BBC Symphony Orchestra Preview

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

On February 24, the BBC Symphony Orchestra will present a concert of three quite different works. This will be the first of my programs that follows the traditional Overture, Concerto, Symphony format.

Actually, the overture is a symphony as well; in this case Haydn’s 99th. What a pleasure it remains to revisit works like this. In a time where Mozart tends to be the dominant compositional force, poor Haydn gets lost in the mix. And yet his works are almost always a delight and we come to each one with a sense of discovery. The 99th stems from his final series of symphonies written for Salomon and presented in London. It foreshadows Beethoven and certainly has a touch of Mozart in it.

Being in E-Flat, there is an air of nobility. The use of clarinets was now standard for Haydn. And his use of silence as a musical expression remains exceptional. There is seriousness of purpose here but there are still plenty of surprises and one cannot help but listen in awe at a truly great composer using everything at his command.

The Trumpet Concerto by HK Gruber had its premiere by this orchestra during the Proms almost two years ago. It was played then, as it is now, by the brilliant Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger. The work is cast in three movements and requires the soloist to play on four different instruments. Actually, in some places, he plays on parts of the trumpet, as the composer has him take apart the instrument and produce different timbres using less than the full compliment of slides that exist to control pitch and sound.

There is also the use of an actual cow’s horn. This has holes punched in it and when you blow through the end actual pitches are heard. When asked by a colleague who wished to play the work, Hardenberger told him that the first thing you have to do when getting the cow horn is to “find a cow in B-Flat.”

The musical language of the concerto is somewhat conservative but that is to be expected as Gruber was one of the founding members of the “Third Viennese School,” which was formed to react to the methods of Schoenberg and others. They produced several works in the sixties and seventies that shocked the musical world with their reach-back to tonality. The use of popular idioms is also evident in the concerto, but this is quite natural for a piece with trumpet.

We close with the final work in symphonic form by Shostakovich, his 15th. There has been much controversy over the “meaning” of this piece, with its quotes from composers like Rossini, Wagner and others. We will be addressing those issues in a pre-concert talk but I would say that I have come to this in a slightly different way. Whereas most people try to figure out why those composers are cited, I have tended to focus on the relationship of the actual quotes to other works of Shostakovich. For example, the William Tell Overture extract has the same rhythmic scheme as the finale from Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. Similar allusions can be traced along the same path with other works by Shostakovich coming into play. For me, it’s as if the composer has ended his symphonic career by saying that there is actually nothing new in music, just a reworking of other composers’ ideas with some new clothes added. You be the judge.

Haydn: Symphony No.99

HK Gruber: Aerial (Trumpet Concerto)

Shostakovich: Symphony No.15

Hakan Hardenberger (trumpet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Saturday 24 February, Barbican Hall, London at 7.30pm

  • The pre-concert talk starts at 6 o’clock in the Hall with Rob Cowan, Leonard Slatkin, ’Nali’ Gruber and Hakan Hardenberger
  • Barbican Box Office 020 7638 8891
  • This concert will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Monday 26 February at 7.30 pm
  • Read Colin Anderson’s review of this concert here

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