Soaring Strings

Saturday, March 3, 2018 @ 7:30 p.m. | Scottish Rite Cathedral

Vaughan Williams

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis


Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra

  • Christopher Collins Lee, Violin
  • Eliezer Gutman, Violin


Symphony No. 5

The Reading Symphony Orchestra performs two masterpieces of the 20th century, alongside Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5. RSO’s own violinists Christopher Collins Lee and Eliezer Gutman showcase Malcolm Arnold’s melodic and exuberant Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra. The program is rounded out by Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, one of the composer’s most famous and beautiful works.

Violinist Christopher Collins Lee has performed on every continent except Antarctica. As official Musical Ambassador of the US Department of State, he has played thousands of concerts worldwide. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, he has performed with notable and diverse musicians such as Stokowski, Pavarotti, and Elton John.

Romanian-born and raised in Israel, Eliezer Gutman is the Associate Concertmaster of the RSO. He has been a member of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra since 1994 and is currently Concertmaster with the Kennett Symphony of Chester County, the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, and Opera Delaware. Eliezer has performed in recitals and with orchestras across the world.

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Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Strings……….Ralph Vaughan Williams  (1872-1958)
Composed in 1910; revised in 1913 and 1919
Premiered on September 6, 1910 in Gloucester, conducted by the composer

The main influence and inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia was the great Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), remembered not only for his excellent music but also for his political acumen. While steadfastly maintaining his Catholicism in the fluid religious landscape of 16th-century England, he wrote sacred music with either Latin or vernacular texts according to the theological preference of the current monarch, and even became such a favorite of the Protestant Elizabeth that he (with Wil­liam Byrd) was granted the exclusive privilege of printing music and ruled music paper for all of Britain.

Vaughan Williams based his Tallis Fantasia on an austere melody from the English Metrical Psalter published in 1567 by Mathew Parker, Arch­bishop of Canterbury, to a Psalm text now known as “Why do the heathens rage and the people imagine a vain thing?,” but given in those pre-King James I times as “Why fumeth in sight: the Gentiles spite, In fury raging stout?”. The work was conceived for the resonant spaces of Gloucester Ca­thedral, where it was first heard as part of the 1910 Three Choirs Festival. Its scoring was carefully arranged to create the aural impression of great depth and reverberation through the use of three antiphonal groups within the string orchestra — a solo quartet, a small ensemble and the entire ensemble.

The Fantasia is in a free variation form that carries some suggestion of its 16th-century namesake. There is a quiet introduction in which the open­ing phrases of Tallis’ theme, given by pizzicato low strings, alternate with a phrase of Vaughan Williams’ invention, played in parallel harmonies. Tallis’ hymn is then heard in full in the orchestra’s rich middle register supported by pizzicato basses and tremolo violins, after which the high violins take it over for an intensified repetition. The central portion of the Fantasia com­prises variants of fragments from the old melody and the parallel-harmony phrase. Tallis’ tune is heard again, complete, near the end, floating high in the solo violin. A serene coda closes the work, one of the most thoughtful, ecstatic and sonorous in the orchestral repertory.

Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Op. 77  …….Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Composed in 1962
Premiered on June 24, 1962 in Bath, England, with Yehudi Menuhin and Alberto Lysy as soloists

Malcolm Arnold, born in Northampton in 1921, entered the Royal Col­lege of Music, London in 1938 as a scholarship student in composition, conducting and trumpet. In 1941, he won the Cobbett Prize for Chamber Music Composition and joined the trumpet section of the London Philhar­monic Orchestra; the following year he became Principal Trumpet of the LPO. After a stint in military service in 1944-1945 and a brief tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he returned to the LPO, where he came to be known as one of the country’s leading instrumental virtuosos. In 1948, Arnold won the Mendelssohn Scholarship for study in Italy; he retired from the LPO that year to devote himself to composition and guest conducting. Much of his work during the years immediately following was for the cinema (he wrote some 120 film scores — Bridge on the River Kwai won an Academy Award in 1958), but his later music ranges from opera and incidental music to orchestral, chamber and vocal compositions.

Arnold’s Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra was commis­sioned by Yehudi Menuhin and first performed by Menuhin and Alberto Lysy at the Bath Festival on June 24, 1962. With its precise matching of the two violins and its thorough integration of soloists and orchestra, the work is indebted to the Two Violin Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1043), though its forms are grown from Classical models and its expressive idiom is distinctly that of Arnold. The opening movement, an altered sonata structure, begins with a collection of bold fragments that are woven into the main theme by the soloists. Expressive contrast is provided by a sweetly lyri­cal melody presented by the solo violins in duet. The motives and energetic vigor of the opening return in the extensive development section before the music quiets for the recapitulation of the lyrical second subject. The return of the main theme is held in reserve to frame the ending of the movement. The Andantino is subdued and introspective, though slightly troubled in mood by its unsettled harmonic language. The unaccompanied violins in imitation present the movement’s smoothly flowing but angular principal theme. The orchestra enters, and helps to carry the music to a strong climax.

Quiet returns as the orchestra takes over the main theme in an altered set­ting. Once again, the music rises to a point of high tension before the solo violins, muted, round out the movement with an ethereal presentation of the opening strain. The finale is a rapid-fire virtuoso showpiece.

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82……………………….Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Composed in 1915; revised in 1916, 1918 and 1919
Premiered on December 8, 1915 in Helsinki, conducted by the composer

Early in 1915, Sibelius learned that a national celebration was planned for his fiftieth birthday (December 8th), and that the government was commissioning from him a new symphony for the festive concert in Helsinki. He withdrew into the isolation of his country home at Järvenpää, thirty miles north of Helsinki (today a lovely museum to the composer), to devote himself to the gestating work, and admitted to his diary, “I love this life so infinitely, and feel that it must stamp everything I compose.” The birthday of “Finland’s greatest son,” as the program described Sibelius, was a veritable national holiday, when he was lionized with speeches, telegrams, banquets, greetings and gifts; the new Fifth Symphony met with great acclaim.

Theorists have long debated whether Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is in three or four movements; even the composer himself left contradictory evidence on the matter. The contention centers on the first two sections, a broad essay in leisurely tempo and a spirited scherzo, played without pause and related thematically. The opening portion is in a sort of truncated sonata form, though it is of less interest to discern its structural divisions than to follow the long arches of musical tension and release that Sibelius built through manipulation of the fragmentary, germinal theme presented at the beginning by the horns. The scherzo grows seamlessly from the music of the first section. At first dance-like and even playful, it accumulates dynamic energy as it unfolds, ending with a whirling torrent of sound. The following Andante, formally a theme and variations, is predominantly tranquil in mood. “There are frequent moments in the music of Sibelius,” wrote Charles O’Connell of the finale, “when one hears almost inevitably the beat and whir of wings invisible, and this strange and characteristic effect almost always presages something magnificently portentous. We have it here.” The second theme is a bell-tone motive led by the horns. The whirring theme returns, after which the bell motive is repeated over and over, building toward a climax until it seems about to burst — which it does. The forward motion abruptly stops, and the Symphony ends with six stentorian chords, separated by silences, proclaimed by the full orchestra.