Verdi & Sibelius
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
- Four Sacred Pieces
- Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
- Symphony No. 5 in E♭ Major, Op. 82
OSSCS welcomes back Hoquiam native Jayce Ogren, newly appointed music director of New York City Opera and a rising star on podiums around the globe—from London’s Royal Albert Hall to the New York Philharmonic. His exciting interpretation of Sibelius’ second symphony with Orchestra Seattle in October 2011 thrilled audience members and performers alike. To close the 2012–2013 season, Mr. Ogren will conduct Sibelius’ majestic Symphony No. 5 along with Giuseppe Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, a quartet of alternately serene and powerful choral masterworks.
With mounting successes in both symphonic and operatic repertoire, Jayce Ogren is building a sterling reputation as one of the finest young conductors to emerge from the United States in recent seasons. He has just been named music director of the New York City Opera, where this season he conducted Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, and during the 2013–2014 season will lead new productions of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at St. Ann’s Warehouse and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at City Center.
A series of high-profile New York City dates during 2012–2013 demonstrates Mr. Ogren’s wide-ranging talents: in addition to New York City Opera, he made his Mostly Mozart Festival debut with the groundbreaking International Contemporary Ensemble; he also led ICE in programs at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre (and the Wien Modern Festival); he joined New York City Ballet for an all-Stravinsky program; and he debuted with the New York Philharmonic on their CONTACT! series.
In the summer of 2012, Mr. Ogren led performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Verbier Festival Academy and the European premiere of Bernstein’s West Side Story with Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, repeating the iconic Bernstein work with the Detroit Symphony and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa this season. Earlier this month he returned to the BBC Symphony at the Barbican for the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Outrage and European premieres of works by David Lang and Paola Prestini.
Recent engagements in America include dates with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the New World Symphony and the Grand Rapids Symphony. Mr. Ogren 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. He also returned to New York City Opera to conduct the American premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna.
European guest engagements have included the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, repeat appearances with the Asturias Symphony, regional opera companies and orchestras throughout Scandinavia.
On the opera stage, Mr. Ogren made his Canadian Opera Company debut with Stravinsky’s The Nightingale & Other Short Fables, and has led New York City Opera productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, for which he won extensive critical acclaim.
Mr. Ogren was appointed by Franz Welser-Möst as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and music director of the Cleveland Youth Orchestra n 2006. In 2009, he led the Cleveland Orchestra in regular season subscription concerts and at the Blossom Festival.
A Hoquiam native, Mr. 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 post-graduate diploma in orchestral conducting at Stockholm’s Royal College of Music and spent two summers at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen.
As a composer, Mr. Ogren’s works have been premiered at venues including the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music, the Brevard Music Center, 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. He is a triathlete based in New York City.
Four Sacred Pieces
Verdi was born October 9, 1813, near Busseto, Italy, and died on January 27, 1901, in Milan. He composed these four choral works between 1888 and 1897. Three of them premiered in Paris on April 7, 1898, with the Ave Maria debuting in a performance of all four pieces in Vienna on November 13 of that year. The first and third pieces are for chorus alone, while the other two add an orchestra consisting of 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, timpani, bass drum, harp and strings.
The son of an innkeeper and a spinner, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born in a small village not far from Busseto in the duchy of Parma. The precocious boy displayed immense musical talent early, assisting as an organist at the local church before (at the age of nine) he took the position on a full-time basis. His musical fame rests upon the approximately 30 operas he produced from 1839 to 1893, establishing his reputation as one of the greatest and most influential of all opera composers.
In 1836, Verdi was appointed municipal music master in Busseto, married his childhood sweetheart, and began giving private music lessons and composing for and directing the local Philharmonic Society. Bartolomeo Merelli, impresario at Milan’s illustrious opera house, La Scala, finally agreed to present Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, in 1839, and it fared well enough to cause Merelli to contract with Verdi for several more operas. Personal tragedy disrupted these plans, however: The composer’s daughter had died in 1838 at the age of 17 months; he then lost his 15-month-old son just prior to Oberto’s premiere; and within eight months of this blow, his wife suddenly succumbed to encephalitis. “A third coffin went out of my house,” Verdi lamented. “I was alone! Alone!” While struggling with these devastating events, Verdi attempted to fulfill his contract and managed to complete a comic opera, but—not surprisingly—it was a miserable failure and Verdi vowed never to compose again. Merelli, however, demonstrated a great deal of faith in and patience with Verdi, and after two years he finally persuaded the composer to examine the libretto for Nabucco, the lavish success of which launched its composer’s long and legendary career.
Around 1850, Verdi began an affair with a longtime acquaintance and supporter, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, whose stellar career was beginning to dim. Their living arrangement as unabashed unmarried partners caused considerable scandal (they eventually married in 1859). Despite this, the composer was elected to represent Busseto in the Assembly of Parma provinces, was later elected to the national parliament, and ultimately became a senator.
