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NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author. last update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
April 1-2-3, 2016
90th Season / Subscription Concert No.7
Michael Allsen

This concert opens with our first performance of the music of the late Steven Stucky, among our country’s finest composers—his 2012 Symphony is a richly colorful and emotional work that will serve as a showpiece for the players of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  A more familiar Romantic showpiece shares the first half, Strauss’s symphonic poem Don Juan.  Joining us for Brahms’s youthfully exuberant Piano Concerto No.1 is Garrick Ohlsson.  Mr. Ohlsson, a Madison favorite, has appeared no less than five times with the orchestra over the past 30 years, in 1984 (Rachmaninoff, Concerto No.2), 1985 (Mozart, Concerto No.25), 2002 (Brahms, Concerto No.2), 2008 (Rachmaninoff, Concerto No.3), and 2012 (Tchaikovsky, Concerto No.2).


Steven Stucky (1949-2016)



This work was composed in early 2012, for a joint commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic.  Its premieres were on September 28, 2012 (Los Angeles) and November 29, 2012 (New York). Duration 20:00.


One of America’s leading composers, Steven Stucky was born in Kansas, and studied composition and conducting at Baylor University and Cornell University.  Prior to his untimely death in February, he had a long tenure teaching at Cornell before taking a position at New York’s Juilliard School in 2014.  Though Stucky composed chamber music, and vocal and choral works, he referred to orchestral music as his “artistic home.”  He  had works commissioned and/or played by many of America’s great orchestras, and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, serving as their Composer-in-Residence since 1988 and as the orchestra’s Consulting Composer for New Music.   Among his many honors and awards is a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra.


Despite his preoccupation with music for orchestra, Stucky’s first symphony, heard here, was not written until he was in his fifties.  It is a mature, emotionally affecting, and deeply satisfying piece in a single unbroken movement, yet with a form that preserves some elements of traditional symphonic writing: a basic four-section plan and careful development and recapitulation of musical ideas.  Stucky also makes masterful use of orchestral color, exploiting everything from delicate woodwind solos to threatening brass, from frantic virtuoso lines to the vast array of timbres available in a large percussion section.  Stucky’s extensive program note on the work appears in full here:

“Choosing to call a new work a symphony also means confronting the genre’s long, intimidating history and its powerful traditions. It is a history ineluctably tied to older eras — the Classical (Haydn, Beethoven) and the Romantic (Berlioz, Brahms) — and tied, too, to the materials and means of those older eras: strong melodic themes, well defined formal patterns, developmental techniques. Thus to the extent that symphonies did continue to flourish in the twentieth century, they did so largely among the less modernist, more traditional masters: Mahler, Sibelius, Elgar, Nielsen, Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Tippett, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Harris, Schuman, Honegger, Martinu, Henze. It is true that a few progressive composers such as Lutoslawski put some of their most important effort into symphonies; indeed his Fourth Symphony was his last major work. But it is also telling that there are no symphonies by Birtwistle, Boulez, Ligeti, Lindberg, or Salonen. There are no symphonies by Adès, Lachenmann, or Sciarrino. There are none by Takemitsu, none by Kurtág.


“So what does it mean for a composer of my generation to haul the title Symphony out of his closet in 2012? I myself had written four symphonies before the age of thirty (two of them juvenilia, the other two more advanced student works, all of them now withdrawn), but then I turned my back on the idea for another thirty years. Not that I abandoned the medium of the symphony orchestra, which has remained my artistic home. But many of my works over these past thirty years have been coloristic: the image-driven Pinturas de Tamayo, for example, or Impromptus, or Son et lumière. Several have been concertos with soloists; three more concertos have made the orchestra itself the star. More recently, I have been drawn to single-movement orchestral forms that combine several sections of different moods and tempos into one large, encompassing musical journey, such as Radical Light (Los Angeles, 2007) and Silent Spring (Pittsburgh, 2011). I guess we would have to call such works tone poems or symphonic poems (even without overt extra-musical programs), though those terms too fall quaintly on the postmodern ear. At the same time, one would have to notice that their aims and methods are not so very different from one-movement symphonies like the Sibelius Seventh or the Barber First.


“My new Symphony is much like Radical Light and Silent Spring: a single expanse of music (here about 20 minutes) that travels through a series of emotional landscapes, depositing us at the end of our journey in a different place from where we set out. Why ‘symphony,’ then? Perhaps the very word is meant to assert that it’s time for me to face squarely my own relation to the symphonic tradition? Perhaps it’s a call for gravitas, an ambition to treat the material more ‘symphonically,’ including the possibility that ideas might return, develop, evolve?


“The narrative is a purely musical one (no Mahler- or Tchaikovsky-style personal confessions), but it is a narrative no less personal, dramatic, or emotional. In Introduction and Hymn, we begin with lonely woodwind solos, led by the oboe and later flute, which swell then into billows of woodwind texture before delivering us onto the shore of a slowly developing, hymn-like brass chorale. Very suddenly, the peaceful conclusion of this first section is interrupted by a two-note motif signaling the second section, Outcry. Something has gone terribly wrong: music of hope and peace has been replaced by music of turmoil, even anguish. Spurred on again and again by the two-note motif, this music becomes ever faster and more agitated, hurtling toward the third section, Flying. Now it is as if the orchestra (and we along for the ride) has broken free of the emotional clutches of the second section and can really let itself go in fast, virtuoso playing. (This is the only section that corresponds neatly to a conventional symphony movement, namely a scherzo.) When this fast music has worked itself into as frenzied and as glittery a state as it can manage, suddenly it gives way to the final Hymn and Reconciliation: massive string chords against which, one by one, earlier musics return. We hear the brass hymn and the woodwind billows from the first section, the turbulent theme from the second section now recollected in tranquility, and finally the two-note outcry motif, once anguished but now serene.”


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Don Juan, Op.20


Strauss composed Don Juan in 1887-1888, and he conducted the premiere at the Weimar Opera House on November 11, 1889.  We have played the work six times at these concerts between 1947 and 2007.  Duration 18:00.


Strauss composed in virtually every musical genre, producing a huge collection of operas, symphonic works, ballets, songs, and chamber music during a musical career spanning more than seventy years.  But his most frequently-performed orchestral works—and the works that first gained him international fame—are a series of tone poems composed as a relatively young man.  The tone poem, the most thoroughly Romantic of symphonic forms, was developed in the nineteenth century as an expression of poetic or philosophical ideas in music, or frequently, as pure program music. The musical forms of these works transcend the old symphonic molds, as a twenty-four-year-old Strauss wrote in 1888:


“If you want to create a work of art that is unified in its mood and consistent in its structure, and if that work is to give the listener a clear and definite impression, then what the composer wants to say must be just as clear in his own mind.  This is only possible through inspiration by a poetic idea, whether or not it is introduced as a 'program'.  I consider it a legitimate artistic method to create a new form for each new subject; a task that is very difficult, but all the more attractive for its very difficulty...”


In 1887, the composer became infatuated with Pauline de Ahna, a young soprano, and he was inspired to write a work based upon his new-found love.  The poetic idea behind this tone poem came from the most erotic of stories, the 17th-century story of Spanish seducer Don Juan—the same story that inspired Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Strauss took his direct inspiration from a 19th-century retelling of the Don Juan legend by the poet Nikolaus Lenau.   Lenau's portrayal of Don Juan is not particularly sympathetic, but he does portray the Don as a figure who is hopelessly driven by his own desire for sexual fulfillment, and who is increasingly disappointed and bored after each conquest.  In the end, Lenau's Don Juan accepts death at the hands of a girl's vengeful father, as the only escape from a meaningless life.  This was pretty strong stuff for a young late-19th-century gentleman to write with a young lady in mind, but well in keeping with Romantic ideals of the artistic temperament.  (And Pauline did, after all, marry Strauss a few years later!)  The new work, Don Juan, was first performed in Weimar in 1889, and published a year later:  the first of Strauss's musical works to appear in print.


Strauss included three extended quotations from Lenau's poem at the beginning of the score, but did not provide a specific program for the music.  Even so, it is almost irresistible to conjure up the outlines of the story from Strauss's music.  The opening music, fiery and passionate, can only represent Don Juan himself (and perhaps Strauss's own vision of himself as a twentysomething lover).  The central section of the work is dominated by two amorous interludes.  The first and shorter interlude is light and flirtatious in character, but tossed aside in fairly short order when the Don spots another woman.  The second interlude is more serious—as if the woman in Don Juan's eye means something more than just another prize.  The expansive main theme of this section is introduced by the solo oboe and developed extensively throughout the orchestra.  After this theme is thoroughly elaborated, the music becomes disconsolate.   The exuberant opening music returns as Don Juan apparently shakes off his depression, and goes in search of further conquests.  The coda comes with a brilliant musical scene that recalls the climactic swordfight between Don Juan and Don Pedro.  In Lenau's poem, Don Juan has victory in his grasp, but suddenly allows his enemy to run him through.  Strauss's music comes to a tremendous orchestral crescendo, a grand pause, and a hushed postlude that recalls the Don's dying words:


