Kevin McBeth, director
Akiko Suwanai, violin
Family (World Premiere) (2020)
St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus
Kevin McBeth, director
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 26 (1865)
Prelude: Allegro moderato—
Finale: Allegro energico
Akiko Suwanai, violin
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884)
Langsam: Schleppend; Im Anfang sehr gemächlich
Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
Born 1983, Brooklyn, New York
Nathalie Joachim is a Grammy-nominated composer, vocalist, and flutist. She is the Artistic Partner with the Oregon Symphony and co-founder of the flute duo, Flutronix. Her work runs the gamut from classical to indie-rock, and always advocated for cultural awareness and social change. Joachim performs and records with an impressive range of artists and ensembles. The new orchestral version of her work, Fanm d'Ayiti, which celebrates and explores her own Haitian heritage, will open the SLSO's 2022/2023 season. But first, her piece Family, commissioned by the SLSO, opens the final classical concert of this season.
Family was written for the IN UNISON Chorus. Joachim knew she wanted to write something that was truly about them, "that was centered around their story." The chorus members were excited to be a part of the composing process. "It's not something that they get to do often."
"I'm a collaborative spirit," says Joachim. "As musicians, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. I like to work closely with the people I write for because it allows me to stay in a vulnerable space and feel safe."
The pandemic made in-person collaboration impossible, but Joachim recorded conversations with chorus members. "These offered me a space for connection that I really needed at that time. It was the pandemic, George Floyd has been murdered, and I was coming up on the first anniversary of my sister passing away."
Joachim's conversations with the chorus members were emotional. "We talked about being in the chorus, about what was happening in the world, about not being able to meet and sing and find fellowship with one another. There were a lot of tears shed."
The title was clear early in the process. Every chorus member used the word "family" when talking about the chorus. "Also, every single person," says Joachim, "has a generational connection to music: 'My grandmother taught me how to play piano,' or 'My family sang in church.'"
These conversations gave Joachim the text for her new work. Early in the work, the chorus sings, "We're still here after all these years." Joachim says that several chorus members expressed this sentiment. "It was their response to the longevity of the chorus. It was about the resilience of this ensemble."
This line also celebrates the fact that IN UNISON is a predominantly Black chorus. "Everybody I talked to expressed the sentiment that, 'We should be seen, and we should be heard, because we have been here for a really long time. And we're still here.'"
The work ends with the words, "We want you to feel a part of that, because you are, you are..." Here, Joachim allows a little of herself into the work. In conversations with the chorus members, Joachim says, they welcomed her into their family.
But the sentence is left unfinished. "I liked this notion of 'you are, you are,'" says Joachim. "That you are a living breathing being. That you are here, you are enough. We acknowledge that and we love that."
First performance: This weekend's concerts Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion, harp, celesta, strings, chorus Approximate duration: 12 minutes
Violin Concerto No. 1
Born January 6, 1838, Cologne, Germany
Died October 2, 1920, Berlin, Germany
Max Bruch was an outstanding musician and creator of a large and accomplished body of work. But he was a contemporary of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Dvořák, and inevitably he has stood somewhat in the shadows of those composers. Especially outside Germany, he tends to be seen as a minor master.
Two other reasons for the composer's comparatively modest standing bear mention. One is that Bruch did most of his best work in the field of choral music, and very few choral pieces from the 19th century have achieved a wide audience. The other is that Bruch and his music were, even in his day, remarkably uncontroversial. Living in an age defined largely by Romantic revolt, Bruch worked in fairly traditional forms and with a relatively conservative harmonic palette. His goal was not innovation but mastery, and he attained this with his Violin Concerto No. 1.
This is by far Bruch's most popular work, a favorite of violinists and audiences alike. In this piece, Bruch adheres to the standard three movement concerto format but telescopes the first and second movement into a single large, two-part section. He also replaces the orchestral exposition that traditionally opens a concerto with a brief prologue in which a repeated three-note motif alternates with rhapsodic statements by the violin. The third of those statements emerges as the principal theme, an impassioned melody in demanding double stops. A second subject offers a lyrical contrast. Following a stormy orchestral passage, however, the development of this movement is cut shirt by a return to the music of the prologue which, in turn, leads directly into the tender Adagio that forms the second movement.
