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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
April 3-4-5, 2021
95th Season / Subscription Concert No.7

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This program opens with a bit of liveliness and fun from Dmitri Kabalevsky, the overture to his opera Colas Breugnon. We then welcome violinist James Ehnes to perform the challenging Sibelius Violin Concerto. This is his fourth set of concerts with the Madison Symphony Orchestra with the last decade; previous appearances at our programs were in 2012 (Bartók, Violin Concerto No. 2), 2015 (Bruch, Scottish Fantasy), and 2019 (Brahms, Violin Concerto). The program ends with the-all-too-rarely performed Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3.


The 1938 opera Colas Breugnon tells the story of a peasant looking back on a mischievous and enjoyable life. The opera’s bubbly overture is a musical portrait of the irrepressible main character, filled with good humor and country dancing.


Dmitri Kabalevsky

Born: December 30, 1904, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Died: February 14, 1987, Moscow, Russia.


Colas Breugnon Overture, Op. 24

     Composed: 1936-1938.

    Premiere: The opera Colas Breugnon was first produced in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) on February 22, 1938.

     Previous MSO Performance: 1987.

    Duration: 5:00.



Dmitri Kabalevsky was one of the leading composers of the old Soviet Union, and worked comfortably for his entire career in the restrictive atmosphere of Soviet music. Kabalevsky’s musical style was never even remotely “modernist” and suited perfectly the ideal that music should be uplifting and in service of the people. A loyal member of the Communist Party, he enthusiastically supported Soviet musical policies, and held several important political positions and editorships. Interested in the cause of education, Kabalevsky also helped to formulate the Soviet music education system, writing dozens of works for children’s choir, and later in his career, influential books on teaching music. As a composer, he was also known for his six operas—rarely produced today, but nearly all were very successful in the Soviet Union. His first opera, Colas Breugnon, was based upon a 1919 novel by Romaine Rolland written in the form of reminiscences of a 16th-century Burgundian peasant, looking back on a life well-lived, and mostly enjoyed. Rolland granted Kabalevsky the rights to use the novel, but was disappointed by how it was turned into a libretto. Kabalevsy worked over a span of three decades revising the opera, eventually premiering a new version in 1970 that won him the prestigious Lenin Prize, though its lively 1938 overture remained unchanged.


What You’ll Hear

Though the opera is seldom heard in the west, the brief Colas Breugnon Overture has long been a favorite concert-opener. It is a musical portrait of the opera’s irrepressible main character, beginning with a flourish and launching immediately into a manic, strongly-accented main theme. Kabalevsky introduced a second, more ponderous idea, and a slightly more serious central section. Towards the end, there is a wry little country dance episode before the brilliant coda.


The Violin Concerto of Jean Sibelius that demands forceful playing from the soloist, particularly in the stormy opening movement. It also demands passionate lyricism in the second movement, and astonishing technique in the finale.


Jean Sibelius

Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland.

Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland.


Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47

     Composed: 1902-1903.

    Premiere: February 8, 1904 in Helsinki, with Victor Novacek as soloist. An extensively revised version—the version heard at these concerts—was premiered in Berlin on October 19, 1905, with Carl Halír as soloist, and conducted by Richard Strauss.

    Previous MSO performances: 1943 (Marie Endres), 1974 (Pinchas Zukerman), 1984 (Elmar Oliviera), 2009 (Hennig Kraggerud), and 2014 (Sarah Chang).

   Duration: 32:00.



The years after the turn of the 20th century were frustrating for Sibelius—though his reputation in his native Finland was secure, international fame was proving to be elusive. His initial musical success had come with nationalistic works based on Finnish folk legends, like The Swan of Tuonela. By 1900, though, he was trying to break this mold and establish himself as a symphonist in the tradition of Brahms and Dvořák. This self-imposed pressure caused turmoil in his personal life, which was plagued by marital problems, alcoholism, and mounting financial difficulties. Despite all this, the period was amazing fertile: by 1915, he had written his first five symphonies, his violin concerto, six symphonic poems (including the famous Finlandia), and several smaller works for orchestra. By the time of World War I, he had won the wider recognition he desired and deserved.


Sibelius was a fine violinist, and had started his musical training with dreams of becoming a great virtuoso. A shoulder injury when he was in his 20s and an increasing interest in composition ended his hoped-for solo career, but he never lost his interest in the instrument. When he was in his late 30s, he wrote: “There’s still a part of me that desires to become a violinist, and this expresses itself in unusual ways.” Shortly after he made this remark, he began work on the violin concerto, encouraged by German violinist Willy Burmeister, who promised to play the concerto in Berlin. For financial reasons, Sibelius decided to premiere it in Helsinki, and since Burmeister was unavailable to travel to Finland, Sibelius engaged Victor Novacek, a violin teacher at the Helsinki Conservatory. Novacek apparently played the concerto poorly, and the first performance was a flop. Sibelius was also dissatisfied with the piece itself, and set to work revising it. A year later, he got his desired Berlin premiere, with the Bohemian virtuoso Carl Halír as soloist. Though Sibelius referred to this concert as the concerto’s “trial by fire,” it was a tremendous success, prompting one critic to a rather fanciful comparison to “the Nordic winter landscape painters, who through the distinctive interplay of white on white secure rare, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes powerful effects.” Sibelius dedicated his concerto to the Hungarian child prodigy Ferenc Vecsey, who played it in Berlin a year later, when he was just 13 years old. (Sibelius had in fact made the dedication when Vecsey was only 10!)


