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Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta for strings is followed by Fei-Fei performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, K. 466. Symphoria performs Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 also known as the “Great.”


MOZART: Concerto No. 20 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, K. 466
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9, D. 944 (The Great C Major) 




Thanks to our sponsors for this performance!

David & Cheryl Abrams








When Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004) was born, his mother—a pianist, singer, and choral director—named him after the most prominent Black classical musician of the time, British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. It was an optimistic decision, especially for a single woman at the height of the Depression, one who was unable to raise the child on her own. Her choice, however, was prescient. While Perkinson never attained the world-wide fame briefly enjoyed by his namesake, he was an even more versatile musician. Among other things, he was a first-class jazz pianist (he played with the Max Roach Quartet), a conductor (he was a co-founder of the Symphony of the New World, the first integrated orchestra in the United States), a distinguished teacher, an arranger for performers like Harry Belafonte, a music director for ballet companies—and a composer of film and TV scores as well as concert music. Yet despite his skills and his commercial success, he was frustrated throughout his life because his success in the “classical” field was blocked by racial discrimination. Only recently has he begun to get the recognition that he deserves.

Many of Perkinson’s works are rooted in, but not constrained by, African American history and musical traditions. His First String Quartet, for instance, uses the spiritual “Calvary” as source material, although in a less recognizable way than, say, Copland uses “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring. In contrast, tonight’s opener, his Sinfonietta No. 1 (1954–55) for strings, takes its inspiration from, but is not constrained by, the European traditions he also loved—in particular, the music of Bach, with a nod in the direction of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. The fast outer movements, with their bracing changes in meter, are marked by textual ingenuity and rhythmic energy: The finale is especially driving, keeping up its momentum even when the surface of the music seems to relax. In between, we have an aching Largo that, as many have pointed out, has a kinship to the Barber Adagio.

It took a dozen years for Perkinson’s First Sinfonietta to be performed. The last symphony by Franz Schubert (1797–1828), nowadays generally called the Symphony No. 9 (the catalog of his music is something of a mess), took even longer to reach an audience. Composed around 1825, it was rejected by the Vienna Musikverein. Only in 1839, after Schumann rediscovered the manuscript (Schubert had left it to his brother Ferdinand), did the Ninth get its first hearing, with Mendelssohn conducting.

Other than the delays in their premieres, the two works seem like polar opposites. Most obviously, whereas Perkinson’s work is compact, in both length and orchestration, Schubert’s seems bursting at the seams. Except for the 1824 Beethoven Ninth (Schubert had heard the premiere—and quotes it subtly in the finale), it’s the longest symphony composed up to that time. And although the orchestra seems modest when compared to what Berlioz enlisted for the Symphonie fantastique a few years later (much less when compared to what Mahler typically demanded), it’s actually hefty for the time, and it gives the trombones a prominence unmatched by any symphony up to that point—or, for that matter, for years to come. Then, too, while Perkinson’s work is highly contrapuntal, Schubert’s lyricism usually avoids such knotty textures. And whereas the Sinfonietta looks back (although with a contemporary twist), Schubert’s Ninth looks ahead.

Indeed, while the question of what stands as the first fully “Romantic” symphony has no answer, Schubert’s Ninth is surely one of the contenders, a work that charges confidently into the unknown, leaving classical restraint well behind. Emotions are outsized (the huge dissonant climax in the second movement makes the equivalents in Beethoven’s “Eroica”—perhaps Schubert’s model here—seem mild); structures are loosened; the dynamic range is extreme; harmonies are adventurous, especially the modulations—that is, shifts from one key to another; and the accumulation of rhythmic energy is unprecedented.

More striking is the way that its vast scope stimulates the listener’s imagination. The effect is hard to describe without turning flowery, but Schumann must have felt it, since he said he was “transported” on hearing the work—and wrote to his fiancée Clara, “I was completely happy, and wished for nothing else save that you might be my wife and I could also write such symphonies.” In its broad vistas, it has more in common with Mahler’s work, for instance, than with Mendelssohn’s or Brahms’s. Indeed, Mahler compared Schubert’s music to “a rushing river flowing freely and indomitably, a river one cannot tame but from which one can take long drafts”—and nowhere is that quality clearer than in the Ninth. No surprise that Mahler admired it tremendously, even producing his own “retouched” edition. Indeed, we’re performing it tonight partly as a leadup to our performance of the Mahler Second at the end of the season.

Between a work that looks back and one that looks ahead, we have a concerto that looks inward: the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (1785) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). Granted, both the Perkinson and the Schubert have their introspective moments. Still, on the whole, both are brightly lit—and neither has the self-laceration that the Mozart D-Minor Concerto has. The anguish is all the more striking given Mozart’s overall position in the canon. Mozart stands, above even Haydn and Beethoven, as the exemplar of the classical style, a composer whose poise is unmatched. In fact, for a while his music was denigrated by some listeners for being too balanced, too well mannered. Even while that misperception was widespread, however, this Concerto—along with Don Giovanni, the G-Minor Symphony, and a few other works—was exempt, viewed as a proto-Romantic piece that dug deep. Beethoven’s advocacy didn’t hurt: He performed it often. Since Mozart, under a tight deadline, didn’t have time to write cadenzas for the work, Beethoven also provided cadenzas of his own, as did such other composers as Clara Schumann, Brahms, Busoni, Reinecke, and—wildest of all—arch-romantic Charles Valentin Alkan, as part of a transcription of the entire work for solo piano. Tonight’s soloist, Fei-Fei, will be performing the Beethoven cadenzas, which have long been the most popular.

From the roiling orchestral introduction—more notable for its anxious atmosphere than for its thematic content—you know, says Fei-Fei, that “you are on a very special journey.” As she observes, even aside from its character, the opening is unusual for a concerto. Normally, the orchestra introduces the movement’s main themes; here, the piano enters with new material,  as if the soloist were a “protagonist.” This is a portent of what is to come: The Concerto includes more sustained conflict between soloist and orchestra than is normal in concertos of the period. The sense of drama is heightened by “the intricate, complicated textures” (like those in the Perkinson). As Fei-Fei points out, “Mozart had discovered Bach’s music only a few years earlier; he was tremendously inspired and one can clearly hear that here.”

Yet the Concerto is not uniformly fervent. “The emotional range is so vast in this piece. The passion and the drama are counterbalanced with so much beauty and serenity: That’s makes the emotional experience of this piece extremely fulfilling.” This interleaving of contrasting sentiments is central to the Concerto’s character. Fei-Fei points, for instance, to the journey of the second movement, with the unusual title Romance, which, as in the Perkinson, provides some respite. “It’s one of the most beautiful movements,” but its serenity is “contrasted with a middle section that goes into G minor and is completely stormy again.” The finale, too, has its emotional twist: “I love how it starts in D minor, one of the darkest and emotionally stormy keys,” and then moves to “one of the brightest keys, sending everybody home with a happy D Major. That’s really genius!” I suspect you’ll agree.

Peter J. Rabinowitz

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