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Classical Series

2017 - 2018


Music Director Candidate Mei-Ann Chen conducts a symphonic journey spanning 160 years, which includes Mendelssohn's exuberant Italian Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring the wildly imaginative Nareh Arghamanyan and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, a joyful time capsule of the October Revolution. Higdon’s blue cathedral contrasts the older works with a touching, personal tribute to the composer's sibling, which contemplates the subject of life itself.
 
“Elegance, humor, deliciously burbling trills and fiery imagination… Pianists don’t come any better, another potential superstar has arrived.”  
-American Record Guide

 Listen to this concert's playlist on Spotify


Concert Conversation with Kayleen Asbo and Mei-Ann Chen

Saturday, November 4, 2017 at 7pm
Sunday, November 5, 2017 at 2pm
Monday, November 6, 2017 at 7pm

Kayleen will interview each Music Director Candidate. There will also be an opportunity for Q & A with the Candidate. These Concert Conversations are general seating and free to Classical Series concert ticket holders. Approximately 30 minutes in Weill Hall.

For information about Kayleen's "Musical Mondays at the Museum" series, please click here.

 


 




We gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions from the following

Sponsored by Dr. Larry Schoenrock Endowment Fund
Media sponsor Press Democrat
Guest Conductor Mei-Ann Chen underwriten by David & Corinne Byrd
Guest Artist Nareh Arghamanyan underwritten by Jim Lamb
Discovery Open Rehearsal Series sponsored by The Stare Foundation and David Stare of Dry Creek Vineyard
Pre-concert talks sponsored by Jamei Haswell and Richard Grundy, and Ellen and Chuck Wear
County of Sonoma - Board of Supervisors




 






 

Performance at: Weill Hall at the Green Music Center

Program Notes

PROGRAM NOTES
By Steven Ledbetter
 
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH
Festive Overture for Orchestra, Opus 96
 
Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow on August 9, 1975. He composed the Festive Overture in 1954. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, three oboes, three clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum and strings. Duration is about seven minutes.

Shostakovich’s career was marked repeatedly by sudden changes of fortune dictated by political currents within the Soviet Union, particularly during the era of Stalin, when the composer was twice publicly denounced for his music and lived in sheer terror of execution or imprisonment, a fate that had already befallen many artists. Yet he remains the greatest Russian composer of his century. The majority of his fifteen symphonies, searing string quartets, various concertos, stage works and other pieces have long since become established as contemporary classics. The circumstances of Shostakovich’s career would seem to allow little opportunity for truly cheerful music, although he once wrote a lively musical comedy about the lack of apartments in Moscow and the crazy attempts by all of the characters to get on the list for new housing as well as the occasional light-hearted film score. The Festive Overture is a rare, purely abstract, cheerful orchestral work from the last half of his career, with a brilliant display of orchestral effect, melodic vivacity and rhythmic life.

Shostakovich wrote it in the fall of 1954, about a year and a half after the death of Stalin had begun to make possible a loosening of restrictions on artists. The overture’s mood may well reflect that period. Officially written for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, through which the Bolsheviks came to power, it is not difficult to hear, in the unforced cheerfulness of this score, Shostakovich’s relief at no longer having to contend with Stalin’s violent unpredictability.
 
PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Concerto No. 1 in B‑flat minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23
 
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, in the district of Vyatka, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on May 18, 1893. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 between November 1874 and February 21, 1875. The first performance took place in Boston on October 25, 1875, with Hans von Bülow as the soloist and B.J. Lang conducting. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. Duration is about 32 minutes.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had its premiere performance, not in the composer’s native Russia, but in the distant United States, a country that the composer himself would not visit for nearly twenty years. And thereby hangs a tale...

Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory from its founding in 1866 to his death in 1881, was a younger brother of Tchaikovsky’s teacher Anton Rubinstein, then quite well known as a composer. Both Rubinstein brothers thought very highly of the young Tchaikovsky, and Nikolay actually conducted the premieres of a great many of his works. Tchaikovsky certainly planned his first piano concerto especially for Nikolay, intending that he should receive the dedication and play the solo part in the first performance.

On Christmas Eve of 1874, Tchaikovsky took the manuscript to Rubinstein to ask him about some technical details of the keyboard writing. He played through the first movement and received only stony silence. With mounting apprehension, Tchaikovsky played through to the end and turned to ask him, “Well?” As Tchaikovsky described it later, Rubinstein broke out in a torrent of abuse, saying that the concerto was fragmented, vulgar, clumsy and imitative. “I was not just astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are offered so harshly and in such a spirit of hostility.” Rubinstein, attempting to pour oil on troubled waters, promised to play the piece—if Tchaikovsky reworked it in accordance with his demands. The composer’s response: “I shall not alter a single note; I shall publish the work exactly as it is.”

