OPENING WEEKEND: DENK PLAYS “EMPEROR”
XIAN ZHANG conductor
JEREMY DENK piano
NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Beethoven fans, rejoice! Xian Zhang kicks off a multi-concert tribute to Ludwig with the composer’s “Emperor” Concerto, starring phenomenal pianist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Jeremy Denk. The NJSO shows its virtuosity in Berlioz’s fantastic tale of thwarted love, opium dreams and witchcraft.
BEETHOVEN Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
Stirring and primal, introduces Beethoven’s sole ballet. Displays a youthful spark of genius.
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
Beethoven composed this majestic piece during a Napoleonic siege; like his Fifth Symphony, an iconic masterpiece.
BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique
An obsessive love turns demonic in this bold tour de force, which Berlioz wrote to win over celebrated actress Harriet Smithson.
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BY LAURIE SHULMAN, ©2017
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BEETHOVEN: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born: December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
World Premiere: March 28, 1801, at the Vienna Burgtheater.
NJSO Premiere: 1967–68 season; Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted.
Duration: 5 minutes
In 1800, the Italian dancer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò was the most influential ballet-master active at the Viennese imperial court. When Viganò approached Beethoven about collaborating on a ballet, Beethoven accepted the assignment with alacrity, correctly guessing that the project would do much to further his reputation. The resulting work, The Creatures of Prometheus, was his only ballet score.
In Viganò’s scenario, the Greek demi-god Prometheus brings two clay statues to life, using fire from the heavens. Upon discovering that they lack emotions, he leads them to Parnassus. There, the Muses, Apollo and Bacchus educate them in the arts so that they may experience the passion of human life through the power of harmony.
The Creatures of Prometheus became quite popular, enjoying nearly 30 performances in its first two years. Today, it is known primarily for its overture and finale. The overture is the earliest of Beethoven’s concert overtures to remain in the repertoire. It is a symphonic sonata-form movement (a movement in three sections, with an introduction, development and recapitulation of two main themes), drawing heavily on the models of both Haydn and Mozart.
The slow introduction calls to mind Beethoven’s First Symphony (also in C major), but the Allegro molto con brio is more self-assured and aggressive than the symphony’s. The music relies primarily on its principal theme for both development and coda, and it boasts some imaginative orchestration.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani and strings.
BEETHOVEN: Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (“Emperor”)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
World Premiere: November 28, 1811, in Leipzig. Friedrich Schneider was the soloist; Johann-Philipp Christian Schulz led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
NJSO Premiere: 1927–28 season. Harold Bauer was the soloist; Philip James conducted.
Duration: 38 minutes
Take a look at the sleek, 9-foot ebony instrument at center stage.
By 1809, what we call the piano had expanded beyond Mozart’s five-octave fortepiano. However, more than another half-century would elapse before that development culminated in an instrument the size and scope we hear this weekend. Beethoven was prescient in his ambition for the piano, writing music so far ahead of its time that the instrument has continued to grow into the music. Surely he would have been delighted with the modern concert grand, and nowhere more so than in the “Emperor” Concerto.
Beethoven tested both structural boundaries and elasticity of form in this last concerto. One revolutionary move was placing the solo cadenza at the beginning of the first movement, rather than its traditional placement near the end. Full orchestra intones a resonant, fortissimo E-flat major chord. Solo piano replies with a series of arpeggios that cede to a trill, then figuration, passage work and a melodic lead-in to a second chord from the orchestra, this time in A-flat. Once again unaccompanied piano responds, this time with more elaborate figuration for both hands. The piano ushers in the third, preparatory orchestral chord—no one in the orchestra has yet played more than a single pitch—and answers it with a more melodic, but still virtuosic, passage to the main theme.
After the piano’s bold entrance, nearly 100 measures of music unfold before we hear the piano again. Clearly, Beethoven was in no hurry. His opening Allegro is spacious and relaxed; in fact, it is the longest movement Beethoven ever composed. The soloist re-enters with another grand flourish: this time an ascending chromatic scale and a clarion trill, before a simple, elegant statement of the imperial theme. The piano weaves around the principal melodic ideas, etching elaborate figures without obscuring the noble design of each theme. There is no solo cadenza per se at the end of the Allegro, though the extended coda that serves the approximate function does begin on the familiar chord that usually heralds a cadenza. The structure is broad and symphonic, the music commanding and, yes, majestic.
Employment offer from a foreign monarch
Beethoven composed the E-flat concerto during a period when Vienna was braced for the second onslaught from Napoleon’s army. Ironically, the French Emperor’s brother Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, had recently invited Beethoven to move to Cassel, Germany, to become Kapellmeister. Beethoven was tempted. Then, three of his wealthy Viennese patrons pooled resources to provide him with an annuity, thereby persuading him to decline the offer.
