Festival Finale

Orchestra of St. Luke's /
Hélène Grimaud,
piano /
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor

Sun, August 2, 2015, 4:30pm

Overview

Loved Dvořák’s stunning Symphony No. 8 at the close of last year’s Festival? You won’t want to miss 2015 Artist-in-Residence Hélène Grimaud and Orchestra of St. Luke’s sweeping, thunderous approach to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams.” This may prove to be our most powerful Finale yet.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 “Winter Dreams”

“Under the leadership of its firebrand music director, Pablo Heras-Casado, this is an ensemble to watch … the orchestra is brimming with enthusiasm” –The New York Times 

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G, Op. 13 as performed by Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 10.45.57 AMPablo Heras-Casado, conductor

Principal Conductor, Orchestra of St. Luke’s

Photo by Sonja Werner

Pablo Heras-Casado enjoys an unusually varied conducting career – encompassing the great symphonic and operatic repertoire, historically-informed performance, and cutting-edge contemporary scores. He has served as principal conductor of Orchestra of St. Luke’s since 2011.

During the 2013-14 season, Mr. Heras-Casado debuted with the New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig—as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, conducting Verdi’s Rigoletto. Other highlights included return performances with the San Francisco Symphony, Münchner Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ensemble intercontemporain. He also toured with Freiburger Barockorchester and conducted several concert and opera performances at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Past seasons have seen the Spanish conductor make important appearances with orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston and Chicago symphony orchestras, and the Cleveland Orchestra. He was also re-invited by Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Spanish National Orchestra, and Teatro Real in Madrid. In 2012-13 he appeared for the first time at Deutsche Oper Berlin and Oper Frankfurt, while 2012 marked his debut at the Salzburger Festspiele.

In September 2013, harmonia mundi released Mr. Heras-Casado’s debut recording for the label, Schubert’s Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 with Freiburger Barockorchester, followed by a second album in March 2014, featuring Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2. Both received great critical acclaim. In addition, Sony Classical recently launched a recording featuring Plácido Domingo in baritone arias by Giuseppe Verdi conducted by Mr. Heras-Casado. Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv Produktion, which recently welcomed Mr. Heras-Casado as an “Archiv Ambassador,” will soon release an album celebrating the legendary singer and maestro Farinelli.

Recognized also for his work with contemporary music, Pablo Heras-Casado is a laureate of the 2007 Lucerne Festival conductors’ forum. In Summer 2013, he returned for the third time to co-direct the festival’s Academy at the personal invitation of Pierre Boulez.

Pablo Heras-Casado is the holder of the Medalla de Honor of the Rodriguez Acosta Foundation, and in February 2012 was awarded the Golden Medal of Merit by the Council of Granada, his hometown, of which he is also an Honorary Ambassador. His 2011 DVD recording of Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny from Teatro Real received the Diapason d’Or.

Pablo Heras-Casado most recently appeared at Caramoor during the 2014 Summer Music Festival.

 

 

Orchestra of St. Luke’sThe Caramoor Summer Music Festival Finale with Alisa Weilerstein, Pablo Heras-Casado, and the  Orchestra of St. Luke's

Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) is one of America’s most versatile and distinguished orchestras, collaborating with the world’s greatest artists and performing approximately 70 concerts each year—including its Carnegie Hall Orchestra Series, Chamber Music Series at The Morgan Library & Museum and Brooklyn Museum, and summer residency at Caramoor Music Festival. OSL has commissioned more than 50 new works, including four this season; has given more than 170 world, U.S., and New York City premieres; and appears on more than 100 recordings, including four Grammy Award winners and seven releases on its own label, St. Luke’s Collection. Pablo Heras-Casado, named 2014 Conductor of the Year by Musical America, is OSL’s principal conductor.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, OSL began as a chamber ensemble based at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village. Today, St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble consists of 21 virtuoso artists who perform a diverse repertoire and make up OSL’s artistic core.

OSL owns and operates The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Midtown Manhattan, where it shares a building with the Baryshnikov Arts Center. The DiMenna Center is New York City’s premier venue for rehearsal, recording, and learning, having quickly gained a reputation for its superb acoustics, state-of-the-art facilities, and affordability. Since opening in 2011, The DiMenna Center has welcomed more than 50,000 visitors, including more than 300 ensembles and artists such as Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Valery Gergiev, James Levine, James Taylor, and Sting.OSL hosts hundreds of neighbors, families, and school children at its home each year for free community events.

