October 13, 14, and 16
ZHOU: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Zhou Tian was born in 1981 in Hangzhou, China, and trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, The Juilliard School of Music where his teachers were composers Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse, and the University of Southern California. He is now on the faculty of Colgate University. His music has been performed throughout the world by distinguished performers, including the Indianapolis Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Symphony in C, American Composers Orchestra, Guangzhou Symphony, Hangzhou Philharmonic, the Biava Quartet, the Arditti Quartet, Great Wall Quartet, the Third Angle Ensemble, pianist Yuja Wang and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. His orchestral work, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” was written for the Green Bay Commission Club and premiered by the Green Bay Symphony in 2009. It is scored for 3 flutes (piccolo), 3 oboes (English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp and strings.
When one thinks of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the city’s Symphony Orchestra is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Nonetheless, Green Bay is obviously more than just Packers football, as can be seen in the notes about the ten-minute symphonic work by Zhou Tian that was written for and premiered there. The composer has kindly forwarded to me the following notes:
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a ten-minute musical journey inspired by an old Chinese proverb regarding relationships. The proverb roughly means a good relationship between two people would take a thousand years of good prayers to bring about. As a composer I was fascinated by this story-like idea from an ancient time, and I wanted to create a musical piece, using the Western symphony orchestra, to convey a sense of spiritual bliss. I regard the piece as a musical journey. It goes from a somewhat rough start to a simple, harmonious closure.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers was commissioned by the Green Bay Commission Club, and is dedicated to the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and that orchestra’s music director, Bridget-Michaele Reischl.
The pianist, composer, and theorist, Bill Scanlan Murphy of Howard Community College (Maryland) offers additional observations:
The composer tells us that his own bumpy relationship with his father stands at the heart of this work. He portrays this in a language entirely familiar to any concertgoer—the world of Ravel, Shostakovich, and a host of composers from Bartok to Jerry Goldsmith—but overlaid with an unmistakably Chinese voice (listen to the woodwinds!) that makes it . . .unique. It is the mark of a very special composer that he can draw from so many other voices and yet create something that sounds like no one else at all.
The music follows an absolutely clear developmental arc: the stern, leaping horn motifs of the opening are gradually washed and polished down into the serene string landscape of the close. As in all music, it is the journey that matters, over an ever-changing landscape that is both very familiar and entirely new.
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto no. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
(Jacob Ludwig) Felix Mendelssohn (Bartholdy) was born, February 3, 1809 in Hamburg and died November 4, 1847 in Leipzig. Mendelssohn was an important composer of the Romantic generation and one of history’s first major orchestral conductors. The Piano Concerto no. 1 was first performed in Munich on October 17, 1831. It is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was composed in great haste during a period of his life when he was engaged in extensive touring throughout Europe and Britain. The composer himself admitted as much in a letter to his family where he admitted that it was “dashed off hastily and carelessly.” We should bear in mind that this young genius tended to be self-critical to a fault about works that we now find to be absolute masterpieces, such as his Symphony no. 4 (“Italian”), composed around the same time as the concerto. Still, much of the success that the Piano Concerto no. 1 enjoys relies as much on Mendelssohn’s considerable gift for melody and virtuosity. A highly gifted pianist himself, Mendelssohn had previously composed a Concerto for Piano and Strings in A Minor in 1822, but like his early string symphonies, it does not bear a number. He had also composed a pair of concertos for two pianos (1823-4) and a Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Strings (1823), performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony under the baton of guest conductor JoAnn Faletta during the 2008-9 season.
