Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Prokofiev, the Pianist with Fingers of Steel

This weekend's Masterworks Concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features Richard Strauss' tone-poem A Hero's Life (which you can read about in this earlier post) plus Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major with Rising Stars Concerto Competition winner, Kathryn Westerlund the soloist, and Romanian-born composer, George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody No. 1" to open the program. The concerts are this Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at the Forum. There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. 
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Of all the works Prokofiev composed, his 3rd Piano Concerto is probably the most frequently played, aside from the likes of Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical Symphony," or the March from The Love of Three Oranges.

Earlier this season, you may have heard excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet. The main reason Stuart Malina decided to schedule a second work by the same composer in the same season was the performance given by pianist Kathryn Westerlund when she won the most recent “Rising Stars Concerto Competition” co-sponsored by HSO and Messiah College.

The Prokofiev 3rd “is one of hardest pieces to play,” Malina told David Dunkle of the Carlisle Sentinel, “and she pulled it off with such dazzling ease. I would never even attempt to play it.”

Kathryn appeared on NPR's “From the Top” at the age of 13 as a cellist and has been a member of the Hershey Orchestra cello section since 2011. Now 18, she is studying both piano and cello at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

(You can read this interview with Kathryn in last September's Harrisburg Magazine. The photograph (see left) was taken by Howard Hartman for this article.)

Not to put any pressure on our soloist, but here is a 1977 performance by Martha Argerich with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra which has some great close-ups of the pianist's hands, for those of you who can't get enough of that from your seat on the left-side of the hall. You'll see why this is not a concerto for the faint-of-heart.



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When Sergei Prokofiev was a toddler, he watched his mother play the piano and decided he wanted to do that, too. Around the time he was 5, he brought her a piece of paper and said “Here is a Chopin Mazurka I have written for you. Play it for me.” Unable to read his notation, she started to play an actual Chopin Mazurka, but the boy insisted she play the one he composed, not that one. So, she began teaching the boy how to notate music so other people could play it.

That's how his music lessons began.

His first composition was an “Indian Galop” in F Major except there was no B-flat in it as there would normally be. He was reluctant to “tackle the black keys” of the piano, he explained; perhaps his hands couldn't reach them, yet. Or maybe he was just being different, already preferring sounds that weren't what people expected.

Soon, he could play pages of Mozart and the easier Beethoven sonatas and loved improvising for the family and their guests. If his audience began to talk to each other instead of listening, young Sergei would stop abruptly and leave the room.

Prokofiev & "The Giant"
At 9, he composed an opera (for piano) called “The Giant” (see photo, left) and then two more, one called “On the Desert Island” and the other “The Feast in the Plague Year” which consisted mostly of an overture which he then, when the family traveled from their home in Eastern Ukraine to visit Moscow, played for Taneyev, one of the leading composers in Moscow who had studied with Tchaikovsky.

In 1902, a young student of Taneyev's replaced the first composition teacher Prokofiev had – one who was too tedious with his rules – but Reinhold Gliere, during his summer visits to the family's home, found ways to inspire the 11-year-old boy who soon began composing a symphony. Finding Gliere's four-square rules and bland modulations distasteful, he also began composing piano pieces with more dissonant harmonies and unusual meters.

Eventually, his mother decided to take him to St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, where he was favorably viewed by Alexander Glazunov, one of the leading composers in Russia, then, and invited to audition for the conservatory. Following a young man “with a small beard who had with him only a single romance [song] in his baggage,” Prokofiev, now 13, carried in two music cases bulging with four operas, a symphony, two sonatas and a large number of piano pieces.” The head of the school, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was impressed.

Prokofiev by Matisse, 1921
Fast forward to 1921 when Prokofiev is now 30, having written, among other things, his wildly popular “Classical Symphony” and garnered a reputation as a Bad Boy of Russian Music. He was acclaimed as a pianist but found himself hampered by the possibilities of making a living in the new post-revolution Soviet Union. Rachmaninoff had become a Scandinavian refugee in 1917 before settling in America.

Technically, you could say he began work on what would become his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1913, shortly after finishing the 2nd, sketching a Theme with Variations that eventually became the new concerto's middle movement. Material from a string quartet from 1917 also found its way into this slowly gestating piece.

Remember that Prokofiev in 1912 was a musical rebel, performing his first two piano concertos which were dismissed with comments like “To hell with this futuristic music! The cats on the roof make better music!” He performed his own highly chromatic and dissonant piano pieces and gave the first local performances of Arnold Schoenberg's new 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 from 1909.

