Max Derrickson

Music Program Notes for Over 20 Years

Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff
(Born in Semyonovo, Russia in 1873; died in Beverly Hills, CA in 1943)

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
1. Non allegro
2. Andante com moto (Tempo di valse)
3. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – Allegro vivace

 

Rachmaninoff always wanted to write a ballet, which is hardly surprising given that Tchaikovsky – the composer that reinvented the modern ballet – was his mentor.  His first sketches for one occurred in 1915, not long after his compatriot Igor Stravinsky shocked and changed the music world with his own ballet The Rite of Spring.  Rachmaninoff’s project never came to fruition, and he instead focused on another kind of work far removed from dance, his a cappella choral masterpiece, All-Night Vigil (1915).  Rachmaninoff’s dream of creating a ballet never left him, however, but it just seemed that life stepped in the way.

As a virtuoso pianist, much of Rachmaninoff’s life was spent either preparing for or being on lengthy concert tours.  Eleven hour days of practice were common for him for the many months leading up to his tours, and he inevitably composed less and less.  Still, a ballet beckoned, and in 1939 Rachmaninoff began reimagining his 1915 ballet sketches into a full-blown orchestral dance suite.  He completed his Symphonic Dances in 1940, while on yet another concert tour, and it has become one Rachmaninoff’s most beloved creations.

Although there is no dancing to accompany the music, one of the great delights of the Dances is just how inviting they are for stage dance, suggesting a grand leap here or a pirouette there.  But the title Rachmaninoff chose, Symphonic Dances, ultimately speaks to their musical construction.  The initial theme of the first movement [. . .].

The declarative opening section in the first movement is [. . .] .  The second movement is a waltz, but much like Ravel’s La Valse (1922), this one comes frantically unhinged, turning genteelness into mania.  [. . .] In the third movement finale, an amazing transformation develops [. . .].

Symphonic Dances would be Rachmaninoff’s last composition, and he likely knew it, having been diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma during its creation, and dying soon after its premiere.  This may explain its many references to older works and composers, as a sort of musical testament.  The first of these echoes [. . .] And, perhaps in homage to his roots, directly before that symphonic reference, an eerie whole tone scale introduces its musical ghost, a scale that one of his old Russian compatriots, Rimsky-Korsakov, used in his [. . .].

The last movement is especially peopled with musical memories.  Throughout his career, Rachmaninoff was fascinated with the Dies irae, the ancient chant [. . .] Once it has finally done so, Rachmaninoff writes in his score “Alliluya” and a new theme emerges, [. . .]  He inscribed the end of his score with the words “I thank thee, Lord.”  And with [. . .]

 

 

 

 

 

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No 3 in D-minor, Op. 30

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff
(Born in Semyonovo, Russia in 1873; died in Beverly Hills, CA in 1943)

Piano Concerto No 3 in D-minor, Op. 30
1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Intermezzo: Adagio
3. Finale: Alla breve
After the wild success of his 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninoff, the pianist-composer-conductor, was thrust into fame and fortune.  And in its wake came countless offers and invitations to conduct, perform and tour, making it increasingly difficult to find time for composing – so much so that he took his wife and children to his family’s dacha (country estate) outside of Moscow in 1909 for some peace and quiet, and time to compose.  But an extremely lucrative offer loomed, enticingly, from America.  Although Rachmaninoff was reluctant to leave his family for so many months, the offer was too much to turn down.  Of particular interest was the prospect of buying a fast, new American-made car – an enduring fascination for Rachmaninoff for the rest of his life.  And so, in the late summer months of 1909, [. . .]

What critics struggled with in 1909 was the Third’s length and complexities, and its titanic technical demands.  The Third is, in essence, a symphony with piano solo – themes weave  [. . .] Technically for the piano soloist, the Third is considered the “Everest” of piano concerti.  Rachmaninoff himself quipped that it was “written for elephants” – [. . .] avoided it:  American pianist Gary Graffman (1928 –) said he regretted not learning the Concerto when he was younger, when he was “too foolish to know fear”; indeed, Josef Hoffmann (1876-1957), to whom the Third Concerto was dedicated and arguably the greatest pianist contemporary to Rachmaninoff, declined to play it.  And as immortalized in the movie Shine, studying Rachmaninoff’s Third contributed to Australian pianist’s David Helfgott’s complete [. . .]