“It was a beautiful storm that drove me on; it has subsided, and left behind a calm.  All of my hopes and desires are seemingly dead.  Perhaps a bolt of lightning from the Heaven that I despised has struck down my powers of love, and suddenly my world becomes deserted and dark.  And yet, perhaps not — the fuel is all burnt and the hearth is cold ”



Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15


Brahms's first piano concerto was composed between 1854 and 1859.  He was the soloist in the first performance in Hanover, on January 22, 1859.  Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances have featured Howard Stein (1939), Gunnar Johansen (1951), William Masselos (1967), Howard Karp (1974), Ruth Laredo (1984), David Buechner (1996), and Peter Serkin (2009).  Duration 45:00.


In a letter written just after his second performance of his first piano concerto, Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim: “My concerto has been a brilliant and decisive...failure.”  Joachim had conducted the premiere in Hanover, where it met a polite but indifferent reaction from the audience.  Five days later, Brahms played the concerto again in Leipzig, and heard a “perfectly distinct hissing from all sides” at the conclusion of the third movement.   Why was this brilliant work such a flop?  At least part of the reason seems to be Brahms’s place in musical politics of the day.  Just a few years earlier, in an editorial in his musical journal, Robert Schumann had hailed young Brahms as a new standard bearer for the more conservative party of Romantic musicians—as an antidote to the music of radicals like Franz Liszt.  This work, Brahms’s first large orchestral piece, did not match the expectations of either clique.  The concerto lacked the showy “thrills and chills” heard in the works of Liszt, and demanded by most audiences, but its passionate nature seems to have been a bit too much for the conservatives.


This virtuosic and fiery piece is a complete contrast to the more intellectual and symphonic second concerto he wrote twenty years later, but both works now are part of the standard repertoire.  A young Brahms was clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve in Concerto No.1.  In the aftermath of Schumann’s article, he felt pressure to compose a large, symphonic work, and almost immediately began work on a symphony in D minor.  The opening three movements were finished by 1854, but Brahms was dissatisfied with the orchestration, and transformed the movements into a large-scale sonata for two pianos, which he performed at a private gathering with Clara Schumann.  Still unsatisfied, he took the advice of his friend Julius Grimm, and combined the two conceptions of the work to create a piano concerto.  (The original second movement was abandoned in favor of the present Adagio, but this music would resurface years later as part of his German Requiem.) 


He was still tinkering with the concerto late in 1858, just prior to its embarrassing early performances, and made several more changes prior to its publication.  Just as this trying process of composition and revision was playing itself, Brahms was struck with an enormous emotional blow.  His teacher and mentor Schumann threw himself into the Rhine in 1854, in an attempted suicide.  Schumann survived, but spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum.  Brahms’s relationship with Robert’s wife Clara had always been a close and affectionate one, but with Schumann’s insanity and death in 1856, it became a complicated affair, tinged with some guilt on both sides.  Some writers have even traced the great emotional outcry at the beginning of the concerto to Brahms’s anguish over Robert’s death and his guilty love for Clara. 


The opening movement (Maestoso) is a large-scale sonata form, and makes the most of Brahms’s emotive and thoroughly Romantic themes. In the orchestral introduction, there are two contrasting ideas—one vehement and the other much more calm.  The piano enters with a placid melody and the music gradually intensifies, eventually returning to the passionate mood of the opening.  A horn call motive introduces a long and stormy development section, and this horn call will pervade much of the rest of the movement. 


In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms referred to the Adagio as “…a lovely portrait of you.”  This movement opens with a flowing melody in the bassoons, setting a quiet mood that is maintained throughout the movement.  The piano answers this melody, and the rest of the movement continues a gentle dialogue between soloist and orchestra.  The contrasting middle section is announced by the clarinet, and after an almost meditative cadenza, there is a return of the opening idea.


The last movement (Allegro non troppo) is a rondo, meaning that a single theme returns throughout, in alternation with contrasting music.  In this case, the main idea is a syncopated opening theme that was clearly inspired by Gypsy music.  This theme serves as a counterweight to several secondary melodies, two cadenzas, and a large central fugue that develops the main theme.


program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen