program notes: parker plays brahms

Tonight’s program covers a wide breadth of musical territory. From the world premiere of a new work by young composer Julia Adolphe to Brahms’ enormous Piano Concerto No. 2—with forays into vocal music from the early 20th century, the Classical period, and the Baroque period—we are in for a fascinating ride. A program like this could not be possible without world class musicians, so LACO and Jeffrey Kahane share this evening with two special guests: Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke and world renowned pianist, Jon Kimura Parker.

Every season, we are treated to new music in the form of the Sound Investment Commission. Tonight we will hear a new piece from Julia Adolphe, which was written expressly for LACO. Julia Adolphe is an accomplished composer, author, and teacher. In the last few years, she has gained attention for pieces like Dark Sand, Sifting Light, for orchestra, and Sylvia, a chamber opera. Adolphe’s emerging style displays a focus on texture and melody, and her use of orchestral colors is skillful and innovative. [Not sure if we will have her note here or if I will get a chance to write something…]

When George Friedrich Handel moved to London, he made his fortune with Italian opera, but as time went by, he expanded his work to English oratorios. The most famous of these is, of course, Messiah, but he also composed a host of others including Israel in Egypt, Solomon and Theodora, which in some ways, are even better exemplars of the genre. Oratorios are at their heart are simply unstaged operas about religious topics. Theodora began as a three-act oratorio about the eponymous Christian martyr. Handel composed it in 1749, and it premiered a year later at Covent Garden. The libretto was by Thomas Morell, who had written the libretti for a few other oratorios set by Handel. The story is a tragedy and ends with the deaths of Theodora and her lover, Didymus, a Roman who had secretly converted to Christianity. Theodora is sometimes presented as a fully staged opera when performed today.

The aria, “As with rosy steps the morn” comes from Act I, Scene 4 of Theodora. It is sung by Theodora’s friend Irene, a fellow Christian. The messenger tells them that Valens, the Roman governor of Antioch has decreed that all citizens must offer a sacrifice to Venus and Flora for Emperor Diocletian’s birthday. The words of the aria speak about how the dawn brings light to illuminate the darkness, and that the savior brings endless light. The aria is in typical da capo form, which has three parts. The outer sections are nearly identical, although the repeat usually has some vocal embellishments. A contrasting middle section offers a change of key and mood before returning to the opening melody. This aria, typical of Handel’s style, allows for the singer to display heartfelt emotion within the boundaries of the set form.

Mozart’s final year was very productive. While composing both the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte, he received a commission for an opera seria to be sung at the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The chosen libretto was La clemenza di Tito, a work from Pietro Metastasio. This libretto, about the Roman Emperor Titus, had already been set dozens of times before Mozart put his hand to it. The subject matter—a kind and generous ruler—was perfect for the coronation. “Deh, per questo istante solo,” is an aria for the character Sesto, who is condemned to death. As the title of the opera suggests, Titus is a beneficent ruler, and Sesto will eventually be pardoned. The aria is in three main sections, a mournful Adagio, an Allegro middle section, and a quick coda. Sesto regrets betraying Titus, and does not believe he is deserving of mercy. The words speak of sorrow and despair; Sesto’s emotional confession stirs Titus’ kind heart. The gradual quickening of the tempo in each section works contrary to the feeling and the words, but perhaps reveals some hope that Titus’ benevolence and wisdom will right the situation.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Gustav Mahler held two positions in the Viennese musical world, Director of the Vienna Court Opera, and conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. With so much to do, Mahler had little time to compose new material, but as he adjusted to the responsibilities, he found some time to create. His Fourth Symphony was finished in 1900, as were his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. The new period of composition would come to be known as the post-Wunderhorn, or middle period, and it was in this period that Mahler completed the ten settings of Friedrich Rückert’s poems. Five of them became the orchestral song cycle, Kindertotenlieder, while the other five were gathered into the collection we call simply the Rückert-Lieder. The first four songs were initially sketched out with piano accompaniment, but Mahler orchestrated them quickly after. Orchestration for the fifth song, “Liebst du um Schönheit” was done by Max Puttmann, who worked for Mahler’s publisher.

Song cycles are occasionally collected in a narrative group that tells an overarching story. The Rückert-Lieder have no such dramatic arc; they can be sung in any order. The instrumentation for the songs varies somewhat, but all five require harp, bassoons, horns, clarinets and oboes. One of the songs asks for Celesta, and two other songs require English horn. The subject matter varies from song to song as well. Our first selection, “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (“Look not into my songs”), for example, explains that the creative process should remain mysterious and the listener should not be too intent on examining it. The text mentions the work of bees, and Mahler responds with a buzzing effect created by strings, woodwinds, and horn. “Liebst du um Schönheit”—which was a gift from Mahler to his wife, Alma— forms the center piece of the trio of songs chosen by our performers. It speaks of loving for love’s sake over wealth, youth, and beauty. The set ends with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,”a text that Mahler characterized as describing himself: a solitary Romantic, whose entire world lies in art. In this song and the first, we see both Mahler’s sensitivity to the poetry and his skilled orchestral choices.

Over 20 years passed between Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and his second, probably due to the negative response he first received for the earlier piece when he premiered it in Leipzig. Terribly disappointed though he may have been, he tried to spin it as a positive thing to his friends, explaining that this setback was bound to help him focus better. Still, he stayed away from the genre for decades. When he undertook the Second Piano Concerto, he was true to words he wrote years earlier to his trusted friend, violinist Joseph Joachim: “a second one will sound very different.” Brahms began composing the work in the spring of 1878, finishing in early July of 1881. The work premiered in November of 1881, with Brahms playing the solo and the Orchestra of the National Theater of Budapest playing under the baton of Alexander Erkel. The following year the piece has its American premiere at the New York Philharmonic.

The intervening years had given Brahms more confidence. Brahms’ friend Theodor Billroth noted that the composer’s second Piano Concerto in relation to the first was like the relationship of adulthood to childhood. There is also the fact of Brahms’ greater experience of the world. This particular piece was sketched out after his first trip to Italy and completed after his second. Brahms wrote both of his piano concertos for himself as the soloist, and therefore that part is less about flexible delicacy (not Brahms’ strong suit as a pianist) and more about strength and endurance. He dedicated the Second Piano Concerto to one of his early teachers, Eduard Marxen. The tribute is a mark of how much faith Brahms had in his new composition.

There are four movements in the concerto, rather than the traditional three, and one of them is a massive scherzo that Brahms had originally sketched out as part of an earlier piece. The opening movement brings the piano in quite early, and after a bit of dialogue concerning the initial melody played by the horn, the pianist launches into a lengthy cadenza. This asserts the pianist’s role as a powerhouse and focal point, but sets up further development by the orchestra. In the recapitulation, the pianist is simply part of the texture, which is lyrical and sensitive, although affirming. In Brahms’ inclusion of a scherzo as the second movement—an augmentation of the concerto format—he argued that the clarity of the first movement needed a passionate follow-up. It infuses the middle of the concerto with energy and is the perfect gambit to set up the slow movement that follows. The slow movement opens with an earnest cello solo that becomes enfolded into the orchestral texture as the movement goes on. The piano here isn’t competition, but rather another layer of color supporting the proceedings. The fourth movement is a lively finale, with hints of folk music here and there. It’s not firmly in a single style, but dances through a few different moods before ending with a rumbling crescendo that could leave no question that Brahms had finally come into his own.