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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
April 7-8-9, 2017
91st Season / Subscription Concert No. 7
Michael Allsen

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This April program opens with the dramatic Manfred Overture—a musical portrait of a Romantic hero. We then turn to our first performance of a 20th-century masterwork, Lutosławski’s 1954 Concerto for Orchestra—a feature performance for the orchestra itself. Pianist Philippe Bianconi is a familiar and welcome guest soloist at these concerts—he has appeared on five previous Madison Symphony Orchestra programs—in 2001 (Fauré’s Ballade and Ravel’s Concerto in G Major), 2002 (Prokofiev’s third concerto), 2010 (Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), 2012 (Beethoven’s fourth concerto), and 2013 (Brahms’s second concerto). Here, he is the soloist in one of the challenging works in the piano repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s massive Piano Concerto No.3.

 

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Overture to Manfred, Op.115

 

Schumann’s incidental music to Manfred was composed in 1848, and the overture was played for the first time in 1852. This work has been performed twice previously by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in 1965 and 1998. Duration 12:00.

 

1848 was a year of revolutions across Europe—with insurrections in France, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Czechoslovakia, and while most of these actions were unsuccessful, political feelings ran high all through Europe. Schumann’s reaction to this upheaval was thoroughly Romantic and personal: he began work on a series of fifteen short pieces based upon Byron’s mystical and dramatic poem Manfred. Byron’s hero, a freedom-fighter who is tortured by guilt and melancholy, is perfectly suited to the time. However, Schumann also related on a very personal level with Manfred’s eventual descent into madness—at this point in his life, the composer was himself battling severe depression. Manfred was apparently one of Schumann’s favorite poems, and he loved reading it aloud at gatherings of friends. On one occasion, he was apparently so overcome with emotion that his voice faltered and he had to stop reading.

 

Though he conducted a concert performance of Manfred’s overture in Leipzig in March 1852, Schumann’s conception of the work seems to have been a staged reading of the poem with musical interludes. Franz Liszt directed a complete version of Manfred, with sets, costumes, choreography, and all of Schumann’s incidental music in Weimar later that same year. In an 1851 letter to Liszt about Manfred, Schumann wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that all of the spirit apparitions must appear corporeally. I will send stage directions to Herr Genast [the director of the Weimar theater]. Of the musical numbers, dear friend, I commend especially the Overture to your heart. If I may say so, I feel that it is one of the strongest of my artistic children, and I hope that you will agree with me.” While the complete Manfred music is rarely heard today, the overture—Schumann’s “strongest child”—is among his most popular orchestral works.

 

The slow introduction begins with three abrupt chords, and continues through a sequence of sliding harmonies that some writers have connected to the conflicting passions of Byron’s ’s hero. A gradual increase in intensity and military fanfares lead into the main Allegro theme, highly syncopated and chromatic. The second group of themes, more lyrical but no less tense, provides a rich source of material for Schumann to explore in the lengthy development section. The recapitulation of his main themes is conventional, but the work closes with a lengthy and emotional coda. One of the most striking figures of the ending is a dour trumpet fanfare, which is consistently cut short by the rest of the orchestra, just as Manfred himself dies prematurely. The overture closes in the same hazy character as the introduction.

 

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994)

Concerto for Orchestra

 

This work was begun in 1950, and completed on August 1, 1954. Witold Rowicki led the premiere in Warsaw, on November 26, 1954. This is our first performance of the work. Duration 29:00.

 

Lutosławski, the most prominent Polish composer of his generation, was born in a time of turmoil in his native Poland. When he was just two, Warsaw, then in a province of Imperial Russia, was occupied by the Germans during the first world war, and his family fled into Russia. However after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks executed his father and uncle for their political activism. The family returned to Warsaw after the war, where his mother eked out a living as a translator. Between the wars, Lutosławski studied piano and composition, and by the late 1930s was beginning to build a modernist style of his own, with close ties to Stravinsky and Bartók. But war intervened again: he was drafted into the Polish army, and was among the thousands of Polish troops captured by the Nazis during their Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland in 1939. He escaped captivity after only a few days and found his way back to Warsaw, where he earned his living as a cabaret pianist. (His brother was captured by the Soviets, and died in a prison camp.) Lutosławski fled Warsaw just months before the Nazis virtually leveled the city in 1945—losing most of his scores in the process—returning after the war to a city now controlled by the Soviets.

 

Like composers of the Soviet Union itself, composers in Communist Poland had to toe the party line in their music. Lutosławski’s first symphony was censured by the authorities in 1948 for its “formalism”—the catchall term used in Soviet-style criticism for any whiff of modernist or avant garde technique. For the next several years, he turned to much “safer” styles, composing popular music, children’s songs, and works based upon Polish folk music, all the while experimenting with more avant garde styles in private. There was a thaw in artistic restrictions throughout the Communist bloc after the death of Stalin in 1953, and in the late 1950s, Lutosławski turned openly to serialism (an extension of Schoenberg’s partly mathematical “12-tone” technique to all elements of a composition) and later, inspired by John Cage, to chance, or aleatoric techniques. His style continued to develop throughout his career, and by the 1970s he was widely respected as one of Europe’s leading composers. In the 1980s, Lutosławski put this reputation to political use, and played a prominent role in Poland’s democratic Solidarity movement.

