Yuja Wang Plays RachmaninoffArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
- Proposta seria
- Tema con variazioni
- Allegro ma non tanto
- Yuja Wang, piano
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Tragic Overture in D minor, Op. 81
Composer: born May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany; died Apr. 3, 1897, Vienna
Work composed: Brahms composed the Tragic Overture during the summer of 1880, while vacationing at Bad Ischl, Austria.
World premiere: Hans Richter led the Vienna Philharmonic in the premiere on Dec. 26, 1880.
Oregon Symphony premiere: Nov. 12, 1956, with Theodore Bloomfield conducting
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Nov. 17, 1991, with Ching-Hsin Hsu conducting
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings
Estimated duration: 13 minutes
“One overture laughs, the other weeps.”
– Johannes Brahms, describing his Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures
Johannes Brahms wrote a pair of overtures in the summer of 1880, the lighthearted Academic Festival Overture and the more somber Tragic Overture. Working simultaneously on two such disparate compositions might have posed a challenge, but Brahms himself expressed, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner, his need for emotional balance. In a letter to his publisher Fritz Simrock, Brahms wrote, “Having composed this jolly Academic Festival Overture, I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy.”
The Academic Festival Overture was written as grateful response to the University of Breslau, which had given Brahms an honorary doctorate in 1879. The Tragic Overture, in contrast, appears to have had no such external impetus. Scholars differ on whether Brahms it as incidental music for a theatrical production, or whether, as an admirer of literary tragedies, he was simply drawn to the concept of expressing tragedy through music.
The latter explanation is bolstered by the fact that Brahms experimented with several titles for this work, including “Dramatic Overture” and “Overture to a Tragedy,” both of which suggest a generic, rather than specific, theme or story. (Brahms did not like the title Tragic Overture; he settled on it only because he could think of nothing better). Brahms’ first biographer, Max Kalbeck, proposed that Brahms wrote this overture at the request of the head of Vienna’s Burgtheater, for a production of Goethe’s Faust (the production was never mounted). However, Brahms himself emphatically denied any connection with a specific tragedy, literary or personal.
The Tragic Overture begins with two ominous chords, similar to the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. While the themes and the key, D minor, certainly convey weight and drama, this music hardly suggests tragedy. On the other hand, as Brahms’ biographer Jan Swafford notes, “In his life and in his music Brahms tended to deal with emotion obliquely.” Perhaps Brahms meant this work as a musical distillation of the concept of tragedy, rather than as an expression of a specific emotional response.
Symphony No. 6, "Sinfonia semplice"
Composer: born June 9, 1865, in Sortelung, near Nørre Lyndelse on the Danish island of Funen; died Oct. 3, 1931, Copenhagen
Work composed: Nielsen began writing in August 1924 and completed his sixth symphony on Dec. 5, 1925, one day before the first rehearsal of its premiere. The symphony is dedicated to the Chapel Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen.
World premiere: Nielsen conducted the premiere in Copenhagen by the Chapel Royal Orchestra on Dec. 11, 1925; he conducted the Swedish Royal Orchestra in the premiere of the first movement two weeks earlier, in Stockholm.
Oregon Symphony premiere: At these concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trmpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, glockenspiel, snare drum, , triangle, xylophone and strings
Estimated duration: 31 minutes
Carl Nielsen’s goal for his sixth and final symphony was, as he wrote to his daughter, to write “with the same uncomplicated joy in pure sound as the old a capella composers.” He also described the symphony as possessing a “completely idyllic character.” Upon completion, however, Nielsen acknowledged there were “serious and problematic things in the first and third movements, [but] as a whole, I have tried to make the symphony as lively and gay as possible.” The “serious and problematic thing” was Nielsen’s realization that his heart was weakening; he was forced to confront his own mortality.
Nielsen may have had some premonition that the symphony he planned might, in fact, turn out very differently from his original concept. As Nielsen wrote to his friend, patron and former student Carl Johan Michaelsen, “As far as I can see, it will on the whole be different from my other symphonies: more amiable and smooth, or how shall I put it, but it is impossible to tell as I do not know at all what currents I may run into during the voyage.”
