(1809 – 1847)
I. Tema con Variazioni. Andante sostenuto
II. Scherzo. Allegro leggiero
III. Capriccio. Andante con moto
IV. Fuga. A tempo ordinario
(1873 – 1943)
(1732 – 1809)
I. Adagio cantabile
III. Tempo di menuetto
(1873 – 1916)
Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81
Mendelssohn wrote these Four Pieces over a period of four years, 1843-1847. He produced them not as part of a single work, but each as a stand-alone composition. They had not been published at the time of his death. His unexpected demise at the age of 38 created a demand for his pieces, motivating his publisher to put the four together and to market them as a single four-movement work. The good news is that the marriage is perfect. On occasion they have been wrongly advertised as his String Quartet No. 7.
The first movement is a standard theme and variations, the second a peppy scherzo, the third a caprice, and the fourth a fugue which demonstrates his affinity for the past and his contrapuntal mastery. Like Mozart to whom he has been favorably compared, he was lost to the world way too young. But here we are 175 years later enjoying his marvelous legacy, thanks to the industry and skill of our superb musicians.
Vocalise, op. 34 for String Trio (arr. Johnson)
The result is a broadly lyrical style brimming with sumptuous harmonies and passionate melodies that carry us great distances on their wings – much like the melodies of his mentor Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff was the last great exponent of Russian Romanticism.
Rachmaninoff wrote 85 songs, but ironically the only one to survive the test of time, Vocalise, has no words. He wrote it for piano and solo soprano to be sung with a single vowel sound of the singer’s choice. Songs normally come with vocal lyrics that tell a story or convey something of interest, but here Rachmaninoff eschews words. His purpose is to connect directly with our hearts by eliminating the limitations of language. This process allows his music to kindle in each one of us whatever idiosyncratic personal emotions it might encounter in the recesses of our hearts – if we let it. He said, “What life takes away, music restores. Music should bring relief. It should rehabilitate minds and souls. Music cannot be just color and rhythm; it must reveal the emotions of the heart.”
O, what was it in Rachmaninoff’s heart that he poured out to us in this haunting masterpiece? That’s for each one of us to decipher. If I were to try to decode it using words, I would be violating his attempt to eliminate any intermediation between us and his heartfelt message.
Rachmaninoff’s melody is so enthralling that it has been transcribed for every imaginable combination of instruments, including saxophone and trombone – but not piccolo. The version we will hear is David Johnson’s divine transcription for the Langroise Trio.
Divertimento No. 1 in D major, Op. 38 (arr. Johnson)
A “divertimento”, or “amusement” in Italian, is just what its title suggests, a lighthearted distraction from the travails of everyday life. Haydn wrote this type of music to entertain his audiences, not to confront or to inveigh against the Fates. D major is a bright and festive key. It fits perfectly with a divertimento as well as Haydn’s music in general. He used D major for 23 of his 104 symphonies. So sit back, come with us to the Hungarian Versailles, and enjoy opulent entertainment at its finest.
WRITTEN BY THE HONORABLE STEPHEN S. TROTT
Serenade Op. 141a (arr. Johnson)
Reger came of age at the dawn of the 20th century, just as the Romantic Age was giving way to Modernism. Not surprisingly, he had his musical feet in both camps, one in the past, one in the future. Reger saw himself as the rightful heir to the tradition of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but he borrowed extensively from the rich chromatic harmonies and style of Richard Wagner and his acolytes, sometimes dipping into the musical vocabulary of Schoenberg and Berg. The result of Reger’s amalgam of such different styles was to make much of his music quite controversial. The traditionalists did not like his adventurous avant-garde leanings, and the modernists balked at his roots in the past. This situation made Reger the subject of harsh criticism by critics who favored one camp over the other. One called him a “musical cyclops”, “an ogre of composition” who writes “intellectually overthought music of the clever man, largely about nothing.” Another opined that his pieces “look like music, sound like music, and might even taste like music; yet it remains stubbornly, not music.” Did Reger take this abuse lying down? Hardly. To one of them he wrote, “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.” He remarked to a friend that “Bach should be glad he’s dead already or critics would excoriate his harmonic development.”
But do not despair! This masterly serenade sits comfortably on our 21st century ears. Reger wrote it in his later years when he had turned to a simpler compositional style. It succeeds in deftly combining the best of both worlds. One second it sounds quite traditional, but the next he modulates between keys using chromatic notes that add passion, unexpected color, and variation to the fluid journey. Two moods predominate in the first and third movements, one jaunty, good natured, and playful, the other slightly blue and reflective. Reger provides a tangy contrast to both Haydn and Rachmaninoff between whom he finds himself sandwiched.
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