GRIEG'S PIANO CONCERTO
Grieg’s passionate piano concerto is a cornerstone of the Romantic repertoire, while buoyant folk melodies propel Dvořák’s sunny Eighth Symphony. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a 26-year-old protégé of Gustavo Dudamel, makes his NJSO debut in a program brimming with life and energy.
SANTTU-MATIAS ROUVALI conductor
XIAOHUI YANG piano
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
March 2 Concert Notice
The “Grieg’s Piano Concerto” concert at NJPAC in Newark on Sunday, March 2 at 3 pm will take place as originally scheduled. College Night and other planned receptions for Sunday, March 2, will also take place. We recommend you use Military Park Garage, as surface lots may be closed in anticipation of the storm.
College Night at the NJSO
A special $10 student ticket includes entrance to the Orchestra’s 3 pm performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and a post-concert all-student party with light refreshments and live entertainment by student performing groups from various New Jersey colleges and universities. More information.
NJSO Food Drive
Non-perishable food donations will be collected at these concerts to benefit The Community FoodBank of New Jersey. More information.
Classical Conversations with NJSO Associate Conductor Gemma New and guest artist Xiaohui Yang begin one hour before the concert on March 1 & 2 (free to ticketholders).
Sponsored by Herbert & Evelyn Axelrod.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2014
For Music Director Jacques Lacombe’s perspective on these pieces and the way the program fits together, click here for a PDF of the notes as they appear in the printed program book.
Nordic and Czech nationalism balance the two halves of this weekend’s concerts. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali have paired works by Jean Sibelius and Edvard Grieg on the first half, touching on Arctic fire and ice as well as folk song, national dances and a hymn to Nordic nature. After intermission, the Orchestra turns to a work that is arguably the most profoundly Czech of Antonín Dvořák’s nine symphonies—the Symphony No. 8 in G Major.
SIBELIUS: Vårsång (Spring Song), Op. 16
Born: December 8, 1865, in Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, in Järvenpaa, Finland
Composed: 1894, revised 1895 and 1902
Premiered: Sibelius conducted the original version of Spring Song on June 21, 1894, and the premiere of a revised version on April 17, 1895. In 1902, he revised the work again—to the version we hear. Robert Kajanus led the premiere of the definitive version in Helsinki on December 12, 1903.
NJSO premiere: These are the first NJSO performances.
Duration: 10 minutes
Jean Sibelius was enormously productive during the 1893–94 season. In addition to writing a substantial number of songs and pieces for solo piano, he completed the Karelia Overture, and the better-known Karelia Suite. His big project was an opera, Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat), based on material from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. (He never completed the opera.) In the midst of all this, he also wrote the first version of the tone poem that has become known as Spring Song.
It went through several stages and names before arriving at a definitive version. When Sibelius first conducted it at an outdoor festival in 1894, he gave the title as Impromptu for orchestra (in some biographies, the original title is translated as Improvisation). The following year he revised the work substantially, eliminating a final section and changing the overall tonality from D major to F major. He also renamed it Vårsång (Spring Song). His publisher assigned a French subtitle, “La tristesse du printemps” (“The Sadness of Spring”). Sibelius reportedly felt that the French name was misleading.
The dichotomy between springtime and sadness mirrors the mixed critical reaction to this piece. Biographer Nils Ringbom, writing in the early 1950s, referred to Spring Song as “the beautiful hymn to northern nature … whose mixture of springtime joy and melancholy is perhaps more correctly rendered by the French subtitle ‘La tristesse du printemps.’” Similarly, English writer Cecil Gray referred to “a strain of wistful and elegiac melancholy in the middle minor section.” However, biographer Robert Layton has written that “the material … seems thin and commonplace by Sibelius’ standards.”
Sibelius’s most comprehensive biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, considers Spring Song to be Nordic/Scandinavian in a general sense, rather than specifically Finnish. Sibelius was still finding his individual voice and had not yet embraced the cause of Finnish nationalism so decisively as he would in later works. Still, his expansive and confident handling of the orchestra—including a wonderfully controlled crescendo leading to Spring Song’s climax—point clearly toward the symphonic mastery that lay ahead.
Instrumentation: two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, chimes and strings.
GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16
Born: June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway
Died: September 4, 1907, in Bergen
Composed: 1868–69, revised several times between 1872 and 1895; final version completed in 1907
Premiered: April 3, 1869, in Copenhagen. The piano soloist was Edmund Neupert; Holger Simon Paulli conducted the Royal Theater Orchestra.
NJSO premiere: 1929–30 season; Rene Pollain conducted with soloist Percy Grainger.
