Thursday, January 12, 2012

Concert Interrupted

The classical music world was much abuzz about how the final moments of Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 were brought to a premature end by the persistent ringing of a cell phone from an audience member sitting in the front row.

As an example, watch this brief excerpt (the very last 7 minutes of a 90-minute symphony) with Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler’s 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic:
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Now imagine, after 84 minutes of musical intensity, a cell-phone begins to ring at 1:13.

That is what happened Tuesday night with the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, quietly brought the orchestra to a stop and turned to the offending patron and asked, after what seemed a lengthy silence, if he was finished. Apparently, the ringing had gone on for some time and I presume the man had been oblivious, allowing it to continue ringing.

Consider the inconsiderate listener who single-handedly destroyed the hard work of 100 hard-working musicians and the experience being shared by a concert hall full of listeners which, if it were sold out, would number 2,783, bringing to a halt a movement that had already been building to its enigmatic, soulful conclusion for the past 20-some minutes, capping off a cathartic symphony that pulls you through its deeply personal world for an hour and a half.

This is not the first time this has happened and I’m pessimistic to say it will probably not be the last, but what do you do when people, for whatever reason, leave their cell-phones on during a concert or – worse – let them continue ringing (no doubt thinking it’s some other idiot’s phone)?

 Gilbert apologized to the audience after they erupted in rage against the offender (with cries of having him kicked out, of fining him $1,000), and then started the orchestra at the intense climax that eventually winds down to the symphony’s final breaths.

But that concert was a costly experience, not just in terms of the emotional wrenching back into reality – whatever the orchestra’s payroll and however much everybody had paid for their tickets – and one they will never have back again.

You can read an account of the incident, here.

(If you want to read more about the Harrisburg Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s 9th which Stuart Malina conducted in January, 2009, check this post.)

Everybody probably has their favorite concert-going horror story. I know I have sat in concert halls where somebody’s phone began to ring and rather than turning it off, he answered it. “Yeah? No, I’m at a concert, whaddaya want? Yeah. Okay. Yeah, I’ll check it when I get home. Uh huh. Call you tomorrow. Bye.”

Yeah, like that couldn’t’ve waited until after the concert was over?

I related two incidents – well, one real one and one that threatened to become real – in this post on my blog, “Thoughts on a Train,” about a drunken gentleman of a certain age ruined the first two movements of the Schubert String Quintet at a Market Square Concert performance in Whitaker Center and also recounting an earlier experience at the Met when I sat next to a guy who was pretending to be the broadcast host for Meyerbeer’s La Prophete.

But my favorite war-story concerns a similar moment with the New York Philharmonic in that same Avery Fisher Hall with Zubin Mehta conducting (this was in 1979 or 1980) with the final movement of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony – another 9th, and one that also pulls you toward its equally soulful ending, a long descent from one of the most excruciatingly intense discords in 19th Century music. This is followed by a resonant silence as if the world were holding its breath, then, rather than resolving, transcends the pain of reality by quietly lifting you into another plane entirely with its beatific chant on the tubas.

Listen to this excerpt with Eugen Jochum conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony, only the 2nd part of the 25-minute-long slow movement of a symphony that, even without the fourth movement Bruckner was unable to complete before his death, lasts about an hour.

Begin at 5:30 into the clip to appreciate the build-up, if you can’t start from the beginning. The climactic chord begins intensifying around 8:00, then cuts off at 8:58 (watch the conductor’s expression) – then resumes at 9:07 to the tubas’ chorale at 11:45 and from there to the end.

Now, imagine you’re sitting at the back of the hall in a balcony’s cheap seats when that chord cuts off at 8:58 and you can hear two women chattering, their talk reverberating through the silence!!!

Instead of a climax, there was a mighty rushing wind as a thousand people shooshed and hissed the offenders and Zubin Mehta, who had been conducting the New York Phil in a breath-taking performance, brought the orchestra in almost immediately and at such a deflated emotional level, the rest of the symphony’s four minutes felt like the whole performance was dead-on-arrival without transfiguration. Not to reflect on the orchestra’s always professional playing, but the emotional impact following this interruption.

