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Unlock a myriad of emotions through the music of two of Germany’s most famed Romantics alongside Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä and celebrated American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan. With tender lyricism and sweeping softness, Robert Schumann’s beloved Piano Concerto reads like a love letter to his pianist wife Clara, while Felix Mendelssohn’s classic Third Symphony evokes the atmospheric Scottish Highlands. The concert opens with fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s ethereal Winter Sky to set the evening’s magical mood.
This concert is sponsored in part by Chanin and Adam Carlin, Mary and Howard S. Frank, Rose Ellen Greene, Susan D. Kronick and Edward Manno Shumsky, William Strong, and Michael Tilson Thomas and Joshua Robison.
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Approx. Duration: 10 minutes
II. Winter Sky
Approx. Duration: 30 minutes
Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 54
Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso
Approx. Duration: 43 minutes
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, "Scottish"
Andante con moto – Allegro agitato
Scherzo assai vivace
Allegro guerriero – Finale maestoso
Approximate duration: 10 minutes
After studying at the Sibelius Academy in her native Helsinki, Kaija Saariaho settled in Paris, where experiments with cutting-edge music technology fueled her expansive, color-drenched scores. The premiere in 2000 of her first opera, L’amour de loin (Love from Afar), vaulted Saariaho into the upper echelon of international composers, and the cross-cultural love story has proved to be one of the very rare modern works to stay active in the repertory, including a new staging at the Metropolitan Opera.
Soon after composing that opera, with its enormous but breathtakingly transparent orchestra, Saariaho wrote her largest work to date for orchestra alone. Orion, commissioned by The Cleveland Orchestra, examines the mythological hunter and the constellation that bears his name in three movements. The middle movement, Winter Sky, situates the music in the season when Orion is most visible in the northern hemisphere.
The icy stillness and austere solos, starting with piccolo, show Saariaho to be an heir to Sibelius in evoking the pristine Nordic winter. But the characteristic that really sets her apart is the detailed sound painting in the barely audible background—in this case using two harps, piano, organ, muted strings and metallic percussion, with no sound marked louder than pianissimo.
As the orchestral textures thicken and elongate, the three-note motive first articulated in the opening piccolo solo becomes a mantra, until it feels like every sound is a transformation of that simple pattern that leans down a half-step and then drops again, down a minor-third.
Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 54
Approximate duration: 30 minutes
Robert Schumann’s own self-assessment, as of the age of 20, was that his “talents as musician and poet are at the same level.” He soon committed to a life in music, and he organized his life in Leipzig around piano lessons with the distinguished teacher Friedrich Wieck. Schumann’s fanatical practice regimen, combined with his ill-advised use of a finger-strengthening device, resulted in permanent damage to his right hand, but at least there was a silver lining to his aborted piano career: Schumann came to know his teacher’s daughter, Clara, a gifted prodigy who would become his wife 12 years after they first met.
After many false starts and failures, Schumann finally made headway in composing for the orchestra in 1841, when he completed two symphonies and a three-movement “Symphonette” (later recast as the Overture, Scherzo and Finale), plus a Phantasie for piano and orchestra designed as a feature vehicle for his wife. Clara, more than eight months pregnant, read through the single-movement work that August at a private session with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by their friend Felix Mendelssohn. With the addition of two more linked movements, the Phantasie expanded in 1845 into Schumann’s first and only Piano Concerto.
The opening movement comes with an unusual tempo marking—Allegro affettuoso, meaning “fast and affectionate.” After a stabbing entrance, an oboe leads a wind chorale in a melody that descends tenderly to the repeated keynote. Those first four notes, C-B-A-A, are rendered in German as C-H-A-A, thereby spelling Chiara, the Italian equivalent of Clara. This encoded tribute to his wife suffuses Schumann’s first movement, and it makes a significant appearance later in the Concerto.
To answer the four-note descent of the “Chiara” theme, the central Intermezzo responds by arriving with an exchange of four rising notes, a device that immediately unifies these sections composed four years apart from each other.
In a contrasting passage, the cellos swoon through a big, romantic melody while the piano comments in the margins.
