Monday, January 10, 2011

January & the New Year: Catch a Rising Star!

Wishing you a Happy New Year full of health, happiness and prosperity in 2011, I'm here to tell you a little about this weekend's program with the Harrisburg Symphony, called "Catch a Rising Star" – Saturday, January 15th at 8pm, Sunday January 16th at 3pm, at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

(Read articles in the Harrisburg Patriot-News and the Carlisle Sentinal.)

That title certainly applies to the soloist on the program, Yen Yu Chen, who was 15 when she won the second Rodney & Lorna Sawatsky "Rising Stars" Concerto Competition almost a year ago, held at Messiah College. She'll be playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major on a program that also includes the very-well-known Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony and a very-little-known work by the Hungarian-born composer, Miklós Rózsa.

The idea of a "rising star" could apply to Rózsa who wrote his "Theme, Variations & Finale" when he was 26, four years after graduating from the Leipzig Conservatory, before he became the famous composer of Oscar-winning and -nominated film scores which overshadowed his "concert" music.

Rózsa was born in Budapest in 1907 (the year Ravel composed his "Rapsodie espagnole" and fourteen years after Tchaikovsky's death). His mother was a classical pianist who had studied with students of Franz Liszt. His father, a successful businessman, had an interest in folk music. Rozsa began playing the violin when he was 5 and composing by the time he was 8. But he grew up not caring much for life in Budapest and ended up moving to Leipzig, the city we associate with Bach. Rózsa studied at the conservatory that Mendelssohn had founded and where Robert and Clara Schumann had once taught, a bastion of the German legacy.

Curiously, while Hungarian folk music was a very strong part of his "classical" style, he also had a firm grounding in a more structured Germanic approach to music.

After publishing his first works, he graduated from the conservatory in 1929, staying on as his teacher's assistant before the French organist and composer Marcel Dupre suggested he move to Paris which he did in 1932. The following year, he composed the "Theme, Variations & Finale" for orchestra. The title reminds me of those improvisations French organists like Dupre or Cesar Franck were so famous for, given a theme to improvise on in several subsequent variations before ending with some grand-scale finale, often a fugue.

Rózsa later mentioned that the theme had come to him while on a boat-ride down the Danube River – I'm assuming the stretch of this very long river that flows through Germany to the Black Sea as it passes through Budapest. However, many of his most Hungarian-sounding works were composed long after he left Budapest behind him, to live in Leipzig, Paris, London and then Hollywood.

Thirty-three years later, In 1966, Rózsa reworked the piece, expanding the orchestration, republishing it as Op.13a. It's the revised version you'll hear with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend.

The work is one of Rózsa's few "concert works" to be heard in concert halls today – there are concertos for violin, viola, cello and piano, all of which deserve to be heard, as well – but one notable appearance of his "Theme, Variations & Finale" was on a program that marked the debut of another rising star, a young conductor named Leonard Bernstein.

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In a concert about "Rising Stars," you could argue the other two composers were already well established in their careers and in fact at the end of their careers.

Both of Ravel's piano concertos and Tchaikovsky's last completed symphony were among their very last works.

Ravel completed his G Major Piano Concerto in 1931 (he interrupted work on the G Major to compose one for Paul Wittgenstein who'd lost his right arm fighting in World War I) and the following year – October, 9th, 1932 – he received a serious blow to the head (perhaps a concussion) in a taxi accident that was regarded at the time as nothing very serious. However, shortly afterward, Ravel found it impossible to compose and sometimes became very absent-minded and within a few years began exhibiting symptoms of dementia. Later, it was determined he had suffered a serious brain injury as a result of that accident. In 1937, he underwent brain surgery, recovered briefly but died shortly afterward.

Tchaikovsky conducted the world premiere of his 6th Symphony which he had first thought calling "Tragic" (rejected because Brahms, his antithesis, had already written a "Tragic Overture") before deciding on the French term Pathétique (which has so many more subtle meanings). There has been so much speculation about the symphony's "meaning" and how the composer died, but suffice it to say ("just the facts, ma'am") that the work's second performance took place three weeks later at a memorial concert: Tchaikovsky died nine days after the Pathétique's premiere.

(I'll include Tchaikovsky's 6th in a separate post – stay tuned!)

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Maurice Ravel, perhaps best known for the insistent repetitions of his most popular work, Bolero, had a fascination for clock-work mechanisms, things we might normally call "toys." This toy-like world features strongly in works like his L'Enfant et les sortilèges where a child's toys come to life (before there was "Toy Story") which he completed four years before beginning his piano concertos.

Though we often think of composers' – or any artists' – creativity being divinely inspired, Ravel was very direct about it. He had just finished his Piano Trio, he once wrote to a friend – the only thing left was to add the notes. This may seem contrary to popular perception – that melody comes first and form later – but here is what Ravel said specifically about the G Major Piano Concerto.

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The G-major Concerto took two years of work, you know. The opening theme came to me on a train between Oxford and London. But the initial idea is nothing. The work of chiseling then began. We’ve gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper. Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity.
M. Ravel
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It had been Ravel's plan to perform the premiere himself but he was unable to because of overwork and fatigue (some sources I've seen argue for this being the result of that accident in the taxi, but the premieres of the concerto took place in January and (in the USA) in April of 1932, the accident occurring in October that year). His friend Marguerite Long, to whom he later dedicated the concerto, gave it its world premiere in Paris with Ravel conducting. The first performances in America took place simultaneously in Philadelphia and Boston on April 22, 1932 (and I've seen in writing that Marguerite Long performed both of those as well – quite a feat, in itself!).

Ravel is often lumped together with Debussy as an "Impressionist," a pigeon-hole that is not very accurate for the entirety of either composer's careers. If anything, Ravel might be more of a "neo-classicist" who found inspiration in the past (for instance, Le Tombeau de Couperin evoking the 18th Century world of France's musical past) as well as in the exotic (the Balinese gamelan that inhabits the "Empress of the Pagodas" movement from Mother Goose). A very important part of Ravel's eclectic influences is American Jazz which was all the rage in Paris in the Roaring '20s.

George Gershwin was a friend of his. In the photograph taken on Ravel's birthday in 1928 while on an American tour, that's Gershwin on the far right, close to the vase of flowers. That's Ravel, with his ever-present cigarette, sitting at the piano.

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The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm. ...Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it.
M. Ravel
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Keep in mind Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," intended as a cross-over between Jazz and Classical, was performed in 1924, only four years before Ravel's American tour and only five years before Ravel began work on this concerto. Perhaps because of his eclecticism, soaking up Spanish, Asian as well as 18th Century influences, Ravel was less concerned about "crossing-over" than many Americans at the time, where there was a distinct cultural separation between what was popular and was considered "culture."

Here's Leonard Bernstein playing – and conducting – Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. It begins with a whip crack (the opening idea, remember, Ravel said came to him while riding a train) – the slow movement evokes the harmonies and style of Mozart – and the last movement is a Jazz romp (where else would you hear the squeal of a clarinet, the roar of a trombone and a blast from the trumpets but in Jazz? – all in the first thirty seconds of Ravel's finale).

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First Movement

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Second Movement

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Third Movement

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I'll post something about Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony in a separate post.

- Dick Strawser

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