Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto: Program Notes cover

Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto: Program Notes

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Pianist Zhang Zuo makes her Pacific Symphony debut performing Beethoven’s mighty Third Piano Concerto. The Los Angeles Times described the gifted young pianist (affectionately nicknamed “Zee Zee”) as “a powerful, passionate and compelling representation of pure artistry.” The concert opens with the captivating “Folk Songs for Orchestra” by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo. Elgar’s intriguing “Enigma Variations” closes the program.
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
Enjoy image magnification on our big screens throughout the concert for a closer look at the musicians!!
Zhang Zho hosts a multi-generational piano masterclass on March 22 in the intimate Samueli Theater. Tickets are just $10. Information and Tickets.





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Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto: Program Notes

DARRELL ANG • CONDUCTOR | ZHANG ZUO • PIANO

Huang Ruo (b. 1976)

Folk Songs for Orchestra

Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang

Love Song from Kang Ding

The Girl from the Da Ban City

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37

Allegro con brio

Largo

Rondo: Allegro

Zhang Zuo

I N T E R M I S S I O N

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Enigma Variations, Op. 36

Enigma: Andante

Variation I: "C.A.E." L'istesso tempo

Variation II: "H.D.S.- P." Allegro Variation III: "R.B.T." Allegretto

Variation IV: "W.M.B." Allegro di molto

Variation V: "R.P.A." Moderato

Variation VI: "Ysobel" Andantino

Variation VII: "Troyte" Presto

Variation VIII: "W.N." Allegretto

Variation IX: "Nimrod" Moderato

Variation X: "Dorabella - Intermezzo" Allegretto

Variation XI: "G.R.S." Allegro di molto

Variation XII: "B.G.N." Andante

Variation XIII: " *** - Romanza" Moderato

Variation XIV: "E.D.U." - Finale

The Saturday night concert is generously sponsored by the Chinese Communities Leadership Council and the Jade Society.

Folk Song Suite for Orchestra

Folk Song Suite for Orchestra

HUANG RUO (B. 1976)

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion.

Performance time: 12 minutes.

Background

When Huang Ruo's opera Dr. Sun Yat-Sen received its American premiere at The Santa Fe Opera in 2014, your intrepid annotator had the opportunity to interview him. Huang valued the premiere not as a personal accomplishment, but for its potential to enrich the musical styles of East and West through a kind of "cross-pollination."

It was the first time that American singers would sing in Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) in an opera by a Chinese composer presented on an American stage. This quest—to bring together musical styles that have always been worlds apart—has marked Huang's entire career.

Huang established his international career at a young age. He was born on Hainan Island off the southern coast of China, and received piano and composition training from his father starting at age 6.

At age 12 he began studies in traditional Chinese music at the conservatory in Shanghai, continuing until he was 18, when he came to the U.S. for advanced studies. He enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory, earning his degree in composition, and went on to graduate work in composition at Juilliard, where he earned a Ph.D.

Huang quickly gained a reputation for music with a freshness that seems to transcend boundaries rather than crossing them at ground level. He is also a strong advocate for new music and founder of FIRE (for Future In REverse), a noted ensemble pursuing multimedia and cross-genre projects.

In 2001 he was one of the founding members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), an orchestral group. Huang's composition “The Yellow Earth,” which is based on the third movement of his sheng concerto “The Color Yellow,” was awarded first prize in the Celebrate Asia! composition competition in 2010.

The sheng, one of the oldest Chinese instruments, is a wind instrument constructed of vertical pipes. The concerto combines this traditional Chinese instrument with a Western orchestra. Huang also received first prize in the International Composition Competition in 2008 for “MO,” a chamber concerto composed for the Luxembourg Sinfonietta.

What to Listen For

Huang's wide-ranging musical palette often incorporates traditional Chinese instruments alongside Western orchestral instruments. But even when he scores for the European post-Wagner orchestra that is the mainstay in American concert halls, he imbues it with a “fusion” sensibility that makes it sound new, a technique that Huang has termed dimensionalism.