But in 1917, he composed a symphony of Haydnesque clarity, even if that in itself – so unexpected – was the idea of “rebelling.” He himself called it the “Classical Symphony,” “as if Haydn were alive and composing today.” It was mostly written during those uncertain times between the February Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Tsar and the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. During this same summer, Prokofiev began his 1st Violin Concerto.

Another work he started was a “white note” quartet in which all the musical material could be played on the “white keys” of the piano (though why one would then write it for string quartet seems odd). But he put it aside, also, mostly out of boredom with his present situation during this post-Revolution period.

Believing that Russia had no use for music at the time, immersed in the life-or-death struggle of its Civil War, Prokofiev applied for permission to leave his homeland for America. The Arts and Education Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky told him, "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way.”

And with that, Prokofiev boarded a train across Siberia, then boarded a ship across the Pacific to arrive in San Francisco in August, 1918.

Prokofiev, NYC 1918
A debut concert in New York City seemed promising and he was offered a commission for a new opera to be premiered in Chicago. This became The Love of Three Oranges but it was already in rehearsal when the premiere was postponed following the death of the company's director. Spending all this time working on the opera meant he was not performing and therefore not earning money, so he found himself in financial difficulties. His playing was constantly being compared negatively to Rachmaninoff's more lyrical style and so, uncomfortable with life in America, Prokofiev decided to leave for Paris in 1920 where there was a large population of Russian ex-patriots.

There, he met up once more with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev who commissioned a new ballet from him – called Chout or “The Buffoon.” During a holiday on the coast of Brittany, Prokofiev returned to his earlier sketches for that Theme & Variations and that “white note” quartet and came up with his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, completed in July of 1921.

Now, C Major is basically a “white note” key – and even though the opening melody in the clarinet is all “white notes,” it's not clearly C Major. And once the piano takes off, whatever might seem like C Major (or any other key) has so many “non-white notes” harmonizing it, was it really C Major?

As he was working on the concerto, Prokofiev received a visit from the Russian poet, Konstantin Balmont, whose poetry he had set frequently in the past. After hearing the composer play through his new concerto, Balmont recorded his impressions in verse, which ended,

Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.


Prokofiev returned to America to give the concerto its world premiere in Chicago with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony on December 16th, 1921. Then, two weeks later, he conducted the belated premiere – finally – of The Love of Three Oranges.

Both the Piano Concerto and the opera were fairly well received but when the production was taken to New York City the following February, critical reaction to both concerto and opera proved huge disappointments to the composer. The opera was mostly met with comments like “Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings" and "The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it.” At a cost of $130,000 for the production, one critic complained that that was about $43,000 per orange. It did not receive another production in America until the New York City Opera mounted it in 1949.

Koussevitsky conducted the Piano Concerto in Paris in 1922, at which time it was well received and soon went on to become a staple of the repertoire, as far as modern concertos were concerned. Prokofiev, the “man with steel fingers,” performed it often and it was the only one of his concertos he recorded – with Piero Coppola in London in 1932. While it might not be the most precise performance between soloist and conductor or even the most well-balanced recording available, but still, it is the composer playing the piano: you can hear the third movement, here.

One further anecdote about Prokofiev from this time-period as we sometimes wonder what it might've been like to be in a room with two of the most famous living composers of the day.



When he was in Paris in 1922, Prokofiev (see photo, left, with Diaghilev and Stravinsky) was again meeting with the impresario Serge Diaghilev about a revival of his ballet Chout when Diaghilev wanted to hear The Love of Three Oranges. So Prokofiev proceeded to play it for him. However, Igor Stravinsky, who was also present, refused to listen to any more after the first act.

When he accused Prokofiev of "wasting time composing operas," Prokofiev shot back that Stravinsky "was in no position to lay down a general artistic direction, since he [was] himself not immune to error." As Prokofiev wrote in his diary, Stravinsky "became incandescent with rage" and "we almost came to blows and were separated only with difficulty. ...[O]ur relations became strained and for several years Stravinsky's attitude toward me was critical."

Eventually, Prokofiev and Stravinsky patched up their friendship, though Prokofiev was often critical of Stravinsky's neoclassical "stylization of Bach." On the other hand, Stravinsky publicly described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day – after himself, of course.

So I found it amusing, after doing some on-line searching, to discover Gabriel the grandson of Prokofiev was having his new violin concerto premiered at the London Proms this past summer, conducted by Marius Stravinsky, a “cousin five times removed” of the famous composer.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, March 16, 2015

March Madness: Richard Strauss and a Hero's Life

A Hero's Life is one of the major works of the symphonic repertoire, and a highlight of any orchestra's season. It's on the program of the Harrisburg Symphony's Masterworks Concert this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm, with Stuart Malina conducting - along with George Enescu's 1st Romanian Rhapsody and the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev with Kathryn Westerlund, the most recent winner of the Rising Star Concerto Competition.

