Chopin's Piano Concerto
Technically his second piano concerto (he wrote two in one year during his late teens), Chopin’s Concerto in E minor is a work that takes what the melodic composer did best – compose deeply expressive melodies – and puts it in the hands of a virtuoso soloist and orchestra. Prokofiev’s last symphony and Mussorgsky’s macabre Night on Bald Mountain accompany this unforgettable program.
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NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN E MINOR
SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN C-SHARP MINOR
NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN
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Composed in 1867, when Mussorgsky was still in his 20s, Night on Bald Mountain is early Mussorgsky and vintage subject matter: a tone poem depicting a witches’ Sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve, the very night (June 23) when he completed the work to his evident satisfaction.
Unfortunately, his friend and mentor, the composer and piano virtuoso Mily Balakirev, held a lesser opinion of it—in part, perhaps, because of its innovative form and subject matter. (With Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko of the same year, it is considered one of the first Russian tone poems.) Mussorgsky recycled some of its musical materials in the opera-ballet Mlada and the opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi, but Night on Bald Mountain was never heard during Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
The version of the tone poem that has achieved popularity among today’s concert audiences is an arrangement that Rimsky-Korsakov based on Mussorgsky’s music in Sorochyntsi Fair.
It received its concert premiere in St. Petersburg in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, and achieved immediate success. He larded the score with bone-chilling elements, including the sinister roll of the bass drum and scary descending phrases that slither like serpents. The critic Paul Serotsky deftly describes this witches’ brew as a “hatful of horrors.”
The tone poem’s four-part structure begins with  “an underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness followed by an appearance of Satan and  his adoration.  A Black Mass.  Joyful dancing of the Witches’ Sabbath.” With the tolling of a church bell, the darkness is finally dispersed.
CONCERTO NO. 1 IN E MINOR
Born in 1810, Chopin displayed all the signs of a music prodigy early on, playing the piano by ear and composing at the keyboard as a small boy. At age 7 his first teacher notated one of his improvisations, a polonaise, and had it published; his next teacher apparently knew the adage about teaching a man to fish, and taught young Chopin to notate music himself.
His first rondo for solo piano was published in 1825. Five years later, Chopin unveiled his piano concerto in F minor (now known as No. 2)—composed not in the heroic mold of the great Beethoven concertos, but in the familiar tradition of the display piece in the distinctive style of the composer-performer.
With its success in Warsaw, Chopin gained a place as a national hero of Poland. He composed the concerto now known as No. 1, in E minor, that same year, performing it in Warsaw to acclaim that Chopin himself described as “deafening bravos.” From then on—he was just 20 years old—Chopin was not just famous but a national hero of Poland, a figure whose brilliance and standing in music history remain central to Polish national identity.
For Chopin, his two great concertos were the portfolio pieces that comprised proof of achievement for a young man longer on talent than experience. At his first public performance in Paris, early in 1832, he played the first concerto to great acclaim with Liszt and Mendelssohn in attendance; after that, he rarely performed in public more than twice a year, focusing on the exquisite color and introspection of his smaller-scale works.
Though this intimacy ran counter to the prevailing style of virtuosos such as Paganini and Liszt, Chopin’s salon concerts took on a legendary status resembling certain rock concerts of the 1960s: you had to say you’d been there, whether or not it was true.
But if Chopin seemed to neglect these concertos himself (he never played his No. 1 after 1835), they were certainly not forgotten. They have been consistent favorites since Clara Wieck, the pianist and composer who married Robert Schumann, performed the final movement of the No. 1 in 1833, when she was 14.
The concerto’s long, formal introduction follows all the rules of orchestration and structure Chopin learned in his years studying composition with Jozef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory. At over four minutes in length, this first-movement opening seems highly formal and almost Beethovenian in length, building suspense and duly introducing thematic material in the orchestra before the piano plays a note.
But once the piano enters, it is clearly dominant, and suddenly the melodies that sounded merely felicitous in the orchestra have the indescribably expressive sweetness of Chopin. What follows is an allegro maestoso movement that does not follow a highly elaborated development of key modulations, but that continually alternates between E minor and E major until it finally modulates upward to G major as the movement ends.
We do not have to know the rules of sonata allegro form to intuit the structural rightness of this key change and the sense of expectant resolution it brings to the concerto’s opening. But then in the second movement, marked Romanze, Chopin brings us back to the original key and to a mood of lyrical contemplation.
