Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Beethoven, Brahms and Bermel

The Columbus Symphony presents Beethoven's Piano Concerto 1 in C, Op. 15, Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D, Op. 73 and Derek Bermel's A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace in The Southern Theater, Friday October 30 and Saturday, October 31 at 8 p.m. Columbus Symphony Music Director Rossen Milanov conducts, with Shai Wosner, piano

Derek Bermel (b. New York, 1967) was unknown to me until this week. That only proves my Bermel ignorance. Bermel is a composer, impresario, clarinetist and musician who produces concerts and writer in an  idiom embracing funk and world music. Bermel trained at Yale as an ethnomusicologist. He follows composers like Bartok-a model for A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace who went about the Carpathian mountains ninety years ago writing down the songs he heard wherever he stopped. Taverns, churches, cat houses with no cats, Bartok had an ear for music hungry to get back to the earth.Mr. Bermel's travels have taken him throughout Central Europe and South America,. His interests and influences (dare I say) include the Brazilian caixxi, the Thracian folk style of Bulgaria, and even the uilean pipes from my people in Dublin.
Derek Bermel
advanced age. I need to get out more.

A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace was written in 2009 for the American Composer's Orchestra and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The scoring is for 2 flutes, 2 horns, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 clarinets, strings and percussion.The rhythmic propulsion make this an accessible piece. The use of layering, of laying one sound atop on another keeps our attention.

Beethoven (1770-1827) moved to Vienna in 1892. Mozart had just died, not long after encouraging he younger man,  telling the doubting Papa Beethoven, "Your son will make a great noise in the world." The elderly Haydn, newly freed from his elegant indenture in Esterhazy was accepting pupils in Vienna. They young Beethoven made his way to Haydn's influence, where he was no doubt reminded to revere Mozart as well.

Young Beethoven
If in 1792 the young Beethoven was untried as a composer, nobody doubted his sublime gifts as a pianist. One assumes he was not the unkempt and unwashed angry man of his later years. He would have gotten nowhere fast among the Viennese nobility.  It was a pianist that Beethoven introduced himself to Vienna.. His gifts at the keyboard aroused enough interest for him to play his own C Major Piano Concerto, first in Prague (Boston to Vienna's New York) then in Vienna in 1798.

I suppose its necessary to tell you that this concerto, labelled number 1, was the third the composer wrote. Number two was first and there was one more, a piece of juvenilia not published. Never mind. Beethoven thought very highly of this work.. He kept it from being published until 1801. He wanted it for his own concerts, a calling card useful in announcing his strong new talent to new audiences.

The C Major concerto owes a lot to Haydn's tight sense of structure and Mozart's grace. Still, original touches begin with the solo entrance, two and a half minutes into the first movement, playing a theme unrelated to the orchestral introduction. Nevertheless, Beethoven at this point wasn't afraid to use a Mozartian delicacy in his writing, even if he couldn't always match that master's subtlety. The second movement is understated compared to later Beethoven, but offers a loveliness that would have kept the public from going off the rails

As for Brahms, always remember to take your summer vacation! Brahms would repair lakeside in the mountains outside Vienna-as Mahler did a generation later-using his down time away from teaching, conducting and performing to create new work. In 1876 he wrote the felicitous Symphony number 2. The tortured fifteen years it took to get a first symphony out of the composer are here nowhere evident. This is the work of a mature man who is happy to be set in his ways. He knows his craft, and he knows how to please an audience. Not for nothing has this 2nd symphony been compared to Beethoven's 6th, the Pastorale.There's a serenity in Brahms's, D Major Symphony. Shafts of light bleed through the sometimes thick orchestration. Brahms loved his doubled and tripled brass and winds. He liked a thick texture where a lot was going on. Here, the writing is more grateful to the ear, with an immediacy that says "go ahead, enjoy!"

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss

The Columbus Symphony conducted by Rossen Milanov performs Richard Strauss's Don Juan, Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4 in f minor, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto 2 in the Ohio Theater on October 23 and 24.   Haochen Zhang is the piano soloist. I give pre-concert talks one hour before each performance.

I'm doing some pre- concert listening for the Columbus Symphony programs this coming weekend. I'm struck initially by Richard Strauss's sounded effortlessly, almost nonchalant music making, and the torture and uncertainty that stalked Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth symphony,from 1876-1877 would be a mixed emotional bag for the composer. Would the memory of it sicken him, or fill him with relief?

Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)
Work on the Fourth coincided with admiring letters from one Nadzheda von Meck, a fabulously wealthy widow and mother of 18 children. The lady was probably bored to distraction counting her money and her kids. Tchaikovsky's music became an  obsession. Not so the man himself, who she never met. Rather, Meck found herself a reason to live as long as Piotr Ilyitch continued to produce the music she deeply craved. Tchaikovsky dedicated the Fourth symphony to her, and by the time work was proceeding he was receiving 500 ruble a month stipend from the lady. This allowance would last, along with a voluminous correspondence until 1890. In those fourteen years the two never met. There's a lovely story that once out riding they recognized one another-how?-
from a distance. The composer tipped his hat and rode on.

Tchaikovsky met another lady at nearly the same time, with disastrous results.This was Anotnina Ivanova Milyukhova. She had been a pupil of his at the Moscow conservatory-probably one of a spate of young girls taking his classes, of which he complained mightily for their communal silliness. Antonina too, fancied herself mad-almost literally-for Tchaikovsky. He was foolish enough to believe that marrying her would cause her crazy attentions to desist. This marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Tchaikovsky literally fled the city.

It was to Mme Meck he turned, in gratitude for her money and approbation, as he began to recover
Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Ivanova Milyukhova
from his ridiculous marriage. "Our symphony" he described the Fourth to her. She agreed to accept the dedication, asking only that her name not be mentioned publicly.

The sinister brass figure beginning the work Tchaikovsky has described as fate-with a sword of Damocles hanging over one's heard. He didn't need to be a disastrous marriage to feel pessimistic. Except there's an exuberant dance like theme for the winds glowing early out of the fire.
The fourth symphony develops the fate motive gradually and incompletely...there's a second movement of almost deep sadness and a wild, almost militaristic finale. Tchaikovsky liked to deny that his music had any "program' "Just listen to it." To colleagues he agreed that fate, exhaustion, despair and exuberance were to be heard in this music. I like the finale, where he said "Go out among the people and learn from their joy!"

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Richard Strauss would have had little use for Tchaikovsky's emotionalism . He wrote his music like a businessman, from nine to five in his study five days a week, with a generous lunch break. He was delightedly henpecked by his wife Pauline, and nothing in Strauss's correspondence betrayed any angst in what he regarded as his profession and a way to get on, writing music. The closest to exasperating would be parts of his correspondence with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who admired Strauss's music and considered him rather low rent socially. A laid back temperament didn't keep Strauss from writing orchestral music on a heroic scale.

The tone poem Don Juan comes from 1888. The composer at 24 was already conducting in Weimar and led the Don Juan premiere in that city.  He was expanding the tone poem work-the one movement symphony telling a story that had been popularized by Liszt.  The opening moments of Don Juan is not the music of either a beginner or a neurotic

Tchaikovsky's moodiness and Strauss equanimity each produced sensational music One emotion driven, the other filled with color. What would have happened has the situations been reversed. Would we listen as intently to a mellow Tchaikovsky or a neurotic Richard Strauss? Happily, we can only imagine.