Tonight’s program introduces a theme that will run throughout the BSO’s 2009–10 Season: the diverse folk and ethnic traditions that have enriched classical music over the centuries. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances celebrate this German composer’s love of Hungarian gypsy music while Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3 was inspired by the bluegrass music of her childhood home in East Tennessee.
(b. 1833, Hamburg, Germany; d. 1897, Vienna, Austria)
Johannes Brahms is generally regarded as among the most serious and learned of all 19th-century composers, but he also possessed a lighter side, as we’ll experience at the beginning of this program. Very early in his career when he was barely 20, he had joined the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi on a concert tour around central Europe and fell in love with the propulsive Hungarian gypsy-style numbers that were Reményi’s stock in trade. For the rest of his life, especially after he settled in Vienna, he haunted the cafés that featured this dashing, uninhibited music. It even infiltrated a number of his major concert works, notably the gypsy rondo finale of his Violin Concerto,
For his own pleasure, Brahms also enjoyed improvising at the piano on Hungarian gypsy melodies at private parties, and this is how the Hungarian Dances were originally born. By the end of the 1860s, he finally responded to his friends’ urging that he write down these improvisations and publish them. In 1869, his publisher Fritz Simrock brought out the first set of ten Hungarian Dances arranged for piano four-hands, and they were an immediate hit with amateur pianists throughout Europe. Eleven more dances were published in 1880, making a total of 21.
The Hungarian Dances turned out to be a goldmine for both Brahms and Simrock. In order to meet demand, Brahms created editions for solo pianist and orchestrated three of the Dances. When these orchestral versions also proved popular, Simrock commissioned other musicians to make more orchestral arrangements; none other than Dvorák orchestrated the last five. Ultimately, this highly lucrative music provided Brahms with a very comfortable income, essentially financing his more serious music.
We’ll hear the first, third, and tenth of the Hungarian Dances, which are the three Brahms himself orchestrated. In the key of G minor, No. 1 alternates a sensuous, swaying melody with more animated music. The suave orchestration contrasts the bright sparkle of woodwinds against the silky smoothness of strings. Like most of the Dances, the melody is derived from a traditional Hungarian tune, here the “Isteni Csárdas” probably by Ferenc Sárkozi. Led by two oboes, No. 3 is a charming country-style dance in D minor, whose theme is borrowed from a wedding dance by the Hungarian composer Rizner. It eventually accelerates into a bold Vivace section in the major before returning to the oboe melody. In E major and a Presto tempo, No. 10 is a vivacious, extroverted piece, also based on a wedding dance by Rizner.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, December 31, 1962; now living in Philadelphia
The penultimate weekend of concerts for the BSO’s 2008–09 season introduced Baltimore audiences to the powerful new Violin Concerto created by American composer Jennifer Higdon for Hilary Hahn. Now a new season opens with yet another recent Higdon concerto: Concerto 4-3, composed just before the Violin Concerto and premiered by the string trio Time for Three and The Philadelphia Orchestra on January 10, 2008 at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
What’s striking about these two works is how different their approach to the concerto medium is — as different as the artists for whom they were written. Hilary Hahn is a more traditional classical artist, and so Higdon created her music accordingly. Time for Three is a less orthodox ensemble, which likes to mingle bluegrass, rock, and contemporary classical styles in its concerts: a mixture that matches Higdon’s own eclectic tastes.
Growing up, she recalls that her favorite musicians were The Beatles. “Classical music was probably the least present music in our household … my dad worked at home — he was an artist, which meant there was a lot of music in the background all the time — but normally it was rock and roll or bluegrass or reggae.” Since the Higdon home was in Tennessee, bluegrass music was omnipresent. Higdon’s attraction to playing the flute, however, eventually drew her into the world of classical music.
Now a prolific composer in constant demand for new works by major orchestras (she was the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Composer of the Year” for 2005 and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s composer-in-residence in 2007–2008) and ensembles all over America, Higdon also manages to pursue careers as a virtuoso flute player, a conductor, and a very popular teacher of composition at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (she holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies). Both Hilary Hahn and the musicians of Time for Three have been her students there. Her roots at Curtis run deep, for she first earned an artist’s diploma in flute there, before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania for master’s and doctoral degrees in composition, studying with prominent composers George Crumb and Ned Rorem.
Crumb has fingered several of the qualities that make Higdon’s music special: “rhythmic vitality, interesting coloration, and sensitivity to nuance and timbre.” But beyond that, Higdon succeeds because she is a very original, personal, and emotionally communicative composer whose music, though modern in its techniques, is also immediately accessible and appealing.
Jennifer Higdon has provided the following guide to Concerto 4-3:
“Concerto 4-3 was written specifically for, and is dedicated to, Time for Three. This work was commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Wheeling Symphony.
“Concerto 4-3 is a three-movement work that uses the language of classical music, with dashes of bluegrass technique, to highlight the virtuosity and energy of this inspiring group. I have known Zach, Nick, and Ranaan for quite some time — first as students at Curtis and now as professionals working in the music field. Being aware of all of the types of music that they play (bluegrass, rock, Bach, Beatles) gave me a starting point of inspiration for creating a piece that would spotlight their joy in performing, soulful musicality, and prodigious skill.
“The work is divided into three movements, with the option for the group to perform cadenzas between each movement. In these performances, Tf3 will be performing a cadenza between movements one and two. The movement titles refer to images from the Smoky Mountains (where I grew up in East Tennessee): ‘The Shallows,’ ‘Little River,’ and ‘Roaring Smokies.’ I wanted to reference the Smokies because East Tennessee was the first place that I really experienced bluegrass (or as they call it there, Mountain Music).
