Concert Prep

Concert Prep: Albany Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Pastorale

Albany Symphony Presents: Beethoven’s Pastorale

Palace Theater in Albany, NY
Saturday November 22nd 7:30PM

The first work on this evening’s program is Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. Composed in honor of Astor Piazzola, Last Round attempts to embody the bandoneon (you’ll recognize it instantly – it sounds like this), the instrument most associated with Piazzola’s tangos. The instrument has two essential characteristics to it – the virtuosity of the flashing fingers, and a soulful, mourning song of lament – which are represented one after the other in this composition. The second movement is essentially a fantasia based on the opening of this song:

What’s most interesting about this piece is the set-up. Two string orchestras of violins, violas and cellos are set up in opposition to each other, with the basses serving as the hub through which the groups communicated. Watch carefully to see how the music moves from one side of the stage to the other.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which is performed by star violinist Caroline Goulding, shares a compositional feature with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. If you start listening at the twenty minute mark in the above video, you’ll hear the end of the lovely second movement. A brief interlude follows, which leads to the finale being announced by the trumpets at 21:55. While it’s common to write introductions which are unrelated to the movement which they precede, to have an introduction which also serves as a transition is slightly more unusual. Like most of what Mendelssohn wrote, it is quite pleasing and uncommonly well executed.

In his Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven takes this same idea of a transition between movements to a new realm. This symphony is a program work – meaning that it is intended to tell a story with non-musical elements. In this case, Beethoven paints a series of vignettes of an idyllic countryside. The real storytelling doesn’t get underway until the third movement (25:25), which describes a peasant festival. Suddenly, at 31:05, all the festivities stop at a foreboding rumble from the basses.  Raindrops are heard in the violins – a storm is coming, sending the country dwellers running for cover! The three and a half minutes that follow are incredibly descriptive – in addition to the raindrops, loud thunderclaps rend the air, howling wind goes whooshing through the strings, and through it all, the rage of the rain rings constantly. When the storm clouds recede, a plaintive, prayerful oboe solo is heard (34:40), full of thanks that the storm is abating.

This “storm” movement is easily the shortest in the work. It’s roughly half as long as the next shortest movement, which is the scherzo. It also features no memorable melodic material, unless you count the raindrops idea that pervades the whole movement. This is a transition if ever I’ve heard one, but unlike Mendelssohn’s transition, which gets us from point A to point B quite beautifully and elegantly, this transition grabs hold of the narrative, and changes the musical – and extra-musical – story. Would the finale have been so radiantly celebratory without the presence of such danger? How much longer would the peasants have gone on with their festival if the storm hadn’t interrupted? By altering the course of the music, Beethoven’s “storm” movement is yet another example of his innovative genius.

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