Brahms & Prokofiev
“Romanovsky is the latest pianist to be hailed as the true heir to the great Russian tradition,” said The Guardian. The formidable guest pianist performs Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, which has garnered a reputation for being one of the most technically demanding piano concertos in the repertoire.
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Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
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CARL ST.CLAIR • CONDUCTOR
ALEXANDER ROMANOVSKY • PIANO
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
Allegro con brio
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Paul Chihara (b. 1938)
Wild Wood WEST COAST PREMIERE
Serge Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 16
Finale: Allegro tempestoso
The 2017-18 season piano soloists are generously sponsored by The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianists Fund.
The Friday night concert will be in memory of Paul Britton.
The Saturday night concert will be in memory of Randy Johnson.
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; strings; percussion
Performance time: 33 minutes
Having survived until the cusp of the 20th century, Brahms is not one of those composers whose lives are lost in the mists of the past. Still, he is not without mystery; we enjoy his genius today knowing he was a man whose life encompassed contradictions that can’t really be resolved by historical research.
We know Brahms as one of the 19th century’s most assured craftsmen who could work confidently in any form he chose. He was meticulous and willful in his choices and methods. His symphonies are masterpieces. As one analyst told your intrepid annotator, no composer ever had a surer sense of what note should come next.
Yet in his symphonies—or, more accurately, in his unease in bringing them before the public—we can glimpse a fretful side to the composer, despite the assured craftsmanship shown in all four.
Like every symphonist who followed Beethoven, Brahms toiled in the shadow of the master’s nine symphonies, especially the monumental Choral Symphony, No. 9, which revolutionized the form. Brahms was a successful composer in his 40s before he nervously brought his first symphony before the public, and its success did little to ease his anxieties about the form. Neither did admiring listeners, who called the work “Beethoven’s Tenth.“
A span of just nine years separates the premiere of Brahms’ first symphony (in 1876) and his fourth (in 1885). If we consider those nine years as Brahms’ “symphonic period,“ it’s surprisingly short for a form that he recognized as critically important, and that encompasses some of his greatest masterpieces.
But it is also somewhat misleading. Brahms himself said that he worked on his first symphony for more than 20 years before finishing it, and music historians tell us that he also devoted serious work on a fifth symphony, then abandoned it. Not a trace of his work on it has ever been found.
Kochbrunnen am Kochbrunnenplatz in Wiesbaden, between 1890 and 1905, (color photo lithograph). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Though Brahms had agonized for years before completing his first symphony, its success did not make it any easier to get beyond a case of “sophomore curse.“ After the premiere of his second in 1877 he waited almost six years to begin work on the third, renting a quiet, picturesque studio for the purpose in Wiesbaden, one of Europe’s oldest spa towns.
Musicologists tell us the work went quickly, but they cannot tell us the degree of comfort—or lack of it—he felt in the process. The momentum that propelled him through the third, often described as non-stop, may have come after internal struggle. Or not.
The symphony was greeted with warmth from critics and the public. But the acclaim was not unmixed, and once again, we can’t really know how Brahms felt about it. He was acutely aware of (and discomfited by) the perception that he was Beethoven’s heir as a symphonist.
So conductor Hans Richter may not have made matters any easier when, after leading the premiere of the third with the Vienna Philharmonic, he described the symphony as Brahms’ Eroica— high praise that seemed to reawaken Beethoven’s ghost yet again.
The composer Hugo Wolf, who was 23 at the time and affiliated with Wagner rather than Brahms in the war of musical ideologies, declared the work to be admirably crafted and utterly retrograde. Brahms continued to refine it until its publication the following year.
What to Listen For
Johannes Brahms’ distinctive, flowing sound seems almost dateless today, no less modern than the music of Richard Wagner. But during their lifetimes, Wagner was cast as pioneer and iconoclast, while Brahms was the reluctant champion of Romantic tradition. The fact is that Brahms, for all his discipline and mastery of the classical order in music, went his own way.
In his third symphony we hear a magnificent work of flowing lyricism by a composer who learned from Beethoven’s mastery without imitating him. The symphony proceeds with a density and cohesion that is striking, even for the masterly Brahms; it is his shortest symphony and could fairly be described as the most compact of the foursome.
The symphony opens with a dramatic and powerful declaration, proceeds to ruminative interior movements, and ends with an emphasis that matches the first movement in intensity. What’s it all about, if anything?
Musicologists detect a melodic reference to Brahms’ unmarried status throughout the symphony: variations of the motif F-A-F, for the German “frei aber froh“ (“free but happy“). This phrase, well known in German Romanticism, could reference both the habitual bachelor’s single life and the isolation of the artist dedicated to intellectual or creative pursuit. Brahms’ explicit reference to this phrase was in part an affirmative rejoinder to the sadder observation of his friend Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso, who had described himself as “frei aber einsam“ (free but lonesome).
