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Masterworks

2016-2017 Season / Masterworks / From Beethoven To Brahms
All performances at 7:30pm at Crouse-Hinds Theater
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Lawrence Loh | MUSIC DIRECTOR
Awadagin Pratt | PIANO

From Beethoven To Brahms

Acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt is featured in a performance of Beethoven's majestic Fourth Piano Concerto. Music Director Lawrence Loh leads Symphoria in Polina Nazaykinskaya's Winter Bells and Brahms' Symphony No. 2.

Program

Nazaykinskaya: Winter Bells
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Brahms: Symphony No. 2

 

Please join music director Lawrence Loh for the Bond Schoeneck & King
Pre-concert Talk, beginning at 6:30pm, prior to each Masterworks
series performance.

 

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From Beethoven To Brahms
01.21.17

7:30pm | Crouse-Hinds Theater
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Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet II: MASTERWORKS IV

 

Program Notes

From Beethoven to Brahms

January 21, 2017

 

Those of us who live in Central New York are used to dramatic weather shifts. If you attended Symphoria’s last concert, for instance, you had to make your way through the season’s first major snowfall; but it was a balmy seventy degrees the day before. Tonight’s concert offers a similar meteorological change in the reverse direction.

We begin with a piece appropriate for late January—the 2009 Winter Bells by young Russian composer Polina Nazaykinskaya (born just 30 years and a day before this concert). It’s a nostalgic work—perhaps doubly so. Musically, it looks fondly back to what Polina calls “the extended romantics,” composers like Mahler, Sibelius, and especially Rachmaninoff. Although the music has, in her words, a slight “modern twist,” it is nonetheless “melodic and simple, with rich harmonies”—and it draws on recollections of Russian folk music (especially the lullaby) as well. It’s also nostalgic from a programmatic point of view. Written during a return to Russia just after her homesick-filled first year in the United States as a student at Yale,

Winter Bells is inspired by the wilderness near a particular Russian village where Polina used to spend summers as a child—specifically by a formation of “three mountain peaks that, when viewed from above, appeared to form a giant goblet.” Revisiting the spot, she found herself inspired to compose, “reaching for that special place within, where everything surrenders to the whispers of nature and divine harmony.” The resulting music evokes the wanderings of a traveler, lost in a snowstorm: “A vision from the past, joyous and wondrous, materializes and disappears, as a mirage in a middle of a snowy desert”—but the ending is hauntingly ambiguous, with the fate of the traveler unknown. This was Polina’s first orchestral piece. But as a violinist, she had “grown up in an orchestra”—and the work shows a charismatic facility with instrumental sound. No wonder that it has been so widely performed.

Our closing piece could not be more different, the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)—who is, coincidentally, one of Polina’s favorite composers. Brahms’s First appeared only after years of struggle and self-doubt; the Second, in contrast, was written quickly and confidently during the summer of 1877. And the spirit of summer infuses the work. Easily the most radiant and affable of Brahms’ four symphonies, it even includes, atypically for Brahms, a fair amount of what conductor Larry Loh calls “levity.” The word “pastoral” is often used to describe it—but while that term might apply to the bucolic outer sections of the third movement (the most lightly scored of the four), it shortchanges the music by discounting its range. Larry points in particular to the theme for the cellos at the beginning of the second movement Adagio: “so yearning, so heartfelt, so deep.” Indeed, there’s a fair amount of dark turbulence as the slow movement progresses. Then there are the blazing final pages, aptly described by Larry as “heroic.” True, this unclouded conclusion—as sensational an ending as anything in Brahms’s orchestral music—skirts the sense of adversity we hear in the hard-won triumph at the end of the First and Fourth Symphonies, not to mention the quiet resignation at the end of the Third. But for all its sunshine, you’ll probably agree that it’s far from pastoral.

