Program Notes: Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor

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Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1809-1847
Here at Rocks Off, we enjoy album covers with turds on them and making fun of R. Kelly as much as the next guy. And just wait until Chris Brown gets here next weekend.

But there's a lot more to music than that. In a possibly fruitless effort to class up the joint a bit, we're introducing a new feature illuminating some of our favorite works in the classical repertoire as played by the Houston Symphony.

We could have hardly picked a better place to start. Composed between 1838 and 1844, Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor (op. 64) is, writes the All Music Guide's Roger Dettmer, a "pillar of the violin concerto repertoire" and one of the German-born composer's final orchestral works. Mendelssohn composed it especially for his good friend Ferdinand David, concertmaster for the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, which Mendelssohn conducted for many years.

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Unlike many concertos of the time, the Mendelssohn eschews an orchestral introduction and begins with a fingerboard-straining solo passage, that, Mendelssohn wrote in a letter to David soon after beginning the work, "gives me no peace." The orchestra catches up soon enough, in a grand crescendo that instigates a game of cat-and-mouse with the soloist.

Eventually, the first movement trails off into a lengthy, lyrical passage before the winds sneak back in with the main melody and Mendelssohn's original tempo of Allegro molto appassionatta - fast, with much passion - is restored. The movement closes with a furious back-and-forth series of variations between the orchestra and soloist that, in the hands of a gifted enough violinist, almost sound improvised.

The second movement, andante (walking tempo), is built around a wistful melody that beautifully showcases the violin's upper register. A brief burst of brass heralds the finale, a rondo (round) that sends the soloist off to the races at a tempo appropriately marked allegro molto vivace (fast, very lively). As the soloist's fingers fly, the strings enter with a brief, sweeping countermelody before the concerto climaxes in a series of soloist trills, woodwinds restating the melody and emphatic closing passage.

The Mendelssohn E minor concerto has been one of the premier violin showpieces since its debut in 1845, and helped propel 14-year-old prodigy Joseph Joachim to 19th-century stardom soon after. "The frequent virtuoso passages provide ample opportunity for a young star to show off his or her technique, while the lyricism of the piece will quickly reveal the performer's interpretive talents," writes Roger Mudd College computer science professor and musicologist Geoff Keunning.

Established performers are rather fond of the Mendelssohn too. We're willing to bet Itzhak Perlman, who plays it tonight with the Houston Symphony, has had it memorized for quite some time.

Rice University's Larry Rachleff is tonight's guest conductor. Also on the program are Hector Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict overture and Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations.

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