Holiday Classics: Nutcracker Sweet
A dazzling reimagining of the traditional Tchaikovsky classic, Duke Ellington’s interpretation of The Nutcracker will jazz up your holiday! Enjoy reinvented favorites like “Sugar Rum Cherry” and “Dance of the Floreadors,” along with selections from Tchaikovsky's original ballet. German pianist Markus Groh returns with Brahms’ dramatic Second Piano Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ sacred Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis introduce this festive program.
Enjoy image magnification on our big screens during the concert for a closer look at the artists!
Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
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Carl St.Clair, conductor
Markus Groh, piano
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2
Allegro non troppo
FANTASIA ON A THEME BY THOMAS TALLIS
SELECTIONS FROM TCHAIKOVSKY’S THE NUTCRACKER AND ARRANGEMENTS OF TCHAIKOVSKY’S MUSIC BY DUKE ELLINGTON AND BILLYSTRAYHORN
Overture – Original & Ellington/Strayhorn Versions
March of the Toy Soldiers – Original
Sugar Rum Cherry – Ellington/Strayhorn
Trepak (Russian Dance) – Original
Volga Vouty ‑ Ellington/Strayhorn
Coffee (Arabian Dance) – Original
Tea (Chinese Dance) – Original
Toot Toot Tootie Toot – Ellington/Strayhorn
Dance of the Reed Flutes – Original
The Waltz of the Flowers/Dance of the Floreadores – Original & Ellington/Strayhorn
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2
When Brahms began sketching themes for his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1878, he was 44 years old and already a revered composer. Despite his relatively young age, he was adopting the posture of a grand old man of music, ursine and curmudgeonly. Yet he remained sensitive to public and critical opinion, harboring a nervousness he never really outgrew.
Even successes did not put him at ease—much less the very unenthusiastic reception that his first piano concerto had received in 1859, when Brahms, still in his mid-20s, was already a respected pianist.
His nerves are evident in the long time he spent developing his second piano concerto and his almost superstitious reluctance to discuss it except in ironic terms. Three years after he began composing it, he described it in a letter to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg as “a tiny little piano concerto with a wisp of a scherzo.”
Hardly! It was, as he well knew, one of the most expansive and ambitious concertos since Beethoven’s “Emperor,” and its scherzo—anything but wispy—poses interpretive hurdles for any pianist who attempts it. Like Beethoven, whose shadow he couldn’t seem to escape, Brahms was once again pushing a classical form beyond its traditional boundaries.
The concerto made its way into the world gradually, first in a two-piano version that Brahms performed with a friend in a private concert. When the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow caught wind of it, he invited Brahms to rehearse the work with this orchestra in Meiningen.
The public premiere followed in November 1881 in Budapest with Brahms at the keyboard. In contrast with his first piano concerto, it met with immediate success.
This concerto is a work of virtuosic demands but not of virtuosic display. One formidable challenge for the soloist lies in its four-movement form: not just a test of endurance (though it is that), but also an interpretive hurdle, requiring the soloist to integrate the scherzo into the concerto’s overall structure. (Other concertos that go beyond the traditional three-movement structure, such as Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, are not so tightly constructed.)
Brahms gives the scherzo its own expressive identity, with an energy that must follow seamlessly from the drama of the first movement without competing with it.
The first movement, marked allegro non troppo, opens serenely with a dignified statement in a single horn. But Brahms’ development becomes passionate and even stormy. In contrast with Beethoven’s piano concertos, the piano voice does not struggle with the orchestra or stand out as its antagonist; instead, it plays as the foregrounded voice in a unified ensemble. Then, as the scherzo unfolds in the second movement, it extends the stormy mood of the first movement’s darkest passages.
In the third movement, marked andante, the contemplative mood of the concerto’s opening bars returns with a tender melody introduced as a cello solo. A softly voiced cadenza develops this theme; Brahms would draw upon this melody again later in his career, in the song “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.”
Any lingering memories we may have of the concerto’s early strains of melancholy are overcome in its spirited fourth movement. Marked allegretto grazioso, it is, like many concerto finales, structured as a rondo—in this case, a grandly scaled rondo of seven parts (A-B-A-C-A-B-A). It brings the concerto to a brilliant, spirited close.
