Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Conversation with Chee-Yun

This weekend, Chee-Yun plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony. Here's a re-post of an interview with Robert Moon that appeared back in 2000 in "Strings," the newsletter for string players around the world.

(Read more about the concert, and listen to a video of the complete Tchaikovsky concerto with the legendary David Oistrakh.) The concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm in the Forum. Dick Strawser presents a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. Tickets are available at the door. Student tickets are also available (with current Student ID).

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Korean violinist Chee-Yun rushes to shake my hand with the exuberance of a young musician under the influence of playing publicly, for the first time, one of the great masterpieces of chamber music—Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat, the "Archduke"—performed with cellist Andrés Díaz and pianist Stephen Prutsman at the venerable Dock Street Theater, as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. She immediately replays the performance in words.

"Sometimes when you’re playing you’re thinking, ‘This is so tough,’ and you’re really concentrating on the detail . . . but today there were moments when I was getting goosebumps. In the slow movement I was actually praying, it was so spiritual. It was a moment when I realized that this is why we do what we do," she says enthusiastically. "We were all so nervous, saying that we had to do this masterpiece justice. Then Steve [Prutsman] said, ‘How many times do we get to play great music for the first time?’ My attitude changed and I realized I would give it my best, just play the notes and let the music flow like butter."

Beneath this youthful and effervescent personality lies a musician who speaks frankly about the rigors of the life of a professional violinist. "Traveling is so hard," she acknowledges. "Oh, I want to take weekends off, go out with my friends—but then, experiences like playing the ‘Archduke’ make it all worthwhile."

She certainly has been playing music for a long time. Chee-Yun began performing early, winning the Grand Prize of the Korean Times Competition at age eight. Her teacher in Korea was Nam Yun Kim; she came to New York (where she is currently based) in 1983, at age 13, to study at the Juilliard School. There she worked with noted teacher Dorothy DeLay, as well as with Hyo Kang and renowned chamber musician Felix Galimir.

That hard work has paid off. Chee-Yun has won numerous awards, including the 1989 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, the 1990 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and the 1993 Nan Pa award of South Korea, that country’s highest musical honor. She has performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Cincinnati Symphony, and she tours as a chamber-music artist with the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

Two weeks after her "Archduke" performance, she plays Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan in San Francisco’s Davies Hall, and there it is clear that the effort of her early years has created a musician not only with technique—that of a virtuoso, in fact—but also with a rich, vibrant tone and a presence to match. How does a prodigy become a mature musician?

You started playing at age six. How did you get started?

My mother was a modern woman: she really wanted to learn how to play the piano and be a piano teacher, rather than assume the traditional role of being a good cook and a good wife. My older brother was born first, and, like most Asian men, he got most of the attention. When my mother then had two girls, she started giving them music lessons. I was the fourth child and became a tomboy, playing with my older brother. And my long hair actually is a rebellion against my mom, who was constantly chopping it off to prevent me from playing with it!

But I wanted to be like my sisters, and my older sister was a piano player, a little prodigy. She was really good, and getting all the attention. So I started playing the piano at age four or five so I could get some attention, too. I loved the sound of the piano and started learning more than my teacher asked of me. Playing the piano was easy and fun for me.

But then my mother thought that my eyes were getting crossed from playing the piano. She had me stop the lessons, so I looked for something else to do. My other sister was playing the violin but she hated it—she wanted to become a ballerina. So I started playing the violin.

By the time I was seven years old I was taking lessons, but I wasn’t very motivated and practiced little. My mom wanted me to stop but my teacher objected, saying that there was something in my playing that would merit my continuing. My mom suggested that I enter a competition as a way to motivate me to practice. So at age eight, I entered the Korean Times Competition as an unknown, and I won it. I had never played on stage before, and I instantly fell in love with it!

Winning that competition convinced me that I was good enough to be a professional violinist. I went to study with a Korean professor who was studying with Ivan Galamian and I decided I was going next to Juilliard. When I got there, I was a little frog in the ocean. Midori was there and was having a career after three years. I played in a quartet with her (all of us were 12 or 13 years old—she played the viola) and I remember we played the first movement of the Dvo rák "American" Quartet for a birthday party and earned $50. That was big money for me!

Has it been hard for you to practice on a regular basis?

Practice for me today is much more fun than it used to be. I went through a period when I wished I could go to sleep with the music in my head and wake up having it all memorized. I went through a lazy period when I wanted to go to movies and go out with boys, driving my mom and dad crazy. I would go through periods when I just wanted to quit playing the violin. My parents would say, "Just go ahead, we can sell your violin and buy a nice car with the money." And then I would go back to it.

