Friday, November 13, 2015

Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony

Not long after his 78th birthday, Jean Sibelius wrote to his son-in-law, “My second symphony is a confession of the soul.” What could he – or any other composer – mean by that?

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jean Sibelius with a performance of his great Symphony No. 2, usually considered a masterpiece, a work he was working on when he turned 36. He was just beginning to achieve an international reputation beyond his native Finland.

The program also includes Rossini's incredibly famous William Tell Overture and a recent work by an up-and-coming young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola which will be played by violinist Alexander Kerr, returning to the HSO, and violist Michael Strauss who will be joining their fellow Curtis alumnus Stuart Malina for their first performance of this work and our first chance to hear a work composed only eight years ago.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, and the pre-concert talk will be given an hour earlier by the orchestra's music director and conductor, Stuart Malina. (Don't forget to hang around after the concert for the Maestros' Talk-Back Q/A when he and guests from the concert will answer audience members' questions.

You can read more about the concert in David Dunkle's interview with Stuart in the Carlisle Sentinel here, and about the entire program in this previous post, which includes video clips of each complete work on the program.

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One of those commonplace things to say after hearing Sibelius' 2nd Symphony is that it's a depiction of the bleak Finnish landscape, its sound cold and forbidding like the Finnish winter, forgetting there could be any other type of landscape or season in Finland.

Rapallo, Italy
So I begin by pointing out here is where the 2nd Symphony came into being: it was on a visit to Rapallo in Sunny Italy in 1901 that Sibelius jotted down his first ideas to begin sketching what became the second movement, perhaps the bleakest sounds in the entire work. Perhaps, one might argue, he was homesick? Perhaps, another might respond, this was what music sounded like in Sibelius' soul?

After all, another might argue, it was a trip to Italy that produced one of Brahms' most light-hearted moments, the finale of his 2nd Piano Concerto. Why, then, was Sibelius' response so... dreary?

Kajanus & Sibelius, 1894
Sibelius was 35 years old when he began this new symphony in early 1901 – the previous year had not been an easy one. He had married Aino Järnefelt in 1892 and by the turn of the new century they had three daughters, but the youngest, Kirsti, born in 1898, died of typhoid fever in February, 1900, which sent Aino into a period of depression and Sibelius deeper into his drinking problem. Before this, his love of alcohol had been of a more “celebratory” nature, part of the partying lifestyle he had developed as a law student in Helsinki in his 20s. In the mid-1890s, it was part of his “Symposium,” the group that met at a Helsinki hotel cafe where discussions about art would last late into the night and be accompanied by vast quantities of alcohol. But now, after the death of his child, his drinking became darker and more dangerous.

That spring, his friend and fellow drinking buddy, the conductor Robert Kajanus, was taking his orchestra on a European tour of works by Finnish composers that would present 19 concerts in 13 cities, culminating at the Paris Exhibition. On the programs were several of Sibelius' works including his new 1st Symphony, revised after its premiere the previous year, along with the equally new and wildly popular Finlandia, two of the Lemminkainen Legends (including the Swan of Tuonela) written in 1895, and excerpts from the King Christian II Suite, written two years earlier for a friend's play. This would be the first time Sibelius' music would've been heard outside of Finland.

Swedish and Danish critics were enthusiastic, those in Berlin especially where one viewed him as “a composer of great talent, someone who knew how to express his elegiac feelings and pathos, but who went to extremes in his bursts of passion.” Another called him “a formidable talent.” Paris was less enthusiastic but given the successes particularly in Berlin, it was easier to take.

In October, a friend gave him money for a trip to Italy, suggesting it would do them good, so Sibelius took his family first to Berlin where they stayed till January but by that time, however, all of the money had spent and they hadn't even left for Italy. So he borrowed more money and soon arrived in the coastal town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera where he began work on the slow movement of a new symphony which eventually took precedence over a proposed work inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.

In the margins, he scratched out comments about the meeting of “Death with Don Juan,” a scene from the original legend comparable to the “Statue Scene” in Mozart's setting, Don Giovanni.

But soon his second daughter, 6-year-old Ruth, became ill with peritonitis and had a fever of 104°. She recovered but the family was grounded so she could convalesce. Sibelius traveled quickly to Rome where he jotted down themes in a notebook that would later be used in Pohjola's Daughter and Night Ride and Sunrise. Returning to his family, they went to Florence once Ruth was well enough to travel, then they returned home in May, stopping off in Prague where Sibelius met Antonin Dvořák.

But he was no sooner home than he was off again to Germany to conduct his music at a June festival in Heidelburg – again, to favorable reviews. Other conductors began performing his works elsewhere – music from King Christian II was the first music by Sibelius to be heard in England that fall.

Sibelius' home in 1901
In the autumn, once back in Finland, he resumed his work on the 2nd Symphony which he completed early the next year in time for him to conduct its March premiere.

A triumph, his newest work – regarded by one influential critic as “an absolute masterpiece, one of the few symphonic creations of our time that point in the same direction as the symphonies of Beethoven" – was viewed as a “heroic” symphony “imbued with a patriotic spirit” by Finns pessimistic over the state of Russian oppression.

(Keep in mind, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire since 1809 but only recently had the Russians begun to censor nationalistic views in what was called the “Russification of Finland” – independence would not come until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and that, only after a brief but fierce civil war.)

Though Sibelius denied he wrote the symphony in support of nationalism as any kind of outwardly patriotic statement (don't forget, his Finlandia had been an overtly patriotic work written only three years earlier: what would patriotic Finns hope for?) or that he wrote it inspired by his own dark drama ultimately overcoming Fate (if not Beethoven's 3rd, why not Beethoven's 5th?), he did write that one comment years later in which, looking back on his career over a distance of four decades, he described the symphony as “a confession of the soul.”

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In the usual scheme of things, we think of Classical Music Composers as child prodigies like Mozart or Mendelssohn or who, like Schubert, died young. Remembering that Sibelius completed his 2nd Symphony when he was 36, remember that at 36 Schubert had already been dead five years and Mozart, one; Mendelssohn would die at 38. Let's face it, judging from the 19th Century, becoming a composer was not a guarantee of longevity.

Sibelius, 1923 at 57
But Sibelius, born on Dec. 8th, 1865, died on Sept. 20th, 1957, at the age of 91. The only thing was, he had essentially stopped composing around the time he was in his early-60s, living an almost 30 more years as fans waited and hoped for new pieces from a composer who'd risen to become one of the most popular living composers – and then, without anything new to show, fallen quietly into a kind of old-fashioned oblivion.

To many younger musicians today, Sibelius is a music notation software on their computer developed by the Finns (actually, twins Ben and Jonathan Finn who were British students) in the mid-1980s.

But there was a time when Sibelius ruled the concert halls of Europe, especially England, and America. In the fall of 1920 when Sibelius was 54, the Eastman School of Music offered him a professorship which he considered for a long time before turning them down. He had already been to America as part of Yale's commission of a tone-poem that eventually became known as The Oceanides, premiered at Yale's summer music festival in Norfolk in 1914. Sibelius made the ocean journey, finishing the work during the voyage, then stayed to visit Niagara Falls, receiving during his tour an honorary doctorate from Yale, and meeting various American composers (as well as a former President, Howard Taft).

He made plans to return the following year for an extensive American tour which, he wrote home, would solve his financial problems. Unfortunately, by the time he returned from this trip, World War I had already begun which cut him off not only from his American plans but from his Berlin publisher and from the rest of the world.

Then, after the 1930s, when it became clear he was no longer producing new works – the long awaited 8th Symphony appears only to have been a myth, its near-completion and possible premiere a constant tease – his star began to fade. In 1938, the writer Theodore Adorno attacked Sibelius, writing, “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg.” And in 1955, on the occasion of the composer's 90th birthday, French composer and conductor René Liebowitz called Sibelius “the worst composer in the world.”

Sibelius' response, typical of any embattled artist, was to tell his friends not to pay attention to the critics, adding that no one ever raised a statue to a critic.