What You’ll Hear

The concerto is an expansive work that calls for dramatic, forceful playing for the soloist. The opening movement (Allegro moderato) begins with a passionate melody from the soloist, supported by throbbing background of muted strings. This first section ends with a short cadenza, and a transition, before cellos and bassoons introduce a new major-key idea. The violin transforms this into a more passionate minor-key theme. Strings and woodwinds introduce a more forceful third idea. Though the movement has the general outlines of sonata form, Sibelius follows a freer course, developing these main ideas until the very end, and introducing several new themes along the way. At its midpoint, this movement features an extended solo cadenza.


Where the first movement was stormy and tense, the second (Adagio di molto) is quiet and lyrical. The movement opens with almost mysterious lines from the woodwinds, but the violin soon enters with a long Romantic melody, supported by horns and woodwinds. A central episode is more dramatic in mood, with a new melody introduced by the orchestra.  The final section returns to the calm mood of the opening, with the main theme now played by the orchestra as the soloist provides a delicate ornamental filigree.


Forceful rhythms in the timpani and low strings introduce the main theme of last movement (Allegro, ma non tanto), an energetic melody that critic Donald Tovey called “a polonaise for polar bears.” The second theme is a syncopated dance melody introduced by the orchestra and further developed by the violin. Most of the movement is concerned with developing these two themes, most often played by the orchestra as the soloist provides a kind of virtuoso commentary. The violinist throws in every virtuoso trick in the book in this dazzling finale: long lines of double-stops and octaves, harmonics, and breathtaking passages that throughout the range of the instrument.


Tchaikovsky’s rarely-heard Suite No.3 is a collection of four colorful character pieces, beginning with an emotional Elegy, a melancholy Waltz, and a light-footed Scherzo. The last movement is a delightfully witty Theme and Variations.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
: May 7, 1840, Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia.

Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia.


Suite No. 3 in G Major, Op. 55

     Composed: Spring and summer of 1884.

    Premiere: January 24, 1885, in St. Petersburg.

     Previous MSO Performance: 2006.

     Duration: 41:00.



Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites are performed far too infrequently…and that is a shame. In these works, which generally cost him much less work (and mental anguish) than the symphonies, he could let his imagination run free. In a letter to Nadejda von Meck, written as he was working on the Suite No. 3, he once wrote: “I have begun a new composition in the form of a suite. I find this form extraordinarily sympathetic, since it isn’t constraining, and demands no dependence on any tradition or rules.” The composition of his suites was often done in interludes between larger works, seemingly as a refreshing break, and this sense of relaxation comes through in the music.


The third suite comes from a very productive and successful time in Tchaikovsky’s career. In the mid-1880s, the turmoil of his failed marriage was largely behind him, and he had found a thoroughly satisfying relationship in his correspondence with von Meck, a wealthy married woman who served as Tchaikovsky’s patron and closest confidante for several years. He was also enjoying tremendous success as a composer at home and throughout Europe. 1884 opened with the successful premiere of his opera Mazeppa in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in March he was honored by Tsar Alexander III with the Order of St. Vladimir, Fourth Class, Imperial Russia’s highest civilian award. He then retreated to his sister’s country estate at Kamenka, to relax and, he hoped, to begin work on a new symphony. In his diary entry of April 28, he wrote: “I have been trying to lay the foundation of a new symphony... Walked in the garden and found the germ, not of a symphony, but of a future suite.” He worked on the suite throughout May and June, originally planning a five-movement piece with a closing set of variations, but eventually abandoning an opening movement titled Contrasts. (This music was later recycled in his Op.56 Concert-Fantasy.) The work was complete on August 1.


In a thoroughly politic move, Tchaikovsky dedicated the Suite No.3 to the conductor Max Erdmannsdorfer, as an apology for an unintended snub—Tchaikovsky had missed the Moscow premiere of the Suite No. 2 in February, which Erdmannsdorfer had conducted. When the Suite No. 3 was finally performed in St. Petersburg in 1885, conducted by Hans von Bülow, it was an immediate success. After the concert, he wrote to von Meck: “Never have I had such a triumph. I could see that the greater part of the audience was touched and grateful. Such moments are the best in an artist’s life.”


What You’ll Hear

The title “elegy” usually implies mournful or melancholy music, but there is little that is sad about Tchaikovsky’s Élégie. The main theme is a flowing melody passed between woodwinds and strings. A contrasting, more Romantic idea is introduced by the flute and strings. These two melodies are interwoven in a lush musical texture that grows to a great emotional peak at the center. The movement closes with a lovely solo moment for the English horn. Any sadness in this suite is reserved for the second movement, Valse mélancolique. The swirling opening theme is passed between the flute and violins. A long central section introduces new material, but maintains the same dark mood, before a recapitulation and a coda that brings the waltz to halting conclusion. The Scherzo breaks this mood entirely, with a quick-footed call and response between upper woodwinds and strings. The mood briefly grows dark, as trombones growl out threatening chords, but the light mood returns. There is a slightly more relaxed middle section before the main idea returns.


The lengthy last movement is a theme and twelve variations that have a tremendous musical and emotional range. The theme, laid out by the strings, is a simple Classical-style melody. Tchaikovsky then explores this theme exhaustively, in variations that proceed from simple decoration to almost complete musical transformations. Many of Tchaikovsky’s takes on his melody are delightfully witty—listen, for example for the tongue-in-cheek reference to the Dies irae in Variation 4, and the pseudo-Russian Orthodox chant of Variation 7. By Variation 10, he transforms the piece briefly into a violin concerto. The final and most extended variation is marked Finale Polacca, and serves as a capstone. Brass fanfares announce the opening of this section, and the brass dominate most of this forceful finale


program notes ©2020 by J. Michael Allsen