What kept me going was having a great teacher, Miss DeLay. She was consistently supportive and encouraging. When I went through a real teenage crisis—losing a boyfriend—I would go to my lesson, my eyes welling with tears. She’d say, "Come here, sit next to me, listen and talk to me." I felt she really cared about me as a person, not just as a violinist. When I came to the States, there were so many great players. Who was going to notice me—especially why Miss DeLay? She’d heard this work played by [Itzhak] Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Midori, all of them a thousand times better than me. How was I going to prove myself? And I didn’t speak English! I was just another one of those little kids.

So I worked so hard for every lesson, like getting ready for a performance. When I went through those years of personal crises, she helped me survive them. I even left home for three days. My mom begged me to come home and my dad said, "Don’t come home, I’m going to disown you!" And then Miss DeLay just drove me home—how about that! And she explained to my dad that what I was going through was temporary, just part of being a teenager.

Since you’ve been out of school, about how many concerts do you play in a year?

I play between 50 and 60 orchestral dates a year. I play a lot of concertos, but I also tour with a group of five of us who play chamber music—Steve Prutsman, Andrés Díaz, [pianist and artistic director for Spoleto’s chamber-music concerts] Charles Wadsworth, [clarinetist] Todd Palmer, and me—under the name of Spoleto USA. We do two different tours a year, playing ten to 12 concerts on each tour. During the summer I play several festivals. This summer [2000] I’m going to the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado, to Spoleto in South Carolina, and to the La Jolla Summerfest in California. I love going to festivals, and Spoleto was my first one, back in 1993. Playing chamber music at the summer festivals has played a significant role in my maturation as a musician.

Why is chamber music so attractive to you?

I started playing chamber music a lot in 1990, after I went to the Marlboro Music Festival [in Vermont]. Chamber music is great because you get to work with high-caliber musicians who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you. I love getting constructive criticism and feedback in a rehearsal. I sit at the rehearsal and I ask my colleagues, ‘How is this?’ I listen to their answers and I try them out. I might have my own ideas, but I’m curious to know what they’re thinking first. To play on stage with them is great fun—the spontaneous give-and-take that happens is really special. Chamber music has helped me play concertos because I listen to the orchestra more closely now.

What is it like playing a concerto for an orchestra for the first time?

When I meet the orchestra, I want to be with them, rather than being a soloist apart from them. They don’t know you, and you know that they’re all saying to themselves, "Oh, here’s yet another Asian violinist, all fingers but very doubtful as a musician." And that’s fine, but I’m there to prove them wrong!

Soloists often need to lead the orchestra when playing a concerto, but sometimes it’s actually better to follow the conductor and listen carefully to what’s going on in the orchestra rather than just playing your solo part. I want to be part of the orchestra. I want to be able to hear the strings and the winds just as much as the conductor does. I know the score, I know what’s going on, and I want to make it all work. Orchestra musicians really appreciate that. And then they come up to me afterwards, and say, "Wow, you really make music. It was fun playing with you."

I want them to enjoy the experience as much as I do. How great it is that I get to play with all those musicians on stage, rather than trying to be in the spotlight as a soloist.

How many rehearsals do you have with the orchestra?

One or two at the most. It isn’t enough, and when the conductor spends too much time on the other symphonic works on the program, it can get ugly. There usually isn’t a piano rehearsal with the conductor—unless it’s a new work, and then the conductors want to spend a lot of time with the soloist. If they know the work and have played it many times, then all the conductor usually wants is a run-through.

What makes a good conductor, from your perspective?

Sensitivity, someone who is open to my ideas about interpretation, and someone with a willingness to allow spontaneous things to happen. Someone who exerts leadership, which means achieving rapport between me, as the soloist, and the orchestra. That’s so important, because if you don’t have rapport with the orchestra, they won’t follow you. A lot of times it’s a combination of musical and personal issues. The good conductors I work with know exactly what to say in rehearsals, when to say it, and how to say it. How often to stop and interrupt. The good conductors are well prepared; they have a plan and know how they want to work with this rehearsal. And of course it’s easier to work with conductors who are familiar with me.

A conductor has to know a whole lot more about a piece than I do, because he’s conducting the whole orchestra. So I go to him with the score and ask how this or that phrase works dynamically, how does it fit in, should I come in at a higher volume level because the winds are playing, even though the score says "piano," and so forth.

Of the concerts you do, in how many are you really playing in top form?

That’s a good question. Often I feel like I’m not really playing as well as I can. Every time you go on stage, you’re completely exposed. People expect you to play at this incredibly high level every time. There are days that I’m slightly off and don’t play as well. People don’t know that you might have a really bad flu one night, and that your head is so stuffed up that your hearing goes in and out. Then there are days when you really are on.