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Today, Sibelius has his champions and his detractors. It is curious, especially concerning how modern music evolved in the early-20th Century. Sibelius' style is hardly traditional – the 4th Symphony is undoubtedly one of the most austere works by a “romanticist” ever written – but he is not ground-breaking in the sense of Claude Debussy or Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps part of that is because of his Finnish roots, outside the usual Western European circuit.

He is not a folklorist despite his reliance on ancient tales from the Kalevala that appear in The Swan of Tuonela of the Lemminkainen Legends or his early symphonic work, Kullervo. His musical language is not inspired by folk music though, for a time, he studied the “ancient runes” of Old Finland and incorporated some of them in his early music (the “Karelia” Suite, for instance) but otherwise, however much it might have shaped his melodies, it had little influence on his style.

Near Sibelius' birthplace
He is best known for seven abstract symphonies and his programmatic tone-poems ranging from Finlandia to Pohjola's Daughter to Tapiola, again, bristling with Nordic references. If anything, much of his music is shaped by the Finnish landscape: Nature was always one of his major influences and one of the typical responses by Westerners is to compare his music to Finland's “bleak wintry landscapes.”

In further posts to celebrate the 150th Anniversary, I'll summarize his biography – check back here for the link – but for now, I'd like to conclude with some quotes from Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page's 1996 article for the Washington Post about coming to terms with Sibelius at the end of the 20th Century:

“There are two things to be said straightaway about Sibelius. First, he is terribly uneven (much of his chamber music, a lot of his songs and most of his piano music might have been churned out by a second-rate salon composer from the 19th century on an off afternoon). Second, at his very best, he is often weird.

“For example, the Symphony No. 6 (1923) is one of the century's most curious masterpieces – serene, beatific, almost Mozartean in its clarity and grace, suffused with warm winter light. It is rarely played, has little to do with anything else Sibelius ever composed (what to make of the second movement, that long series of musical question marks?), and its interpreters have a habit of trying to turn it into Tchaikovsky or the more traditionally "romantic" Sibelius Symphony No. 5 or something else that they might recognize – trying, in other words, to make it fit into a pattern. And it doesn't fit – which is not at all to say it doesn't work.”

His music, for all its epic grandeur at times – thinking of the 2nd and 5th Symphonies – is also full of dramatic silences, that silence which is a significant part of Nature.

Page goes on to say, “If silence can be defined as an absence of sound, it may be helpful for the novice, when coming to Sibelius, to consider his music a temporary respite from quietude. The image of Sibelius as a brooding poet of the spare, near-motionless, unpeopled North is fairly hackneyed by now, but it is no less true for all that.”

- Dick Strawser

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The portrait of Kajanus & Sibelius is a detail from Akseli Gallen-Kallala's painting depicting the "Symposium" in 1894 which also features the artist and the (face-down) composer-conductor, Oskar Merikanto.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November Masterworks: An Overture, a Concerto & a Symphony, Oh My!

It's time for the Harrisburg Symphony's November Masterworks program this weekend and it includes three works – Rossini's Overture to William Tell, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by Jonathan Leshnoff (his Starburst had been performed here a few seasons ago), and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Jean Sibelius in honor of the composer's 150th Anniversary.

The concerts are at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – and the Music Director and conductor, Stuart Malina, will be giving the Pre-Concert Talk an hour before each performance.

November Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

A typical symphonic program consists of an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. Maybe it's a short and lively piece for an opener, not necessarily an overture (a curtain-raiser), or, depending on its size and scope, maybe the concerto will close the concert instead. And instead of a symphony, maybe it's a large-scale orchestral work that's not actually a “symphony.” But however you slice it, it's an old, tried-and-true formula concert-goers are used to, and if the formula works, why not use it?

This weekend's program opens with perhaps one of the most familiar overtures in the repertoire – at least, the ending is, thanks to its being an old-time TV show's theme-song. It's the overture to the last opera Gioacchino Rossini composed, based on the story of the Swiss patriot and folk-hero, William Tell. And while opera overtures typically combine some of the best themes from the opera as a kind of preview (or maybe paint the scene for the curtain raising), this one is a little four-movement tone-poem complete in itself, each part famous on its own.

Rossini when writing "William Tell"
It opens with an evocation of dawn in the Swiss Alps, the setting for the opera: a solo cello is answered by a choir of four other cellos and double basses. This is interrupted by the storm – one of the most famous in classical music – which, after reaching a tremendous climax, gradually subsides into a pastoral scene beginning with a shepherd's call played on the English horn answered by flute and other woodwinds. Both these sections are beloved of cartoons in need of descriptive music for storms and that wonderful sense of relief after a storm.

Then comes the famous finale, a galop in more ways than one. Usually referred to as “The March of Swiss Soldiers,” it comes from the opera's final act, recounting the victory of the Swiss army, liberating their land from Austrian repression. Speaking of cartoons – or films in general – this music is often used to represent galloping horses, the timely arrival of the hero or, especially, the cavalry (though there is no cavalry or even horses in the opera itself). It has become so famous from 1950s TV (and before that, radio), it has been said “an 'intellectual' is someone who can hear Rossini's William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger.” (There – I said it...)

And all of this, first heard in 1829.

Here's a more recent performance of the overture with Riccardo Muti conducting the Opera Orchestra of La Scala, Milan – in this case, from a DVD of the complete opera where the orchestra is in the pit.

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Instead of following along in “concert order,” I'm going to skip ahead to the Big Symphony that concludes the program, in this case Jean Sibelius' 2nd Symphony.

Next month will be the official 150th Anniversary of the birth of the great Finnish composer, born in 1865. This symphony was written at the start of the 20th Century, begun in 1901 and premiered the following year.

It's a great symphony by a great symphonist. Sibelius was one of those composers who specialized in symphonies though he only completed seven and of those, perhaps three or four are performed with any regularity. The 2nd is probably his most popular, though the 5th cannot be far behind.

Curiously, the program opens with the overture to Rossini's last opera, an overture that's certainly one of his most popular works but few people – at least in this country – would ever have had the chance to see the opera. He completed the opera in 1829 and then, basically, retired from composing despite the fact he died almost 40 years later. Why did he just stop composing? Especially after having written such a triumphant success as this?

Sibelius is another composer who actually retired from composing and, curiously, his last major work after his 7th Symphony, the tone-poem Tapiola (speaking of musical storms!) was written in 1926, almost a hundred years after Rossini quit composing. By the time he died in 1957 at the age of 91, not having published anything for 30 years, his reputation as a great composer of the 20th Century had declined considerably.

Creativity moves in mysterious ways... Both stories probably deal more with their lack of comfort with the rest of the music world going on around them and their concern about fitting in (such doubts also plagued Rachmaninoff, among others) than with being "written out" or not having anything to say.

But sometimes, the creative spark just dies for whatever reason: it's something all composers fear.

Sibelius in 1907
His 2nd Symphony, however, comes just as his career was taking off – he had just started receiving international recognition after his 1st Symphony was performed on a European tour and his 2nd Symphony, when it was played in Berlin in 1905, marked his arrival as “a composer to watch.”

If William Tell's Switzerland was under the occupation of Austria in the 15th Century, Sibelius' Finland was a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire and an independent Finland didn't exist until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and Finland, after flirting with a monarchy like its fellow northern countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, decided on becoming a Republic in 1919. But that's after this symphony was composed.

It is, however, important to keep this in mind because Sibelius' reputation at home was based on the hymn-like finale he composed for a series of six “historical scenes” for a press celebration in 1899 depicting various elements of Finland's largely sad history. This “celebration” was a covert protest against the increasing censorship of the Russian occupiers. The final movement, called “Finland Awakes!” became such an immediate hit with its hymn-tune – an original theme, by the way – that the Russian authorities forbid its performance, so it was usually performed in a variety of arrangements under a variety of titles like “Happy Feelings,” “Spring Awakes” or “Choral March.” It would eventually become the song of the patriotic resistance and then the unofficial National Anthem.

Also in 1899, Sibelius composed his 1st Symphony. His 2nd followed by about two years.