Rubinstein eventually became a firm champion of the concerto, but in the meantime the composer dedicated it to Hans von Bülow, the distinguished German pianist and conductor who had written an important early review praising Tchaikovsky’s music. (Tchaikovsky evidently asked him to premiere it as far from Russia as possible, in case it should fail utterly.) Von Bülow happily accepted the dedication and prepared to premiere the piece at one of a series of concerts he gave in Boston late in 1875 with the orchestra of the Harvard Musical Association, a pickup ensemble that gave regular orchestral concerts in the years before the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The distinguished Boston composer George W. Chadwick, then just about to turn 21, heard the performance and recalled in a memoir years later, “They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the ‘tutti’ in the middle of the first movement, whereupon Bülow sang out in a perfectly audible voice, ‘The brass may go to hell.’ This was the first Tchaikovsky piece I ever heard and I thought it the greatest ever, but it rather mystified some of our local scribes [the critics], who could not have dreamed how many times they would have to hear it in the future.”

The popularity of the concerto begins precisely with the unusual introduction, a well-loved tune, made even more popular in the early ’40s when it was converted into a Tin Pan Alley tune called “Tonight We Love,” by denaturing the meter from 3/4 to 4/4. It is, surprisingly, in the relative major of D-flat, not the home key of B-flat minor. The main theme that follows is a Ukrainian folk song, but Tchaikovsky is not so much concerned with investigating Russian folklore as he is interested here in the dramatic opposition of soloist and orchestra.
The second theme is a poignant melody with a gently rocking accompaniment. This happens to begin with the notes D-flat and A. Tchaikovsky’s biographer David Brown argues that the concerto as a whole recalls the composer’s deep affection for the soprano Desirée Artôt, to whom Tchaikovsky was briefly engaged before she suddenly married another singer. Several musical references suggest that he still thought of Artôt very warmly some five years after the end of their relationship. One clue, Brown maintains, is the prominence of the pitches D-flat and A, which in German would be called Des and A, as in DESirée Artôt.

The second movement combines elements of a slow movement and a scherzo. The slow part features a flute melody with a reply by the soloist. The faster portion quotes a French song, Il Faut S’amuser (“One Must Amuse Oneself, Dance and Laugh”); this song was in the repertory of Artôt and makes a particularly clear reference to her, since otherwise the tune has little overt connection with the other themes in the score.
For his finale, Tchaikovsky concentrates on the effective alternation of his materials, the first theme another Ukrainian folk song, and the second a tranquil string melody. He connects these by having the string melody enter over the soloist’s development of the first theme, but for the most part this finale aims at virtuosic excitement and hits its mark.
 
JENNIFER HIGDON
blue cathedral
 
Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 31, 1962, and now resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She composed blue cathedral for the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Robert Spano conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere on May 1, 2000. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and three percussionists (crotales, marimba, tam-tam, vibraphone, glockenspiel, belltree, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, chimes, bass drum, tomtom, two triangles), plus harp, piano/celesta and strings. The brass players also play eight crystal glasses, and most of the orchestra plays the 60-70 requisite Chinese bells. Duration is about 12 minutes.

Jennifer Higdon moved rapidly into the circle of the most frequently commissioned and performed composers of her generation. Her music is immediately accessible to concert audiences in a way that might be called “conservative” (she employs familiar harmonies and colors), yet she creates them in such a way that they never sound like imitations of something we have heard before, but take the possibilities of the symphony orchestra, for which she writes brilliantly, and regenerates them for our time.

In June 2002, the Philadelphia Orchestra chose Higdon to give the world premiere of her Concerto for Orchestra for a meeting of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Philadelphia, a gathering of musical and administrative leaders from virtually all of the symphony orchestras in the country. The event was little short of sensational. The acclaim was confirmed when the Violin Concerto she wrote for Hilary Hahn received the Pulitzer Prize for 2009.

Higdon first became a flutist, earning her bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University. But interest in composition predominated, and, although she still plays the flute, she pursued composition in her master’s and doctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania. She also earned an Artist’s Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she currently teaches.  Her composition teachers have included George Crumb, Wallace DePue, James Primosch, Jay Reise, Ned Rorem and Marilyn Shrude.

If the Concerto for Orchestra has become her “break-out” piece, winning new acclaim all over the country, blue cathedral clearly set the stage. Higdon was commissioned to write an orchestral work for the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute. At the time she started work on the piece for the commission, her thoughts were particularly filled with memories of her younger brother, who had died exactly a year earlier.

