Australian Chamber Orchestra Program Notes

Internationally renowned for inspired programming and the rapturous response of audiences and critics, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is a product of its country’s vibrant, adventurous and inquiring spirit. In performances around Australia, around the world and on many recordings, the ACO moves hearts and stimulates minds with repertoire spanning six centuries and a vitality and virtuosity unmatched by other ensembles. The ACO was founded in 1975. Every year, this ensemble presents performances of the highest standard to audiences around the world, including 10,000 subscribers across Australia. The ACO has performed in 343 cities in 37 countries. The ACO’s unique artistic style encompasses not only the masterworks of the classical repertoire, but innovative cross-artform projects and a vigorous commissioning program. The outstanding Australian musician Richard Tognetti was appointed as Artistic Director and Lead Violin in 1989. Under his inspiring leadership, the ACO has performed as a flexible and versatile ‘ensemble of soloists’, on modern and period instruments, as a small chamber group, a small symphony orchestra, and as an electro-acoustic collective.

Below is the full text of the program notes for the Australian Chamber Orchestra concert featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, on April 13, 2012.  More information and tickets to the concert are available on our website.

Dmitri Shostakovich (born Saint Petersburg, 1906; died Moscow, 1975)
Elegy and Polka (Composed 1931)

These two short movements for string quartet by Shostakovich – which predate his famous string quartet repertoire – are adaptations of earlier works by the same composer. The Elegy is derived from Katerina’s aria in Act I, Scene 3 of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, while the Polka first appeared in his ballet score for The Age of Gold. They were arranged by Shostakovich over the course of a single evening in 1931 as a gift to the Vuillaume Quartet.  (Confusingly, the two pieces are sometimes also referred to as “Adagio and Allegretto”.)

The Elegy, which must surely stand as one of the composer’s most beautiful utterances, originally accompanied a lament sung by the principal character of the opera as she contemplates a life of oppressive misery and life-denying boredom trapped inside a loveless marriage. The Age of Gold, on the other hand, tells the story of the adventures of a Soviet football team as it visits the West and contrasts the vigour of communist youth with the decadence of the West.  The Polka’s grotesque character, a dark parody of works such as Josef Strauss’s Pizzicato Polka, reflects its original setting as an accompaniment to a scene satirizing the appearance of politicians from the League of Nations.  It was later to become famous, being further transcribed by Shostakovich for solo piano, orchestra, chamber orchestra, jazz band, and even turned into a popular song!

Although he was to develop into one of the greatest string quartet composers, these two early movements predate Shostakovich’s first full string quartet by some seven years.  The string orchestra transcription of these works is by the violinist Christian Sikorski.


Maria Schneider
Winter Morning Walks

Robert Alexander Schumann
Mondnacht / Moonlit night  from Liederkreis, op. 39, no 5.
Text by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857)


Es war, als hätt’ der Himmel
die Erde still geküßt,
daß sie im Blütenschimmer
von ihm nur träumen müßt.

Die Luft ging durch die Felder,
die Ähren wogten sacht,
es rauschten leis die Wälder,
so sternklar war die Nacht.

Und meine Seele spannte
weit ihre Flügel aus,
flog durch die stillen Lande,
als flöge sie nach Haus.


It was as if the sky
had silently kissed the earth,
leaving her to dream of him
in the shimmering light of the flowers.

The breeze blew over the fields,
the ears of corn waved gently,
and the forest murmured softly
on a night clear and starry.

And my soul spread its wings
and stretched them wide
and flew through the quiet land
as if flying home.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828), D. 531 (1817), published 1821 as op. 7 no 3.
Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)
Text by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815)

 “Vorüber! ach, vorüber!
geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung, geh, Lieber!
Und rühre mich nicht an.”

“Pass by! Ah pass by,
go, you savage skeleton!
I am still young, go, my dear,
and do not touch me.”

“Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild,
bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen.”

“Give me your hand, you fair and tender creature;
I am a friend and I do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not savage.
you shall sleep gently in my arms.”

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Geheimes, D. 719 (1821) / Secret

Text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Über meines Liebchens Äugeln
Stehn verwundert alle Leute
Ich, der Wissende, dagegen,
Weiß recht gut, was das bedeute.

Denn es heißt: ich liebe diesen
Und nicht etwa den und jenen.
Lasset nur, ihr guten Leute,
Euer Wundern, euer Sehnen!

Ja, mit ungeheuren Mächten
Blicket sie wohl in die Runde;
Doch sie sucht nur zu verkünden
Ihm die nächste süße Stunde.

My love has a look
That makes men wonder;
But I alone
Well know its meaning.

It is: him I love,
Not him or him.
So quit, good men,
Admiring and desiring!

Great, yes, the power
Of her glances;
But meant only to tell
Him of their next sweet hour.

