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Classical Connection: A review of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's April 13 concert

Andrew Constantine conducted the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in music of Sir Edward Elgar and Ludwig van Beethoven in the Masterworks Series concert on Saturday evening, April 13, in the Auer Performance Hall at Purdue Fort Wayne.

In 1913, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) composed his “Falstaff – A Symphonic Study,” which is actually an extended symphonic poem in the manner of works by his friend Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

In some ways, Elgar’s Falstaff has similarities to Strauss’ “Don Quixote.” It is based on the fictional character Sir John Falstaff, as he is depicted in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2.

Henry (1367-1413) is a prince, who is also known as Hal, and Falstaff is his friend. Henry eventually becomes king and Falstaff hopes for some favors from his friend, but instead Falstaff is dismissed and banished from the royal court. Falstaff had a reputation for mischievous and questionable behavior, which the prince tolerated but the king could not. The new king says he has changed and can no longer associate people such as Falstaff. It is truly heartbreaking for Falstaff and it ultimately results in his death, literally from “a broken heart.”

Elgar structured his work in four main parts and he has two main themes for Henry and for Falstaff. There are also recurring subthemes in the epic score, which requires a large orchestra with ample percussion including timpani, side drum, triangle, tabor, tambourine, bass drum, and cymbals, as well as two harps. The composer gave these titles to the four parts:

  • Part I: Falstaff and Prince Henry
  • Part II: Eastcheap – Gadshill
  • Part III: Falstaff’s march
  • Part IV: King Henry VI’s progress.

Shakespeare portrays Falstaff as a very large, bumbling, and comical figure, who ultimately becomes a tragic figure. Giuseppe Verdi’s 1893 opera about Falstaff is based on another Shakespeare play, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which was also used by Otto Nicolai in his 1849 opera.
Constantine said, “I’ve made the contentious decision to include actors and dialogue at the key dramatic movements. Whilst Elgar never called for it, he did write explicitly about the correlation between the drama and the music.”

So, several Fort Wayne actors, directed by Shelby Lewis, presented sections of the Shakespeare plays to give us a better understanding of what Elgar’s music depicts. Most of the dialogue featured Bob Haluska as Falstaff and Kevin Torwelle as Prince/King Henry. The initial sections showed the humorous and often boisterous discussions between the characters leading up to the tragic movement when Henry became King and felt he could no longer associated with Falstaff, unless the knight changed his way. Haluska very effectively showed the change from the comic character to the tragic one. He was portrayed as a large, loud, and lusty man with a fondness for drink. He showed us a “broken” man at the end, after the King repudiated him.

The music itself shows considerable contrasts along the way. The Falstaff theme in particular is very majestic and dramatic, while sometimes quite comical as well. The Prince’s theme is more dignified and assertive; although there are humorous twists, Elgar increasingly shows the emergence of a true monarch, who had originally made great promises to Falstaff and then repudiated them when he became king.

In this concert, Constantine changed the seating of the orchestra. He arranged the strings across the front, starting with the first violins on the far left, then the cellos, the violas, and the second violins on the far right. The double basses were in the back left corner with winds and brass to the right of them. I could not really see the ample percussion players, who were likely in the back. I did see the two harps on the left, behind the first violins. The separation of the first and second violins often resulted in true stereophonic sound.

There were significant solos in the Elgar for the string players, particularly for concertmaster Violetta Todorova and associate concertmaster Johanna Bourkova-Morurov, as well as principal violist Derek Reeves and principal cellist Andre Gaskins. Todorova and Bourkova-Morunov had especially sweet solos. Elgar wrote some quite romantic passages in the score, as well as more turbulent and exciting moments. Constantine ensured that the contrasts in the score emerged. I was particularly enchanted by one section that was rather exotic and dancelike, as if we had been transported to ancient Persia

Elgar’s score ends rather abruptly, as if he were depicting the sudden demise of Falstaff. Indeed, the audience hesitated in applauding until a few of us realized that the work was over. There was very warm applause for the orchestra in performing such a challenging and diverse score, and even greater applause for the actors who portrayed the characters from Shakespeare’s plays.