Through its Community & Education programs, OSL has introduced audiences across New York City to live classical music. OSL brings free chamber concerts to the five boroughs; offers free interactive music programs at The DiMenna Center; provides chamber music coaching for adult amateurs; and engages 10,000 public school students each year through its Free School Concerts. In 2013, OSL launched Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL), an intensive in- and after-school instrumental coaching program emphasizing musical excellence and social development, in partnership with Police Athletic League (PAL) and public schools in the Clinton / Hudson Yards neighborhood.

About the Music

 

Johannes Brahms /1833-1897 / Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. His First Piano Concerto took shape over the years 1854‑1858. Brahms played the solo part in the premiere, which took place privately in Hanover on January 22, 1859, with Joseph Joachim conducting, and then in publicly in Leipzig a few days later.

The two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms are works of, respectively, youth and maturity. Brahms himself wrote to Joachim, after a disastrous reception accorded the First in Leipzig, “… and a second one will sound very different.” No doubt at the time he was simply reacting to the experience of hearing his own piece with a sure awareness of how much he had grown during its gestation; another concerto would naturally reflect that accumulated experience and perhaps be accomplished with less strain. But the Second Concerto did not come for more than two decades; it was to be the work of a portly, bearded, middle‑aged figure who demanded treasured privacy and whose music contained repose and poignancy. The First remains the work of a sensitive youth, a clean‑shaven stripling out of whom surged passionate and demanding music.

The D‑minor concerto, coming at a time of disappointment, frustration, and doubt, caused Brahms enormous trouble, more so than any other composition he ever produced. He was disturbed by the tragic breakdown and death, in July 1856, of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, and even more perturbed by the inherent conflicts in his feelings toward Clara Schumann, which reached a pitch of romantic adoration and teetered on the precipice of an overt declaration of love before receding, after Schumann’s death, to a warm and supportive friendship that lasted for four decades.

Even after starting the work, Brahms was not exactly sure what it was going to be. He tried things out, showed them to Clara and to Joachim, his other closest musical friend, and wrote extensively reporting progress or lack of it. As early as the spring of 1854 he had written three movements of a sonata for two pianos, but before long he announced that the two pianos did not suit him and turned the first movement into an orchestral score. By 1855 he wrote to Joachim, referring to the work as a symphony (and it would be in D minor, the key of Beethoven’s Ninth, which Brahms had recently heard for the first time). But he could not get the sound of the piano out of his ears, and the following year Clara called it a concerto. There is a tradition that one of the sketched movements was removed, later to become the funeral march (second movement) of Brahms’s German Requiem. By the end of 1856 he had composed a rondo for the finale; Joachim was guardedly enthusiastic, and by January 1857 Brahms reported that the Adagio was going well. Still months of worry, revising, questioning, and doubt followed. Brahms played it privately for Joachim in March 1858, but at the end Brahms could only say, “It will never come to anything.” Finally, though, Joachim persuaded him to let the piece go, to send it to the copyist, and eventually out into the world.

Not until January 1859 was it heard, first in a private rehearsal with the Hanover court orchestra, Joachim conducting and Brahms playing the solo part, then a few days later at a public concert in Leipzig. The Gewandhaus orchestra had taken a dislike to the piece, and there was open hostility in the audience. In no respect was this the kind of concerto normally programmed by virtuoso pianists, designed solely for the purpose of astonishing the audience with the soloist’s brilliant elaborations of bright, tuneful melodies. The D‑minor concerto was, above all, serious, closely argued, a solid, craggy monument, a truly symphonic work in the popular genre of the concerto. And it is music of a young man, filled with the excesses of youth. The emotional range is generally limited to the darker moods, from tragedy to poignant resignation. The scoring shows signs of inexperience (and of the early intention to compose the work for two pianos); here and there the texture is so dense as to obscure the principal lines, and the colors are not yet as varied as they will be in later scores.
But Brahms more than compensates by the sheer strength of his technical aplomb in the part‑writing and harmonic scheme; few composers of his (or any other) time could touch him in those points, which make the musical progress continually engrossing.

Though the work is in D minor, the opening purposely avoids announcing the key. The first harmony we hear is a chord of B‑flat (in what is called “first inversion,” with the bass sustaining a D). First listeners were completely befuddled, though we, with the benefit of hindsight, can see the dramatic introduction as an enormously expanded version of a very simple harmonic motion.

Joachim claimed that the opening theme, tonally instable as it is, represents Brahms’s reaction to the news that his friend Schumann had attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. Brahms extends the idea with such ingenuity, such expressive drama, and such a wealth of resources, that it becomes a monumental preparation for the arrival of the real home key with the first entrance of the solo piano in D minor (the orchestral introduction has gone so far as to suggest that the opening movement might well be in D major before the soloist quietly disabuses us of that expectation). This kind of large‑scale shaping, which demands detailed concentration from the listener (and repays it tenfold) is rare enough at any time, but especially so in the work of a young man in his mid‑twenties.

Indeed, the opening movement is one of the largest symphonic movements composed by anyone after Beethoven, and it is dramatic in the way Beethoven was, employing musical ideas and keys and sonorities almost as characters in a play. In the opening movement the piano appears as a real dramatic foil to the thundering orchestra. It enters in a quiet, murmuring pensive mood; it also introduces, as a solo, the richly consoling second theme. And, though the pianist has much difficult music to play, the soloist never has a cadenza. The purpose of the solo part is not showiness, as in so many concertos, but concentrated thoughtful dialogue. The almost literal repetition of the second theme in the recapitulation is one of the few areas of repose in an otherwise tormented, turbulent movement.

The second movement, in D major, offers a great contrast to the storminess of the opening, but it still seems to have referred, in Brahms’s imagination, to Schumann. Over the opening piano theme, Brahms wrote the words “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (“Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord”), a text from the Sanctus of the Mass, and the music shares the spirit of the small sacred choral works he was composing about the same time. But Brahms also frequently referred to Schumann as “Mynheer Domini,” and, as Malcolm MacDonald suggests, he may have intended this serene passage as a kind of “instrumental requiem” for that composer’s troubled spirit. Despite its considerable length (which is only to be expected if it is to suit the gigantic opening movement), it remains intimate in expression almost throughout.

For the finale, Brahms returns to the demonic energy of D minor, a fast-moving rondo that is more grim than cheerful, yet exhilarating, too. Brahms builds almost all of the themes in this movement on a rising arpeggio that seems to have grown out of the lyrical second theme of the opening movement. The way in which he constructs his themes, developing, linking, and transforming ideas not only within, but between, movements, is astonishingly mature. We have an advantage over the first audience, who saw only a mere stripling taking his place at the keyboard to introduce his new work; they were quite unprepared for the intellectual onslaught. We know that that young man had one of the great musical minds, and we can take as many opportunities as we like to hear it again and penetrate its core. Brahms later developed to a higher pitch the surface variety in his music, but here he revealed its rock‑solid skeleton.

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky/1840-1893/Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 “Winter Dreams”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko‑Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He composed the First Symphony between March 1866 and early 1867. Individual movements were performed in December 1866 and February 1867. It took another year for the entire symphony to reach performance—on February 15, 1868, with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting the orchestra of the Royal Musical Society in Moscow. Tchaikovsky revised the work slightly for publication in 1874.

Tchaikovsky’s first years out of the conservatory were financially difficult ones for him. This is probably true of most composers, but for Tchaikovsky in the mid‑1860s it was especially so, since Russia’s musical life could hardly yet be said to exist. Fortunately, when he finished his course with Anton Rubinstein at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg in late 1865, he already had an offer from Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay, who had organized a Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, and hired Tchaikovsky to teach music theory. The salary was a pittance, but it kept him in music and out of the civil service for which his previous legal training had prepared him.

At first Tchaikovsky was lonely in Moscow, far from friends and family, and nervous about facing a class of students, but he soon began to feel much more at home. He came to enjoy his students, discovered Dickens (The Pickwick Papers had him laughing out loud), and met musicians who were to be close friends for the rest of his life and to play a large part in his career, among them his future publisher Jurgenson, and especially Nikolay Rubinstein, who offered support, friendship, lodging, and social advice.