Now, fast forward about six or seven years to a Harrisburg Symphony concert – actually, a reception following a performance given at Dickinson College when Truman Bullard, several others and I are standing around, and I’ve just told this story about the Bruckner 9th.

Conductor Larry Newland, the music director of the symphony then, came up and Truman asked him what his most horrifying concert story was – and he proceeded to talk about this concert with the New York Philharmonic where he was the Assistant Conductor and had been in the broadcast booth, monitoring the recording they were making for their archives of this performance of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony.


When it got to the climactic chord and it cut off, there in his headset he could hear two women jabbering on. “Oh,” the one said, “I always fry mine in deep-fat.” They were discussing a recipe for making bean soup.

Same concert, same experience.

And really – you spend money on tickets to hear the New York Philharmonic play Bruckner’s 9th and you can’t wait till after the concert’s over to trade recipes??? And how annoying that the orchestra was playing so loud you practically had to shout so your friend could hear you…

It’s not just technology.

But with the advent of electronic devices which we can obliviously take into the concert hall with us, we increase the possibilities we can use to ruin an experience for everyone around us.

So when they ask you to “please, turn off all cell-phone, beepers, pagers and electronic devices” before the concert, please do that. A man almost got lynched by 2,000 people at Avery Fisher Hall the other night for just that reason.

Remember: turn off your cell-phone. The life you save may be your own!

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sibelius Finds His Voice: En Saga

Jean Sibelius, 1892
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony includes one of the most popular of all piano concertos and a great symphony by Johannes Brahms (or scroll down to next post - the link doesn't seem to be working...). It opens, however, with a work that might be largely unfamiliar to Harrisburg audiences (in all my years working in radio, I think I only programmed this piece a few times - my bad...).

If Brahms was 50 when he wrote his 3rd Symphony and Edvard Grieg was 25 when he composed his Piano Concerto, Sibelius was 27 and was just finding his "own voice" after a couple years spent studying in Berlin and Vienna. En Saga would become his first published orchestral work (not the first one he composed) and the first in a long series of tone poems and symphonies on which his mature reputation is built.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony, joined by pianist Di Wu for the Grieg Concerto, this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Truman Bullard will be offering a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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 Sibelius' En Saga, the Gothenburg Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi
Part 1 (sorry for what sounds like a bad edit c.11:34/35)
Part 2

(Please note: not responsible for video appropriateness: why there are pictures here of ruins in India, I have no idea, but it's one of the better recordings of the music I could find on YouTube... (sigh)...)
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In many countries that did not have major cosmopolitan centers with active cultural scenes, young would-be composers went elsewhere to study. In the 19th Century, since there were no music schools in the United States, any aspiring composer went to Germany to learn his craft. Even into the early 20th Century, many still gravitated to Paris and the classroom of Nadia Boulanger up until World War II to “finish” the education they might have received in New York or Boston. In England, composers also went to Germany – for instance, Ethel Smyth badgered her father unmercifully until he finally allowed her to attend the Leipzig Conservatory in 1877.

The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was also a Leipzig Conservatory alumnus, class of 1862.

Jean Sibelius, however, born in 1865 in a small town in southern Finland, went to Helsinki originally to study law but gave in to his passion for music. Originally he wanted to become a violinist and even played the second and third movements of the Mendelssohn Concerto in public before realizing he was not cut out for the world of the concert virtuoso. Composition was his “fall-back” and, for similar reasons that led Grieg to “the continent,” Sibelius studied first in Berlin in 1889-1890 and then in Vienna the following academic year.

In Berlin, he heard Wagner operas and Beethoven symphonies with Hans von Bülow conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. He heard Joseph Joachim’s quartet playing quartets by Beethoven and Schubert. He also heard young Richard Strauss conducting his brand new tone poem, Don Juan.

But Berlin under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was not an atmosphere conducive to Sibelius’ nature. He also found he detested the rigorous study of counterpoint (the combination of independent voices that have to work melodically and fit the usual harmonic rules at the same time: it is often limited to the study of writing fugues and is usually considered the very driest of academic dryness). Not surprisingly, he found he lost interest in composing. (Not surprisingly, there is very little “fugal” writing in Sibelius’ mature style, for that matter but a great deal of independent polyphony in his great layers of sound – all, essentially, contrapuntal.)

