We are thrilled to be able to return live to the Royal Festival Hall, despite a second lockdown announcement. We are delighted to welcome conductor Anna-Maria Helsing and pianist Stephen Hough, stepping in for Elim Chan and Sergey Katchatryan who were unable to travel to London. Now more than ever, we are determined to carry on finding creative, innovative ways to keep playing for you.
Tonight, we celebrate the power of music to wash away worries and gloomy weather, with the sunniest, most light-hearted Mendelssohn symphony and a folky, joyful piece by Jessie Montgomery to set things off. Thank you for joining us.
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Header image: Stephen Hough © Sim Canetty-Clarke
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Jessie Montgomery © Jiyang Chen
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981): Strum (2006, rev. 2012)
Jessie Montgomery and Felix Mendelssohn may have been born over a century apart and on different sides of the Atlantic, but they have one striking thing in common: their brilliance as both composers and string players. Alongside major composition projects working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Southbank Centre, among many partners, Montgomery also plays with the Catalyst String Quartet and the Silkroad Ensemble.
Strum was the name of Montgomery’s debut album, released in 2015, as well as the title of this piece – originally composed in 2006 for cello quintet. She later revised it and turned it into a work for string quartet or string orchestra (and it’s in its string orchestra version that we hear it here). She describes it as “light and dance-like”, which is partly an effect of all that strumming referred to in the title: pizzicato (plucked) strings alongside bowed parts.
Jessie Montgomery describes the piece as “light and dance-like”, partly an effect of all that strumming referred to in the title...
There are moments when the music seems to conjure the guitar or even the banjo, twanging along under lively melodies from the other players. And there’s another adjective that Montgomery applies to this piece: fun! There’s something completely joyful about its energy and rhythmic verve, and even the moment of quiet repose at the piece’s centre (which sounds a little bit like Ravel) feels calmly optimistic.
The final minute of the piece leaps and bounces with energy as the players climb up their instruments only to slide back down again – and their final word is, of course, one last strum.
Notes by Katy Hamilton © Philharmonia Orchestra/Katy Hamilton
Stephen Hough © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847): Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1830 – 1831)
- Molto allegro con fuoco
- Presto – Molto allegro vivace
Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was composed shortly after his extensive cultural tour of Italy. In April 1831 he had travelled to Naples, where he met Donizetti. He socialised with German painters and sketched landscapes during trips to Capri, Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, and he fraternised with Beethoven’s friend, Dorothea von Ertmann, and with Mozart’s son, Franz. It seems probable that Mendelssohn’s Concerto started to take shape in the thick of this inspiring combination of nature and culture, alongside ideas for his ‘Italian’ Symphony.
In July 1831 Mendelssohn reached Switzerland, but flooding curtailed his travels. By September he had returned to Munich where the Piano Concerto was hastily completed, and where the composer gave its premiere on 17 October. He was still only 22. In addition to the recent stimulus of his travels, Mendelssohn was inspired by the company of Delphine von Schauroth, the talented daughter of a baroness. Felix wrote to his sister Fanny that Delphine “composed a passage ... that makes a startling effect”. He dedicated the work to her, although he assured Fanny that his attachment was not a romantic one.
Felix wrote to his sister Fanny that the Piano Concerto’s dedicatee Delphine von Schauroth “composed a passage ... that makes a startling effect...”
The Piano Concerto No. 1 was a resounding success and was soon championed by other prominent composers, including Liszt, whose performance of the piece in Paris catapulted the work to widespread fame. Liszt’s flawless sight-reading of the work prompted Mendelssohn to exclaim: “A miracle, a miracle!” Berlioz quipped that a piano on which Mendelssohn’s Concerto was played numerous times during a competition continued to play the work even after the performances had ended.
The work opens with a stormy orchestral introduction, after which the piano enters with staccato octaves. This idea evolves into the main theme, which is then taken up and explored by the orchestra. The piano responds lyrically, before both ideas are developed, culminating in a sparkling reprise of the main materials.
A fanfare heralds the seamless transition to the slow movement, an Andante of exquisite tenderness pervaded by a sense of longing that anticipates the piano concertos of Brahms. Decorated by the piano, the tender theme is articulated by violas and then cellos.
We then move swiftly to the exhilarating finale, at the end of which, in a gesture that reveals a precocious maturity beyond his years, Mendelssohn recalls the first movement’s lyrical secondary theme, creating an over-arching sense of structural unity.
Notes by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld
Anna-Maria Helsing © Timo Heikkala
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, 'Italian' (1833, rev. 1834)
- Allegro vivace
- Andante con moto
- Con moto moderato
- Saltarello. Presto
The ‘Italian’ Symphony dates from Mendelssohn’s early 20s, when he set off on the Grand Tour around Europe. This was all part of his privileged upbringing and education. The Grand Tour was intended to help cultivate the young composer’s musical and artistic taste by bringing him into close contact with the artworks – and landscapes – of other countries.
