Masterworks 4: Pathos and Hope
Scott Seaton | Conductor
Free pre-concert talk one hour before each performance.
Single Tickets range from $18 to $55 with discounts available for students and seniors.
Our season finale showcases Brahms’ exuberant final symphony, his most intense, emotionally charged and beautiful work. Beginning the program is Samuel Barber’s unforgettable and heart-wrenching Adagio for Strings, music that is able to convey hope and courage in the face of tragedy. The gold medalist at the 67th Wideman International Piano Competition, Yinuo Wang, will be featured in Grieg’s passionate Piano Concerto.
Yinuo Wang, a young China-born pianist, graduating from the prestige Music Middle School affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and holding the Performer’s Diploma gained when studying with the renowned pianist Alessio Bax at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she is an active player in many concerts both in China and the United States, including collaborating with the New York based Escher Quartet and the cellist Andres Diaz. In her performance “the integrity with which she approaches a piece of music is something that every musician values”, and her playing “has plenty to say and a great deal to offer.” (Robert McDonald at Juilliard School)
She has won first prizes at the Wideman International Piano Competition in Louisiana, the 1st Indonesia Pusaka International Piano Competition in Jakarta, and the Meadows Concerto Competition at SMU in Dallas. Her other prizes in competitions include the IX International Competition for Young Pianists in Memory of Vladimir Horowitz in Ukraine, the 1st Midwest International Piano Competition in USA, the Chautauqua Institution Piano Competition in New York State, and the competition of the 18th Hamamatsu International Piano Academy in Japan, among many others. Her festival activities include the PianoTexas, the Morningside Music Bridge in Calgary, Canada, the Hamamatsu Piano Academy in Japan, and the Chautauqua Institution in USA.
Yinuo has performed with the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the National Philharmonic Society of Ukraine, and the Romanian Mihail Jora Philharmonic Orchestra in Italy. She has also played solo piano recitals in Indonesia and throughout China in cities such as Beijing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Kunming, Ningbo and Dalian. In recent years she is an active performer on the stage at the Meadows School of the Arts, SMU in Dallas.
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Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings has become uniquely associated with musical pathos, and in that function has become an icon of the American classical canon, strongly associated with loss and mourning. Interestingly, Barber was surprised by its popularity and in particular by its societal interpretation, because he wrote this piece not as a work to inspire lament, but as a meditation on the redemptive powers of inward reflection. But as fate would have it, this simple, elegant music would become emblematic of America’s grief as the music of the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, among others. We heard it played at the memorial services for the victims of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in 1995 and of the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001. The Adagio has been commonly used as the soundscape to the scenes of carnage and despair for many popular films including The Elephant Man (1980), El Norte (1983), Patton (1970) and Platoon (1986). Barber would go on to adapt it for chorus in 1967 as a setting of the Agnus Dei text of the Roman Catholic Mass.
Barber once said that “I was supposed to be a doctor, I was supposed to go to Princeton, and everything I was supposed to do I didn’t.” Perhaps he could have succeeded in that path, but his talent as a musician was evident from early on as he developed into a fine singer, pianist and composer. By 14 years-old he attended the Curtis Institute of Music, and his talent as a composer brought him many prestigious honors throughout his career. Barber was 26 years old and touring when he wrote the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 in 1936. He told his friends back at The Curtis Institute that the slow movement, Adagio, was a “knock out!” While he struggled with the rest of the Quartet, revisions and delays beset the final version that was not published until 1943. Fortunately, in 1938 at the request of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, the third movement was arranged as a stand-alone piece for string orchestra (with two violin and two viola sections, and cellos) and premiered in November of 1938 on a radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony. William Schuman’s broadcast said that its “emotional climate is never left in doubt. It begins, it reaches its climax, it makes its point, and it goes away.” That premiere reached a vastly larger audience than would have been possible in a typical concert hall venue. In the wake of its success, Toscanini took it on the road and featured it in his European and South American tours – and the rest is history!
Barber uses simple, familiar elements in his music intricately interwoven into a simple perception of tension and release. The music evolves from a single ascending lyrical phrase that generates its intensity through increasing volume and texture as it slowly ascends through the full range of the strings approaching the highest pitches. About two-thirds of the way through, there is a tense climax followed suddenly by silence, then a graceful reprise of the seminal theme. The innovative chromatic harmonies that accompany each repetition of the melody further ratchet up the tension. As the melody climbs higher, it is wrapped in unresolved harmonies that do not resolve until after that incredible affective moment of silence. The simplicity of its arching form is understandable in a purely perceptual way; Aaron Copland described the Adagio this way: “It’s really well felt…it’s not phony.”