And so, having completed his first year in Berlin with a work considered adequate enough to pass his courses, he left for Vienna. There, he became a student of Robert Fuchs who was a good friend of Johannes Brahms (several years ago, I heard two cello sonatas by Fuchs and would’ve sworn he’d set out to imitate Brahms on purpose. But after listening to other works by other contemporaries of Brahms’ in Vienna, there was a whole school of Brahms imitators who have since largely been forgotten.)

Sibelius also managed to study with Karl Goldmark who was a great inspiration to him. He discovered Bruckner and thought he was the greatest living composer (Brahms, by the way, was still alive – in fact, in 1890, seven years after completing his 3rd Symphony, he had only recently completed his 2nd String Quintet, Op. 111 and was close to retirement, before deciding to write a series of works for a clarinetist whose sound inspired him back into active composing). Sibelius also attended performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and became friends with an oboe player who taught him how to write for the English Horn (he would write The Swan of Tuonela two years later).

He enjoyed the party life of Vienna – “Vienna,” he wrote home, “is all laughter and waltzes” which sounds like the title of a waltz by Johann Strauss who knew a little something about the Viennese love of leisure.

That summer of 1891, the 25-year-old Sibelius returned to Finland and realized something very important, something Grieg had discovered after returning to his native Norway from Leipzig and something Antonin Dvořák was telling his students at the National Conservatory in New York City when he taught there between 1891-1895 (and when he wrote his “New World” Symphony). To create a “national” artistic voice, you need to base your musical language on your folk music – which is exactly what Grieg did (the last movement of his piano concerto is a Norwegian folk dance) and ultimately what Sibelius did, turning first to the ancient legends of Finland, the Kalevala, after hearing a folk-singer sing some traditional verses in a music unlike anything he had studied in Berlin or Vienna – or, for that matter, in Helsinki.

He composed an ambitiously huge work based on the life of the hero Kullervo for soloists, chorus and a large orchestra which was performed with much fuss but little popular reaction (saved mostly by the famed conductor Robert Kajanus predicting a great future for the young composer – shades, perhaps, of Schumann and Brahms). And it impressed the parents of Aino Järnefelt to let their daughter marry this composer, after all: before, Sibelius had been a poor student with no prospects – now…? Who knew? At least, he could combine his honeymoon with a travel grant from the university in Helsinki to study the playing of folk instruments in distant Karelia. And yes, in 1893, he would compose what we know as “The Karelia Suite.”

Kajanus had impressed on Sibelius that for all its wonderful moments, Kullervo would not be often performed and he needed something smaller in scale with which to make his name. And so in the autumn of 1892, after settling into a house and a teaching position in Helsinki, he began work on what would become his first published orchestral work, En Saga which is Swedish for “A Fairy Tale,” though we think of “saga” as more serious than a children’s story (think the Nibelung Saga which inspired Wagner’s “Ring”).

In the midst of this, his grandmother died and, after the funeral, his childhood home was sold. He was clearly in a nostalgic frame of mind.

It is the “state of mind” behind the fairy tale of En Saga . The music does not represent any specific tale – at least, Sibelius never admitted to one – all he said was “it was an expression of a state of mind.” That didn’t sit well with people who wanted to know what that magical opening was describing (are they ice crystals on the wind?) or what was happening when those brass chords came in a couple minutes later and the tension began to build (is this the hero?). How could you have an abstract work called “Fairy Tale” and not say what it’s “about”?

Later, Sibelius wrote,

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"En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works. I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. When I was writing it, I went through many things that were upsetting to me. In no other work have I revealed myself as completely as in En Saga. For this reason alone all interpretations of En Saga are, of course, completely foreign to my way of thinking."
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But listeners found it confusing – “capricious” according to one critic – and others suggested he make substantial cuts to shorten the piece.

To a close friend, he mentioned paintings by Arnold Böcklin’s paintings in the same sentence with En Saga (it was one of Böcklin’s better known paintings that would inspire Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead”). To another, later, he mentioned the music was closer to the Icelandic eddas than the Finnish Kalevala.