Was Brahms referencing his artistic life, his love life, or both? After the death of Robert Schumann he remained deeply attached to Schumann’s widow Clara, who may have been the love of his life. There is a cinematic appeal to the notion that his deep friendship with her included unrequited romantic yearnings.
Historians tell us they were never lovers, but do we hear the idea of romance in this symphony’s ruminations? After playing a piano arrangement of the symphony before its premiere, Clara observed that “All the movements seems to be of one piece, one beat of the heart.“ That beat is the F-A-F figure, which recurs throughout the symphony.
---"Brahms: Symphony No.3 In F, Op.90 - 3. Poco allegretto" by Wiener Philharmoniker; Leonard Bernstein. Video 45:41
To some listeners, the burnished bronze of the symphony’s interior movements suggests the hidden melancholy of a lover’s longings. But as its rich, passionate finale subsides, we are left with feelings of warm solitude rather than loneliness.
PAUL CHIHARA (B. 1938)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon); 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; percussion, harp; strings
Performance time: 8 minutes
The American composer Paul Chihara is a native of Seattle, Washington. Known for his film scores as well as his compositions for the concert hall, Chihara has completed advanced studies in English literature as well as music, which may account for his unusual sensitivity to language, story and narrative line.
His experience of American life is also unusually diverse: During his childhood, Chihara, who is of Japanese-American heritage, was interned with his family in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho during World War II. Today, he is one of the nation’s most esteemed composers.
Chihara’s prize-winning concert works have been performed in most major cities and arts centers in the U.S. and Europe.
His numerous commissions and awards include those from the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award, the Naumberg Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Fellowship, the Aaron Copland Fund, and National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New Juilliard Ensemble, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
His commissioned orchestral tone poem Clouds was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra in their Millennium Concert at Carnegie Hall in 2001.
Chihara’s Amatzu Kaze (for soprano and five instruments) was premiered by the New Juilliard Ensemble at the Why Note Festival in Dijon, France. In February 2002, a concert of his choral music was presented by the Westminster Choir College at Princeton, New Jersey. His An Afternoon on the Perfume River received its world premiere by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in February of 2004.
Sir Neville Marriner and guitarist Pepe Romero recently recorded his Guitar Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. Active in the ballet world, Chihara was composer-in- residence at the San Francisco Ballet from 1973-1986. While there, he wrote many trailblazing works, including Shin-ju (based on the “lovers’ suicide“ plays by the great Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu), as well as the ballet The Tempest.
In addition to his many concert works, Chihara has composed scores for over 90 motion pictures and television series. He has worked with such luminaries as directors Sidney Lumet, Louis Malle, Michael Ritchie and Arthur Penn. His movie credits include Prince of the City, The Morning After, Crossing Delancey and John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes.
His works for television include China Beach, Noble House, Brave New World and 100 Centre Street. Chihara also served as music supervisor at Buena Vista Pictures. Also active in the New York musical theatre world, Chihara served as musical consultant and arranger for Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies and was the composer for James Clavell’s Shogun, the Musical.
Chihara’s works have been widely recorded. His compositions appear on many labels including BMG Records, Reference Recordings, CRI, Music and Art, Vox Candide, New World Records, The Louisville Orchestra First Editions Records, and Albany Records.
What to Listen For
Paul Chihara’s music combines lyrical grace with energy and tension that can be deeply emotional. A suggestion of theatricality, of cinematic vividness and breadth, seems to pervade his music— even chamber and choral works. It’s not surprising that at New York University, where he is professor of music, he developed the esteemed program in composing for film.
As Mark Swed noted in the Los Angeles Times, “It is almost easier to think of Paul Chihara as several different composers. There is the Chihara whose sensitivity to exquisite instrumental color has made him a favorite with such performers as conductor Seiji Ozawa and the Sequoia String Quartet.
There is, however, a strong theatrical side to Chihara which expresses itself in works for dance, musical theater and film. And there is Chihara’s love for American popular music of the ’30s and ’40s.“
---In this video interview Drew Schnurr sits down with him to learn more about his life, garnish some advice, and to get his ideas about music in the 21st century. Video 7:39
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891–1953 )
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion
Performance time: 31 minutes
It’s difficult to know exactly why Prokofiev’s thrilling piano concertos are not heard more often. But in considering what makes these concertos masterworks, Beethoven is a good place to start.
We rightly think of Beethoven as the Promethean composer who engaged the great philosophical ideas of his time, struggling with—and against!—existing Classical forms in a way that radically changed and expanded them. The symphony is the sine qua non of this idea.
But in his concertos, the pattern is much the same: His first two concertos sound intentionally Classical and Mozartean, while the later ones evolve into something far more grandiose.
Prokofiev, like Beethoven—and like his famous contemporaries Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich—was a pianist, and like Beethoven, he produced five piano concertos. Together, these five works comprise one of the most remarkable groups of concertos since Beethoven, and probably the greatest grouping of concertos for a single instrument written in the 20th century.