Many commentators remark on the “pastoral quality” of the opening, the ensuing storminess and tension and, of course, the epic finale with its ultimate triumph, even if it might be overwhelmed by underwelling gloom before it reaches its conclusion.

It is, certainly, a great Romantic symphony in the 19th Century tradition with an original and immediately identifiable voice even if it does not use Finnish folk-songs as a basis of its thematic language (what can be more folk-like than that opening theme in the winds?).

That didn't keep Finns from hearing it as “The Symphony of Finnish Independence” or, in the long run, as their “Heroic” Symphony. It certainly has elements of a heroic nature in it, but there's no indication that was the composer's intent.

While it quickly established Sibelius as a leading composer around the world, it has been recorded many times (in many ways). But in this recording, a modern Finnish conductor, Osmo Vänskä, conducts a Finnish orchestra, the Lahti Symphony and while I normally like to post performances where you can actually watch the orchestra, this performance was too good to pass up just because it lacks originality in its graphic presentation.

In four movements, it opens with an Allegretto (a moderate tempo); the second movement, Andante, ma rubato (a flexible moderately slow tempo – a “walking” tempo, technically) begins around 9:24; the scherzo, Vivacissimo (very fast), begins around 23:54; and the finale, Allegro moderato (a moderately fast tempo) begins around 29:52. This entire performance takes about 45 minutes.

You can read more biographical background about the composer and his symphony in this post, Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony, here. There will be a biographical summary of the composer's life which I will post in early December.

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Jonathan Leshnoff
In between these two giants is a young composer whose career is on the rise. Jonathan Leshnoff's Starburst was played at the HSO concert in May, 2012 (you can read about it, here).

Stuart Malina was telling me before the 2011-2012 season had been announced how excited he'd been when he first heard Leshnoff's music.

Stuart felt Leshnoff’s music is in much the same vein as Jennifer Higdon’s – direct and appealing (without pandering). Pointing out that Higdon (whose Blue Cathedral and "Percussion Concerto" were performed here to considerable popular acclaim) and Kevin Puts (whose 2nd Symphony was well received here a few years ago) have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music since then – and don't forget Higdon's Grammy – he expects similar good things to be happening in Leshnoff’s career. “It’s always nice to know you’re backing a winning horse!”

And things are clearly going well for Leshnoff, a Baltimore-based composer teaching at Towson University. He'll have a new Clarinet Concerto premiered by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 2016; an oratorio, Zhohar, premiered by the Atlanta Symphony the same week (now, how can even the greatest composer be in two places at once!?); a new Violin Concerto for Gil Shaham to be premiered in the spring of 2016 also; his 2nd Symphony is being premiered in Atlanta this month and next May, his 3rd Symphony is being premiered in Kansas City.

Definitely a busy time for composer Leshnoff – and the kind of success so far that most composers can only dream of!

His “Double Concerto” for Violin and Viola will be performed here by violinist Alexander Kerr and violist Michael Strauss. The title brings to mind a similar kind of work by Brahms (for Violin and Cello) and the instrumentation reminds one of the Symphonie concertante by Mozart for Violin and Viola.

It was composed in 2007 and has been recorded on the Naxos label.

Here is a complete performance of the concerto (again, a less than imaginative YouTube graphic) with violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Roberto Diaz and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Delta David Gier in 2010.

Here are some reviews of the Double Concerto:

“This luscious concerto ended far too soon, with its haunting four-note theme still expanding within my brain... Leshnoff’s concerto was complexly layered, though never dull. The interplay between brass and strings was colorful, even as the two soloists kept attention focused on their technical wizardry.

“In the power of the conclusion, that memorable four-note theme emerged victorious, assuring us that at least some new symphonic music will have a confident future.”
Samuel Black, Duluth News Tribune, May 5, 2008

“Saturday night, however, a new concerto from the exceptional composer Jonathan Leshnoff found a deservedly warm welcome at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre... His ‘Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra’, composed last year, is an elegant creation, beautifully rendered by the orchestra and the two outstanding soloists... Leshnoff’s full embrace of harmony grants accessibility without sacrificing depth or musicality. It is complex but not complicated, exploring a range of emotions... IRIS is one of five organizations that commissioned the work and the orchestra plans more performances from this terrific composer.”
Jon W. Sparks, The Commercial Appeal, March 31, 2008

We'll see how the Patriot-News and the Carlisle Sentinel like it!

- Dick Strawser

Friday, October 2, 2015

October Masterworks: Morton Gould Meets Ernest Chausson

This weekend's concerts, opening the new season with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony, features one very popular work – the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn Competition finalist Di Wu – and two relatively unknown symphonies, the 2nd “American Symphonette” by the very American composer Morton Gould from 1938 and the only symphony by a French romanticist from 1890, Ernest Chausson.

The performances are at the Forum Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert and a post-concert talk-back Q/A immediately afterward.

You can read more about the Tchaikovsky – and see an amazing performance with Van Cliburn recorded in Moscow in 1962 – in this previous post.

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In the case of the program's first piece, it's probably not quite accurate to say “relatively unknown” as I imagine a number of heads will start bopping along once the second movement starts and then, after it ends all too soon, adding a light chuckle.

Morton Gould, 1939
Before the term “cross-over” existed, Morton Gould was combining elements of jazz and the Big Band music of the '20s and '30s into his music that was meant to appeal to both classical and pop music lovers, working as a conductor and arranger at WOR Mutual Radio in New York City. A prodigy whose first published work was a waltz written when he was 6 (I suspect the publisher gave it the title “Just Six”), Gould was 19 when he became a staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall (so named because one of the building's tenants was the Radio Corporation of America) which opened to the public in 1932 with a lavish presentation that included Ray Bolger and Martha Graham, speaking of cross-over. Unfortunately, the production was not a success – too long, with some of the acts “lost in the cavernous hall” which sat nearly 6,000 people. Still, two weeks later, the theater found its successful formula – a film with a live-stage spectacle (complete with the already legendary Rockettes, previously known as the Roxyettes from their stay at the Roxy Theater).

Now, that may seem like a side-bar to a post about this weekend's concert, but consider this fact: Morton Gould composed a piece he called his “American Symphonette” (No. 2, to be exact) in 1938 (though his own website's biography lists it for 1932). At the time, he was working in radio and designed four such “symphonettes” to fit the on-air format with a style that could be appealing to “pop” and “serious” music lovers. Think back to those early days of cross-over at the Radio City Music Hall... and the Rockettes.

Now, in 1925, someone came up with the term “dinette” to indicate a small dining area for informal meals just off the kitchen, separate from the more formal “dining room” with its larger scale, more “serious” furniture. Suddenly, American homes were awash in smaller-than-usual rooms like kitchenettes, even laundrettes (probably for the bachelors of New York) as a way of conserving space. (I suspect we were stuck with the less imaginative half-bath or "powder room" because toilette already meant something else.)

And here was Morton Gould, former child prodigy, being a staff pianist living in New York City, surrounded by the dancing feet and long-legged kicks of the Rockettes writing what a European composer would've called a “sinfonietta.” The idea of a “small symphony” called a symphonette sounded more American even with that French -ette tacked on.

The second movement would go on to become Gould's best-known and most often performed work. He called it a “Pavanne,” not a Pavane, adding the second 'n' ostensibly to distinguish it from Ravel's popular “Pavane for a Dead Princess” but also, as he later explained, because he was concerned the typical listener, seeing the unfamiliar European term, would pronounce it “puh-VAIN,” rhyming with “Main.”

Technically, a pavane is a “stately dance for couples in a courtly procession with music in slow duple time” dating back to the Renaissance.

If you're already familiar with Gould's “Pavanne,” his sense of the dance sounds more saucy than stately and is by no means “slow.” Here's is the composer himself (complete with his own personal orchestra) conducting his own “light orchestra” arrangement of it, recorded in 1942.

Definitely more of an American saunter than a staid Old-World procession – like you're swinging your hips down Broadway.

In this more recent recording with the Albany Symphony conducted by David Allen Miller, it sounds a little more... well, “pavanny.”

