Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Program Notes, March 12 2011

Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 and
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3

by Jeffrey Johnson

Rachmaninoff was in his mid-thirties when he wrote both the second symphony and the third piano concerto. He had developed three significant talents: as a composer, a conductor, and a pianist. Shifting among these identities was a significant problem—how should his energy be divided? Providing for his family was not possible through composition alone.

From the time of his exile in 1918 to his death in 1943 he made his living as a concert pianist, but it was primarily conducting that paid the bills for Rachmaninoff at the turn of the century.

Composing in Solitude and Seeking Escape
Rachmaninoff broke away from the physically taxing world of a conductor in February 1906 to focus his energy on his compositional portfolio. He could only compose in complete solitude. In a radical move, he resigned from his conducting position and moved his family outside of Russia; to Dresden where nobody knew him. The second symphony and the third piano concerto are both products of someone who was searching—Rachmaninoff was experimenting with escape.

Strange but True
In 1943, the year that Rachmaninoff died, World War Two was in progress. It was impossible to transport the body of the composer to the family estate in Switzerland or to Russia. His wife chose the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. Rachmaninoff is buried about 45 minutes away from Bridgeport.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30

World Premiere: November 28, 1909 in NYC
Most Recent Performance by GBS: March 2, 1991 with soloist Christopher O’Riley

Mahler conducted it?
Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed his third piano concerto. On January 17, 1910, less than two months after its premiere, Gustav Mahler conducted a performance of this concerto with the New York Philharmonic with Rachmaninoff as soloist.

Taking a “Shine” to this Concerto
The 1996 movie “Shine” was based (some say loosely) on the life of pianist David Helfgott. Rachmaninoff’s third concerto was frequently used in the movie as symbol of the pianist’s mental breakdown. The “Rach third” is infamous for its technical challenges and it marks a rite of passage for any performer, but it also rich with other wonderful surprises. There is much more to the work that one might guess from watching “Shine.”

I: Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)
Three Times “that” Tune
This concerto casts an instantaneous spell. The opening melody is musical story-telling of the highest order. The next presentation of this melody marks the beginning of the development section. The tune is abandoned as the music becomes expansive and athletic. A final presentation comes late in the movement, after the cadenza, and just before the movement comes to a quiet close.

Passion and Playfulness
The new contrasting section begins with music that is articulate and playful. Lyrical music is juxtaposed and lines float effortlessly. The mood becomes wildly passionate before clicking back suddenly into playfulness. The codetta returns to the ethereal textures so characteristic of Rachmaninoff.

Intermediate Listening. Which Cadenza?
The first movement culminates in a lengthy cadenza for solo piano. It is moment of truth for the soloist and functions as an alternative recapitulation. There are two different cadenzas that Rachmaninoff wrote, so the soloist has a choice. One cadenza is lighter and sprints like a scherzo; the other uses a consistently thicker texture with rich chords.

Both cadenza possibilities converge as solo instruments interact with the pianist. Question: Which of the two cadenzas did Alexander Beyer play tonight?

II Intermezzo. Adagio (F-sharp minor)
An Obsessive Intermezzo
The second movement fixates upon the four-note motive stated immediately by the first violins. Variations and transformations of a melody, stated by the oboe, in which this motive is present is the compositional signature that unifies all of the changes of attitude that can be heard in this movement.

Sliding Down and Disappearing Warmness
The piano enters with dramatic and conflicted music in F-sharp minor that seems to spin and slide downward. It settles into D-flat major in an atmosphere that is warm and elegant. The melodic idea of the first section is recast in this new sound world. This warmness never reappears in the movement…it disappears with a high trill.

Find that Fandango
A charming interlude with brilliant repeated notes breaks out in C-sharp minor; it is one of the lovely irrational surprises in this concerto.

No Stopping Allowed
A thrilling and rousing closing prepares for the finale, which follows the second movement without a pause.

III. Finale: Alla breve (D minor ending in major)
Release the Hounds
This movement begins with music of the hunt. After a crystalline restatement in the highest register of the piano the orchestra drives us into an energetic transition built on charges and gallops. Different as it sounds, most of the ideas presented derive from those of the first movement.

Beware of Sudden Lyricism
Without warning the music breaks lyrical in G major and we hear a sweet tune in triplets over an obsessive rhythmic drive. This section closes with a march . The soloist is silent. The music slows and finally stills.