I was on tour with the San Francisco Symphony this spring and played the Mendelssohn Concerto seven times. In New Haven, Connecticut, it was very hot and humid, and a huge storm deluged the streets just before the concert. I felt really good on that day and I decided to go for it. And everything worked out. One of the factors that makes a difference is to decide to really go all out, rather than holding back. If you worry too much or are insecure in your playing, it shows. It sounds as if you’re scared, nothing is coming off your ideas, and you can’t communicate. So, the more I decide to go for it, even though it might not always work, the better I become overall.

Do you play contemporary music as well?

I just finished recording the Penderecki Concerto No. 2 for Naxos. It’s a great piece, and the more I play it the more I like it. And when I played with the California Symphony [in May 2000], I met its composer in residence, Kevin Putz. He gave me a CD of his works and I liked them a great deal. So I’ve commissioned him to write me a work for solo violin.

What role has recording played in the development of your career?

Artistically, recording forces you to prepare a piece even more meticulously than a performance. I consider myself a perfectionist. When I prepare for recordings, I am really hard on myself. I hate to do a lot of takes, because when you do that the music becomes dead.

But when you listen to a recording that is perfect in every way, often you never want to listen to it again. It’s so boring. I like recordings that feel like a live concert: you feel the drive, the phrases go somewhere. And that’s how I prepared the Penderecki Concerto, which I played with Antonio Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony. I was able to record the work in big chunks. and I told the producer that I was looking for excitement and the "live concert" feeling. I can’t wait until the recording comes out [in Fall 2001], as I think it’s one I will be really proud of.

Do you listen to your recordings?

Well, no. Although people say nice things about my past recordings, I just cringe at some of the details. I want to do them over again—do I ever! And it’s been four years since I made my last recording [the Lalo Symphonie espagnole and the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos]. I didn’t do anything with Denon for a while because the producer I worked with left the company, but they rehired him, and they want to renew my contract.

What composers really move you?

I like melodic pieces. Tonal music. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t crazy about Beethoven, though. I always thought that I would wait awhile before playing the Beethoven Concerto, and I’m still going to wait several years until I play that piece. I’m going to go back and study it again, now that I’ve played the "Archduke" Trio. I’ve been to concerts where young violinists play the Beethoven Concerto—and then I’ve heard Milstein play it at his last concert [on recording], and it was phenomenal. That kind of experience and depth is really needed, and I’m not ready to play it yet. The Brahms Concerto is also one I haven’t played yet, but it is scheduled for next season [2000–01].

What violinists are your heroes?

All the contemporary violinists who are playing are heroes and heroines to me. Among past violinists, [youthful prodigy and Galamian student] Michael Rabin [(1936–72), and Polish-born Mexican soloist and teacher] Henryk Szeryng [(1918–88)]. Szeryng is so spiritual and spontaneous.

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Here is Henryk Szeryng playing the finale of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic:

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Are there any works you’re dying to play that you haven’t played?

The Barber Concerto is in my repertoire, but I haven’t played it [publicly] yet. It is so beautiful. And I’m looking forward to playing the Brahms next year.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I listen to classical radio stations when I’m in the car. I love to listen to opera—Maria Callas is my favorite. She was a great actress and sang with such feeling. I’ve seen her videotapes, and the drama she infuses into her roles comes through in her recordings as well. I try to do that when I play. The stringed instruments are really closest to the human voice, and a lot of times in a piece I’m playing I’ll try to sing, to imitate the most beautiful voices. The second movement of the "Archduke" Trio is an example.

Why are there so many great Asian musicians, and especially string players?

The biggest reason is that, at least in my parents’ generation, the mother always stayed home with their children to nurture and motivate them. I don’t remember any students who were successful at Juilliard, whether they were from here or Korea, who did not have one parent who came with them to Juilliard. There are as many Asian piano players as string players, maybe not as many wind players. Right now the violin is probably more popular, but when I was a little girl, the piano was more common. Parents have such a strong influence on a child’s character, and I think their mothers’ full-time role has been the major reason there are so many Asian musicians today.

How have you grown musically in the last few years?

When I was a little girl I had confidence on stage, but it was show-off confidence. As I grew and got nervous before performing, insecurity set in and I started doubting myself. That lasted for several years.

Then, in the last five years, I began to drop the insecurity and decided to go all out in my playing. It’s as if I had played the works millions of times and there was no hesitation. That meant that I started taking risks, and the music began to come alive on a more consistent basis. The risk taking began to open my mind and then I began to think less of being scared. My intonation got so much better when I started taking risks, and my phrasing became much more musical. It also has a lot to do with playing chamber music, taking music apart with chamber musicians and learning from them. I’m so grateful and lucky that Charles Wadsworth invited me to play chamber music, almost all of which I played for the first time.