Still, it is dramatic, pictorial music – powerful and full of those fingerprints we associate with the mature Sibelius (the constant scurrying strings in the backgrounds as great chords pass through the winds or brass; the primitive-sounding melodies built of repetitive folk-like fragments).

The month after he conducted En Saga’s premiere, he conducted three performances of Kullervo again, but the reaction was so negative, even his friends suggested he give up composition and just become an organist in a small town somewhere…

Fortunately, the next month – following the birth of their first child – Sibelius premiered a choral piece that “exploded like a bomb,” a popular success. And he considered turning part of the Kalevala into a Wagnerian-style opera – for its overture, he composed what later became “The Swan of Tuonela.” He went to Bayreuth to “immerse himself in the Wagnerian style” and though the opera never came into being beyond tons of sketches, the “Swan” later became one of the “Lemminkainen Legends” (though one of the Finnish critics, at its premiere, thought that opening English horn solo was “long and boring”).

After he composed his 1st Symphony and started to receive international success, he decided to revise En Saga in 1902, shortening it, making it a somewhat “milder” piece which many of his friends were unhappy about – part of its charm was its very wildness. Now, however, he decided he had learned what is more accessible and decided to second-guess his earlier “state of mind.” In this form, the tone poem has become much more popular.

More familiar image of Sibelius
In addition to the Violin Concerto and the seven symphonies – of which the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 7th have been played in Harrisburg – there are also several wonderful tone poems, En Saga being the first. The justifiably popular “Finlandia” generally fits into this category, but it would be wonderful to hear works like Pohjola’s Daughter and Tapiola (also based on Finnish myths) more often or one of my favorites, the Finnish creation story told in Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra, rarely heard, though he will probably be best remembered for the sentimental waltz (nothing to do with his days in Vienna, however), Valse triste (originally composed in 1903 for a play about Death) which he sold to his publisher for a small fee and never saw any royalties from its inevitable popularity.

- Dick Strawser

Brahms & His 3rd Symphony: Music at 50

Brahms in 1883
This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in one of his favorite works, the Symphony No. 3 by Johannes Brahms (actually, whatever Brahms symphony he's conducting at the time is his favorite: there are only four but how can you pick just one?). Also on the program, pianist Di Wu plays the ever-popular Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg and the concert begins with En Saga by Jean Sibelius. It's called "Enchanting Escape" and you can join us for this musical get-away Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum (Truman Bullard offers a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance).

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In May of 1883, Johannes Brahms invited a close friend of his to a “little small sad festival” to be attended by only four people. This was the way Brahms intended to celebrate his 50th birthday.

That summer, he wrote his Third Symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony will play this weekend under the direction of Stuart Malina, a self-avowed lover of Brahms’ music.

Here, Sir Colin Davis conducts the Dresden State Orchestra on their Japanese Tour in 2009 (recorded in Suntory Hall).
1st Movement part 1

1st Movement part 2

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement
(notice the conductor mouths the words “too loud” to the orchestra even before the music begins! Brahms marks it ‘sotto voce’ and it needs to be whispered, almost inaudible.)

When he was 20, Johannes Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann and there was much prophesying about future greatness, most of which seemed to backfire. For one thing, if he was the heir to Beethoven, where was all this great music? Even though Robert had described his piano sonatas as “veiled symphonies” and Clara had told him, to succeed, he would need to compose symphonies, the symphony he began sketching shortly after Robert Schumann threw himself into the Rhine – an attempted suicide – in 1854 did not become what we know as his first symphony which was completed in 1876, 22 years later. 

But he took his time, dealing with negative criticism and taunts from other contemporary composers like Liszt and Wagner. Brahms didn’t want to engage in the typical “on-the-job training” so many young composers have, producing immature works that will be forgotten and only incur further heckling from the crowd demanding proof he was, in fact, Beethoven’s musical heir.

Once that hurdle had been (finally) surpassed – Brahms was then 43 years old – he composed his 2nd Symphony in one summer the following year. The 3rd Symphony came along six summers later. It too was largely composed over one summer.

