Garrick Ohlsson, piano
David Danzmayr, conductor
Julia Perry (1924-1979): A Short Piece for Small Orchestra
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones, piano, percussion, timpani and strings
Duration: 9 minutes
Julia Perry is among those African American composers active in the first half of the twentieth century whose presence quickly faded from the concert stage, owing in no small part to their black heritage. Perry was born in Kentucky, grew up in Ohio and was musically trained at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, and subsequently attended The Juilliard School. No less important was the work she did with the great French music pedagogue, Nadia Boulangier, under whom so many luminaries also studied, from Aaron Copland to Astor Piazzolla.
While Perry flirted with a variety of styles during her all-too-brief career, including an experimentation with advanced harmonies, she generally adhered to a tonal, if dissonant, musical vocabulary that was consistent with many mid-century composers, and demonstrated an affinity for African American spirituals. While few of her works were recorded, that heard tonight is an exception. A Short Piece for Small Orchestra was showcased by the New York Philharmonic, albeit in a version for a larger ensemble, and was recorded in Lincoln Center in 1965.
Perry’s nine-minute work is built of three distinct sections, opening with a highly syncopated orchestra outburst that frames the first, and by far the longest, section. Perry makes masterful use of the entire orchestra, particularly in her expressive use of the winds and energetic writing in the strings and percussion. Among Perry’s pervasive techniques is the ostinato, short, repeating patterns. These building blocks are found throughout the orchestra, threading their way throughout this first section. A return of the opening is followed by a bridge to the contrasting, slower, middle section. Here Perry relies on sustained winds and strings to create a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere. Before long, however, we find ourselves thrust suddenly back into the turbulent character of the beginning, as jaunty syncopations rush us home with a final outburst by the entire band.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Instrumentation: Scored for piano soloist, flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings
Duration: 34 minutes
Ludwig van Beethoven burst onto the Viennese musical scene in 1792. He had been to the city once before, but rushed back to his native Bonn on account of his dying mother. The next time he appeared in the Austrian capital, he stayed for good, stubbornly making his presence known. If Schubert, his younger Viennese contemporary, struggled to find acceptance within the city’s sophisticated musical circles, Beethoven all but smashed his way in. He refused to kowtow to the aristocracy, believing nobility was earned, not inherited, and until his compositions won over the city, his piano playing would do his talking for him. Indeed, while Beethoven was already among Europe’s most impressive keyboard virtuosi, his manner with the instrument did not reflect the refinement of most players. Rather, he approached it as he did life, with uncommon sensitivity on one hand and—when that wasn’t sufficient to get his meaning across—sheer force on the other. Suffice it to say, the Viennese had never heard anything like it.
The years 1805-6, those that gave birth to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, were among the most productive of the composer’s life. By now he had also accepted the truth about his impending deafness, and his 1808 performance of this concerto proved his last as an orchestral soloist. It took place on a mammoth program that also included Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. All were revolutionary in their own way, for Beethoven seemed to be bucking one musical tradition after another. And nowhere was this more evident than in the very first bars of his G Major Piano Concerto.
Beethoven opens with the soloist alone, playing a rather simple series of G major harmonies. The lack of an orchestral introduction was striking enough, but given Beethoven’s well-known temperament and explosive music making, this understated opening must have taken his audience completely off guard. The piano then leaves off, as the orchestra enters in a hushed pianissimo, and in the distantly related key of B major, the effect of which is spine-tingling! Still, the introductory bars are something of a diversion, for the orchestra now pursues a more traditional course and offers up ideas to be developed once the soloist rejoins the event. Beethoven’s score is both brooding and noble, like the man himself, and while he could spin a tune with the best of them, he often moves in other directions, sometimes fashioning a distinctive atmosphere out of seemingly nothing or obsessing over a tight rhythmic motive, which he then exploits to its fullest. Through it all, we find ourselves drawn along by Beethoven’s power of expression and his unsurpassed ability to capture the human spirit in sound.
