OSVALDO GOLIJOV (born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina) Last Round (1991, 1996)
Argentinian-born Osvaldo Golijov’s influences span the spectrum from Klezmer music to Ástor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango. Today he is one of the most sought-after composers, with commissions pouring in unabated. The two-movement Last Round was composed for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and exists in three versions: one for two string quartets with double bass, one for small string orchestra, and one for large string orchestra. The piece is both Golijov’s homage to Piazzolla and an encounter with tango, the sultry, sensuous dance that started inauspiciously in the bordellos of Buenos Aires in the 19th century and emerged from back alleys to become fashionable — the chic dance of tango bars. Osvaldo Golijov describes the original chamber-music version of the present composition: “I composed Last Round (the title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar) as an imaginary chance for the spirit of the last great tango composer, Ástor Piazzolla, to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life). The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneón [a small accordion-like instrument without keyboard]. There are two movements: the first represents the act of violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh…. But Last Round is also a sublimated tango dance.” Ástor Piazzolla (1921–92) learned to play the bandoneón, an instrument named after the German musician, music teacher, publisher, and musical instruments purveyor Heinrich Band in the 19th century and brought to South America. It typically has 71 buttons arranged in a complex pattern and is inextricably linked with tango. But Piazzolla also studied Bach and Bartók and was a student of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged him to embrace the music of his native country. The result: nuevo tango, a fusion of traditional tango rhythms, jazz, and classical music, expressed in more than 300 tangos.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809–1847) Violin Concerto (1844)
In 1835, when Felix Mendelssohn was only 27 years old, he was appointed conductor of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and hired Ferdinand David to be concertmaster. The two had been friends since their teens, and their connection would continue throughout their lives. In 1838 Mendelssohn started thinking about a violin concerto, and wrote to David, “I want to write a violin concerto next winter. One in E minor is running through my head, and the beginning of it gives me no peace.” Still, it would be another six years before the work was completed, and then only thanks to Ferdinand David’s encouragement, advice, and gentle pressure. David was the dedicatee and the soloist at the premiere. It was a great success, and other performances soon followed, including the one that launched the career of the then-14-year-old violin prodigy Joseph Joachim, a last-minute substitution in a concert that was to have featured Clara Schumann in her husband’s piano concerto in Dresden. The genially-inspired Violin Concerto takes the genre to realms far exceeding the many empty showpieces that have since been forgotten. While soloists can certainly display their technical brilliance in the work, the Mendelssohn concerto also calls upon them to interpret the emotional content of the gorgeous melodies. This concerto has been praised for its tight construction, such as the immediate entrance of the violin at the beginning, linking phrases between the movements, and placing the first cadenza in the middle, instead of at the end of the first movement. But audiences don’t need to understand the technical aspects of this popular score. It’s ultimately about the beauty of the sound. It was Joachim who summed it up best many years later: “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the one that makes fewest concessions, is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms comes close to Beethoven’s in its seriousness. Max Bruch wrote the richest and most seductive of the four. But the dearest of them all, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904) Symphony No. 8 (1889)
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 is something of a landmark in the compositional life of its creator. His career had been fostered and his works championed by none other than Johannes Brahms, and Brahms’s Germanic influence was powerful. However, with this next-to-last symphony Dvořák would strike out in a new direction, both in terms of loosening the formal Germanic structures and expressing his identity as a Bohemian composer. Just how far his change in direction had gone is evident in the fact that the composer broke with his publisher Simrock, who was insisting that Dvořák use the German spelling of his first name, which Dvořák did not want to do. And to add to this insult was financial injury, with his publisher Simrock offering to pay him less for his Eighth Symphony than he had for the Seventh. In fact, Dvořák’s renown was then on the upswing, not just in Europe, but in the U.S. as well, where he conducted his Eighth Symphony in Chicago in 1893. He once admitted the ease with which he could create a seemingly endless stream of tunes, saying, “Melodies simply pour out of me” — something that is certainly evident in this work. He always thought of himself as a simple man, enjoying his walks in the Bohemian forests, and Harold Schoenberg called him “the happiest and least neurotic of the late Romantics…. With Handel and Haydn, he is the healthiest of all composers.” Dvořák’s peaceful summer retreat at Vysoká no doubt served as the inspiration for the dazzling passages that seem to cascade one after another in the opening movement, and for the Bohemian flavors that come into play in the lovely Adagio. A waltz-like rhythm can be heard in the third movement, and the finale, introduced by a trumpet fanfare, is a theme with variations that features exuberant brass calls all around before coming to a rousing conclusion.