Oregon Symphony


Concert Information

Lang Lang

Thursday, October 15, 2015, 7:30 p.m.

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Paul Ghun Kim, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra
  • Allegro molto moderato
  • Adagio
  • Allegro moderato molto e marcato


Symphony No. 8 in G major
  • Allegro con brio
  • Adagio
  • Allegretto grazioso
  • Allegro ma non troppo

Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld

Vital Stats

Composer: Born June 20, 1819, Cologne; died October 5, 1880, Paris.

Work composed: 1858, rev. 1874.

World premiere: On October 21, 1858, at Offenbach’s own theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, in Paris.

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 7, 1999; Murry Sidlin, conductor.

Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, triangle, harp, and strings.

Estimated duration: 9 minutes

When Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld premiered in 1858, it did not attract a sold-out house; attendance picked up after a scathing review that described the opera as sacrilegious and disrespectful. Always eager for controversy, the public responded by flooding the theater and making Orpheus the most popular of all Offenbach’s operas.

Despite Orpheus’ popularity with audiences, Offenbach did not generally earn the respect of his colleagues, probably due in part to Offenbach’s Jewish heritage. Richard Wagner’s reaction was typical; he described Offenbach’s music as “a dung heap upon which all the swine of Europe wallowed.” Gioachino Rossini was a notable exception, dubbing Offenbach “The Mozart of the Champs-Élysées.”

The classic Greek myth of Orpheus journeying to Hades to free his beloved Euridice is turned topsy-turvy in Offenbach’s version. Rather than a tragic couple forever linked by their epic love, in Offenbach’s opera Orpheus and Euridice are like the Cramdens of the classic 50s TV show The Honeymooners. Always carping and sniping at one another, their marriage long grown stale, they can hardly tolerate a moment in one another’s presence. Instead of playing the lyre, Orpheus is a violinist of questionable ability who drives Euridice crazy with his awful playing. Orpheus is delighted when Pluto, king of the underworld, comes along and entices Euridice to his shadowy kingdom, and she is equally happy to be gone. However, public pressure forces Orpheus to make a reluctant attempt to rescue his wife, and he enlists the help of Jupiter, king of all the gods, to bring her home. Eventually Orpheus and all the gods journey to the underworld and the opera concludes with a wild bacchanal.

The overture was assembled by Carl Binder, an Austrian composer who arranged themes from the opera into an overture for his company’s production of the work. Binder’s arrangement features many of the themes from the opera and finishes with the most famous, the “Can-Can.”

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Vital Stats

Composer: Born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died Sept. 4, 1907, Bergen.

Work composed: Grieg wrote his piano concerto in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark. It was later revised a number of times, in 1872, 1882, 1890, 1895, and 1907.

World premiere: April 3, 1869, with Edmund Neupert performing the solo part and Holger Simon Paulli leading the orchestra of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen.

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February 28, 2011; Michael Francis, conductor; Thomas Lauderdale, piano.

Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Estimated duration: 30 minutes

Edvard Grieg wrote his first piano concerto at age 25; it is one of the most popular ever written for piano and among Grieg’s most beloved works. It is often compared with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and there are indeed many similarities. Both concertos share the same key and both begin with a grand orchestral chord, followed immediately by virtuosic flourishes up and down the keyboard. Grieg was an admirer of Schumann’s music and was familiar with Schumann’s concerto through Grieg’s piano teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory, who was a close friend of Schumann’s. When Grieg was a student, he heard Clara Schumann perform her late husband’s concerto in Leipzig; Grieg considered this performance one of the highlights of his time there.

Appreciation for Schumann’s music notwithstanding, however, Grieg’s piano concerto is his own. In describing his style of composition, Grieg wrote, “Composers with the stature of a Bach or Beethoven have erected grand churches and temples. I have always wished to build villages: places where people can feel happy and comfortable … the music of my own country has been my model.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote, “In Grieg’s music, there prevails that fascinating melancholy which seems to reflect in itself all the beauty of Norwegian scenery, now grandiose and sublime in its vast expanse, now gray and dull, but always full of charm … and quickly finds its way into our hearts to evoke a warm and sympathetic response … What warmth and passion in his melodic phrases, what teeming vitality in his harmony, what originality and beauty in the turn of his piquant and ingenious modulations and rhythms, and in all the rest what interest, novelty, and independence! If we add to this that rarest of qualities, a perfect simplicity, far removed from affectation and pretense … it is not surprising that everyone should delight in Grieg.”