A Playful Development and a Reminiscence
Marked “scherzando” the development begins as the piano voices mercurial and playful figuration. Articulate piano writing often sweeps through the highest register of the instrument. A bright and dreamy interlude is played by the piano alone. There is a ghostly reappearance of music from the first movement with interjections from flute and horn. Both the third concerto and the second symphony have moments of reminiscence like this one. Just before ending this section the piano writing swirls higher until it vanishes in silence. A brief but soulful chorale is sounded by the piano.

Hounds Return; then a Nightmarish Gallop and Apotheosis
Music of the hunt is developed and recapitulated. Charges and gallops follow as they did before. Suddenly an unexpectedly nightmarish passage opens. At the highest point the piano prepares us for a final transformation of the lyrical theme as a culmination and apotheosis to the entire work.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27

World Premiere: January 28, 1908
Most Recent Performance by GBS: April 10, 1999

Infernal Symphonies
“To hell with them,” wrote Rachmaninoff to a friend. “I do not know how to write symphonies, and besides I have no real desire to write them.” His reference to the underworld may have been more than a simple use of idiom.

“If there were a conservatory in Hell,” wrote composer C├ęsar Cui in an infamous review of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, “and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.”

Confronting his Past
Rachmaninoff himself felt that his first symphony was a failure. Twelve years later he drafted the new symphony in secret while living in Dresden, then completed it during a summer at the family home in Russia called Ivanovka. Rachmaninoff conducted the first performance in St. Petersburg.

Strange but True
The manuscript of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony was missing for almost 100 years. The 320-page handwritten document resurfaced in the estate of a collector. The day before it was to be sold in a Sotheby auction in December 2004 the Rachmaninoff family took out an injunction that successfully stopped the sale. The manuscript ended up on permanent loan to the British Library—the same place where the manuscript to the third piano concerto resides. The manuscript for the first symphony is still missing…have you checked your attic?

I. (Largo) — Allegro moderato (E minor)

The first moments of this piece are elemental. Several rhythmic and melodic ideas that are developed throughout the entire symphony derive from the opening gestures. Concentrate on the unusual line played by the cellos and basses as the work opens—this seven-note figure oscillates unpredictably and is a perfect symbol for the attitude that Rachmaninoff sought.

After two invocations the introduction finds intensities quickly and expands in wave upon wave of exhilarating sound. Release of this energy is deliberate and lengthy and the introduction closes with music for solo english horn.

Song Without Words
The allegro moderato begins in a lyrical mood—like a song without words—and is played throughout by the violins. Both verses of this imaginary song are repeated and slightly varied.

Music of Dance
Just after the solo clarinet plays we enter the second theme group dancing. Winds and low strings alternate, but soon the violins advance the melodic progress. A restatement of this dance begins in the cellos, but violins find it again and extend it breathlessly; floating.

The start of the development is clearly marked: listen for solo violin played by the concertmaster. The song without words is then developed by the clarinet as ideas begin to mix and combine. Suddenly the music seems to freeze and invocations from introduction are developed but then abandoned. A long escalation builds and pushes the music forward. The music quiets.

Surprises in Closing
The dancing second theme group returns but in the new color that E major brings. Later, a horn solo brings us to a coda that shifts colors and attitudes unexpectedly and sounds like a second development. This movement closes with unfinished business.

II. Allegro molto (A minor)
Scherzo with Surprises
The charismatic and bright energy of this movement opens with rustic string playing and powerful sectional horn writing. A surprise is in store as the texture thins to a solo clarinet: the first section of this scherzo is in three parts. A lyrical interlude played by section violins forms the centerpiece. The transition back to the scherzo is gradual and quite masterful.

A Trio for Auditions
The trio bursts forth with a tricky line for the strings that frequently finds its way into orchestral auditions. This is a perpetuum mobile that maintains its energy as it slips into a march played by brass and percussion in F major. With a few sparks as it shifts gears the opening of the trio is developed and is used to build back to a return of the scherzo.

Ending Quietly
Unexpectedly, two oscillating brass fanfares are pasted into the process late in this movement which comes to a close abruptly with quiet chattering. Like the first movement the second ends slightly off-balance.

III. Adagio (A major)
Viola Powered Frictions
As you are blown away by the iconic melody that opens this movement, listen for the friction as the tune rubs against the triplets played by the viola section. As soon as this gorgeous tune is exposed it vanishes. An extended clarinet solo becomes a lesson in sonic floating. Just when you imagine it is no longer possible to find your way back, the orchestra voices the opening tune again.

