Firsts and Lasts

Mar 11th, 2019

John Flanagan, Flynn Center

A preview of Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks concert happening Saturday, March 16 on the Flynn Center Main Stage.

Hugo Burghauser, Strauss’s Duet Concertino’s dedicatee, the composer wrote that his concertino depicted the scene of a dancing princess who becomes “alarmed by the grotesque cavorting of a bear in imitation of her.” Smooth as the bear must be, the princess is soon wooed and dances with him, a gesture upon which the bear becomes a prince.

While Strauss hears beauties and beasts in his concertino, a listener at the end of a robust Vermont winter could be forgiven for discerning the sensations of spring awakening: snow in retreat; budding branches; woodpiles diminishing; dirt roads churned to mud—in effect, change in the sequence; vernal firsts, brumal lasts.

Firsts and lasts pop up frequently throughout the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming Masterworks performance at the Flynn. For firsts, look to the last piece on the program, Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C Major, the composer’s first—and effectively only—symphony. Bizet wrote it shortly after his 17th birthday, taking compositional cues from another first symphony, that of his instructor, the great Charles Gounod, who had drafted his, in D, the year prior. Popular as Bizet’s symphony is now, the composer, known (unfortunately) for Carmen and little else, probably never heard it performed.

Penned around 1856, it wasn’t until 1935 that Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner debuted Bizet’s symphony, in Basel, Switzerland. The delay stems from neglect; for if Bizet himself seemed to take no great care during his lifetime to enshrine his symphony into posterity, his survivors certainly didn’t either. His wife, Genevieve, entrusted a heap of her late husband’s work to the composer Reynaldo Hahn (a paramour of Proust), who in turn gave a cursory glance at the material and deemed little of it worthy. The perhaps embittered, lesser composer handed Bizet’s works off to the Conservatoire de Paris, where Weingartner, at the request of Bizet biographer Douglas Parker, later rescued the “student” symphony. With stunningly sweet moments in the second movement and a brisk buzz in the fourth, the Symphony in C is an exemplifying artifact vindicating Bizet as far more than a one-opera wonder.

Another key first of Saturday evening belongs to the VSO’s extraordinary guest, New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, the NY Phil’s first African American principal player in history. In 2009, McGill joined Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montero to perform at President Obama’s inauguration. Speaking recently to the Rutland Herald, McGill mused that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto he’ll lead the orchestra in is “the standard by which we judge everything on our instrument…just sincerity of expression, and beauty of the singing phrase and line throughout.”

Like Strauss’s concertino, the Clarinet Concerto, written in 1791, was Mozart’s last instrumental work. Characteristic of Mozart’s later, flowing style, the opening allegro movement establishes an air of accumulating revelry, providing the ideal contrast for the second, adagio movement, where the orchestra draws out a clear horizon for the clarinet’s exploratory and lulling leads.

Strauss incorporated a similar fragility into the concertino, with the clarinet circling the bassoon—helmed on Saturday by VSO’s principal bassoonist, Janet Polk—like acquaintances reacquainting. Their spin churns to a gusting, explicit theme announced by the strings, perhaps marking where Strauss’s beast becomes a prince, or, for me, where winter melts to spring.

This week, there’s rain in the forecast and partly sunny skies. There are highs in the 50s and lows and the teens. There’s been more birdsong in the morning when I take my dog out to pee, and despite the snow still covering the ski slopes, there have been cars at the nursery on the way into town. The days of change are here, and just in case the summer lies within them, take a cue from Strauss: dance with the bear.

Filed in: Music 

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