Concert I, 2021-2022 season
Appropriately to a joyful re-beginning, we start with a fanfare for brass and percussion. Tania Leon emigrated to the United States from Cuba on a Freedom Flight in 1967. Starting as a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, she has made a stellar career in this country as a pianist, conductor, and composer, and counts as a central figure in American music of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
“Fanfarria” was written in 2000 as a commission for the Centennial Celebrations for Aaron Copland, as an homage to his well-known “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942). As the original program for that concert remarks, this piece offers a “sonically effervescent display of colors and bursts of pyrotechnical chordal sequences echoed by bursts of percussive responses.”
Equally appropriate to this moment, but offered as an acknowledgment of the human cost of the pandemic, we offer George Walker’s sombre “Lyric.” Like Samuel Barber’s more famous “Adagio” (1936), “Lyric” was originally written as the slow movement of a string quartet (1946), then adapted to string orchestra. Like the Barber, it features material that moves mostly by step (from one note to the one next to it), and an overall arc from soft to loud and back again.
Walker, the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music, taught at Rutgers University from 1969–1992, received many prestigious awards and fellowships, and commissions from major symphony orchestras. Much of Walker’s music is in a fairly astringent modernist idiom, but “Lyric” is in a more romantic expressive style.
Pines of Rome
Originally a violinist and orchestral violist, Ottorino Respighi briefly studied composition in St. Petersburg with Rimsky Korsakov, a master of orchestral color. Respighi eventually settled in Rome, and made his reputation with works describing his adopted city, and with orchestrations and adaptations of early music. The famous conductor Arturo Toscanini championed his music, and it remains enormously popular with both audiences and players. The Pines of Rome combines Respighi’s interests in both Rome and history, since the pine-groves he depicts all go back either to the Renaissance or to ancient times. It includes four “scenes,” which proceed from one to the next without breaks.
The speedy “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” uses a lot of “noise” from percussion and brass to suggest the bustling city of which the Villa Borghese commands a view. The “Pines Near a Catacomb” suggests the creepiness of these underground graves with the very low strings at the beginning. The largely stepwise and repetitive tunes are also somewhat reminiscent of Gregorian chant, reminding the listener of the early history of the Church in Rome. “The Pines of the Janiculum” evokes a romantic night (ending with a recording of nightingale song) in the gardens on this Roman hill.
This segues directly into the depiction of marching Roman Legions on the ancient Appian Way. The marching rhythm in basses and timpani continues throughout the movement as the music over it gets increasingly loud and martial, culminating with a gong stroke as the legions arrive directly in front of the viewer/listener. Mussolini was a great admirer of Respighi’s music, but although Respighi was more musically conservative than some of his colleagues, he made no public statements about calibrating his style to appeal to the fascist regime.
Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73, “Emperor”
Ludwig van Beethoven
This is the last of Beethoven’s piano concertos and the only one he did not perform himself at the premiere, due to his increasing deafness. Although it was written in 1809, it was not performed in public at all until 1811 because of Napoleon’s violent incursions into Beethoven’s hometown of Vienna. It was not performed in Vienna itself until 1812, when Carl Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil and admirer, and author of hundreds of finger-twisting etudes, brought it to a Viennese audience. The only thing we know for certain about the work’s nickname, “The Emperor” is that it does not stem from Beethoven himself. Critics have often linked the nickname to its expressive grandeur and large scale, which, while pointing out certain aspects of the work, may also direct attention away from its more intimate sounds and moments.
Although Beethoven often wrote beautiful and memorable tunes, one of his most significant characteristics as a composer was his ability to take the simplest or most compact material and work with it so that it forms the basis of an entire movement. The first movement of his Fifth Symphony, which was finished just a year before he wrote this concerto, is probably the most famous example, as the “da-da-da-DA” motif serves as the fundamental building block of the entire 15-minute movement.
Beethoven’s techniques include chopping up a short tune so that bits of it appear separately and in different configurations across a movement. In the first movement of today’s concerto he does this with the tune that the orchestra plays after the opening piano introduction. He also extends simple, even banal, material, so that it takes on an elevated character. For example, at the very beginning of the concerto, the big chords played by the orchestra are just a standard chord progression (made up of of the “power chords” of rock music), but the piano’s long rhapsodic “improvisations” in between give these ordinary chords an extraordinary grandeur. The rest of the movement combines play with motifs (bits of tune) and piano rhapsodizing in always surprising ways.
The second movement makes up for the first’s relative lack of big tunes with a stunningly gorgeous melody played first by the orchestra alone, then eventually by the piano, and then by the orchestra again with piano filigree around it. I would be astonished if Leonard Bernstein did not have this in mind when he wrote the song “Somewhere” for West Side Story. The last movement is a robust rondo (a form where the main tune keeps coming back, with contrasting “episodes” in between).
© Copyright Mary Hunter 2021