Johannes BRAHMS: Piano Concerto NO.2, OP. 83 (1881)
Wiener Philarmoniker 1985
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS:
FANTASIA ON A THEME BY THOMAS TALLIS
In a sense, Vaughan Williams, Brahms and Ellington all reached across musical eras. In composing his second piano concerto, Brahms was acutely aware that it was the most grandly scaled concerto since Beethoven’s, and his self-effacing comments on it only emphasize the burden of music history he felt.
Ellington, too, reached back about 70 years in adapting Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In composing his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, the 20th-century English composer Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams was inspired by sacred music dating from 1557 by Thomas Tallis— his hymn “Why Fumeth in Fight?,” the third of nine chants Tallis compiled for the Archbishop of Canterbury in that year.
Tallis was one of the greatest composers England ever produced, and fortunately for the monarchs he served— from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I—he was long-lived and prolific. Vaughan Williams encountered the Tallis psalm settings early in his career, while editing a new English hymnal. His setting of Tallis’ chant was an immediate success when it premiered in 1910 at England’s annual Three Choirs Festival, and it remains one of Vaughan Williams’ most popular works.
As we listen to the Fantasia, reverberations of Elizabethan England seem to surround us. In its orchestration we can hear the influence of Vaughan Williams’ studies with Maurice Ravel, one of the greatest of all orchestral colorists.
With the originality and boldness of youth, Vaughan Williams scored the Fantasia for three string ensembles of differing sizes to play simultaneously: a full string section, a group of nine players, and a quartet.
Hearing this unusual tripartite scoring transports us to the resonant listening spaces of the great English cathedrals. It is a listening experience to be cherished that cannot be duplicated at home.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis at Gloucester Cathedral, where in 1910, it was played and conducted for the first time by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY/
EDWARD KENNEDY “DUKE” ELLINGTON
SELECTIONS FROM THE NUTCRACKER
Tchaikovsky’s entry into the world of ballet came in 1875 with the commission for Swan Lake. He was inspired by the French composer Leo Delibes, whose innovative scores for the ballets Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876) showed that the music for danced dramas could be more interesting than had earlier been supposed. But the scenarios for those ballets were less ambitious than those for Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.
By the time Tchaikovsky received the commission for The Nutcracker, in 1890, he was Russia’s most esteemed composer and had surpassed Delibes by sheer necessity. Compare the scope of Coppélia and The Nutcracker: both are based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann and include magical toys. But Coppélia unfolds as a modest, rustic romance with a twist, while The Nutcracker lays far heavier emphasis on fantasy, magic and the imagination. Its ambitious scenario is like an international travelogue.
Since the 1960s, productions of The Nutcracker have been a holiday staple in cities throughout America, and its music is equally popular in the concert hall.
But neither Tchaikovsky nor his critics were easy on it. “Tchaikovsky did not think highly of the music he wrote for The Nutcracker,” the authoritative 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us, “rightly ranking it below that of The Sleeping Beauty.” Still, Tchaikovsky appreciated its appeal well enough to compose an orchestral suite based on 20 of its most popular numbers. And so did the great Duke Ellington, America’s incomparably debonair genius of jazz.
Ellington led his famous orchestra from the keyboard for five decades, a remarkable achievement for any maestro, introducing jazz compositions that have become classics and presenting them with sophistication and verve. Behind the scenes, his longtime collaborator was the equally remarkable Billy Strayhorn, a brilliantly talented composer and arranger who was classically trained. It was Strayhorn who, in 1960, came up with the improbable idea of a swingin’ adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
In composing for the ballet, Tchaikovsky was hemmed in by numbers and colleagues with competing interests on the production team. But instead of counting frames or seconds of film elapsed, he was expected to cue a dramatic leap or precisely time a mimed sequence to fit the dancers’ needs and limits.
His rhythms and tempos had to conform to the demands of choreographic convention, and his seemingly inexhaustible gift for melodic invention was tailored to fit dance steps. Strayhorn and Ellington’s inspired adaptation liberates The Nutcracker from the musical confines of ballet choreography.