Duration: 30 minutes
The route to Norwegian nationalism
Norway’s favorite musical son Edvard Grieg was sent to the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany when he was 15, studying piano with the great virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. Though Grieg was not happy in Leipzig, he became immersed in the very lively musical culture that mid-19th-century Germany offered. He also spent time in Copenhagen, where Niels Gade was the most influential composer, before settling permanently in Norway and taking a strong interest in the folk music of his homeland beginning in the 1860s. Thenceforth his music took on an increasingly Norwegian slant. Today, Grieg is regarded as the most important composer that Norway has produced, and the father of Norwegian nationalist music.
As its opus number indicates, his Piano Concerto, Op. 16, is a relatively early work, completed when the composer was only 25; he lived into his 60s. The concerto is important for a number of reasons. It was the largest orchestral work that Grieg composed, and the last piece that he wrote in the Austro-Germanic tradition before he discovered the wealth of Norwegian folk music that was to so strongly influence the balance of his career. As such, the concerto is certainly a significant landmark.
Even if that were not the case, however, the concerto would be a marvel. Along with Schumann’s piano concerto in the same key, with which it is frequently compared, Grieg’s masterpiece holds court as the quintessential romantic concerto. His biographer John Horton calls it “the most satisfying and successful of Grieg’s attempts at composing in the larger traditional forms, and the one that is generally agreed to be the most complete musical embodiment of Norwegian national Romanticism.”
Like Schumann’s concerto (which Grieg acknowledged he had studied carefully before embarking on his own), Grieg’s opens with a dramatic flourish for the soloist. He also follows Schumann’s lead by dispensing with the double exposition familiar in the Mozart concertos. Thenceforth, the two works differ. Where Schumann’s first movement is monothematic, Grieg’s has several distinct and contrasting theme groups, including a completely new melody that oboes and bassoons introduce in the coda. The pianist’s cadenza dazzles with romantic/heroic passagework that is indebted to Felix Mendelssohn.
From Schumann to Chopin
The second and third movements diverge more substantially from the Schumannesque model. Grieg’s Adagio settles the dust kicked up by the blood and thunder of the first movement. Muted strings introduce the lush key of D-flat major, joined first by bassoon, then upper winds, before the soloist enters. D-flat is a distinctly Chopinesque key. Grieg’s piano writing in the opening pages is unmistakably imprinted with the delicate filigree of his Polish/French predecessor; so too are his harmonic travels on this extraordinary and passionate journey.
Norwegian folk dance makes an appearance
The finale gives us the most prophetic glimpse of Grieg’s Norwegian voice, with which he was to speak so eloquently during the next decades. Characterized by strong rhythmic profile and a fiery, even pagan spirit, this movement is a halling, a Norwegian folk dance that Grieg used in other works (including his Lyric Pieces for piano, Op. 47). A switch to a relaxed and lyrical section takes romantic liberties. Indeed, the tempo changes have a great deal to do with the dramatic tension that makes the finale so effective.
Grieg undoubtedly sought opportunities for pianistic display. He dedicated the concerto to Edmund Neupert, who played the Copenhagen premiere in autumn 1869. The concerto did much to establish Grieg’s international reputation, and he continued to revise the orchestration until the last years of his life, refining the brass and woodwind parts. He sent the last revisions to his publisher just weeks before his death. We hear the 1907 revised version.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs (second flute doubling piccolo), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings and solo piano.
DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Born: September 8, 1841, in Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904, in Prague
Composed: August 26 to November 8, 1889
Premiered: February 2, 1890, in Prague; the composer conducted.
NJSO premiere: 1956–57 season; Samuel Antek conducted.
Duration: 36 minutes
Dvořák composed nine symphonies, but only five were published during his lifetime. Consequently, great confusion has persisted with respect to their numbering and chronology. The British firm Novello published this Symphony in 1892 as No. 4, adding fuel to the numbering mix-up and causing the dubious nickname “The English” to be occasionally attached to the work. It is an ironic misnomer, for few of Dvořák’s compositions have a stauncher Czech feel to them than this bright symphony.
After the “New World” Symphony, the Eighth is the best loved of Dvořák’s large orchestral works. While it shares with the “New World” an intensely Czech flavor and a wealth of melodies, the G-major work pursues a different musical path, focusing on the transparent and wholesome simplicity of the Bohemian countryside. Dvořák’s musical approach is disarmingly direct. Part of the symphony’s appeal is the folk-like character of the melodies in all four movements. Another asset is Dvořák’s magnificent, imaginative writing for woodwinds. So fertile is his melodic gift that virtually every instrument has its chance for solos, although the flute especially shines.
