Subscription Concert No.863 B Series

Mantovani:Concerto for 2 Violas and Orchestra (2009) (Japan Premiere)

Bruno Mantovani: Born in Hauts-de-Seine (a western suburb of Paris), October 8, 1974; now living in Paris

Concertgoers rarely encounter a concerto for the viola. A concerto for two violas might come along once in a lifetime. Tonight’ s concert offers that “once in a lifetime” experience. The only other composers to have written such a concerto and likely to be known by most concertgoers are Telemann and Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 6). Even the enormously prolific Vivaldi, who wrote double concertos for violin, cello, mandolin, flute, oboe, trumpet, horn, and miscellaneous other pairings, did not write one for two violas. Other composers who have written such a concerto include the Czech Antonín Vranický, the Frenchman Félix- Jean Prot (both contemporaries of Beethoven), the modern-day Russians Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina (Two Paths), and, most recently, the American Richard Sortomme, whose concerto was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in 2015.

Despite his very Italianate name, Bruno Mantovani is of French origin, and he is no relation to the famous Anglo-Italian conductor, composer and light orchestra entertainer whose musical signature was cascading strings. Bruno Mantovani studied analysis, aesthetics, orchestration, composition, and music history at the Paris Conservatory, and attended the computer music Cursus at Ircam. He has been director of Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris since September 2010. That year also marked the beginning of his collaboration with the Paris Opera, for which he composed a ballet (Siddharta) and an opera based on the life of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. As a conductor, Mantovani regularly leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Simón Bolivar Orchestra (Caracas), the Orchestre de Paris, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and Toulouseʼs Orchestre du Capitole. His wide-ranging sphere of activities includes producer of a weekly radio show on French National Radio (France Musique).

Mantovani often collaborates with men and women representing other forms of artistic expression. These include novelists Hubert Nyssen and Eric Reinhardt, librettists Christophe Ghristi and François Regnault, chef Ferran Adrià, choreographers Jean-Christophe Maillot and Angelin Preljocaj, and film maker Pierre Coulibeuf.

A glance at Mantovaniʼs catalogue reveals a composer of mostly instrumental music, much of it for unusual chamber ensembles and orchestral compositions with solo instruments. In the latter category he has written works featuring harp (Danse libre), timpani (In and Out), clarinet (Quasi lento), bass clarinet (Mit Ausdruck), piano (Fantaisie), a two-piano concerto, and three works featuring cello: a concerto, a ballet score called Abstract, and Once upon a Time). Mantovani’ s most recent world premiere is a twenty-minute work for accordion and instrumental ensemble called Cadenza No. 2. The event took place just a few weeks ago, on August 1, at the Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije in Briançon, Franceʼs highest city, located in the Alps.

The Concerto for Two Violas dates from 2009. The world premiere was given on March 6 of that year in Paris, with Pascal Rophé conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and tonightʼs soloists, Antoine Tamestit and Tabea Zimmermann, for whom it was written. Andrew Clements, music critic for the British daily The Guardian, described it as “a vast single-movement span launched by a lengthy cadenza for the two soloists, which seems to contain the germs of almost everything that follows. Mantovani certainly has a gift for inventing the kind of refined and detailed orchestral textures that one generally thinks of as French, but there are also moments of great power and virtuosity.” Tonightʼs performance marks the concertoʼs Japanese premiere. The composerʼs description can be found on page 21 in this program book.

Saint-Saëns:Symphony No.3 in C minor, op.78, “Organ”

I     Adagio - Allegro moderato

      Poco adagio

II   Allegro moderato

     Maestoso - Allegro

Camille Saint-Saëns: Born in Paris, October 9, 1835; died in Algiers, December 16, 1921

For grandeur, majesty and sheer tonal opulence, few symphonies can stand beside the Third of Saint-Saëns. The prominent contribution from the organ, the “King of Instruments,” provides an additional measure of imposing sonority to the work. Yet this symphony is an anomaly in the composer’s oeuvre. First, it is the only one of his five symphonies to achieve any lasting reputation. Saint-Saëns is not much regarded as a “symphonist,” and were it not for the Organ Symphony, he would have no more importance in this field than Fauré or Gounod. (Saint-Saëns also left two more numbered and two unnumbered symphonies, all written many years before the Third.) Second, there exists virtually no French symphony upon which Saint-Saëns could have modeled his Third in terms of spaciousness and grandness of design. The last really great French symphony had been Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (1830), which relied heavily on programmatic elements, which are totally lacking in Saint-Saëns’ symphony. Hence, the Organ Symphony was really the first in a line of grand French symphonies that bore fruit from Franck, d’Indy and Chausson among others. And third, there is little in Saint-Saëns’ other music to prepare us for this symphony’s monumentality and its undisguised attempts to “wow” the audience. Saint-Saëns generally conformed to the stylistic traits of much French music ̶ charm, elegance, restraint, plus the transparent scoring, clean outlines and consummate craftsmanship of a basically classical orientation. The Organ Symphony has all of this, but it has more as well ̶ much more. Critic Michael Steinberg has dubbed Saint-Saëns the “master of the immense and effortless fortissimo.”

The Third Symphony was written in early 1886 as the result of a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. The first performance took place in St. James’s Hall in London on May 19 of that year. It was a gala event of course, with the Prince and Princess of Wales (Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) in attendance. Saint-Saëns conducted his symphony after having already appeared as soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in the same concert. The public loved the symphony, and critical reception was generally favorable, though some critics grumbled about its unorthodox design. One found “a great deal to admire in this glowing orchestral rhapsody,” but declined to call it a symphony. At the first performance in Paris, Charles Gounod made his famous comment, “There goes the French Beethoven.”

The score is, appropriately enough, dedicated to Franz Liszt, who died just two months after the first performance. Liszt never heard the symphony, but his influence on the younger composer cannot be overestimated. The entire Organ Symphony is based on the principle of continual transformation of a “motto” theme, the very principle that Liszt developed in so many of his own works. This theme makes its first full appearance in the restless series of short detached notes in the violins, following the slow, mysterious introduction. The attentive ear will pick out this theme in its rhythmic and coloristic metamorphoses throughout the symphony ̶ at varying times flowing and lyrical, detached and fragmented, broad and noble, or agitated and restless. The melodic line is also sometimes altered as well.

Although ostensibly in two large parts, the work conforms basically to a standard four-movement symphony. The first movement contains a contrasting second theme ̶ a gently swaying line in the violins which serves as a contrast to the first ̶ but it is the first theme (the “motto”) that is mostly developed. The Adagio movement is ushered in by soft pedal points in the organ, and unfolds leisurely in a mood of elevated and lofty contemplation. After a full, extended pause comes the agitated scherzo-like movement, one of extraordinary energy and drive. Into its nervous principal theme are worked fragments of original “motto” material (lightning flashes of woodwinds). The most exultant moments are reserved for the concluding section, announced by an enormous Cmajor chord from the organ. Sonic thrills pile up to ever greater heights, and the symphony ends in a magnificent blaze of C major.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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