Thursday, November 8, 2012

Catching a Rising Star with Haydn, Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony includes a young soloist, Julia Rosenbaum, who may not be a familiar name to you. She won the most recent Rodney and Lorna Sawatsky Rising Stars Concerto Competition held at Messiah College, and who, now 16, will play Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” with Stuart Malina and the orchestra – Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

(Messiah College teacher and conductor Timothy Dixon will be giving the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance.)

Also on the program are two symphonies: one of the dozen “London” Symphonies by Franz Josef Haydn from 1794 – the 102nd of his 104 symphonies – and the 6th by Dmitri Shostakovich, written in 1939, in the dark months before the start of World War II.

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Julia Rosenbaum is a sixteen year old cellist currently studying with David Hardy, principal cellist of the National Symphony and professor at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. At the age of twelve, Julia was the youngest Co-Assistant Principal of the American Youth Philharmonic. Julia currently participates in the National Symphony Orchestra Youth Fellowship Program at the Kennedy Center. She is an active performer as a soloist and in chamber ensembles.

Julia was the Grand Prize Winner of the 2012 Rodney and Lorna Sawatsky Rising Stars Concerto Competition at Messiah College, and will be appearing at the Market Square Concerts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, performing one of Benjamin Britten’s Suites for Solo Cello.

Julia won First Prize at the Levine School Chamber Music Competition, with performances at the Bulgarian Embassy and the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

She was also a prize winner at the Friday Morning Music Club High School Competition for Strings, Washington Performing Arts Society’s Joseph and Goldie Feder Memorial Competition, Young Soloist Recital Series Audition at the Alden Theater, and Asian American Music Society Competition. As the Third prize winner of the 2009 Landon Symphonette Competition, Julia made her concerto debut with the Symphonette.

Julia has participated in master classes by Carter Brey, Lawrence Lesser, Colin Carr, Steven Doane, Hans Jorgen Jensen, and David Finckel and Larry Dutton of the Emerson String Quartet.

Julia has attended the Young Artists Program of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Bowdoin International Music Festival, Yellow Barn Young Artist Program, Aspen Music Festival, and Music at Menlo.

Julia is active in performing at assisted living homes, and also enjoys playing with her Siberian Husky, Sable.

You can read Ellen Hughes' interview with Julia and with Stuart Malina in her Patriot-News column Art & Soul, here.

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If “classical music” is the generic term for the works of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and their colleagues, “Classical music” with the upper-case ‘C’ refers to a stylistic era of music from the late 18th Century and the time of Haydn and Mozart (and most concert-goers would have trouble thinking of any other equally familiar names from the period – except “Early Beethoven”).

There is also “Romantic music” to refer generically to the music of the 19th Century but we also talk about the essential style of music as being either “romantic” – appealing to the emotions – or “classical” – appealing to the intellect. Before, they used terms like “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” to refer to music that is based on either emotional issues or intellectual ones: Apollo was the Greek god of logic and therefore of architecture but he can also be applied to the clean-lined structures and textures, the “Art for Art’s Sake” we hear in most of this late-18th Century music. Dionysus was the Greek god of… well, wine which of course leads to irrational thinking and the emotional, messy side of life.

In more recent times, we’d think of the brain being divided into two different, often conflicting spheres: the Right Brain and the Left Brain. You can, in your daily life, be a little bit of both (it would be rare someone is all one or the other). If you like mathematics and like a picture because of the way it’s put together, you are having a left-brained response. If you like action movies for their excitement and think a painting is pretty but might not really know what it’s about, then you’re having a right-brained response. If you read mysteries for the enjoyment, that would be “romantic” but if you enjoy them more because of the way they’re put together, how the plot is structured, how everything points you to the conclusion – that would be “classical.”

So in that sense, this concert is about “classical” classical music opening with a symphony by a Classical composer – Franz Josef Haydn, the “father” of the symphony and one of the most acclaimed composers of his time.

Here is Adam Fischer conducting the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, part of the series recorded in the music hall of the Esterházy Palace where Haydn spent much of his career writing symphonies and operas for the prince’s entertainment.

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By the way, it is sometimes known as “The Miracle” Symphony because, after its first performance in London, a large chandelier fell from the ceiling. But because the audience had already rushed forward toward the stage to cheer the composer at the conclusion, no one was injured and everybody said, of course, “it was a miracle!” However, it was believed this had happened at the premiere of the Symphony No. 96 which has then always been officially nicknamed “The Miracle” Symphony. Two different symphonies but the same miracle.

Regardless, it is one of Haydn’s great symphonies but unfortunately often overshadowed by those even greater (or more popular) ones from this set of twelve he composed for London in the 1790s like No. 94 (“The Surprise”), No. 100 ("The Military"), No. 101 ("The Clock"), No. 103 ("The Drumroll") or the last of them, No. 104 (itself known as “The London” Symphony). Perhaps part of No. 102's problem is, it was never given a catchy nickname...

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The concert continues with one the great Romantic composers – Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky – whose symphonies and ballets seem all to be about the senses with its intense (some might call it maudlin, especially in his last symphony, the Pathetique) heart-on-the-sleeve emotions.

Yet Tchaikovsky was a big fan of Mozart – he orchestrated four of his favorite works by Mozart into his Suite #4 known as “Mozartiana” (this was from a time when not much Mozart was being heard in the concert halls and, of course, there were no recordings or radio broadcasts to acquaint people with his music). Tchaikovsky, as a child, was introduced to music through Mozart and that sense of magic and wonder never left him, even though his own style (sometimes called “hyper-romantic”) is far removed from Mozart’s ideal.

The generation before Mozart and Haydn was a period of transition from the florid textures of the Baroque. Even Bach’s four composing sons, while Johann Sebastian was still alive, no longer wrote in their father’s style (in fact, they jokingly called him “The Old Pig-Tail”) but in a more linear style with simpler textures and a distinct role between melody and accompaniment (unlike the old Baroque style of independent lines moving against each other in what we call “counterpoint”).

For lack of anything better, this style was called “Rococo,” borrowed from art and architecture where it was considered decorative rather than practical and often light-hearted rather than serious: paintings of shepherds wooing their shepherdesses or of well-dressed courtiers having a picnic under the trees. If it had any function – furniture, for instance – it was meant to be pleasing to the eye. And the paintings, the books as well as the music was intended to entertain rather than provide substance for intellectual meditation.

It was an odd mixture of different aspects of what had been the Baroque and what would become the classical.

So it was this element of gracious, graceful and gratifying music that Tchaikovsky decided to capture in his “Variations of a Rococo Theme” – the style of the era captured through his own.

His next major works would be the Violin Concerto which Chee-Yun will perform with the Harrisburg Symphony in January, 2013, and the Symphony No. 4 - so a productive time, musically, for Tchaikovsky!

Here’s a performance with another prize-winner, cellist Gustav Rivinius, recorded with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Dmitri Kitaenko, after he won the gold medal at the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition.

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Of course, to those of who know the music of Mozart and Haydn, Tchaikovsky’s music will still sound lush and Romantic in that 19th Century sense, but it’s a far cry from the impassioned emotionalism of his symphonies (especially the last three) and, for instance, the famous 1st Piano Concerto (for those who do not know his first three symphonies or his other two piano concertos, it would be interesting to check them out, for comparison’s sake).

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And then we come to Dmitri Shostakovich, a clearly 20th Century composer who was writing large-scale symphonies in the Soviet Union.

If there are people that might have different, often contrasting and sometimes conflicting sides to their personalities (the way they respond to different things in their lives), we might throw around inappropriate terms like “multiple personalities” or even “schizophrenia” (the concept of one person but different identities). Robert Schumann, we heard at the last concert, was an artist who often talked and wrote in terms of the emotional and the logical viewpoints – even to creating characters like Florestan and Eusebius who would hold their own discussions (in the manner of Plato’s dialogues) when Schumann wrote about music (his bi-polar or manic-depressive disorder was something else, again).

