December 1, 2023
David Danzmayr, conductor
Jelena Dirks, oboe
Strum for string orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings
Minuet and Musette
Jelena Dirks, oboe
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36
Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
Do you ever listen to a piece of music and wonder how the composer felt while writing it? It’s easy to assume that a melancholy work was written by a composer in a gloomy frame of mind; that joy gives rise to cheerful music. But more often than not, this simply isn’t the case. The composer—ultimately a craftsperson—marshals their skill to evoke emotions and to move us as listeners. Perhaps they draw on personal experience, perhaps not. And this concert offers two historical examples of how music can arise from unexpected circumstances.
The oboe concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams, for example, was composed in London during World War II. You might expect darkness, even despair, or maybe violence, but instead the music gleams with serenity. There is wit, poise, and a buoyant neoclassicism. Only occasionally is the elegant calm of the music broken by a brooding sense of nostalgia and yearning.
With Ludwig van Beethoven’s Second Symphony, the juxtaposition of circumstance and music is even more striking. The music brims with optimism and fiery momentum, and yet it was written during a period of despair as he grappled with worsening deafness. He retreated to the quiet of Heiligenstadt (now a suburb of Vienna) where he wrote what was to be his most ambitious and groundbreaking work yet. From the slow but mighty opening statement to the relentless finale, described by one critic as a “wounded dragon, raging and striking in vain,” Beethoven expends incredible energy and effort to overcome personal and musical boundaries.
We begin our concert with music by Jessie Montgomery, known for music that is both very personal and widely resonant—as The New York Times described it, “forged in Manhattan, a mirror turned on the whole country.” This is echoed in her words from a few years ago, when she said about Strum: “I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
Born 1981, New York, NY
Jessie Montgomery is a violinist and composer whose music is heard across the country. Her work interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social consciousness, making her an acute interpreter of 21st-century American sound and experience. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet and also plays with the Silk Road Ensemble and Sphinx Virtuosi, as well as serving as that ensemble’s comoser-in-residence. In May 2021, she began a three-year appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Recent works include a nonet inspired by the Great Migration and a reimagining of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to find the intersection between different types of music,” she has said. “I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
Strum draws on “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” writes Montgomery. Its title refers to the guitar-like plucking of the strings that plays many roles: floating hum, earthy groove, rapturous thrum.
Montgomery describes the piece as having “a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia.” Melodies weave in, over, and between layers of strumming. Several minutes in, there is a shift in gears. The music shifts—“transforming into ecstatic celebration.”
Strum has evolved since its creation 17 years ago. It initially took shape as a string quintet for the Providence String Quartet with a guest cello, was arranged for string quartet in 2008, and finally underwent substantial revisions in 2012, with a new introduction and ending for performance by the Catalyst Quartet in a concert celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition. The string orchestra arrangement reflects the 2012 version and the SLSO has performed it in both guises.
Adapted from a note by Tim Munro © 2020
First performance: April 2006, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by the Providence String Quartet; this revised version in 2012 by the Catalyst Quartet in Detroit
First SLSO performance: October 31, 2020, by a string quartet from the SLSO
Most recent SLSO performance: November 3, 2022, string quartet version with Norman Huynh conducting at an Education Concert
Approximate duration: 8 minutes
Concerto for Oboe and Strings
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born 1872, Down Ampney, England
Died 1958, London, England
It was probably inevitable that a composer so associated with English landscapes should turn to the most “pastoral” of orchestral instruments, the oboe. Ralph Vaughan Williams was no doubt also inspired by the legendary musicianship of English oboist Léon Goossens, to whom this concerto was dedicated. The accompanying scoring for strings allows the oboe to create a range of effects, from effortless-seeming virtuosity to quiet reflection, without the strain of competing with a full orchestra.
The concerto dates from the time of Vaughan Williams’s great triptych, the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies (composed in the 1930s and ‘40s), and some of its material is derived from discarded sketches for the Fifth, which in turn relates to the composer’s great opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Fifth Symphony’s gleaming serenity, in the depths of World War II, also pervades the concerto. The scheduled London premiere had to be abandoned owing to the intensity of bombing by the Luftwaffe, and it was first performed by Goossens in Liverpool under Malcolm Sargent in 1944.
The first movement is rhapsodic, filled with the kind of pentatonic arabesques that dominate such works as The Lark Ascending—another piece whose apparent calm belies its being written in the face of impending tragedy. The second movement is an often witty and poised homage to the Baroque tradition, heard in the solo figurations and the elegant weaving lines of the strings. Its title refers to two dances: the familiar minuet and the musette, a rustic dance with a drone bass that evokes the small bagpipe of the same name. The finale is the most structurally and emotionally complex movement. Its subtitle, scherzo, sets the tone of joyful passages in waltz rhythm, but on two occasions this is interrupted by pensive interludes, which seem, in Michael Kennedy’s words, to express “yearning for some lost and precious thing.”
Gordon Kerry © 2012
First performance: September 20, 1944, Malcolm Sargent conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic with Léon Goossens as soloist
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: solo oboe, strings
Approximate duration: 19 minutes
Symphony No. 2
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Born 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died 1827, Vienna, Austria
The first years of the 19th century brought a period of growing crisis to Ludwig van Beethoven’s life. For some time the composer had been noticing a progressive deterioration in his hearing, a development he found, understandably, more than a little disturbing. Early in 1802, Beethoven had placed his medical care in the hands of one Dr. Johann Schmidt, a prominent Viennese physician. Schmidt could not have cured the ailment that most concerned Beethoven. Medical investigators now generally agree that the cause of the composer’s deafness was an irreversible deterioration of the auditory nerve. But the physician treated his illustrious patient as best he could. In the summer of 1802 he urged Beethoven to take lodgings in Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna, where the composer could spare his hearing as much as possible and bathe at a spa in whose curative powers Schmidt placed great stock.
