Event Description

This October, Avery Fisher Career Grant–winning violinist Alexi Kenney returns to The Lensic for this season’s first concert recital. His selections range from the long-beloved E Major Partita by Bach—a technical showstopper for solo violin—to rarer works like Crumb’s Four Nocturnes, a delicate and birdlike meditation, featuring the subtle integration of many of Crumb’s inspired extended techniques, like having the soloist tap the violin as a percussive element. Kenney’s program also features more traditionally emotive works: Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major sets one of the composer’s most romantic art songs for solo violin and piano.

 BACH Partita No. 3 in E Major
 CRUMB Four Nocturnes (Night Music II)
 SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major
 SALONEN Lachen verlernt
 RESPIGHI  Sonata in B Minor
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Concert Notes

Le Corsaire Overture, Opus 21
HECTOR BERLIOZ
Born December 11, 1803, Cöte-Saint-André
Died March 8, 1869, Paris

Le Corsaire is one of Berlioz’s most exciting overtures, and its fiery writing and evocative title have convinced many listeners that they can almost see the dashing pirate sweeping down on his prey.  The reality, however, is a great deal more complex–it took Berlioz nearly twenty years to write this music, the overture had three different titles over the course of its composition, and finally the music may have nothing at all to do with pirates.  But the story behind it is a very interesting one.

In 1831, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome, the ultimate award for young French composers, and this entailed a year’s study in Rome.  But he did not want to go.  He had fallen in love with a nineteen-year-old pianist, Cecelia Moke, and the two were engaged on the eve of his departure.  Once in Rome, Berlioz heard nothing at all from Cecelia and then–despairing–learned the worst: she had dumped him and was engaged to someone else.  Berlioz immediately left Rome and headed back to Paris, intending (like any good romantic artist) to shoot Cecelia, her mother, her fiancé, and then himself.  By the time he arrived in Nice, however, Berlioz had begun to think better of this plan, and he stayed in that city for three weeks, getting over Cecelia and getting a grip on himself.  He wandered through orange groves and spent much of his time on the beach, enjoying the waves and sunlight.  Those were, he later said, the “three happiest weeks of my life,” and he spent some of that time sketching plans for new compositions.

Among these sketches, made beneath the crumbling tower that looked out over the harbor in Nice, were plans for an overture.  But Berlioz let these sketches sit for a long time: he did not return to them until 1844.  That year, after he had conducted a monster concert in Paris in which he led 1000 performers, Berlioz’s health collapsed.  He went to Nice to recover, and the trip appears to have reawakened memories of his earlier visit and the music he had drafted there.  Now he completed his sketches for the overture and titled it La tour de Nice: “The Tower of Nice.”  Berlioz led the premiere in Paris on January 19, 1845, but was dissatisfied with the music and withdrew it.  Several years later he revised it and led the premiere of the new version while on tour in London in 1852.  At this point the overture had a new name, Le corsaire rouge.  This was the French translation of the title of James Fennimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, a novel about a mysterious pirate which Cooper had written in France in 1827 (Berlioz, like Schubert, loved Cooper’s novels).  When it came time to publish the overture, though, Berlioz shortened his title to Le Corsaire–“The Pirate”–even though its original inspiration seems to have had nothing to do with pirates beyond the fact that it was sketched on the beach at Nice.

None of this, however, should interfere with our enjoyment of this terrific music (and those who wish to continue to detect pirates in it are of course free to do so).  This music starts like a shot: both violin sections together rip out a series of flourishes that should leave everyone in the hall (including the violinists) breathless.  Berlioz reins in matters for an Adagio sostenuto in which the violins sing a graceful melody before the opening flourish returns and the music races ahead.  Along the way Berlioz ingeniously incorporates the melody of the Adagio sostenuto at this fast tempo, but the real pleasure of this music lies in its energy, brilliant writing, and high spirits, and all of these help propel the overture to its resounding close.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Opus 11
FREDERIC CHOPIN
Born February 22, 1810, Zelazowska Wola
Died October 17, 1849, Paris

Chopin’s extraordinary musical gifts were evident early, and as a young man he wished to perform in public.  Because the solo piano recital had not yet been invented, that meant playing as a soloist with an orchestra, and as a teenager Chopin began to compose short works for piano and orchestra for his own use.  At 19, he was ready to try the most challenging of these forms and composed his Piano Concerto in F Minor in 1829-30 (though the first to be composed, this would be published later as his Piano Concerto No. 2) and was so pleased with this success that he immediately began another.  Composed between April and August 1830, the Piano Concerto in E Minor was published as his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1833.  Chopin was the soloist at the premiere in Warsaw on October 11, 1830, and twenty-three days later he left Warsaw (and Poland), never to return.  He played the Concerto in E Minor in Munich and several times in his first years in Paris after taking up residence there.  And then he never played either concerto again.

Chopin was uncomfortable with the role of virtuoso who played in front of huge audiences, a role being created quite successfully at this time by his friend Franz Liszt.  Despite his phenomenal talent, Chopin chose to make his living as a teacher and a composer and performed–on those few occasion when he did–only in private homes.  But there was a further reason for Chopin’s lack of interest in the piano concerto.  That form involved certain musical elements that he found uncomfortable: sonata form and virtuosity for its own sake.  His two concertos, products of his extreme youth, offer attractive music and have become very popular, but they represent a musical direction Chopin did not choose to pursue.

