This energetic program opens with Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1, “Classical,” a tongue-in-cheek homage to Haydn and Mozart that displays all the inventive gifts of one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonists. The fascinating pianist, Jonathan Biss, brings his daring musical insight to bear with Beethoven’s Piano concerto No. 2. To close our “Sweet Sixteen” season, we come back to Mendelssohn, whose Symphony No. 1 – completed before his 16th birthday – displays the full flower of his youthful genius…a brilliant ending to a brilliant season.
Prokofiev Symphony No. 1, “Classical”About this Music
Composed in 1916-1917. Premiered on April 21, 1918 in Leningrad, conducted by the composer.
“In the field of instrumental music, I am well content with the forms already perfected. I want nothing better, nothing more flexible or more complete than sonata form, which contains everything necessary to my structural purpose.” This statement, given to Olin Downes by Prokofiev during an interview in 1930 for The New York Times, seems a curious one for a composer who had gained a reputation as an ear-shattering iconoclast, the enfant terribleof 20th-century music, the master of modernity. While it is certainly true that some of his early works (Scythian Suite, Sarcasms, the first two Piano Concertos) raised the hackles of musical traditionalists, it is also true that Prokofiev sought to preserve that same tradition by extending its boundaries to encompass his own distinctive style. A glance through the list of his works shows a preponderance of established Classical forms: sonatas, symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, quartets, overtures and suites account for most of his output. This is certainly not to say that he merely mimicked the music of earlier generations, but he did accept it as the conceptual framework within which he built his own compositions.
Prokofiev’s penchant for using Classical musical idioms was instilled in him during the course of his thorough, excellent training: when he was a little tot, his mother played Beethoven sonatas to him while he sat under the piano; he studied with the greatest Russian musicians of the time — Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Glazunov; he began composing at the Mozartian age of six. By the time he was 25, Prokofiev was composing prolifically, always brewing a variety of compositions simultaneously. The works of 1917, for example, represent widely divergent styles — The Gambler is a satirical opera; They Are Seven, a nearly atonal cantata; the Classical Symphony, a charming miniature. This last piece was a direct result of Prokofiev’s study with Alexander Tcherepnin, a good and wise teacher who allowed the young composer to forge ahead in his own manner while making sure that he had a thorough understanding of the great musical works of the past. It was in 1916 that Prokofiev first had the idea for a symphony based on the Viennese models supplied by Tcherepnin, and at that time he sketched out a few themes for it. Most of the work, however, was done the following year, as Prokofiev recounted in his Autobiography:
“The idea occurred to me to compose an entire symphonic work without the piano. Composed in this fashion, the orchestral colors would, of necessity, be clearer and cleaner. Thus the plan of a symphony in Haydnesque style originated, since, as a result of my studies in Tcherepnin’s classes, Haydn’s technique had somehow become especially clear to me, and with such intimate understanding it was much easier to plunge into the dangerous flood without a piano. It seemed to me that, were he alive today, Haydn, while retaining his style of composition, would have appropriated something from the modern. Such a symphony I now wanted to compose: a symphony in the classic manner. As it began to take actual form I named it Classical Symphony.” Prokofiev’s Classical Symphonyhas been one of his most successful works ever since it was first heard, in Leningrad in April 1918.
The work is in the four movements customary in Haydn’s symphonies, though at only fifteen minutes it hardly runs to half their typical length. The dapper first movement is a miniature sonata design that follows the traditional form but adds some quirks that would have given old Haydn himself a chuckle — the recapitulation, for example, begins in the “wrong” key (but soon rights itself), and occasionally a beat is left out, as though the music had stubbed its toe. The sleek main theme is followed by the enormous leaps, flashing grace notes and sparse texture of the second subject. A graceful, ethereal melody floating high in the violins is used to open and close the Larghetto, with the pizzicato gentle middle section reaching a brilliant tutti before quickly subsiding. The third movement, a Gavotte, comes not from the Viennese symphony but rather from the tradition of French Baroque ballet. The finale is the most brilliant movement of the Symphony, and calls for remarkable feats of agility and precise ensemble from the performers.
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major
Composed in 1794-1795; revised in 1798 and 1800. Premiered on March 29, 1795 in Vienna, with the composer as soloist.