Shostakovich had two sides to his music and, though a very private person, to himself though we rarely got the chance to see the lighter side of his personality, a shy man who always seemed nervous in public and rarely seemed to smile.

Shostakovich (front, right) enjoying a game of football, 1940s

If “classical” music is the opposite of “popular” music – as a high school teacher I knew years ago defined it, “classical music is the kind of music nobody likes” which was only a little worse than saying it was “unpopular” music – Shostakovich had his classical side and his popular side, writing serious symphonies and brooding string quartets while delighting in jazz (more accurately, English dance-hall popular music which passed for ‘jazz’ in Soviet Russia) and famously turned out a delightful arrangement of the pop song, “Tea for Two” in less than an hour, a direct challenge from a conductor friend of his. He wrote blistering operas like “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and “The Nose” but rollicking stage works like “Moscow Cheryomuzhski” that would be the equivalent of a Broadway show. His symphonies could contain vast movements of nearly paralyzing grief and yet he could conclude his 2nd Piano Concerto with a romp of a finale, written for his son Maxim to play as a gifted young student, which includes a take-off on the English song, “What do we do with a drunken sailor?”

The 6th Symphony, out of context, is a single work that is both serious and popular, and this has often been a problem for its listeners. The first movement is slow, dark, brooding and quite long. The last two movements are both fast, both short and extremely extroverted, especially the finale which is an out-and-out gallop.

If you remember Shostakovich’s violin concerto from last season with Karen Gomyo, you heard dark, almost static movements along with starkly contrasting, fiery, dance-like movements with wild, driving rhythms. Hearing them intertwined like this is like switching back and forth from the light side to the dark side of the moon, two different worlds.

In the 6th Symphony, there is little in its opening dark side that seems to prepare you for the brilliant light side of the last two movements, especially considering the second and third movements combined are shorter than the first movement. The proportions seem wrong. The implications of that opening movement’s tragedy are not resolved in the next two movements but sound like they’re ignored, swept under the rug of popular enthusiasm and sheer entertainment.

The opening movement could be described as romantic music in its emotional content and the last two might be considered the 20th Century’s version of “music meant to entertain,” like the Rococo music of an earlier era but decidedly more down to earth than you’d expect for people wearing satin gowns and waistcoats with powdered wigs. (This is, after all, the far more egalitarian Soviet Union in an entirely different century!)

There may be more than just music, though, behind this seeming stylistic dichotomy: the symphony was created during a time of intense uncertainty in the composer’s life and I’ll write more about that in this further post which you can read before or after the performance with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend.

Incidentally, Shostakovich was practical and a professional. He wrote music for over thirty films, including eight of them between this 1936 denunciation and his 6th Symphony's premiere, including this one for a children's cartoon called "The Silly Little Mouse," a far cry from the serious symphonist we normally think of!

Here is a recording of his 6th Symphony with Mstislav Rostropovich who as a young man studied with Shostakovich during World War II and later worked with him as a performer of many of his works: both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos were composed for Rostropovich.

(I’m not sure which recording this is, since it’s not included in this post’s information, but I’m guessing it’s with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. where Rostropovich was the music director 1977 to 1994.)

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You can read more background information about the 5th and 6th Symphonies in this post at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train. It includes a hilarious (or depressing, I'm not sure which) anecdote about a special performance of the 5th for the edification of Soviet bureaucrats to determine whether or not his symphony lived up to its excessive success!

- Dick Strawser

Monday, October 1, 2012

Schumann's Rhine Journey

The opening concert of the season is this weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina opening the program with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and ending with Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. In between, Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein plays Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

For some reason, Schumann's "Rhenish" hasn't been played by the Harrisburg Symphony since George King Raudenbush, the orchestra's first music director, conducted it in May of 1944. Considering it's regarded as the best of Schumann's four completed symphonies, you have to wonder what took it so long to return?

Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony may have been inspired by a trip on the Rhine River but it doesn’t really tell a story. It’s inspired more by Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony with its “Pleasant Impressions Upon Arriving in the Countryside” and even Beethoven implies more of a program or story behind the music than Schumann does. He uses no titles like “Happy Gathering of Country Folk” though his second movement is based on a folk-dance rhythm. Like Beethoven, he uses five instead of the usual four movements and the added movement – in 4th place (in Beethoven, it’s the storm) – is the only one where Schumann said anything about its inspiration: while visiting the city of Cologne, they were impressed by its great cathedral and witnessed the installation of its cardinal archbishop there with all its pomp and solemnity. (See below for some information about Germany's Rhineland.)

Here’s a performance of the complete Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major by Robert Schumann, the “Rhenish” Symphony with David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.

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There's a typical Schumann finger-print in that opening theme which has a kind of rhythmic swing to it that shifts from one pulse to another pulse as the phrase progresses. What we hear - what we would automatically start tapping our foot to - is not always what's written on the page and Schumann tricks us into thinking we're hearing something in a slower three-beat pulse (starting at 0:30)  that suddenly changes (at 0:36) to a quicker pulse - or at least doesn't seem to fit what our toe's already started tapping. He does this quite often in and out of this theme.

Technically, he's using a common denominator of 3/4 time or meter (like a waltz as opposed to a march) but the melody is phrased rhythmically so it accents every other beat so that it takes 2 measures of "written time" to equal 1 measure of "heard time" (putting it in non-technical terms). Like this, where the pink highlighter is the beat pattern you hear, superimposed over the written time that keeps the musicians playing together.

So what Schumann writes in the first 6 measures only sounds like 3 measures in this "slower" beat pattern that our toe starts tapping. Then it shifts (at measure 7) to the "quicker"-sounding pulse which turns out to be the actual 3/4 meter of the music - and affecting how we perceive the music's tempo. There are also other subtle rhythmic ideas that help blur the distinction so we keep shifting back and forth from "perceived" time to "actual" time quite easily.

While this is (technically) more a metrical trick than a rhythmic trick, the even more technical term is "hemiola" (hee-mee-OH-luh) which has nothing to do with a blood disorder but refers to the ability to subdivide rhythmic or metric units into groups of 2s or 3s.

On a different note, think the song "America" from Bernstein's West Side Story as an example:

It alternates between 6/8 and 3/4 where 6/8 divides 6 eighth notes into 2 pulses of 3 eighth notes and then 3/4 which divides 6 eighth notes into 3 pulses of 2 eighth notes: 1-2-3  1-2-3/ 1-2 1-2 1-2 / It's still hemiola even though the style is very different.

Dvořák uses similar tricks in his Slavonic Dances, inspired by the folk-dances of his native Bohemia.

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Schumann wrote four symphonies but technically his Symphony No. 3 is the last symphony he composed. Probably inspired by its success, he went back and revised what had been his second symphony written ten years earlier (and which he never published) - he didn’t care for after it had been performed and set it aside. So in 1851, it officially became his Fourth Symphony.

It’s kind of a trick question: why is Schumann’s Third Symphony not his third symphony?

A bridge in Düsseldorf overlooking the Rhine
In 1850, Robert Schumann – who’d been living in Dresden since 1844 – accepted a job as the music director of the city of Düsseldorf, a not very exciting city on the Rhine, considered a backward provincial place compared to Dresden and Leipzig, much less Vienna, but it was home to an important music festival where his responsibilities would include conducting the city’s orchestra and choral society. Though on their payroll since early May, the Schumanns didn’t arrive until late August.

The arrival was well-received but it was a short-lived honeymoon.

