Monday, March 17, 2014

Schein on Chopin, Part 1: A Cosmic Bang and Shimmering Chopin

For those of you glad to see the back of this winter (and those who aren't), this weekend's concerts may have nothing to do with spring, but it will certainly help put a spring back in your step without having to worry (we hope) about more ice, snow or the return of the Dreaded Polar Vortex.

Spring is a time of infinite renewal (which reminds me that “subscription renewal time” is here, as well, if you haven't already gotten your information in the mail!)

And speaking of time, the first piece on this weekend's program takes us back to the very beginning with the opening of Guillaume Connesson's Cosmic Trilogy.

Then, a timeless classic with Chopin's F Minor Piano Concerto played by Ann Schein, one of the great Chopin interpreters today.

And to conclude, a less-well-known symphony by a much-loved composer whose style influenced a generation of Hollywood composers (for better or worse). The program concludes with Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 which you can read about, here.

The Harrisburg Symphony's concerts, conducted by Stuart Malina, are this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Arrive an hour early for a pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard before each performance.

Incidentally, this is also the concert where we request the audience members bring in non-perishable food items to donate to the “Orchestras Feeding America” drive, distributed locally through the Channels Food Rescue. You can leave any donation in the lobby or with the ushers when you come in. And thanks in advance!

In this post, some videos to acquaint you with the music you'll hear on the first half of this program.

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Guillaume Connesson may not be a name you're familiar with. Frankly, when I saw this season's repertoire list last year, I had to ask “who's this?”

Stuart was very enthusiastic – enough of an endorsement for me – in fact, here's a clip from the Pre-Season Preview recorded last September at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in which he talks about the entire program:
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What to expect from a composer who's name you don't know and who's still alive? Well, for different people, that could mean any number of possibilities, but I found a clip of this “Aleph” movement from his Cosmic Trilogy so you can judge for yourself:
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Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto returns to the Forum with Chris Rose in May, was at one time a composer whose name I didn't know. She was having a new work premiered by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra. So I did some googling and found, for instance, a critic who described her musical style as “Bartók on Speed.”

Now, I'm not sure about the Bartók part of that equation, but her music certainly has a lot of energy and drive.

For what it's worth, if you're familiar with Ms. Higdon's music by now – the symphony has performed “Bright Blue Music” and the Percussion Concerto already in past seasons – I might describe Connesson's music as “Higdon with a French Accent” and I'm not even sure it's necessarily French. They both have similar styles and vocabularies and in the sense that comparing two creative artists is of any help at all to the unfamiliar listener, it is only one more example of comparing Herr von Äpfel with Mlle l'Orange.

Guillaume Connesson
As Stuart explains it, “Aleph” is the first part of a trilogy where the other movements are “Une lueur dans l'âge sombre” (A Glimmer in a Dark Age) and “Supernova.” Curiously, they were written in reverse order, the last movement in 1997, the slow middle movement in 2005 and Aleph in 2007.

In fact, I was surprised to find out how much music he's written (check out his website's catalogue, here.)  He will turn 44 in May.

There's a flute concerto (Pour sortir au jour) that was given its world premiere with Charles Dutoit and the Chicago Symphony earlier this month and was very well received

The entire Cosmic Trilogy has been recorded on the Chandos label.

When I mentioned that Connessons' "day job" was Professor of Orchestration at a conservatory, a friend asked "Paris?" That is, the major music school in France. No, actually - the Conservatoire National d'Aubervilliers-la Courneuve which is located in what is called an "interior suburb" of Paris. But given the fact he's only in his mid-40s, chances are good he may move on to The Big School if he wants to.

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Ann Schein will perform the 2nd Piano Concerto of Chopin on this program. Just as you may not be familiar with Connesson's name, it's possible you're not aware that Ann Schein is not just one of the great Chopin interpreters of the day, but also a highly respected teacher who's studied with some great names in what we might now call “the old tradition,” the great days of Rubinstein and Horowitz.