Running typically to 43-45 minutes, this vast Concerto overflows with exceptional musical moments.   The opening alone is one of music’s most unforgettable.  Above an undulating figure in the orchestra, the piano begins the first theme.  Played an octave apart between both hands, it is simple and pure and exquisitely beautiful.  Often described as a melancholic Russian folk song (and eventually suggested to be a variant of a Russian liturgical chant), [. . .]  often barely recognizable.

One of the most clever guises taken by this theme occurs in the longingly lyrical Intermezzo.  [. . .]  Such is the magic this Concerto is made of – clever foreshadows and brilliant moments all along the way, including, of course, several dazzling cadenzas.

Being that the Concerto was meant for his American tour, and knowing that his New World audiences loved to be electrified, Rachmaninoff composed the Finale, at least on its sleeve, as a pianistic [. . .] yet so expertly written as to reveal itself in ever deeper ways upon repeated listenings.

Piazzolla – Milonga Sin Palabras

Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla
(Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1921; died in Buenos Aires in 1992)

Milonga Sin Palabras
From the time Argentinian-born Ástor Piazzolla was given the large keyboard accordion known as a bandoneón (a Christmas present from his father – he’d asked for skates) at around the age of eight, until his death, Piazzolla was irretrievably drawn into the world of the tango.  He became famous for his “Nuevo tango” in the 1960’s, a reinvigoration of Argentina’s “national” music that he derived from his formula of “tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse.”  Though Piazzolla’s large output [. . .] hometown of Mar del Plata to investigate its famous folksong and dance, the milonga.

The milonga had become popular in the 1870’s, growing out of a wonderful folk tradition called payada de contrapunto, a several hour to several day competition between two payadors (singers), who exchanged dueling verse to each other’s questions of life [. . .]  Piazzolla composed his Milonga Sin Palabras (“milonga without words”) for his wife [. . .]  again treats an old form through the filters of newer [. . .] yet its gentle lyricism adding [. . .] be returning to this old form, heard through the ears of ghosts[. . .].

Nielsen – Helios Overture, Op. 17

Carl Nielsen
(Born in Sortelung, on Funen, 1865; died in Copenhagen, 1931)

Carl Nielsen was born on the island of Funen, Denmark, the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson, and a place so lovely it is rightfully called the Garden of Denmark.  The composer’s family was relatively poor:  his father was a house painter, his mother tending to 12 children, and there were some hard times for everyone.  But Nielsen’s home was filled with natural wonders and music.  He learned dozens of folksongs from his mother, and his father, who was also an amateur musician, was leader of a town band.  Nielsen’s own musical gifts presented themselves in a surprising manner at the age of six, when townsfolk heard him playing melodies on pieces of firewood that he had arranged.  Nielsen was soon playing the violin, mimicking his mother’s songs, and playing trombone in his father’s band.  And there was often a fair amount of hilarity, as Nielsen’s father was apparently an extraordinary impressionist, pranking his friends with light-hearted buffoonery.  Nielsen’s early inclusion into that musical world of folksong and joyful town-music making, along with a keen sense of the comical, deeply informed his compositional career.  That career would span nearly five decades in Denmark, from studying at the Copenhagen Conservatory to eventually becoming its director, and becoming, arguably, that country’s greatest composer.

 

[. . .]

Helios Overture, Op. 17

In 1902, Nielsen’s wife, Anne Marie Broderson, a gifted sculptor, won a rarely-granted authorization to copy bas reliefs at the Acropolis in Athens, and Nielsen was able to join her.  His interests in being with his wife were united with his lifelong interest in archaeology and ancient architecture.  Their lodgings were idyllic, overlooking the Aegean Sea, and indeed, Nielsen and Broderson were enjoying halcyon days.

Surrounded and inspired by antiquity, Nielsen’s musical interests then turned to the sea and sky, and the ancient myth of Helios.  The Greek myth of Helios was of the god who ferried the sun across the sky in a chariot.  It fired Nielsen’s imagination.  [. . .] – the Helios Overture.

