By Bill Crane, Director of Audience Engagement, Portland Piano International
“As a musician, I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note.” – Georges Bizet
Before one might write anything about today’s individual pieces, something must be said about the grand Russian piano tradition, arguably one of the great phenomena of the past century and a bit. There are scores of Russian composers, too many of them forgotten in our own time, who put forth music of peerless passion and technical demands. Their repertoire is a gift, unrivaled. This music is romantic, demanding, and revealing of the Slavic soul. One of its greatest contemporary exponents plays from that grand tradition today, setting in fine contrast other works that whet the appetite for these huge, slightly crazy studies in passion. There is little to be calm about in these programs.
SAT / OCT 6, 2018 / 4PM
Domenico Scarlatti, 1685-1757, Three Sonatas
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Arguably one of the most unusual compositional offerings of the Baroque era, Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas (!) stand as a compendium of not only music, but of the wide range of human emotion and experience. Almost all of them were written in the latter part of Scarlatti’s life, when living in Spain, where he was teacher to a princess who became queen, and after years in Portugal. Thus, this Neapolitan-born Italian composer fused myriad experiences from several cultures and portrayed them in concise and often profoundly virtuoso pieces he called sonatas and, sometimes, “exercises.” Nearly all of them are in binary form, meaning the first half played and repeated, usually with a tour to another key, followed by the second half, often meandering harmonically and always developing or “replying” to the first half, too, but returning to the home key, also repeated. Within that framework, there is always terrific stuff.
Much could be said about Scarlatti, himself son of a famed composer, Alessandro, about how he actually began producing this unparalleled collection of perfect miniatures at the age of 50, about his fortunate royal patronage, etc., but it is probably much more important to remember and to feel in our sedentary age that this music all proceeds from dance. These dance-sonatas, if I might invent a term, quite reflect everything that we know and imagine about life in the Iberian peninsula with all its churning and lively spirit. At turns variously poignant, thrilling, introspective, harmonically audacious, full of abandon, they never fail to please the listener. When he published 30 of them in a collection in 1738, Scarlatti offered them with this comment:
Whether you be Dilettante or Professor, in these Compositions do not expect any profound Learning, but rather an ingenious Jesting with Art, to accommodate you to the Mastery of the Harpsichord. It was not self-interest or ambition which led me to publish them but obedience. Perhaps they may please you, in which case I may more willingly obey further commands to gratify you in a simpler and more varied style. Therefore, show yourself more human than critical, and then your Pleasure will increase. Vivi felice. D.S.
Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827, Sonata, Opus 53, “Waldstein” (1804)
“This is the mark of a really admirable man: steadfastness in the face of trouble.” L.v.B.
From the very beginning of this beloved sonata, dedicated to a faithful patron, it seems to me, one hears that “steadfastness,” whether there was trouble at the time or not. (There probably was.) I. Allegro con brio. The quietly pulsing eighth-notes of the very first two measures, abundantly ready to support ideas and melodies to come, show a confidence and insistence that allows for a thrilling exposition and development of ideas and contrasts resulting in one of the most dazzlingly brilliant works of Beethoven’s “middle period.” (The “Appassionata” and “Les Adieux” sonatas come from the same time.) The 19th-century biographer William Lenz, in fact, dubbed the Waldstein an “heroic symphony for the piano.”
What we hear today as the second movement, Introduzione; Adagio molto, is actually a replacement for Beethoven’s original idea for this place in the sonata. (That original movement was later published separately and got to be known as the Andante favori.) We hear, instead, a compressed and profound introduction to the third movement. Its main theme, in dotted rhythm, always ascending melodically, is quite inviting and foreshadows Beethoven’s later sonatas in which the traditional three self-contained movements gave way to two, packed with many ideas.
In III. Rondo; Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo, Beethoven exploits almost all of the piano’s resonance and effects, including requiring the player to hold the sustaining pedal down not only through changes of harmony, but even through changes between major and minor tonalities. The rondo begins with a pianissimo melody played with crossed hands that soon returns fortissimo, over daringly fast scales in the left hand. It proceeds through an amazing range of emotions in the bits between the repeated rondo statements, traveling through quite a few keys in the process. The themes are then jumbled and toyed with in a quiet section that precedes a furious, extra-fast coda, sending us through a triumphant rush of grandeur.