“...I was pondering a lot of things about the journey we make after death . . . I was imagining a traveler on a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky (therefore making it a blue color). The traveler would at first float down the aisle, passing giant pillars, which would reflect the sun at prismatic angles. Along the way they would pass stained glass windows in which the figures would be moving about, speaking and singing. I imagined that there would be some sort of other‑worldly music sounding throughout, along with distant bells ringing periodically. The journey up the aisle would carry the viewer/listener closer to the altar which would be some large, magnificent scene like heaven, open and welcoming. I wanted the music to sound like it was progressing into this constantly opening space, feeling more and more celebratory, moving from introverted to extroverted awareness. As the journey progresses, the individual would float higher and higher above the floor, soaring towards an expanding ceiling, where the heart would feel full and joyful. A sense of fullness would fill the traveler and the thoughts would become again more introverted in the awareness of peace and closure.”

The imagery that the composer offers in this description need not be taken literally by a listener to the work, but certainly it provides enough of a guide for the first-time listener to this wonderfully affirmative score. Since its 2000 world premiere, it has become Higdon’s most frequently performed score.
 
FELIX MENDELSSOHN
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Opus 90, Italian
 
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. He began composing the Italian Symphony while in Rome in the late winter and spring of 1831; he sketched it out rapidly but never allowed a performance or publication in his lifetime. The official date of completion is March 13, 1833. Its first performance took place in London at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society on May 13, 1833, but Mendelssohn felt the need of revisions afterward; as a result it was not published in his lifetime. The symphony is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings. Duration is about 27 minutes.

As the scion of a well‑off middle‑class German family, Felix Mendelssohn undertook the Grand Tour to the centers of Classical culture in Italy; his tour was somewhat grander than most, extending from early May of 1830 to late June of 1832 and including months‑long stops in Rome, Paris and London. Voluminous published correspondence, illustrated with his own drawings, vividly recount his immediate response to fresh new experiences and the way these sparked creative ideas in him.

From Rome on December 20, 1830, Felix wrote to his family, “After the new year I intend to resume instrumental music, and to write several things for the piano, and probably a symphony of some kind, for two have been haunting my brain.” The two symphonies in question were the ones we know as the Scottish and Italian symphonies. The first of these was a reaction to his visit to Scotland the year before, while the Italian Symphony grew out of his new experiences in Rome and Naples. By mid-January 1831, he wrote that the symphonies were taking shape in his mind and that he hoped to finish them “here.” The resulting works became, in a sense, tonal mirror images of one another: the Scottish is fundamentally in A minor but ends in the major, while the Italian is in A major but ends in the minor. By late February, Mendelssohn wrote (quite accurately) that the Italian symphony would be “the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement.”

It was typical of Mendelssohn to finish the basic work of creation at an astonishing speed—and equally typical for him to take a great deal of time over extensive polishing afterwards. In the case of the Italian Symphony, he conducted a single performance, in Paris in 1832, and then put it away, claiming to find flaws serious enough to need extensive revision. This is hard to credit today, since the Italian Symphony has long been regarded as one of his most perfect works, but whatever faults—real or imagined—the composer found in the score prevented him from allowing its publication, with the result that it only appeared after his premature death.

The richly assured orchestration makes its mark in the opening measures with a background of repeated chords in the woodwinds over which the violins sing their enthusiastic, soaring theme. The unique sound of the first measure alone is enough to identify this score out of the entire symphonic repertory. The racing activity never stops or slows, even when the strings become the lightest staccato whisper to bring in the clarinets and bassoons with the secondary theme. But shortly before the end of the exposition the activity just barely slows to allow the solo clarinet one superbly romantic moment, whispering the opening theme in notes twice as long as before. Much of the development is based on another new idea treated imitatively in the strings with punctuation from the woodwinds until the latter assert the importance of the main theme on top of everything. The new theme is recapitulated in place of the romantic moment for the clarinet from the exposition, and the coda works all of the preceding ideas in with the concluding material from the first ending in a wonderfully imaginative web.

The second movement seems to evoke a religious procession, beginning with a “wailing” gesture that introduces a measured and rather somber marching theme in D minor.

The third movement is the embodiment of grace, with a light but poetic touch in the horn calls deftly answered by violin and flute scales in the Trio.

The final saltarello (a lively leaping dance) is a whirlwind of rushing activity, from the orchestral trills and punctuating chords of the first measure through the unison statement of the basic rhythm to the end. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that Mendelssohn begins in the minor mode and, contrary to all expectation, refuses to yield, even in the very last measures, to a conclusion in the major. But the energy and the brilliant orchestration of the whole, the unflagging verve and ceaseless activity, bring on a conclusion that, for all its surprises, is as fully gratifying as any that Mendelssohn ever wrote.

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenbetter.com)

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