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 (composed 1877–8)

I           Un poco Andante – Allegro molto ed agitato
II         Romanze
III        Intermezzo
IV        Finale

Grieg lived at an important time in his country’s history. Norway’s four-hundred year union with Denmark had ceased in 1814, just thirty years before Grieg was born. An urban, middle-class Norwegian family, such as the one in which Edvard Grieg grew up, still looked to Denmark for its cultural and linguistic anchors. When he was fifteen, the budding composer met the charismatic virtuoso violinist Ole Bull, who insisted that Grieg be sent to the Leipzig Conservatory for his musical education, although Grieg complained bitterly about his early instruction for the rest of his life. Grieg’s attitude to his formative professional training was, frankly, churlish. Certainly the teenager did not see eye to eye with his first piano teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory, but after a year the opinionated prodigy was allowed to transfer to the class of Ernst Wenzel (who had known Schumann as a close personal friend), thence to the class of the legendary Moscheles, and latterly to study composition with Carl Reinecke, who steered Grieg’s tortuous path through the writing of his earliest string quartet (now, perhaps fortunately, lost). Scathing though Grieg may have been about the allegedly pedantic and reactionary teaching that he received in Germany, this early sojourn in continental Europe forced the immature composer to acquire a solid, Austro-German technique on which to graft his individual voice.

Grieg returned to his home town of Bergen shortly before his nineteenth birthday; there he started seriously to seek out specifically Norwegian culture, rather than that of Denmark with which he had been brought up. In the summer of 1864, Grieg renewed his acquaintance with Ole Bull.

He played for me the trollish Norwegian melodies that so strongly fascinated me, and awakened the desire to have them as the basis for my own melodies. He opened my eyes to the beauty and originality in Norwegian music. Through him I became acquainted with many forgotten folk songs, and above all, with my own nature.

Having discovered his roots, the 1870s were a musical melting-pot for Grieg. In 1873 he attempted to write a fully Norwegian opera, and a year later he was invited by Ibsen to provide the music for the epic Peer Gynt. In 1876, Grieg visited Bayreuth and witnessed the première of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In the following winter, Grieg added a second piano part to four of Mozart’s piano sonatas, an act which might now be considered both tasteless and arrogant, but which became an important landmark for Grieg’s self-discipline as a composer. In the summer of 1877, when Grieg was in his mid-thirties, he rented a house in Lofthus on the Hardanger Fjord. There he erected a ‘composing hut’, and the breathtaking scenery of Western Norway was the backdrop against which the G-minor String Quartet was sketched.

There is something that I must do for the sake of my art. Day by day I am becoming more dissatisfied with myself. It is enough to make one lose one’s mind – but I know well enough what the problem is. It’s lack of practice, because I have never got beyond composing by fits and starts. But that is going to end. I am going to fight my way through the large musical forms, cost what it may. If I go mad in the process, now you know why.

Far from driving Grieg mad, the composition of the G-minor String Quartet announced the arrival of the composer’s artistic maturity. There is an autobiographical element that runs throughout Grieg’s only surviving complete string quartet. Grieg had in mind a poem by Ibsen, which describes the lovelorn musings of a musician as he walks beside a stream on a summer evening. The theme that represents the musician of the poem is heard at the very start of the quartet, first slowly and with great portent, and thereafter as the quartet’s dreamier second subject.

Right from the start of the first movement, the G-minor String Quartet startles the listener with its Nordic boldness. Grieg was determined to prove that he could write a convincing large-scale sonata-form movement – although the second subject, for instance, is preceded by one of the most self-conscious general pauses in the history of the form. There is little in the rest of the quartet that is any less self-absorbed. The mood of the serene, waltz-like second movement is rocked by the appearance of the musician’s theme, and the third movement opens with the theme stated in capital letters. The middle section of the third movement features a repeated fugato passage, every bit as pedantic as one imagines Grieg’s fugue lessons to have been when he was a student in Leipzig. The musician’s theme, again, opens the fourth movement, this time in reflective mode; this mood quickly gives way to music that is heavily infused with ‘trollish’ cavorting. This last movement is assured and idiosyncratic; one of Grieg’s most impressive musical constructions.

 I have recently written a string quartet, which I still haven’t heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and, above all, resonance for the instruments.

Certainly the quartet is in no way trivial. And certainly it has breadth: its gestures soar, and it is instrumentally resonant. These full textures proved problematic, in that Grieg’s normally supportive publisher regarded the piece as too orchestral and initially refused to publish the work. This concert’s solution is to make a virtue out of that supposed defect by scoring the work for string orchestra, in which version the rich textures become more credibly part of a larger ensemble.

 JEREMY SUMMERLY © ACO 2009 (Jeremy Summerly is the Sterndale Bennett Lecturer in Music at the Royal Academy of Music, London.)


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