In November 1792, the 22-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, full of talent and promise, arrived in Vienna. So undeniable was the genius he had already demonstrated in a sizeable amount of piano music, numerous chamber works, cantatas on the death of Emperor Joseph II and the accession of Leopold II, and the score for a ballet that the Elector of Bonn, his hometown, underwrote the trip to the Habsburg Imperial city, then the musical capital of Europe, to help further the young musician’s career (and the Elector’s prestige). Despite the Elector’s patronage, however, Beethoven’s professional ambitions consumed any thoughts of returning to the provincial city of his birth, and, when his alcoholic father died in December, he severed for good his ties with Bonn in favor of the stimulating artistic atmosphere of Vienna.
The occasion of Beethoven’s first Viennese public appearance was a pair of concerts — “A Grand Musical Academy, with more than 150 participants,” trumpeted the program in Italian and German — on March 29, 1795 at the Burgtheater whose proceeds were to benefit the Widows’ Fund of the Artists’ Society. It is likely that Antonio Salieri, Beethoven’s teacher at the time, had a hand in arranging the affair, since the music of one Antonio Cordellieri, another of his pupils, shared the bill. Beethoven chose for the occasion a piano concerto in B-flat major he had been working on for several months, but which was still incomplete only days before the concert. In his reminiscences of the composer, Franz Wegeler recalled, “Not until the afternoon of the second day before the concert did he write the rondo, and then while suffering from a pretty severe colic which frequently afflicted him. I relieved him with simple remedies so far as I could. In the anteroom sat copyists to whom he handed sheet after sheet as soon as they were finished being written.” The work was completed just in time for the performance. It proved to be a fine success (“he gained the unanimous applause of the audience,” reported the Wiener Zeitung), and did much to further Beethoven’s dual reputation as performer and composer. For a concert in Prague three years later, the Concerto was extensively revised, and it is this version that is known today. The original one has vanished.
Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto is a product of the Classical age, not just in date but also in technique, expression and attitude. Still to come were the heaven-storming sublimities of his later works, but he could no more know what form those still-to-be-written works would take than tell the future in any other way. A traditional device — one greatly favored by Mozart — is used to open the Concerto: a forceful fanfare motive immediately balanced by a suave lyrical phrase. These two melodic fragments are spun out at length to produce the orchestral introduction. The piano joins in for a brief transition to the re-presentation of the principal thematic motives, applying brilliant decorative filigree as the movement unfolds. The sweet second theme is sung by the orchestra alone, but the soloist quickly resumes playing to supply commentary on this new melody. An orchestral interlude leads to the development section, based largely on transformations of the principal theme’s lyrical motive. The recapitulation proceeds apace, and includes an extended cadenza. (Beethoven composed cadenzas for his first four concertos between 1804 and 1809.) A brief orchestral thought ends the movement.
The touching second movement is less an exercise in rigorous, abstract form than a lengthy song of rich texture and operatic sentiment. The wonderfully inventive piano figurations surrounding the melody are ample reminder that Beethoven was one of the finest keyboard improvisers of his day, a master of embellishment and piano style.
The finale is a rondo based on a bounding theme announced immediately by the soloist. Even at that early stage in Beethoven’s career, it is amazing how he was able to extend and manipulate this simple, folk-like tune with seemingly limitless creativity. Though his music was soon to explore unprecedented areas of expression and technique, this Concerto stands at the end of an era, paying its debt to the composer’s great forebears and announcing in conventional terms the arrival of a musician who was soon to change forever the art of music.
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Composed in 1824. Premiered on February 1, 1827 in Leipzig, conducted by Johann Philipp Christian Schulz.
