SEASON FINALE WITH ZHANG & BRONFMAN
XIAN ZHANG conductor
YEFIM BRONFMAN piano
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Two stellar artists close the season: Xian Zhang joins forces with pianist Yefim Bronfman, described by the Chicago Tribune as “a marvel of digital dexterity, warmly romantic sentiment and jaw-dropping bravura.”
Prelude Performance—Fri, June 9, before the concert
Enjoy live music in the lobby, performed by NJSO CHAMPS students. Free for ticketholders.
Party on the Patio—Sat, June 10, before the concert
Enjoy a tasty BBQ dinner with friends and other concertgoers, served on Count Basie Theatre’s beautiful outdoor covered patio! Additional charge; reservations required by June 8. More information.
Prelude Performance—Sun, June 11, before the concert
Enjoy live music in the lobby, performed by the NJSO Academy Orchestra's Anne Lieberson Ensemble. Free for ticketholders.
The June 10 & 11 performances are generously sponsored by Bank of America.
NJSO Accent events in Newark are sponsored by the Prudential Foundation.
BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2016
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Born: May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
World Premiere: November 9, 1881, in Budapest, with the composer as the soloist. Alexander Erkel conducted the orchestra of the National Theater.
NJSO Premiere: 1944–45 season. Frieder Weissmann conducted; Gyorgy Sandor was the soloist.
Duration: 46 minutes
If anyone needed convincing that French horn was Brahms’ favorite orchestral instrument, the opening to the Second Piano Concerto would clinch the argument persuasively. Dreamy and effortlessly beautiful, the unsupported horn melody sets the stage for one of the 19th century’s greatest musical dramas, with simplicity and majesty. Much of this first movement is a paean to the horn, which returns with its transcendent theme at key points in this monumental first act of the drama. Its poetic interaction with the piano floats into our consciousness, providing us with faith that clear skies will ultimately prevail over the tempests that follow. Brahms’ writing for the horn is both loving and knowledgeable. As musicologist Bernard Jacobson has written: “Brahms’ use of a single instrument [horn] places all the emphasis on the intensely personal poetry of unsupported horn tone, and this is borne out by the continued association of the theme with the instrument later on at two of the most magical moments in the movement.”
No less remarkable is the obbligato role that Brahms provided for principal cello in the third-movement Andante. Again, the idea of poetry in sound leaps to mind. For this intimate, private music, Brahms features the warmest and most human-sounding of the string instruments, endowing it with a part that is prized as one of the choicest cello solos in the entire orchestral literature.
Pianist as the dominant stripe in an orchestral fabric
Where does the piano fit into this? Isn’t this supposed to be a piano concerto, after all? What was Brahms up to? For one thing, he treasured his orchestra. By 1881 he was in his late 40s, an experienced orchestral composer who fully understood his players and their potential. Second, he conceived of the piano as an integral and closely-woven component of the orchestral fabric. Third, he had a gift for capturing an unexpected chamber-like moment, a brief subplot, amid the complex larger drama of this very large, decidedly symphonic composition. Horn and cello are merely the most outstanding examples of his orchestral favoritism and glorious attention to detail in the Second Piano Concerto; there is also, for example, a delicious chamber-like role for the two clarinets in the slow movement.
Majesty, struggle and Olympian drama
Brahms began sketches for the B-flat concerto in 1878 after his first Italian journey. It grew to enormous proportions. The concerto has a majesty and struggle that place it in a category all its own. Serenity reigns, despite Olympian drama that rages fiercely through the first two movements.
The piece requires a major piano virtuoso with stamina, physical strength and mature metaphysical insight. Its technical challenges are formidable, with huge chords, a variety of demanding passage work in octaves, thirds and sixths, a complex musical texture and highly sophisticated rhythmic patterns, especially in the finale.
