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Season Opener with pianist Leon Fleisher performing Prokofiev
- September 27-28, 2013 8:00 PM
- where: Dell Hall directions
- conductor: Peter Bay
The Austin Symphony opens its 103rd season with legendary pianist Leon Fleisher. Mr. Fleisher will be performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-Flat Major. The ASO will open with Weber’s Oberon Overture and conclude with excerpts from Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung in honor of Wagner’s Bicentennial.
|Prokofiev||Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 53|
|Wagner||Excerpts from The Ring of the Nibelung|
Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber
b. November 18, 1786 in Eutin, Germany; d. June 5, 1826 in London, England.
Oberon Overture. Premiered at London’s Royal Opera House on April 12, 1826. Approx. 10 minutes
Oberon, the last of Carl Maria von Weber’s three mature operas, was commissioned by Covent Garden and received its first performance there in April of 1826, less than two months before the composer’s death. Although it is not a successful stage work, owing to an extraordinarily weak libretto, it remains an important document of German romanticism, particularly of a type of fairy music which was fashionable at that time, and despite the dramatic excesses of the plot, it contains much of Weber’s finest music. The Overture, which is based on themes from the opera, has long enjoyed a great popularity. Beginning with the magical horn call to Oberon, the elf-king, it evokes a never-never world of Oriental fantasy with its suggestive melodies and imaginative orchestrations.
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev
b. April 23, 1891 in Krasne, Czech Republic; d. March 5, 1953 in Moscow, Russia.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 53. Premiered in Berlin in 1956. Approx. 25 minutes
When Sergei Prokofiev first heard Dmitri Mitropoulos perform and simultaneously conduct his Piano Concerto No. 3 so magnificently in Paris, the composer, who had himself toured with the piece, reportedly remarked rather peevishly that “I guess I will have to write another for myself.” He had recently squandered his creative talents on an ill-fated Concerto No. 4 for the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein, the Viennese-born son of a fabulously well-to-do industrial magnate and brother of the famous philosopher.
During the First World War, Wittgenstein was captured by the Russians and dispatched to a prison camp near Omsk, Siberia. He was gravely wounded, and lost his right arm. Even before his release, he vowed to continue his concert career, using family money to commission a series of compositions for the left hand. The most famous of these went to Maurice Ravel. Wittgenstein was generous with his commissions but extremely particular when it came to the kind of music he wanted to perform. Having devoted the post-war years to the development of techniques that would allow him to replicate some of the effects of two-handed playing through a combination of pedaling and one-handed figuration, he expected the composers he commissioned to stress those technical advances in their music.
Prokofiev responded to the $5,000 fee with a work in four rather unequal movements, the repeated rondos of the opening and finale being much briefer than the middle Andante and Moderato movements. He made a distinct choice to avoid anything in common with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, in part out of an allergic reaction to Ravel’s ironic romanticism. But at this point in his career, he was also groping toward a cerebral form of neoclassicism that, in the critic Bernard Holland’s opinion, set out “to report in musical terms on the harsh circumstances of life around it.” Even so, there is considerable mirth in his Concerto, with the final movement serving as an encore of the first – lest audiences forget to demand one of their own. And despite the acerbic nature of much of the melodic writing, both the first and second themes in the slow movement are extremely affective, especially given the desolation of their accompaniment.
The normally obstreperous pianist, Wittgenstein, who initially bridled at performing the distinctive opening cadenza that gives the Ravel work written for his unique circumstances such dramatic power, had also complained that the two compositions fashioned for him by Richard Strauss were disproportionate and unnecessarily modern. Towards Prokofiev, Wittgenstein exhibited the most polite deference while still steadfastly refusing to even attempt to perform his new concerto. Prokofiev and Wittgenstein discussed the score before its completion, with the pianist arguing for the inclusion of a short cadenza in the third movement, although the solo line in the two rondos proved much more taxing. Wittgenstein ended up rejecting the Concerto, claiming that he simply did not understand it. Yet he declined Prokofiev’s request to reuse the unperformed music in another form; hedging his bets, he argues that perhaps one day he would come to appreciate it. He never did, leaving the Concerto unperformed during Prokofiev’s lifetime.
The opus languished unheard until another German concert artist, Siegfried Rapp, lost his own right arm in an even more brutal version of global conflict and contacted Madame Prokofiev three years after the death of her husband, receiving permission to give the world premiere of the piece in Berlin in 1956.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner
b. May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany; d. February 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy.
Excerpts from Der Ringen des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs). Approx. 47 minutes
“The whole poem sets forth the necessity of recognizing and yielding to the changeable, the many-faceted, the multiplicity, the eternal renewing of reality and of life…. This is the lesson that we must learn from the history of mankind – to will what necessity imposes, and, thus, ourselves, to bring it about…. In the person of Siegfried, I have sought to represent the perfect human being whose highest intelligence acknowledges that all consciousness must find its expression in present life and action.”
Such was Richard Wagner’s own highly over-simplified explanation in 1854 of his dramatization of some of the sagas of Germanic, Scandinavian and Icelandic tradition that he was to develop into the musical tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs). Out of this mythic world of dwarfs, giants, gods, warrior-maidens and super-heroes, Wagner was to construct a musical drama that would transcend the sum of its parts to achieve his ambition of a Gesangtkunstwerk, a total art work. Four massive operas would issue from his pen during the years 1853 to 1874 – operas like not others by any composer in any period of musical history. Four stories were to be told musically and dramatically in a way that would see each linked to the other but each capable of standing on its own as a separate work. Ideally, each would be performed in sequence in what would amount to an operatic marathon. Only the genius that was Richard Wagner could conceive, and carry through, such a complicated project.
Wagner began work on The Ring cycle in 1848 by writing a dramatic poem called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death). When it was finished, he decided that it needed prefatory explanation and so produced Junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), which later became, simply, Siegfried. This, in turn, also needed clarification so two more dramas ensued, Die Walküre (The Valkyries) and Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold). Eventually, Siegfrieds Tod metamorphosed into the cycle’s climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). But, although he wrote his dramas in reverse order, Wagner composed their musical settings in correct narrative order.
The story line that finally evolved is so complicated that it defies any brief synopsis. The four operas trace the effect of a curse that falls upon gods and mortal alike when the magic gold of the Rhine is stolen by a mortal described by Wagner as “He who is willing to renounce love forever.” The sacred gold is finally returned to the care of the Rhine maidens through “The Redemption of Love” of Siegfried and Brünnhilde.
In the twenty-six years that passed between the beginning of “Siegfried’s Death” and the finishing of Götterdämmerung, Wagner underwent many political and philosophical changes of heart, many of them reflected in The Ring operas and many a source of controversy during his lifetime. Today, of course, these same “controversial” elements seem more to lessen the dramatic effectiveness of The Ring rather than to deepen it philosophically. But The Ring has survived all the discussion that it provoked and even misguided 20th-century efforts to elevate it to the status of political doctrine. It survives on the operatic stage not as the model of dramatic idealism that Wagner intended but as a triumphant musical experience, eloquent and powerful. Paradoxically, the four music drams of The Ring are perhaps best known today for the hours of magnificent orchestral music that can be drawn from them for presentation in the concert hall.
The selections on the second half of tonight’s concert follow the sequence of the operas in narrative order. The “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” occurs at the end of Das Rheingold in a scene of eloquence and beauty as the might god Wotan leads a procession across the rainbow bridge into the home of the gods, the castle of Valhalla. “The Ride of the Valkyries” is one of the best-known of all Wagner works. It opens the third act of Die Walküre and depicts the exultant ride of the warrior-maidens through stormy skies, bearing the bodies of dead heroes into Valhalla. The “Magic Fire Music” accompanies the final scene in Die Walküre in which the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, having broken Wotan’s command, is out into a charmed sleep and is surrounded by flames from which only a fearless hero (Siegfried) can rescue her. “Forest Murmurs” is a lyrical episode from the second act of Siegfried in which the young hero communes with nature, listening to the calls of the birds, before learning of Brünnhilde’s magic sleep. “Dawn” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” are part of the prologue to Act I of Götterdämmerung and are in marked contrast to “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” and the final scene from Götterdämmerung that depict the death of the hero and Brünnhilde’s decision to die with her beloved – thus destroying the curse of the ring and bringing to mankind a new age of sublime human love.
Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher represents the gold standard of musicianship and, at 85 years young, he continues to impart his life-affirming artistry throughout the world, thriving in a sustained career as conductor and soloist, recitalist, chamber music artist, and master class mentor. Mr. Fleisher’s musical pedigree alone is remarkable: he was the youngest-ever student of the great Artur Schnabel, who studied with keyboard giant and pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, a pupil of Carl Czerny, who in turn studied with Ludwig van Beethoven.
Highlights of Mr. Fleisher’s 2013-2014 season in this country include appearances as soloist with the Boston Symphony with Kazushi Ono, the Chicago Symphony with James Conlon, and the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall with Jaime Laredo conducting some of the country’s most gifted young (15 to 22 year-old) musicians. As a conductor, he will be heard with The Cleveland Orchestra and Mitsuko Uchida and as a conductor/soloist with the Naples Philharmonic where he will be conducting a world premiere with three of his children and a daughter-in-law as harp soloists. He will be performing recitals and giving master classes nationally and around the world and he will conduct the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra and appear as soloist with orchestra in Karlsruhe, Germany. His chamber music highlights include performances at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas with the Juilliard Quartet, in the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series in New York with the Dover String Quartet, and at the Eastman School of Music with the Ying Quartet. He is masking a new recording for Bridge Records including left-hand works written for him and the Bach/Brahms Chaconne.
