Friday, March 08, 2013

Humboldt Symphony Conductor's Notes

Edited from an interview with Paul Cummings.

Not necessarily in program order:

 Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto #5 (1811.) Called The Emperor, this is the last he wrote for piano and orchestra. It’s considered his greatest piano concerto, and one of the greatest ever written. Levi Walls, the winner of our concerto competition, will perform on piano.

 We’re playing the first movement, which is one of the longest first movements written for a concerto up to this time. It’s about 20 minutes long, and there are entire concertos from this period that are not 20 minutes long. That’s rather remarkable and placed demands on Beethoven’s audience. The critics panned the concerto, partly because of its length. It has symphonic proportions—the dimensions and structures of a symphony—but it is actually a concerto. It’s considered a trailblazing work.

 It uses a very full orchestra—full strings and wind sections as well as horns and trumpets. And as my colleague Daniela Mineva points out, it’s one of the first concertos to treat the orchestra as an equal partner with the soloist. The orchestra is not in the subordinate role of simply accompanying the piano soloist—rather you’ll hear the orchestra on an equal footing. Often the orchestra and piano even dialogue with one another, in a kind of call and response format. The piano nevertheless has several cadenzas in this movement. Even from the opening 10 measures it’s very clear that this is a work that features the piano soloist. But when the piano is not playing cadenzas, there are equal forces at work.

 Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote this concerto. It’s said he absorbed the music through the vibrations of the piano strings he felt through the floor. So it’s all the more remarkable when you hear these opening measures where the piano is playing with such incredible technique, to realize this was a deaf composer who wrote this music. And if you’ve ever wondered what kind of pianist Beethoven was, this concerto really highlights the amazing piano technique.

 I’m in awe when I play this music. I can relate to composers like Sibelius and Milhaud, but when you stand in front of the orchestra for this piece, it’s just amazing music. The craftsmanship is impeccable, the music just seems to work for all the instruments he wrote for, and then there’s the synergy that is more than the sum of its parts. The cumulative effect is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Our student players love it as well.

Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite (1893).  This is a three movement work for full orchestra: strings, woodwinds, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba and percussion. It’s very beautiful orchestral writing, which Sibelius is known for. It’s in the style of European Romanticism of the 1880s. Sibelius was never accused of being ahead of his time. He was like J.S. Bach—someone who uses the traditional harmonic language and adapts that to his own writing.

 This piece makes great use of all four French horns. You’ll hear them prominently displayed in both the first and last movements. As a late Romantic work this is a great challenge for us because it benefits from a larger string section than we have. There’s also beautiful writing for woodwinds, with solos for English norn, oboe, clarinet. The second movement uses only strings and woodwinds. Listeners may recognize the last movement of this suite, the march, because it’s one of the more famous orchestral marches.

 George Frideric Handel: Water Music Suite (1717.)  This is one of his famous and often performed works. Even if the title isn’t familiar, audiences will probably recognize some of Handel’s most popular melodies.

 Originally this piece was much longer, written for the full Baroque orchestra, so there were no clarinets or trombones or tubas. In the 19th century an Irish conductor and composer, Hamilton Harty, selected six movements from probably 30 or more that Handel wrote, and created the Water Music Suite. This was an art in itself, to cull it down to only six and put them in an order with a nice musical flow to it. He also added some dynamic and articulation markings, and parts for clarinets and flutes. There was a whole school of conductors who did this kind of thing so they could play Baroque pieces with modern orchestras.

 Darius Milhaud: La Creation Du Monde (The Creation of the World.) (1922-23.)  We’re doing part of this fascinating work from the 1920s. Milhaud was in Paris, as were so many great artists, musicians, dancers and theatre artists. There were several famous collaborations centered on a theatrical or dance work, especially those created by Jean Cocteau. Among composers he brought in Stravinsky and Ravel, and ripples went out even farther to include Gershwin and Copland, who were influenced by these Parisian salons.

 This piece is a good example of this period in artistic history, especially because it incorporates jazz, that new American art form. American jazz artists were playing in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. Milhaud traveled to New York to hear more. He went to nightclubs in Harlem, and was fascinated by this new style—the improvisation, the prominent use of saxophone, the ways piano and percussion were used.

 Milhaud applied his classical and jazz crossover idioms with a story of the creation of the world based on African oral traditions. He wrote four movements but they’re meant to be played without stopping, so it flows together. He wrote for an interesting combination of instruments, basically a little chamber orchestra configuration of four strings, two flutes, an oboe, two clarinets, a bassoon, two trumpets, a trombone and a variety of percussion. True to what he learned from jazz, the saxophone is featured in many sections of this work, and the piano has an important part—it’s not just an ensemble part, but it’s intended to be heard rather than blend with the other instruments.

 This is not a piece we would typically play here. I have a strong feeling that this is the first time it will be played at HSU. The reason is that it’s difficult and challenging. The complexity comes mostly from the jazz element—the second movement is a jazz fugue. The instruments are all treated soloistically, and the players all have to be fiercely counting their rhythms. We can do it this year however because we have the perfect combination of players on all of the required instruments. We don’t necessarily have that in a typical year. But this semester there’s a perfect storm of all the advanced instrumentalists actually available. It’s a great piece of music we can’t do very often, but we can do it for these concerts.

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