As well known as this jazzy little dance became in the '40s, later inspiring numerous jazz legends like John Coultrane and Dizzy Gillespie, there are still two other movements to Gould's little American symphony: while the first movement is marked “Moderately Fast,” the last is “Very Fast – Racy.” How American is that?

If Morton Gould is new to you – beyond his “Pavanne” and his arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” in his American Salute – you should check out another of his “little symphonies,” the Latin-American Symphonette, the very different ballet for Agnes deMille based on the story of Lizzie Borden, Fall River Legend, as well as his march-filled “West Point” Symphony for Wind Ensemble.

I wish I could locate a link for his 1979 “Burchfield Gallery,” which I've always admired, but can find nothing of it on-line.

Morton Gould
More than “just a cross-over composer,” and once described as a “star of the classical world who got his start in vaudeville,” Gould won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Stringmusic” in 1995; won a Grammy for conducting a recording of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 1 in 1966 (he would receive 12 Grammy nominations during his career plus a lifetime achievement award); was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1994; and served as president of ASCAP for 8 years lobbying for the intellectual rights of performing artists as the internet was becoming a force that would greatly impact ASCAP's members. In 1978, he made some of the first records using the new digital recording technology.

During the witch hunts of the McCarthy Era, Gould was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee which would get another quintessential American composer, Aaron Copland, in political hot water along with many other public figures. Even though he declined, turning down subsequent potential commissions and recording contracts in return for his testimony, he was soon moved “from the 'ask' list to the 'black' list.”

Seems a far cry from the jaunty music on this weekend's program...

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While Morton Gould wrote four symphonettes as well as four symphonies, Ernest Chausson wrote only one symphony, a grand three-movement work in the French late-19th Century tradition, inspired by his teacher Cesar Franck's lone symphony. In fact it was in the summer after hearing Franck's new symphony that Chausson decided to try writing his own.

It's true that Chausson did not write many works – only 39 opus numbers in his catalogue, mostly because he'd gotten a fairly late start as a composer, not writing his first work until he was 22 – unlike Morton Gould's waltz at 6 – and because he was so painstaking with each work, concerned about claims of amateurism since his financial situation meant he didn't need to work for a living. Plus he also died young, killed in a freak bicycling accident at the age of 44, losing control of his bike on a hill and slamming into a wall. By the time Mozart was 22, he had already composed his 31st Symphony and Schubert, at 22, had completed his “Trout” Quintet, the 667th individual work in his catalogue. On the other hand, Chausson also outlived both Mozart (who died at 35) and Schubert (who died at 31) but just barely.

Ernest Chausson, c.1885
As many people will raise their hands when asked “Have you ever heard Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto before,” there probably won't be too many people at the Forum who will have had a chance to hear Chausson's Symphony live before. Though I'd heard the piece through recordings since I was a college student, I've never heard it live, unlike the symphony that inspired it, Franck's D Minor Symphony, which was one of those works that seemed to haunt me on symphony programs wherever I went, hearing it live for the first time in 1964 with the Harrisburg Symphony under Edwin McArthur: it had been performed four times that decade; ten times in 35 years or basically once every 3½ seasons. I must have heard it four times in the two years I lived in New York City on the programs of touring orchestras coming to Carnegie Hall.

The last time it was performed by the Harrisburg Symphony, however, was under Stuart Malina just last season but then, thanks to an unexpected snow storm, it was heard by only a brave few... That was one reason why I regarded the potential appearance of a hurricane during this first concert weekend with some concern.

(You can read more about Franck's Symphony from my blog-post for last season's February performance with the HSO, here.)

Chausson's music appeared only four times on HSO programs between 1930 and 1990, according to my program archives – and that was his most popular work, if anything of his is “frequently performed,” the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra which former concertmaster Odin Rathnam performed with the HSO more recently in 2000 as part of then-conductor-candidate Stuart Malina's “audition concert.”

Curiously, I've heard Chausson's next most popular piece, the Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet four times in my life since 1975, three of them here in Harrisburg, one of them again with Odin Rathnam as part of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic in a very hot, very crowded mill.

So, for no other reason, I am looking forward to hearing Chausson's Symphony live for the first time.

Like the Franck that inspired it, Chausson's is a three-movement work using what was a common fingerprint of late-19th Century French style, called the “cyclical form” though it's not really a form. It means themes from earlier parts of a large-scale work are brought back near the end to tie the whole thing together. Not that this is a necessarily French invention – Beethoven used it several times, most notably in his 5th and 9th Symphonies; Bruckner employed it frequently in his symphonies because, hey, Beethoven had used it in his 9th.

Turns out there are few videos of Chausson's Symphony on YouTube as well, but fortunately this one conducted by French master Jean Fournet, here with the NHK Symphony of Japan, would be an excellent introduction if you've never heard it at all.

The first movement opens with a lengthy slow introduction setting up the lively main part of the movement (just as the Franck did):

The second movement is the slow movement, perhaps one of Chausson's most poignant if not outright tragic movements. Like the Franck Symphony, there is also a role for the English Horn though not as pronounced, doubling a solo cello.

The finale gets off to a robust start followed by a chorale-like second theme before climaxing with a majestic sweep that gradually transcends into an unexpectedly reflective conclusion, harking back one more time to the 1st movement's introduction.

After the first rehearsal Thursday night, HSO Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge posted on my Facebook page, "it sounds so huge and lush!! It won't disappoint!"

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When Ernest Chausson arrived at the Paris Conservatoire in 1879 at the age of 24, one of his teachers was Cesar Franck whose own only symphony wasn't premiered until 1889. By then, Franck was hoping to ride his new-found success after a fitful and often disappointing career into a new style-period. Several recent works, going back to the Piano Quintet of 1879 and including the Symphonic Variations for Piano & Orchestra, Psyché for chorus and orchestra, the Violin Sonata, the Symphony and now a new String Quartet he had just completed, pointed toward a new phase in his creative accomplishments when he died from what might have been complications following an accident when his cab was hit by a trolley in July of 1890: he died about four months later at the age of 67.

Ten years later, Franck's student Chausson, a hale and hearty 44-year-old, died while riding his bicycle one spring afternoon when he too was just beginning to realize new directions toward what might be called his “mature style” given the new confidence of his Symphony, the Concert, Poeme and several recent chamber works. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Chausson is often described as a bridge between the French Romanticism of Franck and the next generation of composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. He had been influenced by Wagner's music but mostly the sensuous music for Kundry in Wagner's final opera, Parsifal (Chausson and his wife spent part of their honeymoon at Bayreuth so the composer could hear its premiere).

Chausson turns pages for Debussy
This familiar photograph could have been taken at Chausson's home where he held frequent salons with guests from every artistic walk in Paris, painters, authors, performers and composers. Here, it is Chausson turning pages for a young Claude Debussy at the piano as other guests listen in.

According to the Grove Dictionary, near the end of his life he’d begun to apply “the rule which corrects emotion... to achieve that supreme [unflagging effort] that renders the thought loftier, the image clearer,” combining in some context a balance between form and content, structure and emotion, classical and romantic, the sort of quest of artists who begin dealing with more mature issues rather than just purely creative ones.

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In his program notes for the Chausson, Dr. Richard Rodda includes quotes from letters I've not seen before which the composer wrote to his brother-in-law (who had suggested he should try his hand at a symphony if he was so impressed by his teacher's): it was during the summer he worked on his new symphony and they give us an interesting insight not only into the creative process in general but how it goes when a composer lacks a certain self-confidence. It's not just dashing it off in fits of inspiration.

After settling in the coastal town of St. Jean-de-Luz just north of the Spanish border in the Basque region of France, a popular resort much loved in the next generation by Maurice Ravel, Chausson picked up the sketches he had begun in Paris for the first movement.

“Your confounded Symphony is throwing me into a fine state indeed. I have at last finished the Andante, or nearly so, but by a difficult means. I went through a torture that you cannot imagine in order to write the middle section with a phrase I did not like but whose general aspect fitted the movement. Then I played the whole thing over, and I saw very clearly that the middle section was not only detestable, which does not amaze me, but also perfectly useless. I shall simply have to cut it out, make a skillful bridge, if I can, and smooth out the ending. You will have made me spend a terrible time. Pray that I find something good for the finale; otherwise I shall insult you by letters, by telegrams, any way I can.”