“The first movement, ‘The Shallows,’ incorporates Time for Three’s unique string techniques, which include extended techniques that mimic everything from squeaking mice to electric guitars. They are able to shift quickly between these techniques and a straight bluegrass style without hesitation. Their ability to do this so smoothly reminded me of the parts of the mountain rivers that move in shallow areas, where small rocks and pebbles make for a rapid ride that moves a rafter quickly from one side of the river to the other.
“The second movement, “Little River,” is slow-moving and lyrical, very much in hymn-like fashion. This movement reflects the beauty of the Little River as it flows through Townsend and Walland, Tennessee. At times, there is real serenity and a majestic look to the water, with no movement obvious on the surface — it resembles pure glass. I was sitting on the back porch of Little River Barbecue during a gentle rain when I thought of the design and ‘sound’ of this movement.
“The third movement, ‘Roaring Smokies,’ is a fire-like virtuosic movement that shifts and moves very much like a raging river (those wild mountain waters that pour out of the Smokies). It is fun to swim in those cold waters, but your attention must always be alert, as danger lurks: the water goes where it wants and will take you with it.
“While Concerto 4-3 (referring to the Time for Three name) is written in the classical vein, certain bluegrass techniques have been incorporated into the fabric of the piece: emphasis on off beats, open strings, and slides. But the language is definitely tonal, 21st-century and American-sounding in style.”
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, opus 36
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born in Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893
Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is a tale of two women. Both entered the composer's life in 1877, the year he created this tempestuous, fate-filled work. One of them nurtured his creative career with bountiful gifts of friendship, understanding, and money; the other, in a quixotic marriage, nearly destroyed it.
The composer's bright angel was Nadezhda von Meck, recently widowed and heiress to a substantial financial empire. An intelligent, highly complex woman, she loved music passionately and that passion became focused on Tchaikovsky. Early in 1877, she began writing long, heartfelt letters to him: "I regard the musician-human as the supreme creation of nature. … in you, the musician and the human being are united so beautifully, so harmoniously, that one can give oneself up entirely to the charm of the sounds of your music, because in these sounds there is noble, unfeigned meaning."
From such effusions grew one of the strangest and most fruitful relationships in music. Mme von Meck and Tchaikovsky found they were soul mates, yet they determined to conduct their relationship exclusively through letters and never to meet. For 14 years, they poured out their innermost feelings to each other. She gave him a generous annual stipend that freed him from financial worries. He stayed at her estate when she was away. Years later, when they accidentally encountered each other on a street in Florence, they raced past each other in embarrassment. For a man of homosexual inclination who nevertheless yearned for closeness with a woman, it was an ideal situation.
Less ideal was Tchaikovsky's relationship with his dark angel, Antonina Milyukova, whom the composer — hoping to create a "respectable" home life for himself — foolishly agreed to marry in July 1877. The relationship was a disaster from the beginning and drove the composer to a nervous breakdown. He fled his new bride almost immediately and for years traveled throughout Europe to avoid her.
The Fourth Symphony was conceived during this turmoil — drafted before the marriage and orchestrated in the aftermath — and the continual appearances of a malign "Fate" fanfare, the turbulence of its first movement, and the almost hysterical rejoicing of its finale reflect it. Dedicating the symphony to her, Tchaikovsky turned to his "best friend," Mme von Meck, for solace. He kept her continuously apprised of the progress of "our symphony." When she begged him for a "program" explaining what the music "meant," he at first demurred but finally obliged with the following movement descriptions, which are so expressive they seem more helpful than discussions of sonata forms and thematic development.
Movement 1: "The introduction [the loud fanfare theme] is the seed of the whole symphony, without a doubt its main idea. This is Fatum, the fateful force which prevents our urge for happiness from achieving its end … hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, and constantly, unceasingly, poisons our soul. …
"Discontent and despair grow stronger, become more scathing. Would it not be better to turn one's back upon reality and plunge into dreams? [the solo clarinet's wistful theme] …
"O joy! At least one sweet and tender dream has appeared. Some beatific, luminous human image flies by, beckoning us on: [the sweeping, waltz-like music] …
[Return of Fate fanfare] "No! They were only dreams, and Fatum awakes us. … So life itself is the incessant alternation of painful reality and evanescent dreams of happiness …"
Movement 2: "The second part of the symphony expresses a different aspect of human anguish. It is the melancholy feeling that appears in the evening, when you are sitting alone. … Memories swarm around you. You feel sad about what was and is no more. … It is sad and somehow sweet to sink into the past."
Movement 3: "The third part … is made up of the capricious arabesques … that pass through the mind when one has drunk a little wine and feels the first phase of intoxication. The soul is neither merry nor sad. One does not think of anything; one leaves free rein to the imagination, and, for some reason, it begins to draw strange designs. … These are the disconnected pictures that pass though the head when one goes to sleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are bizarre, strange, incoherent."
Finale: "If you do not find cause for joy in yourself, look to others. Go to the people … They make merry and surrender wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture a popular festival. Scarcely have you forgotten yourself and become interested in the spectacle of other people's joy, when the tireless Fatum appears again and reminds you of his existence. … Do not say that everything is sad in the world. There exist simple but deep joys. … Life can still be lived.
"This, my dear friend, is all I can tell you about the symphony. Of course, it is unclear and incomplete, but this is in the nature of instrumental music. … As Heine said: 'Where words end, music begins.' "