As with Winter Bells, there’s some nostalgia connected to the Brahms Second—although it’s nostalgia around the music, rather than in it. It was the first Brahms symphony that spoke to Larry—and his desire to perform it was so great that (using pizza as a bribe) he organized a performance by fellow students during a summer at the Aspen Music Festival.

Between these two pieces we have the Piano Concerto No. 4 (1805-06) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). If the Second is the warmest of the Brahms symphonies, the Fourth is widely considered the most poetic of Beethoven’s piano concertos—although, paradoxically, tonight’s soloist Awadagin Pratt believes it “covers the greatest amount of emotional landscape of any of the Beethoven piano concertos, from the opening material, to the heart-rending contrast of the middle movement, to the real joy and ebullience of the last movement.” It’s surely not without “drama and conflict.” In certain ways, too, it’s one of Beethoven’s more unconventional works, even though it doesn’t flaunt its radicality in the way that some of the music in the late quartets does.

The Fourth gently throws you off balance at the very beginning. Traditionally, the audience waits for the soloist while the orchestra sets out the main material. Here, in contrast, the pianist speaks first with a rhythmically unexpected five-measure statement to which the orchestra answers, as Awadagin puts it, “in a remote way, not with a direct answer.” Although this disjunction doesn’t lead to the kind of titanic conflict we hear in Beethoven’s more immediately dramatic works, it does set forth a discussion that needs to be resolved. Something similar happens in the second movement: there’s an initial disparity between piano and strings, but they eventually “come together in sentiment.” Another unusual feature of the piece is the first movement’s cadenza (Beethoven actually wrote two for the movement, but Awadagin will be playing the first): although the movement itself is in 4/4 time, the cadenza shifts to 6/8, “transforming a peaceful motive to something really agitated just by manipulation of meter.”

In the end, for all its radicality, and for all the high-spirited joviality in what Awadagin describes as the “non-sedate dance” of the finale (where drums and trumpets enter for the first time), the Fourth Concerto remains one of Beethoven’s less assertive works. It’s hard to understand how it might have made an impression at its first performance (the composer’s last public performance playing a concerto) where it was squeezed onto a program that also included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy, and more. Fortunately, in tonight’s more favorable setting, its beauties will stand out far more clearly.

Peter J. Rabinowitz

Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

 

Artist Information:

Awadagin Pratt

Born in Pittsburgh, Awadagin Pratt began studying piano at the age of six. Three years later, having moved to Normal, Illinois with his family, he also began studying violin. At the age of 16 he entered the University of Illinois where he studied piano, violin, and conducting. He subsequently enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory of Music where he became the first student in the school's history to receive diplomas in three performance areas – piano, violin and conducting. In recognition of this achievement and for his work in the field of classical music, Mr. Pratt recently received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Johns Hopkins as well as an honorary doctorate from Illinois Wesleyan University after delivering the commencement address in 2012.

In 1992 Mr. Pratt won the Naumburg International Piano Competition and two years later was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Since then, he has played numerous recitals throughout the US including performances at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and the NJ Performing Arts Center. His many orchestral performances include appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra and the Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, National, Detroit and New Jersey symphonies among many others. Summer festival engagements include Ravinia, Blossom, Wolftrap, Caramoor and Aspen, the Hollywood Bowl and the Mostly Mozart Festival in Tokyo.

Recent and upcoming appearances include recital engagements in Baltimore, La Jolla, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and at Duke University, as well as appearances with the orchestras of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Seattle, Colorado, Portland ME, Utah, Richmond, Grand Rapids, Winston-Salem, New Mexico and Springfield, OH. He played a recital in Carnegie Hall for the Naumburg Foundation in November 2010 and appeared at the 2012 Ravinia Festival in a duo recital with cellist Zuill Bailey.

Mr. Pratt is currently a Professor of Piano at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He is also the Artistic Director of the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati as well as the Artistic Director of the Art of the Piano Festival at CCM.

Awadagin Pratt is a Yamaha artist. For more information, please visit www.awadagin.com.

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