It began, in 1829, with a trip across the English Channel to England, and Mendelssohn spent some time in London before heading north to Scotland, enduring the stomach-churning boat ride out to the Hebridean isle of Staffa and later writing the so-called Fingal’s Cave Overture as a result. After a return trip to his family home in Berlin, Mendelssohn then headed south to Italy, soaking up the sights and sounds of Rome, Naples and Florence.
Sketch of a scene by Felix Mendelssohn found in a letter to his sister Fanny, 1 August 1829, credit Kosboot, Wikimedia Commons
It was during this trip that Mendelssohn began to plan (and probably sketch) the symphony that would later become the ‘Italian’. He had written enthusiastically to a friend whilst on his travels that Italy was “land of art, for it is the land of nature, and there it lives and weaves everywhere, in the blue sky, and there is enough music in the sea and in the trees.” Now, alongside plans for a ‘Scottish’ Symphony, he tried to capture some of his Italian impressions on manuscript paper.
The premiere was given in London, on 13 May 1833, by the Philharmonic Society with Mendelssohn himself conducting – but reactions were mixed. One critic praised it as a piece that “will endure for ages, if we may presume to judge such a work on a single performance,” with movements that “show genius of a high order in every bar.” Another wrote that the slow movement reminded him of “some ancient Scotch melody”, rather than the warm south (and with almost comical symmetry, Robert Schumann later described the symphony Mendelssohn labelled ‘Scottish’ as sounding Italian!). The composer set about revising the piece after its first performance, but was not sufficiently satisfied to publish the final version. That had to wait until 1851, four years after his death.
"... it is the land of nature, and there it lives and weaves everywhere, in the blue sky, and there is enough music in the sea and in the trees.” Mendelssohn on Italy
So is this work a musical depiction of the Italy that Mendelssohn visited almost 200 years ago? It’s perhaps fairer to say that the piece evokes moods and reactions rather than aiming to create a landscape in notes. The first movement is full of joy and sunlight, and the bounce and skip of a dance is never far away either. In the finale, Mendelssohn introduces two Italian folk dances: a saltarello and a tarantella, twirling and stamping to the end of the symphony.
Between these two, we have an earnest, almost processional slow movement (the opening of which, with its restless, pacing bass-line, is almost in a kind of church mode, like a chant); and a graceful minuet. Whether it now sounds Italian is up to the listener – but its vivid, brilliant writing is sure to delight, whatever landscape it may conjure.
Notes by Katy Hamilton © Philharmonia Orchestra/Katy Hamilton
Jessie Montgomery © Jiyang Chen
Meet Jessie Montgomery
"... art is vital to community and can even sustain it. I’m always finding more ways to transmit those values through my work..." Jessie Montgomery
Strum combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music. What are the challenges of composing a cross-cultural work that straddles different traditions?
When I wrote Strum I was not thinking about cross-cultural mixing at all deliberately. I think as my work has developed, I’ve become increasingly aware of where my influences come from and I’ve become more conscious of how to apply them. As with any piece, I’m focusing on colour and alignment – what is the common denominator in the music I am influenced by? And I think about where the melodies and rhythms blend into each other in ways that are not immediate – sometimes the result is collage-like, and sometimes the lines are even more blurred.
Strum was originally composed for a smaller ensemble, and later adapted for a string orchestra. How do the two versions compare?
The string quartet version and the string orchestra version are identical musically, but the orchestral version features moments in which the quartet plays alone, in honour of the smaller ensemble version. The original version of the piece (which is not usually played) actually has a completely different ending and was written for cello quintet.
What is it like to listen to a programme that includes your own compositions? Are you ever surprised by the approach to your score?
I get really nervous during premieres. Usually if I’ve had a chance to rehearse the piece with players ahead of time it can ease that anxiety, but I still get excited and nervous, as if I’m performing myself! The music doesn’t usually sound different than I expect, except if there are performance errors or, usually in the case of larger-scale works for orchestra, sometimes certain orchestration choices may surprise me a tiny bit, but that means I need to edit!
You started composing very young, inspired by your violin teachers who encouraged improvisation. Can you describe your process as a composer?
Improvising has a lot to do with how I compose and think about ensemble playing. My process varies: when I do need to get ideas out quickly, I do a fair amount of playing on the violin to find which figures I want to use. But I also think in fragments, putting a motive or a colour idea down and then doing the harder work of composing and drawing out that original idea. Improvising is playful and composing is ‘work’, for me. Both are necessary to the integrity of the piece.
You grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, at a time when it was known for its vibrant artistic scene and socially engaged culture. How does that atmosphere make its way into your music?
Having access and exposure to a mix of cultures and artistry set up a feeling that anything is possible, and that there is a kind of harmony among the chaos. The moments when the community would gather together made me realise how interconnected we all were, and how we relied on one another to keep the vibrancy of the people and the art alive. The biggest lesson was that art is vital to community and can even sustain it. I’m always finding more ways to transmit those values through my work.
"Having access and exposure to a mix of cultures and artistry set up a feeling that anything is possible, and that there is a kind of harmony among the chaos." Jessie Montgomery
Anna-Maria Helsing © Timo Heikkala
Anna-Maria Helsing has gained an outstanding reputation, especially with leading Scandinavian orchestras and opera houses. From 2010 to 2013 Anna-Maria Helsing was Chief Conductor of the Oulu Symphony – the first-ever female conductor at the head of a Finnish symphony orchestra. Anna-Maria Helsing was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra in April 2020.
Within a short time, the Swedish-Finnish conductor has conducted all the major Finnish and Swedish orchestras including the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Tampere Philharmonic, Tapiola Sinfonietta, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony, Swedish Radio Symphony, Malmö Symphony, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra as well as the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Trondheim Symphony, Iceland Symphony, North Iceland Symphony and Odense Symphony, among others.
She has been at the rostrum of the Philharmonia, BBC Philharmonic, Royal Danish Opera, Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra, Gothenburg Opera, Malmö Opera Orchestra, Norrlands Operan Orchestra and Estonian National Orchestra, and has conducted the orchestras in Braunschweig, Bochum, Hagen and Jena. She also led performances at the Royal Danish Opera, Finnish National Opera, Savonlinna Opera Festival and Tampere Opera.
Upcoming highlights include her return visits to the Philharmonia, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Concert Orchestra, Finnish Opera Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony, Iceland Symphony, North Iceland Symphony, Gothenburg Opera, Pitea Chamber Opera and Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, as well as her debuts with the Stavanger Symphony and Folkoperan Stockholm.
Following her studies in the class of Leif Segerstam, Anna-Maria Helsing was chosen to take part in the International Conductor’s Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation under the guidance of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. In 1999 she won First Prize in the International Competition for 20th-Century Music for Young Artists in Warsaw.
Anna-Maria Helsing received her violin diplomas from the Conservatory of Jakobstad/Pietarsaari. She has attended masterclasses with Jorma Panula, Vladimir Jurowski and John Carewe.
Stephen Hough © Jiyang Chen
Named by The Economist as one of 20 Living Polymaths, Stephen Hough combines a distinguished career as a pianist with those of composer and writer. He was the first classical performer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the New Year’s Honours 2014.
On 1 June 2020, Hough reopened Wigmore Hall, performing the UK’s first live classical music concert in a major venue since the nationwide lockdown in March. Later that summer he made his 29th appearance at the BBC Proms performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Currently scheduled concerts in 2020/21 include concerto performances with the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras, NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, St Louis, Cincinnati and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras, Seoul Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra, Taiwan.
Hough is a regular guest at festivals such as Salzburg, Mostly Mozart, Edinburgh, La Roque-d’Anthéron and Aldeburgh. Recent highlights include performances with New York and London Philharmonic Orchestras, Wiener Symphoniker, Cleveland and Minnesota Orchestras, and the Finnish Radio, Tokyo, Toronto, Singapore, Iceland and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestras. In the 2019/20 season, he spearheaded a five-concert Brahms series at Wigmore Hall, performing with Renaud Capuçon, Steven Isserlis, Michael Collins and the Castalian Quartet.
Hough’s extensive discography of over 60 CDs has garnered international awards including the Diapason d’Or de l’Année, several Grammy nominations, and eight Gramophone Awards including ‘Record of the Year’ and the Gold Disc. Recent releases include Beethoven’s complete Piano Concertos (with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu), The Final Piano Pieces of Brahms, solo piano works by Debussy, Hough’s Dream Album, and a live recording of Schumann and Dvořák’s Piano Concertos with Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, all for Hyperion Records.
As a composer Hough is writing the commissioned work for the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, to be performed by all 30 competitors in May/June 2022. His String Quartet No. 1 will be premiered by the Takács Quartet in December 2021 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa. He has been commissioned by Wigmore Hall, Musée du Louvre, London’s National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, the Genesis Foundation, Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the Cliburn Foundation, Orquesta Sinfónica de Euskadi and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.
As an author, his collection of essays, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More was published by Faber & Faber in August 2019 and was named one of The Financial Times’ Books of the Year 2019.