The finale did not go smoothly, either.

“I have been working like a slave and I am still stuck on one measure! I return to my manuscript as to a vice. I can think of nothing but that one measure! I loathe getting up in the morning, thinking of the frightful day I am going to spend. Most horrible of all, what I am about to write is very good. No doubt about it.... I have an idea, but just can’t write it down. I can’t continue this sort of life.”

He decided to take a break – first, a day-trip to a near-by town, the site where the events of one of the great medieval poems, The Song of Roland, took place. After his return, he “threw himself into” studying Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. Having cleared his head, the finale gradually “revealed itself” (as inspiration tends to work) and he completed the full score early the following year.

The work was not a success at its premiere the next year, though that could be partly the fault of Chausson's conducting. Six years later, Paris audiences revised their response after hearing it played by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the legendary Artur Nikisch, now regarding it as “Chausson's masterpiece.”

Not quite two years later, Chausson had that fateful outing with a bicycle on a country road, leaving several works incomplete at his writing desk, including plans for a second symphony.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, September 28, 2015

Opening the Season: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto with Di Wu

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony and conductor Stuart Malina open the new season with a masterworks concert that includes a well-known favorite – the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with pianist Di Wu – an almost unknown but delightfully tuneful jazz-classical cross-over hit from the 1930s by Morton Gould – his “American Symphonette No. 2” with its once very well-known “Pavanne” which many listeners might recognize even if they don't know the piece – and a grand symphony by a late-Romantic French master – Ernest Chausson's only symphony, in fact – which few people in the audience may have had many opportunities to hear live.

The Saturday night concert begins at 8:00; the Sunday afternoon concert, at 3:00. There's a pre-concert talk, as usual, an hour before each performance with a post-concert Q/A “Talk Back” session with Stuart and a guest or two (perhaps the soloist or a member of the orchestra). 

Here is Di Wu playing Franz Liszt's transcription of Gounod's "Waltz from Faust," one of her performances at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009.

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Several seasons ago, Stuart Malina mentioned, when faced with conducting a ubiquitous favorite like Beethoven's 5th again, a quote he'd heard from conductor Robert Shaw who said something to the effect that every time you perform a work like Beethoven's 5th there's always somebody who is hearing it for the first time – and somebody who is hearing it for the last time.

Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto is just such a work.

I'm sure there will be people in this weekend's concert audience who've never heard the whole piece before, live or otherwise – beyond its famous opening – and who knows who in the audience we may lose between then and the next time Tchaikovsky's concerto will be performed?

Our soloist for the first concert of the New Season is Di Wu who appeared here a few seasons ago to play another concert favorite, the Grieg Piano Concerto.

And since she was a finalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, founded by the great American pianist who won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the Cold War and who was even treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City when he returned – when was the last time a classical musician received a tribute like that? – it seems appropriate to include here a video of the complete concerto recorded from Cliburn's return to Moscow in 1962, again with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic.

And yes, that is Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev smiling and applauding at the concert's conclusion. In 1958, when the judges had decided on Cliburn as the winner, they felt compelled to ask Krushchev if they could award the first prize of this competition – designed to demonstrate Soviet prowess in the arts the year after they'd launched Sputnik – to an American. Krushchev is reported to have asked “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!”

Incidentally, Cliburn performed two great Russian concertos during that competition. The other was Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, a work you can hear when the HSO concludes the 2015-2016 season with Ann Schein in May.

While it's difficult for me to imagine a better performance than Cliburn's, for those of you who might prefer a more “modern” recording of the Tchaikovsky, here is a 2001 Van Cliburn Competition winner born in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, Stanislav Iudenich, with James Conlon conducting the Fort Worth Symphony. This performance is from the actual competition final round, not just a live concert performance (talk about pressure). That year, Iudenich shared the Gold with another Russian pianist, Olga Kern who, incidentally, played the Rachmaninoff 3rd in her concerto competition final.

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But what makes a popular hit like the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto?

Since it's called the 1st, clearly there must be at least a 2nd, and there's also a 3rd, but since these are little known and rarely heard, it's also clear Tchaikovsky did not have the same luck with the public with these two later works.

Here are some early reviews of one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved works, beginning with the world premiere, Hans von Bülow, the soloist, which took place, of all places, in Boston in October 1875.

“This elaborate work is, in general, as difficult for popular apprehension as the name of the composer... There are long stretches of what seems, on the first hearing at least, formless void, sprinkled only with tinklings of the piano and snatchy obbligatos from all the various wind and string instruments.” – Boston, Evening Transcript, October 25th, 1875.

“Tchaikovsky is unmistakably a disciple of the 'new school' and his work is strongly tinged with the wildness and quaintness of the music of the North. Taken as a whole, his Piano Concerto appeared chiefly as a novelty. It would not soon supplant the massive production of Beethoven, or even the fiery compositions of Liszt, Raff, and Rubinstein.” – Boston Journal, October 25th, 1875.

“This extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian concerto is the composition of Peter Tchaikovsky... We had the wild Coassack fire and impetus without stint, extremely brilliant and exciting, but could we ever learn to love such music?” – Dwight's Journal of Music, published in November, 1875.

At it's first performance in Russia, a concert in St. Petersburg the following month, the critic of Novoye Vremya was more succinct. “Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.”

Tchaikovsky's said of that same Petersburg performance pianist Gustav Kross had reduced his concerto to “an atrocious cacophony.”

It should also be mentioned that, the Boston critics aside, the audience at that world premiere cheered the concerto enough that the finale had to be encored! George Whitefield Chadwick, a leading composer in Boston, wrote the performance was not well rehearsed and at one point, when the trombones came in early during a passage in the middle of the first movement, the soloist could clearly be heard singing out “the brass may go to hell.”

Anyway, just a few things to keep in mind when you hear a new piece for the first time...

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You can read more about the other works on the program in a subsequent post on this blog.

Over the summer, I was asked to read and review a new book by English author Sheila Seymour, a novel about Tchaikovsky called Sons of Janus. You can read that review, here.

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Tchaikovsky, Early 1875
Tchaikovsky's concerto, which he worked on between November, 1874, and February, 1875, was also not a hit with the composer's own former teacher, mentor and, at the time, boss.

Tchaikovsky, who had always wanted to be a musician though when he was growing up there were no music schools in Russia where he could study, had finally graduated from the recently formed St. Petersburg Conservatory founded by pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein who then sent his younger brother Nikolai (also a pianist and composer) off to Moscow to open a branch there along with Tchaikovsky who would teach theory and composition, though he was just out of school himself, totally inexperienced and not yet successful. 

So far, he had composed a small number of works but the only ones that endure are the song “None but the Lonely Heart” (rarely heard today, but once another ubiquitous favorite); his 2nd Symphony (later to be eclipsed by the popularity – and comparative greatness – of his 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies); the original version of his Romeo & Juliet though we know it by the 3rd version rewritten 11 years later; and the 1st String Quartet but only because its slow movement became popular as the Andante cantabile.

If you look at the published opus numbers, it would look like the ballet Swan Lake pre-dates the concerto, also, but he didn't begin composing it until after he had completed the concerto. Arguably one of the great ballets in the repertoire, it, too, by the way, was a complete failure at its premiere.

Nikolai Rubinstein
So here's a 34-year-old composer, just finished school (finally, after having finished a law degree and worked for a few years as a law clerk), who hands his teacher a big piano concerto. It was Christmas Eve and Tchaikovsky sat down and played through the first movement for Nikolai Rubinstein – nothing – and then he played through the remaining two movements – still nothing.

And then all hell broke loose.

“It turned out,” Tchaikovsky wrote years later to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck, “that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. 'Here, for instance, this—now what's all that?' (he caricatured my music on the piano) 'And this? How can anyone…' etc., etc.”

