The effervescent strains of Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville was a fitting way to begin a concert that was designed to raise the spirits of anyone listening.
While the concert, by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, presented Sunday at the College of St. Elizabeth, was dubbed “Mendelssohn’s Odyssey,” the insertion of the Rossini piece to get things underway made sense. More or less contemporaries—the two composers were born 17 years apart—they might very well have met during the time Mendelssohn spent in Italy. There is also a spiritual connection in the music.
Upbeat, at moments almost manic in its energy, the overture, which runs about 7 minutes, is filled with a joy that is distinctly Mediterranean in mood. (The most intriguing fact about it is that it was originally composed for a different, much darker, opera, which is all but forgotten; and that Rossini tried it out with a few other operas before it became the permanent opener for The Barber of Seville in 1816.)
The strings get a particular workout in this piece, which is one of the classical world’s most familiar works, due to its use by just about everybody, in movies, cartoons, advertising—you name it. A great hors d’oeuvre to whet the appetite for the main course to come, it also served as a sort of promo for the semi-staged production of the Rossini opera BONJ has scheduled on Aug. 10.
The mood and tone were perfectly set for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, featuring the youthful soloist, NaYoung Yang. At eighteen, Yang’s credits are formidable. She has performed widely in the New Jersey-New York area, and has been a member of BONJ. The performance on Sunday was a sort of graduation, because Yang will be leaving the area at the end of the summer to begin studies at Harvard College.
The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 84, first premiered by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1845, just two years prior to the composer’s death, is considered one of the great gems of the violin repertoire. Its performance is sometimes looked upon as a rite of passage for a violinist, who is challenged by the high-intensity bravura passages and the lyricism especially of the second movement. Much loved by audiences, its beauty is reflected in its popularity.
The concerto is unusual in several ways. The soloist enters almost immediately at the beginning of the first movement, stating the opening theme, which is then echoed by the orchestra. It is a strong, impassioned statement, and Yang played with a positive assertiveness that anticipated things to come. The concerto’s three movements are played with no breaks between them, and there is a thematic connection that is constant throughout the whole work.
Despite the dominance of the solo violin echoed by the strings of the orchestra, Mendelssohn included some surprising moments for other sections of the orchestra. The woodwinds are featured in the first movement, and the solo bassoon introduces the second movement. The glorious piece ends with a trumpet fanfare. Conductor Robert Butts seemed at one with the soloist and with the composer as well, as the orchestra performed beautifully.
Last but not least (in a program that actually had no “least”) was Mendelssohn’s Symphony #4 in A major, The Italian Symphony. A relatively early work in the composer’s tragically short life, it was inspired by and begun during a tour Mendelssohn took through Europe from 1829 to 1831. He was 20 when it began and he loved Italy. In a letter to his sister, Fanny, he wrote “[the composition] will be the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
The symphony was premiered to great critical acclaim in London in 1833, with the composer conducting. Nevertheless, it seems that he was never completely satisfied with the work, and it was not published until after his death.
But its youthful passion and its reflection of the colors of Italy, as seen through the eyes of a young man from a colder part of the world, still infects audiences with joy. The opening strains are virtually unmatched in excitement and enthusiasm.
The second movement, andante con moto, is said to be inspired by a religious procession Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples during his travels. The third is a charming dance, employing folk and popular themes from Italian music of the period. The pleasantly stately mood is then shattered by the introductory themes of the fourth movement, called Saltarello (a Roman dance) by Mendelssohn but, according to Maestro Butts, closer to the Sicilian tarantella.
This, Butts explained, was traditionally a frantic dance designed to rid the body of poisons after one was bitten by a tarantula. Probably a folk legend, it produced music of high intensity and inflammatory passion, guaranteed to leave an audience in a mood of excitement.
As we have come to expect, the Baroque Orchestra, ending its eighteenth season, produced a performance ranging from competent to brilliant. It is tempting to say that, personality-wise, this program, filled with good humor, is ideally suited to Butts. His passion for the music and his pleasure in sharing knowledge with the audience always delivers a happy listening experience.
The orchestra’s annual summer festival will be held at various locations in the Madison area from Aug. 3 through 10. Visit the website, www.baroqueorchestra.org, or watch here at www.njartsmaven.com for more information.