Ignition

Our season has been announced, and I invite readers to look under the “Concerts” link on this website. I always write a lengthy email to returning members about the season and why I picked what I picked, which I’ll excerpt for this blog below. The previous spring I do an informal poll of members, asking what they’d most like to play. The list is lengthy and varied, but there are always a small handful of works that pop up repeatedly. In shaping the season, I pick a couple of these that best fit with works I have in mind, plus the concerti that round out commitments made to faculty and student competition winners. This all gets shaped into the four major programs we present. The fact that it’s only four actually makes things harder, because one has to pack a lot in to a small container– sort of like it being much harder to write a good two-page essay than a ten page one. Every word has to really count, and every piece.

Here is the excerpt from my memo to returning members about the season:

October- Lang, Copland, Schumann

The first two pieces are there by circumstance. I made a commitment to our resident artists So Percussion more than a year ago to open our season with them, and it seemed appropriate to open with the work with which they opened the LA Phil’s season a year back, David Lang’s man made. They’ll be playing twigs, water bottles, pipes, steel drums….. SP has played the work with various international orchestras (like the BBC).

Following that after intermission, Paul Chang ’16 finally gets his turn as a 2015 Concerto Competition winner! Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is a masterpiece, my favorite of all his works. The best of musical Americana.

How to finish this program was a puzzle. The challenge was to find a ‘Goldilocks’ symphony– not too long, not super complex (as Lang and Copland both have challenges) but great fun. This is especially important on the first program. After a lot of thought, I decided that Schumann was the guy. The string players and a some winds will know a few of the big Schumann chamber works. His symphonies are not as well known as Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but they are glorious, glowing with the optimism of early Romanticism, untouched by the tinge of regret that creeped into the later Romantics. The Second is, for me, the most perfect of them, with a heart-breaking and melting slow movement. Schumann has been called the greatest pure romantic, and I would buy into that assessment.

December- Schubert, Mahler

“Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) is one of those works that, if you really penetrate it, can be life-changing. The texts are German translations of poems by four Chinese (Tang Dynasty) poets that gripped Mahler, and inspired his greatest music. The little volume of poems called The Chinese Flute that Mahler was given was part of the first wave of Asian artistic influences that had begun to filter to Europe.

We’ve spent a lot of time with this guy the past two seasons, but this is more than about doing a favorite composer of mine. It makes sense to do Mahler in clusters, as his complicated style takes a while to learn, longer than other composers. We’ve done together now two symphonies from Mahler’s earlier years, and that sets us up beautifully to experience this extraordinary late work. I honestly would not do late Mahler unless everyone had some of his earlier music under their belts. “The Song of the Earth” is a work of extraordinary humanity and spiritual power that addresses the most profound issues of life, all encased in Mahler’s searing and beautiful sound world. Sorrow and rapture, side by side- even simultaneously. (A special treat is that Prof. Scott Burnham will pay us a visit during a rehearsal and add his insight to our work.)

Schubert’s well-loved “Unfinished” is the perfect companion and opening to Das Lied- two great Austrians at opposite ends of the century who were both dedicated to the beauty of song, whether delivered by the human voice or by instruments. Schubert too, wrote works that encompassed opposites– the “Unfinished” is by turns, serene and sublime, but also full of angst and tragedy. The two composers on this concert are kindred spirits.

March- Concerto winners, Beethoven

The Concerto Competition is restricted this year to concerti written before 1800 or after 1945. I do this every few years to encourage students to explore periods that they might not normally– this time the Classical era and post-World War 2. Of course it’s the great Romantic and early 20th century works that we all fall in love with first, but to live exclusively there means neglecting many wonderful works, and also limiting one’s personal musical perspective. Learning to play Mozart beautifully adds a dimension to playing Romantic repertoire.

The most requested single work, almost every year, is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I’ve resisted just because I went through a period of performing it often– but that was a while ago, and I feel excited about revisiting it. Not much introduction is needed for this one! Two added bonuses here. First, Prof. Burnham will join us again for a Beethoven rehearsal. And a subset of the Beethoven orchestra (as many as can fit into the pit at McCarter) will perform it once more on April 8 with the American Repertory Ballet, the top professsional ballet company in the state, in a new choreography by Mary Barton, Ballet Mistress at ARB.

April- Strauss, Shostakovich

“Tod und Verklärung” (“Death and Transfiguration”) is the fourth of Richard Strauss’s landmark tone poems that PUO has performed. It’s one of his most popular works, and certainly the most lyrical of his orchestral works. A 25′ depiction of a person’s last moments, and what follows, it is a radiant and ecstatic vision, and is profoundly moving. (It is also one of the most stolen-from works by film composers.)

There were numerous requests for several Shostakovich symphonies, including the Fifth. I took a good look at all of them, and it turns out the most popular one fits our needs the best, particularly in containing the right number of wind, brass, percussion and harp parts for the year-ending piece.

And both works have a strong resonance and connection with Mahler. Strauss of course was Mahler’s contemporary– they knew each other personally, knew each other’s music quite well, had great mutual respect– and also not a small rivalry. Shostakovich was a passionate devotĂ© of Mahler, knew Mahler’s symphonies backwards, and incorporated much of Mahler into his own music. The other connection with all these works is of course Beethoven– no Beethoven….. I think you’ll find all this meaningful as you go through it.