Program Notes: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Lee Mills conducts the Seattle Symphony in music by Jessie Montgomery, Mendelssohn and Mozart, featuring Seattle Symphony Concertmaster Noah Geller on Thursday, October 29, 2020, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.



How to express an explosion of light? How to communicate through music the incandescent, brilliant patterns diverging, merging, reaching far beyond the point of origin? For Jessie Montgomery, it’s overlapping scalar figures, punchy dynamics, repetition and timbres ranging from rich to icy. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization in 2012, Starburst is an orchestral work representative of the swiftness of cosmic events and the composer’s idiosyncratic aesthetic. A native of New York City, Montgomery has crafted a career that merges her dedication to advocacy, composition and performance. Her affiliation with the Sphinx Organization is part of her racial equality advocacy and her collaboration with Jannina Norpoth has brought a re-engagement with Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha to old and new audiences. Montgomery’s experience as a violinist and her multi-sensory approach to music is reflected in a style built upon post-minimalism, vernacular music, other classical styles, social justice and language — a musical voice that is electrifying and evocative.

Starburst begins with ascending passages of forward-rushing intensity; a quick dynamic explosion followed by a shrill repetitive motive in the violins. The motive signals the beginning of new phrases in the first section, followed by overlapping phrases, moments of rhythmic unity and motivic interjection. The middle portion moves from icy, mellow contemplation to agitation, instruments vying for primacy, for a way out of the hot core of the soon-to-be-born star. The harmonies are dissonant, atonal, then consonant; the texture sometimes sparse to signal a period of relaxation. The conclusion contrasts with the opening: it is gentle, soft and effervescent, as the light has escaped its tightly compacted home for a new one, out in space. The starburst is complete.

Scored for strings


Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Allegro molto appassionato
Allegretto non troppoAllegro molto vivace

BORN: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
DIED: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany
WORK PREMIERED: March 13, 1845 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with soloist Ferdinand David

“I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace,” Mendelssohn wrote to his colleague, Ferdinand David, in 1838. Friends since childhood, David was selected by the composer in 1835 to serve as concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where Mendelssohn was principal conductor. Mendelssohn put the concerto on the backburner for several years, knocking around ideas and seeking advice from David on the technical demands and possibilities. He completed the concerto in 1844 and it was premiered by David the following year.

For classical violinists, it is impossible not to encounter Mendelssohn’s E minor violin concerto. It is one of the first “mature” Romantic concertos students learn and has been a staple of concert programs and discographies for nearly two centuries. Mendelssohn’s structural choices more or less align with those of previous composers; but his few changes, combined with an embrace of the violin’s virtuosic possibilities, helped make this work emblematic of Romantic-era virtuosity and expression. First, he does away with the long orchestral intro: the soloist introduces the iconic theme after a measure and a half of orchestral murmuring. Second, all movements are connected through the use of attacca: little to no stopping between movements. And lastly, Mendelssohn wrote out the first movement’s cadenza and placed it early, at the end of the development section, extending the dramatic tension and setting up a recapitulation that is familiar yet unpredictable.

The Allegro molto appassionato is the soloist’s show. The orchestra does have a moment to shine after the soloist’s first entrance, but the thematic developments are driven by the violin’s memorable motives and fiery technique. In the Andante, the main theme is memorable and passionate, making full use of the violin’s lyrical strengths. The third movement, Allegretto non troppoAllegro molto vivace, begins with a solemn introduction that makes the transition to the finale an exciting jolt to the system. The main theme is joyful and sparkling through its E major setting, the use of spiccato (bouncing of the bow on the strings), and ascending and descending scalar runs. The fierce energy is maintained through the nearly nonstop forward motion of the solo part; lyrical sections serve as recharging stations for the return to technical gymnastics that bring the work to a thrilling conclusion.

Scored for solo violin; 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; strings


Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183/173dB
Allegro con brio

BORN: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
WORK PREMIERED: October 5, 1773 in Salzburg, Austria

Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus, based on the play by Peter Shaffer, doesn’t open with the titular composer on screen. Instead, we hear his name howled despairingly by an elderly, distraught Salieri, who, in the plot (though not in real life), is the jealous rival to the immature but supremely talented Mozart. Salieri’s servants run to check on their employer, knocking down a locked door to find him alive, but covered in his own blood. The agitated theme of Mozart’s twenty-fifth symphony enhances the jarring, disturbing image, and continues as Salieri is rushed to a doctor, intercut with images of a joyful dance party nearby.

Nicknamed “the little G minor” to differentiate it from Mozart’s fortieth symphony, Symphony No. 25 is built upon the magnification of emotional shifts and contrasts, reflected in the editing of Amadeus’ opening scene. While Mozart was a dedicated admirer of Haydn’s approach to genre and form, this symphony does away with a structural feature of the older composer’s symphonic first movements: the slow introduction. The Allegro con brio, which translates to “quickly, with spirit,” takes listeners immediately into the fray; the main theme’s agitated character is built up through the minor mode, rhythmic structure and homophonic texture. But Mozart doesn’t stay within the morose mood for long, moving to a hopeful, joyous section with rhythmic features from the main theme now in a major mode. This move back and forth between minor and major is a basic and impactful decision that sustains the emotional intensity through the movement.

The character of the Andante is in direct contrast with the first movement: languid and contented in major mode. The Menuetto is almost martial in its accented angularity, but the triple meter, articulation and directional buoyancy keep it light with moments of cheerful scalar descents. The Allegro brings back the G minor mode and replaces the solemn with an excited, forward-leaning energy that brings the symphony to a swift, optimistic end.

Scored for 2 oboes; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; strings

© 2020 A. Kori Hill

Posted on October 26, 2020