He described this as a movement that “rests on a beloved landscape that calls up in one’s soul beautiful memories—for instance, … a fine, moonlit spring night.” The effect is not unlike one of Chopin’s beautiful unaccompanied nocturnes. He seems to have been wary of audience reaction to his orchestration: “I have written [it] for violins with mutes as an accompaniment … I wonder whether it will have a good effect. Well, time will show.”
The finale of this concerto, like that of his second, takes the form of one of Chopin’s beloved Polish dances—in this case a krakowiak, a high-energy two-step performed in a quick dotted rhythm. Its complex syncopations and shifts of tempo afford Chopin the opportunity to alter the mood from foot-stamping intensity to tender lyricism.
By this time the entire concerto has unfolded without providing the soloist a chance to play a cadenza—a showy, unaccompanied solo passage designed for climactic virtuosity—yet the overall effect is of spectacular virtuosity and beauty in which the piano is dominant from beginning to end.
SYMPHONY NO. 7 IN C-SHARP MINOR
Sergei Prokofiev composed his seventh symphony in 1952, seven years after the end of World War II and one year before his death. It was to be his final symphony, composed at a time when he was beset by health problems, including a series of heart attacks that began in 1941, and a severe concussion in 1945 that left severe, continuing complications.
He countered these setbacks with a disciplined composing regimen. (Prokofiev was always a highly skilled composer, able to work from memory or at the keyboard.) Some of his contemporaries and current musicologists feel his life as a composer almost became a race against time; according to one friend, “His whole existence, all his energies, his entire mode of life were directed to the one aim, of saving for his work all the strength he had left.”
Freshness and energy are characteristic of all Prokofiev scores. But where some of his major works—for example, his five great piano concertos—thrill with their power and percussiveness, others are written in a more lyrical style.
The latter group includes his popular ballet scores, which shine with narrative expressiveness, and his melodious Symphony No. 7. Although the symphony ultimately grew beyond his original conception, it retains an ingratiating simplicity, with all the charm of Prokofiev’s narrative scores. Even before its premiere, Prokofiev’s colleagues were praising it to the Soviet press; the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky called it “joyful, lyrical and delightful.” After the premiere, this praise was echoed by the public.
The symphony’s opening movement is serene in mood, built on three themes: a melancholy melody stated in the violins followed by a sweeping dance phrase, culminating in a motif that is almost metronomic in its mechanical-sounding rhythm.
In the second movement we hear a waltz that echoes with the sound of Russian nationalist composers such as Tchaikovsky. The mood of almost sentimental, romantic reminiscence continues in the melodious third movement, an andante. The animated and joyful fourth movement, marked vivace, reprises melodies from the first movement to bring the symphony to a vigorous, optimistic resolution.
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.
THANK YOU TO OUR SPONSORS:
THE MICHELLE F. ROHÉ DISTINGUISHED PIANO FUND
Michelle Rohé is one of the great patrons of the arts in Orange County. She has invested in Pacific Symphony’s artistic excellence and has a particular love of great pianists. Her kind spirit and willingness to support the arts make much of what we do possible. We are grateful to The Michelle F. Rohé Distinguished Pianist Fund for sponsoring our piano soloists this concert season.
SAM & LYNDIE ERSAN
We are grateful to Sam and Lyndie Ersan for their generous underwriting of the appearance of conductor David Danzmayr. Sam and Lyndie are true champions of emerging artists, and we are grateful for their support of several of our guest artists over the past years. An avid lover of classical music since childhood, Mr. Ersan is an enthusiastic and passionate supporter of chamber and orchestral music in San Diego and Orange County. He serves on the board of the San Diego Symphony, and has established a chamber music series at UCSD. Thank you, Sam and Lyndie Ersan!
Symphony 100 is an exclusive membership group that offers members adult music education opportunities, lunches with artists and several unique events or field trips annually. Membership is limited to 100 women, who support special projects of the Symphony through an annual contribution of $1,000.
Described by The Herald as “extremely good, concise, clear, incisive and expressive,” David Danzmayr is widely regarded as one of the most talented and exciting European conductors of his generation.
Danzmayr is currently in his fourth and final season as music director of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in Chicago, where he was lauded regularly by both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Classical Review for his programming of American composers as well as the quality of performances he and the orchestra achieved together.
Upon leaving his position at the IPO, he assumed the position of chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra. As chief conductor designate, he led numerous concerts with the ZPO that season, including a concert at the Salzburg Festspielhaus on New Year’s Day and a tour to Italy.
