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Jonathan Biss, piano
- Jessica Mathaes, violin
- February 7-8, 2014 7:00 PM
- where: Dell Hall directions
- conductor: Peter Bay
The Austin Symphony presents a night with piano great Jonathan Biss performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Also that evening, the ASO will perform Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with ASO’s Concertmaster Jessica Mathaes as a soloist. They close out the evening with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major.
FAQ…Is the concert still happening tonight?
Answer: Of course. Freezing precipitation is going to be nonexistent as of noon today and above freezing according to weather.com.
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|Vaughan Williams||The Lark Ascending|
|Schumann||Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54|
|Brahms||Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73|
Ralph Vaughan Williams
b. October 12, 1872 in Down Ampnet, Gloucestershire; d. August 26, 1958 in London.
The Lark Ascending. Premiered June 14, 1921 in London, age 49.
During a long career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams sparked a new Renaissance of English music. In works ranging from symphonies and concerti to operas, ballets, and hymns, Vaughan Williams blended English folk song, hymnody, and Elizabethan music with themes inspired both by classical masters such as Bach and Handel and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. His work in transforming traditional sources into modern settings led the way for later British composers such as Benjamin Britten and William Walton.
Born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams studied both in England, at the Royal College of Music in London and at Trinity College in Cambridge, and with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. A dedicated musicologist, he collected and catalogued over 800 English folk songs; this work led to his editing the new English Hymnal of 1906, to which he added several new hymns of his own. In compositions such as his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1909) and his first symphony (A Sea Symphony, 1910) he acknowledged his strong debt to historical sources. Yet modern events affected him as well, and his turbulent Fourth Symphony (1934) is generally considered to reflect his anguish at the growing turmoil during the period before the second World War. In general, his music often evokes both reverence for England’s bucolic past and a modern meditation upon its inevitable passing.
In The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams found inspiration not only in English folk themes but in a poem by the English poet George Meredith (1828-1909). The composer included this portion of Meredith’s poem on the flyleaf of the published work:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
Vaughan Williams’ orchestral romance offers an impressionistic image of the lark’s song and the countryside, with “our valley” represented by two folk tunes. He completed an early version of the piece in 1914 for violinist Marie Hall, who consulted with him on revisions and first performed the work in a violin-piano arrangement in December 1920. The orchestral version premiered in London at a Queen’s Hall concert in June, 1921.
The formal structure of the piece is a straightforward ABA development, with each theme introduced and linked by the solo intervals. Yet within that structure, the violin solo is notable for its fluid writing and the organic way in which it emerges from and blends back into the orchestral texture throughout the piece.
The work opens with a calm set of sustained chords from the strings and winds. The violin enters as the lark, with a series of ascending, repeated intervals and nimble, then elongated arpeggios. These rise into the first theme, and the orchestra quietly enters to accompany the solo in the development of this somewhat introspective, folk-like motif. The solo cadenza is reprised, then the woodwinds, led by flute and clarinet, announce the second theme, a folk dance. The full orchestra joins in, though Vaughan Williams always keeps the orchestration restrained, never forceful. At one point the soloist pauses in a trill while woodwinds play a series of bird-like calls themselves. Then the violin soars in cadenzas over the orchestra, an effect seen by some as representing the lark flying over the countryside. Another solo lark episode leads to the reprise of the original theme, finally stated by the full strings. The work comes to a quiet close, with the soloist returning to the original ascending, repeated intervals as the lark’s song is, indeed, “lost on aerial rings.”
© 2013 Barbara Heniger
b. June 8, 1810 in Zwickau, Germany; d. July 29, 1856 in Endenich, Germany.
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54. Completed in 1845, age 35.
Robert Schumann was a pivotal figure in the Romantic movement. As biographer Charles Osborne observes, “Schumann is…an artist who, not only in his music, expressed vividly and subtly the romantic’s peculiar obsession with individual fantasy, but who also understood and tried to disseminate the deeper-rooted philosophy of romanticism, its literary origins, its connections with liberal thought, and its glorification of feeling and passion over reflection and self-control.” However, Schumann himself was an anomaly: taciturn and of temperate personality, he was rather faceless and, frankly, boring. His wife, the brilliant pianist Clara Wieck, domesticated him easily and fellow composers Liszt and Wagner, both possessing considerable personal magnetism, found Schumann to be personally dull.