Twenty-five years from now, what is the most important thing you hope you will have contributed to the music world?

I love young children. I hope I will be able to pass on my wisdom—when I have some! I see so many great young players now, and they’re so advanced at such an early age. I’d like to share with them what it means to be a part of mankind, and to pass on what I’ve learned about classical music. I’ve taught a couple of students and it’s been a great experience, and I’ve realized that I’ve learned so much by teaching .

And I would be pleased if people came to me and said, "Your playing spoke to me; I felt it." That would be the biggest compliment I could receive.

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A Conversation with Violinist Chee-Yun” By Robert Moon posted November/December 2000
©2000 Stringletter Publishing. Used by permission.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Danish Composer in an Expansive Mood

The first concert of the New Year features two well-known works - Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Chee-Yun, the soloist - and one not-so-well-known work but one that grabbed my attention when I was a high school student and just discovering things outside the standard repertoire: Carl Nielsen's 3rd Symphony, which he called his Sinfonia espansiva.

The concerts are Saturday, Jan. 12th at 8pm and Sunday, Jan. 13th at 3pm. I'll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

You can read more about the first half of the concert in this earlier post which also includes a video clip of Stuart Malina previewing the entire concert and includes video clips of performances of both the Wagner and the Tchaikovsky with a "bonus track" of Chee-Yun playing Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen.

Nielsen in 1908
That Carl Nielsen is sometimes described as “The Brahms of the North” might bring him into this Hanslickian context with Tchaikovsky and Wagner, but let’s put that aside. He was, after all, only 16 and in distant Denmark when Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was finally premiered.

It would be no surprise to most of the rest of the world that Nielsen is described as Denmark’s best-known composer since most concert-goers would be hard pressed to name even one other Danish composer or at least one they’ve heard live in concert. It’s quite likely Carl Nielsen himself might be on that list for many in our audience.

Born to a peasant family on a small island where his father was a house-painter who played the fiddle and cornet for local dance-bands. As a child, Nielsen recalled hearing his father play and his mother sing folk-songs: while sick in bed with the measles, young Carl occupied himself with a little fiddle and, eventually, that lead to him playing in the 2nd Violin Section of the Royal Danish Orchestra after studying at the conservatory in Copenhagen. When the orchestra premiered his first symphony in 1894, the audience was surprised when a young man stood up at the back of the 2nd Violins to take the composer’s bow.

Today, he is primarily remembered as a symphonist – meaning only some of his symphonies are usually performed much today – though he also wrote a fine violin concerto, two operas (with great overtures), much choral and chamber music and, toward the end of his life, began what was to be a series of wind concertos for friends of his in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet: in addition to a quintet, he lived only long enough to compose concertos for the flute and for the clarinet following a heart attack that curtailed his composing. He died a few years later in 1931.

Of his six symphonies, the 4th and 5th are probably best known: the 4th is a powerful work he called “The Inextinguishable,” at best an inadequate translation of the Danish title implying the inextinguishable spirit of mankind in the face of great odds, not hard to understand when you realize it was written during World War I. Its final battle between order and chaos permeates the 5th Symphony also, though it bears no subtitle: in it, an off-stage snare drum leads the onslaught as the world seems to be torn apart, then, in the conclusion, everything is finally put triumphantly back together again.

The earlier 3rd Symphony, which he composed in his mid-40s, is by comparison a bit more tranquil (at times) and might almost be called his “Pastoral” Symphony if he hadn’t already called it Sinfonia espansiva. The opening movement is marked Allegro espansivo, an expansively lively tempo, but since Nielsen was never one to use titles “simply,” his biographer Robert Simpson, in Carl Nielsen, Symphonist, a book unfortunately out-of-print, explains the composer meant it in the sense of the “outward growth of the mind's scope.”

It opens with some very attention-grabbing chords which, on first hearing, made me think of Beethoven’s “Eroica” – except it kept on going and building faster and faster until the theme (also not unlike Beethoven’s “Eroica” but less heroic) enters on top of it.

Opening of Nielsen's
Symphony No. 3

Here is a legendary performance with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Philharmonic in 1965, a recording that was my introduction to Nielsen’s music and which convinced me Nielsen was someone to listen to.
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(For those of you who wish to follow the score, you can download it for free viewing at the International Music Score Library Project.)