James Lee III, born 1975, Window to Eternity’s Threshold (2017)
The composer, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, has provided these notes for the premiere of this work:
Window to Eternity’s Threshold is a set of four piano character pieces about an individual preparing for an important journey. He imagines this journey to end in a place of unimaginable bliss where he expects to have immortality. On the way to the journey, the individual will need to encounter various challenges before the arrival to his destination. In the first piece Dancing for Fire, he witnesses spectacular scenes of other people chanting and involved in rituals that try to bring down fire from the sky. The piano music exemplifies this in the frantic way in which the various musical ideas change. This is also enhanced by a kind of textural counterpoint to the previous frenzied music with a type of dance in triple and irregular meters. This movement finally ends with the fire being extinguished. Jacob’s Song is more of a solemn litany in which there is a desire for endurance to continue on the path. At certain times there are strong outbursts in a denser texture of chords that offsets the initial two voice contrapuntal statement. Blowing Winds is a vague reference to Dancing for Fire in regards to the presented energy of the forward driving rhythms. Quintal harmonies and a playful dialogue between both hands characterize this piece until repeated pitches interrupt this passage. Then irregular meters alternating in groups of ten finally carry the wind up into the clouds where it eventually dissipates. The last piece in the set, Dance of the Sealed is an exuberant work in which a celebratory dance set in 5/4 meter contrasts with an idea of motor rhythms and intense repeated chords constructed in tertial harmonies reminiscent of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This piece represents the individual when he realizes that he has been sealed for salvation in order to avoid the results of eternal destruction. He will then be permanently recognized as a respected citizen in his new homeland. This makes his anticipated arrival all the more sweet. He then continues to shout, sing for joy, and dance as he continues to journey to see the paradise that he has so longed for. This is especially heard with more fervency as one again the chords are thicker and the intensity grows until the end.
SAT / OCT 6, 2018 and SUN / OCT 7, 2018
Sergei Rachmaninov, 1873-1943, Three pieces selected from the Moments Musicaux, 7 Morceaux de salon, and the Morceaux de fantaisie.
“Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” S.R.
“Do not waste your time with music that is trite or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.” S.R., in an interview with James Francis Cooke.
In choosing to group together these three pieces from three different sets of Rachmaninov’s compositions, Olga Kern has done a fine thing. They cohere nearly as well as a sonata would, reveling in quite varied emotional content, full of characteristic “song-like melodicism,” as one of his admirers once said about his music altogether, and astounding pyrotechnics on the keyboard. Opening with an insanity of notes and a passionate theme, the first piece is just terrifying for the left hand and then for both, but, of course, quite a bit more than just something showy. Right off, we hear the brutal gestures and uncompromising power of expression, unprecedented in Russian music at the time, for which we gravitate toward Rachmaninov.
The second, a boat-song, was composed in summer while on holiday with friends, and has an insistent “rocking” rhythm, with the melody in the tenor, and shows a little conflict in the middle, as, of course, Rachmaninov, was such a good musical story teller. Imagine your own gondolier of an evening in Venice.
Finally, the Polchinelle of the last piece refers, as you would imagine, to the Commedia dell’Arte character Pulcinella, revealing his sprightly, fun, theatrical antics. In fast-slow-fast form, with a lyrical passage in the middle, it is, nonetheless, astonishing in its blizzard of notes. Like its namesake, it plays trick upon trick upon trick!
Alexander Nikolayavich Scriabin, 1871-1915, Etudes Nos. 4 and 5 from Opus 42 (1903)
“Scriabin isn’t the sort of composer whom you’d regard as your daily bread, but it is a heavy liqueur on which you can get drunk periodically, a poetical drug, a crystal that’s easily broken.” Sviatoslav Richter
Effected by synesthesia (perceiving certain colors with certain pitches and vice-versa), and devoted to theosophy, Russian symbolism, occult teachings, and mysticism, given to boundless curiosity and being well-read, if mostly self-taught, this composer whom Stravinsky called “a man without citizenship,” meaning without a particular musical or cultural tradition, does not quite fit with any of our accepted notions of national styles. Rather, in his exceptionally high opinion of himself and his striving to create a music that would be “transformative to humanity,” he lets the listener know that he is Russian – everything pushed to the limits, no compromises, physical near impossibilities at the piano, furrowed-brow, serious story telling – but then goes so much further in seeking, it seems, a different way of being, of yearning to arise into a new human-ness. Indeed, he thought of music as a means of “redemption” and of himself as a great medium by which transformation of humanity and the world might take place. Seeking “hidden energies” (his term) that might be channeled into music, and striving to achieve a synthesis of all art forms that might usher in a new age of human history (Wagner dreamt along similar lines), Scriabin created a large set of works that many find barely linked to other sonorous experience, even sometimes capable of inducing altered states of consciousness. Those who really listen to his music either really love it or really don’t; some have even become addicted, if you will, to these radically experimental ideas and expansive harmonies. In short, Scriabin demands a significantly different kind of attention when hearing his music.
