Monday, October 15, 2007

Peter Serkin returns to the Flynn Center for the Masterworks Season Opener

World renowned pianist Peter Serkin will open the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s 2007-2008 Masterworks Series this fall in a season entitled “Great Returns.” Serkin will perform, with VSO music director Jaime Laredo conducting, at the Flynn Center in Burlington on Saturday, October 20, at 8 p.m. World renowned pianist Peter Serkin will open the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s 2007-2008 Masterworks Series this fall in a season entitled “Great Returns.” Serkin will perform, with VSO music director Jaime Laredo conducting, at the Flynn Center in Burlington on Saturday, October 20, at 8 p.m.

The concert celebrates the return of Peter Serkin to complete the Brahms piano concerto cycle begun in 2005. Serkin is recognized as an American artist of passion and integrity, and as one the most thoughtful and individualistic musicians appearing before the public today. Throughout his career he has successfully conveyed the essence of five centuries of repertoire; his performances with symphony orchestras, recital appearances, chamber music collaborations and recordings are respected worldwide.

A pre-concert discussion, “Musically Speaking,” moderated by WCVT-FM 101.7 Classic Vermont radio personality Brian Harwood, will be held at 7 p.m. at the Flynn Center, free for members of the audience. The discussion will feature Music Director and conductor Jaime Laredo, providing entertaining insight into the music, composers and musicians themselves.


Ma Mère L’Oye (Mother Goose Suite)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The music of Ravel reveals several distinct facets: the Spanish influence of his Basque heritage; cutting satire; waltz music; impressionistic tone pictures; and the fantasy world of children and animals.

Ravel was a dapper man of delicate constitution, and his art was his life. He never married, traveled rarely, and shunned fame, twice refusing membership in the Legion of Honor. He was engrossed by a perfectionistic creative effort, but was uninterested in the performance of his works, a perverse attitude of “out of mind, out of sight.” At concerts he would escape to the foyer for a “cigarette liberatrice.” An able raconteur and player of practical jokes, his innate reserve and shyness left him only when he was in the company of children or animals.

The “Mother Goose Suite” is drawn from the world of childhood, originally a duo piano suite written for the gifted children of friends. To assure the piece a more popular musical feature, Ravel converted it to a ballet in 1912, from which is derived the orchestral suite.

I. Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty – Princess Florine has pricked her finger on a spindle and has fallen into a slumber from which her maids cannot wake her. The Good Fairy places two Blackamoors to guard her while she sleeps. The basic melodic line grows out of a phrase for flutes, horns, and violas heard at the beginning. In a languid tempo, the entire section is only 20 measures long.

II. Hop-O’-My-Thumb – At the head of this section Ravel quotes from Perrault’s fairy tale: “he believed that he would have no difficulty in finding his way by means of the bread crumbs which he had strewn wherever he had passed; but he was greatly surprised when he could not find a single crumb; the birds had come and eaten them all.” Muted strings follow the various solo woodwinds in a description of Hop-O’-My-Thumb’s winding trail. In the middle of the piece are suggestions of the twittering birds. A sense of anxiety pervades all.

III. Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas – Laideronette has been changed from princess to “Ugly Little Girl” by a wicked witch. Ashamed, she hides herself in a distant castle and encounters a huge Green Serpent (formerly a handsome prince). They voyage together and shipwreck on the shore of the land of the Pagodas. These are miniature people made of jewels, crystal, and porcelain who discover the Green Serpent to be their king. He and Laideronette are restored to their beauty and marry. The music describes an episode during which the tiny Pagodas play on nutshell instruments to accompany Laideronette’s bath. Ravel’s orchestration is obliged to parallel such musical delicacy – a march in miniature.

IV. The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast – Beauty tells the Beast that the goodness of his heart helps her forget his terrible visage. Taking pity on him, she accepts his proposal of marriage. This act of kindness transforms the Beast into a prince “as beautiful as the God of Love.” The musical dialogue opens between solo clarinet (Beauty) and contrabassoon (the Beast). Later, Beauty is heard through solo flute, oboe, and violin. The section ends with the sound of the cymbals, signifying transformation, and the voice of the prince is heard briefly in the cello.

V. The Fairy Garden – The suite returns to its original subject, Sleeping Beauty. She has slept on unchanged and is discovered and awakened by Prince Charming. The principal musical subject is a tender melody for strings. Ending all is a joyous fanfare as other characters gather around the couple and the Good Fairy gives them her blessing.


Variaciones concertantes
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires and trained in composition and piano in that city’s National Conservatory of Music. He begann to compose in his early youth, but later withdrew many of his works written before 1945 as immature.