The first movement continues, after those chords from 01:09-1:21, with a great swinging tune (legend has it this tune occurred to Nielsen while he was riding a tram-car in Copenhagen and he had to jot it down on a shirt cuff so he'd remember it) which then bustles along before finally winding down to its contrasting, more pastoral second theme at 3:13. One of the things I wonder about, reading of Nielsen’s village background, though who knows what the composer was thinking, is that sudden passage at 4:04 interrupting from the horn section: it reminds me of someone laughing (interesting to watch this performance: it makes Bernstein smile). Then at 4:12 the music begins building back into the bustling of the first theme which keeps expanding and transforming itself. At 5:06, there’s a “closing idea” which, though merely a simple end of a phrase, here, which will become important later.

After a nod to the opening chords (but at the opposite dynamic level), by 5:36 we’re off onto the more traditional idea of a symphonic “development” section, taking the themes apart and varying them in different ways and combinations – at 6:15, he turns that swinging theme into a waltz, then at 6:37 the bustling idea gets turned into a more academic-sounding fugue before, at 7:00, it builds up to a wilder version of the waltz, especially using the second part of the theme (go back to c.2:09) before that “end cap” brings things down and gives us a chance to catch our breath at 8:08. The main theme comes back, much quieter in the winds before turning us over to the 2nd, more pastoral theme at 8:47 in the clarinet with the horns swinging bell-like in the background. At 9:30, we hear some of the bustling starting back up, a few more chuckles from the winds and brass and at 10:01, it’s a more expansive version of the 2nd theme with the main theme in the brass at 10:21 (with occasional interruptions and distractions).

Then something happens: while it still feels developmental, suddenly it starts feeling like it’s going to resolve. There’s a reference to those opening chords at 10:36 but as full chords, not the single repeated “A”s of the opening. But behind the main theme where it now sounds like we’re in what would traditionally be called the “Recapitulation,” we hear the repeated “A”s of the opening chords in the violins at 11:00 beginning an intense build-up of harmonic tension until 12:16 where we resolve everything back to those “A”s, a resolution that makes us feel we’ve arrived at the “home tonality” that is the important part of the old Sonata Allegro drama of most first movements from the days of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.

But wait a minute… suddenly, the movement is over! It feels like we’re now ready to begin that Recapitulation, the return to the tonic key which resolves the drama of the digression away from the main tonality (or “key”) that’s been going on for the last six minutes, something finally reached at 12:36 – and it’s over? Those are the last chords?

Yes. There are critics (quite possible Eduard Hanslick among them, if he’d been reviewing this premiere in 1911) who would cry foul – this is not a text-book sonata form, not that other composers, including Haydn and Beethoven, always followed the text-book and someone like Mahler had spent the last 20 years exploding the seams of the old Sonata Form or the symphony in general itself.

First of all, you’ll notice that Nielsen’s Third is never described as his “Symphony No. 3 in D Minor” because the over-all sense of tonality does not apply here. In fact, those opening chords – those unison “A”s – set up the main tonality of the symphony but immediately, in measure 15, he swings you off into D Minor for the main theme. We would expect, traditionally, the second theme then to be in F Major (that’s the general rule) but instead it’s in E-flat Major (a nasty tritone, that old 'devil-in-music' interval, from those opening “A”s) and the whole Exposition, the presentation of the themes and their tonalities, ends in C Major. And it’s only in hind-sight, after an already turbulent Development section, that we probably realize what should’ve been the Recapitulation (the return to… uhm… D Minor?) at (maybe?) 8:48 but it’s with the 2nd Theme and it’s in E-flat… uhm… and it continues to be harmonically unstable… so, what’s going on, here?

Even to a listener in 1911, it was clear, whether they were familiar with Mahler’s symphonies or not, this was not your grandfather’s symphony (grandfather, in this case, being Brahms). We have the themes but they return (unstably) in reverse order – but Haydn used to do that, too, on occasion – but it’s the sense of tonality, the feeling of “where we are” becoming “where are we?” that some listeners might have found confusing. The composer is building on your expectations but even if your expectations – assuming you do not have perfect pitch – are only looking for a satisfying conclusion, you have it! Getting there – the journey – is half the fun. And, perhaps, that’s how “expansive” works, in this case.

Do you need to know that or understand it to enjoy the music? No, just as you don’t need to understand the technical rigamaroll – sorry, “jargon” – behind the Tchaikovsky violin concerto or the magic of counterpoint to appreciate Wagner’s overture (or prelude) on the first half of the program. But if you want to know what makes it tick, then, there you are: people who are interested in cars will go into great details about design and aerodynamics and, of course, engine construction, but as long as I know where to put the key and how to drive it, who cares?