During the final years of his life, Verdi—now famous and financially secure—devoted much of his energy to the development of his landholdings (Verdi is the only major composer to have been a successful farmer!) and to involvement in charitable activities. He also became increasingly disenchanted with the cosmopolitan direction in which Italian music was moving, and the amount of influence that German music was beginning to exert upon it. He died in January 1901 of a massive stroke, and his funeral was, as he wished, a quiet occasion “without music or singing.”
Apart from the Quattro Pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) and the famous Requiem, Verdi wrote little music not intended for the stage. Composed when he was nearing—and in—his eighties, the Four Sacred Pieces, in their surprising harmonies and melodies, look toward a future in which they continue to startle and disturb with their “un-Verdi-like” sound. They were a huge success when first performed, although the large choir struggled with the unusual harmonies that challenge even the best contemporary choirs and make their appearance on concert programs a rarity.
The a cappella Ave Maria, the most abstract and harmonically unstable of the pieces, was Verdi’s response to an 1888 challenge in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano to harmonize an “enigmatic scale” (C–D♭–E–F♯–G♯–A♯–B–C). Among the various solutions submitted, Verdi’s work is more than a mere intellectual exercise, in which listeners can hear hints of the astonishment, fear and even foreboding that Mary must have felt when she was confronted by an angel bringing to her an astounding message containing joy—but also a sword that would pierce her soul at the foot of Jesus’ cross. The enigmatic scale serves as a cantus firmus (a foundational sequence of notes) that climbs, through the four sections of the work, from the bass to the soprano part, providing a slender stalk around which the other choral parts curl and intertwine unsettlingly, sending out chromatically twisting tendrils that wander back at last to their opening tonal roots.
The Stabat Mater, Verdi’s last composition, is a grand and emotionally powerful setting of the well-known 13th-century Latin hymn that describes the suffering of Mary during Christ’s crucifixion. Verdi opens the work with dark dissonance and proceeds to illustrate quite vividly the text’s 20 verses, employing arrestingly dramatic shifts in volume and intensity, instrumental and choral textures, and harmonic colors throughout which a four-note descending motive continues to be distinguishable. Finally, after a glorious climax, the strings drift downward, the chorus utters a barely audible unison “Amen,” and the composition’s opening phrase emerges from the depths of the orchestra: even in paradise the Virgin’s anguished tears are not forgotten.
In Dante’s “Paradiso,” the third and last section of his astonishing allegorical epic, Divina Commedia (written between 1308 and 1321 and describing the soul’s journey to God), the poet makes his way through Heaven, guided by Beatrice, his female ideal, who symbolizes theology. The Laudi alla Vergine Maria is Saint Bernard’s prayer to the blessed Virgin Mary on Dante’s behalf, in which he praises her as the goal and purpose of all creation because, through her, God’s Son became human and human beings are united with her Son. Intended originally for four solo women’s voices, this brief, unaccompanied work has typically, since its premiere, been performed chorally. A rich brocade of chordal passages embroidered with strands of imitative counterpoint wraps the listener in a shimmering cloak of serenity and beauty while, at the work’s end, two finely threaded “Ave”s unravel into silence.
The Te Deum is a fourth-century hymn of praise regularly performed on occasions of special celebration and thanksgiving; its concluding petitions (beginning at “Salvum fac populum tuum”) are based on Psalm verses and constitute a later addition to the original text. In his setting of this hymn, Verdi’s choral writing reaches its zenith (he wished its score to be buried with him). After the unaccompanied plainsong opening and the chordal chanting of the men’s voices, the two choirs and their ever-varying and contrasting sub-groupings, sometimes accompanied by and at other times alternating with large and colorful orchestral forces, present the text in a series of swelling, subsiding and then suddenly crashing billows of sound. At last the receding waves leave upon the listeners’ shore a lone voice reiterating with increasing conviction its hope in the Lord; the chorus affirms this trust with a mighty shout, after which the orchestra’s final chords dissolve into wisps of violin-tinted mist that hover and vanish above the basses’ ebbing sea.
Symphony No. 5 in E♭ Major, Op. 82
Sibelius was born in Tavestehus, Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää on September 20, 1957. He began composing this symphony during late 1914. An initial version debuted in Helsinki on December 8, 1915, after which Sibelius made extensive revisions. He conducted the premiere of a new version on December 16, 1916, making still further modifications over the next three years. He conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in the first performance of the final version on November 24, 1919. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.
