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Programme Notes: Crow and Rachmaninov, June 4, 2023

Landmarks of Note

Programme Notes by Trevor Rines

Listening Landmarks are in boldface

Our 2022-2023 Season has brought us a wealth of wonderful music, with many World Premieres. This concert’s Premiere is a wonderful example of imagery painted through music.

Neither the Bruch, nor the Rachmaninov, have earned themselves a descriptive name (like Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, which we heard last Season). While listening to these two works, consider what colourful title you might give them, based on what images they bring to mind. After the concert, please do compare notes with other audience members, & share your creative titles on social media, tagging Orchestra Toronto (@OrchToronto).

Sleeping Giant

Composed by Joel Toews

This is a World Premiere Performance
Winner of the First Orchestra Toronto Prize in Composition
Running Time – 9 minutes
An Early Start – Drudging Along – A Breathtaking View – A Clifftop Storm – The Giant Settles

The title of this concert’s World Premiere refers to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, on the North shore of Lake Superior, where a dramatic series of mesas resemble a giant lying on his back.

Three years ago, composer Joel Toews decided to move to Toronto. Having spent three days driving across the prairies from Alberta, where he grew up, he stopped in Thunder Bay. The impressive view across the water was his first encounter with Ontario’s Great Lakes. “I can distinctly remember, without knowing what it was, the shape of the Sleeping Giant peninsula stretching across the gigantic, ocean-esque lake.”

This piece is his homage to Ontario’s many parks on the Great Lakes, whose majesty & grandeur he often finds a source of surprise & delight.

Structured as a theme & variations, the work opens with a low & descending drone & thunder-like timpani, over which a solo trumpet presents the ominous Sleeping Giant theme. Listen for both the drone & this theme to return. The theme is presented first in Dorian mode. (A good example of this distinctive type of scale is Scarborough Fair.)

Each of the five variations on this theme is in a different mode, each with a different tonal character. Toews explains that this “allows me to imagine this Giant in different circumstances, as the weather conditions of Lake Superior shift & change.”

An Early Start (Variation 1 in Lydian mode) Parts of the theme are heard in the brass. The energetic strings depict good spirits & a burst of energy, as the morning sunlight breaks dramatically across the peninsula & a group begins their hiking journey.

Drudging Along (Variation 2 in Phrygian mode) More sluggishly, a solo violin playing the theme is joined by all strings, conveying the hikers’ journey up & down, on a hot Summer afternoon. Their rigorous hike ascends a peak, as the orchestra crescendos.

A Breathtaking View (Variation 3 in Mixolydian mode) The trumpet again introduces the theme, but flipped upside down. The orchestra’s grandness here paints a picture of the hikers’ spectacular view over the expanse of land & lake.

A Clifftop Storm (Variation 4 in Locrian mode) A cymbal crashes as lightning flashes. The blast of wind is the theme from the French horns & trumpets, while storm clouds gather & the low instruments descend ominouslyThe strings ripple upwards to a tremendous full orchestral chord as thunder loudly rumbles across the land.

The Giant Settles (Variation 5 in Ionian mode) Calm returns, as the storm subsides. French horn & bassoon present the Giant’s theme one last time. The low drone returns, as the Giant slumbers, once again.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Opus 26

Composed by Max Bruch (1838 Cologne, Germany – 1920 Berlin, Germany) Premiere – 1868 in Bremen, Germany
Running Time – about 24 minutes
Vorspiel: Allegro moderato Adagio Finale: Allegro energico

German Romantic composer Max Bruch wrote more than 200 works – & this is the one which he resented the most.

At the age of 28, in 1866, he conducted a performance of an early version of this, his first of three concertos. He’d spent nine years composing it, but was so unhappy with that performance that he spent the next year making extensive changes to the score. He was assisted by renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, who performed as soloist at the hugely successful 1868 premiere. Bruch chose not to conduct, this time.

At his 75th birthday celebration, 38 years later, Joachim said, “The Germans have four violin concertos.” He praised Beethoven’s, Brahms’, & Mendelssohn’s concertos, but asserted that “The richest, most seductive was written by Max Bruch.”

This concerto’s ravishing melodies & spirited finale gained it immediate popularity. It’s still one of the most often performed & recorded violin concertos in the repertoire.

Later in life, though, Bruch said, “I cannot listen to this concerto anymore – did I perhaps write just this one? Go away & once & for all play the other concertos, which are just as good, if not better.” Even now, his other two violin concertos, & most of his other works, are rarely performed. This one work, written so early in his career, utterly eclipsed them.

Because he had sold this concerto’s rights to a publisher, outright, Bruch also resented that he did not make a cent from its numerous performances – & he desperately needed the money.

This concerto was unusual, for its day, in many ways. In fact, Bruch had to be reassured by Joachim that it even qualified as a violin concerto, because of those abnormalities, wondering if he should call it a fantasy, instead.

One odd thing is that there are no breaks between the movements. You may not even notice the transitions from one movement to the next. (Listening Hint: The second movement is in triple time (3/8). The first is in 4/4 & the third is in 2/2.)