Cologne's Cathedral
At the end of September, the Schumanns travelled to Cologne and were greatly impressed by its magnificent cathedral where they witnessed the installation of its new cardinal archbishop. Returning to Düsseldorf, Schumann suddenly felt like composing again and on October 10th began the Cello Concerto which he sketched over the next six days and completed (in full score) on the 24th, the same day he conducted his first concert as the city’s music director.

His wife, Clara, regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the day, was the soloist (I haven’t found any indication what was on the program). It was well-received but at the reception afterward there was an awkward moment when Ferdinand Hiller, the previous music director proposed a toast first to the soloist (perhaps being chivalrous) rather than to their new music director. This angered Robert who was always sensitive about being "Mr. Clara Schumann."

Nonetheless, nine days later, Schumann began sketching a new symphony, finishing the sketch of the first movement (despite taking another trip to Cologne) on November 9th and completing the full score of the entire symphony on December 9th.

During his first season there, Schumann conducted eight subscription concerts and premiered five new works of his on four of the programs. The symphony was first heard on February 6th, 1851.

The results were mixed, “ranging from praise without qualification to bewilderment,” though other accounts mention members of the audience applauding between every movement, and especially at the end of the work when the orchestra joined them in congratulating Schumann by shouting “hurrah!”

Geographically Speaking:

Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony is subtitled “Rhenish,” meaning “of the Rhine,” that region of western Germany along the great river associated with so much Germanic history. It rises in the Swiss mountains and flows eventually northeast into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Along its course, it forms Germany’s present-day boundaries with Switzerland and France. In ancient days, it formed (along with the Danube which flows east toward the Black Sea) the northern limits of the Roman Empire. It became a major transportation route during the Middle Ages and one of the most significant aspects of what defined German Culture (at a time when, quite often, there was no political entity called “Germany”). Following the dissolution of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, finally, in 1806, courtesy of Napoleon, a collection of small German states was called “The Confederation of the Rhine” as opposed to larger states like the kingdoms of Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony – or, for that matter, Austria or Österreich, which in German is “Eastern Kingdom” (not that the area along the Rhine ever became Westria…).

The region it flows through once both banks are located in Germany is generally called “The Rhineland” and many important German cities are located here, having grown up as river ports during the medieval era a thousand years ago. From the Swiss border to the town of Bingen (famous for its 12th Century abbess, Hildegard of Bingen), the Rhine is known as the Upper Rhine. Heading north, the region between Bingen and Bonn (famous for its native son, Ludwig van Beethoven) is called the Middle Rhine. Then, though you’re looking at the map and seeing it in the northern region of the river’s course, it’s called the Lower Rhine.

Because the river basically flows north, by going downstream (down the river) you’re heading north which, as you look at the map, makes you think you’re going “up” the river… well, anyway, enough of that.

In Dresden, one of the great Saxon cities (and located on another famous river, the Moldau), Richard Wagner had finished Lohengrin in 1849 just before all that nastiness began with the May uprising after which he was cited for treason and forced to flee “Germany” for Switzerland. But the year before, he began sketching a new opera which, when he realized it would need several prequels to explain, eventually became a four-opera cycle called The Ring of the Nibelung which takes place along the Rhine and actually begins IN it, with the famous water-sprites, the Rhine Maidens, swimming around singing about the Rhinegold and its magic powers. And of course, near the beginning of the last opera, the hero Siegfried makes a famous Rhine Journey of his own which sets the drama on its final collision course.

A Matter of Health: Life after the “Rhenish”

In the long list of great composers who have suffered greatly during their lives, many of them dying young (Schubert at 31, Mozart at 35, Mendelssohn at 38 just a few years before Schumann wrote the “Rhenish”), Robert Schumann’s mental health was his cross to bear. Symptoms of what would now be called bipolar disorder (previously called “manic-depressive disorder”) appeared early in his life but many of these ‘manifestations’ might only be the artistic expression of the two natures of creativity: on the one hand, there’s the “romantic” spirit which focuses on the emotional side of our responses to art; on the other, there’s the “classical” spirit which deals more with the abstract craft and our intellectual response to art. We can all do this – look at a painting and admire it for its architectural structure and placement of material while responding to it on a purely emotional level.

His creative history is a perfect example of “manic-depression.” He would compose furiously for a period of time, focusing on songs on year, or chamber music another, writing furiously and completing sizable works in a few days or a week before going on to another. Then, at the end of this creative spurt, he would be exhausted and suffer symptoms of depression that made him difficult to deal with as it was difficult for him to deal with reality. When they arrived in Dresden in 1844, he was unable to sleep for nearly a week, spent much of his time “swimming in tears” and often unable to walk. The convalescence was slow but six months later he wrote what became the last two movements of the Piano Concerto.

When Schumann was studying to become a concert pianist with the father of the woman who would eventually become his wife, Clara – that in itself is a long story – he injured his hand with a mechanical device that was supposed to facilitate his technique but instead ruined it. This forced him to concentrate on becoming a composer and also a music journalist (not just a critic). In his writings, he often engaged two “guests” who – like the old Greek dialogues – might argue or at least describe the different viewpoints one might have to the same topic. Among these were Florestan (representing Schumann’s “passionate, voluble side”) and Eusebius (his “dreamy, introspective side”) along with others as needed. Whether this is sign of “schizophrenia” as some modern writers assume or not, it seems unlikely they were any different from an author who creates literary characters of different and often opposing natures who might contain some autobiographical details confusing anyone incapable of understanding the distance that exists between a creator and his creations – or, sometimes, doesn’t.

After I’d given a talk about Clara Schumann’s life as a concert pianist and composer dealing with her famous husband and his career in addition to being the mother of eight children (a son was born the year before they arrived in Düsseldorf and a daughter was born the year after their arrival – there was also a miscarriage a year later), a woman came up to me and thanked me for giving her some insight in Schumann’s history. She too suffered from “bi-polar disorder” but was able to keep it under control with medication. We wondered what it might have been like if Schumann had had access to the kind of treatment she had – or what her life would’ve been like without it – which of course is the same kind of speculation about what Beethoven’s music might have been like if he weren’t deaf or what another forty-three years of music from Mozart might have been like if he’d lived to be as old as his sister.

Life in Düsseldorf went downhill quickly for the Schumanns. If the “Rhenish” Symphony’s premiere had met with some success, the next concert was a failure – the chorus sang badly, two new, smaller works were coldly received, and there were growing concerns about Schumann’s abilities as a conductor.

One thing, certainly, was his introspective nature or introverted personality making it difficult for him to deal with musicians in an authoritative capacity. He did not have the power of personality or the technique of a master to impress his performers and keep them in line. Schumann’s predecessor, Ferdinand Hiller, had been a detail-oriented, disciplined conductor, something Schumann was not. He often found himself getting lost during a rehearsal because he would start thinking how better certain passages could be written, for instance. Judging from contemporaries said of him, it’s quite possible he might have been an adequate conductor but didn’t know how to rehearse, a very important aspect of being a conductor (it’s not all just waving your arms around to keep everybody in tempo).

Since Robert could no longer play the piano, he brought Clara in to accompany the choir’s rehearsals and she often found herself explaining to the musicians what her husband was trying to do, musically.

It was in the years after the “Rhenish,” then, that Schumann’s final symptoms took control of his life. Whether he was depressed following the year-long manic creative spell that the symphony inaugurated or whether it was the political in-fighting that started to go on between the musicians in the orchestra and chorus, their boards, and the Schumanns is almost immaterial. He began having auditory hallucinations, spending long hours staring into space, exhibited fears of things like keys and so forth. Clara, of course, was working hard to protect her husband from the problems around him which others didn’t seem to understand.