Brahms had become primarily a “summer composer,” going away to holiday spots (or spas, to be more exact) like Bad Ischl. The summer after his 50th birthday, he went to Wiesbaden, a spa-town on the Rhine (See a modern-day panorama of the city, below, taken from a mountain outside of town, looking toward the barely visible Rhine. Ignore the cell-phone tower on the left…)

A Modern View of Wiesbaden

His choice of location was not accidental.

Brahms had been born in the German city of Hamburg, a great port city on the Elbe River. When he visited the Schumanns, they lived in Düsseldorf, a city on the Rhine where Schumann had been the city’s “music director” and where he composed his 3rd Symphony, known as the “Rhenish.” It was the river he would shortly try to drown himself in.

The Rhine is also where Richard Wagner begins and ends his operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung.

And Wagner, whom Brahms respected to a certain degree despite their rivalry, had just died in February, a few months before Brahms’ 50th birthday.

But the main reason Brahms chose Wiesbaden for his summer composing sojourn was one of its residents, a 26-year-old alto named Hermine Spiess (in some sources, her name is spelled Spies).

Brahms first heard her sing at a friend’s home that January and whatever their relationship was, Brahms found himself writing several songs inspired by that beautiful alto voice.

The first of his songs he’d heard her sing was the delightful, folkish “Vergebliches Ständchen” (which he’d heard her sing, that first meeting: a young man begs his sweetheart to let him in to say good night to her, but she laughs and shuts the window in his face – as Brahms joked after hearing Hermine sing it, “I’m sure she’d let him in!”) 

Many of the songs he wrote for her, rather than being the traditional love-songs you might expect, were, despite his flirtations, about unrequited love, rejection or the anxiety of growing older (think “mid-life crisis” 1880s-style). 

Hermine Spiess in 1887
Her family lived in Wiesbaden. Brahms jokingly called Hermine his “Rhinemaiden” (after the seductive young water nymphs who initiate Wagner’s “Ring”) and also, after Shakespeare’s queen in “The Winter’s Tale,” as “Hermione-ohne-O” – Harmione without the O.

How much of Hermine is in the Third Symphony remains to be seen. Brahms’ non-vocal music was always abstract but there were often specific associations he might have had in mind when composing it, regardless of what it might mean as a “program,” the dreaded “what-the-music-is-about” question. 

Certainly, lots of Brahms’ music makes covert references to Clara Schumann right down to his quoting or paraphrasing what Schumann himself called his “Clara Motive.” And then there’s his Farewell to Agathe von Siebold in his 2nd String Sextet, her name spelled out in musical pitches.

If there is anything referring to Hermione-ohne-O in the symphony he composed that summer, Brahms never hinted at it.

A more likely inspiration was his proximity to the River Rhine which might put a man officially in Middle Age reminiscing about the events of 30 years earlier and first met the Schumanns in a town on the Rhine. From the studio he rented on the hillside overlooking Wiesbaden, he could see the Rhine in the not great distance: did that bring to mind musical associations?

The opening theme of Brahms’ new symphony bears a strong resemblance to a passage from Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the very river that Brahms could see from his summer home.

It has the same kind of “swing” Schumann’s first movement theme has but later, Schumann varies his theme – check here to hear Schumann’s “Rhenish,” at 6:44 into the clip. (In the example above, I’ve transposed it from Schumann’s original pitches, starting on G, to Brahms’ theme, starting on F.) Interestingly, the theme is not really something you can build on: in Schumann’s case, it “closes” the harmonic motion and so Brahms has to open it up to make it a suitable theme he can build on. But perhaps, consciously or not, that is the inception point for Brahms’ inspiration: the proximity of the Rhine and the memory of Schumann’s musical tribute to it.

Whatever Brahms may have thought was behind his new symphony, what secret meanings there might be inside the music, he was completely silent about it. But others saw in it specific references: Hans Richter, who would conduct the premiere, after referring to Brahms’ 2nd Symphony as his Pastoral, called this one “Brahms’ Eroica” after Beethoven’s 3rd. Clara Schumann heard “the mysterious charms of woods and forests [in the first movement]… worshippers kneeling about the little forest shrine.” Joseph Joachim, for whom he’d composed his Violin Concerto a few years earlier, said the finale brought to mind the Greek myth of Hero and Leander: “I cannot help imagining the bold, brave swimmer, his breast borne up by the waves and by the mighty passion before his eyes, heartily, heroically swimming on, to the end, to the end, in spite of the elements which storm around him.” 