The second movement, the slow movement, is marked “Andante pastorale,” a much more relaxed contrast to the bustle and tension of the 1st movement – that’s usually the job of a 2nd movement, anyway. After a brief introduction in the horns at 12:58, the strings begin a unison theme, very simple, almost folk-like. At 14:43, another idea, starting in the flute, picked up by the other winds until the strings force their way back in as if continuing their first theme but in a more aggressive manner and more fully harmonized, almost like a chorale. At 16:34, the winds return with their idea until the strings interrupt again at 17:02, more insistent. Not sure how “pastoral” this is sounding, but clearly there are two sides to this conversation – strings and winds – and neither seem to be listening to each other: it’s no dialogue.

At 18:09, the winds start up again, still marked “tranquillo” but overlapping more suddenly with some ominous rumblings in the timpani (and if you know the “pastoral” movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or even Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, you know what that means: storm coming), until the horns and lower strings come in at 18:29 with what will eventually became a significant thematic idea even if it sounds very turbulent, here.

At 19:11 the first theme unfolds into a beautiful gentle undulating passage – wait, what’s that at 19:24? What instrument is that? Well, it’s supposed to be a surprise – it’s a baritone voice singing a wordless melody. And then at 19:49, there’s a soprano added to the mix, like a shepherd singing a folk-song answered from a distance by a shepherdess. It’s really no different than what Berlioz did in his Symphonie fantastique with the English horn answered by the off-stage oboe, but it’s so different sounding here, 80 years later, complete with a babbling-brook-like backdrop in the strings and winds. Magical. And at 22:35, it’s over – without the storm. Ultimately, you're left with the feeling that, clouds aside, you've been lying on your back in a field looking up at the sky on a summer day.

(Incidentally, this movement should’ve been in, what, C major, according to the rules, if A minor is the real tonality: guess what? It starts in C but ends in E-flat, that tritone relationship. Oh, well…)

The third movement should be the traditional scherzo, beginning at 23:11 with some rustic-sounding horns that remind you (vaguely) of the very opening measures and then, like the 2nd movement, proceed with alternating sonorities: this time, winds first, then strings – rather than presenting themes, the one-sided conversation that started the 2nd movement turns into more of a two-sided argument, here, with its bickering strings and nattering woodwinds, maybe not much of a scherzo in the traditional sense (more of an “intermezzo” as Brahms tended to view it in his first three symphonies). The oboes present a second idea at 24:20 which, by 24:50, the strings seems to like better. At 25:10, it sounds like it’s going to break into another fugue but this time the horns' snarl at 25:51 sets things off in a different direction. It’s becoming less and less of an intermezzo, much less a scherzo.

By 26:22, the woodwinds are back to commenting on fragments of the themes and the fugue starts up again, until by 27:27 it’s like we’re listening to a couple of grumpy old men complain about… what, the weather? Finally, it loses steam at 28:07 and the first theme starts up again then resolves gently by 29:32.

Curiously, this movement begins in C-sharp Minor and also ends in the same key (except it turns major with the flutes in the last few measures), but it’s all over the place in between. Still, this is the one movement that does what tonality is supposed to: begin in a key and work its way back, after a dramatic digression, to that same key.

At 29:57, the finale begins – in D Major – with a broad sweeping theme that could be the Danish answer to “Pomp & Circumstance” if Nielsen had a mind to do so – or maybe Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by way of Brahms’ 1st. Then, at 31:51, it begins sweeping its way into a fugue (again, with the fugue!) At 31:48, the oboe adds an idea over the main theme’s continuation, expanding it quietly, still reaching a climax, until at 33:17, a fragment of theme is turned into something slightly more jaunty that sounds like a second theme. At 34:10, the main theme is altered dramatically but seems to be resolving the tension until… whoa – at 34:31, the tonality slips down a notch and sounds quite majestic before it fades off with some twitterings here and there.

At 35:11, it’s like he’s going to start another fugue for a bit, till 35:37 when it starts chugging along trying to build up steam underneath fragments in the winds of the big theme. Once again, it picks up momentum at 36:44, the violas start off yet another fugue, varying the march-like feeling of the theme until it builds and collapses. Then suddenly, at 37:38, it returns to that grand march style we heard at the opening but the important thing now is it’s not in D Major but – as foreshadowed by the opening movement, in A Major. It’s grandeur all the way till interruptions from the brass at 38:34 set up the final triumph of A Major from 38:46 to the end at 39:14.

And yes, though D major was the main tonality of the last movement when it began, it ends when it resolves to A Major, which is the tonal center the symphony has been urging itself toward since those chords – those unison “A”s – opened the symphony almost 40 minutes earlier.