Arising out of the inky black sea before dawn, low swells sound in the basses.  Soon, in a series of 4rths and 5ths and octaves, [. . .] while creating a sure sense of anticipation.

Radiance is at the heart of the themes that Nielsen uses to narrate Helios’s progress.  Near mid-work (mid-day), the sun and its music are ablaze [. . .] at last returning to the swells in the darkness where everything began.

 

Nielsen – Flute Concerto

Carl Nielsen
(Born in Sortelung, on Funen, 1865; died in Copenhagen, 1931)

Flute Concerto
1. Allegro moderato
2. Allegretto – Adagio ma non troppo

 

In 1921, Nielsen heard the legendary Copenhagen Wind Quintet and was deeply impressed by their artistry.  That same year he wrote one of his greatest works for them, his Wind Quintet, [. . .] With that work’s success, Nielsen vowed to write a concerto for each member of the ensemble – flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn – based again on their personalities, and he began in 1926 with the flutist, Holger Gilbert-Jespersen (1890-1975).  With that first concerto completed, however, [. . .].

In the years between his early Helios of 1902 and the his penultimate Flute Concerto in 1926, Nielsen had by then reached renown throughout Scandinavia with an impressive array of compositions –[. . .]   But he never abandoned two important aspects of his musical aesthetic – a profound structural logic and always returning to tonality.  As Nielsen wrote, hinting at his love of architecture, “The simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, [. . .] being brilliantly unique.

In the Flute Concerto, Nielsen’s musical values can be well heard, [. . .]  Nielsen captured Jespersen’s personality precisely in sound, but comical antics abound.

Though Nielsen claimed flute melodies should always be “pastoral and sweet,” this was slightly tongue in cheek.  Much of the solo part is lovely and lyrical, but, unpredictably frenetic, [. . .] darting about with staccato (separated notes) melodies staying just [. . .] turns into near frantic yammering.

And all the while there is a nemesis to the flute’s leadership – the trombone and his henchman the timpanist (Nielsen said the trombone represented the composer himself from his youthful days in the town band).  Trombone interruptions will only get worse [. . .] very flutist whose personality the piece mimics, Jespersen, but with a different ending which was perhaps not quite as droll – Nielsen had been ailing [. . .].

The work for the flutist is not, however, all manic-comic, despite its quick-silver sequences.  Nielsen writes many superbly flowing,[. . .] “childlike innocence,” all in mercurial turns, making for a delightful and quirky Concerto.

 

Nielsen – Four Selections from Aladdin Suite, Op. 34 FS 89

Carl Nielsen
(Born in Sortelung, on Funen, 1865; died in Copenhagen, 1931)

Four Selections from Aladdin Suite, Op. 34 FS 89

  1. The Festival March
  2. Hindu Dance
  3. Chinese Dance
  4. Negro Dance

It was 1918 during the final months of a harrowing World War, and Denmark was experiencing the similar deprivations as other European countries during the War despite remaining “neutral.”  So a Danish theater magnate, Adam Oehlenschlaeger, decided to stage a lavish production to raise his countrymen’s spirits.  The idea was to bring the mind far away to a colorful, mystical land: the Orient.  He based the piece after the fabled tale of Aladdin from the 1001 Arabian Nights tale and asked Carl Nielsen to write the incidental music [. . .] Nielsen actually knew Middle Eastern music intimately, having traveled in Turkey [. . .]  but the edits and changes committed by Oehlenschlaeger peeved Nielsen so much that he demanded his name be taken off the credits.  Nielsen quickly created his own concert suite using seven of the incidental musicales, and tonight we hear four of them.

Though the genre of the work was “Oriental” in flavor (as Western Europeans of the time imagined this “exotic” land), Nielsen deliberately chose not to play on the stereotypical sounds [. . .] – but this was decidedly not cliché and intended to be of a higher dignity for these ancient civilizations.

