The Chairman Dances
Born February 15, 1947, Massachusetts
Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972 and the gradual defrosting of Cold War tensions between the United States and China might seem an unlikely topic for an opera, but John Adams’s Nixon in China—first performed in Houston in 1987—makes it work. While composing the opera, Adams received a commission for an orchestral work, and for that he adapted music he was planning to use in the final act of the opera…
…Though The Chairman Dances was first performed by Lukas Foss and the Milwaukee Symphony on January 31, 1986, the opera itself was not completed until the following year, and by that time Adams had revised this scene somewhat. Some of the music from The Chairman Dances survives in Nixon in China, but The Chairman Dances should be regarded as a separate composition—in Adams’ words, a “Foxtrot for Orchestra.”
The Chairman Dances was an “out-take” of Act III of Nixon in China. Neither an “excerpt” nor a “fantasy on themes from,” it was in fact a kind of warmup for embarking on the creation of the full opera. At the time, 1985, I was obliged to fulfill a long-delayed commission for the Milwaukee Symphony, but having already seen the scenario to Act III of Nixon in China, I couldn’t wait to begin work on that piece. So The Chairman Dances began as a “foxtrot” for Chairman Mao and his bride, Chiang Ch’ing, the fabled “Madame Mao,” firebrand, revolutionary executioner, architect of China’s calamitous Cultural Revolution, and (a fact not universally realized) a former Shanghai movie actress. In the surreal final scene of the opera, she interrupts the tired formalities of a state banquet, disrupts the slow moving protocol and invites the Chairman, who is present only as a gigantic forty-foot portrait on the wall, to “come down, old man, and dance.” The music takes full cognizance of her past as a movie actress. Themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding, ride above in bustling fabric of energized motives. Some of these themes make a dreamy reappearance in Act III of the actual opera, en revenant, as both the Nixons and Maos reminisce over their distant pasts.
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
Elvira Madigan, byname of Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K467, is a three-movement concerto for piano and orchestra by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the best known of his many piano concerti. It was completed on March 9, 1785. Its wide recognition is in large part due to the Swedish film Elvira Madigan (1967), in which its lyrical second movement was featured and from which it derives its byname.
Mozart wrote the first of his many piano concerti at age 11 and the last one mere months before his death at age 35. This circumstance makes the piano concerto perfectly suited to the study of the development of Mozart’s style and demonstrates how the Classical style as a whole came into being. His earliest piano concerti are close adaptations of Baroque sonatas, whereas his final few works in the genre hint at the passion and power that would become popular in the Romantic era.
Mozart completed his Concerto No. 21 only a month after his previous concerto. He would write four more in the next 21 months. Because Mozart wrote them for his own concert performances in Vienna, he did not write down the solo cadenzas that he improvised during performance, and, as a result, modern concert pianists have had to either create their own cadenzas or use those created by others.
Piano Concerto No. 21 is among the most technically demanding of all Mozart’s concerti. The composer’s own father, Leopold Mozart, described it as “astonishingly difficult.” The difficulty lies less in the intricacy of the notes on the page than in playing those many notes smoothly and elegantly. Mozart made the challenge look easy, as newspapers of his time attest, though his letters reveal the hard work behind those performances.
The piece’s first movement, Allegro maestoso, is an exuberant, extroverted lead-in to an internal, quietly satisfying second movement, Andante. The third movement, Allegro vivace assai, reveals Mozart at his high-spirited, irrepressible best.
—Program Note by Betsy Schwarm
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, op.70
Born September 8, 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague
Success came late to Dvořák. After years of obscurity, during which he supported his family by giving music lessons and playing the viola in orchestras, Dvořák achieved almost instant fame at the age of 37 when his first set of Slavonic Dances took his name around the world. Now Dvořák found his music in demand, and one of the most important signs of this new fame came in June 1884 when the Philharmonic Society of London nominated him for membership and invited him to compose a symphony that he would conduct in London. Shortly after beginning work on the score in December 1884, Dvořák wrote to a friend: “Now I am occupied with my new symphony (for London), and wherever I go I have nothing else in mind but my work, which must be such as to shake the world and God grant that it may!” Dvořák completed the symphony on March 17, 1885, and journeyed to London to conduct the premiere on June 22. It was a tremendous success: “The enthusiasm at the close of the work was such as is rarely seen at a Philharmonic concert,” wrote one critic.