He continued, “I was not only astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition, and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are delivered so harshly and unfriendlily [sic]. I need and shall always need friendly criticism, but there was nothing resembling friendly criticism. It was indiscriminate, determined censure, delivered in such a way as to wound me to the quick. I left the room without a word and went upstairs. In my agitation and rage I could not say a thing. Presently R[ubinstein] enjoined me, and seeing how upset I was he asked me into one of the distant rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. 'I shall not alter a single note,' I answered, 'I shall publish the work exactly as it is!' This I did.”

Hoping that Nikolai Rubinstein would premiere the work, instead (somehow) he convinced the German conductor and pianist, Hans von Bülow, a friend and champion of Brahms (who at the time had not completed his 1st Symphony), to take on the first performances even though he quickly dropped it from his repertoire.

But by the Moscow performance in November of that same year, Nikolai Rubinstein had changed his mind about the piece and, even though Tchaikovsky's own student Sergei Taneyev was the soloist, Rubinstein conducted the performance. Later, he would perform the work frequently as soloist, especially on his European tours.

Regardless of the composer's reaction to Rubinstein's suggestions – most of which were about the piano-writing or technical issues of “balance” between soloist and orchestra, as well as concern about the famous Introduction being in “the wrong key” and, beautiful as that theme is, never being heard from again – Tchaikovsky did make slight revisions on three subsequent occasions: in 1876, after a German pianist had given the London premiere; when the work was finally published in 1879, following advice from the Russian pianist Alexander Siloti, one of his own students (who later taught Rachmaninoff); and finally a few more simplifications and adjustments made in 1890, fifteen years after the premiere, the edition we usually hear today.

In the five years after showing his piano concerto to Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky then composed Swan Lake, the opera Eugene Onyegin, the “Rococo Variations” for cello and orchestra, the Violin Concerto, the 4th Symphony and The 1812 Overture.

You could say he was on a roll.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Season Preview - Masterworks 2015-2016

Since Labor Day has passed and the new school year is well underway, now it's time to get ready for the New Season.

Here's Maestro Stuart Malina to give you a quick preview of all seven of the Masterworks Concerts for the 2015-2016 Season.

If you haven't already purchased tickets for the new season and with tickets to individual concerts now available, you can purchase multiple tickets for any concerts you'd want to attend by Saturday September 26th and save up to 15% – or you can still subscribe to the entire series and save up to 30%. To order on-line, click here - to order tickets for individual concerts of your choice, select each specific concert in the list.

Also a word about our Musical Chairs program for families with K-12 students: You may qualify for $6 tickets to our Masterworks series concerts through our Musical Chairs program. Students (K-12) and accompanying adults can attend all 7 Masterworks concerts for just $42. The program is designed to introduce and educate our younger audience members. Click here to apply.

OCTOBER 3rd & 4th

October Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

Van Cliburn Competition prize-winner Di Wu returns to open our season with the soaring themes and cascading chords of Tchaikovsky’s most popular piano concerto. Also on the program, Morton Gould’s breezy American Symphonette No. 2 with its familiar Pavane 2nd movement, and the lone symphony by ultra-Romantic French composer, Ernest Chausson.

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NOVEMBER 14th & 15th

November Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

The Lone Ranger rides into the Forum as Stuart Malina conducts Rossini’s rollicking, ever-popular William Tell Overture. Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Violin and Viola receives its first performances by the HSO and, to conclude, in celebration of Jean Sibelius’ 150th birthday, the Maestro conducts the Finnish master’s glorious 2nd Symphony.

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JANUARY 16th & 17th, 2016

January Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

For his debut appearance as a soloist with the HSO, Concertmaster Peter Sirotin has chosen the tuneful violin concerto from 1904 by the Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov. Stuart Malina also conducts the sparkling symphony that Mozart wrote for the city of Prague and concludes with Elgar’s fantastic collection of ingenious musical portraits known, somewhat cryptically, as the Enigma Variations.

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FEBRUARY 20th & 21st

February Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

The boundless resources of the full symphony orchestra and the virtuosity of the HSO are on full display in these three masterpieces by Stravinsky, Ravel and Strauss. The three pieces may have been written within three years of each other, but stylistically they couldn’t be more different. An exhilarating mid-winter program guaranteed to heat up the Forum!

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MARCH 19th & 20th

March Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

Superstar cellist Zuill Bailey returns to Harrisburg to perform the riveting Cello Concerto No. 1 by the greatest Russian composer of the Soviet era, Dmitri Shostakovich. The program opens with the shimmering 4th Symphony of French composer Nicolas Bacri and concludes on familiar ground with the driving energy of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony.

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APRIL 16th & 17th

April Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

Dvorak’s liltingly beautiful Serenade for Strings opens our April Masterworks. Longtime HSO tubist Eric Henry is featured as the soloist in a brand new piece written just for him and the program concludes with one of the greatest symphonies of music’s Romantic age, Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.

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MAY 14th & 15th

May Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

Pianist Ann Schein dazzled HSO audiences when she played Chopin here in 2014. She returns to conclude our season with the monumental Third Concerto of Rachmaninoff. This typically colorful Russian program also includes the tuneful Suite from The Comedians by Kabalevsky and the astonishing First Symphony of the 19-year old Shostakovich, certainly one of the greatest first symphonies ever written.

All concerts are at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, behind the Capitol, with Saturday concerts beginning at 8:00 and Sunday concerts beginning at 3:00. There are pre-concert talks an hour before each performance in the auditorium and for those with “Musical Chairs” tickets, a special “Welcome to the Concert” for students at the far-right end of the front lobby.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Symphonic Sensations End the Season: Some Sensational Stories Behind the Music We Take for Granted

Caroline Goulding
This weekend, it's the last Masterworks Concert of the season – and it ends with one of the great symphonies of all times, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Caroline Goulding who won an Avery Fischer Career Grant and a Young Concert Artists Award will be playing a 1720-ish Strad for Samuel Barber's largely lyrical Violin Concerto. And the concert opens with “Dances from Powder Her Face” by Thomas Adès, an English composer who's been all the rage for the last 20 years.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3:00 at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Truman Bullard offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is one of those works inspired by the idea of “Fate knocking at the door” or, to be more specific, the secret police knocking at the door. Because in Shostakovich's case, he'd run afoul of Stalin who'd walked out of a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 and whose reaction to the music was capsulized in the “review” Muddle Instead of Music.

This was not just a bad review. It not only banned his music from being performed (meaning no one would have the courage to commission any new pieces from him, either), it brought down on the composer's head the imminent threat of arrest and imprisonment. This was a time in Soviet history where artists (not just politically outspoken activists) could be accused of being “enemies of the people” as well as traitors to the ideals of Soviet art.

Shostakovich & his children
It sounds impossible for us to believe this – for more information, read my post, Shostakovich's 5th: The Incredible Story Behind the Music, here – but imagine waiting to hear someone knocking at your door in the middle of the night, having your bag packed in case they've come to haul you off to prison, not knowing whether you'd ever see your family again, and you have an idea what the atmosphere was like when Shostakovich began composing what became his Symphony No. 5.

Someone (presumably not the composer) called it “A Soviet Artists' Reply to Just Criticism” and it was generally considered to be Shostakovich's attempt at ingratiating himself back into favor with the government. In that sense, the music succeeded – it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. According to eye-witnesses, the ovation itself lasted over a half-hour.

The first movement is stark and dramatic, full of fits and starts, sudden changes and a good deal of uncertainty both haunting and haunted. The scherzo – no “joke” in the traditional sense – may be a brief tribute to Gustav Mahler whose symphonies Shostakovich greatly admired (the sweep of his first movements also reflect more the influence of Mahler than the traditional Western symphonic form). The third movement is a long lament spinning slowly through long lines, as lyrical as the scherzo was violent, interludes with the harp and celeste adding a sense of almost suspended animation.

The finale begins with a dark, pounding march that turns from “tending towards victory” but is always rushing off into an even darker celebration ever on the verge of hysteria. After a questioning middle section of (possibly) hypnotic reflection, the music slowly leads back to the march. But what is it about the ending when it finally gets there: triumph? Or resignation?

Here is a performance recorded with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic on tour in Japan in 1979.

