Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony: “The Celestial City”

The “Symphony of the Celestial City…” This is how biographer and classical music scholar Michael Kennedy poetically described Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5. Indeed, this music, completed in 1943 as the Second World War raged, moves into an alternate world of radiant light, quiet serenity, and sublime mystery. Following Vaughan Williams’ ferocious and dissonant Fourth Symphony, it returns to the eternal, pastoral reassurance of England’s metaphorical “green and pleasant” countryside. The term “Celestial …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 39: “Tempesta di mare”

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 takes us on a wildly exhilarating and tempestuous ride. It’s no wonder that this symphony, written in 1767 around the time Haydn became Kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, earned the poetic nickname, “Tempesta di mare,” or “storm at sea.” Set in a turbulent G minor, it is an early example of Sturm und Drang (translating literally as “storm and drive”), an artistic movement which swept through music and literature from the 1760s …

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Bernard Haitink’s Farewell

Bernard Haitink, one of the world’s most esteemed maestros, conducted his final concert at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on Saturday. In January, it was announced that the 90-year-old Dutch conductor would take a sabbatical. In a recent interview with de Volkskrant, Haitink suggested that this would most likely be retirement. Haitink became chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, a position he held for 27 years. Additionally, he served as principal conductor of the London …

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Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”  No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in …

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David Diamond’s Second Symphony: A Mid-Century American Masterwork

Listeners who go in search of “the great American symphony” will be rewarded with a handful of often-neglected mid-twentieth century masterworks. They include the Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, the First Symphony of Samuel Barber, as well as music by Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Lou Harrison, and others. These composers came to prominence in the 1930s and 40s, championed by conductors like Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky. Their musical …

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Brahms’ Third Symphony: “Free But Happy”

Three bold chords, rising in an expansive wind choir, set in motion Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major.  This powerful, attention-demanding proclamation flings open the door to a ferocious “con brio” first theme which seems to growl with intensity. Filled with wide, octave-exceeding leaps, it’s a theme which is always in motion, restlessly searching for a way forward, and veering continuously between major and minor. Rhythmically, it sets up our expectations, and then …

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Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Turns 50

As a child, I spent a year and many succeeding summers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where my father was a student of trombone professor Dr. Robert Gray. Some of my most vivid memories include attending concerts at the University’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where as a 9-year-old, I heard the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the University’s fine student ensembles. This weekend, the …

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