You can hear a complete performance of Strauss' epic tone poem in this post, read a little about how the music is "put together" - and find out what was going on in the composer's life when he wrote it. You can read about Prokofiev's piano concerto, here.
Richard Strauss on a sled
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This weekend should see better weather than last month's Masterworks Concert did – it will now be officially Spring and the temperatures will be considerably warmer: no chance of snow or ice (though I am still tempted to knock on plastic-laminated artificial wood substitute as I say that...).

And this concert is entitled “A Hero's Life” because the major work on the program – if not of the season – is a tone poem by Richard Strauss called “A Hero's Life” or, in German, Ein Heldenleben.

Thinking back to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony which opened the season, the first thing that might come to a music-lover's mind who is not already familiar with Strauss' monumental work might be “who is the hero?”

(If the first question to come to your mind is “what is a tone poem,” let me say it's an orchestral work inspired by some non-musical source like a poem, a novel, a painting, or even nature. It's usually in one movement, “tells a story” (sort of) and might contain several different sections of contrasting moods to give you the impression of its story or characters. But of course, it can also be much more than that, so let's leave it there, for now...)

Strauss in 1890
When Strauss, a busy conductor as well as composer, started thinking about this piece, he was deep into work on another tone poem, Don Quixote (you can read more about that piece which the HSO performed in 2012, in an earlier blog-post, here), and thought a more serious hero than Cervantes' knight might work as a good, musical contrast. Originally he was going to call it Held und Weld or “Hero and World” but by the time he started in on it in the summer of 1898, it had become “A Hero's Life”- Ein Heldenleben.

Most writers will tell you the hero is the composer himself, though he's a far from heroic figure in reality. Consider, though, since he originally intended it as a companion to Don Quixote, perhaps it's the composer as he envisions himself?

He never really said “I'm the hero,” but he did tell people the “hero's companion” is definitely a musical portrait of his wife, Pauline, whom he'd just married in 1894. So if the hero's wife is his wife, how is he not the hero?

But I digress...

A work of some 40-50 minutes in length, it is divided into six segments which he identified as

1. The Hero
2. The Hero's Adversaries (a tongue-firmly-in-cheek portrait of his critics)
3. The Hero's Companion (that is, his wife)
4. The Hero in Battle (with his critics)
5. The Hero's Works of Peace
6. The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation.

Now, whether Strauss is or is not his own hero, here, let's point out that in the next-to-the-last section – the Hero's Works of Peace – Strauss includes thirty musical quotations from nine of his own compositions.

Yeah. So, if you were asked, “who do you think the Hero is,” what would you think?

Now, Don Quixote also concludes with the knight's “retirement from the world” but don't forget, when he completed Heldenleben, Strauss was only 35 years old – hardly retirement age. Whether this is a musical autobiography or an unparalleled example of artistic hubris is beside the point: given its genesis in Cervantes' quintessentially self-deluded hero, I think we're missing the point by taking it too seriously.

The 1st Page of Heldenleben
A monumental work regardless, it would be a major piece on any orchestra's season, not just because of the size of the orchestra – if you thought the January concert with its almost chamber-like proportions was a small orchestra, that was helping to prepare for this concert's budget – but because it is technically difficult for the individual players. Orchestral parts (like the horn and cello theme at the opening and later for the basses) or solos (like the extensive violin solos for the concertmaster) are found regularly on audition lists for major orchestras. Trust me, every musician on this stage is excited by the challenge of seeing Heldenleben on the program – and no doubt they're quite familiar with its highlights from auditions past.

The works is scored for 3 flutes, 1 piccolo; 3 oboes, 1 English horn (doubling 4th oboe); 2 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet; 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon; 8 (count 'em, 8) horns (+ 1 assistant principal), 5 trumpets (+ 3 offstage trumpets), 3 trombones, 1 tenor tuba, 1 tuba; timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum, cymbals, tam tam; 2 harps; and a large string section (Strauss specifies 64 players). That's 103 players plus the percussionists.

In this performance, Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at a concert in Munich.

