March 29, 2015
Zeyu Victor Li, violin
Enigma Variations – Elgar
Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63, G Minor- Prokofiev
Zeyu Victor Li, violin
Today’s concert is sponsored by Kristine and John Candler.
Zeyu Victor Li
Zeyu Victor Li was born on July 7, 1996 in Huainan City of Anhui Province, China, and began violin lessons at the age of four. At seven he won first prize in the Anhui Provincial Young Musicians Competition and at nine was selected to study with Professor Fang Lei at the Shanghai Academy of Music, where he remained until 2010.
In 2008, sponsored by HOTCHKISS, he made his first trip to the United States as an exchange student.
Activities for 2009 included the 9th National Teenage Violin Competition in China, where he received the golden award and the best performance award. That same year, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Music Hall, he performed as soloist with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, collaborating with conductor Zhang Guoyong. In April of 2009 he was invited to play for Pinchas Zuckerman, who was highly complimentary of his playing.
In 2010, at the age of 14, Zeyu was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the youngest Asian violinist ever admitted to Curtis, as a student of the prestigious violinist and educator Aaron Rosand. That year he performed at the Shanghai Spring Music Festival, in Calgary (Canada) and, after coming to Curtis, played several concerts at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall in New York. In November 2011 he played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor at Curtis, which can be seen on YouTube.
In April 2012, the youngest contestant in the Senior Section of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition held in Beijing, he received the Composer’s Prize for the best performance of the new Chinese work TIAN JINGLUN Three and a half Phrases.
Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, “Enigma”
Born in Broadheath, near Worcester, June 2, 1857; died in Worcester, February 23, 1934
On October 24, 1898, Elgar wrote to his publisher and dear friend August Johannes Jaeger:
Since I’ve been back [from a visit to London] I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestry) on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled ’em with the nicknames of my particular friends—you are Nimrod. That is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the “party”—I’ve liked to imagine the “party” writing the var: him (or her) self & have written what I think they wd. have written—if they were asses enough to compose—it’s a quaint idee & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won’t affect the hearer who “nose nuffin.” What think you?
The work became known as the Enigma Variations, not in regard to the identity of the musical portraits, but due to something deeper, which the composer mentioned in a program note for the first performance:
The Enigma I will not explain—its “dark saying” must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through, and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes,” but is not played.
This suggests a two-fold enigma: the “dark saying” and the larger unplayed theme. Most musical detectives have concentrated on the latter, proposing such solutions as “God Save the King,” “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” the slow movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony, the note equivalents of B–A–C–H, the phrase “never, never, never” from “Rule Britannia,” and an altered version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The “dark saying” has been seen as a reference to “For now we see through a glass darkly” (Corinthians I). The enigmas may never be solved, but this has only added to the attraction of the work, which shines brightly on its own musical merits.
The first performance was given in London on June 19, 1899, led by the great German conductor Hans Richter. The Enigma Variations catapulted Elgar from a little-known composer of choral pieces to a national treasure on the stature of Purcell, and into the international spotlight.
Although Elgar disguised the identities of his musical portraits by using initials or pseudonyms, the names were revealed long ago, the composer having made no attempt to keep them secret. The following brief description of the Variations refers to the initials printed for each movement on the program page. The quoted comments are the composer’s.
Theme. Stated in contrasting G minor and G major sections.
I. C.A.E. is Elgar’s wife. The variation includes Elgar’s special whistle (letting Alice know he was home) in oboe and bassoon.
II. Hew David Steuart-Powell played chamber music with Elgar; his finger warm-ups on the keyboard are mimicked.
III. Richard Baxter Townshend, an amateur actor, portrayed an old man with fluctuating voice: falsetto = upper woodwinds, low bass = bassoons.
IV. William M. Baker, the country squire, “energetic and downright,” would often bang the door when leaving the room.
V. Richard P. Arnold (son of Matthew) is portrayed, “whose serious conversation (C minor, in bass) was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks (flute).”
VI. Isabel Fitton’s viola lessons with Elgar are depicted.
VII. The architect who built Elgar’s house, Arthur Troyte Griffith, failed in his “maladroit essays to play the pianoforte.” Elgar’s attempts to make order out of chaos (strong rhythms) end in vain (final despairing “slam”).
