Feste Romane is a cultural historic voyage through time and Respighi at his most extreme: gladiators, wild beasts, martyrs and bellowing hordes at Circus Maximus; pilgrims and seasonal festivals where you can hear echoes of the Rome of Nino Rota and Fellini. Italian pianist and composer Ferrucio Busoni spent a couple of years in Helsinki in the late 1800s, socialising with the likes of Sibelius and the Järnefelt brothers. The evening’s concert begins with the Renaissance-inspired Botticelli Triptych.
Hans Graf (b. 1949) must surely have been one of the world’s busiest conductors while directing three orchestras simultaneously (Houston 2001–2013, Calgary 1995–2003 and Bordeaux-Aquitaine 1998–2004). Before that, he had spent ten years as Music Director of the Salzburg Mozarteum and guest conducted such orchestras as the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Vienna Symphony and the American Big Five. No wonder, therefore that he says, “The idea of seizing a little personal time appeals to me. One thing I am dreaming of is just listening to music, without having to study – for instance, to just listen to all the Beethoven sonatas.”
After graduating in Graz in his native Austria, Hans Graf studied with Arvid Jansons in Leningrad and Sergiu Celibidache and Franco Ferrara in Italy. His first regular job was as an accompanist at the Vienna State Opera, followed by a one-year contract in Iraq. Victory in the Karl Böhm Competition in 1979 paved the way for an international career.
Since 2013, Hans Graf has had no regular appointment, leaving him free to guest conduct around the world. This, he hopes, will give him to time to “read words, not notes” and to spend time “with my wife in some of the beautiful places of the world”.
In spring 2017, Graf was awarded a Grammy and an ECHO Klassik prize for his recording of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He last conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017.
When The Violin Channel asked American violinist Stefan Jackiw (b. 1985) to name a piece that reflects the way he works, his reply was Destiny Child’s Survivor. It is a fitting choice, seeing that a fall when out jogging in 2012 almost put an end to his career. It nevertheless taught him a lot, for as he put it, quoting Albert Camus, “There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”
Stefan Jackiw had been playing the violin since he was four when, at the age of 12, he made his debut with the Boston Pops orchestra. Invitations from all the great European and American orchestras soon followed within a year. He has also given recitals with Conrad Tao, Jeremy Denk and others, and this year’s schedule includes Finland’s Kaija Saariaho. He has been the soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on many occasions, likewise with the Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Tampere Philharmonic. Since the age of 16, he has played a violin made by Vincenzo Ruggieri in 1704.
Follow Stefan Jackiw on Twitter @StefanJackiw.
Ottorino Respighi: Trittico Botticelliano
Many of the works by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) are connected with Italian history and culture. In 1927, he travelled to the USA at the invitation of patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and the concert he gave there was such a success that he decided to compose a work for her by way of thanks. On his return to Italy, he was inspired by a visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to write the Trittico Botticelliano. As its title suggests, it is a triptych inspired by a painting by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510).
La primavera (Spring) is a cheerful pastorale. The middle section includes allusions to Gregorian chant. The mood of L’adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi) is deeply devout and Respighi quotes from the medieval Christmas hymn O Come, O Come Emanuel. La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) was inspired by Botticelli’s best-known painting.
Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) hesitated when asked to write a Violin Concerto because he was not a violinist, but his colleague Paul Hindemith said this could be an advantage, as he would have a fresh approach. He conducted the premiere in 1931 with Samuel Dushkin, who had helped him with technical issues, as the soloist. It differed so greatly from the models of, say, Beethoven and Brahms that some in the audience took it as a cynical joke. The focus is not so much on the soloist as on the relationship between the solo and other instruments, and the leader of the orchestra even has a chance to vie with the soloist in the finale.
Each of the movements begins with the same chord (D–E–A) on the solo violin. The outer movements (Toccata and Capriccio) abound in humour and rhythmic vitality. Both the inner movements bear the title Aria (though a work of his neo-classical period, only after completing the work did Stravinsky give the movements their Baroque headings), the first darkly lyrical and the second unusually melancholy.
Ferruccio Busoni: Tanz-Walzer, Op. 53
Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) was a true musical all-rounder: composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and editor, and writer of his own librettos and essays. He was also widely-travelled, taught in Finland for two years, knew Sibelius, enthused over the music of composers such as Nielsen, Bartók and Varèse, and later, in Berlin, counted Kurt Weill and Vladimir Vogel among his pupils. Until about the turn of the century, his music was mostly founded on the German Romantic tradition, while his later period was marked by experiment and intellectual curiosity. He was fascinated by the architecture of Baroque music, just as he was by neoclassicism and the folk music of various countries. The orchestral suite Tanz-Walzer consisting of an introduction and four waltzes dates from 1920 and was inspired by the sound of waltzes issuing from cafés. It is dedicated to Johann Strauss Jr and was premiered in Berlin in 1921.
Otto Respighi: Feste Romane
Feste Romana (Roman Festivals, 1928) is one of three symphonic poems by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) inspired by the city of Rome, the other two being The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome. It is scored for a larger-than-usual orchestra and is in four movements performed without a break:
1. Circus Games (Cirences): gladiators fight to the death against wild beasts, urged on by the rowdy crowd.
2. The Jubilee (Il Giubileo): Pilgrims pray as they travel the road. At the top of Mt. Mario they catch a glimpse of the holy city, and church bells greet their cries of “Roma!”.
3. The October Festival (L’ottobrata): Vines cover the walls. Hunting horns, tinkling bells and love songs. All of a sudden a romantic serenade is heard in the balmy evening.
4. The Epiphany (La befana): Trumpets beat out a wild rhythm in the Piazza Navona the night before Epiphany. Snatches of folk song, a barrel organ, the cries of street vendors, and a jingle demanding, “Let us pass, we are Romans”.