One collaborator, the artist Christina Mamakos, has defined this as Huang's use of "an inventive musical voice which draws equal inspiration from Chinese folk, Western avant-garde, rock and jazz [creating] a seamless series of musical works that do not necessarily exist in the sound world of our daily life." But if the sound is new, the spirit in Huang's Folk Song Suite is also ancient and universal, demonstrating a sense of narrative that has inhered in songs from every culture and time.

Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 37

Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 37

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; strings; percussion, solo piano

Performance time: 35 minutes.

Background

Beethoven and the two other pre-eminent musical geniuses of his time—Haydn and Mozart—can be imagined in astronomical terms as planets in the same solar system, but with very different orbits.

Every so often there were moments of conjunction, as when Beethoven moved to Vienna, first in 1787 when he was 17 to study with Mozart; Mozart himself had moved to Vienna just five years earlier. Beethoven had to return home to Bonn almost immediately for the saddest of reasons: the death of his mother. But he returned to Vienna five years later to study with Haydn.

It says something about Beethoven's rebellious spirit that the chance to study with one of music history's greatest mentors—the nurturing, appreciative Haydn—meant little to him; he may have been the only musician in Vienna who did not love Papa Haydn, whom he described as boring and old-fashioned.

But he stayed there for the same reason that Mozart did: For a composer trying to make his mark, Vienna was the place to be. And, like Mozart, Beethoven knew that composing and performing his own piano concertos was a good way to establish himself in the front ranks of pianists and composers at the same time.

But Beethoven was circumspect in bringing piano concertos before the public. Critics generally divide Beethoven’s stylistic periods into early, middle and late; they identify his Piano Concerto No. 2 as the earliest of the early concertos, most clearly showing the influence of Mozart and Haydn. (It actually predates the one we now know as No. 1; though published later, it was composed earlier.)

Beethoven was reserved, even dissatisfied, with these early concertos, though they are undeniably beautiful and foreshadow the grandeur to come. His Concerto No. 2 met with immediate success after its premiere in 1795, yet Beethoven delayed its publication, eventually submitting it only with reluctance.

He charged his publisher, Hofmeister of Leipzig, half the price of other early works of comparable scope including his Symphony No. 1, noting that “as I have already written, I don’t consider it one of my best works.”

To many listeners, including the musicologist and Beethoven specialist Hans-Werner Küthen, No. 3 is Beethoven's “breakout” concerto. Küthen has described this concerto as a gateway between the Classical concerto tradition and the revolution that began with Beethoven's fourth and fifth concertos, and that continued in the Romantic era.

Beethoven completed most of his work on the Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1799 and 1800, just two years after finishing his [current] Concerto No. 1, though he continued refining No. 3 until performing the premiere in April 1803. Still, it represents a cautious departure from his earlier concertos: Here is Beethoven preparing to break away from the formal constraints of the Classical era, like a bicycle racer making his move.

With this concerto Beethoven begins to explore a new kind of thinking about the concerto form, expanding its scope and force.

With his deep study of all five of Beethoven's piano concertos, Küthen observes that “The four versions of the B-flat concerto [No. 2], the three of the C major [No. 1], and a single one of the C minor concerto show that the time span between draft and final form becomes increasingly short, that the composer wins the upper hand over the virtuoso, and in [the Third Concerto] Op. 37 a first perfection of the genre is reached, which was the object of the greatest emulation in the 19th century.”

What to Listen For

The refinement and mastery we enjoy in today's concert performances of this concerto contrast markedly with its premiere in April 1803, a marathon concert of Beethoven works at Vienna's Theater an der Wien. The composer continued to work on the concerto right up until the last minute, perhaps a sign of his nervousness over its departure from his earlier concertos, which had been well-received.

In this case, the sense of unreadiness—there had been only one orchestral rehearsal, and it was a messy affair—did not bode well. If the composer was worried, he needn't have been. His reputation was growing, as was public acceptance of his highly individualistic style, and this concerto was understood to be a more personal statement than Nos. 1 and 2.

As Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny wrote, “The style and character of this Concerto are much more grand and fervent than in the two former.” Marked C minor, this was Beethoven’s first piano concerto in a minor key, and it shifts direction from its predecessors: there is less attention to formal elegance and decorative ornamentation of line, and more emphasis on sheer expressiveness.

The dynamics have more contrast, the emotions are more turbulent, and the overall impression is less lapidary and more deeply passionate.

