Windy repertoire begins the evening in a nod to our constant companion and we showcase the versatile saxophone, a relative newcomer to the orchestra, in a rollicking trip through jazz-inspired sounds. We complete the performance with a piece 21 years in the making, and nicknamed (to the composer’s ire) Beethoven’s Tenth. A treat for the orchestra musicians, Brahms’ First Symphony stretches their skill and musicality, while providing a thrilling ensemble experience and awesome music for the audience.
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Series 5 – Catch Me (If You Can)
Max Steiner – Gone With the Wind suite
Often referred to as the father of film music, Steiner began composing for film in 1929, just as “talkies” were bringing the silent film era to an end. This development that allowed his scores to be heard through the film industry’s rapidly progressing sound technology. Working at a time of great innovation, Steiner accomplished many firsts for film composers, including being the first to write non-source music: music not part of the onscreen story world.
In addition to his technological strides Steiner wrote great scores, of which his 1939 work for Gone With the Wind is considered a masterpiece. He wrote over three hours of music for the 221-minute epic, developing numerous leitmotifs for specific characters and settings in order to better reflect the onscreen drama. Themes taken from American civil war songs also feature throughout, again with the intent of immersing the audience in the film’s 1860s American setting.
John Williams – Catch Me If You Can: Escapades for Saxophone & Orchestra
The partnership between John Williams and Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful in both cinematic and musical history. Spielberg’s films are unimaginable without Williams’ scores, which include such memorable themes as those from Jaws and Indiana Jones.
One of the highlights of their collaboration is Williams’ score for Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg’s 2001 biopic on 1960s con man Frank Abegnale Jr. Here Williams immerses the audience in the suave world of Spielberg’s protagonist, utilising orchestral effects like finger snapping and hissing. Just as Abegnale weaved his way through the jet set a saxophone weaves in and out as a soloist with the orchestra.
The first movement Closing In suggests the titillating cat and mouse game played by Abegnale and the FBI in the film. Its chromatic groove gives way to a ponderous second movement, Reflections, wherein the saxophonist’s sombre line symbolises the protagonist’s misgivings about a life of crime. The third movement sees the saxophone duel with another instrument ubiquitous in jazz: the vibraphone. The movement’s title, Joy Ride, encapsulates the freewheeling mood of the piece, which explodes with wild jazz melodies that reflect Abegnale’s illicit spree in high society.
Johannes Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
No expectations could have been greater than those placed on the young Johannes Brahms. This was the result of his mentor Robert Schumann’s prediction that he would succeed Beethoven as the next great composer. With this in mind, it was expected Brahms would one day produce a symphony, a genre to which Beethoven had contributed monumental works.
Brahms’ long awaited first symphony would not premiere until 1876, after a long gestation that had begun twenty-one years previously. The extensive writing process was a result of the composer’s exacting nature, as he threw out many drafts in those twenty-one years before arriving at a version he deemed worthy of performance. To Brahms’ annoyance, the successful premiere of his symphony spawned further comparisons to Beethoven, and the work was soon nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”.
The first movement begins with a slow, forceful introduction, contrasting low pulsating timpani with high strings to evoke a very serious character and laying out the thematic material expanded upon in the rest of the movement. This introduces the exposition of the first movement, beginning with an energetic and tense first theme. The second theme of the movement breathes a little easier in the winds, which carry the bulk of this more peaceful tune. They are interrupted, however, by a return of the insistent triplet rhythm, which forces a repeat of the emotionally charged first theme. The development section features and contrasts the many motifs from the movement’s central melodies, most notably the triplet motif and snatches of the first theme. Upon repeating the initial themes of the exposition in the recapitulation, Brahms begins a coda that slows the high energy of the piece.
In the second movement Brahms moves up a major third in key from C Minor to E Major, an effect that calms the waters troubled by the first movement. The melody is heard in both string and wind sections before being played by a solo oboe, backed by the serene timbre of the rest of the wind section. While various wind instruments exchange the melody, the string section plays a subliminal heartbeat rhythm that Brahms builds on to bring the piece to its dynamic apex. The theme of the solo oboe reappears more floridly in a solo violin, which closes the movement on a high note.
A clarinet opens the third movement, which Brahms has moved up yet another major third to the key of A-flat Major. Though this movement adopts the scherzo and trio dance form it does not evoke dance until the trio section, in which Brahms shifts the time signature from a pastoral 2/4 to a graceful 6/8. This section builds the dynamic of the piece while juxtaposing winds and strings, returning to the 2/4 time signature once things have settled. The piece closes with a coda that grows quieter and quieter, ending by unifying rhythms of both the 2/4 and 6/8 sections.
A roll of the drum announces the return of the timpani in the final movement and launches a slow introduction, which like that of the first introduces all the movement’s thematic material. Both the dramatic character and C Minor tonality from the opening return here, suggesting the symphony has taken a kind of there-and-back journey. To cap off the introductory section Brahms gives the horns a heroic melody evocative of alphorns. The strings follow with a rich main theme that begins the exposition, clearly similar to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
After restatement of the theme by the winds, the full orchestra states it in fragments before transitioning to the second theme; an uneasy flowing melody played by the first violin. Motifs of the themes engage in heated back and forth in the development section before the strings suddenly play the opening alphorn melody. The horns reclaim it from there and slow the movement down. They seem ready to transition to the main theme, but instead move us to the second theme, propelling movement to a cadence in C Minor. Fragments of the first theme are heard over an accelerating pulse in the coda, pushing the symphony to a triumphant close in C Major.