Certainly, there’s drama in the symphony – as naturally there would be, given the nature of the form – but is Brahms’ 3rd really his equivalent of Beethoven’s 3rd? The unexpected mood of the finale in the dark key of F Minor rather than some joyously affirmation in F Major, might lead you to think of dramatic struggles, but rather than a tragic ending or a final heroic resolution (as he ended his 1st Symphony), Brahms lets the clouds part and, in a very un-Brahmsian texture (but reminiscent of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs”) brings back the opening movement’s first theme – perhaps his Rhine Motive – as a beautiful benediction. Perhaps, like Wagner’s “Ring,” it all begins and ends with the Rhine?

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched had someone called it “Brahms’ Rhenish”?

Opening Page of Brahms' original manuscript of his Symphony No. 3
Another famous association concerns its opening “gesture,” a musical motive that permeates the symphony.

Schumann had suggested he, Brahms and another of Schumann’s friends, Albert Dietrich, write a violin sonata by committee to honor violinist Joseph Joachim. They were to be given to him anonymously, he would play through them and then try to guess who wrote which movement. Brahms supplied the scherzo, usually known as the “Sonatensatz” (unimaginatively translated as “Concerto Movement”).

Collectively, this is known as the “F.A.E.” Sonata because Joachim’s life-motto, he said, was “Frei aber einsam” – Free but lonely.

Brahms, the perpetual bachelor – he had said he would attempt neither writing an opera nor marriage – joked that his motto was “F.A.F.” – Frei aber froh. Free but happy!

In that sense, the opening motive of the symphony he wrote at 50 starts off with a rising gesture, F–A-flat–F (see red bracket in the example).

The Opening of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (without the inner voices)

Though our attention is commanded by the Schumann-quoted melody in the violins, in the basses and trombone, you hear the F–A-flat–F motive. A few measures later, it’s in the horns in the inner voices, transposed to C–E-flat–C and again in the trumpets. In the next measure, it’s in the lower strings and horns, this time as B-flat–D-flat–B-flat. After what sounds like a transition to a new theme a few more measures later, it reappears in the lower voices as A–C–A, what seems to be A Minor but it accompanies the F Major resolution before the violins restate the opening chords again, back into the F–A-flat–F pattern. So in the first 23 measures, you’ve heard that “Frei aber Froh” motive seven times, making a full-circle from F back to F!

What’s surprising about this – aside from the fact the motto should abbreviate to F–A–F, not F–A-flat–F – if the symphony’s in F Major (with an A-natural), why is this generating motive in F Minor (with an A-flat)?

It gives his harmony a pungent non-traditional sound: instead of a standard basic chord progression at the opening, he immediately swings from an F Major chord to a diminished seventh that should resolve to a C major chord but instead swings back to F Major before swinging off, once again, to an F Minor chord to a totally unexpected D-flat Major Chord before turning into that diminished seventh chord again but this time resolving as it should to the expected C Major chord which is also the dominant of the symphony’s tonic key, F Major.

Okay, I know that’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, but if you wanted to know why this sounds different from, say, the opening of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony (speaking unexpected harmonic twists), that’s why. 

It also helps explain why the last movement is in F Minor rather than the expected F Major. And then, at the very end, after all this dark drama, the heavens open up and we hear this tremulous string texture – very unlike Brahms but bringing to mind, perhaps, Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” – with the opening Rhenish theme in a benedictory F Major, leading not as you’d expect to an ultimately triumphant conclusion (like the 1st) or a joyous celebration (like the 2nd) but a peaceful resolution.

While it was one of possibly only two major successes Brahms ever had at a premiere – the public reaction to his German Requiem was the other one – and has gone on to become an audience favorite. Not quite a year after that world premiere in Vienna, it received its American premiere in New York – at a “Novelty Concert” – and a month later was performed in Boston where several hundred people walked out of the concert in protest of this “new music.”

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Oh, and what ever happened to Hermione-ohne-O?

