Conrad Tao, piano & composer
David Danzmayr, conductor
The first half of tonight’s concert features works by Haydn and Conrad Tao, featuring our soloist as both pianist and composer. Our Opening Night program concludes with one of the best-known and most beloved works of the symphonic repertoire, Beethoven’s groundbreaking Fifth Symphony, a work whose breathtaking emotional scope and raw rhythmic power paved the way for classical music’s Romantic era.
From the composer:
Conrad Tao (b. 1994): Over.
This piece comprises three episodes for orchestra inspired by the dif- ferent suggestions embedded in the word “over.”
OVER 1 begins in the language of endings, cracking, disintegrating, and building on itself, before it collapses.
OVER 2 emerges hesitantly from the wreckage and then proceeds to be a series of gestures attempting, with varying degrees of intensity, to reach upward.
OVER 3 is a playful study in excess, in unkempt and undisciplined groove. It is an organism that seems to grow and lose limbs at will.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII/11
Scored for piano solo (originally for harpsichord or fortepiano), pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is 18 minutes.
Listening to Haydn’s last, best and most famous piano concerto is not unlike having an entertaining guest for dinner—we can count on good stories and pleasant company but the conversation is unlikely to bend toward the deeply philosophical or plumb emotional terrain. This isn’t to suggest that the guest, or the music, is in any way less worthy. Rather, both function largely as entertainment and sometimes that’s all we need. In this respect, Haydn’s D major Piano Concerto is very much a product of its time. If Haydn’s ability soared above the majority of his contemporaries, the entertainment value of his score is largely typical of what18th century audiences had come to expect from a concerto. So, in order to better appreciate Papa Haydn’s gallant composition, we might remind ourselves of the circumstances in which it was composed.
Haydn spent the majority of his productive musical life in the service of the Esterházy family, wealthy aristocrats whose Versailles-inspired palace rose from the swamps of the Hungarian countryside. For all intents and purposes, Haydn was a servant, and he wore the livery to prove it, though to be sure, he enjoyed any number of perks, including permanent housing for he and his wife and a horse and carriage. Haydn’s job description included overseeing every level of music at the palace. This meant not “simply” composing, conducting and preparing music for every occasion, be it a new symphony or an opera (whether by Haydn or another composer), or writing chamber music for the prince to perform, but also insuring that the instruments were in good working order and settling disputes among the small band of palace musicians. Albeit cut off from the mainstream musical currents of Vienna for long stretches at a time and, in the composer’s own words, being “forced to become original,” Haydn certainly never had to worry if there would be food on the table. He was compensated handsomely for his dedication to the Esterházy cause and as his reputation increased abroad, he was fittingly celebrated “back home.” In sum, what Mozart desired most and Beethoven fought most to avoid—secure aristocratic employment—Haydn enjoyed for the better part of thirty years.
The D major concerto was probably composed around 1780, when Mozart was not yet thirty. Mozart is critical to appreciating a work of this nature because it was around this time that the latter composer moved to Vienna, where the two men developed a lasting friendship (Haydn visited Vienna, and Mozart, in his time off) and fed off of one other’s innovations. Thus we can sense Mozart’s shadow in Haydn’s concerto, which fits squarely into the by-now traditional three-movement scheme practiced repeatedly by Mozart. This architecture featured, among other aspects, an orchestral introduction to the first movement, cadenzas (an improvised passage for soloist alone) toward the conclusion of both the first and second movements, and a light-hearted rondo finale. Haydn’s first movement, marked Vivace, exudes a joie de vivre from its opening notes. The Haydn-esque theme is fashioned of several distinct ideas that he will subsequently break apart and rework, including the stately quarter notes of the second bar (set off by a rest) and the rapidly descending riff that follows twice in quick succession. Another trait common to Haydn is the absence of a secondary, contrasting theme; instead, Haydn varies his opening material so brilliantly as to make a contrasting theme unnecessary.
