Gabriela Montero, piano & composer
David Danzmayr, conductor
Tonight’s program features works newly composed, staples of the repertoire and a score that was never finished. We open with the first movement of Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, based on a series of the composer’s late life sketches, and close with the Eighth Symphony, a tightly knit work chock full of Beethovenian drama, humor and verve. At the center we’ll feature the return of the talented pianist and composer Gabriela Montero, performing a newly composed score of her own in addition to Mozart’s stunning E-flat Concerto No. 14.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 10, 1st movement
Instrumentation: pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and horns, timpani and strings
Composed: sketched between 1822-1825, realized and completed by Barry Cooper
Premiere: London, 1988
Duration: about 16 minutes
At the time of his death, Beethoven’s estate included, among the usual household furnishings, a quartet of string instruments, a Broadwood piano, and a pair of pistols. And, of course, piles and piles of music, including sketches of projects begun but never completed, for whatever reason. Among these are early symphonic drafts, though historians aren’t entirely sure what Beethoven intended with some of these. Perhaps a clue comes in the form of a letter from Beethoven to a fellow pianist, written one week before his death, offering to compose “a new symphony, which lies already sketched in my desk.” Of course, Beethoven was also prone to exaggeration—no such symphony was anywhere near complete. All the same, at the time of the letter, Beethoven probably didn’t consider death imminent so perhaps the thought of dispatching one last symphony, a gift to the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, remained in the realm of possibility. On the other hand, given that the sketches were already a few years old, had he previously regarded them as a musical dead end? We will likely never know for sure.
Enter musicologist Barry Cooper, who in 1988 set about fulfilling a commission by the Royal Philharmonic Society, piecing together some 250 measures of music Beethoven left behind, and adding about 200 more, based on this material. Cooper admits that had Beethoven seen the project through to completion, it would doubtlessly “have turned out to be very different from its tentative beginnings,” given Beethoven’s intense working methods. Still, the musicologist was sure that at least some of these early ideas would have made the final cut. The sketches certainly don’t reveal the revolutionary composer of the late string quartets, for example, works that continue to prove challenging to modern performers and audiences alike. However, there is much here that is vintage Beethoven, including the thematic material, its brooding C minor tonality and the stormy character of the Allegro. Arguably its most noteworthy element is its structure—the Allegro is bookended by expansive slow sections. Certainly, Beethoven was no stranger to slow introductions, but to have a movement begin and conclude with such expansive breadth was something quite novel within the composer’s oeuvre.
Certainly, Cooper expected—and has received—mixed reviews for his undertaking, not the least from the musicological world, and others have also attempted their own reconstructions (available on YouTube). Some of us will find the undertaking particularly satisfying. Others, of course, will be of the better-off-left-alone camp, like critic Alan Blyth, present at the work’s London premiere: ”Was I mistaken last night in thinking Beethoven’s bust, always on the podium, shook its head in disapproval from time to time?” In the end, we must make our own decisions about the attempt to breathe new life into material of which Beethoven may have thought better. On the other hand, we could do worse than have more Beethoven to listen to.
W.A. Mozart (1756-1791): Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat, K. 449
Instrumentation: for two oboes, two horns and strings
Premiered: March 1784 in Vienna, with the composer leading from the keyboard
Duration: about 16 minutes
In 1784 Mozart began cataloging his own works in a notebook he obtained specifically for that purpose. On the left-hand side, he jotted down the work composed (or a description of it), on the right the opening bars were entered on a hand-stenciled staff. Mozart’s first entry was the E-flat piano concerto you’ll hear this evening. Mozart began the concerto two years earlier, but the bulk of the composing was undertaken in 1784 and completed just two months before its premiere. The same year five more piano concertos were added to “My Catalogue of All My Works,” in addition to the E-flat Quintet for Winds and Piano, the C Minor Piano Sonata and “The Hunt” String Quartet (Mozart continued adding entries in the book until about three weeks before his death in 1791). Yet Mozart believed the E-flat concerto among his best so far. In a letter to his father, he proudly wrote that it did not belong in the same category as the others of that year but was “one of a quite peculiar kind.”
