About the Artists/Program
PROGRAM NOTES, A.J. KERNIS: NEW ERA DANCE
Aaron Jay Kernis was born in Philadelphia on January 15, 1960. He composed New Era Dance in 1992 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets (first doubling E-flat clarinet, second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani plus four percussionists, piano, synthesizer (with digital tape), and strings. Various members of the orchestra may have optional police whistles. Duration is about 6 minutes.
Already before he turned thirty Aaron Jay Kernis established an enviable reputation as an imaginative composer of music in a wide range of genres that delighted performers and spoke to audiences as well. He began his musical studies on the violin; then, at the age of twelve, he began to teach himself piano and by the following year he was starting to compose. He studied at three different conservatories (San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, and the Yale School of Music) with three very different composers—John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, and Jacob Druckman, respectively. It was Druckman who was instrumental in programming the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festival in 1983, where the term “The New Romanticism” began to be applied frequently to a whole series of composers and works, some of whom had previously been heavily involved in serial composition but had made a more or less dramatic change of style in recent years (Druckman himself among them), while others, particularly the younger composers, had simply found their musical paths from the beginning in byways other than that of the complex serialism of the 1950s and 1960s. Kernis was only twenty-three when his Dream of the Morning Sky was performed in that festival and he achieved national acclaim as a welcome new voice. Over the course of the next following years, he was constantly in demand for new instrumental and vocal works, from various chamber genres to symphonic pieces and concertos. He received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his String Quartet No. 2, “musica instrumentalis,” commissioned and premiered by the Lark Quartet. From 1993 to 1996 he was the composer-in-residence of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. And he has served as New Music Advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra.
New Era Dance was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary. Composed in the summer of 1992, the work encapsulates the energy and vibrant variety in which the great metropolis exults. The title was borrowed from a ragtime dance of the World War I era, but the composer clearly knew the many kinds of dance that have been and continue to be performed in New York’s different neighborhoods, including Latin salsa, jazz from the mid-century, disco, and much more. To many listeners, the very opening, with its strong Latin beat and frenetic drumming (brought to a halt by police sirens) may well recall an earlier evocation of New York’s immigrant cultures, the “Mambo” and the “Rumble” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. But even if this passing hint was a conscious homage to Bernstein, Kernis makes of his concert piece an even more wide-ranging score, with multiple layers of rhythmic action. Through the medium of a virtuoso orchestra, we pass though all the musical venues of a great city at once, taking in the great pulsing energy from subway tunnels underground through all the concert and dance halls of the city to the little clubs atop the skyscrapers, and we feel within our very bodies the surge of American urban life at the turn of the millennium in all its variety and color. — Steven Ledbetter
PROGRAM NOTES, GRIEG: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN A MINOR, OP. 16
Edvard Grieg was born on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway, and died there on September 4, 1907. He composed his only piano concerto in 1868 and revised it regularly up to the last year of his life. The composer first dedicated the score to Rikard Nordraak, a Norwegian composer whom he had met in 1864. The second edition of the concerto was dedicated to Edmund Neupert, a fellow countryman who was soloist at the first performance of the piece in Copenhagen in 1869. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.
Grieg’s familiar and popular piano concerto is one of those works that becomes so popular that it moves out of the “serious” concert hall and too often becomes restricted to hearings at Pops concerts or other programs of “light classical music.” This is a shame, because the concerto was one of the most important steps on Grieg’s path toward the creation of a national Norwegian music, and it was novel enough to have attracted the wild enthusiasm of Franz Liszt.
After completing his course at the Leipzig Conservatory (where one of his classmates was a young Englishman named Arthur Sullivan), he returned north and settled in Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city with an active musical life. There he met Rikard Nordraak, another Norwegian composer just one year his senior, whose influence on him was to prove decisive, especially after Nordraak’s premature death at the age of twenty-four. Grieg spent several years in the musical backwater of Christiana, Norway, where he was the director of the Philharmonic Society, fighting the good fight for music of real substance on his programs. He was later to look on these years as “entirely unproductive,” since his time was almost totally taken up with performance rather than composition.
