Friday night’s Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks 2 Concert, presented by Nalcor Energy, was an all-Mendelssohn event.
Gordon Pinsent and Marc Davis of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. — Photo courtesy of Greg locke
The first half of the program featured Duo Concertante (Nancy Dahn, violin; and Timothy Steeves, piano) performing the Concerto for Violin and Piano, MWV 04, that Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed at age 14, performed within his family circle, and did not publish during his lifetime. Duo Concertante will be recording this beautiful work with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO), and I can’t wait to buy the CD. The lyrical second movement, the Adagio, is still going through my head the day after the concert. Dahn and Steeves have been performing together since 1997, as equal partners, with perfect ensemble. They have a large repertoire and often commission new music. They tour extensively and continue to improve their playing and their stage presence.
Dahn’s performance on Friday evening was sovereign. She wore a long black dress with flowing skirt, was calm, confident, and played as always with perfect intonation. Her detached double-stopping in the third movement was delightful. She, of course, could bring her own instrument and favourite bow.
It seemed to me that Steeves had to work harder to play the Steinway in the Arts & Culture Centre than when I saw him perform on the grand piano in the D.F. Cook Recital Hall on Aug. 9. Every piano is different, and even a slightly stiffer action than one is accustomed to can present a challenge.
Nevertheless, his arpeggios rippled, his judicious use of the pedal made the piano sing while keeping the notes clear, and his concluding chords brought tremendous sound out of the bass of the Steinway.
In 1989, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Martha Argerich recorded this double concerto for Deutsche Grammophon with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which does not use a conductor. Their sizzling, high-speed performance is held together by a driving rhythm.
To me, Friday’s performance demonstrated the benefit of performing the work with a conductor. The two soloists were able be more expressive and employ more rubato when they did not have to concern themselves with holding the whole string orchestra together. Keeping even their accelerating trills together, Dahn and Steeves concentrated on making their parts speak with a truly absorbing narrative quality. Watch for the forthcoming CD.
This is the second year that the NSO has not had a permanent concert master. While all the guest concerts masters have acquitted themselves well, I was particularly impressed on Friday evening by Natalia Kononova’s unostentatious professionalism. She was poised and alert, and her playing was always in the spirit of the music.
After the intermission, the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn’s two musical settings of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Opus 21 and Opus 61, written 17 years apart. The Germans were fascinated by Shakespeare’s dramas, and especially by his fairy tale comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before moving to London in 1804, the eminent artist Johann Heinrich Füßli (1741-1824) did nine large, powerful oil paintings based on Shakespeare’s dramas. Of them, the three most famous are of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” painted between 1786 and 1790.
Felix Mendelssohn was a dual talent, an accomplished painter as well as a musician, but was not linguistically gifted. However, as explained by Heinrich Eduard Jacob in his book “Felix Mendelssohn and His Times,” the source of inspiration lay close at hand. Felix’s paternal aunt Dorothea was married to Friedrich Schlegel, the brother of August Wilhelm Schlegel, who succeeded, where many had failed, in translating Shakespeare’s predominantly iambic pentameter into poetic, accessible German that to this day remains unexcelled. Furthermore, young Felix had observed August Wilhelm Schlegel at work, trying 12 different translations of one simple verse. With this exceptionally gifted in-law as his role model, Mendelssohn worked through 24 versions of the E major theme, tightening it until it was absolutely perfect.
His concert overture, Opus 21, was conceived and completed in its first draft during the night from the 25th to the 26th of August 1826, a night in which Mendelssohn felt he “encountered Shakespeare in the garden.” And it was an immediate success, with its seminal four chords, four breezes, played by the flutes, and successively augmented by clarinets, bassoons, oboes and horns. Then the violins enter with rapid pianissimo staccato that represents fireflies. We also unmistakably hear galloping hooves, and an ass braying.
This early overture, actually a symphonic poem, is a fine example of “Mendelssohn’s brilliance and originality as an orchestrator of thematic material.” Leon Bolstein, in “The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn,” praises “the segregation of instrumental groupings, the employment of wide registration, (and) the highlighting of single voices.”
In 1842, at the request of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, Mendelssohn expanded the work “into a 14-movement suite of incidental music (published as Op. 61), suitable for performance with Shakespeare’s play” (Colin Timothy Eatock, “Mendelssohn and Victorian England”).
For performance with Shakespeare’s play? Who adapted it for orchestra, large choir, and narrator, for the resources available to us here in St. John’s? This, I understand, was the collaborative effort of conductor Marc David and narrator Gordon Pinsent. They did a fine job of streamlining Shakespeare’s very complicated plot, focusing on the fairy King Oberon’s attempt to obtain a changeling boy from his wife, Queen Titania.
The ladies of the Philharmonic Choir of the NSO, wearing black gowns, combined with the members of the youth choir, Shallaway, dressed in blue, to sing the words of the fairies. Their parts were memorized, and their enunciation was perfect, as was that of the two soloists, Deirdre Costello and Abra Whitney, who had very pleasant voices.
The fairy choir sang near the beginning of Opus 61, then filed quietly out, as if on their nightly business, and returned to sing again toward the end.
Narrator-actor Gordon Pinsent brought Shakespeare’s lines to life with his good-natured, at times jocular delivery, savouring all the rhymes of the rhyming couplets:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear.
. . .
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
It was for Opus 61 that Mendelssohn wrote his now famous “Wedding March” that begins with a trumpet fanfare. In 1858, when Queen Victoria’s “eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, selected the ‘March’ from Midsummer Night’s Dream for performance at her wedding, a new tradition was firmly established” (Eatock).
The performance on Friday evening was joyful, and all in good proportion. Acoustically and visually it was a great show, with the cymbals struck together repeatedly and then held out toward the audience to let the sound project.
I am most grateful to photographer Greg Locke for kindly providing the photo of Gordon Pinsent, Marc David, and members of the orchestra that accompanies this review.
This article has been updated