Note: This performance has been canceled because of the WCO musicians' strike. The musicians will perform Beethoven's "Symphony No. 2 in D Major." at Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave. at 9 p.m. on Friday, October 3.
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra certainly knows how to pick charmers for its Masterworks season openers. Last season opened with Mozart's sunlit 39th symphony and the vibrant orchestration of Arensky and Ravel. This season opens on Oct. 3 with equally charming and witty selections including Scarlatti's/Tommasini's "The Good-Humored Ladies Suite," Mendelssohn's "Violin Concerto in E Minor" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 2 in D Major."
Domenico Scarlatti, a brilliant Italian harpsichordist, lived in the shadow of his father, the famous theatrical composer Alessandro Scarlatti. It looked like the father would always outdo the son until the Portuguese Court in Lisbon hired Domenico as music teacher to Princess Maria Barbara in 1719. Inspiration took over, and he wrote over 500 harpsichord sonatas for his avid student; you will hear five of them arranged for chamber orchestra by Vincenzo Tommasini in "The Good-Humored Ladies Suite." Scarlatti's sonatas look deceptively simple on paper, but they require great agility for the acrobatic leaps and fast tempos that he favors. Tommasini wrote these delightful arrangements for Ballets Russes in 1917, and they sparkle with Scarlatti's light spirit and earthy wit.
Felix Mendelssohn was vivacious, but had an austere motto: "To create true joy is a severe task." Needless to say, he took composing very seriously and could often be hypercritical of his work. But there is no evidence of labor or fretting in his music and especially not in the fluid melodies of his "Violin Concerto in E Minor."
"This concerto was Mendelssohn's last orchestral work, and it's a standard of all aspiring young violinists in the repertoire," says WCO music director Andrew Sewell in a YouTube presentation on the orchestra's website. "Unlike previous models that have an orchestral ritornello, the violin solo comes in immediately after a haunting sixteenth-note rhythm. The second movement flows into the third without break, and it's a vivacious third movement both difficult and light."
Violinist Kyoko Takezawa, who will lend her crystalline touch to the concerto, made quite an impression on Sewell last year when she played under his baton with the Wichita Symphony: "Kyoko is an amazing Japanese violinist with a command of the instrument. She got a standing ovation after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and I'm very excited to bring her to Madison."
Beethoven's second symphony is the most personal of the nine. He composed it in Heiligenstadt, about an hour's carriage ride from Vienna, while trying to come to terms with irreversible deafness. Around the same time he also wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers about the cruel fate of being a deaf composer, his embarrassment, despair and thoughts of suicide. We might expect a dark, brooding second symphony, but the overall mood is surprisingly cheerful.
The beginning adagio is somber, but Beethoven has a change of heart partway through and lightens the rhythm from marching repeated notes to triplets to running eighth notes in the allegro con brio. A few visits to the minor key darken the ambiance, but these are short-lived, and even the slow movement larghetto is animated with folk tunes. The traditional third movement minuet is replaced with a raucous scherzo, and the fourth movement is confident and triumphant.
It's not unheard of for composers to write music that's in total eclipse to how they feel. Donizetti wrote his popular comic opera Don Pasquale while he was dying, and Schubert wrote his last works at a furious rate while too weak to leave his bed. But Beethoven lived another 24 years after the second symphony premiered in 1803. The second was his proving ground, the place where he had to conquer his toughest adversary before turning to broader vistas of nature and humanity.