On September 30th, 1853, Clara, long despairing of resuming her old career as a concert pianist sacrificing herself for her husband, wrote in her journal, "My last good years are passing, my strength, too... I am more discouraged than I can possibly say." Robert wrote in his journal, "Herr Brahms from Hamburg," mentioning a 20-year-old composer who showed up on their doorstep, unexpectedly, with a bunch of scores to show him. But at the time Brahms arrived, the Schumanns weren’t at home so the actual meeting, hearing Brahms play some of his piano pieces, didn’t happen till the next day.

Schumann hailed Brahms as the “heir to Beethoven,” not the first young composer saddled with such a comment, but he did not have much time to serve as Brahms’ mentor.

Brahms stayed in Düsseldorf until early November. A few days after he left, a committee from the orchestra arrived at the Schumanns’ house announcing that they were going to curtail Robert’s duties: he would no longer conduct the choir and he would only conduct his own works with the orchestra, his responsibilities now being taken over his assistant, Julius Tausch.

What had been a good month during Brahms’ visit quickly soured.

On February 27th, 1854, Robert Schumann, who was so ill, his condition so worrisome at the time he had to be locked in and watched every minute, got away from his daughter who was supposed to keep an eye on him, and wandered the streets of Düsseldorf before coming to a bridge over the Rhine where he jumped into the river. Some passing people and some boatmen were able to rescue him and take him back to the house where he was immediately taken by carriage to an insane asylum near Bonn. Clara never saw him again until a few days before he died in 1856.

It’s more likely the symptoms of the illness that caused his insanity and lead to his death were the results of an early infection with syphilis and the mercury treatment that was supposed to cure it but often was just as much a killer. Whether this had anything to do with his manic/depression or bipolar disorder is another issue.

Regardless, we should be glad for the brilliant moments he experienced and was able to share with us through his music. It is quite a journey.

- Dick Strawser

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You can read more about the final years of Robert Schumann’s life and about the life of Clara Schumann in posts at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody: Setting the Scene

The first concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s new season - Saturday, October 6th at 8pm, and Sunday, October 7th at 3pm at the Forum in Harrisburg - includes one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra that isn’t a piano concerto – Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Another one is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but the fact that they’re also both called “rhapsodies” might seem misleading.

While Gershwin’s is definitely rhapsodic (“rhapsody” was a generic term for something that didn’t quite fit any other named kind of form like “sonata” or “minuet with trio”… but which didn’t have a story to tell like Schumann’s “Carnaval” or Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Rachmaninoff’s is not only very much like a concerto in three or four movements (without any real breaks, like Franz Liszt’s concertos) especially given the demands on the soloist, it’s actually a set of variations. But then, Rachmaninoff the composer could call it anything he wanted to…

Rachmaninoff based his variations on the last of Nicolo Paginini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin which is, in itself, already a set of variations on his own, simple theme. In fact, this theme was so fertile, it inspired many other composers to write their own variations on it – Brahms for one, Witold Lutoslawski more recently.

Despite being very popular, it’s difficult to find a complete – and good – performance on YouTube, so here’s one – Rachmaninoff himself playing it with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski and recording right after the world premiere in 1934. As historic recordings go, this YouTube poster admits to manipulating the audio (‘quasi-stereo’ &c) to make it sound less scratchy as an old monaural recording taken off old 78s (for those of you who consider CDs passe, it would take too long to describe this…).

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Paganini’s theme is heard in a bare-bones presentation just ten seconds after the introduction, first with the harmonic skeleton then the theme brought in at 0:30 to flesh out what now appears to have been the accompaniment. This goes through a great deal of “stormy and stressful” expansion before he introduces something new at 5:29 – but it’s a theme he’s often used in many of his works and its frequent presence makes one wonder about its significance for him.

This is the ancient Gregorian chant, the Dies irae (dee’-ace ee’-ray) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead – the Day of Wrath, Judgment Day. It creates the most dramatic (and often terrifying) moments of great settings of the Requiem Mass – think Mozart and Verdi. It becomes a kind of death’s-head theme peering out from the most sinister moments of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or that staple of the Hallowe’en concerts repertoire, Franz Liszt’s Todentanz, the “Dance of Death” for piano and orchestra.

Still, what it’s doing here is conjectural, since Rachmaninoff never explained why he used here, much less anywhere else that I’m aware of. But it fits the back-story with Paganini who, legend has it, sold his soul to the Devil in order to be able to play like he did. And many people believed it – in fact, the Church even refused to allow his burial in consecrated ground! (You can read a fanciful account of meeting Paganini in the afterworld where he – eventually but quite accurately – describes his post-mortal experience over at my collection of short stories, Stravinsky's Tavern…)

The appearance of the Dies irae gives the theme a sinister back-drop, often overlapping with the theme (see 7:31) which actually makes it a “double” set of variations – two themes for the price of one. Wisps of the Dies irae can often be heard lurking in the accompaniment or perhaps fragments of it imbedded into Paganini’s theme.

This will eventually give way to a quieter, more lyrical episode. Finally, after an unsettled and rather vague variation (12:30), the moonlight breaks through the gloom for the famous 18th Variation – starting at 14:15 – the spot where you can probably hear everybody in the audience sigh collectively and lean back comfortably into their seats. This is truly a magical moment and the beauty of the melody is worth its reputation.

Ironically, as new and different as it sounds, it really is only Paganini’s theme slowed down and played upside-down!

This bit of contrast is like a slow movement in a concerto. Soon, we’re back into the dramatic turmoil, perhaps a dance-like scherzo beginning at 16:48. This gradually becomes more and more finale-like, full of virtuosic flourishes worthy of any concerto. It ends, strangely – after one more appearance at 21:40 of the Dies irae -- with a final sly wink rather than the bravura bombast it had been leading up to, what we might expect considering his 2nd and 3rd Concertos.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century as well as a much loved composer. To look at him, even in the photograph (see above) where he’s sitting down, you could imagine why Igor Stravinksy described him as “a six-foot scowl.” Practically every photograph I’ve seen of him – certainly all the “official” or formal ones – evoke the Great Stone Face of Classical Music.

It’s hard to imagine him, given his buzz-cut hair, ever letting his hair down, so to speak. Yet here is a collection of private home-movies showing the composer with his family and friends, particularly with his daughters and his grandchildren. Imagine watching this “six-foot scowl” bouncing across the lawn with his daughter (at 1:35) or playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with his granddaughter (6:50).

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One of the works you can hear in this video compilation is his recording of the "Polka of V.R." (4:00-7:21) based on what he thought was a little dance tune his father, Vassily (the V.R. - or in German/French, W.R. - of the title) would play when he'd come home and his children, quite young then, would dance around the room to it. Not the kind of domestic bliss you'd expect, looking at the standard images of the mature Rachmaninoff, is it? He wrote this in 1911, the day after the world premiere of one of his few religious choral works, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, setting the divine liturgy of the traditional Russian Orthodox church service. (Speaking of contrasts...) It was only long after Rachmaninoff's death that the actual composer of this little polka - Franz Behr - was identified.

Much of the footage you see here was taken at the Swiss villa he built to emulate his old Russian family estate in the mid-1930s. He composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini there in 1934, so these images of the composer are basically contemporary with the music you're hearing on the orchestra's concert.

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He was born in Russia to a wealthy land-owning family in 1873 and grew up during the “golden age” of the late-19th Century Russian Empire. But his father’s gambling debts helped ruin the family fortune and they moved from their country estate to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg where Sergei began to pursue his piano lessons more seriously. He eventually also began to exhibit talent as a composer and was something of a triple threat at the Conservatory, studying piano, composition and conducting.