Thus, these two etudes from his Opus 42 give us vivid exemplars of Scriabin’s unique musical identity, his chasing after lofty spiritual ideals. These “studies,” of course, like others by Chopin and Liszt, push the limits of technical achievement, but also exhaustingly explore depth, intricacy, mystery, passion, rest, reflection, perhaps even meaning. Number 4 is restful, floating, almost the musical equivalent of an Impressionist painting or, perhaps, a Calder mobile, always slowly turning. It suspends the listener, even if one is not sure just where. Number 5, the most famous of the group in Opus 42, in stark contrast, is vast, thunderous, absurdly virtuoso, yet brooding, a sinister tale from the Steppes. The path of the music is more than bumpy – it is cataclysmic in its daring and crashes, transcendent over anything that gets in its way. We may be uncertain of where we’re going, and disquieted along the way, but grateful to arrive finally at the end of a terrifying trip. Of it, though, pianist Vladimir Feltsman once said, “There is no happy ending.”
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, 1837-1910, Islamey, Opus 18 (1869)
“I have to use all my will-power to play or conduct an orchestra in public, not of course without injury to my nature. It always struck me as horrible that if you write something, there is no other way of hearing it than in a concert. It’s like telling a policeman all your most secret inner impulses. I feel morally defiled after every such public act.” M.B. in a letter to Vladimir Stasov.
Well, first of all, this piece is not about Islam. Our current political climate has too many of us nervous about that, so it seems important to say “no problem here.”
The self-appointed leader of “The Five,” the group of 19th-century Russian composers who so greatly drove the Russian musical tradition and aesthetic to ever greater dimensions (Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov were his colleagues), Balakirev received in his own time, and perhaps still does, less recognition than deserved. This was partly due to his usually taking a very long time to finish compositions, sometimes as long as 30 years, but Islamey is an exception, and stands as the work for which he is most well-known and celebrated.
He composed it as a virtuoso showpiece for Nikolai Rubenstein to perform at a concert held in late 1869 at the Free Music School in Saint Petersburg, founded by Balakirev himself. Taking only a month to compose it, he later remarked about it, in a letter to Eduard Reiss in 1892:
" . . . the majestic beauty of luxuriant nature there and the beauty of the inhabitants that harmonizes with it -all these things together made a deep impression on me . . . Since I interested myself in the vocal music there, I made the acquaintance of a Circassian prince, who frequently came to me and played folk tunes on his instrument, that was something like a violin. One of them, called Islamey, a dance-tune, pleased me extraordinarily and . . . I began to arrange it for the piano. The second theme was communicated to me in Moscow by an Armenian actor, who came from the Crimea and is, as he assured me, well known among the Crimean Tatars".
Rubenstein remarked that he found parts of it “difficult to manage” and ever since Islamey has had the reputation of being the hardest thing ever for a pianist to play. Or, at least that was true until Maurice Ravel composed his Gaspard de la Nuit, noting that he specifically wanted to write something harder than Islamey. Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov both quoted parts of it in their own compositions; the first in the opera Prince Igor, the second in Scheherezade. Fine admiration, I’d say.
Undeniably a zenith contribution to the tradition of 19th-century Russian musical nationalism, the fantasy, in its breathtaking demands of technique and steely nerves, is almost without peer. In the wrong hands, in can become an imperceptible blur of notes (that won’t happen in these concerts!); in the right ones, it is a raucous, delightful celebration of overheard, exotic melodies. It has three distinct parts, all connected, the third reprising the opening section in an even more excited explosion of keyboard fireworks and quoting again that theme that the composer heard sung by the Armenian baritone Konstantin de Lazari at Tchaikovsky’s house that summer of 1869. The conclusion is exactly the kind of pianistic bombast that never fails to induce gasping exhilaration in audiences. A vodka might be appropriate when you get home tonight!
SUN / OCT 7, 2018 / 4PM
Ludwig van Beethoven, 1170-1827, Ten Variations on a Theme by Salieri, WoO 73 (1799)
In Beethoven’s time in Vienna, there was a ready market for sets of variations on popular tunes for piano, in large part because they rendered a facile way to sustain at home the pleasure of charming melodies heard only recently in the theatres. (Remember – no radio, no CDs, no MP3s . . . .) Wise man that he was, Beethoven wrote more than a dozen sets of variations for piano between 1793 and 1801. All were published shortly after their composition. His variations stand out from those of many contemporary composers for their skillful craft and ornament. There’s nothing wrong with composing something entertaining, even sometimes superficial, and in Beethoven’s hands, one gets many beautiful moments.
