Britt Orchestra: Voyage of Discovery

Saturday, July 29, 8 p.m. • 2017

PROGRAM: VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY - Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D Major
JEAN SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major

TICKETS: Reserved $49 | Lawn $25 | Child/Student Lawn $10 
GATES OPEN: @ 5:45 Early Entry | 6:00 General Public
PRE-CONCERT TALK: 7:00 p.m. in the Performance Garden

Voyage of Discovery
Program: Voyage of Discovery - Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin

Johannes Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Major
Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major

Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833 - April 3, 1897)
Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 77 (1878)

Allegro non troppo
Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo violin.

Following the premiere of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn in 1873, life was good for the 40-year-old composer. Successful works in a variety of genres had brought about public adoration, financial security, and a general sense of well-being. Brahms had crystallized his position as one of the leaders of the musical world. He had settled in Vienna, the hub of artistic life in Europe, and was finally able to dedicate his time to composing, rather than splitting between writing and conducting. Given his penchant for agonizing over his works, we should all be quite grateful to Brahms for giving up a conducting post in Vienna in 1875, for the following period in his life ended up being his most productive as a composer. In the period from 1877-1879, Brahms would compose 18 art songs, his Symphony No. 2, a choral work, five of the eight op. 76 solo piano pieces, a violin sonata, the Two Rhapsodies for solo piano, and tonight’s work, his lone Violin Concerto.

Brahms wrote this concerto for one of his closest friends and collaborators, Joseph Joachim, famed as the preeminent violin virtuoso of the time. Given that Brahms was not a violinist himself, he consulted Joachim many times throughout the process of composing the work to make sure he was writing suitable music for the violin, asking Joachim to “…correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition and that if you thought it not worth scoring, that you should say so. I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts which are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play”. The original manuscript for the work is actually covered in Joachim’s thoughts and corrections for Brahms, who quickly fixed his music accordingly. The result of this collaborative process: a blisteringly virtuosic work that owes just as much to tradition as it does to innovation.

As with most of Brahms’s work, Beethoven’s influence looms over this Violin Concerto. The similarities are indeed striking, as the form, key, and overall scope of the two composers’ lone violin concerti are clearly closely bound, proving Brahms’s continued fascination (or obsession, depending on who you ask) with the ever-looming shadow of Beethoven. Where these works differ the most is in their initial conception of the role of the soloist in the concerto genre. For Beethoven and his ilk, the concerto’s intent was to have an orchestra accompany and compliment an impressive soloist, thus giving the soloist a more primary role in the shape of the music. Brahms, on the other hand, had a more “symphonic” concept in mind, where the soloist and orchestra were closer to equals, even occasionally antagonizing one another. This concept becomes clear early on in Brahms’s concerto; following the lengthy orchestral exposition, the violin enters in dramatic fashion, with the rumblings of cellos and timpani beneath, while the rest of the orchestra echoes bits and pieces of the soloist’s lines. Though the piece up to this point centered in D major, the violin entrance occurs in D minor, a stark contrast to the rest of the music. The violin part throughout this first movement is laden with tricky passages and double stops (more than one note played at the same time on the violin), all of which culminate in a violin cadenza. Brahms actually requests the cadenza be improvised by the soloist, but several violinists, including Joachim himself, have composed a cadenza for this work. Tonight’s soloist will play the Nathan Milstein cadenza.

Brahms originally planned this work to have four movements, but abandoned the two inner movements for what he refers to as a “feeble Adagio.” Feeble isn’t a word that comes to mind for this lovely, flowing music that begins with the oboe and winds, and is then ornamented by the solo violin on top of the rest of the strings. The music grows unsettled in the middle section before returning to the initial themes of the beginning.

The final movement takes on a more Gypsy flavor, certainly a nod to Joseph Joachim’s Hungarian heritage. In typical fashion, the movement is in rondo form, which includes a section of music called the refrain that returns numerous times throughout the whole movement. The refrain of this rondo is especially cheery, and returns in many transmutations as the movement unfolds.

Overall, Brahms’s entry in the violin concerto genre stands out as one of the greatest and most performed. Near his 75th birthday, the concerto’s dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, quipped: “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the most uncompromising, is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.” Others beyond the German sphere obviously have written very successful and popular concerti as well, but Brahms accomplished a rare feat with this music, a feat that helps him to stand out above other composers in most of his works: he blends the best of the traditions of German classical music with innovations that stretch the norms, but never actually break them. His Violin Concerto is a perfect example of this alchemy of the past and future, and of the incredible skill Brahms possessed as a musician.


Jean Sibelius (December 8, 1865 - September 20, 1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 82 (1915, revised in 1916, revised again in 1919)

Tempo molto moderato
Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
Allegro molto

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Maestro Abrams will demonstrate some of the interconnected themes of this work prior to a full performance.