A successful career seemed inevitable and then his first symphony was premiered at the Conservatory. It was a disaster, reviled in the press, and for almost three years, Rachmaninoff was unable to compose a thing. Someone suggested he see a therapist, Nikolai Dahl, who tried hypnosis on him and presumably by telling him “You will write a new piano concerto and it will be wonderful,” Rachmaninoff’s creativity came back to life and, in fact, his 2nd Piano Concerto was more than wonderful.

As I’ve often said, when an orchestra gives a bad performance of Beethoven (or anything well-known), the conductor is blamed but when it’s a new work, it’s the composer’s fault and that’s what happened here. Rachmaninoff withdrew the symphony but never publically blamed Alexander Glazunov, the conductor, who was a known alcoholic and according to witnesses quite drunk at the performance. Glazunov wasted rehearsal time, the orchestra was underprepared and there were two other premieres on the program. But the press had little reason to be quite so savage in their pronouncements: a leading critic (and a lesser composer of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s circle), Cesar Cui, said it would be admired in the Conservatory in Hell and suggested the symphony told the story of the plagues of Egypt. I mean, really… what 24-year-old who’s just finished a 40-minute symphony and who’s expecting to launch a highly anticipated career could have withstood that kind of public drubbing?

(Curiously, since no one would’ve heard the piece again – he’d destroyed the score but someone found a copy of the parts and was able to reconstruct it – he occasionally quoted from it, particularly in what became his very last work, the Symphonic Dances. Rachmaninoff had appended the score with an epigram from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, implying there might be a story behind the music, program or no program: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” Could that be why, all his life, he was obsessed with the Dies irae theme for the Day of Judgment? Was he, musically, having the last word? Hmmm…)

At any rate, the 2nd Piano Concerto of 1901 finally launched his career. His 3rd Piano Concerto was composed during an ocean crossing and premiered in the United States in 1909, its second performance in New York City with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Incidentally, the main reason Rachmaninoff decided to make the long trip to America was because the fees were so good there, he could buy a fancy new car. He loved cars. Later, people who would visit him at his homes in America or Switzerland would find him peering under the hood of his latest acquisition, his hands blacks with engine grease.

Meanwhile, the situation in Europe was getting worse – it would only be a matter of time before everything would be ripped apart. In 1914, it finally did, and World War I made traveling in Europe. Then, the old world collapsed in Russia as the Tsar was overthrown and then the provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.

Rachmaninoff was offered a concert tour of Scandinavia in 1917 and was able to leave the country only weeks after the Bolsheviks toppled the government. Driven on a sleigh from Petersburg to the Finnish border in a snowstorm one night, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia forever, leaving all their possessions – and most of his manuscripts – behind at the estate that would soon be taken over by the proletariat.

Almost a year later, Rachmaninoff arrived in America for another concert tour, this time trying to make ends meet. Without any income from his music much less his family fortune, Rachmaninoff had to focus on staying alive and so he decided it would be better to be a concert pianist than a composer which took too much time and was, frankly, not as rewarding financially. He was offered a conducting job with the Boston Symphony but refused it.

Anywhere he lived, he tried to recreate his Russian homeland around him. The family and friends who visited saw Russian décor, spoke Russian, ate Russian food, but still Rachmaninoff, when he thought he’d try composing again, couldn’t because, as he explained, he had lost his Russian soul. It’s difficult for us to realize that with the 1917 Revolution, Russia ceased to exist as a country – it was now the Soviet Union, a very different political and social entity – and Rachmaninoff was only one of countless Russian ex-patriots wandering the globe “without a country.” Some, like Stravinsky, adapted to becoming first French then Swiss then American. But for Rachmaninoff, it was almost impossible.

Essentially between 1917 and the end of his life in 1941, he wrote only six original works. He did, however, produce numerous transcriptions – the first one being an arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner in 1918. A transcription of three movements from Bach’s Partita in E for solo violin was given its first performance here in Harrisburg at the Forum in 1934 - only months before he began to compose the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

This argument may seem over-simplified, given that most of his 2nd Symphony, the tone poem Isle of the Dead (speaking of Dies irae and total gloom) and his 1st Piano Sonata in the German city of Dresden during the winters between 1906 and 1909 when he then began the 3rd Piano Concerto, most of which was written in transit to his American tour that year. But he could spend the summers on his Russian estate and, of course, he knew that he would always return to his native soil.

When he knew he would never return and knew that whatever he might return to wouldn’t be the same, the impact was severe.

Of those few original works he composed after leaving Russia behind, most of them were poorly received. The 4th Piano Concerto never caught on, even after he revised it extensively. It just wasn’t the 2nd or the 3rd. His 3rd Symphony, for that matter – which Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony performed here a few seasons ago – was dismissed because it wasn’t the 2nd Symphony. The non-Russian Variations on a Theme of Corelli (which was actually an old Spanish dance tune, “La Folia”) had a checkered career, mostly never successful. His Symphonic Dances were panned at the premiere.

Only the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini caught the public’s attention.

Why is that?

Given Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody, his brilliance at writing for the piano, his skill at working with the orchestral palette, why only this piece?

How did this, among those few others, survive all the problems the composer had with his fragile creative energy? Given he didn't need to compose to make a living and the trouble it caused him when he tried, not to mention the disappointment much of it was causing him, it's amazing he even bothered to write this piece.

Of course, one might as well ask “what makes a masterpiece?” or “how do you create a hit?” That is one of the many mysteries of the artistic life.

At least we have this one to enjoy.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Season Begins: Open with Strauss's 'Don Juan'

A couple weeks ago, Stuart Malina gave a “pre-season preview” for the new 2012-2013 Harrisburg Symphony Season at the Midtown Scholar at 3rd & Broad (a.k.a. Verbeke – basically, across from the old Broad Street Market). Here’s a clip with Stuart talking about the 1st Concert coming up the first weekend in October, at 8pm on Saturday the 6th and at 3pm on Sunday the 7th at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

The program opens with Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Don Juan and concludes with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish.” In between, Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein performs one of those enduring classics, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a set of variations for piano and orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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Stuart plays an excerpt from the opening of Don Juan from 2:36 to 3:18. (It’s always fun to watch someone listen to music, to catch their reactions: how does a conductor look when he’s listening to something he’s going to be conducting soon?)

Here’s the complete tone poem in the performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle.

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As Stuart mentions, Strauss wrote this when he was 24 (which is pretty amazing in itself) and while it was his first “big success,” it wasn’t his first work – he’d composed a 33-page overture for full orchestra (which he orchestrated himself) when he was 9 (after a bunch of piano pieces and songs he’d written since he was 6). His first horn concerto, begun when he was 18 and written for his famous horn-playing father, is one of the major works in the horn repertoire today.

R. Strauss at 22
If you attended this past summer’s “Summermusic” series with Market Square Concerts, you heard an early work by Richard Strauss that is not in the repertoire and rarely performed – his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. You can hear a performance of it at this post in my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, and follow (at the end) the path that led from Richard Strauss child prodigy to Richard Strauss mature artist at 24 with Don Juan.

The work is a “tone poem” (a ‘form’ popularized if not ‘invented’ by Franz Liszt) – a musical composition that tells a story in sound, which can also be called “symphonic poem” or, more generically, “program music” (music that tells a story) – as opposed to a symphony which, normally, is abstract and concerned more with form and development of thematic materials. It depends on the composer or even the specific piece whether it’s an interpretation of the story or a cinematic depiction of it. One of the most famous tone poems, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet has different themes associated with characters or moods found in Shakespeare’s tragedy but it does not tell the story in a continuous, dramatic way, though we can hear “love music,” “struggles” and the death of the lovers at the end.

Strauss’ Don Juan is based on the legendary lover (who predated the more-or-less real Cassanova) that also inspired Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni and numerous other works, both musical and literary.

