Program Notes: Classical VI – The Magnificent Mendelssohn
In our season finale, we celebrate the magnificent music of Mendelssohn and a special new work commissioned by the YSO from a well-known Pacific Northwest composer for the occasion. The YSO Symphony Chorus joins the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s unique symphony-cantata Lobgesang.
Felix Mendelssohn
(February 3, 1809-November 4, 1847)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21

Born into a wealthy family in Berlin, Felix Mendelssohn studied music at an early age. He produced his first composition at age eleven, and from then on he seemed to be constantly composing or performing. Family travels and personal acquaintances also allowed him to meet intellectual luminaries, exposing him to poetry and literature that would be important to his composing. Written when Mendelssohn was only seventeen, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s play; this approach had only recently caught the attention of audiences and the imaginations of composers like Berlioz and Schumann, on the cusp of full-blown Romanticism.  Mendelssohn’s overture immediately inspires images of the fairy kingdom, with light, gossamer figures, offset by sounds of the forest, with hunting calls and boisterous activity (listen for the donkey braying, anticipating Bottom’s transformation). It contains all the motives of the play—the songs and dances of the fairies, the chases of the lovers, the dance of the rustic clowns, the grace of Titania, and the airiness of Puck.  The overture opens with four sustained chords in the wind instruments, introducing us to the fairy realm with all its poetic beauty, grace, and lightness. The flowing first theme is followed by a hunting-horn passage, in turn followed by a love theme that is simple but full of graceful charm. This leads to a dance by the rustics, with more donkey noises. The horns are heard again, and the fairy revels resume in all their dreamy beauty. All of this is elaborated, and the overture closes with charming elegance. 

Kenji Bunch
(born July 27, 1973)
New work for orchestra (YSO commission) 

Kenji Bunch is one of America’s most engaging, influential, and prolific composers. The Washington Post said, “Through an expansive blend of classical and vernacular styles, Bunch makes music that’s ‘clearly modern but deeply respectful of tradition and instantly enjoyable.’” His work has been called “Neo-American: casual on the outside, complex underneath, immediate and accessible to first-time listeners…” Bunch’s music integrates popular styles, like bluegrass, hip hop, jazz and funk, into classical settings in innovative and interesting ways. Bunch has received commissions and premieres from many orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Britt Festival, Chamber Music Northwest and the Eugene Ballet. His music has been recorded on the Sony/BMG, EMI Classics, Koch, RCA and Naxos labels, among others. Bunch currently serves as Artistic Director for the Fear No Music organization, presenting concert series and mentoring future generations of composers. He also teaches viola, composition and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic. 

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 52 “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”)

Mendelssohn composed this work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press and the appearance of the Gutenberg Bible. Since a “Symphony No. 2” had never been published during Mendelssohn’s lifetime, after his death the editors of the Mendelssohn complete edition decided his Op. 52 Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), “A Symphony-Cantata for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra,” should be called Symphony No. 2 in the sequence for editorial reasons. There is no indication that this represented the composer’s intentions. Mendelssohn’s experience conducting massive sacred works by Handel and J.S. Bach was particularly influential for this work—these predecessors are updated to a mid-19th century style, using all available resources, past and present, to convey the meaning of the text to the fullest extent possible. The piece consists of a three-movement orchestral Sinfonia attached to a nine-movement vocal cantata in which Biblical excerpts and a text by Martin Rinkart from the Evangelical Church Hymnal celebrate mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment (as represented by the Gutenberg Bible). The symphony and cantata are connected by a recurring motive, first heard at the beginning of the Sinfonia. The work is almost twice as long as any of Mendelssohn’s other symphonies. The first performance was June 25, 1840. The Sinfonia begins with a majestic chorale featuring the trombones. The Allegro that follows presents an uplifting theme for full orchestra, contrasted by a gentler second theme in the winds and violas. Both themes are developed in a variety of keys, melodic variations and combinations. The music eventually comes to a halt and the gentler second theme returns. After one final reprise of the uplifting music, the movement comes full circle with the opening majestic chorale. Surprisingly, this leads to a direct segue to the second movement. 

A tuneful melody contributes to a pleasant, occasionally melancholy mood for the second movement. A contrasting section presents a theme in a chorale-like setting reminiscent of the first movement. The first theme returns and the movement ends gently. 

The third movement, Adagio religioso, begins with a quiet, reverent chorale in the strings. Winds are gradually added to fill out the sound. Accompanying figures under the chorale melody become increasingly active, creating a gradual build to a full orchestral climax. After the climax, the music slowly winds down, bringing the Sinfonia to a reverent, satisfying close. 

The cantata begins with a reference to the opening chorale from the Sinfonia, gradually building to the first choral entrance. The choir sings energetic praises with strong encouragement from the orchestra. The soprano soloist urges to “Praise the Lord with the lyre, praise him with your song” (Psalm 33) with choral reinforcement, asks for blessings, and the movement concludes quietly. 

The tenor sings a recitative that encourages all to be thankful for redemption, and then a lovely aria offers comfort to those who believe. The chorus echoes these sentiments. The music is serious, inferring that this is not to be taken lightly. The next movement features two soprano soloists in a beautiful aria with horn obligato. The text speaks of waiting patiently for blessings, trusting that supplications will be heard. The chorus offers occasional encouragement and confirmation of good things coming to those with patience and trust. 

The sixth movement features the tenor soloist. The mood is much more urgent and dramatic as those who fear death and darkness are encouraged to find a way to the light. This mood continues into the seventh movement as the chorus and full orchestra join together in full voice to announce the way out of the darkness. Mendelssohn uses some retrospective effects, e.g., fugal imitation and gradual accumulation of forces, to underscore the depth of the message being conveyed. 

The eighth movement is a striking contrast—a simple four-part hymn for voices only. It is Mendelssohn’s famous setting of “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now Thank We All Our God). The second verse of the hymn is accompanied tastefully by the orchestra, reinforcing the feelings of thankfulness and praise. 

The ninth movement features the tenor and soprano soloists individually and together, singing of thanks for saving grace. Again, Mendelssohn’s knack for writing beautiful melodies is on full display, and the tone of the music is genuine and reassuring. The finale exhorts all to offer praises to the Lord. The choir and orchestra begin together with a long serious section that finally gives way to a more celebratory finale that combines all the orchestral sounds and compositional devices one would expect to find in a work of this magnitude. The ending is glorious with a final return to the opening Sinfonia chorale melody, this time with the chorus adding words to it: “All that breathes, praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”