 

The “concerto for orchestra” has been a durable genre since it was introduced by Paul Hindemith in 1925—works designed to showcase an entire orchestra and sections from within the orchestra. The Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók (1943) is by far the most popular, but those by Lutosławski and Zoltán Kodály (1940) are also heard frequently today. Dozens of other 20th and 21st-century composers have composed in the genre as well: there are concertos for orchestra by Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Malcolm Arnold, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Stucky (who wrote two of them), and Joan Tower, to name but a few. Like the earlier concertos by Kodály and Bartók, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is based in part on folk styles—apparently at the request of conductor Witold Rowicki, to whom it is dedicated. It is among the last of Lutosławski’s works to use folk music, though here actual folk melodies are deeply concealed. It was it was his first work to be widely performed outside of Poland, and remains his most often-performed piece. Ironically, while Lutosławski certainly never rejected the Concerto for Orchestra, he later seems to have regretted that its popularity overshadowed what he considered to be more mature works.

 

The three movements each make nods to earlier forms. In the opening movement (Intrada: Allegro maestoso), it is a kind of solemn processional dance with gradually more complex counterpoint being woven against an inexorable drumbeat. The character changes, first to a savage trombone statement and then to a lighter folk style. The movement ends with a more delicate return to the opening texture, with an endlessly repeated note on the celeste replacing the drumbeats. The second movement (Capriccio notturno e arioso: Vivace) is a scherzo, with playfully darting solo woodwind and string lines in the outer panels and more atmospheric “night music” for contrast. The central Arioso is slower and more forceful. The movement ends with a wry percussion coda.

 

The lengthy final movement (Passacaglia, toccata e corale: Andante con moto) begins quietly, in basses and harps, and gradually launches on a passacaglia—a theme repeated beneath melodic variations. As Lutosławski’s eight-measure theme is repeated some 18 times, the music becomes increasingly frantic, and then dies away. Fierce little statements from trumpets and strings—hesitant at first, but gradually more complete—open the brilliant toccata section. This is eventually combined with a gentler chorale—woodwinds, and later brasses and strings laying out a dignified hymn under bursts of solo melody from around the orchestra. The texture changes again for the lengthy coda—a lively free-for-all with showcase moments for every section. At the very end, Lutosławski ratchets up the intensity and tempo even further, pausing briefly for a final massive statement of the chorale before the wild ending.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Concerto No.3 for Piano and Orchestra in D minor, Op.30

 

Rachmaninoff composed this work in 1909, and was the soloist in its first performance on November 28, 1909, with the New York Symphony Society, under conductor Walter Damrosch. Previous performances of the concerto by the Madison Symphony Orchestra have featured Carroll Chilton (1969), Horacio Guttiérez (1991), Cecile Licad (2003), and Garrick Ohlsson (1984 and 2008). Duration 41:00.

 

In 1909, Rachmaninoff spent the summer at the Russian country estate of his wife’s family preparing for his upcoming American tour, practicing and working on a third piano concerto to be unveiled at his American debut in New York. Rachmaninoff, the last in a long line of Romantic pianist/composers, was then at the peak of his powers, and was acclaimed throughout the world. A trip to America was a solid career move for any Old World virtuoso of that time—if American audiences were notoriously conservative, tours in this country were also notoriously profitable. He looked forward to his first trip to America with anticipation and some nervousness. His ocean passage to New York anything but relaxing—the ever-driven Rachmaninoff spent virtually the entire trip in his stateroom, practicing on a silent keyboard. (Stravinsky, remembering Rachmaninoff’s unrelenting seriousness, once described him as a “six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.”) Though the premiere of his new concerto under Walter Damrosch in November was a great success, the composer remembered the second New York performance, conducted by Gustav Mahler, with special fondness. Mahler went to great lengths to perfect the complex orchestral accompaniment during a marathon rehearsal. One account of this event notes that, after the rehearsal had gone and hour and a half past its scheduled ending time, Rachmaninoff and Mahler paused to discuss a troublesome passage. When a few brass players at the back of the room began to pack up, Mahler fixed them with a steely glare and stated: “As long as I am sitting, no musician has a right to get up.” (Orchestra union rules were different in those days...)

 

The D minor piano concerto has firm place in the concert repertoire as a virtuoso masterwork, and it is among the most difficult of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, making sizable demands on soloist and orchestra alike. The concerto’s appeal goes beyond piano pyrotechnics, however—the sumptuous themes of its three movements are subtly interrelated, imposing a kind of organic unity on this work. In the first movement (Allegro ma non tanto) the piano enters after only two measures of introduction, with a subdued stepwise melody. Rachmaninoff steadfastly denied that this melody was a Russian folk tune or Orthodox chant, asserting that it simply “wrote itself.” The strings introduce a more poetic second theme, which is taken up in an elaborate piano rhapsody. The movement closes with a monumental solo cadenza, which is occasionally supported by thematic fragments from the woodwinds. At the last moment, there is a brief reminiscence of the opening theme.

 

The opening of the Intermezzo (Adagio) is one of relatively few places in the concerto where the orchestra takes the lead, introducing a lush and lyrical melody. After this opening passage, however, the piano is fully in charge, spinning a free set of variations on this opening theme. The variations gather momentum towards the end, with the soloist playing ever-more complex and chromatic figuration above occasional snippets of melody from the opening movement. After a restatement of the main theme, a suddenly aggressive piano passage and a few crisp brass chords lead directly into the Finale (Alla breve). The lengthy last movement is a fiery display of piano technique. Both of its forceful themes are introduced by the soloist and elaborated upon almost solely on the piano, during a prolonged variation-style development section. An extended coda brings the concerto to an exalted conclusion in D Major.

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program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen


updated 6/22/16