In December of 1884, a year after the symphony’s premiere, Brahms was honored with an all-Brahms concert in the town of Oldenburg. He stayed with his friend Albert Dietrich (the third part of the F.A.E. Sonata’s committee) and brought with him seven guests including Hermine Spiess. Afterward, Hermine wrote to Dietrich’s daughter,

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“What I value most particularly is to have now enjoyed Brahms as a man. How charming he was with us when we were making and guessing riddles. What delightful hours we spent! …Of course, now I only play Brahms the livelong day.”

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As Jan Swafford notes in his excellent and wonderfully readable biography of Brahms,

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“She had met him more than a year before and spent much of the previous summer [when he was composing the 3rd Symphony] in Wiesbaden in his company. If Brahms had undertaken to court Hermine, and in his fashion he probably had, his approach was remarkably oblique. There is every reason to assume, anyway, as with other “respectable” women, that he flirted full-tilt and kept his hands to himself.”
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The following summer, Klaus Groth, a poet (then 66), sent both Brahms and Hermine a poem, “Come soon!” He and Brahms had a running joke about vying for Hermine’s attention, and so Brahms immediately sat down and composed a song to Groth’s poem and sent it to Hermine. That summer, he was working on the last two movements of his 4th Symphony.

The next summer, he composed one of his most ingratiating songs, “Wie Melodienzieht es mir,” as a musical portrait of “the effervescent Hermine” and sent it to her. She sang it frequently. By now, she was an acclaimed Brahms interpreter, especially of his Alto Rhapsody. 

Brahms wrote to another friend that summer, “I’m now getting to the years where a man easily does something stupid so I have to doubly watch myself.”

While he was waiting for Hermine to arrive for a visit that summer, he was working on the 2nd Violin Sonata. That November, he made arrangements for Hermine to make her Viennese debut as her accompanist, singing his songs. Friends pointed out that, his enthusiasm aside, Hermine was not developing as a singer. At that point, one could say their relationship, whatever it might have been or become, had crested.

Meeting again in 1888, Hermine met Brahms at a train stop in Basel and was shocked how gray he had become, though she still saw the youthfulness in his “beautiful blue young-man’s eyes and the fresh, dear features.” (He was 55…)

By now, Brahms comments to friends about any possible marriage is like a paraphrase of Groucho Marx about any country club that would accept him: Brahms would despise “a girl for taking me as a husband.” Before, it had been that he was too poor; now it was that he was too old. (He was, by the way, 56.)

Four years later, Hermine Spiess married a lawyer and retired from her career. A year after the wedding, she died in childbirth, a day after her 36th birthday.

By now, Brahms had passed whatever mid-life crisis may have affected his 3rd Symphony. Disappointed in the failure of his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto (even with his friends), he destroyed a second violin concerto, a second double concerto and at least one more symphony.

- Dick Strawser

P.S. For some reason, the link has ended up bringing you to the bottom of the post, to the comment field, and while I enjoy this orchestra member's reaction, it's not really the main thrust of the post. So if you find yourself here and unwilling to scroll up, follow this link to a so-far okay reblogging of the post at Thoughts on a Train. Sorry for the inconvenience (not sure how it happened, but one of the cats tromped across my keyboard while I was editing the post... hmmm..)

Monday, January 9, 2012

An Enchanting Escape: Di Wu joins the HSO

Di Wu will be performing Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, one of the most popular piano concertos in the repertoire, this weekend with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony, Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum. In addition, the program includes a youthful work by Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, a fairy-tale he called "En Saga" (which means, simply, "A Fairy Tale"), and the Symphony No. 3 by Johannes Brahms which he wrote during the summer of his 50th Birthday.

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Praised by The Wall Street Journal as “a most mature and sensitive pianist,” Chinese-born Di Wu continues to uphold her enviable reputation as an elegant and exciting musician. Recent highlights include debuts with The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, the Cincinnati May Festival, the Hamburg Philharmonic, and a performance in Tokyo where she appeared as a soloist with orchestra before an audience of 11,000.