As we encounter in his better-known Violin Concerto —a product of the fully mature composer— Mendelssohn dispenses with the traditional orchestral ritornello found in most 18th and early 19th century concertos and has the soloist jump right in with a passionate and stormy dialogue between the solo piano and orchestra. This eventually yields to a more tuneful second theme. Another feature of the piece that it shares with the Violin Concerto is that all three of its movements are played without interruption. The link to the Andante second movement is a fanfare that returns with even greater force as a link to the energetic and brilliant finale. This movement features a brief return of the lyrical second theme from the movement as it rushes toward its exciting conclusion.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony no. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votinsk, Russia and died on November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg. He remains one of the most popular composers of all time, beloved especially for his symphonies, ballets, and concertos. His Symphony no. 5 received its first performance on November 16, 1888 with the composer conducting. Despite its initial lukewarm reception, it has become an important staple of the symphonic repertory.The work is scored for 3 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons,, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are separated by a hiatus of eleven years, during which time the composer underwent major personal crises, chief among them being his impetuous decision to wed Antonina Milyukova in 1877. This relationship led inevitably to a disolving of the marriage, but it was only after Antonina gave birth in 1881 to an illegitimate child that Tchaikovsky had the legal grounds to file for divorce. Antonina entered into the marriage fully aware of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and it is hard to understand why either of them chose to become involved in this ill-fated relationship. Tsarist Russian society would never condone homosexuality, and perhaps the composer married in order to stave off rumors. This unhappy period in Tchaikovsky’s life resulted in few successful major compositions, with the Violin Concerto and Piano Trio being the most conspicuous exceptions. Confidence began to return to the composer in 1884, although his self-doubts about successfully handling larger multi-movement compositions such as symphonies persisted.
Tchaikovsky’s way of dealing with his doubts was to work through them, and the composition of his Fifth Symphony is a fine example of just how well he could do so. The four movements of the work are, as is the case with the Fourth Symphony, linked by a common motto. According to Gerald Abraham, this solemn theme was derived from the melody “Turn not into sorrow” from Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, which invites one to look for a programmatic interpretation of the symphony. As is the case with Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies, however, the real drama lies within the music itself. The first movement begins with an Andante introduction that presents the motto, played by two clarinets in their low register. The main body, Allegro con anima, introduces a melancholy dance theme in the clarinet and bassoon. Tchaikovsky creates a sense of growth by means of repetition, each time reinforcing the theme with additional orchestral colors until the entire orchestra joins in for its most powerful statement. This quickly dissipates and a wind-string dialogue ensues, followed by a lyrical, syncopated tune. The exposition closes with a brilliant flourish, which itself is continued by the horns to usher in the development section. The coda begins in similar fashion, but yields finally to the somber color of the bassoon, timpani, and lower strings.
The second movement, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza (“with some liberties”) begins with the lower strings imitating the sounds of an organ playing a hymn. This frames the presentation of the popular tune sung by the solo horn. The violins and violas offer a second tune, which builds to a sonorous peak before relaxing into yet another new —more melancholy— theme in the clarinet, followed by the bassoon. This new theme also builds to a climax, but is interrupted by the motto from the first movement. Broad pizzicato chords prepare for a restatement of the horn theme, now taken over by the violins. Trombone and bassoons thunder the motto a last time before the movement comes to a close.
The Allegro moderato third movement is a waltz. A letter from Tchaikovsky to his patron, Madame Nadia von Meck, reveals that the lilt of this tune was inspired by the gait of a young man the composer saw while in Florence. The bassoon takes center stage with a lyrical solo comprised of wide leaps and syncopated rhythms. The bouncing lilt of the strings provides contrast in the central (Trio) section, an articulation that forms a delightful counterpoint to the return of the waltz. The sole disturbing element of this whimsical dance is the statement of the motto in the coda by the clarinet and bassoon.
The finale begins, Andante maestoso, with a nostalgic transformation of the motto in E Major—a forecast of the apotheosis to come. The Allegro vivace, however, unleashes a sonata form movement of tremendous power and drama that returns us to the minor mode. Timpani and bassoons hammer out a pulsating ostinato that leads to a new melody reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s style. The exposition ends with a reprise of the motto. As one might expect, the coda is devoted almost exclusively to the motto, and it begins with a slower speed (Poco meno mosso), but gets faster as it approaches what seems to be its conclusion. A new tempo, Moderato assai e molto maestoso, brings in the motto accompanied by a triplet figure in the winds. The Presto section reintroduces the Schumannesque theme once again before one final change of tempo, Molto meno mosso, presents an apotheosis of—not the motto—but the dance theme of the first movement, now proudly paraded by winds and brass.
Program Notes by David B. Levy © 2012