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Jessie Montgomery (1981-)
Jessie Montgomery is from Manhattan's Lower East Side, and growing up there in the 80s, she found herself residing in a bustling hub of artistic experimentation and community activism. It is perhaps inevitable, especially given her parents' occupations as musicians and theatre artists, that her music should therefore reflect such a period of vital social change with dynamic elements of story-telling and improvisation.
A graduate of the renowned Juilliard School, she is also a concert violinist as well as a composer. Since 1999 Montgomery has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organisation, which seeks to give opportunities particularly to young African-American and Latinx string players, and there she currently holds a post as both touring performer and composer-in-residence of the Sphinx Virtuosi, the organisation's premier ensemble. She also performs with many of her own ensembles as well as with the Indiana-based Silk Road Ensemble, an innovative group that perform cross-cultural works on traditional instruments from across the world.
Starburst was commissioned by the Sphinx Organisation. The piece is a perfect reflection of Montgomery's compositional style – it's a brief, sparkling skirmish of arguably most of her early-years influences; elements of modern jazz and film-like scoring combine with improvisatory styles and traditional song. She herself writes:
“[Starburst] is a play on imagery or rapidly changing musical colours. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst, “the rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in a galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly,” lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble that premiered the work, the Sphinx Virtuosi, and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind”.
[Notes by Chris Noble]
Divertimento in D
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart was famously a prodigy in his teenage years (and younger), and this is ably demonstrated by this Divertimento. Written when he was just 16 years old, it more than hints at some of the style and virtuosity that would become hallmarks of many of his more mature compositions – perhaps not least his most famous piece of this type, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Scored for string orchestra in four parts (with basses doubling celli an octave lower throughout), it is of a smaller scale than some of these later pieces, but still manages to fit three substantial movements within its running time of less than 15 minutes. The first movement (Allegro) sets us off clearly in D major, with a bold opening statement of the main melody above a fast heartbeat-style quaver rhythm. This sets the tone for the remainder of the movement, which follows broadly in sonata form, often with the violins carrying the tune in a virtuosic manner, but with regular contrapuntal interjections across the orchestra.
The second movement (Andante) demonstrates Mozart’s increasing mastery of slower movements, with the G major melody being rendered at different points in a single line, in thirds, in sixths, and in octaves with lower parts. This creates an ethereal effect in which the role of space is paramount – both within the texture, and in the rests within parts. The third movement (Presto) takes us back to D major, with six short chords leading into a typically boisterous main subject giving some of the inner parts the opportunity to show off their ability in a more virtuosic manner. A short development section briefly leads us through a range of keys before the recapitulation takes us headlong into a conclusion that takes us almost by surprise in how suddenly arrives – almost as though Mozart had just realised that he wanted to get his work finished as quickly as possible. But then, perhaps that’s not unusual for a 16-year old.
[Notes by Jeremy Dawson]
Serenade for Strings
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
1. Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo – Allegro Moderato
2. Valse: Moderato – Tempo di valse
3. Élégie: Larghetto elegiaco
4. Finale (Tema russo): Andante – Allegro con spirito
Composed in 1880 (the same year as the rather more bombastic 1812 Overture), this Serenade shows a somewhat different side to Tchaikovsky’s compositional style. While the reduced forces of a string orchestra mean a necessarily simpler approach in some ways, this four-movement work is still symphonic in scale in many ways.
It begins with a 36-bar introduction involving a declamatory, fanfare-like chordal motif that simultaneously belies much of the gentler fare that follows, and sets up its harmonic structure. The more substantial part of the first movement (which, as the name suggests, follows sonata form) was intended to pay homage to Mozart’s music, bringing today’s programme together. After a lyrical first subject in C major, the second subject (formed around repeated semiquavers) is notable for its use of a strong hemiola when the subject is restated – accents effectively turning some of the 6/8 bars into 3/4 to create a momentary sense of disorder. A return to the opening declamatory motif completes the movement.
Tchaikovsky is famous for his waltzes, especially those in his ballets and some of his symphonies, but the waltz in the second movement here is one of his best. Despite the laid-back feel, clever use of the five sections gives a sense of far more varied scoring than might be expected with strings only. Interjections including violins soaring in thirds, and in contrast cellos and basses treading nimbly through their lower ranges in octaves, mean that despite the brevity of the movement, it seems to pack a lot into around four minutes.
The third movement is the emotional heart of the piece. An opening lament makes use of contrary motion to great effect, hinting at the expanse of what is to come. A triplet-based pizzicato bed then underlies the statement of the main theme, first from violins, then from violas and cellos. As the movement grows in intensity, the triplet backdrop changes from pizzicato (plucked) to arco (bowed) and the passionate tune is reminiscent of many of Tchaikovsky’s most haunting melodies. A return of the opening lament precedes a conclusion marked by apparent uncertainty in the harmonic direction, before settling into a rising series of D major chords that finally die away when being played on string harmonics.
The final movement starts with a simple introduction that launches into a brisk, playful melody in C major which is again somewhat reminiscent of Mozart. A lyrical second subject in the contrasting key of E flat leads into a development that blends elements of that classical style with the harmonic development to which Tchaikovsky was more accustomed. As is often the case with sonata form, in the recapitulation the second subject is heard in the home key of C major, giving a sense of resolution to the movement. This is enhanced by a final section in which a restatement of the opening theme from the first movement incorporates the main theme from the final movement, tying the whole work together neatly.
[Notes by Jeremy Dawson]
Born in Gernika in the Basque Country of Spain, Jon Malaxetxebarria’s career as a conductor is now established mainly in Spain and in the United Kingdom.
In Spain he has conducted many ensembles such as the Orquesta Radio Televisión Española, the Basque Country Symphony Orchestra, Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, Navarra Symphony Orchestra, Oviedo Filarmonía, Orquesta Sinfónica de Extremadura, the Orfeón Pamplonés and the Malaga Philharmonic. Since 2016 he has been Music Director of the Basque Youth Orchestra.
In the UK he has conducted Manchester Camerata, Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, Crosby Symphony Orchestra, Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra, Hallam Sinfonia, North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra and the Derbyshire City & County Youth Orchestra. He has been Music Director of Solihull Symphony Orchestra since September 2013.
As a keen advocate of new music, Jon performed the world premiere of Simon Dobson’s Trombone Concerto with Peter Moore and the RNCM Brass Band, broadcast on BBC Radio 2. Following his studies at Roosevelt University, Chicago, with Dale Clevenger, in 2010 Jon moved to Manchester to study orchestral conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM).
Upon completion of his studies he was awarded the Mortimer-Furber Prize in Conducting, and in 2011 was appointed as conductor of the Junior RNCM. Jon is Senior Lecturer in Conducting at Leeds College of Music, a position he assumed in 2014.
Jon’s recent and future engagements include a live broadcast with the Orquesta Radio Televisión Española, a concert with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra at the Musikaste contemporary music festival, and his work as Assistant Conductor for two opera productions at the Liceu (Barcelona) and the Teatro Real (Madrid).