‘A tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo’
The day he completed the manuscript, July 7, 1881, Brahms wrote to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, calling his most recent accomplishment “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” The massive first movement—so peaceably introduced by solo horn—is followed by a tempestuous scherzo that breaks from tradition and emphasizes the symphonic character of this concerto. Where the opening movement expands sonata form to its very limits, the scherzo compresses it. Explosive fury propels this movement, whose tempo marking, Allegro appassionato, recalls the romantic passion of Brahms’ youthful compositions. The central Trio, in D major, bursts through the thunderous storm clouds like a joyous ray of sunlight. Ultimately, the storm returns.
A lilting rondo tinged with Hungarian flavor closes the concerto. Brahms’ witty and graceful finale is a maze of rhythmic games. He toys with cross-rhythms and phrases that regularly travel across bar-lines, resulting in an ongoing ambivalence between duple and triple meter. Trumpets and drums have no place in this gracious movement. As Peter Latham has observed, “for the sustained lightness and brilliance of this music there is only one model—Mozart.”
Instrumentation: woodwinds and trumpets in pairs, four horns, timpani, strings and solo piano.
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47
Born: September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975, in Moscow, Russia, USSR
Composed: April–July 1937
World Premiere: November 21, 1937, in Leningrad. Yevgeny Mravinsky led the Leningrad Philharmonic
NJSO Premiere: 1966–67 season; Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted.
Duration: 44 minutes
Shostakovich was the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. His contribution is important not only because he left 15 examples (more than any other symphonist of his stature), but also because they are musically so substantive. There are striking parallels to Beethoven in Shostakovich’s career. Among the most startling is the role that a Fifth Symphony played in each of their output. In both cases, the Fifth is considered to be a pivotal work, one that delineated a major shift in his music.
Shortly before his Fifth Symphony’s premiere, Shostakovich wrote: “The theme of my symphony is the development of the individual. I saw man with all his sufferings as the central idea of the work, which is lyrical in mood from start to finish; the finale resolves the tragedy and tension of the earlier movements on a joyous, optimistic note.”
Listeners who know Beethoven’s Fifth will immediately sense a kinship. Beethoven’s symphony deals with the struggle against Fate, in which man emerges triumphant in the finale. Another factor the works have in common is their unification by a concise musical motto that recurs in almost every movement. In Beethoven’s, it is the famous “fate knocking at the door” that opens the symphony; in Shostakovich’s, it is an anapest (short–short–long) rhythm.
Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony on the heels of a major musical and political setback: Joseph Stalin’s adverse reaction to Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and his subsequent attack in Pravda in January 1936. The following year, 1937, was the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution. Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony for that occasion. He sought to convince Stalin’s cultural ministers that he was committed to Soviet ideals and philosophy. With this symphony, Shostakovich responded successfully to Stalin’s political directive for music with a mission. He composed, as it were, a Soviet symphony. This was the piece that won governmental approval, becoming Shostakovich’s passport to official “rehabilitation” and putting him back in official good graces.
The symphony also did a considerable amount to build Shostakovich’s reputation outside the Soviet Union. And yet, in spite of its surface compliance with the party line, it is still music of passion and heartfelt emotion, managing to be personal without sacrificing power.
Musicians and political analysts have debated for decades whether Shostakovich sold out to political pressure or acquiesced so that Stalin’s minions would leave him alone to compose what lay deep within his soul. Either way, he left posterity a great orchestral masterpiece in the Fifth Symphony. Its musical substance contributed to its acclaim by audiences worldwide, regardless of any overt or implicit political message.
While the two outer movements have become the Fifth Symphony’s best-known segments, the inner two better reflect Shostakovich’s emerging style. The scherzo, a quasi-Schubertian country dance tinged with Mahlerian satire, shows the dry, sardonic side of Shostakovich’s personality to perfection. And the slow movement, a showcase for the string section, embodies the tragedy and poetry inherent in the human condition. The Fifth Symphony is usually regarded as the window looking into Shostakovich’s middle period, but its music has such consummate maturity that it more than foreshadows the rich masterpieces that would follow during and after the Second World War.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, piccolo clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, two harps, bells, xylophone, celeste, piano and strings.