A Carmen with Hits but no Habanera
If you were around in the mid-1970s you might know the tune of the third movement from a different context. It was lifted by Eric Carmen for the chorus of his hit song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”

Interlude, Escalation and a Complete Stop
occupy the next several minutes of music. Typical of the Rachmaninoff style, the music gathers energy broadly. At the most climatic moment the orchestra sings the first notes of the iconic melody but in a strange new key. The music moves away, downshifting toward a complete stop.

A Reversal of Colors
The plan that opens this movement is now reversed: the opening motive is sounded by solo instruments: horn, solo violin, english horn, flute and finally clarinet. Then, strings play the tune that the clarinet played earlier.

Grace and Resolution
The coda is a bright and gentle unwinding with a powerful final prayer. This movement brings grace and resolution across the prior movements.

IV. Allegro vivace (E major)

Rachmaninoff’s Laugh
The legendary pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch recalled Rachmaninoff’s response to humor:

“He would toss his head back, open his mouth wide, and wrinkles would form around his eyes. Tears would stream down his face, but he never made a sound.”

The sound of Rachmaninoff’s laughter is encoded in his music—the opening section of this music is sonic laughter. But the festivity comes to an abrupt halt with a stopped horn and is replaced by a subdued march that gradually escalates toward a restatement of the festive music.

One Last Mega-Tune and a Fleeting Glimpse of the Past
Cymbals crash and a brief transition leads us to one last powerful and lyrical tune in the section strings. After an interlude the lyrical tune is restated and then the music gradually fades and cadences. In a flight of fancy Rachmaninoff quietly quotes six measures of the third movement then moves away.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review of LA PHIL Live in HD; Two Powerful Silences

The LA Philharmonic jumped into the Live in HD pool this afternoon with its first ever live in HD broadcast, and the first of three HD broadcasts this season.

The program was attractive; "Slonimsky's Earbox" by John Adams, the Bernstein first symphony and Beethoven's seventh symphony.

There were two powerful silences in the experience: first there was no sound from the satellite in my theater until half-way through the Adams. One needed Beethoven's ear-trumpet to hear Slonimsky's Earbox.

In the 21st century we turn quickly on failures of this sort. People were pissed. They stormed out looking for refunds. The live signal we were channeling from an orbiting satellite, in order to hear a symphony playing on the west coast, was silent. We failed to see the humor. We are too spoiled.

The other silence was devastating. At the end of a gripping performance of the Bernstein first symphony, that was the musical highlight of the event, conductor Gustavo Dudamel froze and let silence wash over us. He must have stayed motionless for 12 seconds or more...and finally applause.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor sang from within the orchestra in the third movement. She sang without the hard edges and intense vibrato that one often hears in this movement. It was gorgeous.

Here was Bernstein presented to the public in movie theaters as a composer of serious music. It was strangely affecting; strangely funny.

Dudamel described Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 as being a symphony "of happiness." It is "like dancing and dancing and dancing and enjoying," he said. The performance of the first three movements was ok. Dudamel chose not to take the repeat in the first movement. Why would one choose less happiness than Beethoven?

But the fourth movement was full of fire and jumped with massive energy into the movie theater.

This medium has great potential for symphonic music. The production will need to be improved. The tendency to cut from one angle to another reached a caffeinated frenzy during the Beethoven. We don't need so many close-ups of the musicians. We don't always need to pan during wide shots. Let us watch Dudamel for more than a few seconds at a time. We never felt a part of the audience in LA. Give us more shots from the audience.

Here is the thing: there is nothing boring about watching an orchestra. Choose an angle and let us watch them for a while. Let us decide where to cast our eyes once and a while.

I liked Vanessa Williams. I guess sometimes the snow does come down in June.

With some tweaks and some rethinking this series will work.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rance's Revenge; Review of the Met Live in HD Fanciulla

"La Fanciulla del West," broadcast as part of the Met Live in HD Series, seemed at home in the movie theater. The opera has always carried a kind of silver screen sensibility even though it debuted one hundred years ago, well ahead of the silver screen.

This production had a hot second act. Deborah Voigt as Minnie was able to open a can of vocal kickass as she interacted with both Marcello Giordani as Johnson and Lucio Gallo as Rance. Conductor Nicola Luisotti made the music rhythmically visceral and drove the action forward.