The Concerto in E Minor is in conventional concerto form (a sonata-form first movement, a lyric slow movement, and a brilliant rondo-finale), full of wonderful melodies and tremendous writing for the piano.  Yet one feels throughout that Chopin is not comfortable with the conception of the concerto.  He carefully avoids the contrasts that lie at the heart of the concerto (and sonata form): contrasts between soloist and orchestra, between themes within movements, and between different tonalities.  In the piano concerto Mozart had found a nearly ideal form for his best music, one that allowed him to fuse his own piano-playing with the musical argument at the heart of sonata form and to create a form that allowed a rich interplay of soloist and orchestra, of theme, and of tonality.  However much he may have admired Mozart, the young Chopin was not interested in writing that kind of concerto.  In both his concertos, the musical interest is in the piano, while the orchestra functions as discrete accompanist, useful to introduce themes and to make an occasional grand sound, but subordinate musically (significantly, Chopin made and performed an arrangement of this concerto for solo piano, eliminating the orchestra altogether).

Chopin’s First Piano Concerto has an imposing beginning.  He uses a large orchestra, one that includes four horns and a trombone (a relative newcomer to the orchestra), and we feel this heft at the very beginning, which Chopin marks risoluto.  The orchestra–more specifically, the first violin section–lays out all three main themes before the pianist makes his dramatic entrance, but thereafter the pianist dominates the musical enterprise.  Chopin may avoid the notion of conflict basic to sonata-form structures, but this does not mean that the music is without variety.  There is plenty of fire (passages are marked con forza, appassionato, con fuoco, and agitato), and these alternate with moments marked espressivo, dolce, legatissimo, and tranquillo.  It is an indication of Chopin’s lack of interest in purely virtuoso writing that there is no cadenza in this concerto: the piano writing can be brilliant and quite difficult, but it stands at the service of the music rather than being an end in itself.

Chopin marks the slow movement Romanze, a term without precise formal meaning.  Instead, it simply suggests music of an expressive character, and in a letter to a friend Chopin described this music in a way that makes this abundantly clear: “I have not tried to display power in this movement; it is a quiet and melancholy romance.  Its effect is meant to be like that of gently gazing upon a place that awakens a thousand sweet memories, like a reverie in a beautiful moonlit night in spring.  That is also why the accompaniment is to be played with mutes.”  This leads without pause into the final movement, a rondo marked Vivace.  Mutes come off here for the orchestra’s abrupt beginning, and the piano quickly makes its entrance with the jaunty rondo tune.  Chopin casts this movement in the form of a krakowiak, an old Polish dance that came–as its name suggests–from the region of Krakow.  The original dance was in duple time and based on syncopated rhythms, and here Chopin transforms a native dance into an animated–and very pleasing–conclusion to his concerto.

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Opus 36
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

The Fourth Symphony dates from the most tumultuous period in Tchaikovsky’s difficult life, and its composition came from a moment of agony. When he began work on the symphony in May 1877, Tchaikovsky had for some years been tormented by the secret of his homosexuality, a secret he kept hidden from all but a few friends. As he worked on this score, one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory–a deranged young woman named Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova–declared her love for him.  Knowing that such a prospect was hopeless, Tchaikovsky put her off as gently as he could, but she persisted, even threatening suicide at one point.  As fate would have it, Tchaikovsky was also at work on his opera Eugen Onegin at this time and was composing the scene in the which the bachelor Onegin turns down the infatuated young Tatiana, to his eventual regret.  Struck by the parallel with his own situation–and at some level longing for a “normal” life with a wife and children–Tchaikovsky did precisely the wrong thing for some very complex reasons: he agreed to Antonina’s proposal of marriage. His friends were horrified, but the composer pressed ahead and married Antonina on July 18, 1877.  The marriage was an instant disaster. Tchaikovsky quickly abandoned his bride, tried to return, but fled again and made what we would today call a suicide-gesture.  He then retreated to St. Petersburg and collapsed into two days of unconsciousness.  His doctors prescribed complete rest, a recommendation Tchaikovsky was only too happy to follow.  He abandoned his teaching post in Moscow and fled to Western Europe, finding relief in the quiet of Clarens in Switzerland and San Remo in Italy.  It was in San Remo–on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean and far from the chaos of his life in Moscow–that he completed the Fourth Symphony in January 1878.

The Fourth Symphony has all of Tchaikovsky’s considerable virtues–great melodies, primary colors, and soaring climaxes–and in this case they are fused with a superheated emotional content.  The composer’s friends guessed, perhaps inevitably, that the symphony had a program, that it was “about” something, and Tchaikovsky offered several different explanations of the content of this dramatic music.  To his friend Serge Taneyev, Tchaikovsky said that the model for his Fourth Symphony had been Beethoven’s Fifth, specifically in the way both symphonies are structured around a recurring motif, though perhaps also in the sense that the two symphonies begin in emotional turmoil and eventually win their way to release and triumph in the finale.  For his patroness, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, who had supplied the money that enabled him to escape his marriage, Tchaikovsky prepared an elaborate program detailing what his symphony “meant.”  One should inevitably be suspicious of such “explanations” (and Tchaikovsky himself later suppressed the program), but this account does offer some sense of what he believed had shaped the content of his music.

