Program Notes | Dec 5–8, 2019

Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto
By Laurie Shulman ©2019


Anna Clyne: Within Her Arms

This meditation for strings is an elegy of love and loss, written in memory of the composer’s mother.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3

A pulsating orchestra opens this concerto, supporting the piano’s stark, straightforward theme in octaves. Rachmaninoff spins wonders from this deceptively simple melody! Blood and thunder, passion and pathos course through the outer movements. The Intermezzo provides welcome respite, setting the stage for the firestorm of the finale.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 8

Sometimes called Dvořák’s “Pastoral” Symphony, the Eighth breathes the transparent, wholesome spirit of the Bohemian countryside. Birdcalls and a wistful calm in the Adagio evoke the peace of the composer’s summer home.

ANNA CLYNE: Within Her Arms for String Ensemble (NJSO Premiere)


Born: March 9, 1980, in London, England
Currently residing in New York City
Composed: 2008–09
NJSO Premiere: These are the NJSO premiere performances.
World Premiere: April 7, 2009, in Los Angeles. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted.
Duration: 14 minutes

Not yet 40, Brooklyn-based Anna Clyne has already served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Berkeley Symphony and l’Orchestre National d’Île-de-France. She currently teaches at Mannes/The New School in Manhattan and stays busy fulfilling commissions. The current season includes Clyne premieres by l’Orchestre National de Lyon, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Calidore String Quartet.

She completed her first composition at age 11, subsequently pursuing formal music study at the University of Edinburgh. Clyne also earned a Master’s in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music. Her teachers included Marina Adamia, Marjan Mozetich and Julia Wolfe.

Clyne works in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music. Within Her Arms is intimate and intensely personal: a reverie for strings delivering a posthumous love letter to her mother. Clyne’s composer’s note is self-explanatory and deeply moving: “Within Her Arms is music for my mother, with all my love.” She quotes a poem by the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:

Earth will keep you tight within her arms dear one—
So that tomorrow you will be transformed into flowers—
This flower smiling quietly in this morning field—
This morning you will weep no more dear one—
For we have gone through too deep a night.
This morning, yes, this morning, I kneel down on the green grass—
And I notice your presence.
Flowers, that speak to me in silence.
The message of love and understanding has indeed come.

—Thich Nhat Hanh

Instrumentation: three first violins, three second violins, three violas, three cellos, three double basses.

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30


Born: April 1, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod district, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California
Composed: 1909
World Premiere: November 28, 1909, in New York City. The composer was the soloist; Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony.
NJSO Premiere: 1968–69 season. Abbey Simon was the soloist; Henry Lewis conducted.
Duration: 39 minutes

“The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performance by any but pianists of exceptional powers.”
– The New York Herald, January 17, 1910

For more than a century since that review of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto appeared in print, pianists who aspire to perform it have endeavored to master those “exceptional powers.” They are responding to popular demand. Listeners love this piece.

Rachmaninoff’s melody is deceptively simple, moving primarily in stepwise motion or in small intervals. The theme is also unusually long, which makes it linger in our ears. Motives from it will recur throughout the entire concerto, providing subtle thematic unity.

When the orchestra takes up the theme, the soloist embarks on a series of exploratory variations, leading to a second theme that has all the warmth and lyricism we associate with Rachmaninoff. He develops this material with a profusion of brilliant writing for piano. He demands quick shifts of hand position, rapid repeated notes, the ability to play with delicacy and lightness as well as with power—and plenty of enormous chords. In places, the piano practically explodes with activity.

Rachmaninoff actually composed two cadenzas for this concerto. Only their closing measures are the same. The first is shorter and emphasizes complex passagework. The second, known as the ossia, is a massive 75 bars and requires both strength and stamina for extensive chordal playing. For these performances, George Li plays the ossia cadenza.

The slow movement consists of a theme and four variations. Oboe introduces the melody; the orchestra establishes an elegiac atmosphere. The piano joins in with extravagant harmonic wanderings. It proceeds without pause to the finale, a dance-like, energetic movement in the Russian tradition—and a bravuratour de force.

From the standpoint of compositional technique, the Third Piano Concerto represents an enormous leap forward for Rachmaninoff. The power and brilliance of the piano part rarely fail to prompt audiences to their feet at the conclusion of this concerto. Its splendor and genius lie just as much in the delicate, whimsical moments and the infinite variety of Rachmaninoff’s decorative passages.

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, 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, Bohemia
Composed: August–November 1889
World Premiere: February 2, 1890, in Prague. The composer conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1956–57 season. Samuel Antek conducted.
Duration: 34 minutes

After the “New World” Symphony, the G major is the best loved of Dvořák’s large orchestral works. 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. That stated, flute emerges as first among equals.

Dvořák treated symphonic form flexibly. Even so, some historians have noted a stylistic change in this work. 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. Both have themes based on a simple G-major triad, and the emphasis on variation technique 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’s 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 advised an orchestra, “Gentlemen, 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.