work remained known only to scholars for 72 years.

In Puccini’s Italy, a worshiper would have heard, when attending mass, the type of “romantic” orchestral music we would consider “concert music” today. It generally served as “background” for the ritual actions of clergy and for individual congregants’ private devotion, and was not necessarily intended to illustrate or illuminate the liturgical texts. It was music such as Puccini’s Messa that led to Pope Pius X’s 1903 Instruction on Sacred Music, in which he observed that church music should be an integral part of the solemn liturgy, whose purpose is the glory of God and the edification of the faithful.

The orchestra opens the Messa with a musical summary of the three-section (A–B–A&rime;) “Kyrie.” The first of the movement’s two imitatively developed themes, in major mode and itself based on two motives, is beautifully soaring and “romantic,” while the second theme, in minor, is rhythmically urgent and impassioned.

The first of the “Gloria” movement’s nine contrasting sections introduces a sprightly folk-dance–like theme that reappears several times. Introduced by the women of the chorus, it moves to the male voices and is then enjoyed by all the voices together before sopranos introduce the gentle “Et in terra pax.” Trumpets usher in and punctuate the grandly expansive “Laudamus te,” after which the orchestra prepares the way for the “Gratias agimus,” a thoroughly operatic tenor aria. The chorus now breaks into the movement’s buoyant opening “gloria” theme and continues with a brief, lilting, chordal “Domine Deus.” Basses announce the swaying “Qui tollis”; new contrapuntal material for the entire chorus appears at the “Miserere,” followed by a unison restatement of the “Qui tollis” theme, its re-presentation by the sopranos, and an imitative treatment of the theme featuring voice-pairing (altos/basses and sopranos/tenors). After the majestic chorale-like “Quoniam tu solus” come three blasts of brass that launch the basses into a virtuosicall y contrapuntal “Cum sancto spiritu” (derided by some critics at the Messa’s premiere as “un fugone coi baffi”—“a fugue with mustaches”). This coda brings back the opening “gloria” theme, which both becomes a countermelody to the fugue’s main theme, and forms a homophonic interlude, thus unifying the overall architecture of the “Gloria.”

Composed and performed in 1878 as an independent work, the “Credo” begins with an austere choral unison and continues under stormy skies until the tenor soloist and chorus usher in the sunlit “Et incarnatus.” After a darkly dramatic treatment of the “Crucifixus” as a bass “aria,” the orchestra surges upward, tossing the basses into the powerful imitative sea of sound that swirls around the “Et resurrexit” and “Et ascendit.” The opening triplets of the “Credo” return at the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum,” after which a choral unison (“Et unam sanctam”) and an orchestral interlude lead to the lilting “Et vitam venturi.” First the women’s voices, then the men’s—and finally the entire chorus—look forward to the life of the world to come as the “Credo” concludes.

After a straightforward, warmly homophonic “Sanctus” and an energetic unison “Pleni sunt coeli,” the solo baritone, surrounded by choral “osannas,” presents the “Benedictus.” The closing triplet-decorated “Agnus Dei” (which appears as a madrigale in Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut) brings to mind an 18th-century minuet. The solo tenor is soon joined by the chorus and the solo baritone in a prayer for peace, and the Messa ends with an orchestral whisper.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV Anh. 159

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750. He probably wrote this motet for double choir no later than 1712. It may have been premiered in Arnstadt on July 3, 1713, as part of a musical remembrance before the burial of Margarethe Feldhaus, the mayor’s wife. The text of the first section draws from Genesis 32:26.

In July of 1708, J.S. Bach received an appointment as court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, a fervent Lutheran and an enthusiastic musical patron. The first of Bach’s 20 children was born soon after his arrival in Weimar, where he obtained the freedom to compose for which he had longed. Most of his great organ works date from his nine years in this post, and he composed many cantatas for the duke’s chapel—and for various secular occasions, such as birthdays, weddings and other special events.

For some 200 years, scholars have debated the authorship of the motet Ich lasse dich nicht, described by German composer and conductor Franz Wüllner as “one of the most beautiful works of German church music.” Its original score was copied in Weimar by the youthful Bach and his pupil, Philipp David Kräuter, around 1712, but lists no composer. The work is part of J.S. Bach’s “Old-Bach Archive,” a collection he made of pieces by his forebears. The lack of composer identification, together with stylistic considerations (its first section, in particular, “doesn’t sound like Bach” to many), caused the work to be attributed by some to a Bach relative, the excellent Eisenach musician Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703). Most scholars now believe that the entire composition is indeed the work of J.S. Bach—if so, it is his earliest-known motet.

During Bach’s time, motets were sung on special occasions, especially those mourning the dead. Beginning at the house of the deceased, the choir performed a motet and then sang funeral hymns all along the route to the cemetery and at the grave site. This piece, like Bach’s other motets, was likely written for and performed in such a context, with various instruments supporting the voices.

If Bach did write this work, he closely followed the compositional model for a motet common in central Germany during his day, characterized by the prominence given to the upper parts, the first section’s predominantly chordal texture, and the imitative tapestry woven around a chorale tune in long notes in the second section. This motet’s F-minor mode and passionate mood, however, together with the refrain-based structure of its first section, represent a departure from the norm.