After intermission, Constantine spoke to the audience and noted the passing of Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died recently at the age of 72 following the onset of cancer. Constantine said he knew the Mayor and recognized his love for Fort Wayne and his deep faith. So, as a tribute to the Mayor, the orchestra performed a very moving arrangement of “Panis Angelicus” (“Bread of Angels”), which is a Latin hymn associated with the Corpus Christi or Body of Christ observance, focusing on the observance of the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion. The orchestra performed the version by the Belgian composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890) that dates from 1861. It’s possible that the orchestration used in this concert was the one of British conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977).

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his only violin concerto for his friend Franz Clement (1780-1842). It was premiered by Clement in Vienna, Austria, on December 23, 1806. For some reason, the concerto was initially a failure and seldom performed until it was revived in 1844 by the 12-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) in London with Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) conducting the orchestra.

Our soloist was the American violinist Philippe Quint (born March 26, 1974, in Leningrad), who plays the 1708 “Ruby” Antonio Stradivari violin. He came to the United States in 1991 and earned both bachelor and master’s degrees at Julliard in New York City. He became an American citizen.

The concerto is in three movements and is primarily D major. It shifts to G major in the slow second movement. Typical of early nineteenth century concertos, the work has an extended orchestral introduction which is very much a slow, steady march. The first movement is marked Allegro ma non troppo (Not too fast) and becomes more animated once the soloist enters. Following the custom of the time, the soloist usually improvises the cadenzas or extended violin solos heard in the work. However, Beethoven also eventually wrote his own cadenzas for a transcription of the concerto for piano and orchestra. In this concerto the cadenzas are near the ends of the first and third movements. I believe Quint used the familiar solos written by the Austrian violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) and he played them with great precision and feeling.

The first movement was quite powerful and effective, especially with the outstanding solos by Quint. There are orchestral interludes and Quint often turned toward the orchestra when he wasn’t playing, as if to stay “in synch” with the overall performance. The music actually reminds of portions of Beethoven’s only opera, originally titled “Leonore” and then retitled “Fidelio,” which emerged around the same time. Beethoven’s hearing had already begun to fail, but he could still write music with great feeling and, in fact, his deafness never stopped his work since he had perfect pitch and could hear the music in his head. So, Quint and the orchestra, capably led by Constantine, reflected the feelings that Beethoven put down on paper. There is great majesty and emotion in this first movement and that was clearly heard in this performance.

The second movement is marked Larghetto (rather slow and broad). This is a very lyrical, generally slow, and very moving movement. Beethoven became known for composing memorable slow pieces and this is a great example. Quint definitely played the legato passages with an intensity and fluidity in keeping with the score.

The third movement is marked Rondo: Allegro. Beethoven enjoyed writing rondos, music with a main theme and one or more contrasting themes; the music alternates between the principal theme and the other themes. Beethoven excelled in such musical structures and, in the concerto, it is put to excellent use. It is noteworthy the way the concerto eventually grows in intensity and excitement, with the soloist engaged in a memorable musical dialogue with the orchestra.

The violin solos are very showy and increasingly challenging as we head toward the final cadenza. We could really enjoy the brilliant playing, both by the soloist and the orchestra. The challenge in any concerto is for the conductor to keep the orchestra with the soloist, so that there is agreement over tempos and phrasing; we certainly witnessed a good working relationship in this performance.

The result was a tremendous and enduring standing ovation. Quint finally agreed to a solo encore. He played his own arrangement of the song “Smile” by actor/director Charles Chaplin (1889-1977), which was written for the 1936 feature film “Modern Times.” This is a poignant melody in a mostly silent film that features synchronized music, sound effects, and some limited dialogue. It is an example of how Chaplin often combined comic and dramatic themes in his stories. So, the tune was played with beauty and lyricism and then Quint apparently added a bit of the familiar “Humoresque” by Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

The final Masterworks Series of the 2023-24 season is scheduled for May 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Auer Performance Hall. The program will include Sir William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18, with Fabio Bidini as the soloist.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.