But the staging of the first act seemed tired in this 1992 Giancarlo del Monaco production. It was also hard to hear the ensemble--even with the magic of HD transmission.

Peter Sellars was interviewed during an intermission in advance of Nixon in China, but we needed his help with the Act One set. I could imagine Sellars setting Act One set in Cheers: "Hello Norm!....I mean Nick!"

The highlight of the first act was Gallo. He shaded Rance with seasoning from Scarpia. This boost of evil broadened the impact of the Sheriff, who was left alone on stage after act three with a pistol that he held menacingly. Yeah, this opera ended without bloodshed--but after a hundred years perhaps Rance is getting his revenge as we speak.

Gallo already had his revenge. "Minnie," he sang in Act One, "dalla mia casa son partito” (Nothing has ever given me pleasure). Translated from baritone-speak this passage becomes Bono singing, "I Still haven’t found what I’m Looking for."

Gallo made Rance believable.

The supporting cast also had some stand-outs: Ginger Costa-Jackson was fabulous as Wowkle. The ever present Dwayne Croft was memorable as Sonora, particularly in act three where his solid singing was critical in making the transformation of the community seem plausible.

This production was hosted by Sondra Radvanovsky. She was likable. The interviews were wide-ranging and creative. Coverage of these transmissions allowed us access into the process that was both educational and entertaining.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Union Scale in 1905; How much for a Private Dance? How much for a Whist Party?

I own a copy of the union scale guidelines for 1905. It belonged to a tuba player named Thomas Farrell who lived on 346 George Street in New Haven; between York and High Street. He signed the back cover in pencil.

More technically it is the constitution and by-laws of the 1905 The American Federation of Musicians. The Federation was not yet ten years old.

The local association was called "The New Haven Musical Protective Association." This New Haven branch of the AFM was formed on September 22, 1901 and met "every fourth Sunday of every month in room 24, Insurance building."

After 56 pages of the constitution and by-laws we get the good stuff: the "Schedule of Prices," and lists of the member musicians and their residences. The booklet ends with a systematic listing of numbered fire alarm telegraph boxes in New Haven. It was never boring to be a hustler.

The first page in the "Schedule of Prices" shows several kinds of events that have changed over the last hundred years.

There is a great deal of language that defines what it means to have a "private dance." The formal language is lovely: "if the money for said Dance be raised by subscription..." The meaning of what a private dance is all about has clearly changed.

A "German" was the old term for the style of waltz that we refer to now as Viennese.

"Whist Parties," would have been the serious card games, requiring an "analytical mind" like the one that is referred to in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", by Edgar Allan Poe. As the description indicates, no music would have happened during the card game itself--but afterward let the dancing begin!

These prices would make it tough for us to eat from the dollar menu. But if one keeps in mind the scale of the day the prices become quite attractive. Thomas Farrell could have bought a new tuba from the Sears catalog for $26.15 if he didn't mind the "highly polished brass" finish.

That means that at any given time George Farrell was just one "Ball," three "Germans," and two "Whist Parties" away from buying a new tuba.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Meditation on January by Tchaikovsky

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

It is a month of surprises and unexpected deflections in the Tchaikovsky setting, and even the innocent opening phrase leans obliquely into A major. Developmental continuation [0:27] is accelerated [0:35] using tasty half-diminished sevenths in a strange sequence from A-flat to C major and culminates [0:43] in a quickly articulated sequence of flat-ninth chords. We just barely make the return [0:50].

"It is now January," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "& Time beginnes to turne on the wheele of his Reuolution." His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," becomes filled with thoughts of sleep and of food:

"The Hedgehogge," writes Breton, "rowles up himselfe like a football. [...] Downe beds and quilted cappes are now in the pride of their seruice."

"The Hare after a course makes his hearse in a pye: the shoulder of a hog is a shooing horne to good drink."

Tchaikovsky seems to think in the dualities of January in the sexy central section beginning at [1:13]. We hear C major and E minor juxtaposed in radically different figurations. We are missing the resolution of the augmented sixth chord that would provide logical connection between the two. Ideas are repeated in disbelief.

This music swirls like an echo of the first section's deflection and ends in the mists of Schumann. Restatement [2:09] sounds as cold as it did before, though this time we find the dominant of E minor [2:29] which becomes V/V for our return [2:53].

"To conclude," writes Breton, "I hold it a time of little comfort, the rich mans charge and the poore mans misery. Farewell."
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