Work composed: 2014–15
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 castanets, crotales, flexatone, hi-hat, kick drum, log drum, snare drum, 3 suspended cymbals, tambourine, 5 temple blocks, 2 tom-toms, triangle, vibraslap, water gong, xylophone, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 8 minutes
Texu Kim’s music combines a fascination with how things work and an affinity for contemporary sound worlds. Drawing on his background in science – Kim earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Seoul National University while he was also working toward bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition – Kim explained the origins of the title Spin-Flip in his program note: “The proton and the electron in a hydrogen atom spin permanently with their rotation axes parallel to one another. They can rotate in the same direction (clockwise-clockwise, for example), or the opposite way. When the directional relationship changes due to absorption or emission of a certain type of energy, it is called Spin-Flip. The same term can also mean a sudden change in a rotating black hole’s spin axis ... Regardless of its meaning in physics, I titled my piece Spin-Flip simply because [the name suggests table tennis]; a spin serve and flip shot are ping-pong techniques.” Through basic musical elements, Kim modifies and synthesizes short musical ideas into new sonic material. Much of Kim’s compositional output also reflects his personal fascination with everyday objects in a humorous and sophisticated way, as in Bounce!! (2014) and Shake It!! (2014), inspired by bouncing basketballs and grinding coffee beans, respectively.
With regard to Spin-Flip, Kim continues, “I happen to share my name (spelled differently in English) with a legendary Korean table tennis player, Taek-soo Kim (b.1970), who coached the Korean National Team of table tennis. For this reason, when meeting new people in Korea, I am often asked if I am good at table tennis. Though the answer is ‘No,’ this silly coincidence has led me to write a musical piece about it.
“Spin-Flip is an eight-minute overture which is all about Ping-Pong, and conveys the driving energy of a (good) Ping-Pong match. Its primary motives are derived from the sound of a cheering crowd and balls bouncing around on the table (and occasionally on the floor); its alternating harmonic pattern and somewhat random form reflect the alternation of service and unpredictable results, respectively … I only hope that I share the sheer fun I have with the audience through this piece.”
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Work composed: 1829, rev. 1836
Most recent Oregon symphony performance: March 23, 2014; Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor; Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 33 minutes
The name Frédéric Chopin is essentially synonymous with music for piano, especially solo piano. All pianists and lovers of piano music owe a debt to Chopin, who revolutionized 19th century piano composition.
Chopin wrote his two piano concertos as musical business cards; they were useful vehicle for self-promotion, particularly when the young Pole arrived in Paris in 1830. Both concertos emphasize the soloist’s role with crystalline, dazzling passages; the orchestra, meanwhile, has a more functional, accompanying role.
Scholars have likened Chopin’s melodies in the F Minor Concerto to the soaring lyricism of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera arias, a comparison that reflects the friendship and mutual admiration shared by the two composers. Both men prioritized melody over harmony, and showcased their melodic themes with understated accompaniments. While attending the Warsaw School of Music, 19-year-old Chopin met and fell in love with another student, Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Gładkowska became Chopin’s muse, and he paid homage to her in both of his piano concertos with the expressive, vocally conceived “piano arias” featured in the middle movements.
The orchestra begins the Maestoso with a vivid, restless theme whose dotted rhythm propels it towards the piano’s first entrance. Once the soloist begins, the orchestra recedes into the background, serving primarily as accompaniment.
In referring to Gładkowska, Chopin told a friend, “I have – perhaps to my own misfortune – already found my ideal, whom I worship faithfully and sincerely. Six months have elapsed, and I haven’t yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night – she who was in my mind when I composed the Adagio [Larghetto] of my Concerto.” The Larghetto opens with an exquisitely languid melody. The middle section features an instrumental version of an impassioned operatic recitative, complete with tremolo strings, and the dreamy opening melody concludes the Larghetto with a rapturous sigh.
In the finale, Chopin features both the Viennese waltz and the mazurka, a dance from his native Poland. The music flirts coquettishly between the two. These lighter episodes are punctuated by moments of intensity, but the overall mood of this movement is freer and more playful than the previous two. Once again, the piano is the main purveyor of thematic material; midway through the movement, the horns enter into a dialogue with the soloist. The final section rushes headlong toward a lissome, sparkling conclusion.
Chopin himself performed the solo part at Opus 21’s premiere, a private concert in Warsaw on March 3, 1830, led by Karol Kurpinski. They repeated their performance for the public at the National Theater in Warsaw two weeks later. Chopin was disappointed in the audience’s reaction. In a letter to a friend shortly after the premiere, he wrote, “My first concert … did not make on the general public the impression I thought it would … it seems to me that people felt they had to show interest (‘Ah, something new!’) and pretend to be connoisseurs.”
Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44
Work composed: 1935–36
Most recent Oregon symphony performance: November 17, 2008; Christoph Campestrini, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 40 minutes
Sergei Rachmaninoff is an underrated symphonist, due to the extraordinary and enduring popularity of his piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Contemporary reviews did not help; Rachmaninoff was skewered by critics for his later music, particularly the Third Symphony, because it didn’t sound “modern” enough to their ears. Audiences, meanwhile, rejected Rachmaninoff’s later works because they yearned for the romantic soundscapes of the Second Piano Concerto and were unwilling to let Rachmaninoff evolve as a composer. Author Madeleine L’Engle once summarized this dilemma in a response from her publishers, who wanted her to duplicate the success of a previous book: “You’ve done it in pink, dear; now do it in blue.”
Rachmaninoff would have understood L’Engle’s frustration all too well. As a composer, he had something new to say, but few seemed interested in hearing it. After he fled Russia in 1917, Rachmaninoff essentially sacrificed his identity as both conductor and composer; instead, he supported his family as a virtuoso pianist who maintained a relentless and exhausting schedule of concerts and travel. In 1926, Rachmaninoff began composing again, after a nine-year hiatus. His new music reflected all the turmoil of those years, along with Rachmaninoff’s exile from his homeland, and new trends in classical music, particularly the influence of jazz.
Stylistically, the Third Symphony retains some of the lushness of Rachmaninoff’s earlier works, blended with a more expansive harmonic palette and infused with a restless tension not found in his earlier music. The Third Symphony also condensed the usual four movements into three; the second movement, however, features two large sections that function almost as separate movements (Adagio followed by Scherzo). Overall, the music is episodic, and Rachmaninoff makes a point of developing rather than merely embellishing his trademark melodies. Towards the end of the final movement, Rachmaninoff quotes the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) from the Requiem Mass. This ancient chant was a recurring theme in Rachmaninoff’s music; he first used it in his Symphony No. 1, then in later works such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphonic Dances, and Isle of the Dead.
Reactions to the Third Symphony were mixed. Olin Downes, writing for the New York Times, opined, “The outward characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s style are evident in the work head on this occasion … It cannot be said, however, that in these pages Mr. Rachmaninoff says things which are new, even though his idiom is more his own than ever before, and free of the indebtedness it once had to Tchaikovsky … There is a tendency to overelaboration of detail, and to unnecessary extensions, so that the last movement, in particular, appears too long. Would not a pair of shears benefit the proportions of this work?” However, another critic praised the Third as “a most excellent work in musical conception, composition, and orchestration.” Rachmaninoff himself was puzzled by the negative reactions. In a 1937 letter to a friend, Rachmaninoff wrote, “It was played wonderfully. Its reception by both the public and critics was sour. One review sticks painfully in my mind: that I didn’t have a Third Symphony in me any more. Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work. But – sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far.”
© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com