The room where Nielsen composed his 3rd Symphony
After hearing this last movement especially, it’s not hard to imagine why critics proclaimed Nielsen the “Brahms of the North,” even though Brahms would’ve hated most of what he was doing, here. This sense of tonality – which Brahms liked to play with, too, borrowing more from Schubert and his love of “third relations” (going from, say, D Major to F Major rather than G or A Major the way traditionalists might’ve done in Haydn’s day) – which Mahler also used (Mahler died, incidentally, around the time Nielsen completed this symphony) and referred to as “progressive tonality” – is just one of the things that composers were using in order to find “new ways” of handling “old ideas.”

There’s nothing Nielsen does in this work that would leave a listener (even in 1911) at sea – the themes are all memorable, even whistle-able themes. The structure he places them in is easy enough to follow, even if it’s not always traditional, and still, ultimately, satisfying even if you had no idea what he was doing, otherwise.

But he – and others like him – were pulling apart the fabric of the Tonal Scheme that dominated music for over 200 years since the days of Bach, if not earlier.

It was only a matter of time before this fabric would be completely torn apart by three works written around the same time: Claude Debussy’s “Jeux” (summer of 1912), Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (spring and summer of 1912) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (begun in the summer of 1911, but finished in time for its riotous premiere in 1913, one hundred years ago, now).

The Espansiva's premiere in 1911 - which Nielsen himself conducted along with his then-new Violin Concerto - was an immediate success and helped cement his reputation as the leading Danish composer of his generation. If he were the "Brahms of the North," previous popular Danish composers like Niels Gade and Christian Lumbye were on the lighter side, the "Mendelssohn of the North" and the "Johann Strauss of the North," respectively. Nielsen wanted more fiber in the Dane's musical diet, not just sweet pastries.

To him, the last movement of his 3rd Symphony was, as he wrote about it 16 years later, “a hymn to work and the healthy enjoyment of daily life. Not a pathetic celebration of life but a sort of general joy in being able to participate in the business of everyday living and to see activity and skill unfold all around us.”

- Dick Strawser

It's a New Year: Starting off with Wagner & Tchaikovsky

We’ve turned the calendar over to find 2013 has begun and with it, the Harrisburg Symphony’s first Masterworks Concert of the New Year is less than two weeks away.

The soloist is Chee-Yun – you’ve probably heard her recordings on WITF-FM in years past – who’ll be playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, one of the most popular of all concertos. The program opens with the grand and festive prelude Richard Wagner composed for his opera, Die Meistersinger (“The Mastersinger of Nuremberg”) and concludes with the Third Symphony of the best-known Danish composer, Carl Nielsen, his Sinfonia espansiva.

Stuart Malina conducts the concerts are Saturday, January 12th at 8pm and Sunday, January 13th at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. I’ll be doing the pre-concert talks an hour before both performances, so I hope you’ll come and join us.

Recorded when Stuart previewed the entire season at the Midtown Scholar in September, here’s the part about our up-coming concert.
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Richard Wagner: Prelude (or Overture) to Die Meisteringer (“The Mastersingers of Nurenberg”)

Whether it’s called “Prelude” or “Overture” is immaterial – the technical difference is that a prelude leads directly into the action that follows and an overture comes to a stop before the curtain goes up and then the opera begins. Since in the opera house, Wagner proceeds directly into the opening scene without a break, it would be a Prelude, but with a revision to final resolution before that transition begins, Wagner creates a “concert ending” that turns it into a complete piece with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess that makes it, now, an “Overture.” Whatever you call it, it’s the same music and it’s a great piece of music, at that.

It is, as Stuart says, Wagner’s only comic opera – comedy not being something we associate with Wagnerian operas with the stereotype of huge women in breastplates and horned helmets – and it is one of the longest operas in the repertoire, clocking in past six hours with intermission or about 4½ hours of solid music (which is a lot of playing for the orchestra: at least the singers aren’t on the stage singing the whole time). It is also the only opera Wagner composed that’s based on an original story and which doesn’t deal with mythological or supernatural elements – it’s about as “real-life” as many operas ever get: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy almost loses girl but wins her in the end (quite literally).

