Fierce Legacy Program Notes

Program Notes
by Jane Rausch

This concert’s theme, “Fierce Legacy,” suggests several interpretations: it can mean “wild, savage, and violent” such as “an uncontrolled storm,” but it also can mean “intensely eager, intense, or ardent such as “a fierce effort.” The compositions we play today display in varying degrees both these connotations. Spanning three centuries, they provide a unique listening experience, highlighted by our guest soloist, Olga Shupyatskaya.

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Soon Hee Newbold was born in Seoul, South Korea. Adopted as an infant, she grew up in Frederick, Maryland with two sisters. She began playing piano and violin at an early age, and after winning several prestigious competitions, she started performing as a concert artist. Newbold received her Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University, where she concentrated on film scoring, orchestration, and audio production. She has been featured as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Disney World, Aspen Music Festival, and Tanglewood.

Newbold currently lives in Southern California where she works in film, television, and commercial projects as a producer, actress, composer, and musician. Proficient in martial arts, she has a 3rd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a 2nd degree black belt in Hapkido, and a black belt in Kigumdo (Korean swords).

Warrior Legacy, premiered in 2012, reflects Newbold’s unique background, for it explores the heroes and warriors of myth and legend. The piece starts with war drums in the lower strings and contrasting melodic themes in the violins. This cinematic-type score includes various solos throughout and a thrilling 12/8 section to finish the epic story.

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Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, often described as genially light-hearted, cheerfully loud, and containing some passages that listeners construed to be musical jokes, may seem, at first glance, to be the opposite of sounding “fierce,” yet he completed it while experiencing a difficult three-year period in his life.

Beethoven began work on both the Seventh and Eighth symphonies in 1811, but they remained unfinished until 1813. During this time, he met Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the renowned inventor of the metronome and contriver of many curious machines for making music. In 1812 the two planned to tour England together, but Beethoven was not in good health. He decided instead to visit spas in Bohemia in the vain hope of seeking a cure for his now almost unbearable deafness. In July, while still in Bohemia, he penned his famous letter to the “Immortal Beloved” revealing his ardent love for a woman (who has never been identified), but suggesting that their future together was in serious doubt.

In October, while continuing to work on his symphonies, he was called to Linz to remonstrate with his brother, Johann, who had recently allowed his young housekeeper to move in with him. A complete puritan in matters sexual, Beethoven was outraged by the situation and obtained a police order that the girl return to Vienna by a certain date. Johann evaded the issue by marrying her, but not before an ugly confrontation occurred between the two brothers.

In May of 1813, Beethoven went to Baden, near Vienna, in a last despairing effort to find a cure for his deafness. It was during this unsettled period that he finished his jovial Eighth symphony which would establish him without question as the greatest living composer.

The Eighth was premiered in Vienna on February 27, 1814, as part of a concert that also included the Seventh Symphony and his popular fifteen-minute battle piece, Wellington’s Victory. A critic wrote that the applause the Eighth received “was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguished a work which gives universal delight.” When Carl Czerny once remarked that the Eighth was much less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven replied gruffly, “That’s because it’s so much better.”

The first movement – Allegro vivace e con brio – is written in sonata form with a substantial coda. As Welsh composer Anthony Hopkins has noted, the movement is slightly unusual among Beethoven’s works in that it reaches its dramatic climax not during the development section but at the onset of the recapitulation. To this end, the concluding bars of the development form a huge crescendo, and the return of the opening bars is marked fortississimo, or extremely loud, a dynamic which rarely appears in Beethoven’s works. This extravagance is balanced, however, by quiet closing measures. One of Beethoven’s witty touches is that the first and last measures of the movement are the same – and in this way reminiscent of his teacher, Joseph Haydn.

There is a widespread belief that the second movement – Allegretto scherzando – is an affectionate parody of Johann Mälzel’s recently invented metronome. A more likely inspiration is that it is a parody of Haydn’s “Clock” symphony. The metronome-like theme starts at the very beginning of the movement with even staccato chords in 16th notes played by the wind instruments, and a basic 16th-note rhythm continues steadily through the piece. The tempo is unusually fast for a symphonic “slow movement.” The second subject includes a motif of very rapid 64th notes, suggesting perhaps an unwinding spring in a not-quite-perfected metronome. This motif is played by the whole orchestra at the end of the coda.

