Emanuel Ax Plays Beethoven

Program Listing

Saturday, February 4, 2023, 7:30 PM
Sunday, February 5, 2023, 2 PM
Monday, February 6, 2023, 7:30 PM


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David Danzmayr, Conductor
Emanuel Ax, Piano

Unsuk Chin

Subito con forza

Ludwig van Beethoven

Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37
Allegro con brio
Rondo: Allegro
Emanuel Ax

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Adagio Molto – Allegro con brio
Scherzo: Allegro
SAllegro Molto


Program Notes

Subito con forza
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36

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Unsuk Chin
b. 1961

Subito con forza

Work composed: 2020
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, crotales, cymbals, guiro, marimba, 2 pitched gongs, 3 snare drums, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphone, whip, xylophone, piano, and strings
Estimated duration: 5 minutes

Unsuk Chin is considered one of the foremost modernist composers working today. Her music explores a rich array
of timbres and is notable for its shifts of mood, tempo, and/or dynamics. “The most important thing for me in my music is that there should be a big palette of expressive possibilities. If it’s only lyrical, or only aggressive, then, for me, it is flat and one-sided,” Chin remarked.

Subito con forzaa musical term that literally translates as “with immediate force,” was composed as part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations of 2020, marking the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth.

In later life, owing to his hearing loss, Beethoven carried blank notebooks with him so that people could communicate with him by writing down their side of the conversation; the composer would then reply verbally. In addition, Beethoven used these notebooks to jot down ideas for future compositions. Chin found inspiration in these conversation books, particularly the line: “Dur und Moll. Ich bin ein Gewinner.” (“Major and minor. I am a winner.”) In an interview with writer Thea Derks, Chin explained: “What particularly appeals to me are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.”

Within a concise five-minute framework, Chin references several recognizable moments – hardly long enough to be considered bona fide quotes – from Beethoven’s music, including the Emperor Concerto and the Coriolan Overture. But, as a 2021 review of subito’s premiere at the BBC Proms concerts accurately observed, “The piece is less about quotation than celebrating, and mirroring, the indomitable attitude of one of music’s truly great innovators. Chin has sought to embody one of the key defining characteristics of Beethoven’s music: the restless, relentless fire and energy that propels his music with seemingly unstoppable force. This is articulated, as the title implies, via a connected sequence of sudden shifts, as if Chin had taken a collection of little ideas from her sketch books and decided to find a way to bolt them all together.”


Ludwig Van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Work composed: 1796–1803. Dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Associate Conductor Norman Huynh led the Oregon Symphony with pianist Barry Douglas on February 23–26, 2018
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 34 minutes

Ludwig van Beethoven began working on his third piano concerto in 1796, composed most of it in 1800, and continued tinkering with it until the day of its premiere at one of his subscription concerts. The over-ambitious program actually featured three premieres: the Piano Concerto No. 3, the Symphony No. 2 and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of OlivesPerhaps fearing this program would not prove substantial enough, Beethoven also included his First Symphony.

Time constraints prevented Beethoven from writing down the solo part in time for the first performance. When Beethoven asked his friend Ignaz von Seyfried to turn pages for him during the concert, Seyfried had no idea how difficult this seemingly simple task would be. Seyfried recalled:

“I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealed anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly ...”

With the third piano concerto, Beethoven created a new stylistic framework for the genre as a whole. The Allegro con brio
is structured around a short, unadorned rhythmic motif and a contrasting lyrical countermelody, which become the basis for a stormy musical dialogue between orchestra and soloist. In the Largo, Beethoven made a significant – and radical – decision regarding tonality. The key, E major, is harmonically very distant from that of C minor, an unheard-of choice in concerto writing for the time. In another departure from convention, 
it is the soloist who unveils the slow theme and its accompanying melody, before the orchestra. Later the soloist becomes the orchestra’s accompanist, with a stream of flowing arpeggios rippling quietly underneath the primary melody. The refrain of the Rondo: Allegro has a bouncy energy, which neatly offsets several contrasting interludes that range from tautly edgy to lyrically expansive. The two outer movements perfectly capture both the Sturm und Drang and the heroic qualities that Beethoven perceived in the key of C minor, a key he chose for many of his most significant works, including the Symphony No. 5.

Beethoven had another motivation for employing C minor in a piano concerto; by doing so, he paid homage to Mozart, specifically Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491, also in C minor. During a rehearsal of K. 491, Beethoven remarked to the English composer J. B. Cramer, “Ah, Cramer, we shall never be able to do anything like that.” In his biography of Beethoven, Lewis Lockwood respectfully disagrees. “The Third breaks new ground in regions where Mozart had never traveled – in its dramatization of musical ideas, its juxtapositions of intensity with lyricism, [and] its decisive contrasts.”


Ludwig Van Beethoven

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Work composed: 1802
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: Guest conductor Johannes Debus led the Oregon Symphony on November 18–20, 2017
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 34 minutes

Fans of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music associate the word “heroic” with his Third Symphony, nicknamed “Eroica.” But Beethoven’s less familiar Second Symphony is also connected to an internal heroism not obvious in the music, but rather within its composer. At the time Beethoven brought this exuberant symphony to life, he was overwhelmed by depression and thoughts of suicide.

Upon the advice of his doctor, Beethoven spent six months in the summer and fall of 1802 in Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna. There he rested and took the waters of the nearby spa. Beethoven’s doctor believed the quiet life of the village and surrounding countryside would spare Beethoven’s hearing, which had deteriorated to an alarming degree. Unfortunately, this enforced isolation plunged Beethoven into even greater despair, as he realized his hearing might never improve. On October 6, 1802, unable to contain his anguish any longer, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

“... For six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible) ... If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense that ought to be more perfect in me than in others? ... If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed ... Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”

Beethoven never sent the letter, which remained undiscovered until after his death in 1827.

The slow introduction to the first movement transitions in an instant to an almost aggressively cheerful Allegro, as if Beethoven were determined to shake off his dark state of mind with bright, vibrant melodies.

In the Larghetto, Beethoven presents a series of lyrical themes, whose serenity and delicacy capture the beauty of the Viennese countryside, and Beethoven’s abiding love of nature.

The offbeat rhythms and fragmented melodies of the Scherzo and its accompanying trio might have scandalized the Viennese audiences of Beethoven’s time; today’s listeners know them as Beethoven’s trademarks. The surprise and humor found in this movement epitomize Beethoven’s musical personality, which was still evolving when Symphony No. 2 premiered.

Beethoven rebels against his deafness in the Allegro molto, whose sassy opening gesture is almost shocking in its insolence. The surge of energy generated by this movement is a defiant reaffirmation of will, a determination to “produce all that I felt was within me.”


© Elizabeth Schwartz