The principal melody of the finale has some of the rustic flavor of gypsy fiddle music. There follows a broad and majestic second theme, introduced by the orchestra. Bruch develops both melodies with bravura passages for the soloist during the ensuing episodes, and the concerto closes with that sure-fire device, a coda that accelerates in exciting fashion to the work's final moments.
First performance: January 7, 1868, in Bremen, Germany, with Joseph Joachim as soloist First SLSO performance: February 3, 1914, Max Zach conducting, with Eugène Ysaÿe as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: November 25, 2018, Michael Francis conducting, with Joshua Bell as soloist
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpet, timpani
Approximate duration: 24 minutes
Symphony No. 1
Born July 7, 1860, Kaliště, Czech Republic
Died May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria
Gustav Mahler was 24 years old. His career was high in gear, as he rapidly ascended the ranks of Europe's young conductors. He was a curious and passionate young man, growing a thick beard, dabbling in vegetarianism, reading heavy philosophical tomes.
He was also in the thick of tumultuous affair with the singer Johanna Richter. It was intense, it was stormy. "I was afflicted," he wrote. "There began a period of unceasing and intolerable struggle to which there is as yet not end in sight."
For Mahler, a tumultuous life fed his art. "Creating and experiencing are linked to such an extent," he wrote, "that if my life flowed as peacefully as a brook, I could not make anything good."
From song to symphony
The first outpouring of the affair was in Songs of a Wayfarer. In Mahler's folk-tinged song cycle, a man is obsessed with his lost love. Thoughts of her are "a knife in my breast," her wedding is "my day of mourning!," and he is forced to make friends with "love and sorrow."
When Mahler began work on the First Symphony, the love affair was almost over. "The First Symphony," wrote Mahler, "begins where the love affair ends. It is based on the affair which preceded the symphony in my emotional life."
Mahler worked on the symphony across three years. At 27, he wrote to a friend. "My work is finished! It came gushing like a mountain torrent! I must get out and take deep breaths of fresh air. For the last six weeks I have seen nothing but my desk."
Mahler's first purely symphonic work upends the genre. "It does not keep to the inherited form in any respect," he wrote later. "But 'symphony' means to me simply to react a universe with all resources."
First, Mahler explores diverse musical worlds. Borrowing from his own songs, from children's rhymes, from the music of his own Jewish heritage. Operating in contrasting tones: from deadly earnest to bitterly ironic, from love-drenched to wildly experimental.
Second, he draws on the work of other artist. The novel Titan, by German writer Jean Paul, gave Mahler a passionate young hero. A woodcut by Moritz von Schwind gave the third movement its funeral procession. Dante Alighieri gave the finale its darkness-to-light journey.
Third, he revels in the theatrical. Mahler lived his conducting life in the opera house, and the First Symphony leans theatrical, with vivid scene-painting and startling contrasts. Mahler also tells us the story of a "hero," from birth, to youth, to love gained, to love lost.
Fourth, he searches for the meaning of life. Mahler was on a lifelong quest to find the evidence of life's purpose, of a greater power, of what happens after death. Mahler tackles these questions in all of his symphonies.
In his own words
Mahler originally wrote his First Symphony as a five-movement Symphonic Poem, with program notes that detailed the work's narrative. He later revised the work, removing the second movement. Mahler also abandoned his original program notes, but they give a strong sense of this young man, his ambition, his search for the unknown:
"From the days of youth, fruit, and thorn pieces. Spring and no end. This introduction describes the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn."
"Set with full sails. Scherzo."
"Commedia umana ('human comedy'). I received the extra musical suggestion for it from the well-known nursery picture ('The Hunter's Funeral'). It has the eerie and ironical, brooding sultriness of the funeral march."
"Dall'inferno al Paradiso ('from the inferno to paradise'). The sudden expression of a deeply wounded heart."
First performance: November 20, 1889, by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, in Budapest, Hungary, Gustav Mahler conducting First SLSO performance: December 7, 1946, Vladimir Golschmann conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: September 24, 2011, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (three Dublin piccolo), 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet, 3rd and 4th doubling E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings Approximate duration: 53 minutes
Benjamin Pesetsky is composer and writer. He serves on the San Fransisco Symphony staff and contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.