“Sibelius was not merely the most famous composer Finland ever produced,” writes Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, “but the country’s chief celebrity in any field.” Until marathoner Paavo Nurmi (“the flying Finn”) captured two gold medals at the 1920 Summer Olympics, music historian Michael Steinberg notes, “Sibelius was the only Finn whose name was known throughout the world.” Even today, as Ross points out, “[w]hen Finns are asked to characterize their culture, they invariably mention, along with such national treasures as the lakeside sauna, Fiskars scissors, and Nokia cell phones, ‘our Sibelius.’”
While his 1899 first symphony continued the tradition set forth by Tchaikovsky and others, the 1902 second (performed by Orchestra Seattle and Jayce Ogren in October 2011) merged the established symphonic form with Sibelius’ unique compositional voice. Together with the patriotic tone poem Finlandia and his violin concerto (1904–1905), the Symphony No. 2 solidified Sibelius’ reputation in the hearts of Finns as well as his position as a major composer on the world stage.
With the (all-too-seldom performed) third symphony, Sibelius began to compact his musical language, stripping out excess romanticism. A much darker fourth symphony, inspired in part by the language of twelve-tone composers (and overshadowed by a battle with throat cancer, which caused him to—temporarily—heed doctors’ orders to avoid alcohol), followed.
Although Sibelius began thinking about a fifth symphony as early as 1912, work began in earnest in preparation for a December 1915 concert celebrating the composer’s own 50th birthday. Despite the festive nature of the occasion, progress was difficult, and World War I exacerbated Sibelius’ problems: among other setbacks, royalties from his German publisher ceased, and he was forced to resume writing “popular” works to supplement the lost income. On August 15, 1914, he wrote, “How miserable it is that I must compose miniatures.” Ideas for the symphony often proved tantalizingly elusive. “For an instant,” he wrote to a friend in September 1914, “God opens his door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”
Sibelius did complete a four-movement work in time for the 50th birthday concert, but while the audience reacted with great approval, the composer was not yet satisfied. He continued to make revisions, debuting another version a year later, yet his dissatisfaction persisted. Even as he began work on his sixth and seventh symphonies, he continued to revisit the fifth—not simply to tweak the orchestration or make minor edits, but to completely rethink the structure of the work.
The composer provided a progress report in a May 1918 letter to an unidentified correspondent: “The Fifth Symphony in a new form—practically composed anew—I work at it daily. Movement I entirely new, movement II reminiscent of the old, movement III reminiscent of the end of movement I of the old. Movement IV the old motives, but stronger in revision. The whole—if I may say so—spirited intensification to the end (climax). Triumphal.” The work would still have to wait a year and a half to be premiered in its final form (partly due to civil unrest in Finland following World War I) and during that time revisions continued: the four movements of which Sibelius wrote above eventually became three, with the first two combined into a seamless whole.
The symphony opens with an ascending horn call. Melodic fragments swirl about and themes emerge—often overlapping one another—but rarely revealed in their entirety upon first hearing. Traces of the traditional sonata-allegro form remain, but Sibelius defies expectation at every turn, resulting in what Alex Ross calls a “staggeringly unconventional work.” At the point where one might expect a recapitulation of the movement’s opening material, the composer shifts the meter almost imperceptibly from a deliberate 12/8 to (very) quick 3/4, one of the four main pulses from the preceding meter corresponding to an entire measure of the new time signature. A scherzo is underway, incorporating musical material adapted and transformed from the opening. A trumpet melody seems to announce the onset of a trio section of the scherzo, but before long the frenetic pace quickens even more, rushing headlong to a dynamic conclusion.
The symphony’s central movement is not so much a slow movement as a slower movement. It is also what Donald Francis Tovey calls “a primitive set of variations but it produces this effect in a paradoxical way, inasmuch as it is not a theme preserving this identity, but a rhythm built up into a number of by no means identical tunes.” (In both of these qualities—tempo and variations on a rhythm—it recalls the “slow” movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, performed by Orchestra Seattle last month.) While the overall mood remains relatively tranquil, Sibelius incorporates a sensation of tension and release through the use of woodwind dissonances—which take longer and longer to resolve as the movement progresses.
The finale—in 2/4 and very fast—begins with an onslaught of tremolo violins and violas, out of which emerges a theme briefly joined by woodwinds. Eventually horns intone a broad chorale-like melody (in long notes that embody a completely separate sense of time and tempo) that careful listeners will recall from its foreshadowing by double basses in the second movement. It is this theme that Sibelius attributed (in an April 21, 1915, diary entry) to a wildlife encounter near his country home: “Today I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” This “swan theme” assumes increasing importance as the movement progresses and—in a reverse of the tempo shift from the first movement—eventually wins out as the meter switches to a broad 3/2. Dissonances and harmonic tension intrude, building in volume and quickening in pace. The eventual resolution—six broadly spaced chords— remains one of the most remarkable conclusions to any symphonic work. “Staggeringly unconventional” indeed.