As a recitalist, she has been hailed by the Washington Post for her “fire and authority.” The Philadelphia Inquirer praised her “charisma, steely technique and keen musical intelligence,” and in California, the Bay Area’s Peninsula Review critic declared, “I would gladly crawl over broken glass to hear her again.” Ms. Wu recently gave her San Francisco recital debut, and returned as soloist to Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach in the famed, but rarely performed, Turangalîla-Symphonie of Messaien, one of numerous debuts and re-engagements on Ms. Wu’s current itinerary.

Ms. Wu is the winner of numerous competition prizes. In 2009 alone, she was awarded a coveted prize at the XIII Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, The Juilliard School’s Petschek Award, and the Vendome Virtuosi prize at Lisbon’s prestigious Vendome Competition. She is a winner of Astral Artists’ 2007 National Auditions. Her recent recording of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Books I and II received praise from Musical America’s Harris Goldsmith, who wrote, “Her account of the Brahms is amazing. She takes all the difficult options (her glissandos are unbelievable!), and she conjures from the piano absolutely gossamer, violinistic textures, joyous humor, and brilliant air-borne tempos.”

Ms. Wu began her professional career as soloist with the Beijing Philharmonic at the age of 14. Since then she has toured widely in Asia and Europe. She came to the U.S. in 1999 to study at the Manhattan School of Music with Zenon Fishbein. From the year 2000 through 2005 she studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with Gary Graffman. She went on to earn a Master of Music degree from Juilliard under Yoheved Kaplinsky and an Artist Diploma under the guidance of Joseph Kalichstein and Robert McDonald.

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Here is Di Wu's video biography from a presentation about the 2009 Van Cliburn competition:

Click here to listen to Di Wu performing the last movement of the 3rd Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff from the final round of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.

Grieg & Pennsylvania: One Degree of Separation

Edvard Grieg
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina will perform a concert called "Enchanted Escape" with Di Wu the soloist in Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, plus Jean Sibelius' fairy tale En Saga and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3 (I'll be posting more about these works soon.) The concerts are this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in Harrisburg. Come an hour earlier to hear a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard.

The Piano Concerto in A Minor that Edvard Grieg composed when he was in his mid-20s probably needs no introduction (not that that will stop me from introducing it to you). Here are some video clips of the complete concerto with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing with conductor Gustavo Dudamel (now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and the Teresa Careño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

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Edvard Grieg was a famous Norwegian composer born in Bergen whose great-grandfather was originally a Scottish soldier who eventually settled in Norway after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Famous for the music he composed for Peer Gynt and for his Piano Concerto, Grieg is not a name we would associate, however, with Pennsylvania beyond the fact his music is often played here.

But there really is one degree of separation. 

Ole Bull in 1851
Ole Bull was a famous violinist born in Bergen, Norway, whose brother had married Edvard Grieg’s aunt. When the violinist heard the 15-year-old Grieg play the piano, he arranged for him to go to Leipzig, Germany, since there were no reasonable schools in Norway and it would be better than Copenhagen, the closest cosmopolitan city, to study at the conservatory Mendelssohn had founded..

Five years earlier, in 1852, Ole Bull had purchased over 11,000 acres in the woods of Potter County in north-central Pennsylvania  for a little over $10,000 (quite a sum in those days) and founded a settlement he called New Norway.

That September, he reported that “30 stalwart sons of Norway arrived” to settle the area. He planned to build a castle for himself on a mountainous shelf overlooking the valley, a hilltop he called Valhala, after the fortress of the Norse God Odin (who became Wotan in Wagner’s opera, ‘The Ring’).

Unfortunately, the land turned out to be so inhospitable to tilling, the colony and the castle were quickly abandoned. However, a state park there is named after him.

Disappointed in the colony’s failure, he returned to Norway and his native Bergen in 1857, the year he heard the teen-aged Edvard Grieg play the piano. Who knows: if New Norway had been a success, Edvard Grieg may never have gotten to Leipzig to study and might not have become the famous composer he eventually did, not that one should count on such black-and-white versions of the “What-If” Game…

Of course, it’s very possible he would have managed something, somehow, but creative genius is such a delicate condition, it’s also possible, without the right nurturing at the right time, it may never have blossomed as we know it.

- Dick Strawser