Opening Weekend: Beethoven 5

Kian Soltani, cello
David Danzmayr, conductor

About the Music

The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur LLP

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960): Musica Celestis
Instrumentation: Scored for string orchestra
Duration: 12 minutes

Given his American success, it seems only fitting that Aaron J. Kernis hails from Philadelphia, that American city of cities. Trained early as a pianist and violinist, Kernis’ role as a composer began at the ripe age of 13, and by 16, he had already won the first of three BMI awards that he would earn as a student. His teachers read like a who’s who of American musical pioneers, among them John Adams (San Francisco Conservatory), Charles Wuorinen (Manhattan School), and Morton Subotnick (Yale University), composers whose diverse approaches to music no doubt equipped their prodigious student with numerous compositional options. Ultimately Kernis gravitated towards an approachable, neo-romantic style that unapologetically offers accessible frameworks and engaging thematic material. This is not to say that Kernis panders to the masses, for his music, whether choral, orchestral or chamber, is always inventive and imaginative. Nor is it surprising that he has assembled a long list of champions, from violinist Joshua Bell to the New York Philharmonic. No less impressive is Kernis’ list of accolades, which includes a Pulitzer and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Though the composer admits to no personal belief in angels, his design for his 1990 composition, Musica Celestis, which sprang from his String Quartet of the same year, was to create a medieval-inspired sound that captured the essence of angels praising God without end. This twelve-minute work for string orchestra unfolds as a set of variations framed by an introduction and coda. The sound is rich and full-blooded, as one might expect from a body of string players. The heavenly introduction, which stunningly captures what we might imagine as the music of the spheres, gives way to a heartbreaking melody played by the concertmaster. Gradually the score develops increasing complexity, whether by way of polyphonic soloistic lines or increased activity produced by the larger ensemble, until returning to the celestial opening strains. Throughout, Kernis’ mastery remains evident and his creativity undeniable.


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in C Major, Hob. VIIb/1
Instrumentation: Scored for cello solo, pairs of oboes and horns, and strings
Duration: 25 minutes

Given the popularity of Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the work was presumed lost until its rediscovery in 1961. This accounts for the odd series of catalog numbers and letters above, following the abbreviation ‘Hob.’, or Hoboken, Haydn’s principal cataloger. It was then that Czech musicologist Oldřich Pulkert ran across the score in the Prague National Museum. Since then, the work has become a staple of the cellist’s repertoire and a favorite of audiences worldwide.

The C Major Concerto is believed to have been composed around 1765, when Haydn inked in the concerto’s opening theme in his draft catalog. At the time, Haydn was serving the immensely wealthy Esterházy family as vice-Kapellmeister and would be promoted to full Kapellmeister in 1766. Assuming this chronology is correct, the concerto would most likely have been composed for the orchestra’s principal cellist, a virtuoso by the name of Franz Weigl. Unlike the orchestra you’ll hear tonight, the band at Haydn’s disposal was but a fraction of the size and, at the most, would have included only one additional cellist besides the soloist! Yet what the Esterháza orchestra lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in ability, for it included some of Europe’s foremost players within its ranks, Weigl among them.

The concerto is constructed of the traditional three movements, all built on a modified sonata form. Following the orchestral tutti of the opening Moderato, the soloist enters with a proud C major chord—Haydn understood full well that that key was the lowest note on the cello and hence would best flatter the instrument. The movement’s second theme, which follows quickly thereafter, is of a more lyrical nature, and it is from these two ideas that Haydn spins out the rest of the movement, making full use of the instrument’s chordal and string crossing abilities. The Adagio, a lovely, lyrical affair, is simple yet always elegant, while the closing Allegro molto, by contrast, gives us a clue about the cellistic abilities of Weigl, who evidently inspired Haydn to write what is arguably his most dazzling concerto movement. It is a virtuosic tour de force that brings this captivating concerto to a breathless conclusion.


Reza Vali (b. 1952): “The Girl from Shiraz” from Persian Folk Songs for Cello and Orchestra
Instrumentation: Scored for cello solo, two flutes, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, pairs of horns, trumpets, and trombones, timpani, percussion, piano-celesta, harp, and strings
Duration: Approximately 4 minutes

“The Girl from Shiraz” was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, written for Kian Soltani. The complete piece is based on two Persian folk songs, both originating from the city of Shiraz. The sensual and the spiritual aspects of love intersect in this first song from the set. The text of the original folk song is highly sensual describing the yearning of the lover for the beloved. The melody of this song, played by the solo cello, is accompanied by quotes from the Christmas carol Silent Night, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as a quote from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
Instrumentation: Scored for piccolo (fourth movement only), pairs of flutes and oboes, clarinets in B-flat and C, two bassoons, contrabassoon (fourth movement only), two horns in E-flat and C, two trumpets, three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass, fourth movement only), timpani and strings.
Duration: 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 music, classical or otherwise. 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 Beethoven 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). The concert got underway at 6:30 in the evening and continued for the next four hours, but sadly, the quality of the orchestra suffered on account of inadequate rehearsal time. Matters were not helped by the players, largely amateurs and dilettantes, who on the whole had little patience for Beethoven’s challenging music. For his part, Beethoven, ever uncompromising, actually stopped the orchestra during the performance, shouted “Noch einmal!”—“Once again!” and made the band repeat a poorly executed passage! In sum, the evening was hardly what could be deemed a triumph. Yet despite its inauspicious start, the monumental Fifth would soon become embraced as a masterwork and 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, a sketchbook whose pages are largely filled with 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. Curiously, however, the opening four notes of the C minor Symphony—which were to become the most recognizable aspect of the work—were not what Beethoven initially 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. Yet because much of Beethoven’s early work on the symphony is missing, we cannot be certain how the rest of the compositional process unfolded, or even when. It appears the composer put at least some of the music aside and returned to the first movement in 1806, although much of the composition was likely composed during the following year. We do know that the autograph was finished around March of 1808, months ahead of its December premiere.

While the 5th is dwarfed in size by the titanic 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica” of 1803, 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, that is where 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. Thus, rather than simply compose another symphony, Beethoven likely 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. Whatever the case, in a mere 30 minutes, we are taken on a journey of a lifetime. Buckle up!

(c) Marc Moskovitz