Yet the new symphony, today numbered as Dvořák’s Seventh, came as a surprise. The composer of the snappy, exhilarating Slavonic Dances had written a dark and dramatic symphony, and critics ever since have been at pains to discover the source of this new gravity in the details of Dvořák’s own life. Some hear an intensified Czech nationalism in this symphony, some hear signs of an artistic crisis, others feel that the symphony represents an effort to please Brahms, still others feel that it reflects Dvořák’s reaction to the death of his mother in 1882. But it is better simply to take the Seventh Symphony for what it is: the effort by a powerful creative imagination to expand the scope and dimensions of his art. There can be little doubt that he succeeded—the Seventh is regarded by many as not just Dvořák’s finest symphony but as one of his greatest achievements.
This symphony has been called Dvořák’s most “Brahmsian” work, but that term needs to be understood carefully. It is not to say that this is an imitative work—every bar of the Seventh Symphony is unmistakably the music of Dvořák—but it is to say that this music has the same grandeur, seriousness of purpose, and dark sonority that we associate with the symphonies of Brahms, who would remain a close friend of Dvořák throughout his life. Those dark sonorities are evident from the first instant of the Allegro maestoso: over a deep pedal D, violas and cellos sound the brooding opening idea. The movement is in the expected sonata form, but Dvořák uses that form with unusual freedom—his themes are not so much clearly-defined single ideas as they are groups of ideas that spin off a wealth of material for development. In the first moments of this symphony we hear not just that ominous opening melody, but also the violins’ rhythmic “kick,” a sharply-rising figure, and a turn-figure first spit out by violins and eventually taken over by the solo horn. The second subject (if it can be called that, after such a dizzying parade of ideas in the opening moments) arrives as a gently-rocking melody for flutes and clarinets that Dvořák marks dolce, but quickly this section too is spinning off subordinate ideas. Though the development begins quietly, it soon turns dramatic, and the movement builds to a grand climax, then falls away to an impressive close as two horns sound the dark opening theme one last time.
The Poco Adagio stays in D minor. Woodwinds, singly or as a choir, announce most of the melodic material here. This music may be gentle on its first appearance, but this movement too grows to a series of great climaxes, and it is left to the cellos to sing the relaxed reprise of the main theme as the music makes its way to the quiet close.
The real fun of the Scherzo (and this is a fun movement) lies in its rhythmic vitality. Dvořák sets it in the unusual meter 6/4 and marks it Vivace, but then complicates matters by placing accents where we don’t expect them—sometimes this meter is accented in two, sometimes in three, and sometimes both simultaneously. The music dances madly into the trio section, which seems to begin quietly and simply (some have heard the sound of birdcalls here) but soon introduces complexities of its own; Dvořák makes a powerful return to the scherzo proper and drives the movement to a resounding close.
The Finale, marked simply Allegro, returns to the ominous mood of the beginning of the first movement. The cellos’ arching-and-falling opening idea will shape much of this movement, and Dvořák winds tensions tight and then releases them with a timpani salvo that launches this movement on its way. Cellos eventually provide relief with one of those wonderfully amiable themes that only Dvořák could write, and from this material he builds another extremely dramatic movement. In fact, Dvořák stays relentlessly in D minor as the movement nears its climax, and it is only in the final seconds that he almost wrenches it into D major for a conclusion that truly does—as Dvořák hoped—“shake the world.”
—Program notes by Eric Bromberger
Acclaimed 24-year-old American pianist Drew Petersen is a sought-after soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Winner of a 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant, the 2017 American Pianists Awards and the Christel DeHaan Fellow of the American Pianists Association, and also Artist-In-Residence at the University of Indianapolis, he has been praised for his commanding and poetic performances of repertoire ranging from Bach to Zaimont
One of the most versatile and respected musical artists of his generation—renowned as conductor, violinist, violist, and concertmaster—Guillermo Figueroa is the Principal Conductor of The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. He also serves as the Music Director of the Music in the Mountains Festival in Colorado, Music Director of the Lynn Philharmonia in Florida, and is the founder of the highly acclaimed Figueroa Music and Arts Project in Albuquerque. Additionally, he was the Music Director of both the New Mexico Symphony and the Puerto Rico Symphony. With this last orchestra, he performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall in 2003, the Kennedy Center in 2004, and Spain in 2005. Read more …