Ich lasse dich nicht showcases Bach’s remarkable ability to weave a substantial and complex musical fabric upon a minimal textual loom. In the first section, a somber procession in triple meter, the second chorus usually echoes the first, but as the work progresses, the choral entries follow one another ever more closely until they overlap and the two groups come together textually and rhythmically. The music accompanying the phrase “du segnest mich denn” reappears (sometimes slightly altered) in the manner of a “refrain” throughout this section, and thus forms the foundation of a rondo-like musical structure that emphasizes the soul’s ardent cry, even in the face of death: “I will not let you go until you bless me!”

Suddenly, the character of the motet changes completely and the two choirs join in a chorale fantasia in duple meter. Sopranos present, in sustained notes, the tune and text of the third verse of the 16th-century chorale Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? (“Why are you afflicted, my heart?”), while two short themes in the lower voices wrestle like Jacob with the Angel of the Lord, intertwining imitatively in insistent, rhythmically ragged, rapid-note exclamations: “No, no, no, I will not let you go until you bless me!” The section ends as the sopranos, having bewailed the fact that a human being is only a clump of earth, sustain for three full measures an affirmation of the fatherly, forever-lasting comfort that only God can give.

The motet’s four-part concluding chordal chorale is based on an untexted harmonization (BWV 421) by Bach of the tune sung by the sopranos in the work’s second section. Its text consists of other verses of Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? This chorale does not appear in the original manuscript copy, and scholars think that it may have been added by J.G. Schicht (editor of the 1802 publication of the motet) or by Bach himself as he thanks and praises God for the blessing of eternal salvation.

Lorelette Knowles

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No. 9 in E♭ Major, Op. 70

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 ninth symphony on November 3, 1945. Composed earlier that year, the work calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus piccolo), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle) 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 (in the Soviet Union as well as in the West) at a young age. Two more symphonies, both including chorus, followed; although they employed far more experimental musical language, 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 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 (“Muddle Instead of Music”) lambasting the opera and concluding with a threat that Shostakovich’s present course “may end very badly”: the composer was on notice, but may not have appreciated 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.

Shostakovich responded with a fifth symphony designed (according to an article published under his byline prior to the work’s 1937 premiere) as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”; modeled after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, it remains open to a vastly different interpretation, but nevertheless received a magnificent response from public and establishment alike. A 1939 sixth symphony premiered with less fanfare, while the seventh symphony, a massive work of Mahlerian scale, debuted during March 1942, eliciting enthusiastic reaction both at home and throughout theWest, 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 (No. 8) followed in 1943; official reaction 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, in particular), 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, which he described as “a symphony of victory with a song of praise.” But before long he scrapped that approach, producing instead “a merry little piece” composed over the course of a month during the summer of 1945. “Musicians will love to play it,” Shostakovich said, “and critics will delight in blasting it.”

Upon the work’s November 1945 premiere, critical reaction was in fact mixed, but the witty symphony earned him no favors from the Soviet hierarchy—when an official crackdown on musical “formalism” came in 1948, his music was temporarily banned. Until Stalin’s death in 1953, most of the music Shostakovich presented for public consumption was of the sort (film scores, patriotic choral works) that would attract little official chastisement.

The first movement of the Symphony No. 9 takes the form of a Classical sonata-allegro, even to the point of including a repeat of the exposition. (Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the Boston Symphony in the American premiere of the work at Tanglewood in August 1946, called it “very near to Haydn.”) The overall meter is 2/2, but Shostakovich intersperses 3/2 measures to keep things a bit unpredictable. Humor pervades the material, no more so than when a solo trombone brashly heralds the arrival of the second subject (stated initially by piccolo) with a two-note fanfare. The development threatens—at least momentarily—to take a serious turn, but merriment wins out, even as bars of 5/4 and 3/4 throw the recapitulation off balance.

Solo clarinet spins out the mournful main theme of the second movement, its waltz-like 3/4 pulse interrupted by a recurring 4/4 bar with a built-in Luftpause. A second clarinet joins the first, then flute and eventually more of the woodwind section, building intensity until yielding to a second subject—a lurching, chromatic motive—introduced by muted strings. The main theme returns on solo flute, followed by a reprise of the string material. Solo piccolo rounds out the arch form with an eerie coda based on the opening theme.

Merriment returns in the quicksilver 6/8 third movement, but low brass intrude with more ominous ideas. A tarantella-like melody appears on solo trumpet before the opening scherzo material returns, but rather than pushing forward toward a whirlwind climax, the tempo subsides, leading without pause into the brief but arresting fourth movement. Trombones and tuba create a massive wall of sound out of a simple ascending scale, but cut off suddenly, yielding to a plaintive bassoon solo that extends into the instrument’s highest register. The low brass reappear, followed by another outcry from solo bassoon. The underlying meaning of this fourth movement remains a mystery: Is it a lament for the war dead? A slow introduction to the fast finale? A mere bridge between the third and fifth movements? Characteristically, Shostakovich never communicated his intentions.

The solo bassoon leads the transition from the dark fourth movement to the jolly rondo theme of the finale. At times, a circus-like atmosphere pervades, and development of the rondo theme leads to a big climax with the melody hammered out by the entire orchestra in full force. The coda drops the dynamic level down several notches, but keeps ratcheting up the tempo, whirling almost out of control toward the final bar.

Jeff Eldridge