Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia VII in D Minor

Last week, here at Interlochen, the Intermediate Concert Orchestra, which I conduct, performed Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia VII in D minor.  Before I totally walk away from the concepts contained within the preparation and performance, I thought it would be valuable to share some of the concepts that we dealt with as part of our work.

Movement I, Allegro
This movement is a hard-hitting opening to the Sinfonia and begins with a heavy D minor arpeggio phrase, followed by a quiet beautiful legato phrase.  This sets up the idea of heavy, subito contrasts throughout the movement.  I described the character of this movement as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the kids that definitely translated for them.  We worked throughout our rehearsals for the ensemble to give me full control of every entrance, particularly every time the opening theme returned.  This entire movement is a study of contrasts and momentum, without rushing.  There are beautiful legato passages that employ ideas of dissonance and resolution with an undercurrent of pizzicato that maintains the momentum of the movement.  The primary bowing concept is “down bows on the down beat.”  With this idea in the front of the players’ mind, a solid bowing can easily be achieved.  I am careful to clarify that the bowing concept is not a hard and fast rule; rather an idea that can be applied that will certainly not apply in every situation.  This movement also provides a great opportunity for introducing or driving home sonata-allegro form to the students.

Movement II, Andante amorevole
This theme and variation movement is a lesson in patience and stamina for a young orchestra.  Written in 3/8 time, it looks to be a visually quick movement with 16th and 8th notes throughout the movement.  Paradoxically, the general rule for this movement is backward motion and holding back the tempo.  For a young orchestra, this is really tough.  While the first movement can have a feel of momentum and forward motion, this movement is certainly a contrast to the first.  8th note passages must be on the back edge of the pulse.  16th note passages must not rush and may even slow a bit.  Contact with the stick is paramount and this movement forces a young orchestra to relinquish control of the pulse and hand it over to the conductor.  To me, this movement has the feel of a lullaby.  It is quiet, loving, and just a little bit hesitant.  Finally, this movement provides a wonderful opportunity with really require a group to play a true piano and pianissimo.  While this is not always an easy task for young musicians, the lullaby metaphor tends to help to drive this concept home.

Movement III, Menuetto and Trio
The Minuetto brings the player back to a bold and forte style of playing and has a wonderful series of rhythmic patterns in the accompaniment that are designed to displace the pulse for the listener.  With bold accents on beat 2, then 1, then 3, the opening statement becomes an aural puzzle that is only solved when the entire ensemble briefly moves to a more predictable pattern of unison quarter notes with an emphasis on beat one.  I take this opportunity to adjust my conducting pattern from  a fast “3” pattern at the beginning of the movement to a slow “1” pattern through the more predictable passages, creating more of a sense of tempo stability for the player.  The 2nd strain begins with a fun passage that employs a hemiola pattern for 8 bars or so and then returns to the ideas that were presented in the first strain.

The Trio begins with dotted half notes in the cello and bass and is essentially a long exercise in patience for a young ensemble.  The entire trio section is characterized by dotted half notes in one or two voices and scale quarter note patterns in the other voices.  All passages being at unpredictable intervals for all voices and each section must be totally independent with counting both notes and the all-important rests.  The young musicians must again relinquish personal control of the tempo (they will be inclined to rush) and permit the conductor to dictate the beginning of each and every bar.  The tendency will be to push the tempo at every turn and much care must be placed in rehearsal to be sure that the players have at least peripheral attention to the stick at all times.  This movement provides a great opportunity to teach staccato slurs and bow placement as well.  Another important facet of this and other minuet and trios is that the player must really keep their wits about them and plan ahead for repeats as well as first and second endings.   Certainly this movement calls for strong attention to the road map of the work and strong attention to that and other details.

Movement IV, Allegro molto
It was appropriate that we performed this work on July 4, 2012, because I feel that this movement truly has the feel of a fireworks display.  Beginning in D minor and quickly transitioning to D major, this 6/8 movement has forward momentum written all over it.  I love the various entrances of all voices on unpredictable pulses with strong accents and articulations.  What an opening.  Then true to Mendelssohn form, he provides the player with a bold fugue (his homage to the baroque masters, I would think) that opens in the violas with a strong 4/4 feel and after a bit, winds back to the opening 6/8 feel, but now written in with triplets in 4/4 rather than employing an actual time signature change.  Cool.  There are so many opportunities for stylistic teaching in this movement.  The conductor can teach baroque detache’ style in the fugal sections, bowing style for the compound meter sections, articulations throughout the movement, and many other concepts throughout.  It is an exciting finish to a wonderful Sinfonia.

The Intermediate Concert Orchestra performed this work with precision, musicianship, enthusiasm, and emotion.  It was a wonderful way to culminate the 10 days of rehearsal on this work:  4th of July, Kresge Hall, boats sailing past on Green Lake, and a wonderful, appreciative audience.  It was a blast!



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