Judging from the finished product, Nielsen steered through some challenging waters. In his manuscript, Nielsen gave this symphony the title “Sinfonia semplice,” which he dropped from the first printed edition. While he might have set out to write a simple, straightforward work, the end result is anything but. The music juxtaposes childlike joyfulness with a sardonic and sometimes grim irony; often these two emotions are layered over one another simultaneously, as in the final movement theme and variations. We hear a waltz, rudely and shockingly disrupted by blasts from the brasses. Undaunted, the waltz continues underneath, as the brass interruptions become more obnoxious. The brief Humoreske introduces this interplay of mockery and ingenuousness.
“I have in my symphony a piece for small percussion instruments – triangle, glockenspiel and side-drum – that quarrel, each sticking to its own tastes and likings,” Nielsen explained. These three instruments, accompanied by winds, squabble like spoiled children throughout, with no one instrument gaining the upper hand. The glockenspiel, in particular, has a pivotal role, representing Nielsen’s “idyllic character.” It opens the symphony and rings forth at various points throughout, an insistent reminder of “uncomplicated joy.”
Nielsen’s biographer Robert Layton writes: “Instead of regarding the final tonality as a goal to be achieved, [Nielsen] now treats it as something inimical, to be avoided if possible. When it has finally to be accepted, it is with humour, heroic and sardonic.” One can hear Nielsen’s approach to (or side-stepping of) tonality as a metaphor for Nielsen’s feelings about his failing health and impending death.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D, Op. 30
Composer: born Apr. 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Starorusky District, Russia; died Mar. 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, CA
Work composed: 1908-09; dedicated to pianist Josef Hofmann
World premiere: Nov. 28, 1909, with Rachmaninoff at the piano, under the direction of Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony
Oregon Symphony premiere: Feb. 9, 1931, with Willem van Hoogstraten conducting the orchestra and Vladimir Horowitz as piano soloist
Most recent Oregon Symphony performances: Oct. 2-4, 2004, with Carlos Kalmar conducting. Louis Lortie was piano soloist for the Oct. 2 performance; Yakov Kasman took over as soloist for the performances on Oct. 3 and 4.
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum and strings
Estimated duration: 44 minutes
Sergei Rachmaninoff began working on the Third Piano Concerto in the summer of 1908 at his family’s estate at Oneg and rushed to complete it in time for his first tour of North America in the fall of 1909. On the voyage to the United States, Rachmaninoff had no access to a piano, so he took along a cardboard keyboard to practice and memorize the demanding solo part.
After the premiere, and a second performance in New York with Gustav Mahler, Rachmaninoff arrived in Boston. He made such a magnificent impression that he was asked to assume the post of music director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an offer he declined. Despite his success, Rachmaninoff heartily disliked America. In a letter to his cousin he wrote: “In this accursed country you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and their ‘business,’ ‘business’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on. Everyone is nice and kind to me, but I am horribly bored by the whole thing, and I feel that my character has been quite ruined here.” Lonely and homesick, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia in February 1910.
The Third Piano Concerto was generally well received. One critic noted, “The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” The extraordinary virtuosic and musical demands of the concerto make it one the most challenging works in the piano concerto repertoire. The soloist plays almost constantly throughout and must combine ear-popping virtuosity with a refined ability to blend with and accompany the orchestra.
When Rachmaninoff discussed the origins of the Third Concerto, he denied any specific influences. “It is borrowed neither from folk song forms nor from church services. It simply ‘wrote itself,’” he stated. “If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it – and to find a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather one that would not muffle this singing.”
Nonetheless, the influence of traditional chant of the Russian Orthodox Church is evident in the opening theme, with its narrow range and stepwise motion. This theme returns in the second movement, with the rhythm altered but the essential melody intact. The final two movements are played without pause, a transition from the introspective Intermezzo to the ferocious pianistic virtuosity of the Finale.
© 2011 Elizabeth Schwartz
Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland-based free-lance writer, researcher and musician. In addition annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony and other ensembles, she has also contributed to NPR’s Performance Today (now heard on American Public Media). Schwartz also co-hosts The Portland Yiddish Hour, heard at 10 a.m. Sundays on KBOO 90.7 FM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
Brahms: Tragic Overture
Otto Klemperer-Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Classics 67029
Nielsen: Symphony No. 6
Herbert Blomstedt-San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Schonwandt-Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3
Riccardo Chailly-RSO Berlin
Eugene Ormandy-The Philadelphia Orchestra
2-RCA Victor Gold Seal 61658
Vasily Petrenko-Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
These selected recordings are available at Classical Millennium, located at 3144 E. Burnside in Portland.