Lenau in 1844
Nikolas Lenau’s version of Don Juan was written in 1844 and is a very different approach to anyone familiar with Mozart’s opera. One can hear heroic music, “love music” as well as dramatic conflict and a tragic conclusion. In this case, Don Juan isn’t dragged off to hell by a chorus of screaming demons. In Lenau’s work, he has been searching for a “feminine ideal” (familiar also to readers of Goethe’s Faust) which he can never find and so goes to his death willingly rather than live an unfulfilling life.

It’s interesting that Lenau also wrote his own version of Faust, very bold for a German-speaking writer considering Goethe, the greatest writer in the German language whose Faust is considered the greatest work in German literature, had died only four years earlier in Weimar. While Lenau had spent a year in America living in a frontier settlement in Ohio in 1832, he tired of Americans and their wilderness and returned to Austria. He wrote many poems and lyrical epics but was dissatisfied with life himself. Shortly after completing Don Juan, he experienced an “episode” where he jumped out a window and ran down the streets (I believe of Vienna) shouting about revolution and fire. He was kept “in restraint” and confined to an asylum near Vienna where he died in 1850. This also has an eerie parallel with Robert Schumann who experienced a similar unfortunate end a few years later.

Richard Strauss at 26
Richard Strauss conducted the world premiere of his Don Juan in November of 1888 and wrote home two days after its first performance and said, "Well then – Don Juan had a great success, it sounded wonderful and went very well. It unleashed a storm of applause rather unusual for Weimar" (a much-revered cultural center in Germany that had been the homes of Goethe and Liszt). It went on to turn him into a sensation, the start of a successful career as both composer and conductor.

Interestingly, the year also saw Gustav Mahler conduct the premiere of his 1st Symphony – a banner year for new music and the beginning of the careers of two of the most influential composers at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. Brahms, fresh off the disappointment given to his recent Double Concerto (he destroyed at least one more symphony and another violin concerto as a result) wrote that he was “repulsed” by Strauss’ new tone poems and told the young Mahler (whose conducting he admired, if not his music) that he considered himself the end of the long line of great composers (“after me, the dungheap!”). Well, yeah... the Generation Gap was real long before the '60s.

Anyway, I’ll write about the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody and the Schumann “Rhenish” in later posts, so check back.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stuart Sets the Season

Thursday evening, beginning at 7:00, Stuart Malina presents a preview of the new 2012-2013 Season with the Harrisburg Symphony at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore on 3rd Street across from the Broad Street Market. You can find out more about the symphony's concerts, the soloists and the repertoire they'll be playing. Find out what he's looking forward to - (everything, of course!) - and hear some stories behind the music and why he chose it.

There's on-street parking available (especially around the corner on Verbeke a.k.a. Broad Street) plus free parking in the lot behind the store.

Come early and browse through the books (the music section is on the second level), grab some coffee, find a chair and sit back for an enlightening evening.

Did I mention it's free?

By the way, I love this store - for any number of reasons. Naturally, an old-fashioned bookstore is a treasure, these days, especially when many of the national chains seem to be going out of business. The building used to be an old movie theater -- the music section is in the old projection booth area -- and the ticket kiosk in the center of the front entrance is still used as a display case. More recently, it was a used furniture shop but in the '50s it was 'The Boston Store' where I spent a lot of time as a kid, growing up: my dad, Norm Strawser, was the manager there until around 1970. So walking in there always takes me back, déjà vu all over again...

The book store presents lots of concerts and has earned a great reputation for its "acoustic venue" mostly for singer-songwriters and folk groups. Market Square Concerts had a great presentation a few seasons ago with cellist Zuill Bailey's CD release party where he played some of the  Bach Suites on his Telarc disc and talked about the recording or about growing up playing Bach.

More than just a neighborhood gathering place, the Scholar is also a place for community discussions with panels about the city financial crisis and many other local issues. Numerous community groups meet there, ranging from book clubs to poetry readings to children's programs. One Saturday morning I was browsing around for something about Mahler - found some, too! - and there was a presentation about train safety for kids on the stage that, in the next hour, became an Irish folk group's noon-time concert.

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stuart Malina and Summermusic 2012 with Market Square Concerts

Stuart Malina with Summermusic 2010
Summer – as the weather is reminding us – isn’t over yet.

But neither are summer concerts.

After a successful run of six outdoor concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony throughout the region over the week of the 4th of July, Stuart Malina will join some symphony colleagues to play chamber music with Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2012 starting Friday night at 8pm in the air-conditioned Market Square Church (even the free parking is under a roof), then continuing Sunday afternoon at 4pm at the air-conditioned Rose Lehrman Arts Center of HACC. The final concert of the series will be Wednesday at 6pm (that’s 6:00) back at Market Square Church.

(The photograph was taken at the Glen Allen Mill two years ago when the high temperature the day before was 95° and, though a tad cooler for this concert, it felt like the dew point was about the same... Concerts are no longer being held at the picturesque mill along a beautiful stretch of the Yellow Breeches, mostly because the space turned out to be not only too cramped for the musicians but also for the continually growing audience, over the years. In fact, the photo was taken during Stuart's introduction to the work he referred to as Schubert's "Sardine" Quintet.)

You can read more about the series by following these links: Ellen Hughes’ column Art and Soul at the Patriot-News, Market Square Concerts’ Blog: Summermusic 2012 – The Perfect Antidote to Heat Frustration plus up-close posts about Ravel’s Mother Goose and the Beethoven Quintet for Piano and Winds.

Stuart will be joining several members of the Harrisburg Symphony for these concerts, including Market Square Concerts’ Artistic Director Peter Sirotin, recently appointed acting concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony, principal cellist Fiona Thompson, hornist Geoffrey Pilkington and bassoonist Peter Kolkay who’s played in the orchestra before, in addition to Market Square Concerts’ Executive Director, pianist Ya-Ting Chang. Oboist Gerard Reuter, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, and violist Michael Stepniak are also part of the resident ensemble.

On the first program, Stuart and Ya-Ting will play two delightful piano duets – Poulenc’s saucy Sonata and Ravel’s suite inspired by fairy tales, Mother Goose, originally composed for children to play. Then he will join with the wind players for Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano & Winds, an early work that demonstrates the composer’s love of Mozart.

On Sunday’s program, Stuart and the string players perform Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87, just as tuneful but not as well-known as his Piano Quintet, Op. 81. Also on the program are the Three Madrigals written for violin and viola by Bohuslav Martinu and a movement of a more recent piece by Augusta Read Thomas, a contemplative movement from her “Rumi Settings,” followed by the Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings by Benjamin Britten.

(If the tune "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" has been going through your mind this weekend, then you've experienced One Degree of Separation with a composer on this program: Burt Bacharach once studied with Bohuslav Martinu!)

The third program will feature three movements from different string trios by Beethoven (written around the same time as the Quintet), performed in collaboration with Cary Burkett reciting the poem Sonata by Lucy Miller Murray.

Then, no doubt for most listeners in the audience, two more discoveries: a string trio written in 1927 by the Finnish composer Erkki Melartin whose career was overshadowed by his compatriot, Jean Sibelius; and a piano quintet composed by Richard Strauss, famous for his tone-poems and operas, written when he was 20 and just starting his career as a composer.

One of the things Stuart loves about playing chamber music is the communication that develops between the players, things you sense and respond to spontaneously.

On a larger scale, it also improves the symbiotic nature of music-making in the orchestra, listening to each other and bringing that spontaneity to a live performance that generates a more satisfying experience for the players but also a more engaging experience for the listener.

“Good orchestral playing is like chamber music, with musicians sensitively reacting and interacting with each other,” Peter Sirotin told Ellen Hughes. Market Square Concerts and the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra are an excellent example of a mutually beneficial collaboration.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

HSO's Summertime Concerts & the 4th!