From the start, however, there is no doubt that Nielsen was in the mood for atmosphere and swashbuckle.  The Festival March is terrifically regal and [. . .] The Chinese Dance so obviously avoids the gongs and pentatonic scales that Nielsen’s early 20th Century would have expected that it might have seemed disconcerting to his first audiences, [. . .]  The Negro Dance, again, is completely inauthentic from an ethnological standpoint – [. . .]  Originally, this finale employed chorus, but the instrumental version alone is incredibly exciting, with pounding timpani,        [. . .]

 

Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Minor, S. 124 (Movements 3 and 4)

Franz Liszt
(Born in Raiding, Hungary in 1811; died in Bayreuth, Germany in 1886)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Minor, S. 124
3. Allegretto vivace – Allegro animato
4. Allegro marziale animato

 

Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt is known as probably the most famous piano virtuoso in the last two centuries, and it’s no surprise that he wrote several piano concertos (3 in total, the third lost until 1988).  What is surprising, however, is that at the height of his fame in 1848, he walked away from the concert stage, moved to Weimar, Gernamy, [. . .] it was in Weimar that Liszt revised it countless times, and didn’t consider it completed until 1855 after decades of reworking.  Structural form and thematic progression were Liszt’s main concern in these years, and the First Concerto certainly breaks many molds.

The theme that opens the first movement blends its way through the whole work, and the movements have no pauses between them.  But the most ravishing part of this concerto [. . .] triangle as an integral and delightful part (and sometimes referred to as the “Triangle Concerto”).  Note that the brief cadenza and the music that follows, eventually blasting from the trombones, recounts [. . .] Here Liszt opens up the flood gates and finishes with a rousing march, first charming and then pacing to a very exciting finale, [. . .], it’s devilishly fun to hear.

 

 

Liebermann – Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 39

Lowell Liebermann
(Born in New York City in 1961)

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 39
1. Moderato
2. Molto adagio
3. Presto
During the 1980’s, American composer Lowell Liebermann was studying composition, conducting and piano at the Julliard School of Music in New York, and he recalls that his composition teachers told him that writing tonal music (and sing-able themes) just wasn’t done.  But Liebermann felt that the basic principles of music that human ears crave – tonality and tuneful melodies – were still worthy [. . .].

Liebermann became the darling of flute players with his 1987 Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 23.  In turns brooding and virtuosic, fiery and magical, no less a musician than Sir James Galway quickly included Liebermann’s Sonata into his repertoire.  With the Sonata adored by audiences and flutists alike, in 1992 Galway asked Liebermann to orchestrate the Sonata’s piano accompaniment for him.  Liebermann replied that he’d be happy to oblige, but would rather write Galway a full-fledged flute concerto.  And [. . .].

Beginning with a quirky, undulating ostinato in the trumpets and plucked strings, like the pendulum of a clock, the first movement soon immerses us into a fairy tale world of exquisite light and colors, and lovely song making – a Flutist’s rhapsody [. . .]  and the magical chaconne (variations over a repeating harmonic progression – in this case, the harmonies from the opening theme) in the middle section that emerges organically [. . .]   The second movement is equally as beautiful, but Liebermann changes the lighting: here a [. . .] Again, Liebermann uses repetition and [. . .] vast and sweeping, deeply poignant.  The Concerto ends with a perpetual [. . .]  feat of virtuosity and stamina.  For the listener, it’s a white-knuckle ride in a [. . .] hotter fire and [. . .].

Lalo – Symphonie espagnole in D-minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21

Édouard Lalo
(Born in Lille, France, in 1823; died in Paris, in 1892)

Symphonie espagnole in D-minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Scherzando: Allegro molto
  3. Intermezzo: Allegro non troppo
  4. Andante
  5. Rondo: Allegro

Just as Mozart struggled with a fickle and finicky Viennese public in his last decade, so too did Lalo run up against a disagreeable Parisian public, just as Berlioz had before him.  But Lalo had battled convention all of his life, beginning early with his father’s insistence that Lalo join the military – that there would be no future for him in music.  A gifted violinist, violist and composer, Lalo ignored his father’s directive, and tenaciously made his way to the Paris Conservatoire.  All the while, he developed his own bold style of composing, and this very boldness provoked resistance at every turn as being too progressive, or too Germanic, from a musical Paris that loved flowery showpieces over thoughtful, crafted compositions.