In this particular set, based upon a duet, “La stessa, la stessissima” from Antonio Salieri’s opera Falstaff, Beethoven succeeds in taking a theme of quite simple charm that a lesser composer might have been challenged to turn into much of anything and puts forth a showpiece of imaginative invention. (Salieri, it will be remembered, was a rival of Mozart. His Falstaff was one of the earliest operatic permutations of a Shakespeare play.)
There is nothing silly or formulaic here: the original moment in the opera may have been about female jealousies in a love triangle, but in these variations we get a far wider view of emotions, technical skill, and, frankly, fun. Salieri was Beethoven’s teacher. He must have been impressed.
Robert Schumann, 1810-1846, Carnaval, Opus 9 (1834-35)
“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.” R.S.
There’s quite a story behind Carnaval that has delightful details of Schumann’s ardor for a young student to whom he became engaged, then broke it off, and his greater ardor for the daughter of his teacher, whom he would eventually marry (Clara). A recurring motif, based on four notes, forming a musical cryptogram, or very obtuse musical-literary puzzle, connects the 21 or 22 brief movements (the one titled “Sphinx” was not intended to be played and usually isn’t), even if the melodic bits are a difficult to catch, even on repeated hearing.
It began as a set of variations on Franz Schubert’s Sehnsuchtswalzer that Schumann began as a more intimate look at the tender nature of the theme, as he was dissatisfied with a rival composer’s more athletic variations, composed just a bit earlier. His variations were never completed, but he retained their essence for the opening movement of Carnaval. Altogether, it is the most characteristic of the genre he created himself, the suite of small character pieces united by an emotional thread, often taking their inspiration from literature.
Scholars like to go on and on about the various permutations of the notes A-S-C-H (the German counterparts of A or A-flat, B, C, and E-flat) and their significance in evoking his fiancee’s hometown, carnival itself, Ash Wednesday, Schumann’s own name, etc., and of the various portrayals of theatre characters Pierrot and Arlequin, Schumann’s opposing personal characteristics Eusebius and Florestan, of butterflies, dancing letters, the composers Chopin and Paganini. But, it may be best just to listen for his sincere, if at times quirky, personal reflections of people, attitudes, and things that he imagined in this portrayal of a grand occasion. The famed pianist Ignaz Moscheles noted that Schumann told him that he added the titles only after the music had been composed.
The final movement, alluding to those, like himself, who eschewed the light, merely entertaining aesthetic in so much of the then-contemporary composition, is quite a march in defense of quality music. It’s the “League of David” against the “Philistines!”
Thus, in Carnaval we have an epochal declaration of the most cherished values of the Romantic era – the personal tale to be told, colorfully, evocatively, with thrilling virtuosity, with memorable melody, even with opaque allusion to extra-musical matters. It is an exemplar of a musical tradition begun in Schumann’s time which persists, happily, to the present. Of Schumann’s music, Franz Liszt wrote, “The more one penetrates Schumann’s ideas, the more power and vitality one finds in them. The more one studies them, the more one is astonished by their richness and fertility.”
George Gershwin, 1898-1937, “Fascinating Rhythm,” (from “Lady, Be Good”), 1924 (arr. Earl Wild, 1976)
“My people are American, my time is today . . . music must repeat the thought and aspiration of the times.” G.G.
Who doesn’t love Gershwin? His is the music that can instantly transform any crank’s cranky heart, American, French, or from wherever. His are songs that delight, that always lift the spirit. There is a great catalogue of them and, I’d suppose, anyone in today’s audience could sing the opening measures of at least three of them.
Thus, it is a special treat to have this ultra-virtuoso arrangement of one of the best on this program. Some will argue (me, among them) that the arrangement may not entirely flatter Gershwin’s original intentions, but this song can stand up to the assault.
What pianist has the fame of having played for six Presidents in the White House? (Nobody but Earl Wild.) Who first played the Rhapsody in Blue, with Toscanini, no less – Earl Wild. Who toured the U.S. with Eleanor Roosevelt when she promoted the efforts of World War II? Earl Wild. His wildly exuberant arrangements of Gershwin songs remind one of the challenging etudes in the 19th-century virtuoso manner of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but incorporate modern jazz harmonies. They must surely be as much fun to play as they are to hear.
It is easy to imagine that Gershwin took special delight in the “misplaced accents” of Fascinating Rhythm. His brother is said to have complained, “For God’s sake, George, what kind of lyric do you write to a rhythm like that?” What might Ira have said about the firestorm that Wild created from those first, snappy tunes?