Listen as Tchaikovsky’s tunes explode with the rhythms of jazz, which shift the beat within the bar, and with imported jazz harmonies. The result? The “Dance of the Reed Pipes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot;” the “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes the “Dance of the Floreadores” and the “Chinese Dance” becomes “Chinoiserie” (note Ellington’s elegant French touches); the “Arabian Dance” becomes a witty “Arabesque Cookie;” and most famously, the beloved “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” becomes a suggestive “Sugar Rum Cherry.” Care for a canapé with that highball?
Like Mozart’s Magic Flute, Duke Ellington’s adaptation of The Nutcracker proves that fairy tales are not just for kids. Reaching across the decades, Strayhorn and Ellington have added a very grown-up dimension to a child-friendly favorite.
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.
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, 2001
Pianist Markus Groh gained immediate world attention after winning the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in 1995, the first German to do so. Since then his remarkable “sound imagination” and astonishing technique have confirmed his place among the finest pianists in the world. Sharing the same birthday with Alfred Brendel, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Maurizio Pollini, he has proven himself worthy of their company.
During the current season, Groh made his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica under Carl St.Clair, performing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. Later this season, he returns to the U.S. on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic Piano Quartet, in the Morgan Library Chamber Music Series. In 2018-19, he will make a debut with the National Symphony of Colombia, as well as return appearances with the Omaha Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica.
Groh has previously appeared with the symphony orchestras of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado, Detroit, Florida, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Louisville, Milwaukee, National (Washington D.C.), New Jersey, New Orleans, the New York Philharmonic, Omaha, Philadelphia, Rochester, Saint Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Toledo and Vancouver. Worldwide engagements include the Auckland Philharmonia, Bamberg Symphony, Beijing Symphony, Berlin Symphony, Bournemouth Symphony, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Hague Residentie Orkest, Helsinki Philharmonic, London Symphony, Malmö Symphony, MDR Orchestra/ Leipzig Gewandhaus, Mozarteum Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Osaka Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, SWR Orchestra/ Stuttgart and the Warsaw Philharmonic.
Among the conductors with whom Groh has collaborated are Jesus López Cobos, Andreas Delfs, Ivan Fischer, Miguel Harth- Bedoya, Marek Janowski, Neeme Järvi, Fabio Luisi, Ludovic Morlot, Kent Nagano, Jonathan Nott, David Robertson, Kwamé Ryan and Stefan Sanderling.
A spellbinding recitalist, Groh draws from the piano shapes, textures, and colors that one seldom hears in live performance. In addition to his stunning debut on the Hayes Piano Series at Kennedy Center in 2013, he has appeared at the Friends of Chamber Music Denver, Friends of Chamber Music Kansas City, Vancouver Recital Society, and several times at The Frick Collection in New York. Chamber music activities include regular tours with the Tokyo String Quartet and the newly founded Berlin Philharmonic Piano Quartet.
Widely acclaimed for his interpretations of Liszt, an all-Liszt CD (including the Totentanz and B Minor Sonata) was released by AVIE in 2006. Showered with rave reviews, it was also named “Editor’s Choice” in Gramophone Magazine. In the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Among the pianists laying claim to Liszt as a central figure in their repertoires, Groh’s fingers and sense of comprehension set a new modern standard.” A highly acclaimed all-Brahms CD was released by AVIE in June of 2008. Other recordings include a CD of Debussy, Prokofiev, and Britten cello sonatas with Claudio Bohórquez on Berlin Classics and a CD of Liszt’s Totentanz with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Fabio Luisi on Cascavelle.
A frequent guest at international festivals such as Grant Park, Festival Cultural de Mayo/Mexico, La Folle Journée, Ruhr, Ludwigsburg, Bad Kissingen and the Schubertiade, Groh is the founder and artistic director of the Bebersee Festival near Berlin. He has appeared frequently on radio and television throughout Europe, and in Japan (NHK), Mexico, Canada and the United States (NPR).
Groh was a student of professor Konrad Richter in Stuttgart and professor Hans Leygraf in Berlin and Salzburg. He has recently been named professor of piano at the University of the Arts in Berlin.