Here’s a performance with Klaus Tenstedt conducting the London Philharmonic on tour in Tokyo (hence the Japanese captions) of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
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Now, you don’t really need to know all the details of the plot to enjoy the prelude – or overture – except to know the opening theme represents the gathering of the Mastersingers Guild (with a march and then a fanfare which begins at 1:38), a lyrical theme represent the romance between Walter and Eva, a variant of his Prize Song (begins at 4:02), and then a humorous version of the Mastersinger’s March that will be heard when the apprentices make fun of their pompous masters (at 5:14) which Wagner slyly turns into that most academic of old pompous forms, a fugue (at 5:55). Various themes are then heard in various combinations: for instance, at 6:44 to about 7:24, you hear the long-line of the Prize Song theme in the middle strings, the Mastersinger’s Fanfare in the trumpets, their March in the tuba and lower strings, and meanwhile, chuckling along in the background with the violins, the apprentices’ fun version of the Mastersinger’s March. It is amazing how effortless Wagner makes this sound! This continues as the main themes then come back in a glorious conclusion that would make almost any other opera anticlimactic.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major

Chee-Yun, our soloist, has won numerous prizes and made several recordings on the Denon and Naxos labels (you can check out her discography, sample and purchase recordings through this link ). She has appeared with major orchestras around the world since winning an Avery Fischer Career Grant in 1990, from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic to the Hong Kong Philharmonic and many more in between as well as performing in recitals ranging from Kennedy Center to Mostly Mozart.

Here’s a not very good video (I suspect it was recorded off a TV set) but it will give you an idea of her performance. She’s playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) at a New Year’s Day concert on Korean television. I’m assuming it’s the Seoul Philharmonic, but this video, like many on YouTube, is uncredited and another video (listed the same way) is clearly a different concert. Neither conductor is acknowledged, but hey – the video is here so you can hear Chee-Yun’s playing.
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She’ll be playing a famous concerto that certainly needs no introduction to the audience, but did you know that, at its premiere, it was labeled as “music that stinks in the ear”?

These days, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto needs no introduction and the fact that anyone ever could have thought it “stinks in the ear” is amazing to us – one of the great bad reviews usually trotted out to point out the fallibility of critics and defend anyone so viciously attacked in the press (not that they write reviews like that anymore, anyway).

In fact, the author of that review, Eduard Hanslick, is sort of the common denominator in this concert: he hated Wagner and usually reserved his best worst comments for his operas (including Meistersinger) but he also had low regard for the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. As a friend of Brahms, Hanslick did more to spark the rivalry between the Conservative and Contemporary factions of the day than anything the composers themselves could do. And Tchaikovsky, though too western for his Russian colleagues known as the Mighty Handful or the Russian Five, was too wildly Russian for the sedate German-speaking conservatives of Vienna.

At the pre-concert talk, I’ll tell you more about this rivalry and the role Hanslick played in the Style Wars of the Late-19th Century between Wagner and Brahms and how this relates to Tchaikovsky (who disliked Brahms’ music as much as Brahms hated his – imagine being poor Mrs. Edvard Grieg sitting between them at a dinner party!)

Here’s a classic recording of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D with the legendary David Oistrakh and Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Moscow Philharmonic:
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Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in 1878 originally for a friend of his, Josef (or, in Russian, Iosif) Kotek who was then a student of Josef Joachim, arguably the greatest violinist of his time. Meeting while Tchaikovsky was recuperating in Switzerland following his disastrous marriage, Tchaikovsky and Kotek played through Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole – Tchaikovsky was a fan of French music, especially Bizet’s Carmen – and that sparked ideas for him to write his own concerto for Kotek who, when it was finished, however, refused to play it. The implication was that it was beyond him (no doubt) but he thought it would be badly received and would probably ruin his budding career.

Consequently, Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Leopold Auer (even had the piano reduction printed with the dedication on it) but Auer, though gratified, thought the work unplayable “in its present form.” Whether Auer thought “unplayable” period is a matter of inference: later, whether trying to save face or not, Auer said he was misunderstood: he wanted to make changes in various passages he thought were uncharacteristically written for the violin and his version would make it sound more natural for the instrument. Tchaikovsky refused.

Ironically, Johannes Brahms had gone through a similar experience with the violin concerto he was writing for Joachim who, looking at certain passages, duly made suggestions which Brahms duly ignored. Joachim was enough of a violinist and a close enough friend of Brahms, however, that he went ahead and premiered Brahms’ new concerto on New Year’s Day, 1877, in Vienna.

Tchaikovsky, having finished his concerto the following year, had to find yet another violinist willing to take it on and finally located Adolph Brodsky who agreed to premiere the work in 1881 – in Vienna.

That was when Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’ friend, described how "the violin was not played but beaten black and blue" and how the finale took “us to a brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks in the ear.”


Today, of course, it's one of the most frequently performed and recorded concertos in the repertoire. While it's helped make Tchaikovsky a concert-hall favorite, it hasn't done anything (at least, in a positive sense) for Herr Hanslick.

You can read a separate post on the symphony that concludes the program, Carl Nielsen's Espansiva.

-- Dick Strawser