Danzmayr is also in his third season as music director of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus as well as artistic advisor of the Breckenridge Music Festival. He has won prizes at some of the world´s most prestigious conducting competitions including a second prize at the International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition and prizes at the International Malko Conducting Competition. For his extraordinary success he has been awarded the Bernhard Paumgartner Medal by the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum.
Propelled by these early successes into a far reaching international career, Danzmayr has quickly become a sought- after guest conductor for renowned orchestras around the globe, having worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Bamberg Symphony, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Mozarteum Orchester, Chicago Civic Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Odense Symphony Orchestra, Salzburg Chamber Philharmonic, Bruckner Orchester Linz, Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, to name a few.
Besides numerous reinvitations, future engagements include debuts with the San Diego Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, Slovene Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Detroit Symphony and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Danzmayr frequently appears in the major concert halls around the globe, such as the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg, Usher Hall Edinburgh and the Symphony Hall in Chicago.
He has served as assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which he conducted in more than 70 concerts so far, performing in all the major Scottish concert halls and in the prestigious Orkney-based St. Magnus Festival. He has regularly been reinvited to the podium since then.
Danzmayr received his musical training at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg where, after initially studying piano, he went on to study conducting in the class of Dennis Russell Davies. He finished his studies with the highest honors. He was strongly influenced by Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado in his time as conducting stipendiate of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and by Leif Segerstam during his additional studies in the conducting class of the Sibelius Academy. Subsequently he gained significant experience as assistant to Neeme Järvi, Stephane Deneve, Carlos Kalmar, Sir Andrew Davies and Pierre Boulez.
Versatile, daring and insightful, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez is establishing a reputation on both the national and international stages for the lyricism of her playing, her compelling interpretations, and her elegant stage presence.
Delos recently released Martinez’s debut solo album, Amplified Soul, which features a wide-ranging program including works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Szymanowski. She also pays homage to acclaimed composers Mason Bates and Dan Visconti, whose title selection, “Amplified Soul” (world premiere recording), was written for her. Martinez collaborated with Grammy Award-winning producer David Frost on the recording. A music video of “Amplified Soul” can be found on Martinez’s YouTube Channel.
Since making her orchestral debut at age 7, Martinez has played with such distinguished orchestras as the San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New Jersey, Tucson, West Michigan, Pacific and Fort Worth symphonies; Germany’s Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nurnberger Philharmoniker; Canada’s Victoria Symphony Orchestra; the Costa Rica National Symphony and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela. Recent season highlights include debut appearances with the Buffalo, Boulder, Dayton and National philharmonic orchestras and the Jacksonville, Delaware, Akron, La Crosse, Modesto, Rogue Valley, Springfield (MO), Topeka and Wichita symphony orchestras.
She has performed with Gustavo Dudamel, James Gaffigan, James Conlon, Marcelo Lehninger and Guillermo Figueroa, among many others, and has performed at such esteemed venues as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Merkin Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York City; the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, El Paso Pro Musica Series, the Kansas City Harriman-Jewell Series; Canada’s Glenn Gould Studio; Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus; Dresden’s Semperoper; Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens; and Paris’ Palace of Versailles. Her festival credits include the Mostly Mozart, Ravinia and Rockport festivals in the United States; Italy’s Festival dei Due Mondi (Spoleto); Switzerland’s Verbier Festival; the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier; and Japan’s Tokyo International Music Festival.
Her wide-ranging career includes world premieres of new music, live performance broadcasts and interviews on TV and radio. Her performances have been featured on National Public Radio, CNN, PBS, 60 Minutes, ABC, From the Top, Radio France, WQXR and WNYC (New York), MDR Kultur and Deutsche Welle (Germany), NHK (Japan), RAI (Italy) and on numerous television and radio stations in Venezuela.
Martinez was the First Prize winner of the Anton G. Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Dresden, and a semifinalist at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where she also received the Jury Discretionary Award. She began her piano studies in Caracas with her mother, Alicia Gaggioni, and attended The Juilliard School, where she earned her bachelor and master of music degrees as a full scholarship student of Yoheved Kaplinsky. Martinez was a fellow of Carnegie Hall’s The Academy, and a member of Ensemble Connect (formerly known as Ensemble ACJW), while concurrently working on her doctoral studies with Marco Antonio de Almeida in Halle, Germany.