Schumann’s principal interest, both as a performer and a composer, was the piano. His performing career was cut short at age 22 by an injury to his right hand. Permanently crippled, he focused more on composing. Until his marriage to Clara, nearly all of his music was written for solo piano. Clara, however, had other ideas for her husband’s career: She persistently goaded him to write for the orchestra, as she thought this avenue was his road to fame.
Although Schumann had made three half-hearted stabs at writing a piano concerto, his lone completed effort dates from 1845. During its composition, Schumann wavered in his conception of the work. Finally he wrote to Clara that it would be “something between a symphony, a concert, and a grand sonata. I cannot write a virtuoso concerto, and must think of something different.” By this time, symptoms of the dreaded social disease that claimed his sanity and his life began to manifest themselves. Schumann was haunted by frightening aural hallucinations, suffered from bouts of depression bordering on nervous breakdowns, and imagined ministrations from angels and demons. After an unsuccessful suicide bid, he was incarcerated at an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, where he suffered two and a half years of unalloyed misery before dying shortly after his 46th birthday.
© Stephen Aechternacht
b. May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany; d. April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73. Premiered December 20, 1877 in Vienna, age 44
To be honest, we don’t know the exact nature of the obstacles that Brahms overcame to complete his Symphony No. 1. it is likely that he felt lost in the shadow cast by Beethoven and his symphonies. From the first draft of the first movement to the completion of the entire symphony took 15 years, the end being achieved in August 1876. Whether these obstacles were technical, artistic, or psychological, once the First Symphony was completed and premiered with reasonable success, such obstacles plainly become a thing of the past, for the next year, in the summer of 1877, Brahms started and finished his Second Symphony in four months.
It was the first of three summers he would spend near the town of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee (Austria’s Lake Worth—not to be confused with Bavaria’s Lake Worth, the Wörthsee!). Biographer Jan Swafford writes of the routine that Brahms now had settled into to spend a pleasant and productive late spring and summer composing: away from the city and most people, with snow-capped mountains, hiking trails, and good food within reach. Here Brahms started most days with strong coffee and a swim in the lake at dawn, followed by a substantial walk and composing before lunch. The cottage where he stayed was equipped with a piano so that several hours each day could be spent in good, hard work.
When Brahms referred to the new composition in correspondence to friends, he consistently described it as another dark struggle, like the First Symphony. An often-quoted letter to his publisher Simrock reads, “The new symphony is so melancholy that you can’t stand it. I have never written anything so sad, so minor-ish: the score must appear with a black border.” To anyone today who is familiar with the Second Symphony, there is no question that Brahms was entertaining himself by leading his correspondents down a garden path.
This symphony is reputed to be the happiest of the four that Brahms wrote. Where the First Symphony was constantly striving and reaching, the Second, while shorter, moves at a more leisurely pace. Its last two movements generate tremendous energy, but it is a spirited, gleeful energy. His orchestration tended to be thick and heavy, but in the Second Symphony the orchestration achieves both a new transparency and a new richness.
But this Symphony is a great deal more than merely “happy.” In the first two movements especially the music tips back and forth between major and minor modes, and the moods in these movements are subtle and varied as well. The melody in F-sharp minor introduced by the cellos is a delicious “warm-fuzzy,” and the climax of the first movement’s development sounds as though a storm is about to break out, but it simply disappears as the sunny opening music returns. The second movement is notated with the key signature of B major but constantly displays indeterminate moods. And at the climax of this movement the storm does break out, however briefly.
One more technical aspect to note is how frequently Brahms shifts the rhythm so that what sounds like downbeats turn out not to be downbeats. He learned this from Robert Schumann, but Brahms applies it here more artfully and in different ways, particularly in the fourth movement. As dance-like as the last two movements seem, listeners wanting to dance along are in for some surprises. It might be that Brahms is entertaining himself at our expense.