Over the course of his brief life, Mozart dispatched some 27 piano concertos, most written for he himself to perform. The earliest were composed at the ripe age of 11, before Mozart was even able to handle the task alone (his earliest concertos were modeled on works of other composers), and the last, K. 595, dated from the composer’s final year. In between we can follow the maturing composer, constantly searching for new and satisfying ways of facing the greatest concerto hurdle: striking the ideal balance between the soloist and the orchestra. To appreciate Mozart’s ability to conquer this puzzle one need look no further than his E-flat Concerto. The Allegro vivace opens with a tight orchestral statement capped off with a trill, a decorative figure that will play an outsized role in the movement’s development section. A brief dramatic foray—listen as the lower strings drive the rhythm and underscore the changes of harmony—serves as the transition to the second theme, a gentle, lyrical idea that provides balance to the terse opening gesture. Having established his material, the soloist enters and begins a give and take with the orchestra, reworking and re-examining these ideas throughout the exposition. You will recognize the start of the development section by the trill figure, to which Mozart clings stubbornly through a series of keys. The recapitulation is a classic model, as Mozart runs his exposition’s material through a review. The cadenza (soloist alone), which is introduced by way of the dramatic transition material from the orchestral introduction, is the composer’s own.
The B-flat Andantino is a sublime example of the classical beauty and balance often ascribed to Mozart’s style, a movement also infused with elegant inner voice writing, particularly in the violas. This restrained lyricism gives way to a joyous Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast), as Mozart again schools us about how to perfectly balance a soloist with an orchestra. The year of this concerto also marked a period when the composer was absorbed with counterpoint (two voices moving simultaneously but independently), a concept evident in the dialogue presented by the first and second violins at the very outset of the third movement. This contrapuntal “exercise” serves as the crux of this rollicking rondo, illustrating Mozart’s effortless ability to spin out even the most complex of lines. Towards the movement’s end Mozart swings into 6/8 time, bringing the first of his ‘mature’ concertos to a delightfully charming close.
FROM THE COMPOSER
Gabriela Montero (b. 197): Babel
Instrumentation: string orchestra and solo piano
Premiere: Columbus, OH, October 2018, with performer as soloist
Duration: approximately 15 minutes
The Babel etiology, an origin myth familiar to most school children, attempts to explain how human beings, assembling in Shinar with their common language, came be confounded by the inability to comprehend each other.
In recent years – first and foremost as a member of our global society, and secondarily as an artist – I have adopted both the spoken word and the less evident metaphors of music to address what I consider to be the most urgent challenge of my lifetime: the hijacking and collapse of Venezuela, the beloved country of my birth, by unprecedented forces of criminality, barbarism and nihilism.
The empirical truth of my claims, expressed in language understandable to all, is self-evident. However, when passed through the corrupting filter of competing self-interest, those truths emerge as an opaque blurring of interpretation and opinion, subjective entitlements which today have come to usurp truth itself until, in Macbeth’s words, “Nothing is, but what is not.”
My first composition, “Ex Patria”, painted a polemical portrait of an undeniable, criminal kleptocracy. It attempted to supplement the journalist’s language of statistics with the musician’s language of personal consequence. Musical themes were presented by the individual voice, only to be stolen, overwhelmed, corrupted and corroded by collective, irresistible forces. Its intention was to generate a musical impression of suffocation and helplessness, while lamenting such a brutal imposition on the individual. It was dedicated to the 19,336 individual victims of homicide in 2011, the year of its composition.
In my 2015 Piano Concerto No.1, the “Latin” Concerto, I set out, in a more conciliatory tone perhaps, to celebrate the idiomatic codes – both musical and behavioral – of the broader South American continent, while noting musically that the continent’s collective progress seems destined to be weighed down by the ever-present forces of corruption, short-termism, and even superstition.
“Babel” emerged from the frustration I have encountered throughout the creative process itself, beginning with alarmingly hostile – and historically amnesic – challenges to the very presumption that I, as a member of society who makes a living from creative processes, should be entitled to comment on society’s most urgent matters. “Just shut up and play!” is the most egregious expression of that irrational censorship. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”, after all.
Surmounting and rejecting that foundational misunderstanding, the piece begins with a solitary voice, joined only by thin string textures, talking largely in a vacuum. Statements beget counterattacking narratives, questions elicit competing questions. A confusion of arpeggios arises from the competing discourse. The discourse is at times playful, rhythmical and percussive, even collaborative. But the incoherence of babbling, competing forces is never far away, with the mocking absurdity of madness and incoherence a pervasive presence throughout the piece.