Jean Sibelius came to prominence on the international scene right at the turn of the 20th century. The years prior had already seen his fame rise in his native Finland, as he seemingly rode a wave of Finnish national pride (and distaste with being part of the Russian empire) to stardom, with patriotic works such as Finlandia, one of his more famous tone poems. That stardom did not reach international status until 1900, when Sibelius went on a tour of Europe with Finland’s only professional orchestra at the time, the Helsinki Orchestral Society (later the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra). This tour was focused primarily on various works by Sibelius, including his First Symphony, Finlandia, and others. Performances on this tour led to primarily positive reviews of Sibelius’s music, including one reviewer saying that Sibelius was “...a great artist whose imagination has the wings of an eagle.” A swan probably would have been a more appropriate avian analogy, but more on that later.

Amidst these professional successes were a series of personal troubles and tribulations that would also significantly impact Sibelius and his output. Just prior to the tour that essentially launched his international career, Sibelius’s youngest daughter died of typhoid fever. This sparked Sibelius’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism, which, combined with a smoking habit, led to the development of a tumor in his throat. A successful operation led Sibelius to swear off alcohol and tobacco, at least temporarily. It was during this period of sobriety that Sibelius’s compositional voice began to take a more consonant sound, especially following the confused and outright cold reception by critics and fellow musicians alike of his Fourth Symphony in 1911. He had successful performances of another of his tone poems, The Oceanides, a piece that helped to swell his stature abroad, including in the United States. Clearly, Sibelius took the critical response to the Fourth Symphony and the subsequent positive reception of The Oceanides to heart for his next major work, the Symphony No. 5.

Most of the material for the first movement is generated from the opening horn call, a broad musical gesture that foretells the tone, structure, and pace of the entire work. The movement grows organically, with each musical moment building on the previous one as ideas swirl about the woodwind section. Instrumental groups take turns building on the material, until the strings and brass begin driving the piece forward into new territory. There is much debate in the music community as to how exactly to analyze this first movement of this work, especially following Sibelius’s revisions that fuse the first and second movements of the traditional four-movement symphonic form together as a single unit. Upon the return of the opening themes originally scored for the woodwinds, Sibelius uses the trumpets in triumphant fashion; this also marks the beginnings of what was originally the second movement prior to the piece being revised. Some regard this as what would be the recapitulation in the standard sonata form, since the material is so closely bound to what occurred at the beginning of the piece. Others point to the meter and character change as a clear demarcation in the form, and the start of a new scherzo movement, thus requiring a different analytical approach. Technicalities aside, the music builds and builds from here, culminating in arpeggios in the strings to a somewhat sudden ending.

The second movement takes on the role of a song-form middle movement in the traditional symphonic form. Once again, the musical materials are closely bound together, as the music builds itself up in a very natural, intrinsically logical fashion. Ultimately, this movement is a theme and variations of sorts, and bears a certain charm unique to Sibelius.

The final movement draws inspiration from a unique experience. Sibelius recalls the image of swans swirling overhead in an entry in his diary on April 21, 1915: “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” He depicts this with another broad gesture in the horns, the so-called “swan theme,” which permeates the movement. The music seems go in reverse as compared to the first movement, as it begins restless and quick, then winds down to slower, more majestic music. The work concludes with six chords separated by a seemingly prolonged silence, so let’s not be too eager with the applause.

Guest Artist: Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin

Noah Bendix-Balgley

At the age of four, Noah Bendix-Balgley loved reading the book The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and was thrilled when he first saw other children playing violin. He was fascinated by the singing quality of the instrument and persuaded his parents to let him try it. Thanks to the progress he made, he played as a nine-year-old before Yehudi Menuhin and later studied at Indiana University under Mauricio Fuks and at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich under Christoph Poppen and Ana Chumachenco. He considers it his life-long pursuit as a violinist to find a personal sound that is not only beautiful, but also meaningful and which speaks to the audience. He has won awards at numerous competitions, including the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels (Laureate), the Concours International Long-Thibaud and the Concours International de Musique Vibrarte in Paris.

From 2011 to 2015 he was concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he delighted audiences not only as an orchestral musician, but also as a soloist. As a soloist he has performed with various renowned orchestras including the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Orchestre National de Belgique. As a chamber musician, he has worked with the Miro and Athlos string quartets, and performed at many festivals, such as the Sarasota Music Festival, the ChamberFest Cleveland, the Nevada Chamber Music Festival and the Moritzburg Festival. In his spare time he enjoys klezmer music and is an active sportsman. In addition to basketball, he loves outdoor sports such as hiking and skiing and is a fan of basketball and baseball.

Visit these sites for more information on Noah Bendix-Balgley:


Pre-concert music: Siskiyou Violins

Begins in the Britt Performance Garden at 6:00 p.m.

Pre-concert talk: Host Don Matthews interviews Noah Bendix-Balgley

Begins in the Britt Performance Garden at 7:00 p.m.