© David Mead
American pianist Jonathan Biss is widely regarded for his artistry, musical intelligence and deeply felt interpretations, winning international recognition for his orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances and for his award-winning recordings. He performs a diverse repertoire ranging from Mozart and Beethoven, through the Romantics to Janácek and Schoenberg, as well as works by contemporary composers such as György Kurtág and including commissions from Leon Kirchner, Lewis Spratlan, Timo Andres, and Bernard Rands.
In the 2013-2014 Season, Mr. Biss’s orchestral engagements include the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Calgary Philharmonic, the San Antonio Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, NDR Hannover, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and Leipzig Gewandhaus, among others.
Jonathan Biss continues to play in the major recital series in the US and in Europe—he twice opened the Master Piano Series at the Concertgebouw, Salzburg, Lucerne, and Edinburgh Festivals, the Beethovenfest, Bonn and the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg. Mr. Biss made his much-anticipated Carnegie Hall recital debut in January 2011 with a program of works by Beethoven, Schumann, Janácek and a new work written for him by Bernard Rands. He continues to appear regularly at Carnegie Hall, and will present his second Stern Auditorium recital in January 2014.
In January 2012 Onyx Classics released the first CD in a nine-year, nine-disc recording cycle of Beethoven’s complete sonatas. Mr. Biss wrote about this recording project and his relationship with Beethoven’s music more generally in Beethoven’s Shadow, an essay that was published electronically by RosettaBooks as a Kindle Single, available from Amazon.com. Beethoven’s Shadow subsequently ranked as the best-selling Music e-book title on Amazon in the U.S. and the U.K. His next Kindle Single, A Pianist Under the Influence, was released shortly thereafter.
Mr. Biss’s previous recordings include an album of Schubert’s Sonatas in A Major, D. 959 and C Major, D. 840 and two short Kurtág pieces from Játékok that was released in October 2009 on the Wigmore Hall Live label and named by NPR Music as one of the best albums of the year. It follows four acclaimed recordings for EMI Classics, including an all-Schumann recital album, which won a Diapason d’Or de l’année award, and a recital album of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp. 13, 28, 90, and 109; which received an Edison Award. With the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra he recorded Mozart Piano Concertos 21 and 22 in a live performance. His first recording for EMI Classics was of works by Beethoven and Schumann in 2004 on EMI’s Debut series.
At age 20, Mr. Biss made his New York recital debut at the 92nd Street Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts in 2000 and his New York Philharmonic debut under Kurt Masur that same season. Among the many conductors with whom he has worked are Marin Alsop, Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, James Conlon, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Sir Neville Marriner, Andris Nelsons, Antonio Pappano, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph von Dohnányi , Jirai Valcua, Ludovic Morlot, Robin Ticciatti and Pinchas Zukerman.
Jonathan Biss represents the third generation in a family of professional musicians that includes his grandmother Raya Garbousova, one of the first well-known female cellists (for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto), and his parents, violinist Miriam Fried and violist/violinist Paul Biss. Growing up surrounded by music, Mr. Biss began his piano studies at age six, and his first musical collaborations were with his mother and father. He studied at Indiana University with Evelyne Brancart and at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Leon Fleisher. In 2010, Mr. Biss was appointed to Curtis’s piano faculty, and in September 2013, he and the Curtis Institute of Music partnered with Coursera—the leading provider of “massive online open courses”—to offer a free, online course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Over 30,000 people enrolled in the course: seven times the total number of students who have attended Curtis since the school opened its doors in October 1924.
Mr. Biss has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Leonard Bernstein Award presented at the 2005 Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Wolf Trap’s Debut Artist Award, Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the 2003 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, and the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award. He was an artist-in-residence on American Public Media’s Performance Today and was the first American chosen to participate in the BBC’s New Generation Artist program. For more information about Jonathan Biss and to read his blog about his life as a musician go to www.jonathanbiss.com, or visit his fan page on Facebook.
Click here for Jessica Mathaes’ bio.
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Maestro's choice recordings, Purchase recommended recordings from Amazon.com and help support the ASO
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music; The Lark Ascending; Fantasia on Greensleeves; English Folk Song Suite; In the Fen Country; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1Purchase at Amazon
Piano ConcertosPurchase at Amazon
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 (Essential Classics)Purchase at Amazon