STRAVINSKY: Suite for Small Orchestra Nos.1 and 2

KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto

DVOŘÁK: Symphony No.9, From the New World

Seeking New Horizons II: New Discoveries is the second of a three-part series celebrating the composers who pushed the musical boundaries of the period. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert paid homage to the integral roles Stravinsky, Korngold, and Dvorak played in the transitions from late Romantic to 20th century music, with the integration of Romantic lyrical harmonies with the dissonance of 20th century melodies. And what a celebration it was!

The concert opened with some of Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) lesser known works, the Suite for Small Orchestra Nos. 1 and 2. Originally written as piano duets, the Russian composer orchestrated the works between 1917-1925, shortly after completing his famous Firebird and Rite of Spring. They represent Stravinsky’s early Russian period transitioning into his Neoclassical period, with lighthearted tones and prominent syncopated rhythms contrasting the occasional dissonant melodies and harmonies. The colourful rhythms and expressive wit permeate the Suites, lending an infectious charm to the structured dance forms as Stravinsky explored his compositional voice. The RPO did justice to Stravinsky’s curious and explorative voice of the Suites as the orchestra’s tenacity brought the audience onto the dancefloor in spirit.

Heralding in the Austrian composer Korngold (1897-1957) was British violinist Jennifer Pike. Korngold was a child prodigy, having written his first ballet at eleven years of age, and was lauded in Vienna for his natural musical talent. He is one of the most influential composers for Hollywood films of the era, and much of what we recognise as the quintessential dramatic Hollywood music is none other than Korngold’s personal style. Korngold was Jewish and vowed to not write anything besides film music, which he used to support his family whilst Hitler was in power. His Violin Concerto was the first that Korngold wrote following the resolution of the Second World War and is one of his most celebrated pieces. Its three movements share many of the themes and melodies he used for Hollywood films such as Juarez and The Prince and the Pauper, but with the dramatic flair required for film music stripped back to more clean, poignant melodies of the violin.

Whilst soloist Pike was technically impeccable, her interpretation of its two interlinking themes in the first movement, ‘Moderato nobile’, was a touch too stoic for my liking, and could have done with greater emotional depth. However, Pike warmed up in the second movement, ‘Romanze’. Its slower, sweet melodies soared high and pulled at the audience’s heartstrings, with Pike’s startling clarity of notes and perfect intonation of chords lending a precision and yearning to the movement. The final movement, ‘Allegro assai vivace’, is the most technically challenging and theatrical, as evidenced by Pike’s E-string dramatically snapping halfway through. She was quick on her feet and borrowed the concertmaster’s violin to continue playing, never missing a note – leaving the concertmaster to swap violins with the assistant concertmaster so that he could play a brief short solo during the movement (in addition to leading the orchestra, of course!) Despite all of this, Pike completed the movement beautifully, having fully warmed up from the slightly wooden first movement to deliver a truly impressive and technically-perfect performance, staccato jigs and all. She finished her performance with an encore piece – Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice – that showcased her skills with quick, challenging chords and slow, deep melodies. This British soloist is definitely one to keep an eye out for.

The concert finished with Dvorak’s (1841-1904) famous Symphony No. 9, From the New World, written when he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Dvorak’s syncopated rhythms with modal melodies pay homage to traditional folk tunes of both America and Europe, with whispers of famous Native American melodies such as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Massa Dear’ reflecting his fascination with native African-American music. The New World symphony opens with a motif heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, before the poignant American melodies of the second movement, ‘Largo’, are rendered beautifully by the woodwind section. The dance-like third movement, ‘Scherzo’, is influenced by Longfellow’s poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, with Dvorak’s signature rhythmic drive. Finally, Dvorak’s conservative Brahmsian style transforms to a more experimentalist Wagner style by the finale. Repeating motifs adopted into different forms and played by different instruments showcased both the simplicity and versatility of an extended theme.

The RPO pulled off a stunning performance of Dvorak’s symphony. They truly breathed together, with nary a single note out of place. Each orchestral section moved and functioned as one, with all the sections working together in perfect synchrony to completely take the audience into a new world, one filled with fascinating colours and delightful melodies that took your breath away. The standing ovation they received was well-deserved, and was a perfect end to a most enjoyable evening.