Listen especially to the conclusion: check in about a minute or so for the build-up to 49:24 where the final march begins.

Here is another performance, this one with Yevgenny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1983. Mravinsky conducted the world premiere in 1937 and had a long career with the work, a close collaborator with the composer. You probably don't have time to listen to both performances, but listen to the last few minutes at least of this one and compare it to the ending in Bernstein's performance. Notice the difference in Mravinsky's tempo at 43:50, especially the way the conducts with smaller gestures and occasional cautionary signals to the brass to keep it from getting too “over-the-top.”

And yet, it's the same piece! Bernstein's ending is certainly triumphant. But what is Mravinsky's? It's not the victory we in the West think of as being triumphant yet is this what the composer wanted?

Again, check my post “Shostakovich 5th: The Incredible Story Behind the Music” to read more about the historical background as well as what might be behind these varieties of interpretations.

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Given the trouble Shostakovich found himself in with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, imagine the problems Thomas Adès might face if he lived in a similar culture after his opera, Powder Her Face, was premiered in 1995...

In Shostakovich's opera, a young wife has an affair with a handsome farm-worker and together they kill her husband, hiding his body in the cellar. Once her husband has been declared “missing, presumed dead,” the widow now prepares to marry her lover until the body is discovered and the two are sent off to Siberia, the widow dying en route. If the pessimistic story is not un-Soviet enough (since art, in the official view, should be uplifting) the music itself was shocking – especially the imitations of their love-making in the lurid slides of the trombones.

Thomas Adès
While it's difficult to say or read anything about Powder Her Face that doesn't mention its most notorious moment – let's just mention the word, fellatio and move on – the music that appears in this orchestral “suite” the composer arranged from it catches more the decadent atmosphere of the life the main character leads with its infinite partying and her desperate attempts to find meaning in a presumably empty existence.

In the ad campaign for the 2003 New York City Opera production, she had been described as a “female Don Giovanni for the Monica Lewinski generation.”

As Alex Ross wrote about the opera, Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, and center of a 1960s British sex scandal (she is invariably known as “The Dirty Duchess”)...

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“...becomes a half-comic, half-tragic figure, a nitwit outlaw. There were clear parallels with Alban Berg’s epic of degradation, Lulu [...] The libretto reads like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added. With a few incredibly seductive stretches of thirties-era popular melody, Adès shows the giddy world that the Duchess lost, and when her bright harmony lurches down to a terrifying B-flat minor he exposes the male cruelty that quickened her fall. Adès's harmonic tricks have a powerful theatrical impact: there’s a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments." [“Roll Over, Beethoven: Thomas Adès,” New Yorker Magazine, Oct 26, 1998]
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The “Dances” in this suite are really the Overture, a Waltz and music from the Finale arranged for full orchestra from the original score's pit orchestra of fifteen players.

But it's all “dance music,” opening with a tango (which Adès admits opens with the same notes as a tango by the great Argentinian singer Carlos Gardel, but he didn't know it and had no idea it was one of the most popular tunes in Argentina). Now, a tango is a very sensuous, impassioned and erotic dance to begin with, and this one is made even seamier if not smarmier than some you might see on “Dancing with the Stars” (or almost...).

The Waltz, rather than being an out-and-out waltz suggested by its association with Johann Strauss, is more of a jazzy cabaret waltz – or, to be more accurate, a parody of a jazzy cabaret waltz from one of the flashback scenes (this one, from her 1936 wedding). We think of a waltz as elegant but don't forget, when it was first introduced in post-Napoleonic Vienna, mothers were being warned not to let their daughters learn to dance the waltz...

In the end, the Duchess is forced to vacate her lavish home for a hotel room (where the opera takes place) and when she can no longer pay the bills, the manager (despite the Duchess' attempted seduction) evicts her: she suffers a mental breakdown. In the epilogue – in a moralistic way that might also bring to mind the conclusion of Mozart's Don Giovanni – her hotel room (and by extension, her whole world) is torn apart by her maid and an electrician. The music – keeping in mind Alex Ross' line about “shattering into cold, alienated fragments” – reflects not only the shattering of her life but also, eventually, her state of mind when she died, alone and penniless, in a London nursing home.

Despite all that moralizing and sensationalizing, the music is itself delightful, even sparkling, but a bit refracted like a disco ball gone bonkers.

Here's Christoph von Dohnányi with the Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2007 London Proms concert. At the end, the composer appears on stage for a bow:

By the way, if Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District almost landed Shostakovich in prison, BBC-4 aired the film version of Powder Her Face on TV, Christmas Day, 1999.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In between the Adès which opens the program and the Shostakovich symphony which concludes the season is a very contrasting work, one of the most lyrical (at least for 2 of its 3 movements) and popular American concertos of the 20th Century, the Violin Concerto Samuel Barber composed in 1939 at the outset of World War II. In fact, Barber was working on it in Switzerland and was interrupted by the call for Americans to leave Europe as war approached. But it wasn't the war that nearly scuttled the piece – more of that in a moment.

Samuel Barber in 1938
Samuel Barber is a Pennsylvania composer, born in West Chester PA, growing up in a musical family that included the great opera singer, Louise Homer. He was a graduate of the Curtis Institute for Music in Philadelphia where he was, essentially, a triple-threat as a major in piano, composition and voice. Several of his most acclaimed works were written fairly early in his career – the Adagio for Strings written when he was 25, but also the “Overture to The School for Scandal” composed as a student at Curtis when he was 21.

He completed the Violin Concerto when he was 29 and wrote this program note for the premiere:

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“The first movement — allegro molto moderato — begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement — andante sostenuto — is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.”
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Here's Gil Shaham with David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony in another Proms concert, this one in 2010:

It's that “Perpetual Motion” that has created what could be called the “controversy” behind this seemingly innocent piece. The story had been around for years: I'd first heard it when I read Nathan Broder's 1954 biography of Barber when I was high school in the '60s, plus it's in all the program notes I'd ever seen about it. I'd never read anything to the contrary. So it's a surprise to find out, after all these years, it's not true!

The story had it that when Barber was commissioned to compose a violin concerto for a wealthy patron's un-named ward, he submitted the first two movements when they were finished but they were deemed “too easy” – he was basically asked to write a more virtuosic finale, but the perpetuum mobile Barber sent him was viewed as too difficult to play. In response, the composer got a student at Curtis to sight read the movement which he did quite well, proving that, in fact, it could be done. The assumption was, then, that the violinist for whom it was composed wasn't... well... up to it.

It wasn't until the 1990s that word was going around the story was a myth yet still being included in program books for various recordings. Only when letters and other documents were released in 2010 – almost 30 years after Barber's death – did it turns out to prove quite a different story.

I quote, here, directly from the extensive Samuel Barber entry on Wikpedia which seems factual enough, rather than rewriting all the details in my own words:

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In 1939, Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels commissioned Barber to write a violin concerto for Fels' ward, Iso Briselli, [who graduated] from the Curtis Institute of Music the same year as Barber, 1934.[1] The Barber biographies written by Nathan Broder (1954) and Barbara B. Heyman (1992) discuss the genesis of the concerto during the period of the violin concerto's commission and subsequent year leading up to the first performance. Heyman interviewed Briselli and others familiar with the history in her publication. In late 2010, previously unpublished letters written by Fels, Barber, and Albert Meiff (Briselli's violin coach in that period) from the Samuel Simeon Fels Papers archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania became available to the public.[2]

Barber accepted his advance[3] and went to Switzerland to work on the concerto. Barber started working on the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. He hoped to complete the concerto in the early fall to meet the October 1st deadline. His plans were interrupted, however, due to the impending war—all Americans were warned to leave Europe. In late August, he went to Paris and then took a ship to the USA, arriving in early September. After spending a short time with his family in West Chester, PA, he went to the Pocono Mountains to continue working on the concerto.
When he delivered the first two movements to Briselli in mid-October, Briselli received them with great enthusiasm. He believed they were beautiful and eagerly awaited the finale. He suggested to Barber that when writing the last movement, he might include more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities.