You can read more about Ms. Schein and her visit to Harrisburg in Ellen Hughes' article in the Patriot-News here and in David Dunkle's article for the Carlisle Sentinel here, which will also include a recital next week (the 29th) with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center (also playing some Chopin – his 3rd Sonata) as well as a masterclass that will be held at Messiah College's new arts center on Friday the 28th at 5pm.

In this post on the Market Square Concerts blog, you can hear several more performances by our soloist and find out more about her life as a performer and a teacher.

Ann Schein started making her first recordings when she was 18 – including the Chopin 2nd Concerto. Here's the 1st Movement from that recording, transferred from an LP into this “audio clip” via YouTube:

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That was released in 1960! Now, I'm going to post other clips shortly about her performances, but I want to include this excerpt from a 2012 recital at Aspen, a Chopin Nocturne:

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That should give you an idea what to expect with our soloist!

Now, she often talks about the great pianists who inspired (and taught) her, especially Arthur Rubinstein, which essentially makes her a link with this “golden age” of piano playing. She wishes we could still go hear these artists perform today rather than just listen to their recordings.

I had the experience of attending a Rubinstein recital when I was in grad school in 1972 or so, an all-Chopin performance that opened with etudes and ended with the 3rd Piano Sonata – oh, and then an encore, a little piece by Villa-Lobos, Polichinelle (listen here from 3:08-4:22).  A friend who was backstage said Rubinstein was nervous and they had to aim him toward the piano because, nearly blind, he couldn't see the piano for the stage lighting until he was nearly on top of it. He was 85 at the time.

So for that reason, even though it's probably not his best performance ever (he's been playing this concerto since he was a child), I chose this video made in 1975 with André Previn when Rubinstein was 88 (as if one needs to be reminded that long careers are possible and not every soloist has to be under 30).

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Keep in mind, speaking of the continuity of traditions and the longevity of careers, Rubinstein, a child prodigy, played at the age of 4 for Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto.

Ann Schein studied with Arthur Rubinstein.

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Frederic Chopin is a name few music lovers need to be introduced to. Technically, he is not a “French” composer despite his name or the fact he spent most of his life centered in Paris. He was born in Poland (and I've been told that, there, his name is pronounced “CHAW-p'n”) and his father was a Frenchman who emigrated to Poland in 1787 as a teenager.

A budding pianist, Frederic, himself a teenager at the time, was considering settling in Vienna but disliked the atmosphere of the Imperial City. He returned to Warsaw where he premiered his F Minor Piano Concerto. Then, two years later, settled in Paris. He never returned to Poland.

Though he's best known for many solo piano pieces – from Etudes to Nocturnes to Mazurkas and Polonaises – Chopin composed only two piano concertos and both of those basically by the time he was 20. It's also a bit confusing that the F Minor Concerto was also the first to be written – probably in 1829. Accounts vary: some say it was premiered in December 1829, others March 1830 which may be the difference between revisions or, more likely, a private performance versus a public concert.

Regardless, it wasn't published until 1836, by which time he had already completed the concerto in E Minor, premiered in October of 1830 and published in 1833.

Not that it makes any difference, but it's interesting to note that the composer was 20 when he finished writing concertos. His initial goal may have been to be a concert pianist – many of his critics complained of his “small sound” which didn't project well in larger concert halls – but he eventually focused almost entirely on music for solo piano with the occasional songs or chamber pieces. One of his last works was a cello sonata completed three years before his death at the age of 39.

He did not perform in public often but they were usually “events” when he did. A year before his death, he traveled and performed in England and Scotland. When he died – his local fame dwindling along with the number of his students – mourners came from London, Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw for the funeral.

While there are many portraits of him – and a famous photograph taken during his last year – it's best to think of this painting of an evening in the palace of Prince Radziwill in Warsaw, when Chopin, then 19 (around the time he wrote this concerto), performed for a musical salon.

You can read this post about Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 which will conclude this weekend's Masterworks Concert. This final post examines Rachmaninoff's life, the man behind the music.

- Dick Strawser

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