Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin  
Symphony Hall

Kirill Petrenko makes his eagerly awaited Boston debut as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Of Petrenko’s tenure as chief conductor, which began in 2019, Bachtrack writes, “this relationship is pushing the great Berlin orchestra to the very highest level of execution.” 

Petrenko leads the orchestra in three pieces, beginning with Andrew Norman’s 2008 piece “Unstuck,” which gets its title from and evokes Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The program continues with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley as soloist, and culminates in a sweepingly dramatic, richly textured work that Petrenko deeply champions: Korngold’s Symphony.

An appearance by the Berliner Philharmoniker is always a landmark occasion, but the long-awaited local debut of Petrenko at the helm of this extraordinary ensemble promises to be a highlight of the new season: a truly unmissable event.

Program Details

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I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere. It was not until the following May, when I saw a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and remembered one of its iconic sentences, that I had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and the realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome. I realized that my musical materials lent themselves to a narrative arc that, like Vonnegut’s character, comes “unstuck” in time. Bits and pieces of the beginning, middle, and end of the music crop up in the wrong places like the flashbacks and flashforwards that define the structure and style of Slaughterhouse-Five. I also realized that the word “unstuck” had resonances with the way that a few of the piece’s musical ideas get caught in repetitive loops. The orchestra, perhaps in some way dramatizing my own frustration with composing, spends a considerable amount of time and energy trying to free itself from these moments of stuckness.

— Andrew Norman (b. 1979)

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadé in 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed the first of his five violin concertos probably in the spring of 1773; the work probably had its premiere in Salzburg not long afterward. In addition to the solo instrument, the score calls for two each of oboes and horns plus orchestral strings. Duration is about 21 minutes. 

Wolfgang’s father Leopold was himself a musician of some note, a violinist and composer, whose great contribution was a violin method, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, published in the very year of Wolfgang’s birth and for a long time the standard work of its type. Needless to say, when Wolfgang’s musical talent became apparent, the father undertook to devote himself wholeheartedly to his training and exhibition both as a moral obligation and a financial investment. (Alfred Einstein has justly remarked, “The proportions of obligation and investment are not easy to determine.”) The training included instruction on both the violin and the harpsichord, with the result that Wolfgang was able to make professional use of his skill on both instruments.  

It appears that Mozart’s devotion to the violin dwindled after he moved permanently to Vienna and left his father’s sphere of influence. Certainly in his maturity he preferred the keyboard as the principal vehicle of virtuosity, and it was for the keyboard that he composed his most profound concertos, whether for himself, for his students, or for other virtuosos. But during the earlier years, when he was still concertmaster in the court orchestra of the Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg, playing the violin was one of his duties—one that he fulfilled with some distaste. His father continued to encourage his violin playing. In a letter of October 18, 1777, Leopold wrote, “You have no idea how well you play the violin, if you would only do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit, and fire, as if you were the first violinist in Europe.” Perhaps it was the constant paternal pressure that caused Wolfgang ultimately to drop the violin as a solo instrument. In Vienna he preferred to play the viola even in chamber music sessions, and his concert appearances were as a pianist. 

It has long been believed that the five violin concertos were all composed during nine months of a single year, 1775, while Wolfgang was still concertmaster in Salzburg, though studies of the paper on which the autographs were written have made it clear recently that the first concerto, in fact, comes from 1773. It is not certain, however, whether Mozart wrote them for himself or for Gaetano Brunetti, an Italian violinist also in the Archbishop’s orchestra. There is some evidence to suggest the latter possibility: a few years later, when Mozart wrote a new slow movement (Adagio in E major, K.261) to replace the middle movement of the Fifth Violin Concerto (K.219), Leopold referred to K.261 in a letter of October 9, 1777 as having been written for Brunetti “because he found the other one too studied.” But that is certainly not solid proof that the original concerto, much less all five of them, were composed for the Italian instrumentalist. They were, in any case, composed during the one period of Mozart’s life when he was actively performing as a violinist. 

All the violin concertos—composed when Mozart was in his late teens—date from a period when he was still consolidating his concerto style and before he had developed the range and dramatic power of his mature piano concertos. To some extent, they still resemble the Baroque concerto, with its opening orchestral ritornello that keeps coming back to anchor the arching spans of the solo sections. Mozart gradually developed ways of using the tutti-solo opposition of the Baroque concerto in a unique fusion with the dramatic tonal tensions of sonata form, but the real breakthrough in his new concerto treatment did not come until the composition of the E-flat piano concerto, K.271, in January 1777. Thus all of the five violin concertos precede the “mature” Mozart concerto, which is not at all the same thing as saying that they are “immature” pieces. 

In his first essay in the medium of the violin concerto, the young Mozart is concerned to entertain with the charm of his ideas rather than shaping a closely-argued formal structure. He follows the rather stereotyped Baroque concerto  form in his first movement, consisting of four tuttis (played by the full orchestra) with three solo sections interspersed (where the orchestra provides basically an accompaniment). The solo sections also correspond roughly to what would come to be defined as “exposition,” “development,” and “recapitulation” by theorists in the early 19th century. 

The Adagio unfolds with themes that seem to be murmuring graciously, with some formal surprises (including the fact that the music of the opening is never heard again). The Presto is a charming rondo in which Mozart offers light-hearted dialogues between the soloist and the orchestra in lively good humor.