The elegant slow movement, marked Un poco Adagio (somewhat slow) is a splendid example of the Rococo style—gallant and graceful, it is constructed of an easy-to-follow A-B-A framework and filled with decorative embellishments (think of the decorative molding common in 18th century palaces), particularly apparent in the return of the A section. One can easily imagine Haydn at the keyboard, enjoying his music’s arabesques and rippling arpeggios. In his finale, marked Rondo all’ungherese (Rondo in the Hungarian style), Haydn unabashedly tips his hat to the folk music common to the countryside surrounding the palace. The exuberant rondo theme, charming in and of itself, is also put to far “better use” than what might have been expected from a light-hearted rondo. In most cases, refrains would simply return in their original form almost mechanically, interspersed with contrasting episodes. But in Haydn’s hands, the theme itself undergoes development, returning “with breathtaking boldness and freedom,” to quote the late musicologist and critic Edward Downes. Note, for instance, how Haydn almost immediately breaks off into minor-key terrain, providing the rondo theme with a life of its own. It was precisely this sort of genius that set Haydn apart from his less inspired contemporaries and made him such a prized possession at court. And while Haydn’s prodigious output was to a large degree a consequence of the rigorous demands placed on him, over two hundred years later we are still celebrating and reaping the benefits of his royal music making.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Scored for piccolo (fourth movement only), pairs of flutes and oboes, clarinets in B♭ and C, two bassoons, contrabassoon (fourth movement only), two horns in E♭ and C, two trumpets, three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass, fourth movement only), timpani and strings. Duration is 31 minutes.
On December 22, 1808, those present within the walls of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien experienced the premiere of what would eventually become the world’s most recognizable piece of classical music. But what should have been a warm house crowded with supportive Viennese, electrified by the most recent creations from the pen of their most famous composer, was anything but. The program, which played out in a bitter cold theater, featured Beethoven conducting his 5th and 6th Symphonies, music from his Mass in C and a vocal aria and his 4th Piano Concerto, which he conducted from the keyboard. Then, for good measure, he tacked on his Choral Fantasy, a twenty-minute work scored, curiously enough, for chorus, orchestra and piano soloist (again, Beethoven). Matters got underway at 6:30 and lasted until 10:30 in the evening. Due to the length of the marathon program, the quality of the orchestra suffered on account of inadequate rehearsal time. The players, largely amateurs and dilettantes, also showed little support for Beethoven’s most recent, and very challenging scores. For his part, Beethoven, ever uncompromising, suddenly stopped the orchestra during the performance, shouted “Noch einmal!”—“Once again!” and made the band repeat a poorly executed passage. And to top matters off, the printed program reversed the numbers of the two symphonies: the Fifth was published as the Sixth (the Pastoral) and vise versa. In sum, the evening was hardly what could be deemed a triumph. History, however, would have the final say and despite its inauspicious start, the Fifth would soon become recognized as monumental and would exert a profound influence on the composers of the Romantic era.
Four years before its premiere, Beethoven had begun scribbling out ideas for a “Sinfonia,” entries that appear on lower portions of leaves in the so-called Eroica Sketchbook, pages given over primarily to drafts for his opera, Leonore. Thus while in the act of composing his only opera, the composer also began planning something else entirely—an abstract symphonic work to be crafted in the dramatic key of C minor. And curiously, while the first four notes of the C minor Symphony would ultimately become the most recognizable aspect of the work, this was not the first idea Beethoven committed to paper. Rather, the earliest sketches actually reveal him beginning somewhere in the middle, with material for the third movement. Only then did he turn to the start, drafting out abbreviated ideas for the first movement’s exposition. Thus, rather than work through the composition from beginning to end, Beethoven made sure to first get several distinct ideas down on paper before casting the entire symphony. Unfortunately, much of Beethoven’s early work on the symphony is missing, and thus we can’t be certain how the rest of the score unfolded, or when. It appears he put at least some of it aside and returned to the first movement in 1806, although much of the composition was probably crafted the following year. Perhaps when planning the aforementioned concert, one of several concerts undertaken for his own financial benefit, Beethoven realized he would need completed music to perform! Regardless, the autograph was finished around March of 1808 and the rest is, as they say, history.