Following the birth of a daughter on April 10, 1868, Edvard and his wife Nina (a fine soprano for whom he wrote many of his songs) spent a pleasant and productive summer in a cottage at Solleroc, Denmark, where he experienced a creative outburst that resulted in the Opus 16 concerto. From the very first it has been regarded as Grieg’s finest large-scale accomplishment (he generally found the small keyboard miniature to be more congenial to his temperament) and as the fullest musical embodiment of Norwegian nationalism in romantic music.
The winter following this splendidly fruitful summer was discouraging, as Grieg found himself once again trapped in the indifference and philistinism of Christiana (which had been renamed Oslo). He had been rejected for a state traveling grant; it seemed unlikely that any new application would be favorably received. Then, suddenly, he received a gracious letter, apparently unsolicited, from Franz Liszt, in which Liszt expressed the pleasure he had received in perusing Grieg’s Opus 8 sonata for violin and piano and invited the young composer to visit him in Weimar if the opportunity should arise. This letter opened doors that had up to then been firmly shut; not long after, Grieg received his travel grant, which allowed him to take Liszt up on his invitation a year later.
In the meantime he had attended to the premiere of the new concerto as well as repeat performances to introduce the work to Denmark and other cities in Norway. At about this time, too, he discovered a treasury of Norwegian folk music transcribed into piano score. He delved avidly into the collection and began to realize how a composer might make use of folk elements in his works. From this time Grieg’s interest in the formal classical genres began to decline—of that type, he produced only a string quartet and two sonatas after this date.
It took until February 1870 for the Griegs to catch up with Liszt, not in Weimar but in Rome. When they did, though, the meeting was highly gratifying for the young man. Liszt promptly grabbed Grieg’s portfolio of compositions, took them to the piano, and sight-read through the G-major violin sonata, playing both piano and violin parts. When Grieg complimented him on his ability to play from a manuscript at sight like that, Liszt replied modestly, “I’m an experienced old musician and ought to be able to play at sight.” On a later visit, in April, Grieg brought his piano concerto, and this time Liszt’s sight-reading was even more remarkable: he played at sight from the manuscript score the entire concerto, both orchestral and solo parts, with ever-increasing enthusiasm. Grieg recounted the incident in a letter home:
I must not forget one delightful episode. Toward the end of the finale the second theme is, you will remember, repeated with a great fortissimo. In the very last bars, where the first note of the first triplet—G-sharp—in the orchestral part is changed to G-natural, while the piano runs through its entire compass in a powerful scale passage,* he suddenly jumped up, stretched himself to his full height, strode with theatrical gait and uplifted arm through the monastery hall, and literally bellowed out the theme. At that particular G-natural he stretched out his arm with an imperious gesture and exclaimed, “G, G, not G-sharp! Splendid! That’s the real thing!” And then, quite pianissimo and in parenthesis: “I had something of the kind the other day from Smetana.” He went back to the piano and played the whole thing over again. Finally he said in a strange, emotional way: “Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don’t let them frighten you.”
Though the concerto was popular from the start, and was published in full score only three years after its composition, Grieg himself was never entirely satisfied with it, and he continued to touch up details of both the orchestral and solo parts for the rest of his life. A few critics have attacked the work—notably Bernard Shaw and Debussy—and it has certainly been overplayed and mistreated, especially in the Broadway musical, Song of Norway, very loosely based on Grieg’s life; but it retains its freshness and popularity nonetheless.
The basic architecture is clearly inspired by Schumann’s essay in the same medium and key, though the piano part is of Lisztian brilliance, blended with Grieg’s own harmonic originality, which was in turn influenced by his studies of Norwegian folk song. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening splash of piano, built of a sequence consisting of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian melodic gesture, and that this opening typifies the pervasiveness of the folk influence. At the same time, it clearly reflects the sudden entrance of the piano at the very beginning of Schumann’s famous concerto. For the rest, the first movement is loaded with attractive themes, some obviously derived from one another, others strongly contrasting, a melodic richness that has played a powerful role in generating the concerto’s appeal. The animato section of the first movement includes figurations of the type used by folk-fiddlers; the lyric song of the second movement is harmonized in the style of some of Grieg’s later folk song settings; and the finale consists of dance rhythms reminiscent of the halling and springdans. — Steven Ledbetter
*The G-natural in question occurs five measures before the end of the concerto.