Edvard Grieg ‘s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 premiered in 1869, featuring pianist Edmund Neupert with Holger Simon Paulli conducting the orchestra of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. Grieg’s catalog does not include many large-scale works, although the Piano Concerto in A minor, his only concerto, written when he was only 25 years old, stands out as one of his most ambitious works in terms of energy and bravado. The fusing of romantic extravagance with the composer's distinctive Norwegian voice is irresistible. In fact, the Concerto in A minor has become one of the most popular pieces in the virtuoso repertoire, helped along by Liszt, who championed the work on his tours. Grieg himself often performed the concerto, and his protégé, pianist-composer Percy Grainger, included the concerto as a feature in his performances as well. His typical compositions were characteristically more intimate. He wrote that “Composers with the stature of a Bach or Beethoven have erected grand churches and temples. I have always wished to build villages: places where people can feel happy and comfortable.” Tchaikovsky wrote, “Grieg’s music…seems to reflect in itself all the beauty of Norwegian scenery… a perfect simplicity, far removed from affectation and pretense…it is not surprising that everyone should delight in Grieg.”
Like so many precocious talents, Grieg was born into a family that cultivated and encouraged his early musical studies. His inspiration came from the folk dances and traditions of the Norwegian countryside where he spent his boyhood years. In 1864, he moved to Copenhagen, then the center of Scandinavian nationalism; it was there that his nationalist style was to develop. Copenhagen was a cultural nexus where the artistic influences of Europe and Scandinavia intermingled. His mentor, composer Niels Gade, encouraged him to meld his nationalistic voice with the musical romanticism that was popular at the time. He found his formula for success, and when he later returned to Norway in 1866, Grieg would emerge as the musical voice of Norway.
The Allegro molto moderato begins with a roll of the tympani that is answered by a flamboyant descending passage from the piano to set the mood for a beautiful succession of lyrical, often dramatic themes that flow throughout all three movements. Scholars note some similarity to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor – the two concertos share the same key and open with the same virtuosic flourishes crisscrossing the keyboard. Indeed, Grieg admired Schumann’s music, and to his delight had actually heard Clara Schumann play Robert’s concerto. After the orchestra introduces the principal theme that is echoed by the soloist, a romantic second theme rises from the cellos. The heart of the movement is an extended cadenza leading to the coda. The strings cast a dark mood in the second movement Adagio, but the piano seems to ignore them, introducing its own theme instead of developing the string subject. Melancholy pervades the music as the piano and the solo horn commiserate over both themes to the close. We can hear the color and rhythm of Norwegian dance in the opening of the finale, Allegro moderato molto e marcato, wherein Grieg blissfully combines his folk-like melodies with the lavish romantic impulses of a virtuoso concerto for a magical effect. We end up where we began with the timpani rolling again under the final chords. The solo pianist is accompanied by a modest orchestra of 2 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Johannes Brahms composed Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 in 1884; it was the last of his large symphonic works, and is widely considered his magnum opus. With encouragement from Hans von Bülow, the Symphony was composed for the Meiningen Court Orchestra, one of the oldest and most traditional in Europe. Brahms conducted the premiere in late 1885, and in spite of its austere heaviness it received an enthusiastic response. He was fifty-two at this time, and approaching his retirement, thus No. 4 is a précis of his life-long experience and technique, and engaged to express his most heartfelt emotions.
In the first movement, Allegro non troppo, Brahms used a modified sonata form with no repeat of the exposition, creating what music writer Malcolm MacDonald described as "powerfully organic and continuously unfolding." The opening theme of descending thirds imbues a serene mood, although its alternating stress patterns imply an underlying struggle. The broad phrases of sighing strings fragment into an edgy figure in the winds before turning into profound lament. The alternating affect fuses into a strange tango-like feel, where a staccato accompaniment punctuates smooth lyrical lines to temper the sadness. As we recover from the pathos of the first movement, a call from the horn commences the Andante moderato with a theme based on an ancient Hypophrygian mode. The winds then take it into a sketchy, rhythmic melody of closely spaced pitches. Brahms again modified his sonata form by excluding a development section as the high strings simply transform the melody into a glorious, continuous flow of energy.
The upbeat third movement Allegro giocoso is the only true scherzo found in Brahms' symphonies. Its toe-tapping exuberance is a startling contrast to the other movements before and after. The use of the triangle is the only time in the symphonies that a percussion instrument other than timpani is used. Enjoy it while you can, what is to follow is brutal. The extraordinary fourth movement, Allegro energico e passionate, is in the form of a passacaglia - an early eighteenth century form. Brahms uses a series of 30 continuous variations on an eight-bar stepwise rising theme derived from Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 -“I long to be near you, Lord,” in which he chromatically modifies the fifth note and its harmonies. Bach’s theme provides the eight chords that begin the tumultuous finale and through to the explosively stunning coda. The orchestra sounds larger than it actually is, with 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings. Piccolo and triangle appear in the 3rd movement only, contrabassoon in the 3rd and 4th movements only, and trombones only in the finale.
Notes by Theodore Bell