Music Director’s Message for January 19, 2019

Music Director's Message for January 19, 2019

I didn’t have to think long about my New Year’s resolution: to stay out of hospitals.

I am writing this letter on the day I was released from Van Matre Rehabilitation Hospital, where I spent 10 days, following 17 days at MercyHealth Hospital, following an accident that changed my life. The joy I felt upon coming home was truly transcendent. To all of you who sent cards, letters, messages, and emails offering your prayers, encouraging thoughts, good wishes, and “positive vibes”: you touched my heart to a depth I wouldn’t have believed was possible. I humbly, gratefully thank you all.

It is a fortuitous coincidence that the program of our third Classics concert makes few physical demands on the conductor, and this is just what I needed for my return. Half of the program features baroque music, an era in which the orchestra as we know it now was still growing and evolving. One characteristic of baroque style was a steady tempo throughout whole movements, so that after a nod from the harpsichordist or first violin, off they went. By the end of the 18th century, when Joseph Haydn wrote his last symphonies, orchestras were larger and the genre of the symphony had become complex enough to require a leader who could stand in front of the group, where he could give tempos, start and stop, and balance dynamics. Another 50 years would elapse before the position of conductor as we know it would develop, requiring more strenuous exertion on the podium.

The first two pieces on the program by Henry Purcell and Jean-Baptiste Lully are solemn marches in a slow tempo that imbue them with an air of pomp, solemnity, and majesty. Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary was written for an outdoor cortège and uses only brass and percussion. Lully, like many other composers of his time, was fascinated by Janissary music, the exotic and foreign-sounding music played by the military bands of the Ottoman Turks. It was redolent with pungent woodwinds and jangling percussion.

In 1790, after retiring from his long service to the Esterhazy family, the 58-year-old Haydn was already the most famous composer in Europe. The next year, the impresario Johann Peter Salamon brought him to London for the first of two tours that extended to 1795, for which Haydn wrote his final 12 symphonies. Known today as the “London” symphonies, they garnered rapturous acclaim and made him quite wealthy. Symphony No. 103 in E flat is one of the finest examples of late-Classical-period symphonic writing, the likes of which would only be surpassed 10 years later by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, coincidentally in the same key.

Steven Larsen

Listen to Maestro Larsen talk more about this program with podcast host Phil Davidson.