Phenoms + Schumann

Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition winner, Yerin Yang, performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.

Guest Artist
Yerin Yang, piano

Saturday

March 14, 2020
7:30 PM
Koger Center for the Arts Get Tickets >

Defined as a person who is outstandingly talented or admired, the phenoms featured in this performance are awe-inspiring. In this concert program, music director Morihiko Nakahara wraps the talent of composers Zhou Tian, Mozart, and Schumann into a musically satisfying combination for performers and audiences alike.

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Program Notes

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A Thousand Years of Good Prayer
Zhou Tian (b. 1981)

Composed in 2009, A Thousand Years of Good Prayer was inspired by an old Chinese proverb about personal relationships. Zhao explains: “The proverb roughly means a good relationship between two people would take a thousand years of good prayers to bring about.” The proverb presents a paradox – or at least, on the surface an impossibility – but Zhou was fascinated by it and wanted to illustrate the proverb using the Western symphony orchestra to express it. He regards the piece as “a musical journey, going from a somewhat rough start to a simple, harmonious closure.” The work is dedicated to the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and that orchestra’s music director, Bridget-Michaele Reischl.

A Thousand Years opens with a long introduction, an angular, atonal horn solo accented by timpani. The piece becomes increasingly lyrical – although with moments of discord. The last part, dominated by the strings, is cinematically romantic, resolving tonally.

Born in the city of Hangzhou, China, Zhou Tian entered the Shanghai Conservatory at the age of 13, and subsequently earned music degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music (B.M.), the Juilliard School (M.M.) and University of Southern California (D.M.A.). Originally trained as a pianist, he studied composition with Jennifer Higdon, Richard Danielpour and Christopher Rouse, among others. He is currently associate professor of composition at Michigan State University.


Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1756-1791

Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic fashion and the economic wellbeing of the city. For five years after Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he was a hot commodity both as composer and virtuoso performer. There was a veritable deluge of commissions, which enabled him to live quite high off the hog. Thus, in the short period between 1782 and 1786, with a booming economy creating a heyday for musical life in Vienna, Mozart composed 17 of these concertos, including this one in D minor. During those years aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest in musical fashion. “Concertos,” Mozart wrote his father, “are a happy medium between what is too hard and too easy...pleasing to the ear...without being vapid.”

But occasionally darker moods prevailed. This Concerto is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. It is full of stormy outbursts and is probably the most emotionally charged of all of Mozart's concerti. Not surprisingly, the young Beethoven was particularly taken with this work, wrote two cadenzas for it, and performed it as the intermission feature during a performance of Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito at a concert organized by Mozart's widow, Constanza, on March 31, 1795.

The composition and part copying of the concerto were not completed until the afternoon of the premiere on February 11, 1785, and thus performed without a complete rehearsal and at sight! According to a letter of Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, the orchestra nevertheless played splendidly.

Right from the growling syncopated opening measures we know we’re in for a wild ride. After the orchestra’s exposition, Mozart has the piano enter on a completely new theme instead of having the soloist slavishly repeat the exposition. Rapid variations in orchestral dynamics suggest a Haydn symphony and the movement has many of the erratic and stormy characteristics that Mozart was later to use in the Overture to Don Giovanni. To intensify the mood, Mozart makes an uncharacteristically abundant use of the timpani (another characteristic more likely to be found in Haydn).

In the second movement, entitle “Romance,” the emotional temperature suddenly falls far below the level Mozart normally invests in the slow movements of his concerti. Only the middle section, now back in G minor, his chosen key for pathos and tragedy, recalls the mood of the opening movement. Of course, the ABA song form so common in slow movements requires the return to the mood of the opening.

The rondo finale with its almost shrieking theme from the piano takes up where the first movement left off. Mozart plays here with numerous swings between minor and major. In the end, he both obeys and thumbs his nose at the convention against ending large works in the minor mode. Although he ends the coda in D major, he inserts an ominous timpani roll into the final bars.


Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Robert Schumann
1810-1856

No other composer symbolized the Romantic Movement in music, as did Robert Schumann. Talented both in music and literature, as a music critic and publisher of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he was the principal spokesperson for the Romantic ideal and the future of music. He was a true elitist, pitting “us,” the enlightened (the Davidsbündler), against “them,” the masses, whom he termed the Philistines. The latter appellation has, in fact, remained part of the international elitist vocabulary.

Schumann was emotionally unstable and suffered from repeated severe bipolar episodes as well as neurosyphilis. Together the diseases undermined his health, and at 44 he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt by casting himself into the Rhine. He died two years later in an asylum. His beloved wife, Clara, a brilliant concert pianist for whom he felt an underlying professional envy, supported their eight children for the rest of her long life with a relentless series of concert tours.

In the summer of 1844, after returning from an arduous concert tour to Russia, Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown that left him barely able to work. By the end of the following year, he managed to finish the Piano Concerto and in a sudden rush of inspiration sketched out his Symphony No. 2 in a few days in December. Nevertheless, it took him ten more months to flesh out the sketch and orchestrate it. He finished it on October 19, just in time for the premiere in Leipzig on November 5 under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn. In a letter to a colleague Schumann wrote: “I wrote my symphony in December 1845, while still in a semi-invalid state; it appears to me that one can hear this from the music. I began to feel more like myself when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark times.”

The unusually long, slow introduction to the Symphony combines and interweaves two themes: a slow horn fanfare combined with a dark theme on the strings. There follows a brief duet for the oboes in a motive that will recur throughout the movement and even later in the Symphony. One of the most interesting features of this symphony is the way in which Schumann incorporates the motivic material from the Introduction into the Allegro. The tempo and tension increase until the aggressive main allegro theme erupts, immediately incorporating the oboe duet from the introduction.

The following Scherzo continues the battle of the contrasting moods. The theme is extremely agitated – perhaps reflecting the composer's mania. He then repeats his innovation from his “Spring” Symphony (No. 1), in having two contrasting trios: the first lively and staccato, the second dreamy and legato. Those who doubt a psychological interpretation of the musical material need only venture into Schumann’s writings and his early piano music, especially Carnaval, where Schumann devotes two of the movements to the manic and contemplative aspects of his own personality, actually giving them names, Florestan and Eusebius, respectively

The third movement is one of Schumann’s most moving utterances. Marked Adagio espressivo, it is based on a single passionate melody introduced on the violins and immediately picked up by a solo oboe. But it is the motive created by the opening four notes, with their intense unresolved pathos that the composer dwells on, continually returning to it in the course of the movement, often using different pitches but retaining the same languorous sighing shape. Orchestrating this movement sapped Schumann’s emotional energy and he had to put the symphony aside for an extended rest. As he wrote to a friend in a letter accompanying the manuscript, “it will tell you of many joys and sorrows.”

After the heart-felt Adagio, the Finale bursts forth with a joyous voice, corresponding to Schumann’s statement that he was feeling himself again. It is extremely unusual for its time, in that it does not correspond to any of the classical structures for symphonic movements. In sharp contrast to the monothematic Adagio, the Finale consists of a series of themes, including a transformation of the Adagio melody. Schumann ties the Symphony together by restating the opening horn call and theme from the introduction.

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