Grieg was unable to attend the premiere due to prior obligations with the Oslo orchestra, but he was gratified when pianist Edmund Neupert reported that several eminent music critics had “applauded with all their might.” Three days later, Neupert reported that Anton Rubenstein, who had also been in attendance, said he was “astounded to have heard a composition of such genius.”

The Allegro moderato is of particular interest, with its flashes of brilliant color tossed off by the soloist, like an aurora borealis of sound dancing in the air. A graceful melody first introduced in the flute later returns in another key for a majestic finale.

Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op. 88

Vital Stats

Composer: Born September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, near Kralupy (now the Czech Republic); died May 1, 1904, Prague.

Work composed: Dvořák wrote the Symphony No. 8 between August 26 and November 8, 1889, at his country home, Vysoká, in Bohemia. The score was dedicated “To the Bohemian Academy of Emperor Franz Joseph for the Encouragement of Arts and Literature, in thanks for my election [to the Prague Academy].”

World premiere: Dvořák led the National Theatre Orchestra in the premiere in Prague on February 2, 1890.

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 24, 2013; Jun Märkl, conductor.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Estimated duration: 36 minutes

From its inception, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony in G major was more than a composition; in musical terms it stood for all that made Dvořák a proud Bohemian. Insensitive to his Czech sensibilities, Dvořák’s German publisher, Fritz Simrock, wanted to publish the symphony’s movement titles and Dvořák’s name in German translation. This might seem like an unimportant detail over which to haggle, but for Dvořák it was a matter of cultural life and death. Since the age of 26, Dvořák was a reluctant citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose ruling Hapsburgs reigned over the Czech people; both Czech language and culture were vigorously repressed. Dvořák, an ardent Czech patriot who chafed under the oppressive rule of the Hapsburgs, categorically refused Simrock’s request.

For his part, Simrock was not especially enthusiastic about publishing Dvořák’s symphonies; the music publisher wanted the Czech composer to produce more Slavonic dances and piano music, which were guaranteed moneymakers. Simrock and Dvořák also haggled over the composer’s fee (Simrock had paid 3,000 marks for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, but inexplicably and insultingly offered only 1,000 for the Eighth Symphony). All these factors contributed to Dvořák’s decision to offer his Symphony No. 8 to the London firm Novello, which published it in 1890.

Dvořák broke new ground with the Symphony No. 8, a work, as he explained, meant to be “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” The music is steeped in the flavor and atmosphere of the Czech countryside. Within the music, Dvořák included sounds from nature, particularly hunting horn calls, birdsong, and dramatic fanfares that suggest nonmusical images.

The Symphony No. 8 abounds with Czech folk tunes and the sounds of the Czech countryside, most notably utilizing different wind instruments to sound a number of birdcalls. Another unusual feature of this symphony is the oblique manner in which Dvořák approaches harmony. The music begins with cellos, accompanied by horns, bassoons, and trombones, intoning a stately chorale in G minor. A solo flute, imitating a bird, then ushers in the symphony’s “true” key of G major.

Serenity floats over the Adagio. As in the first movement, Dvořák plays with tonality; E-flat major slides into its darker counterpart, C minor. A hint of melancholy pervades, even when the full orchestra is playing. Dvořák was most at home in rural settings, and the music of this Adagio evokes the tranquil landscapes of Dvořák’s homeland, and particularly the garden at Vysoká, Dvořák’s country home. In a manner similar to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the music suggests an idyllic summer’s day, interrupted by a cloudburst, after which the sun reappears, setting all the raindrops twinkling.

During a rehearsal of the trumpet fanfare in the last movement, conductor Rafael Kubelik declared, “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance!” After this opening summons, cellos play the lyrical main theme, which is based on a folk melody. Quieter variations on the cello melody feature solo flute and strings. The movement ends with an exuberant brassy blast.

© 2015 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: schwartzelizabeth@yahoo.com.

Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons

Offenbach–Overture to Orpheus inthe Underworld
Antonio de Almeida–Philharmonia Orchestra
Philips 442403 OR
Marc Minkowski–Les Musiciens du Louvre
Archiv/Deutsche Grammophon 000823802

Grieg–Piano Concerto
Stephen Kovacevich, Piano
Sir Colin Davis–BBC Symphony Orchestra
Newton Classics 8802019 OR
Stephen Hough, Piano
Andrew Litton–Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Hyperion 67824

DvořákSymphony No. 8
Christoph von Dohnányi–Cleveland Orchestra
2-Decca 452182 OR
Václav Talich–Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Supraphon 3833

These recordings are available for purchase during intermission in the lobby of the concert hall.