The third movement – Tempo di menuetto – is a vigorous minuet with a contrasting trio for two horns and clarinet. The clarinet solo is especially significant, for it is the first major example of a solo clarinet playing a written G.

Despite the delights that have come before it, the finale – Allegro vivace – is considered the greatest movement of the symphony. Set in sonata rondo form, it proceeds at a very fast tempo. As the first tune seems about to close on a customary dominant C, it is suddenly jerked up to C-sharp, only to have the unexpected note drop away as quickly as it arrived. The same thing happens at the recapitulation, and though the bubbling high spirits leave little time to worry about detail, the sheer obtrusiveness of that note lingers in the ear, demanding consideration. The questions are answered in the immense coda, where the obtrusive C-sharp note returns with harmonic consequences, generating a new and distant tonal diversion that must be worked out before the movement can returned to its beginning key. In short, the finale is pure Beethoven in his most individual and characteristic vein, full of surprises and unexpected effects, mixtures of tragedy and comedy, which make his music to be a true mirror of human life.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer, a virtuoso pianist, and a conductor of the late Romantic period. Born into a musical family, he took up the piano at the age of four and at age ten went on to study music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Unfortunately, the lad adopted a relaxed attitude while at the conservatory. He failed his general education courses and purposely altered his report cards. When Rachmaninoff was threatened with expulsion, his mother had him transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where he received lessons from a strict teacher, Nicolai Zverev, that continued until 1888. He graduated in 1892, having already composed several piano and orchestral pieces.

Rachmaninoff, a great admirer of the music of Tchaikovsky, was devastated on learning of his idol’s death from cholera in 1893. Falling into a deep depression, he lacked inspiration to compose and returned to giving piano lessons. By the end of 1896 he roused himself to go to work again. He composed his first symphony which was premiered on March 28, 1897 only to have it be brutally panned by critic and nationalist composer César Cui, who likened it to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt!

This setback renewed Rachmaninoff’s depression that lasted for three years. After undergoing hypnotherapy and psychotherapy from a family friend, Nikolai Dahl, he was at last able to resume composition. The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor was his first fully completed work, and he dedicated it to Dahl. It was to become one of his most enduringly popular pieces, and it established his fame as a concerto composer.

It should be noted here that this concerto and the others that would follow present a fierce challenge to even the most gifted performers. Rachmaninoff had unusually large hands, and his works feature large chords that can’t be played by normal-sized hands, octave runs that require enormous strength, while requiring the ability to play with heartbreaking lyricism.

The Moderato opening movement begins with a series of chromatic bell-like chords on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing into the key and main theme of the piece, C minor. Once there, the strings along with the clarinet initiate a plain but intensely expressive melody, which the piano accompanies with sonorous broken chords. The piano’s role as accompanist is also worth noting. Nowhere is the pianist so often an ensemble partner and so rarely a soloist aggressively in the foreground as in this first movement. It is only when the orchestra falls silent that the piano steps forward as a vocal soloist in the grand Romantic manner.

The second movement – Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – opens with a series of slow chords in the strings which modulate from the C minor of the previous moment to E major. At the beginning of the A section, the piano enters, playing a simple arpeggiated figure. The flute introduces the main theme which is then developed by an extensive clarinet solo. The motif is passed between the piano and the strings. Then the B section is heard. It builds up to a short climax centered on the piano, which leads to a cadenza. The original theme is repeated, and the music appears to die away, finishing with just the soloist in E major.

Drama returns with the final movement – Allegro scherzando, with a march-like beat in the first bars, demanding runs for the soloist, and at last a grand, flowing melody to support the bravura keyboard activity. Rachmaninoff builds a strong sense of motion that drives all the way to the final bars. Frequently, it is the orchestra – not the soloist – that plays the melodies, though the soloist colors and underscores the action, drawing the eye and ear, even if it is with the orchestra that a listener is humming. It all moves to a rattling bring-down-the-house conclusion.

Often performed over the years, the Piano Concerto No. 2 has never been cut or tinkered with by pianists, for there is something perfect about its form. It won for Rachmaninoff a Glinka award, confirmed his recovery from clinical depression, and set him on his way to a successful career. In the opinion of the critics, it is music for listeners of all ages.

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