In 1947, after return from travel in the United States on a Guggenheim grant, Ginastera was appointed to the faculty of his alma mater and also served as dean of the faculty of musical arts and sciences at the Argentine Catholic University. In 1969 he left Argentina and relocated in Geneva. At this time he was involved in opera, and it was his opera Bomarzo (1967) to which he owes musical notoriety. Commissioned and performed in the United States, it was banned two weeks before its South American premiere in Buenos Aires on the grounds that it was “obsessed with sex, violence, and hallucinations.” Ginastera agreed fully with the observation, and calmly went on to note that most serious opera is covertly or overtly involved with these same subjects, and that contemporary opera is simply more frank in its presentation.

Long before this brouhaha, Ginastera’s reputation in Europe had been established by the success of his earlier chamber works, among them the Variaciones concertantes. This piece was commissioned by the Asociacion Amigos de la Musica of Buenos Aires and was first performed in that city under Igor Markevitch on June 2, 1983. Always in love with the melodies and rhythms of Argentinian folk music, Ginastera began at this time in his life to make his musical language more international and personal, with a more subdued nationalism. Of the Variaciones he said, “The work has a subjective Argentine character. Instead of employing folklore material, an Argentine atmosphere is obtained by the use of original melodies and rhythms.” The piece consists of a theme and eleven variations, each of which features the special characteristics of a particular instrument, treated as a soloist.

The twelve sections of the work are played without pause.


Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Brahms was born in a Hamburg tenement to a mediocre bass player and a crippled seamstress 17 years her husband’s senior who quarreled incessantly. The family of five was squeezed into a few lightless rooms in a red-light district frequented by sailors.

Brahms’ father wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and fortunately had the sense to recognize his son’s talent and provide him with the best teachers in Hamburg. From the age of ten, Brahms played publicly, and his family was so needy that they allowed him to play for dances in some of the lowest dives on the Hamburg waterfront, a fact that his early biographers suppressed. His teenage years were devoted to drudgery; teaching, playing at dance halls and parties, composing cheap songs and making popular arrangements of opera melodies under pseudonyms.

At the age of 20, Brahms had the good fortune to be invited on a joint concert tour by Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi. His decision to go would change his life forever, and leaving in total ignominy he returned in eight months the most talked-about young musician in Europe.

Through Remenyi, Brahms met Joseph Joachim, Liszt, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Upon hearing his music, the Schumanns all but adopted him and publicly declared him to be the future of music in Germany.

Brahms returned a changed man to a home which had not altered. His misery was heightened by separation from Clara Schumann, whom he had grown to love. When word reached him of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and incarceration in an asylum, Brahms rushed to Dusseldorf and took a flat over the Schumann’s, sacrificing the next two years of his life to take care of Clara and her children. Brahms’ attachment to Clara Schumann lasted for forty years, but the depth of their involvement is not known. What is known is that Brahms, perhaps scarred from childhood experiences, could never sustain a relationship with any woman to the point of committing himself to marriage.

The young Brahms did not have the confidence in himself that Schumann had. It was almost a quarter of a century before he produced his first symphony, and his youthful notions for a symphony became the D minor Piano Concerto. It started as a sonata for two pianos, but the material seemed too rich in texture for two unaccompanied instruments so a compromise was made through the creation of a piano concerto.

The music reflects the mood of a young man subjected to tremendous emotional buffeting. The first movement (Maestoso) opens with a thunderous and passionate theme, thought by some to reflect Brahms’ inner turmoil over the attempted suicide of his friend Schumann. This theme breaks off into a series of lyric passages during which the piano makes an unobtrusive entrance. (It has been said that Brahms’ concertos are really symphonies with instrumental obbligato.) After a treatment of the opening theme, the piano discloses an elegiac second theme of great contrast which is taken over by the violins.

The manuscript of the second movement (Adagio) was originally inscribed Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini. Edward Downes gives this explanation: “Aside from its religious connotation, the words suggest a double dedication to the deceased Schumann and his widow. Since Brahms used to refer to Schumann as master, or ‘Dominus,’ the ‘blessed one who comes in the name of the master’ must have been the gentle Clara. This theory is strengthened by a letter from Brahms to Clara…saying: ‘I am also painting a lovely portrait of you. It is to be the Adagio.’” There are two beautiful subjects, one for muted strings and the second for clarinets.

The closing Rondo: Allegro non troppo returns to the symphonic texture of the first movement. The rondo refrain is the spirited principal theme, but after the piano cadenza a feeling of introspection returns to close the concerto.

The audiences of Brahms’ time seemed to find the piece too austere and gloomy. The first performance in Hanover was a failure, the second in Leipzig downright hostile, as Brahms reported: “At the conclusion, three pairs of hands were brought together very slowly, whereupon a perfectly distinct hissing from all sides forbade any such demonstration. The failure has made no impression upon me whatever. After all, I am only experimenting and feeling my way. But the hissing was too much.”