By the time that Mendelssohn composed this “Symphony No. 1” in March 1824, he had already committed a dozen smaller sinfonias to paper, as well as operas and operettas, string quartets, concertos, motets, piano trios and a tidy number of fugues based on his study of Sebastian Bach’s music. He was fifteen. His father, Abraham, one of Berlin’s wealthiest bankers, displayed the boy’s blossoming musical abilities at twice-monthly concerts in their estate’s converted summerhouse, a splendid building large enough to seat several hundred people. Those Sunday matinees, performed by local professional musicians and complemented by an elegant luncheon, began in 1822, when Felix was thirteen. He selected the programs, led the rehearsals, appeared as piano soloist, and even conducted, though in those early years he was too short to be seen by the players in the back unless he stood on a stool. With sister Fanny participating as pianist, sister Rebecca as singer and brother Paul as cellist, it is little wonder that invitations to those happy gatherings were among the most eagerly sought and highly prized of any in Berlin society. The C minor Symphony was almost certainly played at the family’s garden concerts soon after it was composed, but the work’s earliest documented performance was given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (whose directorship Mendelssohn would assume in 1835) on February 1, 1827; Johann Philipp Christian Schulz conducted. Though Mendelssohn scored the work for the full complement of strings and winds of the Classical orchestra, he numbered the manuscript as “Sinfonie XIII” to indicate that it was preceded by his twelve sinfonias for strings alone. The events of the year 1829, however, caused him to stop regarding this piece as a youthful work, and recognize it instead as the first of his mature symphonies.
On March 11, 1829 in Berlin, Mendelssohn conducted the first modern performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, providing the impetus for the Bach revival that was to have such a profound impact on 19th-century music. Still flush with triumph, he set out the following month for England, arriving in London in mid-April. Bankrolled by his father’s substantial fortune and bearing powerful letters of introduction to the British aristocracy, Mendelssohn — elegant, witty, educated, handsome, well-mannered, almost fluent in English — made an immediate impression upon the cultural lions of London, especially since he observed the gentlemanly custom of not asking for a fee when he played in their salons. His public debut was set for May 25th in the Argyll Rooms in Regent Street at a concert of the Philharmonic Society, which had cemented its position in the city’s artistic life seven years earlier by commissioning a symphony from no less a figure than Ludwig van Beethoven. (That work, the “Choral” Symphony was finally heard in London in 1825, a full year after its premiere in Vienna.) Mendelssohn chose the C minor Symphony as the vehicle of his introduction, replaced the original third movement with an orchestral arrangement of the Scherzo from his Octet, Op. 20 of 1825 (“I added some jolly D trumpets to it,” he confessed. “It was very silly, but it sounded very nice.”), and presented himself at the Argyll Rooms. He sent the following report home on the day after the premiere:
“When I came to my rehearsal, I found the whole orchestra assembled and about 200 guests, mostly ladies, many of them foreigners. I felt not precisely afraid, but very keyed-up and excited. I mounted the podium, and drew my little white baton from my pocket. I was introduced to all, greetings were exchanged. A few snickered, seeing a little fellow with a stick instead of the powdered and bewigged conductor to which they had become accustomed. [Mendelssohn was twenty.] Considering it was a first run-through of the Symphony, it went well and strong, and pleased them even in rehearsal. After every movement, the people present applauded and so did the orchestra (by tapping their bows against the instruments and stamping their feet). After the last movement, they made a great to-do. The directors [of the Society] came to me. I had to go down to the audience and bow my thanks left and right. I must have shaken 200 hands — it was one of my happiest moments. All those strangers became acquaintances and friends within a half hour…. The success of the concert last night was greater than I could have dreamed. J. Cramer [the noted pianist Johann Cramer, whose son, Franz, was the orchestra’s concertmaster] led me to the piano [from where, according to the tradition of the day, he conducted the Symphony], and I was received with loud and long applause. They wanted the Adagio encored; I preferred to indicate my thanks and to go on, for fear of boring the audience. But after theScherzo, the demand for repetition was so insistent that I had to play it again. At the end, they kept applauding as long as I kept thanking the orchestra, and I handsshakte till I left the hall.”