In Heiligenstadt, where he remained all summer and into autumn, Beethoven’s hearing continued to fade, and the long hours of isolation allowed him to brood with increasing despondency on his condition. Finally on October 2, no longer able to contain his despair, the composer made out a will, an extraordinary document now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he gave voice to his anguish in dramatic and desperate language and even broached the possibility of suicide.
The emotional abyss reflected in the Heiligenstadt Testament might have paralyzed another artist, or perhaps yielded bleak music full of grieving or fury. Yet the chief product of Beethoven’s season at Heiligenstadt was his Symphony No. 2, one of his sunniest works. Beethoven had made sketches for this piece during the previous winter and spring and brought them to Heiligenstadt. By the time he returned to Vienna, in the early autumn of 1802, the score was all but complete.
When the symphony was premiered in April 1802, it was judged “bizarre, harsh and undisciplined,” but: “This impression is so far overcome by the powerful, fiery spirit which is felt in this colossal work, by the wealth of new ideas and the almost total originality of their treatment, and by the profound knowledge of the principles of art that [this symphony]…will be heard with ever-increasing pleasure when a thousand celebrated, fashionable pieces of today have long since gone to their graves.” This symphony might be classical in spirit, but Beethoven’s ambition and determination is evident.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction (Adagio molto). Its purpose seems to be not merely to precede the main body of the movement but to gather energy and momentum that can only be released in a quicker tempo, making the Allegro con brio section not merely a conventional consequence but a necessary one. The music of this latter section derives a good deal of its vitality from the relentless forward drive of Beethoven’s themes and the purposeful manner in which the composer employs them.
The expansive Larghetto second movement has about it the air of a nocturnal serenade. The following scherzo—a “joking” or playful movement—represents the first time Beethoven had labelled a movement in this way. True to type, it is a merry romp, its sudden forte crashes and off-beat accents reflecting the rough humor that all Beethoven’s acquaintances attributed to him.
This jocular spirit carries over into the powerful finale (Allegro molto). Here sudden outbursts and rhythmic surprises again enliven the music, whose energy rivals that of the first movement. Perhaps this is why a review in 1804 described the finale as “an uncivilized monster, a wounded dragon, refusing to die while bleeding to death, raging, striking in vain around itself with its agitated tail.”
Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2013
First performance: April 5, 1803, in Vienna, the composer conducting
First SLSO performance: November 5, 1915, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: March 9, 2013, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 32 minutes
Hailed by The Herald as “extremely good, concise, clear, incisive and expressive,” David Danzmayr is widely regarded as one of the most exciting European conductors of his generation. He is in his second season as Music Director of the Oregon Symphony and also leads the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra Columbus.
Danzmayr holds the title of Honorary Conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, serving previously as their Chief Conductor. He has won prizes in the prestigious Gustav Mahler and Malko conducting competitions, and was awarded the Bernhard Paumgartner Medal by the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum.
Propelled into an international career, he has quickly become a sought-after guest conductor. In America he has led the Cincinnati, Minnesota, Seattle, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Houston symphony orchestras—to name just a few—and he is returning to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra after his debut concerts with the orchestra in 2021.
In Europe he has conducted the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Mozarteum Orchester, Essener Philharmoniker, Hamburger Symphoniker, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Odense Symphony, Salzburg Chamber Philharmonic, Bruckner Orchester Linz, and the radio symphony orchestras of Vienna and Stuttgart.
He frequently appears in renowned venues like the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg, Usher Hall Edinburgh, and Symphony Hall in Chicago.
David Danzmayr received his training at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, studying conducting with Dennis Russell Davies. He served as Assistant Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and gained experience assisting Neeme Järvi, Stéphane Denève, Sir Andrew Davis, and Pierre Boulez.
Jelena Dirks was appointed Principal Oboe of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra by David Robertson in December 2013. A San Diego native, she grew up in a profoundly musical household and is the third generation of professional female musicians in her family. Her mother, retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist Karen Dirks, as well as her father and maternal grandmother (who were cellists and stand partners in the San Diego Symphony), made sure music was a part of her life from the beginning. As a child, she spent many hours dancing ballet and playing piano, until at age 11 her soon-to-be first oboe teacher told her “she would make a perfect oboist,” and she ceaselessly begged her parents for an instrument.
From 2005 to 2014, she was on the faculty of DePaul University, where she taught both piano and oboe, and was the woodwind coordinator. She is highly sought-after as both a teacher and performer, having performed with virtually every major musical group in Chicago, including Lyric Opera, the Chicago Philharmonic, the Chroma Chamber Orchestra, and five years of regular performances, tours, and recordings with the CSO. She plays chamber music whenever possible and was the oboist for the critically acclaimed Prairie Winds Quintet from 2003 to 2016. She was also a frequent guest artist in the CSO Chamber Music Series and the Chicago Chamber Musicians and is now a frequent guest artist in the Missouri Chamber Music Festival in St. Louis.
She is a graduate of St. Olaf College, Minnesota, and the University of Michigan, holding dual undergraduate and master’s degrees in both oboe and piano. While oboe is the heart and soul of her musical life in St. Louis, the piano still holds a special place as her first love. She lives in the Central West End neighborhood with her husband Aaron and their puppy Dipper. All three of them enjoy gardening and restoring their 1895 home together.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.