Also, Bruch called the faster first movement a Vorspiel, which is a Wagnerian term for a musical prelude (here, an introduction to the second movement). A highlight of this movement’s dramatic dialogue between soloist & orchestra are the two dazzling cadenzas (solos which may not be the same, in different performances). The most frequently performed version of one candenza was written by Joachim.

The first movement ends with the strings, playing long, descending notes which fade away. This segues directly into the slower second movement, where the soloist’s beautiful, soaring melodies are underscored by constantly moving rapid notes, played quietly in the strings.

It’s in the animated third movement that we hear a resemblance to Mendelssohn’s 1844 Violin Concerto in E minor. That’s the piece which inspired Bruch to forgo the traditional breaks between movements & to use the first movement as a prelude to the second. The soloist’s energetic part is showy & virtuosic, peppered with double stops (playing two notes at once, on two strings). The exuberance gradually builds, accelerating & crescendoing to a fierce & fiery finish.

And yet, as daring as this concerto was, for its time, Bruch continued to write in the same style, even when it had gone quite out of fashion.


Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27

Composed by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 Novgorod, Russia – 1943 Beverly Hills, USA) Premiere – 1908 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Running Time – about 60 minutes
Largo – Allegro moderato Allegro molto Adagio Allegro vivace

Neither Bruch nor Rachmaninov adopted the more experimental Modernism, which began to transform classical music around 1900. They were among the last champions of the previous century’s Romanticism. Rachmaninov did attempt to embrace the new style, saying, “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, & I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.”

Younger composers considered him old fashioned. Only 27 years his junior, American composer Aaron Copeland was asked his opinion of Rachmaninov’s music, & quipped, “All those notes, think I, & to what end?”

An accomplished pianist, Rachmaninov spent much of his time touring & performing, to pay the bills. This was a recurring theme, throughout his life, & meant that he never had as much time as he wanted, for composition.

It was the Russian Revolution which spurred him to leave Russia for the rest of his life. Returning from a 1917 concert tour to Moscow, he discovered that his home estate had been confiscated by revolutionaries. He vowed to leave & never return.

Thanks to a well timed offer of a Scandinavian concert tour, he & his family managed to get the permits needed to leave the country. He was already a celebrity in America, from his 1909 tour there, playing his new Piano Concerto No. 3, when they settled in New York City, in 1918. (It wasn’t until the last year of his life, that he moved to California, for his health.)

While in Russia, Rachmaninov composed 39 published works, including this symphony. Right up until his death, just four days short of his 70th birthday, he was kept very busy as a concert pianist, touring extensively in Europe & America. He finished only six more compositions, after leaving Russia, saying, “I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also.”

This is the second of his three symphonies. The First Symphony had a disastrous premiere in 1897. It was suspected that the conductor was drunk, & rehearsals went poorly. Critics were especially harsh, describing its “sickly perverse harmonization” & calling it “a symphony which could only be admired by the ‘inmates’ of a conservatory in Hell.” It was never performed again, during Rachmaninov’s life.

This horrible reception led to debilitating depression. He doubted his own abilities as a composer, even after winning a prestigious 1904 Glinka Award, for his Piano Concerto No. 2. It was his Second Symphony’s enthusiastic 1908 premiere which finally restored his confidence. He conducted the work himself & it earned him a second Glinka Award.

As is often heard in Rachmaninov’s music, the opening harkens back to his childhood & the church bells & chant which he heard in the Russian Orthodox Church. The first movement begins & ends with the low strings, while throughout the lush, mournful melody sweeps back & forth, in waves. Despite building towards a climax, it ends with a feeling of being unresolved.

The excitement of the second movement is established right away by the high strings. Watch how the violins play spiccato, bouncing their bows on the strings. Listen for the French horns. They’re playing the Dies Irae theme, a 13th century Gregorian chant, which is often quoted in classical music & film scores. After a fugal section, the brass return with the Dies Irae. This movement also fades away quietly.

Many of you will be surprised that you’ll start hearing lyrics in your head, when the third movement begins (about 30 minutes in). And yes, American rocker Eric Carmen did borrow this movement’s melody from Rachmaninov, for his 1976 hit song, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, & quoting other composers’ tunes is a centuries old tradition, intended as an homage (& sometimes as a puzzle or joke). Only recently has this practice become the subject of ownership & lawsuits.

Because Rachmaninov’s sweeping & sensuous melodies lend themselves so well to being sung with lyrics, many have turned them into songs. Those songs’ popularity is also a testament to his music’s enduring allure. As they were still under copyright, his estate earned royalties for many songs based on his pieces, including Full Moon & Empty Arms I Think of You (Frank Sinatra), & also All By Myself (Eric Carmen, again).

As did the previous two movements, it ends quietly, with the strings receding into the distance, but not before hearing the Dies Irae one more time.

From this dreamy third movement, the symphony ends with a whirling storm. The fourth movement begins with a fanfare, which quickly becomes a march. Rhythmic & melodic variations on the themes we’ve heard in the previous movements are energetically woven together. Alternating between frenetic & lyrical, swirling strings & woodwinds are punctuated by bold brass, building towards a triumphant conclusion.

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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