© Steven Ledbetter 

Cadenzas composed by soloist Noah Bendix-Balgley.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in Vienna, Austria, on May 29, 1897, and died in Hollywood, California, on November 29, 1957. He composed his only symphony in 1951-52; it was premiered on a radio broadcast in Vienna on October 17, 1954, with Harold Byrns conducting the Vienna Symphony, but was not heard in concert until Rudolf Kempe led the Munich Philharmonic in a performance that November. The score — “Dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” — calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, gong, bass drum, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimbaphone, harp, piano, celesta, and strings.

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold was ten, his father took him to Mahler so that the boy could play over on the piano his recently composed cantata, Gold. As the music unfolded, Mahler stalked up and down the room muttering, “A genius—a genius.” By eleven, Korngold wrote a pantomime, Der Schneemann (The Snowman), which, after it was orchestrated by Zemlinsky, was performed at the Vienna Court Opera on October 4, 1911—the composer was thirteen years old! There were suspicions that this music had actually been composed by the boy’s father, one of the best-known music critics of his day, but Julius Korngold replied—sensibly and humorously—that if he could write music of such quality, he would not spend his life writing articles about other people’s music!

First-rate musicians were fascinated with the talented boy. Arthur Nikisch commissioned a work for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra—the first orchestra work that Korngold himself orchestrated, the Schauspiel-Ouvertüre (Overture to a Drama). He began to write operas, two of them at eighteen; when he was twenty-three, Die tote Stadt made him famous all over the world, with productions in eighty-three opera houses. He wrote two more operas after that, and his last Die Kathrin, was scheduled for performance in 1938 when the Nazi Anschluss meant that the same racial attacks on the art of Jewish musicians would take place in Vienna as in Berlin—so the performance was cancelled.

By the mid-’20s, though still regarded as a prodigious talent, Korngold was also considered a representative of the past; his devotion to the romantic style of the turn of the century gave him a retrospective position in the Vienna of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. He arranged operettas, including some of Strauss’ (A Night in Vienna and Cagliostro in Vienna); Max Reinhardt invited him to Berlin for productions of Fledermaus and La belle Hélène. By this time Korngold had already found a new métier, one in which he was to become a preeminent master—as a composer of scores for films in Hollywood. He visited first in 1933, accompanying the great German director Max Reinhardt, who was set to film A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and who wanted Korngold to adapt Mendelssohn’s score of incidental music for the film. He began to compose original scores, too, and immediately discovered that he had a special flair for this kind of work. Two of his scores (Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood) received Oscars. When the Nazis overran Austria, Korngold found a welcoming home in California, where, by 1947, he had composed eighteen film scores of great distinction.

He vowed not to write any more concert music until “the monster in Europe is removed from the world.” After the war, he gave up writing film music and returned to the concert hall, with his Violin Concerto in D Major (written for Jascha Heifetz), his Symphonic Serenade for Strings, and his Symphony in F-sharp Major. Dmitri Mitropoulos planned to include the symphony in his 1959-60 season with the New York Philharmonic, but the conductor’s death prevented that performance. (He had said, “All my life I have searched for the perfect modern work...In this symphony I have found it.”).

The premiere on a Viennese radio broadcast in 1954 was poorly rehearsed and badly played, by a conductor and musicians who had little respect for a composer whose work had been “tainted” with the Hollywood connection. The day after the performance, Korngold requested Austrian Radio to suppress the tape of the performance—which it did not do. A fine performance in Munich a few weeks later under the baton of Rudolf Kempe, and a recording helped salvage the experience from disaster. But the symphony still remains little known, though Korngold’s music has gradually overcome the unfair stigma of coming from the hand of a film composer as more and more of his orchestral and chamber music has begun to be heard again.

The symphony unfolds in the traditional four movements, with the scherzo coming second. The first movement (Moderato ma energico) begins with a clarinet melody of considerable dark power. It is dramatic in its forward thrust before ending with a halo of strings. The second movement (Scherzo) moves quickly, like a great tarantella, but it is often powerful and weighty, not simply humorous. The Adagio is a lushly-textured, extended slow movement of high specific gravity, like Bruckner’s, though the colors here are, clearly, Korngold’s own (he even makes passing reference to his music for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex).

If the first three movements are largely somber, even dark in character, the finale is bright, and filled with vigorous rhythms and melodic transformations. But it is worth also noting a thoughtful reference to one of his finest film scores, for King’s Row. It is a passage taken from the scene in which the protagonist’s grandmother, who was born in Europe and who always embodied the refinement and values of the Old World, lies near death. During this scene in the film, the musical score is played behind the words of a friend, words that might equally well have applied to Korngold’s own life and the tradition he represented: “When she passes, how much passes with her. A whole way of life—a way of gentleness, and honor, and dignity. These things are going…and they may never come back to this world.”

© Steven Ledbetter 

“An orchestra in which every player has the virtuosity and, more tellingly and as required, the attitude of a soloist.”

The Guardian

“Watching these players sweat their way through these symphonies, using every muscle to make them dramas of sight as well as sound…their commitment was palpable, their energy persuasive, their ability to communicate with one another superior.”

The New York Times

Symphony Hall Information

This performance is made possible in part by support from Celebrity Series' LIVE PERFORMANCE! Arts for All Endowment Funds, with generous leadership support from Eleanor & Frank Pao.