Written by Ronald Comber

Polyphonic Lively (2016)

Dinuk Wijeratne (1978-    )

One of Canada’s most notable composers, Sri Lankan born Dinuk Wijeratne has achieved international recognition as both a composer and as a performer. His music covers a broad range of styles and subjects and is always worth hearing.

He writes:

“While browsing through a library book of very vibrant artwork by Paul Klee, the 20th century Swiss-German master, I was struck by the title of one of the paintings: Polyphonic Lively. Though the two adjectives back-to-back suggest that something may have been lost in translation, I felt compelled to turn these very vivid and evocative words into music. They immediately conjured up high-vibration, high-intensity ‘chatter’, and also seemed nicely suited to the celebratory nature of an orchestra’s season opener.

Music, as a communicative medium, offers unique and wonderful opportunities for stacking contrasting ideas – for ‘polyphony’. As a composer I like to explore the possibility that musical voices, each conveying an idea that is either supportive or subversive, can be allowed to coexist in a way that often eludes us in today’s world. The nature of Polyphonic Lively is character-driven and, through sharp turns and decisive action, its ‘journey’ is simply what the characters make of it. Its musical fabric is a multiplicity of voices, lines, and themes that decide – on a whim – when to coalesce and coexist.”

Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

The Concerto no.2 in C minor could well be the most accessible as well as the best of Rachmaninoff’s major works.  It is a marvel of craftsmanship, from the technical brilliance of the piano writing to the gratifying complexity of the orchestration.  To perform it is a rare pleasure, as the soloist and the orchestra in turn define and redefine each emotional statement.

Although the Second Concerto is ostensibly a part of a comparatively smooth progression of major works; that is, Rachmaninoff was not a man who skipped from Post-Romanticism to, say, tone-rows; the appearance of the work marked an enormous upheaval in his life.

Rachmaninoff was a successful artist in 1900.  He had achieved world-wide prominence as early as 1893, with the publication of the famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor, and his career as a concert pianist was firmly established shortly thereafter.  But in Moscow, where he made his home, life was pointless.  The Fin de Siècle Ennuis, so prevalent in artistic circles throughout Europe, had arrived in Moscow with a vengeance, acquiring an added morbidity along the way.  Rachmaninoff, already more than usually melancholy through the unmerited failure of his First Symphony, soon succumbed to the prevailing pessimism of musical society and abandoned all hope.  A brief respite came when he unwillingly travelled to London, to perform to the highest acclaim.  He promised a new concerto for the 1901 Philharmonic concerts on the strength of his triumph, but soon, back in Moscow, he fell into lethargy.

Help came from an unexpected quarter.  A Dr. Dahl, seeing his plight, took charge of him, and through a course of hypnosis, restored in him the desire to create.  The immediate result was the composition of the Second Concerto, dedicated to the good doctor.

The work was first performed in a Moscow Philharmonic concert in 1901, with the composer triumphant at the keyboard.  Subsequent performances proved to be so popular that the work was published in 1902.

The Concerto is in three movements.  The first movement, marked Moderato, opens with a devastating series of chords from the piano – building to a terrible intensity to lead to the passionate first theme in the clarinet and strings.  The drama of the first subject is later perfectly matched by the tenderness of the rising second subject.  Development ensues, leading to the greatest moment in all of Rachmaninoff’s works; the grand reiteration of the main theme in the strings, whilst the piano attacks with a fierce new counter melody.  The music dies away into a tender coda, then climaxes with fortissimo chords.

The second movement, marked Adagio sostenuto, is a lovely three-part song, animated in its middle section, filled with a wealth of emotional meaning.

The third movement, marked Allegro scherzando, is remarkable for the alternation of brilliant virtuosity and plangent lyricism.   Rachmaninoff here uses his technical brilliance with telling effect, for not only is the piano writing inspired, but the dramatic mood shifts applied to reiterations of the principal counter-subject, from lyrical to heroic, are nothing short of uncanny.


Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 

Johannes Brahms  (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms was a composer who lived quietly for a large part of his long and illustrious career, who generally stayed away from controversy and relished taking the time to think.  Brahms was really the first major composer of the Romantic period who could actually allow his muse something like free rein, without having to worry on a day to day basis about his public image.  He was a composer first; he only toured as a conductor or a pianist when it pleased him to do so from his mid-twenties until the end of his life.

This freedom of will in Brahms’ life led directly to today’s Symphony no.3 in F Major; not in the fact of its existence (at least for the sake of this argument), but for what it and Brahms’ other three symphonies represent in the history of music.  Brahms achieved in these four works something that composers had been striving for since the death of Beethoven…the perfect marriage between themes of Romantic length and the extended symphonic forms that Beethoven had espoused.  Beethoven had made the Romantic length of symphony a reality in his late works, but no composer until Brahms, had the breadth of vision or the time required, to solve all the problems inherent in making a form, designed to support a work lasting twenty odd minutes, instead last for forty.  It took Brahms twenty-one years to complete his first Symphony.  The second took less than a year.

The Symphony no.3 in F Major was written in the summer of 1883 while Brahms was staying in Wiesbaden for the year.  His first attempt in the form since he had completed the Second Symphony in the autumn of 1877, the Third apparently came to Brahms fairly readily, and it was quickly premiered in Vienna by Hans Richter on December 2, 1883.

Performances in Berlin soon followed, with two different orchestras playing it within weeks of each other, under the batons of rivals Joachim and Wullner.  It has been a major work in the orchestral repertoire ever since.

The Third Symphony is characterized by an almost olympian grandeur…the power and beauty of Brahms’ melodic content are not merely enhanced by the clarity of the formal conception, they are given a new heroic stature by the sheer inevitability of its proportions.  The entire Symphony is also governed from within by a device called a Motto; a themelette which helps to establish a mood by its inclusion at key points in the music.  It works like this; if an asterisk were my motto, then I would first show it to you with an attached meaning *(Bang), then only use it(*) where I wanted you to pay *particular* attention.

The first movement, marked Allegro con brio, opens with three notes, leading into the passionate First Subject.  Those three notes are the Motto and will appear, sometimes quite unobtrusively, sometimes at the climaxes, throughout the Symphony.  The dramatic First Subject quickly builds to a sensation of heroic despair, which is perfectly contrasted through the grace of the Second Subject…a cantabile theme for solo clarinet.  The Exposition becomes increasingly dramatic, the short Development which follows increases in animation.  The Recapitulation then comes as a complete shock as the whole tenor of the movement suddenly changes into a mood of nostalgia.

The second movement, marked Andante, is in a condensed Sonata form.  A lovely pastoral melody is countered by a darker Second Subject to create a whole of almost Mozartian beauty.

The third movement is marked Poco allegretto and, as is usual in Brahms’ symphonies, takes the place of the more customary Scherzo.  In three part form – ABA – the music has an orchestration of almost chamber clarity.  A certain watchful quality to the middle section adds tension, later relieved by the return (re-orchestrated) of the first melody.

The Finale, an Allegro, is the dramatic and spiritual climax of this great work.  The movement begins sotto voce in a mood of barely repressed tension which gradually builds to the heights of passion as the music gains momentum and complexity.  Peace comes only in the Recapitulation, when the music gradually broadens out, until at the end, it turns to one last echoing reminder of the first movement.