The poignant Andante con moto is unique in Beethoven’s oeuvre as regards the role of the orchestra and soloist, for rather than engaging in conversation, the forces remain stubbornly set apart from one another. Beethoven’s 1859 biographer understood this autonomy as Beethoven’s attempt to invoke Orpheus’ taming of the furies, in his effort to rescue his beloved Eurydice. Accurate or not, the interpretation feels right. The movement closes on a heartrending suspension, then segues directly into the sublime, if more traditional, rondo finale. The movement is, in sum, a superb example of the composer’s heroic, middle period, with all the explosive drama, stirring expression, and virtuosic passagework that made Beethoven, Beethoven.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, D. 125
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and horns, timpani and strings
Duration: 29 minutes
Franz Schubert is an inexplicable musical meteor who flashed across Vienna’s 19th century sky, then disappeared before anyone had a chance to truly appreciate what he had to offer. The Viennese, along with the rest of the world, eventually came to recognize the genius who spent precious little time doing what he was meant to do—compose—but by then Schubert’s thirty-one years were over. Like Mozart, what he left behind defies comprehension: operas, religious music, volumes of chamber music for myriad combinations of instruments, over 600 art songs (a fraction of which alone would have guaranteed Schubert’s posthumous reputation among western music’s compositional elites), and, of course, symphonies.
Like any proper Viennese composer, Schubert took most seriously the classical four-movement symphonic genre. Indeed, his Second Symphony was composed even before Schubert had given himself over to composition at the expense of all else (including, for all intents and purposes, making a living). It springs from around the year 1814, a rather frustrating time for the seventeen-year-old Schubert who had taken up employment at his father’s school teaching the youngest class of students. In time it became only too evident that standing before a classroom was not how the budding composer was meant to spend his days. Eventually Schubert would dedicate himself entirely to his craft but a lack of both money and time all but guaranteed that “Schwammerl,” or Little Mushroom, as he was known affectionately among his small circle, would fall short of the notoriety that was his due.
The Second Symphony, then, might be viewed in the light of an up-and-coming composer, who already possessed impressive musical tools but was also absorbing what he heard around him in Vienna’s theaters. Evidence of Haydn and Beethoven, for instance, are present in the slow introduction. Then there is the spirited opening theme of Schubert’s Allegro vivace, which seems too closely modeled upon the start of Beethoven’s Overture to Creatures of Prometheus to be mere coincidence. What is worth noting, however, is that rather than develop small ideas, a technique that both his Viennese mentors profoundly exploited, Schubert tends to let the longer arches of melodies do his work for him, by running them through unexpected keys. Fortunately for us, there has never been a greater melodicist!
Schubert again demonstrates minimal manipulation of his theme in the Andante’s theme and variations, preferring to alter the character by way of tone color and key. The melody itself, lilting and naive, is vintage Schubert, somehow managing to balance Hapsburg formality with a flair of the folk style found beyond the old city walls. The darker fourth variation, in C minor, is perhaps the most noteworthy of the set, for here Schubert bumps the tempo up by way of triplets and presages the key of the Menuetto. The dramatic opening of this latter movement offers a great example of Schubert’s penchant for sudden and striking shifts of key: listen how the dark opening of the raucous triple-time theme comes to rest in the sunny atmosphere of E-flat major just a few bars later (Schubert will vacillate between these modes for the rest of the minuet proper).
The 2/4 finale, a gallop simply marked Presto, contains many of the ingredients of the “mature” Schubert, including glorious melody, a brilliant balance of winds and strings, sparkle and drive. Following its completion, Schubert may have pulled together enough musicians to read through the composition, to learn what he could from his efforts, but it was never played again in his lifetime. The world had to wait until 1877 before hearing it for the first time, when it was publicly performed in London’s Crystal Palace, and another decade still before this bubbling, youthful work finally made its way into print.
© Marc Moskovitz