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 Esterh├ízy 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