Thursday, October 02, 2014

NSO concert offers Mendelssohn "Lobgesang", a curious symphony-oratorio, along with Bach and Poulenc

The National Symphony Orchestra took up the organ tonight in an early fall concert.
Organist Paul Jacobs (raised near Pittsburgh) and British conductor Matthew Halls opened the concert with Francis Poulenc’s playful Organ Concerto in G Minor (for organ, timpani and strings).  The playful work is a potpourri of styles, from the opening loud chords, mixing Bach with French cuisine, almost.  The slow and fast sections alternate a lot.  Poulenc composed the work with little organ training, on commission, when he needed the income in the 1930s. 
Then Jacobs played a solo work, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, MWV 543 by JS Bach, a virtuoso work with a lot of pedal stuff, and a fugue that is less rigorous than some.
But the main course, after intermission, was the Symphony #2 in B-flat by Felix Mendelssohn, the “Lobgesang” or “Hymn of Praise”.  The work starts with three brief orchestral movements, as if for a conventional early romantic symphony. The opening motive is a well known Lutheran chorale, before the Allegro settles in, which leads without pause into a little waltz-scherzo, and then a slow movement that has the effect of a song without words.  The “Finale”, which lasts about 45 minutes, is a full-sized cantata in ten sections, rather sounding like oratorio.  Mendelssohn compiled this piece (or “link-edited” it) from earlier work, not wanting it to come across as an imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth.  The occasion was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press—which reduced the hold that the old Catholic Church had on what could be said about religion—a prelude to today’s battles on Internet freedom. There is a curious mixture of classical styles (Haydn as well as Bach) with early romanticism.  There’s an epsidoe setting of “Now Thank We All” before the concluding vocal fugue on the opening motive.

The program notes gave the key as “B-flat Minor” but it should say Major.  I can remember my first piano teacher characterizing Mendelssohn as “happy”. 

After the concert, NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon held a panel discussion (“After Words”) and QA with Matthew Halls and Paul Jacobs. 

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