PROGRAM NOTES, SIBELIUS: SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN E FLAT, OP. 83
Jean Julius Christian Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna (then known by the Swedish name Tavastehus), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, near Helsingfors (Helsinki), on September 20, 1957. He composed the first version of his Fifth Symphony late in 1914 and introduced it at a concert on his fiftieth birthday, December 8, 1915, in Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Helsinki). A year later he tried a second version on December 14, 1916. He withdrew the score again and led the third, and definitive version, only on November 24, 1919. The symphony calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.
Though Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony shares with the Second the distinction of being his most popular work in that genre, it underwent a long and painful progress from the first version, begun in 1914 and performed the following year as part of celebrations of the composer’s fiftieth birthday, and the publication of the third and final version in 1921. Sibelius’s musical language is deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century romanticism, yet his mature music sounds strikingly modern.
This has a great deal to do with his treatment of the orchestra (he scoffed at Wagner’s habit of blending the instruments from different orchestral families to produce a mixed sonority, and greatly preferred to isolate the woodwinds, brass, and strings often into different kinds of musical ideas). This created various levels of activity which frequently in the Fifth Symphony seem to be operating to two different rhythms at once or even going their own way. Yet while doing so—and generating a powerful nervous energy–they are unfolding a fairly small number of thematic ideas that change character as they change their rhythmic pattern and orchestral coloration.
It is worth remembering two things about this symphony: It was composed mostly during the horrors of World War I (and it is the only major work that Sibelius worked on in those years), and it follows the Fourth Symphony, which was in many ways the most “advanced” work that Sibelius ever composed, at least in the sense of employing complex harmonies that put Sibelius in the group of forward-looking modern composers. The Fifth seems in some ways to be a step back, especially by the time of the powerful close of the last movement. Yet it also can be seen as a work that demands sanity in a world gone insane. And even though its harmonies seem “easier” than those of the Fourth, Sibelius poses harmonic challenges that are answered in novel and imaginative ways.
One recent musical analyst has declared that Sibelius is the truest descendant of Beethoven as a symphonic composer, and a work like the Fifth Symphony, with its emphasis on a handful of abstract musical ideas made over into a vast range of musical experiences, is an excellent case in point. And though Sibelius’s Fifth lacks a chorus, we find, upon reaching the celebratory final pages, that there are echoes in musical character (though not quotations!) of Beethoven’s Ninth: darkness and tension resolving into brilliant transfiguration; a central movement built largely out of a single rhythmic pattern repeated hypnotically (though slower in Sibelius than Beethoven’s demonic Scherzo), and finally a feeling of uplift and heroic conquest. In both composers, one can find a “profound logic” that may not be evident at first hearing on the surface of the music, but leaves the listener feeling fulfilled for reasons that perhaps cannot be put into words.
The first version of the symphony, the one that was performed for his fiftieth birthday, had four movements. Soon Sibelius decided to fuse the original first and second movements into one. He tried this plan, then undertook a more complete reworking, rewriting the first two movements so what had been the independent second movement becomes a central episode in the first. In doing this, Sibelius frequently hints at older forms and causes the listener to expect some particular kind of music event, heroic home key E-flat with a glorious sound and a sense of finality that casts aside all earlier doubts.then undercuts that expectation and surprises us.
The complex opening movement grows out of a horn call figure that Brahms had loved and often used, but here with a slight rhythmic surprise that hints at the rhythmic complexities to come. From this point on, one thing grows from another with seeming naturalness (just as it does in the Pastoral symphony of Beethoven). The former second movement seems to appear as a kind of fast waltz in the middle of the movement, but this activity proves to be another view of the opening, and it builds to a sonorous conclusion.
The middle movement is based almost entirely on a single rhythmic idea (in this respect it has some similarity the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh or the second movement of the Ninth. It has the effect of a period of relative calm between two movements of gigantic power, but it offers its own interest in progressively developing the basic rhythm and the figure that express it.
The finale begins with a rapid buzzing in the strings that builds to a tolling figure in the brass that finally reaches the sonorous end. — Steven Ledbetter