Vienna had been home to him for so long that he was unlikely to leave at that point. In light of his strong ties to and reputation in the Austrian capital, it is ironic that the 1810 premiere of the “Emperor” did not take place in Vienna, but rather in Leipzig. Beethoven’s pupil Karl Czerny played the first Viennese performance the following year.
Berlioz on Beethoven’s slow movement: “The very image of grace”
The middle movement is comparatively brief, perhaps because its rich tonality of B major is so potent. Beethoven’s Adagio un poco mosso emphasizes dialogue between soloist and orchestra. He develops his material almost like variations, with an improvisatory character. Hector Berlioz was a great admirer of this movement, calling it “the very image of grace” and singling out Beethoven’s ethereal orchestration.
Perhaps the most inspired moment occurs at the very end, with the bridge to the glorious finale. The horns hold a single pitch for what seems like an eternity, suspended in midair; then, seemingly out of nowhere, the soloist diffidently introduces the triumphant chords of the closing Rondo, initially posing them as a question.
A magical modulation leads without pause to the exultant finale. This irrepressible joy ride is one of the most delightful and positive conclusions in all of Beethoven’s music. As in the first movement, the piano choreographs dazzling figures around the principal themes, without obscuring their contour. Our perception of royal splendor remains unimpaired. The “Emperor” ends with every ounce of the magnificent style with which it opened: virile, spacious and ever confident.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs; timpani, solo piano and strings.
BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Born: December 11, 1803, in La-Côte-Saint-André, France
Died: March 8, 1869, in Paris, France
Composed: 1830; early sketches date back as far as 1819.
World Premiere: December 5, 1830, in Paris; François-Antoine Habeneck conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1933–34 season; Rene Pollain conducted.
Duration: 49 minutes
A marvelous extravagance underlies the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz. He was a master of orchestral effects, and the sonic kaleidoscope of this spellbinding, quintessentially romantic score has made it a popular favorite. More than 190 years after its first performance, this splendid symphony still sounds fresh, even slightly dangerous. And so it is, for Berlioz’s subject was the obsessive love of a young artist driven to opium by his passion for a woman. To be sure, the symphonic and programmatic aspects of this five-movement work are more important than its dance elements. All the same, the second movement waltz is one of the great ballroom scenes in the symphonic literature.
Paradoxically, there is a non-French connection to this unique French work: Berlioz’s love interest, the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson. In 1827, Berlioz attended performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in English at Paris’ Théâtre de l’Odéon. He fell instantly in love with Smithson, who played both Juliet and Ophelia. Although he spoke virtually no English, Berlioz pursued the comely actress and eventually married her in 1833. The union was not a success—they separated in 1844—but Berlioz’s turbulent courtship was a major stimulus in the composition of his symphony and its sequel, Lélio.
Frankly autobiographical, the symphony bears the subtitle “Episode in the Life of an Artist.” The basic premise is that a sensitive young artist, rejected by the woman he loves, has taken a potentially fatal dose of opium in a suicide attempt. Rather than dispatching him to his destiny, the opium catalyzes a series of hallucinatory dreams reflecting the artist’s unstable state. These visions culminate in the nightmare-induced belief that he has murdered his beloved and is being led to the scaffold for execution.
One of Berlioz’s innovations in the Symphonie fantastique is the use of an idée fixe, or “fixed idea,” a musical theme representing the beloved that occurs in all five movements. In the first movement, he encounters his ideal woman and capitulates to her charms. In the second movement, we accompany our hero to a gala ball, where he glimpses the beloved through the crowd of dancing couples. In the third movement, “Scene in the Country,” two shepherds engage in a mournful duet, while thunder in the distance hints at impending doom.
The concluding two movements depict the drugged dreamer marching to his own execution, condemned for murder. In the diabolical finale, witches and other ghoulish specters assemble for a death orgy. Berlioz transforms the idée fixe in the course of the music, distorting it to a macabre, spectral scherzo idea as the opium induces the hero to further hallucinations.
Berlioz famously used the medieval chant Dies irae in his finale. Liszt, Rachmaninoff and other composers would follow his example, using the same chant in works for solo piano and orchestra. But the spine-tingling sound of Berlioz’s expanded brass section in the “March to the Scaffold” and “Witches’ Sabbath” movements leaves an unforgettable impression.
Instrumentation: two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (first doubling E-flat clarinet), four bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, two ophicleides (generally played by tuba in modern performances), two timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, bells, two harps and strings.