Our 34th season kicks off this weekend with Van Cliburn gold medalist, Yekwon Sunwoo, performing on The Lensic stage with our full Symphony Orchestra. Sunwoo, who has shared stages with Perlman and Marin Alsop, comes to Santa Fe fresh from his Van Cliburn victory to perform Brahms’s four-movement epic, the Piano Concerto No. 2. This will be one of the medalist’s first appearances after the June 10, 2017, competition.
The afternoon’s performance concludes with Elgar’s intimate and complex Enigma Variations, a Romanticist tribute to the composer’s friends and family.
|BRAHMS||Concerto for Piano No. 2 in B-flat Major, op.83, featuring YEKWON SUNWOO, Piano|
|ELGAR||Enigma Variations, op.36|
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NO CHILDREN UNDER 6 YEARS OF AGE.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Opus 83
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Brahms’s’ First Piano Concerto was a disaster for the young composer. Unsure of himself, he worked on it for four years before he was willing to play it in public in 1859 and then ran into icy audiences and venomous reviews. The 25-year-old composer pretended not to care, but the experience was devastating. So devastating, in fact, that Brahms essentially stopped composing for the piano. After completing the Handel Variations and Paganini Variations, he gave the instrument a fifteen-year rest while he composed in other forms. In the summer of 1878, Brahms returned from a vacation in Italy—which in every way had been a delight—and took summer lodgings in Pörtschach on the Wörthersee. Music seemed to flow out of him that summer, and now he began to compose again for the piano; a set of eight pieces, Opus 76, was soon complete, and he made sketches for a new piano concerto. However, he set these aside for several years while composing the Violin Concerto, First Violin Sonata, and Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures. After a second vacation trip to Italy in the spring of 1881 (which was evidently just as enjoyable as the first) Brahms returned to his plans for the new piano concerto and completed the score on July 7 of that year, two months to the day after his 48th birthday.
Brahms was habitually coy about his new compositions, and to his friend Elizabeth von Herzogenberg he wrote that he had composed “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny wisp of a scherzo.” He mailed a copy of the score to his friend Theodore Billroth with the comment that “I am sending you some small piano pieces.” Lurking behind these evasions, of course, is one of the longest (it has four movements), mightiest, and most formidable piano concertos ever written. Yet the Second Piano Concerto is a strange mix. For all its grandeur and difficulty, there is an unusually gentle quality about much of this concerto, a lightness of texture and playfulness unusual in Brahms’s’ music. This concerto may demand a pianist of near-superhuman strength, but it also needs one with a sense of fun and play.
Brahms seems to delight in doing the unexpected in this concerto. It opens not with the normal orchestral exposition, but with the sound of solo horn, calling nobly from the distance, and quickly the horn and piano engage in a dialogue of almost chamber-music intimacy. Then Brahms annihilates this sylvan mood with another surprise; the cadenza—thorny, gnarled, and tough—comes at the start of this movement and only when this cadenza is out of the way does the actual exposition begin. Full orchestra stamps out the horn’s opening call, now transformed into a tough statement capable of symphonic growth, and the flowing second subject arrives moments later. Brahms builds the first movement from this material, and if it is music of stature and power, the surprise is how often it turns gentle, with the piano content to think over, to ruminate, and to extend this material. This is a big movement, well over a quarter of an hour in length, and it drives to a mighty close.
The “extra” movement is the scherzo, and in many ways it is the odd-man-out in this concerto. It is the only movement in a minor key (d minor), and its outer sections drive implacably forward with a dark intensity missing from the other movements. This movement was originally going to be part of Brahms’s’ Violin Concerto, and the composer told a friend that he included it here because the first movement seemed to him too “simpel.” While that word translates prosaically into English as simple or plain, it implies that Brahms felt a lack of dramatic tension in his opening movement. He makes up for that here, composing a scherzo in sonata form whose surging opening gives way to a floating second subject, announced by the violins high in their range. The trio section brings a great burst of energy and D-Major sunlight, but Brahms soon returns to the opening material. The reprise is not literal, however, and the music continues to develop as it drives to its unrelenting close.