The symphony opens with a powerful brass fanfare, which Tchaikovsky describes as “Fate, the inexorable power that hampers our search for happiness.  This power hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, leaving us no option but to submit.”  The principal subject of this movement, however, is a dark, stumbling waltz in 9/8 introduced by the violins: “The main theme of the Allegro describes feelings of depression and hopelessness.  Would it not be better to forsake reality and lose oneself in dreams?”  This long opening movement (it is nearly half the length of the entire symphony) has an unusual structure: Tchaikovsky builds it on three separate theme-groups which evolve through some unusual harmonic relationships.  Like inescapable fate, the opening motto-theme returns at key points in this dramatic music, and it finally drives the movement to a furious close: “Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness.”

After so turbulent a beginning opening, the two middle movements bring much-needed relief. The contrast is so sharp, in fact, that Taneyev complained that these were essentially ballet music made to serve as symphonic movements; Taneyev may have a point, but after that scalding first movement, the gentle character of the middle movements is welcome. The Andantino, in ternary-form, opens with a plaintive oboe solo and features a more animated middle section.  Tchaikovsky described it: “Here is the melancholy feeling that overcomes us when we sit weary and alone at the end of the day.  The book we pick up slips from our fingers, and a procession of memories passes in review . . .”

The scherzo has deservedly become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular movements.  It is a tour de force for strings (which play pizzicato throughout), with crisp interjections first from the woodwinds and then from brass. Tchaikovsky makes piquant contrast between these quite different sounds, combining all his forces only in the final moments of the movement.  The composer notes: “There is no specific feeling or exact expression in the third movement.  Here are only the capricious arabesques and indeterminate shapes that come into one’s mind with a little wine . . .”

Out of the quiet close of the third movement, the finale explodes to life.  The composer described this movement as “the picture of a folk holiday” and said, “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you.  Go to the people.  See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity.”  Marked Allegro con fuoco, this movement simply alternates its volcanic opening sequence with a gentle little woodwind tune that is actually the Russian folktune “In the field there stood a birch tree.”  At the climax, however, the fate-motto from the first movement suddenly bursts forth: “But hardly have we had a moment to enjoy this when Fate, relentless and untiring, makes his presence known.”

Given the catastrophic events of his life during this music’s composition, Tchaikovsky may well have come to feel that Fate was inescapable, and the reappearance of the opening motto amid the high spirits of the finale represents the climax–both musically and emotionally–of the entire symphony.  This spectre duly acknowledged, Tchaikovsky rips the symphony to a close guaranteed to set every heart in the hall racing at the same incandescent pace as his music.

—Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Alexi Kenney 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant and winner of the 2013 CAG Competition

The recipient of a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, violinist Alexi Kenney has been praised by the New York Times for “immediately drawing listeners in with his beautifully phrased and delicate playing.” His win at the 2013 CAG Victor Elmaleh Competition at the age of nineteen led to a critically acclaimed debut recital at Carnegie Weill Hall. Read more…

Renana Gutman “passionate and insightful” “vigorous interpretation” —New York Times

Praised by the New York Sun for playing “with great vigor and aplomb” and for the “true poetry in her phrasing,” Renana Gutman has performed across three continents as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and collaborative artist.

A top prize winner at Los Angeles Liszt competition, International Keyboard Festival in New York, and Tel-Hai Internationl Master Classes, she has performed with orchestras including Jerusalem Symphony, Haifa Symphony, Belgian “I Fiamminghi”, Mannes College Orchestra.

Meet The Composers

OCTOBER 15

The Symphony welcomes virtuosic violinist Alexi Kenney to The Lensic’s stage once more. Showing his incredible technical range, Kenney will perform not only Haydn’s heroic Violin Concerto in C Major but also Dvořák’s Romance in F Minor, a brief work that ranges from delicate to passionate. Also in F minor, Shostakovich’s First Symphony remains witty and fresh to this day, despite the composer’s youth at its completion. Rounding out the performance will be Berlioz’s swashbuckling concert overture Le Corsaire.

Dvořák, Haydn, Berlioz & Shostakovich Virtuoso violinist Alexi Kenney, recipient of a prestigious 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant and winner of the 2013 CAG Competition at the age of nineteen, which led to his critically acclaimed debut at Carnegie Hall. Kenney joins us for two outstanding performances this season, the first of which takes pace at The Lensic on October 15 and includes Dvořák's Romance for Violin & Orchestra, Haydn's Concerto for Violin in C Major, Berlioz's Overture to Le corsaire, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. One week later, Alexi Kenney takes center stage for a special performance with piano accompaniment by Renana Gutman at our first Concert Recital of the new year taking place on Sunday, October 22, at 4:00 pm. Learn more!