It's summertime and we've already had one official heat wave down. And while it looks like the heat may continue, that's not going to stop the celebrations for the 4th of July Week that rev up across the land this coming weekend.

Including the Harrisburg Symphony's summer series of six concerts across the Central PA region beginning Friday, June 29th at Lebanon Valley College and ending Wednesday, July 4th, at Harrisburg's City Island baseball stadium.

The program opens with the lively overture from Rossini's comic masterpiece, The Barber of Seville (familiar to fans of classic cartoons as well as the world of opera and concert hall) and includes music from Bizet's Carmen (including the 'March of the Toreadors'), Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, Leroy Anderson's 'The Typewriter' and Louis Prima's 'Sing Sing Sing' (arranged by our own Phil Snedecor) plus John Williams' Olympic Fanfare (with Arnaud's 'Bugler's Dream'), selections from Victory at Sea, a salute to the Armed Forces, Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America' and, even though it has nothing to do with American History, you can't do a 4th of July concert without it these days, highlights from Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture [see below] before ending with Sousa's 'Stars & Stripes Forever.'


Here are the locations and times for all of the six concerts. Please note the various starting times for each performance!

ANNVILLE - Friday, June 29 at 8 PM at the Lebanon Valley College Quad in Annville (sponsored by Lebanon Valley College) -- rain location: Lutz Recital Hall (Building #3 on the map)

ELIZABETHTOWN - Saturday, June 30 at 7 PM at Elizabethtown's Freemasons Cultural Center at the Masonic Village (sponsored by Amtrak and Hershey Entertainment & Resorts) -- this is an indoor concert!

CARLISLE - Sunday, July 1 at 7:30 PM - Carlisle Summerfair at the Dickinson College Quad (sponsored by Summerfair and Citizens of Carlisle) -- rain location: Carlisle Area High School

MIFFLINTOWN - Monday, July 2 at 7:30 PM - Juniata High School (sponsored by the Lawrence L. & Julia Z Hoverter Foundation and the 1st National Bank of Mifflintown) -- this is an indoor concert! 

LEMOYNE - Tuesday, July 3 at 8 PM - Negley Park (sponsored by the Lemoyne Business Association) - rain location: Cedar Cliff High School 

HARRISBURG - Wednesday, July 4 at 7:45 PM - Metro Bank Park, the home of the Harrisburg Senators on City Island - Fireworks after the concert! (sponsored by Chesapeake Energy & Dauphin County Commissioners) - Note: there is a $5 parking fee on City Island. Rain Location: The Forum (the Home of the Harrisburg Symphony)

(While concessions will be available for sale at the outdoor concerts in Carlisle, Lemoyne and Harrisburg, the policy of Metro Bank Park does not permit outside food or beverages in the stadium.)

 A special bonus for any of you who may be NEW to the Harrisburg Symphony and want to buy your first subscription series for the 2012-2013 season of Masterworks Concerts - which, incidentally, all take place indoors at the Forum! You can purchase a NEW subscription with a 50% off discount ONLY AT THESE SUMMER CONCERTS. Check in at the table near the orchestra's stage before and after the concert and during intermission.

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A note about the 1812 Overture. Russian composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky composed this for a special concert in 1882 commemorating the Battle of Borodino, the decisive battle of the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon's Grand Army. With 250,000 troops involved and some 70,000 casualties, it wasn't really a victory for either side: the French lost nearly a third of their men but were still able to push through the Russian defenders who then retreated beyond Moscow, allowing the French to take the city, the heart of Russia. This eventually ended in disaster for Napoleon, the city burned to the ground and the army forced to retreat through hostile territory in the dead of winter. Though the battle may not have been a victory, it marked the beginning of Napoleon's defeat.

This September 7th will mark the 200th Anniversary of the battle celebrated in Tchaikovsky's music.

Though there was a war being fought on American soil in 1812 - this year marking the war's bicentennial - Tchaikovsky's popular overture has nothing to do with it. But during our own Bicentennial, back in 1976, folks at the Boston Pops were looking around for a celebratory piece of music you could end a patriotic concert with, include fireworks and leave everybody cheering. Perhaps it says something of American music that they couldn't find anything by one of our own composers - admittedly, I had found an old copy of something called 'The 1849 Overture' celebrating the California Gold Rush with American folk songs and popular tunes (I specifically remember a grand treatment of "She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes") that was clearly patterned on Tchaikovsky's score.

So ever since, we've been celebrating American patriotism and our own Independence by hearing the Russian National Anthem blasting out - complete with cannons and church bells - celebrating the defeat of the French army. But, hey...

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto

This weekend is the last Masterworks concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s season when Stuart Malina conducts the orchestra welcomes guest violinist Karen Gomyo back for her third appearance here, this time playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto.

The program opens with "Starburst," a recent work by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff and concludes with one of those great sonic experiences with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concerts are Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will also be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(Sorry, I wanted to get this posted before, but technical difficulties and time constraints have been working against me.)
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Shostakovich & Oistrakh, late-1940s
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is regarded as one of the great names of the 20th Century and one of few composers to translate well to international acclaim outside the Soviet Union. His 5th Symphony has become one of the most popular symphonies from the past century and his 1st (written when he was still a teen-ager) and possibly his 10th may also be familiar to wide audiences. All three have been performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony in past seasons.

The 1st Violin Concerto was written between 1947 and the spring of 1948, written specifically for David Oistrakh. It’s in four movements, opening with a dark, elusive “Nocturne,” a very personal statement compared to the extroverted “Scherzo” that follows. The “Passacaglia” is again perhaps brooding and personal. From this, a solo “cadenza” begins to unfold, gradually building and getting faster until it erupts into the finale which the composer described as a Burlesque, another extroverted, manic dance.

Here is a performance with Julian Rachlin recorded with the Detroit Symphony and Leonard Slatkin recorded this past February:
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Further down, I’ll post a historic recording made in 1955 with Oistrakh who had just given the world premiere in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in October then gave the second performance of it on his American tour in December, 1955, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Dmitri Mitropoulos. It’s an amazing performance, despite the monaural sound quality.

With all due respect to the many violinists I've heard perform this piece in recording (I believe this is the first time I've experienced the concerto live), after hearing Karen Gomyo rehearse it with the Harrisburg Symphony this evening, I can say that she is the first violinist I've heard who can match Oistrakh for his intensity and understanding of the piece. I've always thought the opening slow movement to be too dark, dreary and ponderous, a problem people have with many of Shostakovich's symphonies that open with extremely long, extremely slow and often depressingly dark slow movements. But tonight, even in rehearsal, I found it now moving and heart-rending and, above all, beautiful. And yet they're same notes everybody else is playing: but that is the magic of art.

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Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto comes from the same period as the 10th Symphony and, like both that and the 5th Symphony, shared a similar fate when politics becomes too closely involved with the arts.

I’ve discussed this in previous posts about Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony which opened this season as well as the common bond in the 5th and 10th Symphonies.

This violin concerto was written following the unexpectedly light-hearted 9th Symphony (following the war, everyone was expecting a mammoth celebration of the Soviet victory ending with, most likely, a vast choral ‘Ode to Stalin’ or some such, and were sorely disappointed with what could be called his “Classical Symphony” – and yes, I even blogged about this one, here).

And, more significantly, it precedes the 10th Symphony which Shostakovich says he began composing following Stalin’s death in 1953 but which at least one close friend and colleague (the pianist, Tatiana Nikolaeva, for whom he was writing a series of preludes and fugues after Bach) says he was already writing in 1951.

The timing couldn’t have been worse – well, much worse.

