Zubin Mehta conducts Saint-Saëns’s “Organ Symphony”

26 Sep 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Zubin Mehta

Gil Shaham

  • Franz Schmidt
    Notre Dame, opera: Intermezzo (10 min.)

  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 35 (35 min.)

    Gil Shaham Violin

  • Camille Saint-Saëns
    Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78 “Organ Symphony” (42 min.)

    Thierry Escaich Organ

  • free

    Gil Shaham in conversation with Julia Gartemann (16 min.)

Zubin Mehta, who has been a regular guest with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1961, keeps surprising the Berlin audience with something new: in this concert, he opens this programme with the Intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt, today relatively unknown, loosely based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The work is one of the great successes of the cellist, pedagogue and composer, who worked in Vienna. Although himself a representative of late Romantic musical aesthetics, Schmidt was also appreciated by such an avant-garde composer as Arnold Schoenberg.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who came from the same Viennese musical tradition as Schmidt, also cultivated a late Romantic musical language throughout his career. This made him highly suited to his extremely successful activity as a film composer, which certainly had an impact on his other compositions: when Korngold was composing his violin concerto in 1945, he drew on themes from earlier film scores. The soloist for the concert is Gil Shaham, who debuted at the age of 17 with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1988 and since then has performed almost all the great violin concertos with the orchestra.

The programme also concludes with a late Romantic work: Camille Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony – the Organ Symphony. The composer developed the themes of the four movements from the mediaeval sequence “Dies irae”. This and the use of the organ in the final movement lend the work a monumental impact and breadth. In this concert, Thierry Escaich makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The French composer is professor at the Paris Conservatoire and the titular organist at the Parish Church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Mind Movies

Notes on Works by Franz Schmidt, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Camille Saint-Saëns

Opera and film – Franz Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame

The Austrian composer, pianist, cellist and conductor Franz Schmidt was a leading figure in Vienna’s musical life at the turn of the 20th century. He produced piano and organ works, chamber music, four symphonies, concertante variations for piano and orchestra and (a particularly impressive late work) the oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), completed in 1937 and based on the biblical book of Revelation. Schmidt, a cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic from 1896 to 1911, discovered his passion for the orchestra early in his career. His First Symphony was awarded the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’s Beethoven Prize in 1899, and the premiere on 6 December 1903 of his Interlude from an Unfinished Romantic Opera was also amply acclaimed. The title of the work, however, was misleading: Schmidt had not even begun work on the so-called unfinished opera. Not until 1904-06 did he produce his Notre Dame, atwo-act adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris. But initially this work attracted little interest. Mahler declined to perform it at the Vienna Court Opera, as did his successor Felix Weingartner. The opera had to wait for its premiere until 1 April 1914, when it was conducted by Franz Schalk.

How closely the composer and his choice of subject corresponded to the zeitgeist can be seen in the fact that Hugo’s novel almost simultaneously conquered the new medium of cinema. In 1905 the Gaumont film company produced a 10-minute silent film entitled La Esmeralda, directed by Alice Guy-Blaché and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset; in 1911 Pathé released a 36-minute silent version, Notre-Dame de Paris, directed by Albert Capellani. Since then Hugo’s novel has been filmed at least a dozen more times. And in fact Schmidt’s opulently colourful orchestral style and the gestural and rhythmic verve of his music slightly suggest the ideal of big Hollywood productions of the 1930, 40s and 50s – the lush soundtracks that Erich Wolfgang Korngold made into a guarantee of success.

Film and concert – Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto

In 1934 Korngold was invited by Max Reinhardt to come to Hollywood to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for his film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The movie received mixed reviews at the time and was a box-office flop. There was unanimous praise for the score, however, and the then 38-year-old Korngold decided to try his luck as a film composer – not least, because, as a Jew, he couldn’t in any event return to Vienna.

For the 19 film scores that he composed between 1935 and 1946, Korngold was nominated for five Oscars and brought home the golden statuette twice: in 1937 for Anthony Adverse and in 1939 for The Adventures of Robin Hood. Korngold regarded himself as a “modern” musician – after all, his Violin Sonata op. 6 was played in 1919 at Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. Clearly this was not the direction that Hollywood expected from him, so in the mid-1940s he decided to return to the concert hall and “serious” music – though striking a balance between the different realms. Throughout the Violin Concerto in D major op. 35 that he wrote in 1945 for Jascha Heifetz, Korngold made use of material from his movie scores: in the opening movement from Another Dawn (1937) and Juarez (1939), in the second movement – the clarinet solo of this Romanze – from Anthony Adverse, and in the finale from The Prince and the Pauper (1937). The world premiere – given by Heifetz on 15 February 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann – was an overwhelming success, probably most of all because of the soloist, as Korngold was forced to admit: “In spite of the demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated rather for a Caruso than for a Paganini. It is needless to say how delighted I am to have my concerto performed by Caruso and Paganini in one person: Jascha Heifetz.” (Re-)hearing the Violin Concerto today – 70 years later – it is clear that Korngold masterfully achieved one of his goals: “It was always my aim to write music for film that could stand on its own without the film.”

