By Jeff Counts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, cymbals, strings
Duration: 24 minutes in three movements.
THE COMPOSER – CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) – Life was proceeding nicely for Saint-Saëns in the 1860s. He was comfortable financially and enjoyed a position of prominence in the artistic circles of Paris with a handful of prize-winning compositions to his credit and a continued public respect for his skills as a pianist. Saint-Saëns also held a teaching position at the Ecole Niedermeyer and was reportedly a great source of intellectual inspiration for his students.
THE MUSIC – Pianist Anton Rubenstein was performing on a series of concerts in Paris in 1868 when he mentioned a desire to conduct a program with Saint-Saëns as soloist. Since the hall was not available for a few weeks, Saint-Saëns suggested the composition of a new work and hurriedly put together the 2nd Concerto. The premiere did not go very well, partly because Saint-Saëns had not budgeted much time for practice in his rush to complete the score but also due to unpredictable swings of mood in the music. The famous critical quote from the evening came from fellow pianist and composer Sigmond Stojowski who claimed that the concerto “began with Bach and ended with Offenbach.” A witty remark to be sure, but not such an indictment on closer inspection. There is a Bach-like atmosphere as the work opens and there is an abrupt shift of temperament into the scherzo, but it feels more like the other side of the same coin than a crime of disconnection. The fleet and frantic finale only serves to confirm a certain delightful totality borne of the concerto’s quick-change antics. Saint-Saëns was never shy in his opinions and he would become quite the conservative killjoy in his later years. In 1868, however, he was still the good-spirited man of the hour and the 2nd Concerto reflects his active and often witty mind. It remains his most popular.
THE WORLD – Liechtenstein disbanded her army and declared permanent neutrality in 1868. Other notable occurrences included the death of Siam’s King Rama IV, the beginning of Cuba’s ten-year war with Spain and the publication of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.
THE CONNECTION – The 2nd Concerto was performed most recently by the Utah Symphony in 2010. Claus Peter Flor was on the podium and Orli Shaham was soloist.