The year 1872 would change his fortunes, however, when the indomitable Pablo de Sarasate (1844 -1908), the violin virtuoso from Spain, caught Lalo’s attention.  Lalo was so inspired by Sarasate’s playing that he quickly wrote two pieces for him, the Violin Concerto (1873) and the Symphonie espagnole in 1874.  It was these two works, [. . .].

Symphonie espagnole (Spanish Symphony) is a delightful hybrid of forms: not exactly a violin concerto although the soloist is almost continually playing, and it’s not really a symphony, and indeed it’s not exactly Spanish, although it’s generally Spanish in flavor.  Rather, it’s more in the model of the concertante that Berlioz penned earlier for viola, Harold in Italy (1834), [. . .]  Certainly, the Symphonie is a character piece that reflects the persona of the virtuoso who inspired it: the Spaniard Sarasate, who personally was mercurial, and as a musician, the kind of extraordinary virtuoso who valued musicality and meaning above the empty showmanship [. . .] filled with lyricism, wit, and a certain fire.

Lalo clearly incorporates flavors and inspirations from Spanish dance without creating a work that is authentically Spanish.  The first movement, with its unforgettable beginning fanfare motive, [. . .]intensity of the tango.  The second movement,[. . .] and is reminiscent of a seguidillo dance.  The third movement, Intermezzo, [. . .] , as well as some extremely demanding passages.  Listen for the splendid orchestration amidst the soloist’s rhapsodizing, especially, [. . .] .  The fourth movement allows for additional [. . .].  The finale, which uses a habanera as its central moment, [. . .]/

Korngold – Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
(Born in Brünn, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (present-day Brno, Czech Republic) in 1897; died in Los Angeles in 1957)

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
1. Andante nobile
2. Romanze
3. Allegro assai vivace

Born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Korngold grew up in a household filled with music and musicians.  His father, Julius, was the music critic who inherited Edouard Hanslick’s position at the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna.  Erich was a piano prodigy of exceptional talents and began impressing the music world by the age of seven.  By the age of nine, he had already composed several works, prompting his famous father to ask none other than Gustav Mahler to assess his son’s talents.  Mahler was so astonished that he called young Erich a genius of the likes of Mendelssohn and Mozart, [. . .] In Europe, Korngold was poised to own the music world.

In 1934, his colleague Max Reinhardt invited Korngold to visit Hollywood to write a film score for the movie adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Korngold accepted, as Hollywood movies were all the rage in Europe.  While there, however, Hitler began his ugly part in history, and Korngold soon found it impossible to return home to Austria.  As Korngold recalled, “We thought of ourselves as Austrians, until Hitler made us Jewish.”  Korngold vowed in protest not to write [. . .]

But during this time another great virtuoso and fellow émigré, violinist Bronislav Huberman (1882 – 1947), [. . .]   He threw himself into writing his Violin Concerto, and it premiered the same year, but with Jascha Heifitz (not Huberman) as the soloist with the St. Louis Symphony.  Korngold dedicated the work to his mentor’s widow, Alma Mahler.

Like Rachmaninoff, Korngold’s musical inclinations lay in the Romantic style.  Immediately, climbing and gorgeous, the violin soloist leads us through a rhapsodic theme [. . .]   Particularly unusual is the prominent part for the vibraphone (a metal-barred keyboard percussion instrument) which is almost a co-soloist with the violin, lending a richly hued shimmer to the score.

The middle movement is a luscious nocturnal love song – it’s not hard to imagine [. . .]  soloist must soar romantically but with great dignity.

The finale is an all-out joyful [. . .] wonderful excursion through song and music making.

Ironically, given Korngold’s resentment over his dismissal as a film composer, the Concerto borrows heavily from his film scores:  the lovely opening theme comes from the film Another Dawn (1937); the first movement’s second theme from Juarez (1939); the solo clarinet theme in the second movement was borrowed from Anthony Adverse (1936); and the jig (and lovely slow rendition of it) in the finale came from The Prince and the Pauper (1937).  The premiere was fairly well received, but according to one critic the Concerto contained more “corn than gold,” and Korngold’s reputation [. . .].