However, in mid-November, things began to go awry. Briselli showed the two completed movements he was learning to his violin coach in New York City, Albert Meiff, who was immediately critical of the work from a violinistic standpoint. Briselli did not concur. Nevertheless, Meiff, who enjoyed the confidence of Fels, and believing he was protecting Briselli's interests, took it upon himself to write Fels a letter (November 13) stating why the violin part had to undergo a "surgical operation" by a "specialist" such as himself. He said "The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist..." and if Briselli performed the work as written, it would severely hurt his reputation. Meiff said he was rewriting the violin part to make it more acceptable and that it was necessary that he, Briselli and Barber get together for a "special meeting" to discuss his changes.[4]

Ivo Briselli
Briselli was disappointed when he received the third movement from Barber in late November. He had expected a finale comparable in substance and quality to the first two movements, and felt it was too lightweight by comparison. He told Barber that it did not have a sense of belonging; it seemed musically unrelated to the first two movements, and he thought it was insufficient in compositional form or development to stand as the finale of a major work. It was important to Briselli that the commission be as substantial as the other major concertos in his repertoire that he was offering for prospective orchestra engagements.

Briselli asked Barber if he would rewrite the finale; he could premier it at a later date to give Barber more time if needed. He suggested possible ways in which the movement could be deepened or expanded; perhaps even changing its form altogether such as a sonata-rondo; that perhaps he might expand the third movement while possibly retaining the moto perpetuo as the middle section and giving it more clearly defined structural parameters. Briselli felt that only then would it be a complete, first-class concerto.

Despite Briselli's prodding, Barber was dismissive of his suggestions and declined to alter it. This was a big disappointment for Briselli who believed that with a substantial third movement, the work could stand as a great American violin concerto. Briselli decided to hold his ground regarding the finale and chose to forego the concerto's premier and relinquish his claim on it. On December 14, Barber wrote Fels that, as he probably already knew, Briselli had decided the piece was "not exactly what he wanted, and has given it back to me." Barber expressed concern about the disposition of the $500 advance that he had already spent and wanted to be sure that Fels understood his side of the story. Barber explains why he was late in delivering the commission: the war outbreak and the subsequent illness of his father. He says he landed back in the US on September 1 and immediately "went to the mountains to work." Barber said he was surprised to learn upon his return from Europe that "the first performance was already announced for January" without his being notified by Briselli or Eugene Ormandy. Also, Barber knew Briselli and Fels wanted the music by October 1 to give Briselli time to learn it—presumably for the upcoming January performances.[5]

At this juncture, the Barber and Briselli accounts differ somewhat; both are set forth here: Barber continues that he gave Briselli "the completed first two movements (about 15 minutes of music)" in "the middle of October" and "he seemed disappointed that they were not of virtuoso character--a bit too easy."[6] Briselli's account was that he liked them very much but suggested to Barber when writing the third movement, he might explore more of the virtuosic side of the violin's capabilities. Barber then says he asked Briselli "what type of brilliant technique best suited him; he told me he had no preference." Barber continues: "At that time, he did not apparently dislike the idea of a 'perpetual motion' for the last movement." Barber says that he "worked very hard" on the last movement, finishing it "in far from ideal circumstances" (his father's illness), and sent the violin part to Briselli about two months before the intended premier. Barber says that "It is difficult, but only lasts four minutes."[7] Barber never mentions Meiff's proposal that the three of them meet in regards to alterations of the violin part of the first two movements, or of Meiff's desire to "advise" Barber on the third movement while it was being written.

Barber then discloses to Fels that when he sent the finale to Briselli, "At the same time, I had a violinist from Curtis play it for me to see that it was practical and playable." Barber then wrote "My friends heard and liked it, so did I. But Iso did not." The three reasons he gave for Briselli's rejection were (1) "he could not safely learn it for January;" (2) "it was not violinistic;" and (3) "it did not suit musically the other two movements, it seemed to him rather inconsequential. He wished another movement written." Barber continues "But I could not destroy a movement in which I have complete confidence, out of artistic sincerity to myself. So we decided to abandon the project, with no hard feelings on either side." He said he was "sorry not to have given Iso what he had hoped for."[8] [Contemporaries confirmed that the two men did remain friends until Barber's death despite their disagreement on the concerto.]

Barber goes on to say that "While it was Iso's complete right not to accept a work he finds unsuitable," he feels he does deserve to be paid something considering that he had worked four months entirely on the concerto and "has done his best in submitting a work for which he makes absolutely no apology." He appeals to Fels' "understanding and generosity" that he be allowed to keep the $500 advance, which he believes is standard practice "when a commissioned work is not accepted by the commissioner."[9] Fels does say in his December 15 letter to Barber that the matter would most likely be settled "satisfactorily" for both parties. Meiff replies on December 26 with a lengthy two-page letter[10] outlining to Fels, "point by point," the many reasons why the piece is deficient—thus arming Fels with the information he needed to be able to speak intelligently to Barber. He explains: it "hasn't got enough backbone-- not strong, not majestic--does not contain enough dramatic moments, all of which make for a successful performance." He says it is not a piece for a great hall with a huge orchestra " placing a small basket of dainty flowers among tall cactus in a vast prairie;" he says it lacks an effective beginning and a typical violin technique. And specifically addressing the finale: "It was a dangerous thought from the very beginning, to make a perpetual motion movement ...without a breath of rest and without melodic parts...a risky tiresome was a wrong idea, and Mr. Barber should admit this." Meiff therefore felt it his duty "to advise Iso not to do it." On the positive side, he acknowledges that " has many beautiful parts" and that he has "personal admiration for the composer for himself personally and musically."

But there is never any evidence or assertion by Briselli or contention by Barber that Briselli found the third movement too difficult to play. As to the upcoming performance, in place of the Barber, Briselli substituted the Dvorak violin concerto. Barber's letter of December 14 to Fels identifies his intention with regard to the third movement: Barber set up a test of playability to assure himself what he was giving to Briselli was "practical and playable." Herbert Baumel was known to be an excellent sight reader, and he was asked to study the finale for a couple of hours, then to join him in pianist Josef Hofmann's studio. After reviewing the music, Baumel went to the studio to discover an audience of Barber (now teaching at Curtis), Gian Carlo Menotti, Mary Louise Curtis Bok (founder of the Curtis Institute), and a friend of Mrs. Bok. Baumel performed the concerto in the 1939–1940 season as soloist with the symphony orchestra of the Curtis Institute, conducted by Fritz Reiner. That performance brought the piece to the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who soon scheduled its official premiere in a pair of performances by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music in February 1941. [The actual premiere was on February 7.] Those performances were followed on February 11, 1941, by a repeat performance in Carnegie Hall, and from that point, the piece rapidly entered the standard violin and orchestral repertoire. In fact, the Barber Violin Concerto has become one of the most frequently performed of all 20th-century concertos.

[2] Historical Society of Pennsylvania letters and an in-depth portrayal of the violinist, Iso Briselli linked to this violin concerto, written and edited by conductor, Marc Mostovoy
[3] May 4, 1939 Letter from Fels to Barber
[4] November 13, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels
[5] May 4, 1939 Letter from Barber and reply by Fels
[6] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[7] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[8] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[9] December 14, 1939 Letter from Barber to Fels
[10] December 26, 1939 Letter from Meiff to Fels

(you can find links to on-line reproductions of these letters at the Wikipedia entry.)

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I don't know why the myth of this concerto's last movement has persisted as long as it has, but I mention it only because it is so well known and probably remembered by many audience members and blog-readers. Still, the actual story is only one issue composers have to face when fulfilling a commission: what do you do if you write something for a performer who ends up not liking it or being unable or unwilling to play it?

So, in a way, here are three pieces of music who have unsavory stories connected to them: in the case of Adès' opera, it's the subject matter rather than the music's circumstances, but certainly with Barber's concerto and most of all with Shostakovich's symphony, circumstances regarding their creation that are far removed from the music we sit and enjoy and take too easily for granted. How often do we think about, even when listening to familiar pieces like these, what a composer put into the effort to bring something like this into the world?

- Dick Strawser