VIII. Winifred Norbury’s tranquil eighteenth-century house once sheltered “Troyte” and Elgar in a storm.
IX. One of the most famous and moving of the variations, “Nimrod” nobly portrays Elgar’s friend Jaeger, recalling a conversation between the two concerning Beethoven’s slow movements. Jaeger is German for hunter, and Nimrod, Noah’s great grandson, was a mighty hunter.
X. Dory Penny’s nickname was Dorabella (from Così fan tutte); her stammer as well as her gracefulness are evoked.
XI. George R. Sinclair’s bulldog Dan rolls down a bank, falls in the river, paddles, scrambles out, and barks.
XII. Basil Nevinson played chamber music with Elgar on the cello.
XIII. Lady Mary Lygon took a voyage to Australia, so Elgar quotes Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. We can perhaps hear steamship engines in the timpani rolls played with snare drum sticks. Though the variation was inspired by Elgar’s innocent friendship with Lygon and regret over her departure, the music gained an intimacy of its own, losing concrete connection with Lady Lygon. Hence Elgar replaced the initials with asterisks.
XIV. Edu was his wife’s pet name for Elgar himself. The C.A.E. and Nimrod variations are recalled, referring to the most important influences on his life. The work is summed up by a triumphal presentation of the theme in the major.
—©Jane Vial Jaffe
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63
Born in Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav district, Ukraine, April 23, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953
Prokofiev wrote his Second Violin Concerto in the summer months of 1935 while working concurrently on the ballet Romeo and Juliet; the richness of the Concerto’s Andante in particular sounds related to the love music of the ballet. Lyricism in general pervades the first two movements, reflecting the composer’s more intimate approach to the work, which he first thought of in terms of a “sonata for violin and orchestra.” The composer outlined the work’s background in his autobiography.
In 1935 a group of admirers of the French violinist [Robert] Soëtans asked me to write a violin concerto for him, giving him exclusive rights to perform it for one year. I readily agreed since I had been intending to write something for violin at that time and had accumulated some material. As in the case of the preceding concertos, I began by searching for an original title for the piece, such as “concert sonata for violin and orchestra,” but finally returned to the simplest solution: Concerto No. 2. Nevertheless I wanted it to be altogether different from No. 1 both as to music and style.
The variety of places in which that concerto was written is a reflection of the nomadic concert-tour existence I led at that time: the principal theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the orchestration I completed in Baku, while the first performance was given in Madrid, in December 1935. This was part of an extremely interesting concert tour which I made together with Soëtans through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
The Concerto contains some of the most beautiful melodies Prokofiev ever wrote, in particular the second theme of the first movement and the main theme of the slow movement. Balanced by sections of characteristic Prokofiev energy and sardonic dissonance, this lyricism led to the Concerto’s immediate success, a success that shows no sign of diminishing. After the December 1 premiere in 1935, a pleased Prokofiev told fellow composer Miaskovsky, “It seems as though the Concerto is a success. . . . somehow the music immediately reached the audience. But now I still want to look it over again and add a few details here and there.” This he presumably did by the time it was published in 1937.
The violin soloist begins the sonata-form first movement alone with a broad Russian-sounding theme that immediately begins displacing the metric accents. As soon as the muted strings enter Prokofiev’s characteristic tonal shifts begin. The tender second theme has already been mentioned; its second presentation in a higher register gives it added poignancy. These themes are offset by many sections of motoric drive created by repeating patterns of sixteenth notes or eighth notes. The coda is based on low-register versions of the first theme.
Prokofiev shows off the second movement’s melting melody to advantage through an accompaniment of triplets in the clarinets and pizzicato strings against duple divisions of the beat. Again his use of the high register of the violin is achingly beautiful. Varied returns of the theme alternate with contrasting episodes of a more furtive nature. The final utterance reverses roles: the orchestra plays the main melody while the soloist provides the pizzicato triplet accompaniment.
After the singing quality of the preceding movements, Prokofiev lets his rhythmic energy carry the closing movement. He gives the heavily accented chordal theme of the violin a witty, sometimes bitingly sarcastic accompaniment with innovative use of percussion. He creates a vaguely Spanish atmosphere with the addition of castanets, which must have delighted the original audience in Madrid. Prokofiev had been given a particularly warm welcome to their city and now received a standing ovation for the piece. The “tumultuoso” coda, despite its thinly scored texture, makes a bravura impression with mixed meters and brilliant perpetual motion writing for the solo violin.
—©Jane Vial Jaffe