While Fabio Mechetti, music director for the Spokane Symphony, hails from Brazil, this weekend's season-opener will feel like something of a homecoming. Not because Mechetti has chosen Brazilian works - all of them hail squarely from Europe - but rather because the concert will initiate Mechetti's final season at the podium he has called home for the past eleven years. To anchor this concert and launch the orchestra's final season in its longtime abode, the Opera House, Mechetti has selected a trio of works whose long-term life in concert halls has assured them the status of masterpieces. Primary among them is Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor.
The Russian-born Prokofiev wrote the second Violin Concerto in 1935 while he was preparing to repatriate himself back to Russia. He had left his homeland under duress during the Bolshevik Revolution. Through a punishing schedule of composing and touring -- Prokofiev was a virtuosic piano soloist -- he built a major international reputation for himself and was able to live in self-imposed exile. But the lure of his homeland was too strong even for the rebellious Prokofiev, and in the late 1920s he toured the country and decided to begin the process of return, which he hoped would be triumphant thanks to his newfound celebrity.
The process wasn't as easy as he had hoped, however, and the Second Concerto was written while Prokofiev was traveling uneasily between major European cities. It was designed to show off the famous French violinist Robert Soetens, who often toured with Prokofiev, playing duets and chamber music with the composer at the piano. Consequently, the concerto was originally written for piano and violin, and Prokofiev worked on the orchestral arrangement of the dazzling piano part while they were traveling.
In addition to serving as a vehicle for a violinist's virtuosity, Prokofiev hoped that the concerto would show off his talents as an internationally famous composer. At the time of his departure, Prokofiev had been known as an artistic rebel, an enfant terrible whose music was as challenging to listen to as it was to perform. But Prokofiev had always nurtured a lyrical streak that favored musical simplicity, and as audiences around the world learned of his name, he began to write works in this style with greater frequency.
Because of this, the Violin Concerto No. 2 is a perfect example of Prokofiev's late musical interests. In the concerto, he turns away from modern rebellion and embraces the musical models of Mozart and Beethoven for the work's form; he also draws upon Bach's style of layering melodies on top of each other to create the harmonies. But while the structure is one of western music's most sturdy, the musical material itself is refreshingly modern. Moreover, it's ravishingly beautiful in the style of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, which he was also writing at the time. By taking these melodies and playing them against one another in a style that composers had been using for centuries, Prokofiev creates unfamiliar harmonies that still have the logic of classical music. The result is both surprising and reassuring - a challenge to the concert hall that also respects the music that is traditionally performed there.
The concerto was also one of classical music's first introductions to widely popular high-fidelity audio recordings. An LP issued two years after the work's composition by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky, with Jascha Heifetz as the soloist, made this work immediately popular to a wider audience than could attend performances in concert halls. It has been performed and recorded continually ever since.
True to the work's origin, the Spokane Symphony has enlisted one of the world's most dazzling violin soloists, Kyoko Takezawa, to perform with the orchestra. Violin concerti are almost always dazzling in their display of the artist's command of the instrument. But the pairing of Takezawa, with her emotional intensity and haunting tone-control, with Prokofiev's roof-raising solo passages (in the first movement) and expansive melodies (in the second), seems particularly appropriate. Adding another level of excitement to the work, Takezawa will be performing the concerto on one of the famous named Stradivarius violins: the "Hammer."
Before Takezawa takes the stage, however, Mechetti will open the concert with an orchestral favorite: the overture to Giuseppi Verdi's opera Sicilian Vespers. Many listeners will immediately recognize Verdi's chilling violin whispers and drumrolls (in the opera, premonitions of death) and the sweeping dark melodies featured in the piece. That's probably what the composer intended: Opera overtures were often written to serve as stand-alone performance pieces. (Think of all the Rossini overtures you might know as compared to the number of his operas you've encountered.) This allowed them to be played without an expensive full-blown opera production. Verdi wrote Sicilian Vespers as a five-act opera for the Paris Opera when he was stepping into the height of his fame. Having such a massive work premiere in one of Europe's most celebrated musical spaces was a sign of where he planned to park his career for eternity.
The concert will conclude with Richard Strauss's musical travel diary From Italy. Blurring the lines between a classical symphony and an impressionistic poem written in music, Strauss's work raises musical vistas that he encountered with traveling through Italy when he was 22. Drawing on the sights from Venice to Vesuvius, the work allows monuments of sound to raise the ruins of Rome, and sets strings afloat depicting waves, with flutes adding the glint of sunlight at their tips. It's one of the young composer's earliest mature works, and shows him delighting in his ability to do two things simultaneously: to compose a classically-plotted four-movement symphony and to turn himself loose in the indulgent language of Romantic music.
True to its title, From Italy was first performed for a non-Italian audience. Strauss himself returned to conduct the premiere in his hometown of Munich, where his father, who was the principal horn player with the symphony, played the horn solos scattered throughout the work. The audience cheered their famous son's musical letter from abroad as each movement concluded, but couldn't quite accept the melody that Strauss decided to incorporate in the final section. Instead of drawing on an actual Neapolitan folk song, Strauss incorporated the famous song "Funiculi, funicula." The fact that the audience derided his choice convinced the composer that he had written music "of some significance." After more than 100 years of the work's residing steadily in the concert hall, it's safe to say that Strauss was right.