His increased sense of well‑being was reflected in composition: in March 1866 he began his First Symphony, the work that was to dominate his attention for the rest of the year. Though started with enthusiasm, the symphony soon became a trial to his energies and health. He became nervous and edgy, and he began to fear that death might prevent him from finishing even this one symphony. A successful performance in May of an overture he had written as a student must have meant a great deal to his creative energies, because by the middle of June he could report that he was already scoring his new symphony. In his eagerness to finish, he worked day and night, and the strain told on his health.

During a long summer visit to his sister and her husband, he suffered numbness of his bodily extremities and hallucinations. The doctor considered him “one step away from insanity.” The experience was so frightening that he ceased composing at night for the rest of his life. His former teachers Rubinstein and Zaremba criticized the piece severely and refused to consider performing it. After further work, he tried again; this time his teachers approved of the second and third movements only. After performances of the second and third movements, the symphony was finally performed complete in Moscow, where it was highly successful—and yet not performed again anywhere for fifteen years!
The nickname “Winter Dreams” was given by the composer himself. He also wrote headings for the first movement (“Reveries of a winter journey”) and the second (“Land of desolation, land of mists”), but neither adds anything to our understanding of the music, and a listener totally ignorant of them has not lost much.

Tchaikovsky was always overly modest about his abilities as a symphonist. To be sure, he did not think in the architectural terms—involving carefully judged proportions of harmonic elements and their elaboration in thematic material—that the greatest symphonists seem to have felt inside them. He shared with many other romantic composers an approach that began by conceiving complete, self-sufficient melodies; these could not be developed without being changed out of all recognition. Still, Tchaikovsky had a refined technique, a dramatic flair, a sense of color, and a melodic grace that were far in advance of most composers of his day, and if he was willing and able to recognize his own shortcomings, he was also willing to work hard to overcome them—as he did in his greatest symphonies.

The opening of the first movement shows at once a symphonic imagination at work. There is a hushed tremolo in the violins presenting the minimum of harmonic content—the two notes G and B-flat in the middle of the orchestral range. Over and under this, the flute and bassoon sing in unison, though two octaves apart, a tune of markedly Russian stamp (characterized by its many intervals of the fourth, its way of growing by repeating segments of itself). When this tune is repeated in the violas, flutes insert a little rhythmic connecting figure, a chromatic motive that will grow in significance. All of this is very atmospheric and effective; at the same time it allows for various ways of development both melodic and harmonic. It is, in short, a splendid way to open a symphony. Still there are moments where “the seams show,” as Tchaikovsky often lamented. Yet, despite some occasional weakness, this is an extraordinary symphonic movement for a young composer of twenty-three fresh out of the conservatory.

Tchaikovsky called the second movement “Land of desolation, land of mists,” yet he began it by quoting eight measures of music that he had already used in his overture The Storm where they were intended to convey “Katerina’s yearnings for true happiness and love.” So much for the usefulness of titles. The expressive and lyrical melody that lies at the heart of the movement is pure Tchaikovsky, foreshadowing the composer we know better from the ballets and the late symphonies.

The Scherzo was the first movement written for this symphony. Tchaikovsky saved it from a Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor that he had written the year before, transposing it down a half-step and orchestrating it almost as it had appeared in the sonata. The Trio, though, is new; it is the first of many wonderful examples of the orchestral waltz, a genre which Tchaikovsky made very much his own.

The Finale is in many respects the least successful movement of the symphony—though that should not be a surprise. The “finale problem” faced every composer after Beethoven, who had redefined the notion of the symphony to make the finale the dramatic climax of the entire cycle of movements. Many composers in attempting to follow that pattern fell into vacuous and empty rhetoric. No wonder a first-time symphonist has trouble with an introduction drawn from the Russian folksong that later becomes the second theme. The development gets bogged down in an attempt at fugal writing, never Tchaikovsky’s strongest point. The symphony ends with an energetic noisy coda. In spite of the slight let‑down of the finale, Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony remains a splendid achievement for a young composer, and it firmly established one branch of the path that he was to follow.

© Steven Ledbetter