Composed between 1911 and 1932, their style is often described as “muscular,“ “powerful“ or “percussive;“ though Prokofiev’s music incorporates sweeping lyrical phrases, his writing for the piano is more precise and astringent than that of Rachmaninoff, who was far more popular as a piano soloist in the U.S. than Prokofiev.
In more recent years, controversy over Shostakovich’s tortured relationship with Stalin has shifted focus onto compositions including his excellent concertos for piano and violin, perhaps at the expense of Prokofiev’s.
Prokofiev’s second piano concerto began to take shape in 1912, when he was just 21. He was already marked for greatness but had not yet achieved it, and Shostakovich, at age 6, was not yet on the scene.
He completed the concerto in 1913 and performed it that year in St. Petersburg. Later (while Prokofiev was traveling abroad), the score was lost in a fire—perhaps in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, or perhaps, as neighbors in Petrograd told him, as fuel to cook an omelet.
He undertook a reconstruction more than a decade later, two years after completing his Piano Concerto No. 3; the composer himself quipped that the revised version could be renumbered as his fourth. How close is it to the original? We will probably never know, but musicologists tell us that the reconstruction’s scoring bears unmistakable hallmarks of later Prokofiev.
What to Listen For
Today, the dazzling virtuosity of Prokofiev’s concertos thrills us, but it baffled his earliest audiences. In a review following the premiere of his second concerto (with the composer as soloist), the St. Petersburg Gazette noted that he “sat down at the piano and appeared to be either dusting the keyboard or tapping it at random, with a sharp dry touch. The public did not know what to make of it.“
He slyly quoted this review in his brief autobiography. We can infer from his comments that the reconstructed piano part, at least, is quite similar to his original—though perhaps even more complex and contrapuntal.
The concerto is traditionally structured in four movements, though the interior movements don’t really offer the soloist a chance to slow down very much. Its opening is almost fragile and lacelike, yet it somehow becomes the basis for powerful climaxes that come later on.
---Yuja Wang, piano; Charles Dutoit, conductor; Verbier Fastival Orchestra. Video 31:08
As always, Prokofiev demands explosive power in every finger (especially those of the right hand) in huge chords, and seemingly impossible speed in both hands. The concerto’s passages of lyricism and folk-style melodies are all the more expressive as they alternate with more acrobatic playing.
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.
Meet The Guest Artist
Described by Carlo Maria Giulini as “extraordinarily gifted,” pianist Alexander Romanovsky is a riveting, distinct and subtle performer with an utterly engaging voice. Born in Ukraine in 1984, Romanovsky moved to Italy at the age of 13. There he studied at the Imola Piano Academy with Leonid Margarius, considered by Romanovsky to be the most influential figure in his musical formation, and later obtained the Artist Diploma from the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Dmitry Alexeev. At the age of 17, he won First Prize at the prestigious Busoni Competition in Italy.
Recent highlights include orchestral debuts with the City of Birmingham, Iceland, Stavanger and Japan Century symphony orchestras; recital debuts at the Auditorio Nacional de Madrid and Casa da Música in Porto; return orchestral engagements with the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, National Philharmonic of Russia, Tokyo Metropolitan and Tokyo symphony orchestras, state youth orchestra of Armenia, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and the Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova; a recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; and extensive recital tours of Italy and Japan.
Praised by The New York Times as “special, not just an extraordinary technician with a flair for color and fantasy, but also a sensitive musician and lucid interpreter,” Romanovsky graces many of the world’s most prestigious stages in recital. Recent highlights include performances at the Main hall of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, Tokyo’s Asahi and Kioi halls, Chile’s Teatro Municipal; Sala Verdi at Milan’s Conservatorio and the Teatro Olimpico in Rome.
Romanovsky regularly performs with major orchestras throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas including the UK’s Royal Philharmonic, English Chamber, Hallé and Bournemouth Symphony orchestras; Italy’s Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and Milan’s Filarmonica della Scala; Russia’s Mariinsky and Russian National orchestras and St. Petersburg and National philharmonics; Japan’s Tokyo and NHK symphony orchestras; Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival; and with the New York Philharmonic, under Alan Gilbert, at the Bravo! Vail Festival.
He collaborates at a very high level with conductors such as Vladimir Spivakov, Valery Gergiev, Michael Pletnev, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Sir Antonio Pappano, Gianandrea Noseda and James Conlon.
Romanovsky performs extensively throughout Italy, where he has lived since early childhood. In 2007, he was invited to give a concert at the Papal Residence in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI in celebration of the 110th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s birth.
Since 2007, he has released four critically acclaimed albums on Decca: Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Brahms/Schumann, Rachmaninov: Etudes-Tableaux and Corelli Variations, and most recently Russian Faust. Alexander Romanovsky has held the post of artistic director of the Vladimir Krainev Moscow International Piano Competition since 2014.