The last symphony by the first film composer: Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony

Did Korngold know who actually invented the genre of movie music? It was the 73-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns, who in 1908 provided the first original film score in music history for the historical silent L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise by Henri Lavedan, André Calmettes and Charles Le Bargy. Saint-Saëns, of all composers, whose “sympathy for the old was just as notorious as his antipathy to the new” (Jean Marnold) in the view of many of the day’s “Modernists”. It didn’t help that he lived so long: Saint-Saëns was born on 9 October 1835 in Paris – eight and a half years after the death of Beethoven – and died on 16 December 1921 in Algiers – eight and a half years after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was easy to forget at the beginning of the new century that he had once been an avant-gardist and revolutionary, and that his solo concertos and symphonies in particular were forerunners of a development in those genres that extended well into the 20th century.

A good example is his Third Symphony (according to the official numbering, which doesn’t count two youthful works), in C minor, op. 78, which Saint-Saëns composed in 1886 to a commission from the London Philharmonic Society. The inclusion of an organ solo and piano four hands may not represent an absolute innovation in a symphonic work – think of the organ part in Liszt’s 1857 symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) and the piano part in Berlioz’s 1831 lyric monodrama Lélio. But the “Organ” Symphony’s formal plan represented such a novelty for the genre that the composer himself wrote a programme analytique for the London premiere in order to explain it to the audience: “This symphony is divided into two parts. Nevertheless, it embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first is altered in its development to serve as the introduction to the Poco adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale. The composer has thereby sought to avoid endless recapitulations and repetitions.” Quite apart from these large-scale considerations, the symphony is also a unique work in its details. The American scholar Daniel Martin Fallon called it the first symphony score in French music to be based on a single thematic idea – the succession of notes (derived from the Gregorian Dies irae sequence) E flat–D–E flat–C–D–E flat–G–F sharp–F–E flat–D – exposed in the Allegro moderato of the first movement and developed and expanded from one movement to the next.

The work’s disposition of sonorities shows Saint-Saëns to have been an apt pupil of Franz Liszt’s “New German School”. Liszt was an early supporter and champion of the French composer – 24 years his junior – and, for example, conducted the world premiere of his opera Samson et Dalila in Weimar on 2 December 1877. “Among the French composers of the present day,” Liszt declared, “I know of none who so richly deserves the intelligent and musically cultivated public’s attention as M. Saint-Saëns.”

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Richard Evidon

Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a new project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2014 in works by Beethoven, Strauss and Webern.

Gil Shaham was born in 1971 in Illinois in the USA and grew up in Israel. He began his violin studies at the age of seven with Samuel Bernstein. In 1980, he changed to Chaim Taub, who arranged encounters for him with Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng and Jaime Laredo. After classes with Dorothy DeLay and Jens Ellerman in the USA, the artist won first prize at Israelʼs Claremont Competition in 1982. Gil Shaham then studied at New Yorkʼs Juilliard School of Music, where his training continued under Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang. When he was only ten years old, Gil Shaham made his debut with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; this was followed soon afterwards by a solo appearance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Zubin Mehta. Today, the winner of the coveted Avery Fisher Prize in 2008 and Musical Americaʼs “Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2012 makes regular guest appearances with leading orchestras worldwide (the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra). He has received numerous awards for his more than 30 CD recordings, including the Grammy, the Grand Prix du Disque, the Diapason dʼOr and Gramophone Editorʼs Choice. Gil Shaham, who plays the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius, made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1988 as the soloist in Jean Sibeliusʼ Violin Concerto (conductor: Sir Colin Davis). His most recent appearance here was at the end of October 2008 under the baton of David Zinman as the soloist in Edward Elgarʼs Violin Concerto.

Thierry Escaich is a composer, organist and improviser in equal measure. His oeuvre comprises nearly 100 works that appeal to a broad audience with their lyrical panache and their rousing rhythms. Renowned orchestras in Europe and the United States have performed Thierry Escaichʼs compositions under the direction of conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Christoph Eschenbach and Lothar Zagrosek. He has been engaged as composer-in-residence by the Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre National de Lille and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, and has been awarded the Victoire de la musique prize on three occasions (2003, 2006, 2011). His recent compositions include a Concerto for violin, oboe and orchestra for Lisa Batiashvili and François Leleux, and a cello concerto for Emmanuelle Bertrand. For the opening of the Philharmonie de Paris in January 2015, he also created a Concerto for orchestra, and he is currently working on a major composition for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Thierry Escaichʼs career as a composer is closely associated with his career as an organist – similar to Maurice Duruflé, whom he succeeded as titular organist at the great organ of the parish church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. The musician gives recitals worldwide, makes guest appearances as a soloist with major symphony orchestras and improvises regularly for silent films such as The Phantom of the Opera and Metropolis. Since 1992, Thierry Escaich has taught improvisation and composition at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse (CNSMDP) in Paris where he also studied. In addition to numerous other awards, he was appointed a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France in 2013. Thierry Escaich now makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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