Thus began the artistic love affair between Felix Mendelssohn and the musical cognoscentiof Britain. He further impressed his hosts by performing Weber’s Konzertstück as piano soloist five days later from memory, an unusual feat in those days, and completely won them over by conducting his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture in June. He remained in Britain that summer to take a walking tour of Scotland, whose lore and countryside inspired him to write the Hebrides Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, which he later declared to be his finest work in the form. The following November, he was elected an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society by unanimous vote; he dedicated the C minor Symphony to the organization upon its publication in 1834, when its appellation was formally changed to “No. 1.” Soon after ascending the British throne in 1837, Victoria declared Mendelssohn the favorite composer of herself and her Prince Consort, and thereby enshrined him in the pantheon of public taste. After his spectacular debut season, Mendelssohn visited England nine more times during the remaining eighteen years of his too-brief life. “The people here like me for the sake of my music and respect me for it,” he wrote to his friend the singer Eduard Devrient. “This delights me immensely.”
The legendary cellist Pablo Casals called Mendelssohn “a Romantic who felt at ease in the world of Classicism,” a quality amply demonstrated by the C minor Symphony. Though the work broaches the Beethovenian tonality of C minor (the key of the Fifth Symphony), its style, form and sonority pay their greatest allegiance to the music of Haydn and Mozart, especially Mozart’s G minor Symphony, one of the few of his works which remained in the concert repertory throughout the 19th century. The opening Allegro begins with a stormy main theme whose energy is nicely sustained to lead to the contrasting material, a lyrical strain initiated by the woodwinds, before the bustling figurations return to close the exposition. The main theme serves as the principal subject of the development section. The movement is rounded out by a full recapitulation of the earlier subjects, and is brought to a conclusion with a determined coda grown from the main theme.
The Adagio, the most accomplished music in the Symphony, is based on a melody of sweet diatonic simplicity whose chromatically inflected accompaniment presages a favorite technique of Mendelssohn’s later works. A central section of greater rhythmic and harmonic tension leads to a return of the principal theme decorated by the solo flute with tasteful scales and arpeggios. The following movement is a minuet in name only, since its character is closer to that of the powerful 19th-century symphonic scherzo of Beethoven than to the courtly dance of 18th-century Vienna. The trio is sustained and rather static harmonically, but it is concluded with a dramatic passage of timpani strokes (borrowed from the Beethoven Fifth Symphony) that serves as a direct link to the return of the scherzo. The finale, like the opening movement, is in sonata form: a main subject comprising strong dynamic contrasts; a complementary theme in soft pizzicato chords which serve as the accompanimental cushion for the legato melody of the clarinet; and a return of the opening gestures to close the exposition. A generous bit of fugue inhabits the center of the movement, while a vigorous coda in rousing C major ends the Symphony with a burst of youthful high spirits.
Jonathan Biss, piano
Jonathan Biss is a world-renowned pianist who extends his deep musical and intellectual curiosity from the keyboard to classical music lovers in the concert hall and beyond. In addition to his performance schedule, the 34-year old American has spent eight summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, and has written extensively for prestigious media outlets about his own relationships with the composers with whom he shares a stage. A member of the faculty of his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music, since 2010, Biss led the school’s first massive open online course (MOOC) to a virtual classroom of 51,000 students last season.
This season, Biss will perform throughout the United States and Europe, including appearances with the Chicago, Danish National, BBC, Stuttgart Radio, and Finnish Radio symphony orchestras; the New York Philharmonic; the Philharmonia and Minnesota orchestras, and the Los Angeles and Netherlands chamber orchestras. Biss will tour Italy and the United States with Mark Padmore and perform with the Belcea Quartet at Wigmore Hall. He will also have recitals in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, Denver, and at the Aldeburgh and Rheingau festivals and the International Piano Series in London. Additional performances include the UK premiere at the BBC Proms of the Bernard Rands piano concerto commissioned by Biss, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti, and an appearance with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Biss has embarked on a nine-year, nine-disc recording cycle of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. The fourth volume will be released in January 2015. Biss’s first Amazon Kindle Single, Beethoven’s Shadow, was the first-ever Single written by a classical musician. It spent many weeks on the Kindle Singles bestseller list opposite works by major commercial fiction writers and was the number one music title in the Kindle Store for months. In 2013, Biss partnered with the Curtis Institute of Music and Coursera to offer a MOOC, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The course will relaunch in January 2015 on Coursera in a new format, allowing students to watch all the video lessons at once or progress at their own pace. The second part of the course—on additional Beethoven sonatas—will launch in Spring 2015.