Perhaps it was the critical reaction to the 9th – compared to their expectations – that prompted yet another political crackdown on Soviet artists writing “bad music for Soviet listeners” in 1948, leveling charges of “formalism” against composers like Shostakovich who imitated bourgeois Western standards – intellectual abstractions like fugues or symphonies in particular.

He’d been through the horrors of government condemnation before – in 1936 following his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (despite its popularity with audiences) which brought down Stalin’s displeasure and a personal attack published in Pravda famously called “Muddle instead of Music.”

He withdrew his 4th Symphony which was in rehearsal because he knew it would only make things worse. Instead, he wrote a new symphony famously subtitled (presumably not by Shostakovich) “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” This became his 5th Symphony and one wonders if perhaps there isn’t some “secret program” behind it which Shostakovich knew the politicos would be too dense to realize. It is said that music lovers in the audience understood it and cheered. At any rate, the composer found himself more-or-less rehabilitated, though the road through the future was not always an easy one.

But then, another decree came down in February of 1948 initiated by Stalin's minister, Andrei Zhdanov. Now Shostakovich was being attacked as a “formalist” – he, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and practically any Soviet composer of note – for following bourgeois Western art-forms: using things like fugues and writing symphonies which were considered German art-forms (keep in mind this was now after World War II and his 5th and 7th Symphonies were considered examples of Great Soviet Art).

Shostakovich had been working on a new violin concerto for his friend, the violinist David Oistrakh. He was in the midst of writing the third movement, the Passacaglia, when he received word that he was once again under attack.

Later, when one of his students was showed the finished concerto, he asked Shostakovich where he was working when news of the Zhdanov Decree came down. The composer opened the score and pointed to an exact measure. There were 16th notes before it and identical 16th notes continuing after it, as if there had been no break in the creative continuity, no earth-shattering change or outcry commemorating the moment, reacting to the reality outside the art.  

But this time, Shostakovich was tired of it - all the politics and the betrayals. He was older if not wiser and on the verge of illness. At 30 he might have had that kind of self-preservation and spunk to at least dance with the enemy if not overcome them outright. But at 42, he just wanted to be left alone.

This time, he “retired” from composing.

He completed the Violin Concerto the following month but didn’t want to have it performed or published. He and Oistrakh played through it and each of them made some minor changes. But basically, Shostakovich just put it in a drawer and left it there.

This time, he would wait.

Now, only some works of Shostakovich’s had been banned outright – including the 6th, 8th and 9th Symphonies – yet other works like the 5th Symphony or the Piano Quintet (despite its 2nd movement being a fugue) were not on the list. Considering his name was becoming synonymous with “enemy of the people,” few were the brave artists who would perform even his ‘acceptable’ works.

And so commissions were cancelled and new ones were not forthcoming. Royalties disappeared and performances vanished.

It didn’t happen until autumn but then he was dismissed as a professor from the conservatories in both Moscow and Leningrad.

At one point, Yuri Levitin, a friend and student of the composer's, relates (quoted in Elizabeth Wilson's "Shostakovich: A Life Remembered") how Shostakovich, always nervous (even as a child) was now suffering from constant headaches and frequent nausea and was taken to a sanatorium outside Moscow and kept there for several days ("he was in a terrible state") where his wife told them "You cannot imagine our position. Mitya [Dmitri] is on the verge of suicide!"

They were able to calm him down and some time later that year (or early the next, the context is not clear), Shostakovich informed them "I have decided to start working again so as not to lose my composer's credentials. I shall write a prelude and a fugue every day," taking into consideration "the experience of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Hardly something you'd think an artist accused of "formalism" would consider writing...

A year after the decree was handed down, Shostakovich received a personal phone call from none other than Stalin himself. One can only imagine what was going through his mind when he realized who was on the other end of the line!

The Soviet leader was calling him personally and asked him if he needed anything - medicine, for instance - but Shostakovich told him he had everything he needed. Then, after a pause, Stalin told him he had been chosen to represent the Soviet Union at the “Cultural and Scientific Congress for world Peace” to be held in New York City.

But somehow, during the conversation, Shostakovich had the presence of mind to point out the inconsistency of his representing a state where much of his music was banned.

A month later, Stalin lifted the ban of the previous year.

But still, when he returned from New York, Shostakovich did not immediately begin to publish works like his “hidden” violin concerto. He wrote politically acceptable works like a cantata extolling Stalin’s reforestation program but focused more on more intimate, less public statements like the string quartet, again some of which he placed in the drawer and didn’t perform or publish.

Thinking writing music inspired by folk-songs would endear him to the folk-loving government officials - music of the people, literally - it turns out his settings of Jewish folk poetry became the victim of international politics when Stalin went up against the United States for backing the formation of the State of Israel.

And so on.

The D-S-C-H Motive
It wasn’t until after Stalin died in March of 1953 that Shostakovich’s creativity found its thaw. Whether he had been working on it before or not, he finished and presented his 10th Symphony which, to Western ears, sounds like a celebration of Stalin’s Death, not to mention Shostakovich’s use of his personal motive, transforming his monogram into musical notes – DSCH. In Russian, the first letter of his last name is an “sh” and in German this would be “sch” so, since in German notation H is actually B-natural and S is E-flat, he turns the musical pitches D – E-flat – C – B-natural into a musical signature.

But he had used it earlier in his Violin Concerto.

Most prominently at dramatic points in the demonic scherzo and as the soloist’s cadenza turns from a meditation on fate into a dynamic outburst, exploding into the extroverted finale.

Now, in the 10th Symphony - which includes a quote from his setting of Pushkin's "What is in my name?" - this motive appears triumphantly, as if celebrating the fact that though Stalin is dead, I, DSCH, am still alive! But it's always set at those specific pitches, never transposed interval-for-interval to different pitches.

In the 2nd Movement
In the Violin Concerto it usually appears (and never so extravertedly as in the Symphony) on different pitches, so I'm not sure if its full "significance" had sunk in creatively. Similar to the BACH motive that Bach used so frequently in his own music (and others, ever since, in homage), it is a recognizable shape, whatever the pitches.

in the cadenza before the 4th Movement
In the scherzo, it appears translated a diminished fifth higher (the old "tritone," that devil in music as it was called since long before the days of Bach), and in the cadenza, it's a half-step lower, as part of a series of four-note chords for the solo violin (the cadenza excerpt, by the way, is three separate lines, not a score happening simultaneously).

Later, he would use it to chilling effect in his 8th String Quartet which he dedicated to the "victims of fascism and war," writing it after visiting the bombed-out city of Dresden in 1960, appearing almost constantly amidst a number of self-quotations from many of his earlier works. The autobiographical implications in this motive makes you wonder what the real program is behind this music...

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Anyway, back to the concerto: in 1955, two years after Stalin's death, Oistrakh practically had to coax it out of Shostakovich's desk drawer. Reluctantly, Shostakovich allowed him to work on it, though Oistrakh admitted it took a while for him to “get into it,” as we’d say today. He gave it its world premiere in Leningrad on October 29th, 1955.

It was practically ignored by the critics and was poorly received by the audience.

Oistrakh had already been invited on a tour of the United States and he wanted to take the ‘new’ concerto with him, an opportunity that probably convinced Shostakovich to release it from its desk drawer in the first place.

The second performance of the concerto took place in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos on December 29th, 1955. It was subsequently recorded.

Here is the audio of that historic recording:
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It was met with great enthusiasm from the American audience. During the bows, Mitropoulos held up the score and bowed with it in honor of the absent composer.

Later, Oistrakh returned to give the Moscow premiere where it was again greeted by official silence. Only later did it become a successfully regarded work in the Soviet Union.

Here, by the way, is a video of the finale with Oistrakh and the Berlin State Orchestra conducted by Heinz Fricke. I believe the recording was made in 1967.
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- Dick Strawser