The Andante opens with a long cello solo, and this noble, flowing melody is soon taken up by the violins. Significantly, the piano is never allowed to have this wonderful theme; it can comment and decorate that line—and in the turbulent center section it heads off in its own direction—but that theme remains the province of the orchestra. One of the magical moments in this concerto comes at the end of the piano’s central episode. Things calm down, and in a long passage for piano and two clarinets (another chamber music interlude) Brahms slowly leads us back to the return of the cello solo and the quiet close. Brahms liked that cello theme a great deal. Five years later, he used it as the central theme of his song Immer leiser wird mein schlummer (“Ever fainter grows my slumber”) where it sets the text sung by a dying girl. The last movement defeats our expectations once again. Instead of a mighty finale that would make a counterweight to the huge first movement, Brahms concludes with music of whimsy and playfulness. Donald Francis Tovey called this a “childlike finale,” but that need not mean that it is inferior music, only that it aims for something quite different from the first three movements. This one seems to dance all the way through, from the piano’s graceful opening through the languorous second episode full of gypsy fire and on to the piano’s playful extension of both these ideas. Brahms keeps things light here, trumpets and timpani are significantly silent throughout this movement, and at the end the music comes dancing home in a way that is fully satisfying, even if it is an ending that no listener would have predicted after hearing the first three movements. Brahms’s tried out this concerto in private rehearsals with Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Orchestra in the fall of 1881 before giving the premiere in Budapest on November 9, and then Brahms, von Bülow, and the Meiningen Orchestra took the new concerto on tour throughout Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. As a young man, Brahms had been one of the finest pianists in Europe, but even the creator of this music found some of it nearly impossible to perform, and there are reports that he was swearing under his breath during concerts over his inability to play his own music. This concerto is one of the supreme tests for pianists, full of difficulties at every turn.
Much of the writing is chordal—or in octaves—and demands huge (and powerful) hands, there are great leaps across the range of the keyboard, the rhythmic complexities are enormous, there are sudden shifts of mood within movements, and simply getting through the concerto demands steely strength and stamina. Brahms may have jokingly called this “a tiny, tiny piano concerto” when he announced it to his friends, but by the end of his tour with the Meiningen Orchestra he had changed his mind. Now he referred to it as “the long terror.”
Enigma Variations, Opus 36
SIR EDWARD ELGAR
Born June 2, 1857, Broadheath
Died February 23, 1934, Worcester
One evening in 1898, Edward Elgar was improvising for his wife at the piano and just for fun tried varying a theme to suggest the personality of a different friend in each variation. Suddenly a musical project occurred to him, and what had begun “in a spirit of humour . . . continued in deep seriousness.” The result wasan orchestral theme and fourteen variations, each a portrait of a friend or family member, headed in the score by their initials or some other clue to their identity. The score attracted the attention of conductor Hans Richter, who led the first performance in London on June 19, 1899, and the Enigma Variations quickly became Elgar’s most popular work—Gustav Mahler conducted this music (then only a few years old) during his brief tenure as conductor of the New York hilharmonic. Elgar dedicated the variations “To my friends pictured within,” and the subject of each musical portrait was soon identified, but mystery surrounded the theme itself, a six-bar melody full of the rises and falls that make it an ideal candidate for variation. Elgar himself fed that mystery, naming the theme “Enigma” and saying: “the ‘Enigma’ I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed . . . further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes,’ but it is not played.” Despite many attempts to identify this “larger” theme (including theories that it is Auld Lang Syne or God Save the Queen), the “enigma” remains just as mysterious now as it did when the music was written over a century ago.
What is not mysterious is the success of this music, with its promising theme, a wonderful idea for a set of variations, and a series of imaginative musical portraits. Part of the charm of this music is that— unlike the orchestral variations of Brahms or Schoenberg, which exist outside time and place—the Enigma Variations are very much in time and space, for they offer a nostalgic vision of a lost age. The music begins, and suddenly we are in late-Victorian England, with its civilized manners, garden parties, friends bicycling over for a visit, and long steamer trips abroad.
Theme: Enigma Strings alone announce the noble, wistful theme, which Elgar marks molto espressivo and then extends briefly before the music leads directly into: C.A.E. This is a gentle portrait of the composer’s wife, Caroline Alice Elgar, musically similar to the first
statement of the theme.
2 H.D.S.-P. Hew David Steuart-Powell, a piano-teacher. This variation, marked Allegro, echoes his practicing staccato runs.
3 R.B.T Richard Baxter Townshend, described by Elgar as “an amiable eccentric.” 4 W.M.B. William Meath Baker was a bluff and peremptory country
squire; his variation thunders past in barely thirty seconds.
5 R.P.A. Richard Penrose Arnold was the son of Matthew Arnold; Elgar described him as a “gentleman of the old school,” and his variation combines a noble
violin line with flights of fancy from the woodwinds.
6 Ysobel Isabel Fitton, a violaplayer. This gentle variation depicts an exercise in stringcrossing for violists.
7 Troyte Arthur Troyte Griffith, an argumentative architect. His Presto variation features brillante runs from the violins and ends with the sound of a slamming door.
8 W.N. Winnifred Norbury, a dignified older acquaintance of the Elgars. This variation incorporates the sound of her “trilly laugh,” but some believe it actually pictures her family home.
9 Nimrod August Jaeger, one of Elgar’s closest friends and supporters (Jaeger is German for hunter; Nimrod was the mighty hunter in Genesis). This noble
slow movement is sometimes performed separately as a memorial. Strings alone announce the theme, which grows to a triumphant climax and subsides to
end quietly. 10 Dorabella Dora Penny was a friend whose slight stammer is heard in the music, where there is a brief hesitation at the start of each woodwind phrase. Elgar renamed her “Dorabella” for this variation, after the character in Così fan tutte.
11 G.R.S. George Robertson Sinclair, the organist at the Hereford Cathedral. This variation features the sound of his bulldog Dan in the growling lower instruments and the tinkling sound of his bicycle bell in the triangle.
12 B.G.N. Basil Nevinson was a cellist, and noble solos for that instrument open and close this cantabile variation.
13 (***) Romanza Lady Mary Lygon was on a steamship to Australia when Elgar wrote this music, and he remembered her with a variation in which the sound of the ship’s vibrating engines is heard as side drum sticks softly roll on the timpani. Over this low rumble, Elgar quotes Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, putting quotation marks around the excerpt in his score.
14 E.D.U. “Edu” was his wife’s nickname for the composer, and this musical self-portrait—by turns powerful, striving, and gentle–was “written at a time when friends were dubious and generally discouraged as to the composer’s musical future.” Included along the way is the whistle Elgar used to announce his arrival at home, and he weaves in a reminiscence of his wife’s variation before the music drives to a triumphant close.
ELGAR, Enigma Variations, Opus 36
10 (Dorabella) Intermezzo
13 (***) Romanza
—Program Notes by Eric Bromberger
Born in Anyang, South Korea, Mr. Sunwoo began learning piano at age 8. He gave both his recital and orchestra debuts in 2004 in Seoul before moving to the United States in 2005 to study with Seymour Lipkin at the Curtis Institute of Music. He earned his bachelor’s degree there, his master’s at The Juilliard School with Robert McDonald, and his artist diploma at the Mannes School of Music with Richard Goode. He currently studies under Bernd Goetzke in Hannover. Mr. Sunwoo credits each for their guidance in his artistic development and approach, and honored the late Mr. Lipkin by performing his cadenza during his Semifinal Round performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467. Learn more …
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