Classical Connection: Fort Wayne Philharmonic Jan. 20 concert at PFW's Rinehart Music Center
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra and members of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Youth Orchestras, conducted by Andrew Constantine, were both featured in the Jan. 20, performance in the Rhinehart Music Center at Purdue Fort Wayne. The concert included music by Sir William Walton, Jessie Montgomery, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Felix Mendelssohn.
The young musicians joined the Philharmonic in three selections from the 1963 concert suite prepared by British composer and conductor James Muir Mathiesen (1911-1975) from the 1944 film score for Sir Lawrence Olivier's Technicolor film adaptation of William Shakespeare's historic drama "Henry V" by British composer and conductor Sir William Walton (1902-1983). Henry V (1386-1422) was a "warrior" king and he died at a time when England was battling France in a brutal war. Unlike a stage production of the play, Olivier's adaptation includes a spectacular battle sequence. The selections for the score performed on January 20 included the Overture: The Globe Playhouse, "Touch her soft lips and part," and the Agincourt Song.
The relatively short selections were played with great sensitivity for the different themes of the music. Walton reflected Elizabeth England, rather than the medieval period of English history. There was some wonderful string playing by the musicians and we also heard some impressive performances by the winds and brass. The middle piece is quite lyrical and sweet, contrasting considerably with the majestic first and third selections. The Philharmonic provided great examples of Walton's fine scoring for the film adaptation. This music became quite well known through Walton's famous 1963 EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, but this was actually the first time I have heard a live performance of any of the score. It was a delight that the pieces were played with so much feeling and appreciation.
Cuban-American cellist Tommy Mesa was featured in two works for solo cello and orchestra. The first of these was the 2022 composition "Divided for Solo Cello and String Orchestra" by American composer Jessie Montgomery (born 1981). This relatively short work begins with a very moving cello solo that is quite serious and dramatic, and it is very much a troubled lament. This set the stage for a musical dialogue between the cellist and the other string players. There is no real solution or answer in Montgomery's reflections on our troubled, often divided world. This is certainly not happy music, but it addresses the things that have divided us. Montgomery wrote the work for Tommy Mesa, so his performance definitely reflected the composer's intentions. The solos are very challenging for the cellist and Mesa was able to meet those challenges in a work that covers much of the cello's range, as well as its capabilities. He played with great feeling and intensity, displaying considerable virtuosity. The Philharmonic strings were outstanding in performing a very demanding and disturbing composition that focuses on the challenges we have all faced in recent years.
The next work featuring Tommy Mesa as soloist was the Variations on a Rococo Theme," Opus 33, by Russian composer, teacher, and conductor Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky was a great admirer of the Austrian master Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), so it wasn't too surprising that he would compose this work for cello and orchestra. Unlike Tchaikovsky's fourth orchestral suite, "Mozartiana," which is based on actual compositions by Mozart, the variations are on an original theme by Tchaikovsky that is a romantic version of the types of music Mozart composed.
Tchaikovsky's masterful and often delightful work was quite a contrast to Montgomery's very modern work. It is a true showpiece that is the closest thing Tchaikovsky came to writing a cello concerto. Mesa was excellent in capturing the different moods of the variations, from joyous to tragic. It is a work that clearly reflects the challenges that Tchaikovsky faced in his troubled life. The Philharmonic played excellently throughout the work and it was a treat to hear Constantine bring out the changing portions of this memorable work. It's hard to imagine that Tchaikovsky wrote this work immediately after completing his very dramatic symphonic poem, "Francesca da Rimini," which was inspired by a portion of Dante's "Inferno." Tchaikovsky's love for Mozart's music is a high point in his work and, although there are some poignant moments, there is an overall exuberance in this work.
German cellist and fellow professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848-1890) assisted Tchaikovsky in the composition of this colorful work. This was much as what happened when Tchaikovsky wrote his only violin concerto and had assistance from an established violinist. Although the theme and variations are clearly influenced by Mozart, the music is very much in Tchaikovsky's style, although using a smaller orchestra than in his typical orchestral works. The work was composed between December 1876 and March 1877 and only performed once in Tchaikovsky's lifetime -- on November 30, 1877, with Fitzenhagen as soloist and Nikolai Rubenstein conducting. Although the work was generally neglected until the 1940s, it is now considered one of Tchaikovsky's greater works and certainly is a virtuoso work. So, it was a real treat to hear the music played so well by Mesa and the Philharmonic. By the way, Mesa played his parts from memory, unlike the apparently more challenging solos of Montgomery's work.
After intermission, the concert concluded with the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, "Scottish," by German composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Mendelssohn was much influenced by the history and scenery of Scotland, which he visited in 1829. He began work on a symphony, influenced by Scottish music, and then suspended work on the composition in 1831. It's likely that Mendelssohn returned to the work in 1841 and finally completed it in 1842. The symphony is in four movements and is actually the final symphony that Mendelssohn completed.
Constantine addressed the audience before playing the symphony and he acknowledged how Mendelssohn was very much influenced by Scottish folk songs and dances. The symphony is initially very dramatic, even dark, but it soon gives away to more animated and moving music. Constantine and the Philharmonic were able to present a good contrast between the more serious moments of the first movement's beginning and the reflective third movement with the real joy and enthusiasm of the fourth movement. He followed Mendelssohn's suggestion that the symphony be played with just a short pause between the movements. This provided a greater intensity and continuity in the overall performance. Typically, there were some very fine performances by individual musicians, especially the French horns, oboes, and trumpets. Mendelssohn had high standards in his work and, as Constantine noted in his program notes, he probably drove himself too much and ultimately undermind his own health. The composer's relationship with Great Britain continued on and off over the years...and he had a personal connection with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who came to admire Mendelssohn's accomplishments during his short life of 38 years.
The next Philharmonic Masterworks concert will be on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m. in the Rhinehart Music Center at Purdue Fort Wayne. There will be two very different works: Frederic Chopin's first piano concerto with pianist Michelle Cann and Mozart's "Requiem," which was his final work and was completed by Xaver Sussmayr. The choral masterpiece will include four vocal soloists, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus, and the Ball State University Chorus.