Mr. Fleisher’s engagements last season included performances and master classes in Switzerland at the Lucerne Festival, in Germany as conductor/soloist with the Bamberg Symphony, in Brazil with the Orquestra Filarmônica de Minas Gerais, in France at the Conservatoire Strasbourg and he also conducted concerts in Taiwan and Japan, in addition to performing in halls across the United States. Mr. Fleisher’s dedication to sharing his insights and mentoring the next generation is evidenced by his memorable annual master classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and others. After many acclaimed Carnegie Hall Workshops in New York (excerpts may be seen at www.franksalomon.com), Mr. Fleisher recently led the first Carnegie Hall Workshop at Suntory Hall in Japan. He regularly conducts master classes around the world including such venues as the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hannover, Germany, and the Dublin Conservatory of Music, Ireland. Mr. Fleisher currently holds positions at the Peabody Conservatory, Curtis Institute, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, earning him the reputation among students as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ of the piano.
First-generation American, Mr. Fleisher was born in San Francisco in 1928, and began playing piano at the age of four. To his delight, he was withdrawn from kindergarten and set up with a succession of private tutors, which constituted his formal education for the rest of his childhood. (Mr. Fleisher jokes, “I’ve long thought of entitling my autobiography I Was a Kindergarten Dropout.”) He gave his first public recital at age eight, and was thrust into the relatively new classical music scene in San Francisco and those who influenced it, including Alfred Hertz, the second-ever director of the San Francisco Symphony, and the great French conductor, Pierre Monteux. It was there that he first met Arthur Schnabel – an event that was undoubtedly the most consequential in Mr. Fleisher’s musical life – which set in motion a lifelong connection to music, beyond simply the piano. Mr. Fleisher made his formal public debut in 1944 with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Pierre Monteux, who famously recognized him as “the pianistic find of the century.”
In 1952, Mr. Fleisher became the first American to win the prestigious Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels, placing him among the world’s premier classical pianists. He concertized with every major orchestra and made numerous touchstone recordings for Columbia/Epic (now Sony) under the direction of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. At the height of his success in 1965, he was suddenly struck silent at age 36 with a neurological affliction later identified as focal dystonia, rendering two fingers on his right hand immobile. Rather than end his career, Mr. Fleisher set off on an epic journey in search of a renewed life in music. He began focusing on repertoire for the left hand only, forging a new path as a soloist, conductor and teacher. In 1985 he was named Artistic Director of Tanglewood; he launched a conducting career as co-founder of the Theater Chamber Players in Baltimore, then with the Annapolis and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras. He also re-established himself as a left-handed soloist and recording artist, enabling him to achieve a standard equal to his early glory.
In the new millennium, experimental treatments using a regimen of Rolfing and ‘botulinum toxin’ (Botox) injections finally restored the mobility in Mr. Fleisher’s right hand. The extraordinary renaissance of Mr. Fleisher’s career has been documented extensively, particularly around the 2004 release of his critically acclaimed album Two Hands, which went on to hold a top 5 Billboard Chart position. The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Billboard, Gramophone and many others hailed it as one of the top recordings of its year, in any genre. He has since made several recordings including The Journey (Vanguard Classics, 2006); as soloist on the Emerson String Quartet’s Brahms, featuring the Piano Quintet in f minor (Deutsche Grammophon, 2007); a world premiere recording of Hindemith’s Klaviermusik mit Orchester (Ondine, 2009), and his first two-handed concerto recording in 40 years, Mozart Piano Concertos (Sony, 2009). In 2008, Sony re-issued Mr. Fleisher’s deep catalog, making virtually all of his recordings available on CD or digital downloads. Mr. Fleisher’s Brahms piano concerto recordings are still considered definitive today and his recordings of the five Beethoven concertos on Columbia were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. In the summer of 2013, SONY issued a 23-CD box paying tribute to this legendary artist and including his performances with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that remain the gold standard of much of the repertoire they recorded together.
Award-winning music and arts documentary filmmaker Mark Kidel directed two feature films on Mr. Fleisher for ARTE (Franco-German Television) – Lessons of A Master (winner, Grand Prix Classiques en Image Paris 2003 and UNESCO Prize for Best Music Film 2003) and Recital for Two Hands (2008). Mr. Fleisher’s story is also the subject of the 2006 Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary film Two Hands, written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect).
Mr. Fleisher holds numerous honors including the Johns Hopkins University President’s Medal and honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Amherst College, Boston Conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard School of Music, Peabody Institute and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. In 2005, the French government named him Commander in the French Order of Arts and Letters, the highest rank of its kind. He was Musical America’s 1994 “Instrumentalist of the Year,” and this year was named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s “Instrumentalist of the Year.” Mr. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to U.S. culture. His memoir, My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music, co-written with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, is available on Doubleday. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, a noted pianist with whom he frequently tours, live in Baltimore, MD.
Maestro's choice recordings, Purchase recommended recordings from Amazon.com and help support the ASO
Overtures / Clarinet Cto 1 in F MinorPurchase at Amazon
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand/Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4/Britten: DiversionsPurchase at Amazon
Wagner: Without WordsPurchase at Amazon