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0:59 – performance begins with “The Hero.”
5:30 – “The Hero's Adversaries” (where the Hero is beset by his critics, portrayed by nattering woodwinds)
9:14 – “The Hero's Companion” (she is portrayed by the violin solo and the composer said she is a musical portrait of his wife who, as Strauss wrote to a friend, “is very complex, a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute” – it begins almost as if she's come to the hero's rescue. Every time I hear the section beginning at 10:30, I imagine the Hero (his theme in the bass register) starting a conversation with her and then by 11:00 having trouble getting a word in edgewise – but it soon turns into an extended love-duet. Except at 20:49, memories of the pesky critics ruin the hero's contentment.)
21:44 – The Hero in Battle (off-stage trumpets sound the call and the battle begins.)

While Strauss later removed these “movement subtitles” from the printed score and the programs, it's not clear where the Battle ends and the next section begins, but certainly the tide has turned by
30:32 – The Hero's Works of Peace (with the arrival of a very heroic horn melody which happens to be from his first major success, Don Juan.)

This complex section consists mainly of those 30 quotations from earlier works, some of which might be treated like the passage beginning at 33:00 with the lyrical oboe theme from Don Juan against the bass clarinet of Sancho Panza from Don Quixote and a bit of Till Eulenspiegel in the clarinet – all in 3 measures! There are 8 quotes from his opera Guntram (1893) which most people now would not recognize (his first “famous” opera wasn't written until Salome in 1905), 5 from Don Quixote (1897), 4 from both Don Juan (1888) and Death & Transfiguration (1889), 3 from Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), 1 from Till Eulenspiegel (1895), and one each from two songs, all jumbled together and overlapping in an amazing contrapuntal display.

36:14 – The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation. (If it hasn't already begun, the final section probably begins here.)

Initially, Strauss concluded the work with another quietly contemplative ending much as he had done with most of his earlier tone-poems (think Death & Transfiguration, Zarathustra, or Don Quixote). When an old friend of his complained of this over breakfast, Strauss asked for paper and pen and then and there (“amidst the tea and toast”) scribbled down the ending we now hear, inspired by the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra (is there a pun, there?) though it's hardly the bombastic “faster-and-louder” victorious ending his friend had probably hoped for.

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So what was going on in Strauss' life when he composed his evocation of a hero?

Page from Heldenleben sketches
The idea, as I said, had occurred to him in the midst of composing Don Quixote in 1897. He certainly intended it as a companion piece to Quixote even though he only conducted them on the same program once. Having premiered Quixote in March of 1898, he then began sketching his Hero after arriving in June for a much-needed vacation in Marquartstein in the Bavarian Alps with his wife and infant son.

He had married Pauline de Ahna, a soprano, in 1894. Their son Franz (though known as “Bubi” throughout his life), was born April 12, 1897. The three of them and their domestic bliss would figure prominently in his next tone-poem, his Symphonia domestica (which even includes a scherzo depicting Baby in his bath) not completed until 1903.

Wedding photo of Mr. & Mrs. R. Strauss
In mid-July, Strauss – who had recently conducted several performances of Beethoven's Third Symphony – wrote to his publisher, “Beethoven's Eroica is so little beloved by our conductors [today] that it is now rarely performed, that to fulfill a pressing need I am composing a largish tone-poem entitled Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but yet it is in E-flat (the same key as Beethoven's symphony) with lots of horns which are always a yardstick of heroism.” He hoped to have a completed work in hand by New Year's Day.

Indeed, many of Strauss' works originated with the idea of creating a match to a favorite masterpiece of the past: his opera Guntram, in which his wife had sung the female lead at its poorly received premiere a month before their wedding, had been his take on Beethoven's Fidelio; Der Rosenkavalier was planned as his answer to Marriage of Figaro and The Woman without a Shadow became his equivalent of The Magic Flute. And so add Heldenleben as his Eroica to the list.

Keep in mind that in the late-1800s, audiences assumed Beethoven's hero was really more likely himself than Bonaparte. Whether Strauss' approach is an autobiographical work or not, it is not, certainly, a serious study of German heroism. That, he would probably point out, had been what Wagner wrote in his story of Siegfried and The Ring of the Nibelung.

Keep in mind, also, Strauss later mentioned to a writer-friend that he found himself “no less interesting than Napoleon.” Without the context much less a tone of voice, it would be nice to give him an ironical benefit of the doubt, here, but... uhm...

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Strauss completed the short score (a first draft of the piece with suggestions of the final orchestration) on July 30th, 1898, the day Bismarck (speaking of German heroes) had been dismissed as chancellor by the German emperor, then finished the full score on December 1st by which time he had changed jobs, rather suddenly moving from his post as conductor at the Munich opera to now conducting at the Berlin opera, a major change in his life.