Melody vs. structure: Dvořák, Brahms, Bruckner and others
Most of the sketches for the Eighth Symphony date from August 1889. Dvořák completed the orchestration by early November, and the premiere took place in Prague under the composer’s direction in February 1890. The following January, the prominent Hungarian-born conductor Hans Richter led the Viennese premiere. Richter wrote to the composer the next day:
You would certainly have been pleased with this performance. All of us felt that here was a magnificent work, and so we were all enthusiastic. Brahms dined with me after the performance and we drank to the health of the unfortunately absent father of [your symphony]. Vivat sequens!
Brahms apparently expressed some reservations to the Austrian critic and composer Richard Heuberger. Two days after the Viennese premiere, Heuberger wrote to the publisher Fritz Simrock in Vienna, reporting Brahms’ reaction in some detail:
Too much that’s fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece. Everything fine, musically, captivating and beautiful—but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician! When one says of Dvořák that he fails to achieve anything great and comprehensive with his pure, individual ideas, this is correct. Not so with Bruckner, all the same he offers so little!
Heuberger’s letter implies that Brahms continued to admire Dvořák’s fertile melodic imagination and apparently valued that above the structural integrity of Bruckner’s music. The observation is surprising from a composer who was himself such a rigorous master of musical architecture.
In comparison to Brahms, Dvořák treated symphonic form flexibly. Even so, some historians have noted a stylistic change in this work. English composer and conductor Julius Harrison has written:
Melodies come and go in more rhapsodic continuity, less concerned with problems of inner contrapuntal development. Their innate charm is matched by rich yet simple harmonies mostly of a diatonic character, springing naturally from the primary triads of the key in which the music happens to be at the moment. The spirit of fanciful improvisation hovers around.
Childlike wonder and the appeal of rustic Bohemia
By allowing Bohemian songs and dance tunes to dominate, Dvořák gave the symphony a celebratory, almost childlike spirit that permeates all four movements. The consistency of mood is underscored by a strong thematic relationship between the first and last movements. As Harrison indicates, both have themes based on a simple G-major triad, and the emphasis on variation technique in both movements underscores the similarities.
The inner two movements provide contrast and emotional depth. The rhapsodic Adagio, with its birdcalls and wistful character, could be a musical portrait of Vysoká, the composer’s beloved summer home. Dvořák biographer Alec Robertson calls this slow movement “completely original from start to finish. It could stand as a miniature tone-poem of Czech village life described by a highly sensitive man. There is a touch of pain in the opening harmonies that becomes pronounced later on.”
The predominant atmosphere, nevertheless, remains resolutely positive. Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik, rehearsing the finale’s opening fanfare, is said to have remarked to an orchestra, “In Bohemia, the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance.” The characteristic, lighthearted rhythms do indeed pull strongly, inviting foot-tapping and bright smiles. Essentially, the finale is an introduction—the fanfare—theme and variations, and a coda. What you will remember are the blazing trumpet, the exuberant horn trills and a spellbinding variation for solo flute.
Instrumentation: two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
SANTTU-MATIAS ROUVALI, conductor
Finnish conductor SANTTU-MATIAS ROUVALI’s career is developing at a remarkable pace. Last season he made a number of important debuts including concerts with the hr-Sinfonieorchester, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Dresden Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra.
The 2013–14 season is his first as chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra; he is also principal guest conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic and artist in association with the Tapiola Sinfonietta.
This season, Rouvali returns to the Dresden Philharmonic and debuts with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the New Jersey and Milwaukee symphony orchestras. In addition, he continues his relationships with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Residentie Orkest, conducting a number of their concerts each season. In past seasons, Rouvali has conducted Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s The Magic Flute with West Coast Kokkola Opera.
He recently released a disc on the Ondine label featuring the Hakola and Hosokawa Guitar Concertos with Timo Korhonen and the Oulu Symphony Orchestra.
XIAOHUI YANG, piano
Born in Liaoning, China, pianist XIAOHUI YANG is pursuing a master’s degree at The Juilliard School, where she holds the Cecilia Felman Piano Scholarship. She received the Michael and Cecilia lacovella Capuzzi Memorial Fellowship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and garnered the Festorazzi Prize when she graduated from Curtis in 2013.
She performed a solo recital at the Shenyang Foreign Culture Music Festival and has appeared with the Milwaukee and Curtis symphony orchestras and at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. She has attended the Beijing International Music Festival and Academy and the Beethoven Institute and Taos School of Music festivals. She held the Billy Joel Keyboard Fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center in 2013. She has participated in masterclasses with Emanuel Ax, Peter Serkin, Gary Graffman and Richard Goode, among others.
Yang has garnered prizes in several competitions, including first prize in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition; second prize in the PianoArts North American Biennial Competition, Hong Kong Piano Open Competition and Toyama Asian Youth Music Competition and third prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition.