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Absolute Classics | Opening Night with James Ehnes

*Please silence your cell phone & turn down the brightness*


Daniel Raiskin, conductor

James Ehnes, violin, has established himself as one of the foremost violinists of his generation. Gifted with a rare combination of stunning virtuosity, serene lyricism and an unfaltering musicality, the JUNO and Grammy award-winning artists is a favourite guest of many of the world’s most respected conductors including Ashkenazy, Alsop, Sir Andrew Davis, Paavo Järvi and many more. Ehnes’s long list of orchestras includes, amongst others, the Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York, London Symphony, Philharmonia, BBC Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic, DSO Berlin and the NHK Symphony orchestras.

Prayer for Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov (1937-)

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, op.61 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Allegro ma non troppo
Rondo: Allegro

— Intermission —

Symphony No.5 in C-sharp minor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Part I
Stürmisch bewegt

Part II
Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell

Part III

Presenting Patron: The Michael Nozick Family Foundation

Concert Sponsors:

Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra is considered one of the greatest and most popular concertos for violin. However, it wouldn’t become a hit until some 38 years after its premiere.

Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Symphony No 5 stretches classical music to its limits. Mahler even adds a fifth movement. Yet, despite all this grandness of scale and depth, the main reason for the enduring popularity of his Symphony No.5 is the exquisite, ten-minute Adagietto that forms the fourth movement.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote nine symphonies, five piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas and stacks of chamber music, but only one concerto for the most popular instrument of his day– the violin. Inspired by, and written for 14-year-old violin prodigy Franz Clement, the Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra was written in 1806. However, it was another violin prodigy, Joseph Joachim, who made it a hit in 1844 performing it all over Europe.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 5 between the summers of 1901 and 1902. The composer changed his technique with this symphony. It was the first time Mahler dispensed with songs and with the singing voice. It also contained five movements, instead of four. The exquisite ten-minute Adagietto, would go on to be one of Mahler’s biggest hits. Legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein famously performed the movement at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968.

Program Notes by: James Manishen

Prayer for Ukraine

Valentin Silvestrov
b. Kyiv, Ukrainian SSR/ September 30, 1937
Composed 2014

Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt have both called the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov “one of the greatest composers of our time”.

Silvestrov was born in Kyiv in 1937 and studied the piano at Kyiv Evening Music School, then composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Over time, Silvestrov’s compositional practice evolved into what he would come to call his “metaphorical style” or “meta-music.” The composer says he wishes his works to be seen as “codas” to musical history because “fewer and fewer texts are possible which… begin at the beginning”. Silvestrov says “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”

This past Spring, during the second month of the invasion, the 84-year-old composer became a musical spokesperson for the war-torn country when, like millions of Ukrainians, Silvestrov was turned into a refugee by the conflict. Over three days in early March, he and his family made their way by bus from their home in Kyiv to Lviv, and from there across Poland to Berlin where he has been sheltering ever since.

Prayer for Ukraine was written by Silvestrov in 2014 in response to massive protests and civil unrest sparked by the Ukrainian government’s sudden decision not to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement despite parliament’s overwhelming approval. Instead, then President Viktor Yanukovych chose closer ties to Russian and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Silvestrov visited the Majdan Square campment in Kyiv where everything was centred around on many occasions, hearing the prayers and songs of the peaceful demonstrators before the shooting began. His cycle of songs was his way of fighting for his country with music. The text of Prayer for Ukraine reads ‘Lord, protect the Ukraine. Give us power, faith and hope. Our Father.’

The uprising climaxed in February 2015, when fierce fighting in Kyiv between activists and police resulted in the deaths of almost 100 protestors and 13 police officers.

Yanukovych, and other government ministers, fled the country shortly after that. Then came the Russian annexation of Crimea and pro-Russian unrest in Eastern Ukraine which eventually escalated into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Violin Concerto

Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn / December 17, 1770
d. Vienna / March 26, 1827
Composed: 1806
First performance: December 23, 1806 (Vienna), with Franz Clement as soloist.
Last WSO performance: 2017, Alexander Mickelthwate, conductor with Itzhak Perlman as soloist

Beethoven had been in Vienna but two years when he came across a brilliant 14-yar-old violin prodigy by the name of Franz Clement.  “Never fear, you will reach the great’’ the 24-year-old Beethoven wrote Clement, who indeed fulfilled the prophecy going on to becoming conductor and concertmaster of Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien in 1802. There, Clement collaborated with Beethoven in the production of his only opera Fidelio as well as conducting the premiere of the Third Symphony (Eroica). In the intervening years, Clement made no less a mark as a soloist.

If ever a great violin concerto was written for the characteristics of one player, Beethoven’s only violin concerto is it. Accounts of Clement’s playing tell of the purity of his tone, the security of his high register with its exposed entrances and wonderful lyrical impulse, described as `graceful rather than vigorous.’ This surely was counter-intuitive, given the standard practice of concertos of the time whose role was to primarily serve virtuosic flamboyance on 19th-century concert circuits. In Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, one finds radiant happiness where inner reflection and virtuosity are sublimely managed in perfect balance to elevate as well as thrill.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came from an especially inspired period in his life. Within a few months in 1806 he supplied the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Coriolan Overture and the three Op.59 String Quartets. The Violin Concerto was finished on the day of the premiere and was mildly-received, likely due to a performance issue since Clement received the part that day, though the work’s beauty was reportedly admired. Few performances followed until another prodigy, Joseph Joachim, took it up in 1844 performing it all over Europe.

Five soft notes on the timpani open the work, their rhythm an essential element in the piece overall. Lovely melody abounds. The slow movement is a theme with variations, elevated to other-worldly spheres with the most infinite care and precision, the conclusion leading directly to an invigorating rondo-finale with virtuosic display and touches of melancholy in the rare moments in the minor key.

Historical Notes from 1806


Symphony No. 4, Beethoven
Concertino for Horn and Orchestra, Weber


A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster
Zofloya, Charlotte Dacre


Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne,
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker,
Antonio Canova


Napoleon establishes the Kingdom of Bavaria.
Lewis and Clarke complete their expedition.

Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler
b. Bohemia / July 7, 1860
d. Vienna / May 18, 1911
Composed: 1899-1900
First performance: October 18, 1904 (Cologne), conducted the composer
Last WSO performance: 2008; Alexander Mickelthwate, conductor

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” This was the overriding mantra Gustav Mahler lived by in his music. But what has made it so irresistible in our time and likely to all time is how Mahler powers through the wildly conflicting stories in life and nature by connecting the listener to the emotional narrative of the music in the most liberating way. With fearless invention and matchless narration, Mahler invites and entices us to bond with him and internalize his vast emotional states without fear or judgment. As Norman Lebrecht writes in his excellent book Why Mahler?: “Among three thousand people in a concert hall, you are always alone when Mahler is played.”

Mahler’s musical “world” is ambiguous, discontinuous, conflicting, joyous, hopeful, with limitless nuances in between. His symphonies take every single traditional element in late Romantic music to their ultimate limits. Mahler can’t get enough of any of the above. His life’s path is to sensitize himself to all that is.  “At last, fortissimo!” Mahler shouted, on a visit to Niagara Falls.

Mahler’s orchestra is huge, his orchestrations are bold, each instrument relevant and purposeful, every musician a powerful and passionate actor on the tree of life. No matter how small the role, individual musicians always feel like they are the most important part of the whole when they play a Mahler symphony, the Fifth in particular as Mahler departs from his earlier symphonies’ more harmonically cushioned frameworks to explore simultaneous combinations of independent voices in the Fifth.

Mahler had completed his last song (about a doomed drummer boy) from the texts of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) while writing the Fifth and began to turn away from the folk-like idealism of the songs that played such a role in his earlier symphonies. The Fifth has a more rigorous, contrapuntal style of individual voices working independently. In that regard it’s worth noting that Mahler had just acquired the complete edition of Bach’s works, which thrilled him to no end.

Between the summers of 1901, when he began sketching the Fifth Symphony, and 1902 when he completed it, he met the talented and beautiful Alma Schindler. She was 19 years his junior, a talented composer and totally taken with him. They would marry on March 9, 1902.

For the summer the newlyweds went to Mahler’s country home at Mayernigg where Mahler continued his work on the Fifth Symphony, a work that would display a big break from his past. By the end of the summer, he played the Fifth for Alma on the piano. She was “overwhelmed,” wondering how much of it was affected by her. Though a preliminary draft, Mahler, obsessed with the work as ahead of its time. In striving for clarity of the instrumental lines, he continually revised the orchestration throughout the rest of his life. He writes to Alma before the premiere, “Oh that I might give my symphony its first performance fifty years after my death!”

Mahler had indeed changed his technique with the Fifth, for this is his first symphony that, despite brief quotes,  dispenses with songs from his notebook. It was also the first for 15 years to dispense with the singing voice.  In the words of Mahler’s friend conductor Bruno Walter, the Fifth is pure music, cleansed of “extra-musical thoughts or emotions.”

The Symphony is embodied by its structure:  three parts containing five movements. Parts I and III have two linked movements in each. A huge scherzo is in the middle, comprised of one Ländler after another.

The first movement is a funeral march in C-sharp minor, introduced by a solitary trumpet playing a doom-laden fanfare “with measured steps” in typically dotted rhythm. Mahler had known suffering, loss, protest and death. He had lost seven siblings, lived under an abusive father and had his own health issues. Mahler also had lived near a military barracks. The march became a prominent musical realm in much of his work. The central part has the trumpet in brutal anguish over strings that must be played “as vehement as possible,” Mahler writes in a note to the conductor. The movement ends with the disappearing fanfare, the coffin lowered into the ground.

The second movement is stormy, agitated with wild leaps over the interval of the ninth and stabbing eighth notes. Much is linked to what was heard earlier. A slower central section seems like a hasidic lament Mahler knew so well. At the end, a big brass chorale appears, pulling us from the nagging C-sharp minor of the first movement to affirmative D major. Signed here, the chorale will reappear at the end of the Symphony where it is sealed.

The gigantic Scherzo third movement recalls Vienna, which Mahler loved and loathed. Certainly its nostalgia and traditions entranced him, but he hated Vienna’s conservatism and was a victim of antisemitic spite that raged in the city. The Scherzo is wildly inventive, a dance of life even in its ruminations on death, a “human being in the full light of day in the prime of his life” Mahler said.

Part III begins with the famous Adagietto scored for harp and strings. This was a love letter to Alma and Mahler sent her the score unmarked. She understood and wrote to him that he should come! The movement is played more slowly when used to commemorate a death, but it is hardly funereal in its rising theme.

A magical transition leads to the Finale, perhaps the most purely joyous music Mahler ever wrote. The great brass chorale returns to seal the full extent of the human experience, denying the chilling opening of the Symphony the last word. Rather than ending in an extended blaze of glory as with the first three symphonies, Mahler closes the epic Fifth with a great, big, affirmative laugh!

Historical Notes from 1901-1902


The Entertainer, Scott Joplin
Symphony No. 2, Op. 43, Jean Sibelius


The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
Hounds of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle


Femme aux Bras Croisés,
Pablo Picasso

Beethoven Frieze, Gustav Klimt


Queen Victoria dies and King Edward VII confirmed as new king.
First Nobel Prize ceremony held.