Though Strauss dedicated his new piece to the young conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Strauss conducted the world premiere (as befitting a hero) himself with the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra on March 3rd, 1899. Surprisingly, the first American performance was given by the Chicago Symphony and Theodore Thomas in 1900 but it didn't reach England until 1902 when the composer conducted it in London.

Romain Rolland, Paris 1914
Not surprisingly, many critics were not pleased by the work – for one thing, not getting the joke at their expense. But many people in the audiences “roared their approval.” Romain Rolland, the great French author (and Germanophile) wrote of one of the earliest performances he'd attended, how he saw “people shudder... suddenly rise to their feet and make violent and unconscious gestures.” He himself “experienced this strange intoxication, the dizziness of this heaving ocean... [that] for the first time for thirty years, the Germans had found their poet of victory.”

Of the composer, Rolland wrote “I was right to see in him that heroic pride, which is on the verge of becoming delirious, of that contemptuous Nietzscheism, of that egotistical and practical idealism, which make a cult of power and disdains weakness.”

As would prove one of his greatest weaknesses later, in dealing with the Nazis, Strauss was a political innocent, na├»ve and self-centered. When Rolland asked him his thoughts about the Boer War in South Africa, Strauss sided with the English only because he thought they were “very civilized” and “very agreeable when you're traveling.” When he was in Egypt, for instance, he explained “I was very glad the English were there instead of the Egyptians: one is always sure of finding clean rooms, every comfort...” Taken to task for this limited viewpoint by the pacifist Rolland, Strauss said, “Oh, I don't know anything about it; I don't think about it; Egypt doesn't exist when I am not there.”

So much for a hero...

We tend to forget that Till Eulenspiegel is a symphonic poem about a buffoon and is itself full of “buffoonery.” There is much in Don Quixote that is not to be taken at face-value – the whole idea of the Don's quest, his adventures, his grasp of reality – in which the whole piece is, in effect, a comedy (though a very touching one: Quixote may be a figure of ridicule but musically, at least, he is never ridiculous).

Because of our concepts of what a hero should be – and perhaps because of the work's association with one of the greatest symphonies in the repertoire – we forget that Heldenleben was conceived as a companion to Quixote and tend to overlook the comic aspects of the piece. Too much is made of the composer's arrogance, positing himself as The Hero of the piece when, it would seem in hindsight, he might have been having a little fun at his own expense.

Certainly, his primary aim was to entertain his audience and the piece's ultimate popularity was only one aspect of the music that proved problematic with, say, Strauss' on-again/off-again friendship with Gustav Mahler, another composer/conductor with whom he is often paired.

Mahler struggled for every bit of success and dealt with far worse criticism than Strauss ever did and suffered from a kind of hatred and persecution Strauss knew nothing about. Born Jewish into an anti-Semitic society, Mahler also had to contend with the struggle of rising above the lower-middle-class life of his childhood, something else the well-off Strauss had never experienced.

Another demerit thrown against Strauss was his “greed.” In most cases, it would be considered “good business,” trying to get the most money for his music he could get. He grew up in a well-enough-to-do family but lived on fairly frugal terms because his father, working hard for his money, was also well aware of its often fleeting existence.

It is interesting to note that during the same summer he was composing A Hero's Life, Strauss was negotiating with publishers and other composers to create a national organization to protect composers like the copyright society that already existed for writers. Given Germany's fractured history lacking any political unity until 1871, it was impossible to maintain any sense of fairness in the publishing business – and Beethoven certainly had his issues with selling pieces to two different publishers only because there was no copyright convention that would protect him otherwise. By the time the German Empire superseded the weak cultural confederation of German states that existed since Feudal times, there was a need for such a convention to help German composers and so Strauss set about using his fame and authority to establish one. Remember that the most successful of German composers at the time, Johannes Brahms, had died in 1897.

Make no mistake he was primarily doing this to “protect his own merchandise” and to give himself a greater advantage, but nonetheless without his efforts – sending out his open letter to 160 German-speaking composers on July 23rd, 1898, while he was in the midst of completing Ein Heldenleben – there would have been no Genossenschaft Deutscher Tonsetzer, the first ever German society established to protect and administer composers' performing rights which ensured better incomes for all German composers – Strauss included.

Granted, Strauss was as tactless about money as he was about anything else. Being raised frugally in the midst of financial prosperity made him realize that money brought status and respect, two things he valued more highly than the money itself. It may have seemed a bit like Don Quixote tilting at windmills to get such an organization created in the first place, but whatever his motives may have been, in the moment perhaps he felt himself to be a bit of a hero after all.

- Dick Strawser