The opening movement, marked allegro con brio, exposes a powerful, solemn theme in the orchestra, allowing it to modulate from minor to major and then introducing a second, more lyrical theme before settling back into minor.

Thus the stakes are high before the piano even makes its entrance; and throughout the movement, it is left to the piano soloist to reconcile the emotions contested in the development of these two themes.

The second movement, a meditative largo, is poetic and contemplative, with the piano at times so deeply embedded in the ensemble that the orchestra takes the melodic line for extended periods. The gorgeous, zesty closing rondo is often described as joyful or jubilant despite its minor key—despite modulations into major, it remains at home in the key of C minor.

The movement’s energy and exuberance come not only from the beauty of melody, but also from the sense of the concerto’s successful reconciliation of contending melodic forces. The movement’s conclusion brings a sense of drama and completion that is almost operatic.

Enigma Variations, Op. 36

Enigma Variations, Op. 36

EDWARD ELGAR (1857-1934)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (with contrabassoon); 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion Performance time: 30 minutes.

Background

Robert Sherman, the trailblazing classical music commentator who was a programmer and host on classical radio for almost six decades, came up with some surprising features for station WQXR. One of the oddest, dating from the 1970s, was a contest challenging listeners to come up with descriptive anagrams based on the initials of their favorite composers—a three-word phrase that would match the composer's three-letter monogram. He cited this one as a particular favorite:

E-W-E

Edward William Elgar

Elgar Was Enigmatic

Sherman's delight hung on one word: enigmatic. It's an accurate descriptor for the withdrawn, moody composer, but it also cleverly referenced one of Elgar's most famous compositions—the Enigma Variations, which Elgar composed in 1898 and 1899.

While this set of biographical sketches in music is replete with mysteries, in a sense the real enigmas are Elgar himself and Great Britain. Both occupied oddly isolated positions outside the mainstream of European classical music.

Only 21 miles of the English Channel separate the English town of Dover from the French town of Calais, but Great Britain's musical traditions can seem far more distant from the European mainland. Who are the great British composers? Of course there are Purcell and the German-born Handel, an adopted favorite son, and the 20th century giant Benjamin Britten, to name three.

Many critics would include Sir Edward Elgar in this group. But Elgar felt that his own compositional style was more aligned with European influences; born in 1857, he was largely self-taught and kept his distance from British musical circles, which were dominated by academics and suspicious of his Roman Catholic faith.

Yet Elgar could not have been more English if he'd been cast for Downton Abbey. In the most famous photographic portrait of the composer, he appears every inch the English country squire—impeccably groomed, spectacularly mustachioed and posed as if to take his place in London's National Portrait Gallery, which he eventually did.

Elgar in 1919, by William Rothenstein

We can't know if different circumstances might have broken Elgar's self-imposed exile from the music scene, but the snobbery he perceived in England's music establishment was quite real; in a rigidly class-conscious society, that kind of exclusivity—and Elgar's defensive rejection of those who rejected him—were also quite English.

Elgar began composing the Enigma Variations around the time he turned 40—still young for a serious composer.

After some initial resistance, the Variations established his reputation as a composer of greatness.

His two symphonies, concertos for the violin and the cello, and the immensely popular Pomp and Circumstance Marches are all standard repertory for today's orchestras, but the 14 Enigma Variations are especially revered by musicians.

What to Listen For

The enigma is the theme itself. Throughout the suite it remains hidden—in Elgar's phrase, “not played,” though an introductory variation builds around the unstated subject. The 13 movements that follow are affectionate musical portraits of his closest friends and his wife, Alice, linked by a dark, unstated idea that is deep and mysterious—like one of those scientific phenomena that cannot be directly viewed, but whose consequences can be studied.

What is the theme uniting these variations? Elgar went to his grave refusing to disclose it or even if it was a melody at all. But listeners enjoy puzzling out the enigma for themselves.

The suite's ninth variation, “Nimrod,” is an hommage to a particularly admired friend, the music editor Augustus J. Jaeger; the movement takes its name from the Old Testament patriarch described as “a mighty hunter before the Lord." This movement is considered one of the noblest and most quintessentially English utterances in music.

To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.

Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.