Biss’s Schumann: Under the Influence project was a 30-concert exploration of the composer’s role in musical history. Biss and several hand-picked collaborators performed Schumann’s work in juxtaposition with the music of Purcell, Beethoven, Schubert, Berg, Janacek, and Timo Andres. As part of the project, Biss recorded Schumann and Dvořák Piano Quintets with the Elias String Quartet and wrote an Amazon Kindle Single on Schumann, A Pianist Under the Influence.
Throughout his career, Biss has been an advocate for new music. Among the works he has commissioned are Lunaire Variations by David Ludwig, Interlude II by Leon Kirchner,Wonderer by Lewis Spratlan, Three Pieces for Piano and a concerto by Bernard Rands, which he premiered last season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has also premiered piano quintets by Timothy Andres and William Bolcom and is developing a commissioning project based on Beethoven’s piano concerti.
Biss represents the third generation in a family of professional musicians that includes his grandmother Raya Garbousova, one of the first well-known female cellists (for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto), and his parents, violinist Miriam Fried and violist/violinist Paul Biss. Growing up surrounded by music, Biss began his piano studies at age six, and his first musical collaborations were with his mother and father. He studied at Indiana University with Evelyne Brancart and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Leon Fleisher. At age 20, Biss made his New York recital debut at the 92nd Street Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts and his New York Philharmonic debut under Kurt Masur.
Biss has been recognized with numerous honors, including the Leonard Bernstein Award presented at the 2005 Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Wolf Trap’s Shouse Debut Artist Award, the Andrew Wolf Memorial Chamber Music Award, Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the 2003 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, and the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award. He was an artist-in-residence on American Public Media’sPerformance Today and was the first American chosen to participate in the BBC’s New Generation Artist program. For more information about Jonathan Biss, please visitwww.jonathanbiss.com.
Michael Stern, conductor
Conductor Michael Stern is the Music Director of IRIS Orchestra in Germantown, Tennessee. Now in its second decade, IRIS has a unique model, drawing its musicians from the leading orchestras, universities and chamber groups around the country. IRIS has been unanimously heralded for the virtuosity of its playing; the depth and variety of its programming, with special emphasis on American contemporary music; and its acclaimed recordings on the Naxos and Arabesque labels. Under Stern’s direction, IRIS has commissioned and premiered works by William Bolcom, Chris Brubeck, Richard Danielpour, Stephen Hartke, Edgar Meyer, Jonathan Leshnoff, Ned Rorem, Huang Ruo, Adam Schoenberg, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, among others.
The 2015-16 season also marks Stern’s tenth as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony, hailed for its remarkable artistic growth and development since his tenure began. Mr. Stern and the orchestra, joined by an amazing collection of guest artists, have performed to critical acclaim and sold-out audiences in their new world-class performance home, Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
The Kansas City Symphony’s second CD for award-winning audiophile label Reference Recordings, Britten’s Orchestra, won a 2011 Grammy award in the “Surround Sound Album” category, and producer David Frost won “Producer of the Year, Classical.” The Symphony and Mr. Stern have also recorded for the Naxos label. The Symphony’s concerts with internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato were featured on the national PBS Summer Arts Series in July 2012.
Other positions include a tenure as the chief conductor of Germany’s Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra (the first American chief conductor in the orchestra’s history) and as Permanent Guest Conductor of the Orchestre National de Lyon in France, a position which he held for five years, and a stint as the Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestre National de Lille, France.
Michael Stern has led orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, including the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Helsinki Philharmonic, Budapest Radio Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, Moscow Philharmonic, National Symphony of Taiwan, Tokyo’s NHK Symphony and the Vienna Radio Symphony, among many others.
In North America, Mr. Stern has conducted the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Houston Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Toronto Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Montreal Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. He has also appeared regularly at the Aspen Music Festival.
Mr. Stern received his music degree from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his major teacher was the noted conductor and scholar Max Rudolf. Mr. Stern co-edited the third edition of Rudolf’s famous textbook, The Grammar of Conducting, and also edited a new volume of Rudolf’s collected writings and correspondence. He is a 1981 graduate of Harvard University, where he earned a degree in American history. He makes his home in Kansas City and in Connecticut with his wife, Shelly Cryer, and their two young daughters.