Thursday, January 13, 2011

Program notes: January 22 Masterworks & January 23 Sunday Matinee concerts

The VSO returns to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington and the Paramount Theatre in Rutland for the third installment of the Masterworks Series and the second installment of the Sunday Matinee Series, respectively.  Jaime Laredo and the VSO will be joined by young pianist Anna Polonsky, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595. The program will open with the Overture to Il Signor Bruschino by Rossini. The evening will conclude with Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. Keep reading for Ms. Polonsky's bio and the program notes for the evening.

Overture to Il Signor Bruschino
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Il Signor Bruschino is a one-act operatic farce in fifteen scenes, based on a play called “Le fils par hasard” by Alissan de Chazet. The lighthearted, energetic overture is one of several by Rossini to have gained considerable importance in the modern concert repertoire.

From 1810-1813, the young Rossini composed four Italian farces. These types of short works were popular in Venice at the time. The pieces were intimate, with a cast of five to eight singers, always including a pair of lovers, at least two comic roles, and one or more minor characters. The style called for much visual comedy improvised by the players, and often a compulsive verbal “tic.” (In this one, the namesake constantly repeats the phrase, “Oh, it’s so hot!”) Compared to other genres of opera, acting ability and comedic talent were more important than vocal prowess.

There has been some speculation about the new musical effect called for in the overture. At several points the second violins are instructed to tap their bows on their music stands. One theory (which must be spurious) is that Rossini was too lazy to think of notes for them to play in those spots, and substituted bow taps instead. More likely he was intrigued to experiment with a different sonic effect.

Piano Concerto No. 27 in Bb Major, K. 595
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

No other composer in history has rivaled Mozart's mastery of the piano concerto. His greatest triumphs as a composer and performer were in this form. K. 595, his last piano concerto, was written at the very end of his short life, at a time when his popularity had dwindled to the point where he was in desperate financial straits. The mood of the piece is gentle, however, not bitter, seemingly reflecting Mozart's desire to transcend earthly cares and tribulations. He premiered it himself on March 4, 1791. The sensuousness of the first movement is reminiscent of his comic opera Cosi fan tutte, which he had just finished when writing the concerto. Both main themes are graceful, with darkening harmonic fluctuations in the development section. The piano weaves a fabric of arpeggios and scales against which orchestral forces trade snippets of thematic material. The slow movement is in Mozart's favorite key, Eb Major, and is characterized by a serene tenderness. Could Mozart have been composing an adieu? The finale harkens back to the merry "hunting horn" themes of other earlier rondos. Interestingly, shortly after he finished the concerto, Mozart used this same melody set to the words "Come sweet May, and make the trees grow green again" in his song "Yearning for Spring."

Anna Polonsky, piano
Anna Polonsky is widely in demand as a soloist and chamber musician. She has appeared with the Moscow Virtuosi and Vladimir Spivakov, the Buffalo Philharmonic with JoAnn Falleta, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Memphis Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and many others. Polonsky has collaborated with the Guarneri, Orion, and Shanghai Quartets, and with such musicians as Mitsuko Uchida, David Shifrin, Richard Goode, Ida and Ani Kavafian, Cho-Liang Lin, Arnold Steinhardt, Anton Kuerti, Gary Hoffman, and Fred Sherry. She is regularly invited to perform chamber music at festivals such as Marlboro, Chamber Music Northwest, Seattle, Music@Menlo, Cartagena, Bard, and Caramoor, as well as at Bargemusic in New York City. Polonsky has given concerts in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Alice Tully Hall, and the Stern, Weill and Zankel Halls at Carnegie Hall, and has toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. A frequent guest at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, she was a member of CMS Two during 2002-2004. In 2006 she took a part in the European Broadcasting Union's project to record and broadcast all of Mozart's keyboard sonatas, and in the spring of 2007 she performed a Carnegie Hall solo recital, inaugurating the Emerson Quartet’s Perspectives Series.

Polonsky made her solo piano debut at the age of seven at the Special Central Music School in Moscow, Russia. She emigrated to the United States in 1990, and attended high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She received her Bachelor of Music diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she worked with the renowned pianist Peter Serkin, and continued her studies with Jerome Lowenthal, earning her Master's Degree from the Juilliard School. Polonsky was a recipient of a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship in 2003. With violist Michael Tree and clarinetist Anthony McGill, she is a member of the newly formed Schumann Trio. In addition to performing, she serves on the piano faculty of Vassar College. She is a Steinway Artist.

Symphony No. 4 in Bb Major, Op. 60
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

It is a rare annotator who betrays no curiosity regarding the motivation behind the composition of great works. Although one need not know anything of the composer to enjoy his or her music on an empirical basis, there is sometimes a certain intimacy achieved through empathy with a composer’s situation or state of mind. Yet Beethoven himself is such a welter of emotions that to search for a particular creative wellspring is to invite confusion.

In the case of his fourth symphony, there are two extraordinarily divided camps. Biographer Romain Rolland speaks of the spring of 1806, saying, “The Fourth Symphony, composed in this year, is a pure fragrant flower which treasures up the perfume of these days, the calmest in all his life.” On the side of bliss, we also find the oracle Grove: “Beethoven must have been inspired by the very genius of happiness when he conceived the many beautiful themes of this joyous composition.” It is, then, hard to believe that New York Philharmonic annotator Downes can speak of the same man and time in this fashion: “Beethoven’s gentle fourth symphony was born in an explosive year—explosive in the composer’s inner world and in the brutal reality that surrounded him. For Beethoven, 1806 began with emotional and physical turmoil that would have unstrung a lesser man.”

It is proof of Beethoven’s protean personality that all of these descriptions are probably true. In fact, 1806 is the year the composer became engaged to Countess Theresa von Brunswick, most likely the famous “Immortal Beloved.” The joy of his deep love must have, at the same time, brought the despair he was always to know when his romantically idealized love objects failed to live up to his impossible standards. Artistically, Beethoven was dealing with his cherished but problematic opera Fidelio--frustrated by production inadequacies, a dishonest theater manager, and his own dissatisfactions. The introduction to the opening of Act II was revised at least 18 times! Politically, the social structure of centuries was disintegrating in Napoleon’s wake, and the weakened aristocracy returned to a recently occupied Vienna of uncertain future.

For whatever reasons, in this period of time Beethoven enjoyed a tremendous burst of creativity, almost simultaneously composing the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the three Razumovsky string quartets, the fourth piano concerto, the violin concerto, and the fourth and fifth symphonies.

Schumann described the Fourth as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” Certainly it does not reflect the epic proportions of the Eroica or the wrestle with fate in the Fifth. It dwells in a serener plane of tenderness and mystery.

The opening movement goes from dark to light, the somber opening interrupted by six repetitions of the same chord leading to a buoyant allegro. The recapitulation of this theme is later introduced by a crescendo described by Berlioz as “one of the most skillfully contrived things we know of in music…you might compare it to a river whose calm waters suddenly disappear and only leave the subterranean bed to plunge with a roar in a foaming waterfall.”

The slow movement is in rondo and sonata forms, and the placid melody occurs four times, enhanced by a gently rocking accompaniment. The third movement is a roughhouse scherzo or minuet, and, as in the Seventh Symphony, the trio (featuring the woodwinds) is played twice; the minuet repeated each time.

Berlioz describes the closing Allegro ma non troppo thus: “Perpetual motion in tone, flashing and glittering with tunefulness and fun. The movement opens with a suggestion of Bach, and presently we are aware that Beethoven has assimilated the spirit of Mozart and Haydn as at an earlier age he had paid them the compliment of assimilation.”

--Hilary Hatch