Among the many impressive features of this magnificent score is what Beethoven packs into a little over thirty minutes. While the 5th is dwarfed in size by the titanic 3rd Symphony (the “Eroica”) of 1803 (as was every other symphony), Beethoven’s Op. 67 packs a powerful punch, no doubt on account of its dark and dramatic C minor tonality. Then, there is that powerful opening gesture, a four-note motif that is as much rhythm as pitch, if not more so. This attention-grabbing motif will sweep through much of the composition, surfacing at critical moments. As for the symphony’s larger architecture, while its four-movement framework betrays its classical Viennese origins, there all connection with tradition comes to an end. Indeed, this symphony is far more than the sum of its parts. Whether or not we believe Anton Schindler—Beethoven’s factotum and reliably unreliable early biographer—who testified that the composer equated his opening idea with fate knocking at the door, the Fifth certainly operates on a level far beyond what was typically associated with symphonic music. In other words, rather than simply cast another symphony, Beethoven may well have had some sort of extra-musical drama in mind, perhaps the movement from dark to light or the triumph of good over evil, as reflected in the score’s shift from C minor to C major.
The stormy first movement, a C minor Allegro con brio, is characterized by the potent stop and start of the opening measures and an almost obsessive reliance on the four-note motif. The relaxed second subject provides but short-lived respite from the storm. The recapitulation includes an unexpected oboe solo but an even greater surprise follows what appear to be the movement’s closing chords. Now Beethoven launches a tremendous coda, whose length equals that of the recapitulation. This explosive conclusion serves both to balance out the dramatic weight of what came before and provides the first clues of Beethoven’s larger design to place his music on a forward trajectory.
We are next presented with one of Beethoven’s most humane creations, a theme and variations in A-flat (marked Andante con moto, a walking tempo with motion) that is a journey unto itself. This movement opens with a piano dolce theme that will soon give way to something else entirely, a vigorous contrasting theme that erupts in a C major fortissimo (foreshadowing the key and, to a certain extent, the character of the symphony’s finale) before culminating in the four-note motif of the symphony’s first bars. Beethoven will now rework both ideas via a series of alternating variations (having inherited the concept of double variation form from Papa Haydn, one of his teachers), dramatically pitting some of his most heartbreaking music against some of his most dramatic, until the movement’s extended coda brings us back to the opening material in the rightful key of A-flat. Beethoven’s exploration of form and emotional breadth would prove a critical contribution to the development of the symphonic slow movement.
The Scherzo, like the preceding Andante, offers abundant contrast. Matters open with a mysterious pianissimo, a C-minor chord that rises through an octave and a half, producing an effect light-years ahead of what audiences had come to expect from third-movement minuets. Beethoven juxtaposes this character with a Trio built once again on the generating motif of the first movement, an idea that gradually takes over and even includes a boisterous C-major fugato introduced by the strings. Note how Beethoven rewrites the final return of his Scherzo with delicate pizzicato strings. This understated passage functions as both the movement’s conclusion and sets the stage for one of Beethoven’s most breathtaking conceptions. At first the music appears static, as if frozen in time, its harmony clouded. These transitional measures show Beethoven at his most profound, as he demonstrates an unmatched ability to create tremendous tension with minimal material. Then, through the fog, we can make out the timpani (again, more rhythm than pitch) intoning our motif, until the harmony gradually comes into focus. A tremendous crescendo launches us directly into the C major finale, which is truly among the most hair-raising moments ever conceived of in sound. Everything in the symphony has led up to this, marking the first time a symphony projected motion from start to finish across four movements. As with the first movement, the finale (and, indeed, the entire work) is crowned with a lengthy recapitulation and a fittingly triumphant coda (listen yet again to those four notes!). Then, with a series of relentless C major chords, Beethoven emphatically brings to a close his thirty-five minute journey of a lifetime.
© Marc Moskovitz