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Brahms, Higdon, Bartók

City Scape: Skyline
Jennifer Higdon
b. Brooklyn, New York / December 31, 1962

First performance by the RPO.

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon maintains a full schedule of commissions, and her music is known for its technical skill and audience appeal. Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form, and a generous dash of pure esprit,” she is one of America’s most frequently performed composers.

City Scape was commissioned and premiered in 2002 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, music director. The composer writes: “City Scape is a metropolitan sound picture written in orchestral tones. Every city has a distinctive downtown skyline: that steely profile that juts into the sky, with shapes and monumental buildings that represent a particular signature for each city. The steel structures present an image of boldness, strength, and growth, teeming with commerce, and the people who work and live there. This is the first movement, ‘SkyLine.’”

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Johannes Brahms
b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

First performed by the RPO on February 1, 1929; Eugene Goossens, conductor; Max Londow, soloist. Last performed on February 24, 2007; Christopher Seaman, conductor; John Lill, soloist.

Like Beethoven before him, Brahms thought of concerto and symphony in terms of equal depth and value. Not for him the flashy, empty solo vehicles written by many composers of his day. Each of his four concertos – two for piano, one for violin, and one for violin and cello – is a substantial work drawn on a large canvas. Not that any of them are easy to play; on the technical level they make high demands. But unlike most Romantic concertos, they ask as much of their soloists’ intelligence and humanity as their fingers.

In 1854, Brahms began composing a large-scale work, initially conceived as a sonata for two pianos. Realizing that the material for the opening movement didn’t suit this medium, during the summer he set out, with the help of three more experienced musician friends, to transform it into an orchestral piece. In February of the following year, he changed his mind again, deciding that the ideal medium for it would be a concerto for piano and orchestra – his first concerto of any kind. Recomposition occupied him until the autumn of 1856. With the first movement completed, he continued, first with the finale, then with the slow movement, which he described as a “gentle portrait” of his close friend, Clara Schumann.

A further three years passed before he felt sufficiently satisfied with the concerto to set it before the public, although he continued to make revisions even after the premiere. The first performance took place in Hanover on January 22, 1859, with Brahms as soloist and his close friend, violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, conducting.

The somewhat puzzled reaction earned by the debut of his big, serious, fully symphonic concerto might have been expected; the wonder is that anyone liked it at all! It wasn’t so lucky at the second performance, five days later in Leipzig. It was met with extreme hostility, leaving the composer in a state of desolation. He wrote ruefully to Joachim, “My concerto here was a brilliant and decided – failure…The first movement and the second were heard without a sign. At the end three hands attempted to fall slowly one upon the other, at which point a quite audible hissing from all sides forbade such demonstrations… In spite of all this, the concerto will please someday, when I have improved its construction… I believe it is the best thing that could have happened to me; it makes one pull one’s thoughts together and raises one’s courage.” Not until 1865, when Brahms played it once again in Mannheim, however, did it begin to find a place in the repertoire.
The vast opening movement begins with a stark orchestral introduction. The piano enters with a more resigned idea before it, too, is caught up in the emotional tumult. Contrast is provided by a warmer second theme. The somber mood with which the movement began continues through to the final bars. The slow second movement is a serene meditation. Scarcely a ripple of darker emotion disturbs its warm, placid surface. The concerto concludes with a big, bold rondo, lighter in tone than the preceding movements but substantial enough to fit into the overall ground-plan.

Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók
b. Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary / March 25, 1881
d. New York, New York / September 26, 1945

First performed by the RPO on November 18, 1948; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor. Last performed on November 22, 2008; Andrew Grams, conductor.

In 1940, to avoid being trapped in his native Hungary by the advancing Nazi forces, Bartók emigrated to the United States. Friends had secured him a job cataloguing Columbia University’s collection of folk songs from Eastern Europe. That position was eventually terminated, and the composer’s continuing poor health made it impossible for him to earn money by continuing his career as a piano soloist. Bartók found himself virtually destitute, but his proud nature would not allow him to accept anything resembling charity.

Two old friends came to his rescue. Violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner persuaded Serge Koussevitzky, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to commission a new work from Bartók. He composed the Concerto for Orchestra between August and October 1943. Its creation gave his spirits a much needed boost, as did the highly successful premiere, which Koussevitzky conducted on December 1, 1944.

“The title concerto for this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat single instruments or groups in a concertante or soloist manner,” Bartók explained. “The general mood represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.”

The first movement opens with an emotionally clouded introduction, then plunges into a restless, thrusting principal section. A powerful climax spotlighting the brass leads to a defiant close. The concerto’s two scherzo like movements are its most unique features. The first, Game of the Pairs, showcases the poker-faced side of Bartók’s sense of humor. Two bassoons introduce the droll principal theme. Variations on it are then played in turn by pairs of oboes, clarinets, flutes, and trumpets. A solemn brass chorale provides contrast, before the game resumes its course. The concerto’s emotional heart lies in the following Elegy. After woodwinds and harp have set the ethereal mood, Bartók gradually builds a searing central climax.

The second scherzo, Interrupted Intermezzo, is less subtle but just as amusing as the first. The oboe introduces the cheeky first subject, followed by a warm, folksy tune on the strings. A dance like rhythm begins to insinuate itself, leading to the “interruption” proper, a banal idea first heard on the clarinet. Bartók took it from the opening movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. This piece had recently been smuggled out of Russia past the Nazi blockade. It was being broadcast relentlessly, more as a gesture of political support than for musical reasons. Bartók came to dislike it intensely, and he took this opportunity to thumb his nose at it.

A grand flourish by the horns introduces the concerto’s exuberant finale. The strings execute swirling, moto perpetuo figurations, intertwined with heroic brass fanfares and stamping Hungarian dance rhythms. 

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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