Cello Concerto in B minor, Opus 104 1895 | 40 mins
Dvořák’s fame grew slowly and began at home in the Czech countryside. In middle age came his lucky break, and in 1891 Dvořák was asked to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While there, the composer attended a concert by the then-principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera; that experience never left him and, he wrote this cello concerto. LISTEN FOR: The first movement introduces two of Dvořák’s most memorable themes. The one at the beginning—featuring low clarinet, joined by bassoons, with a somber background of violas, cellos, and basses—brings remarkable, oblique, and multi-faceted harmonizations; the other is one of the loveliest French horn solos ever written. The Adagio begins in tranquility, but is interrupted by an orchestral outburst that introduces a quotation from one of Dvořák’s own songs. The song was a special favorite of the composer’s sister-in-law, with whom Dvořák had been madly in love with thirty years prior. She died soon after he returned from the US, and it was in her memory that he added the elegiac music in the finale. Dvořák was skeptical about writing a cello concerto, but he ended up writing one of the best we have.
Overture to The Magic Flute, K.620 1791 | 6 mins
PICTURE THIS: The Magic Flute is an allegory about a young prince who must learn to choose between good and evil, and who, undergoing trial by fire and water, becomes worthy of his station and fit to play his role in life. The forces of evil are represented by the Queen of the Night and her court, those of good by the priest Sarastro and his followers (Freemasons in disguise). Papageno speaks for those who don’t give a damn about issues like good and evil. Despite the libretto’s problems—including the misogyny and general priggishness of the supposedly venerable priests—it inspired Mozart. This is music of risky solemnity, deep pathos, sunny innocence, and delicious frivolity. The overture begins in utmost seriousness. The slow introduction is brief, but the coming Allegro is a fascinating mixture of the cheerful and the solemn. High spirits dominate the end.
Concerto for Orchstra 1954 | 28 mins
An icon of Polish Modernism, Lutosławski made many important musical statements. He adapted to political practicalities by developing an idiom that was decidedly personal and modern, but that nonetheless paid homage to populist folk music. Direct impetus for this piece came from the conductor Witold Rowicki, who asked Lutosławski to write a piece based on folk sources for a performance by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, which Rowicki founded that year. What he received is a brilliant showpiece that is indeed a virtuoso vehicle for the orchestra.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.