Perhaps we are all to blame. Perhaps we are victims of our own success as the most interconnected generation in human history. Perhaps the democratized possibility to communicate at will has created the new Babel, a world of indecipherable noise and alternative truths which resists all attempts to prioritize truth and responsibility to our fellow man. “Babel” proposes an optimistic, unison denouement of mutual understanding and harmonic unity. Whether such an outcome is attainable, or simply my manifest wish to create a spirit of collaboration for the greater good of the misunderstood everywhere, is for the listener to decide.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8, Op. 93 in F major
Instrumentation: pairs of oboes, flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings
Premiered: Vienna, February 1814, led by the composer
Duration: about 28 minutes
The turbulent events surrounding Beethoven’s summer of 1812 bear striking similarities to that of 1802, the period that witnessed the completion of the Second Symphony heard last month. As earlier, Beethoven absented himself from Vienna in the summer months, this time not to try to save what was left of his hearing—for he was by now nearly completely deaf—but to escape the city’s dangerous sanitary conditions; so, he headed to the spas of Bohemia. At some point underway it is assumed he rendezvoused with a woman whose identity has since been lost to us, but which resulted in another famous document that surfaced after his death, the letter to the Immortal Beloved. Over the ages historians have tried to whittle the list of possible loves down to a single woman but the mystery has never been conclusively solved. That July Beethoven met Goethe (oh to have been privy to those conversations!) but at the end of the month fell ill. Then, in September, Beethoven learned that his brother Johann had hired a housekeeper who he was now planning to marry. Still sick, Beethoven traveled to Linz with the intent of heading off the marriage. One can only imagine the scenes between brothers, with Johann in love and Beethoven in poor health and stopping at nothing to break the matter off (among other tactics, Beethoven applied to the Bishop, the civil authorities and finally the police to have the girl removed to Vienna).
Yet somehow, amidst all this turmoil, Beethoven managed to put the final touches on his Eighth Symphony while in Linz. We will recall how ten years earlier the joyous Second was born amidst the struggles Beethoven was confronting with his hearing, and now, in 1812, he dispatched another upbeat symphony, this one begun just four months earlier. Despite the compromised state of his hearing, Beethoven led the work’s premiere in Vienna’s historic Redoutensall, a concert that also included his Seventh, which had been triumphantly received at its premiere in the same hall only two months earlier. The Eighth did not fare nearly as well as its older cousin, though a critic present at the premiere believed its less-than-overwhelming reception was at least partly attributable to “the faulty judgement which permitted this symphony to follow that in A major [No. 7] …If this symphony should be performed alone hereafter, we have no doubt of its success.
As biographer Jan Swafford suggests, the musical meat of the Eighth lies below the surface, intended for the cognoscenti. Regardless, it must be regarded on its own terms and not compared to the Seventh, a towering dramatic achievement by any measure. Whether or not Beethoven intended his Eighth as a glance backward toward a more innocent time, it certainly displays classical features, including its length (its running time is a quarter hour shorter than the Seventh!). Indeed, its compact size is one of its many admirable qualities, for Beethoven, when he so desired, could pack a lot into a few measures. The opening Allegro vivace e con brio is a case in point. Notice how quickly he moves on from his laughing opening gesture to the more lyrical A major secondary material. It is also here where Beethoven makes his first inside joke, placing his second theme in the “wrong” key of D major. Then, just to be sure his joke was understood, Beethoven quickly adjusts it, placing it in the “correct” key of C major upon its restatement. The development is a brief if stormy affair with matters only reaching their greatest intensity at the point of recapitulation. Here Beethoven’s opening theme, now presented in the low strings and bassoon, is buried by the rest of the ensemble with sustained winds and tremolo violins, a crashing fff that must have knocked the breath out of his listeners in the hall that cold February night. Beethoven then closes the movement off with a gentle restatement of his opening gesture, another of the composer’s firsts.
An Allegretto scherzando takes the place of a true slow movement, in effect placing two relatively fast paced movements at the center of the symphony. There has long been suspicion that the tick tock staccato winds heard at the movement’s outset was meant to parody Maelzel’s metronome, a device that had just found its way into Beethoven’s hands, but it may just as well look to “Papa” Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony for inspiration. Beethoven next reverts back to the courtly minuet, a dance common to the symphonies of his Viennese predecessors but which Beethoven flips on its head, stressing every beat of the bar and turning what was once an elegant minuet into a country peasant dance. The trio (middle section) features swiftly moving cello triplets but one should really key in on the duo writing for horn and clarinet (whose high G was among the most challenging yet written for the instrument), a passage that garnered praise from none other than Stravinsky for its inventive orchestration. The Allegro vivace is among the most inventive and Beethoven-esque of them all, sporting sonic explosions and dramatic silences, a second theme that again enters in the “wrong” key and one of the most startling and substantial codas the composer ever conceived. Indeed, even the progressive Hector Berlioz couldn’t wrap his head around Beethoven’s string of bizarre keys and tonal slights of hand. Tchaikovsky saw matters in quite another light. Having found Beethoven’s hammering away at his tonic tonality in the work’s closing bars fully satisfying, the Russian romantic deemed the Eighth’s finale “one of Beethoven’s greatest symphonic masterpieces.”
(C) Marc Moskovitz