A clever transition pivots from the four-note upward segments back to the “Chiara” theme, which then accelerates into the lively new pulse of the finale. Coming from a composer who was neither a piano virtuoso nor a natural-born creator of large-scale compositions, this marvelously cohesive Concerto is a testament to Schumann’s hard-earned union of heart and craft.
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, "Scottish"
Approximate duration: 43 minutes
Felix Mendelssohn was one of music’s most remarkable prodigies, creating immortal compositions while still a teenager. At twenty, he performed on a typical rite of passage for well-heeled young men, embarking on a “grand tour” of Europe. With extended visits to the British Isles and Italy, Mendelssohn expanded his worldview and brought home inspiration for future projects.
The first germ of musical material for a “Scottish” Symphony emerged on July 30, 1829, when Mendelssohn and a friend visited Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh. Mendelssohn was struck by the gloomy, crumbling palace, especially a chapel he described in a letter home: “Now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of England. Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” He soon sketched the elegiac melody that would serve as the theme of the introduction.
Mendelssohn struggled to recapture the misty mood of Scotland when he revisited his sketches during a subsequent winter in Rome, and so he set the symphony aside for over ten years, meanwhile writing two other symphonies, the ones labeled as No. 4 (“Italian”) and No. 5 (“Reformation”). Upon completing the “Scottish” Symphony in 1842, he conducted it in Leipzig and then in London, and he published it with a dedication to Queen Victoria.
After the introductory image of Queen Mary’s decrepit castle, the fast body of the movement elaborates lively rhythmic patterns that resemble Scottish jigs.
In the interconnected plan of the “Scottish” Symphony, each movement avoids coming to a full stop, and so the first movement’s coda swells into a disorienting squall before receding into a reminder of the introduction that ends with two gently plucked chords.
The Scherzo enters immediately with a call to attention and a reeling clarinet melody that may have been inspired by a bagpipe contest Mendelssohn heard in Scotland.
The next movement, again entering without a pause after a series of plucked chords, is a gorgeous song without words. One theory speculates that this music is meant to evoke Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott and his poem The Lady of the Lake, in which a girl sings the Ave Maria hymn accompanied by a harp (rendered here by plucked strings). It really does seem like the melody that enters after a short introduction begins with the unspoken words “Ave Maria,” the start of the Latin hymn.
As the slow movement’s last lingering A-major chord dies away, the finale stomps in with a militaristic new theme in A minor, set in a quick a tempo that Mendelssohn initially labeled as Allegro guerriero (fast and warlike).
The ferocious music slinks away, and a majestic conclusion in the major key rises up to bring the symphony to a spirited close.
-- Copyright © 2019 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra for 15 years, Osmo Vänskä has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an historic trip to Cuba in 2015, at the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture— the first visit by an American orchestra since the two countries announced steps to re-establish diplomatic relations. In 2018 he returned with the Orchestra to the BBC Proms before embarking on a five-city tour to South Africa as part of the world-wide celebration of Nelson Mandela’s Centenary. The tour, which marked the first by an American orchestra to the country, drew together South African and American performers featuring musical expressions of peace, freedom and reconciliation.
Other key highlights of his tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra include 17 album recordings (winning a Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Orchestral Performance for their second Sibelius album and being nominated in 2018 with the recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5), initiating and conducting the annual Future Classics concert, and various educational and outreach projects in Minneapolis and other cities.
In great demand as a guest conductor, Mr. Vänskä’s 2018-19 season includes re-invitations to the Chicago and New World symphonies and Seoul Philharmonic, and a return to China to work with Shanghai Symphony, and the China, Hangzhou and Hong Kong philharmonic orchestras. In Europe he makes one of his regular appearances with Helsinki Philharmonic and conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, London Philharmonic and Iceland Symphony orchestras.
A distinguished recording artist, primarily for the BIS label, Mr. Vänskä’s most recent recordings are of Mahler Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, with the Minnesota Orchestra, followed by Symphonies Nos. 2 and 1, continuing the cycle dedicated to the composer. With Minnesota he has recorded the complete Beethoven and Sibelius symphony cycles, also for BIS, to rave international reviews, while recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Yevgeny Sudbin have also garnered worldwide praise, including Grammy and Gramophone Award nominations.
Mr. Vänskä studied conducting at Finland’s Sibelius Academy and was awarded first prize in the 1982 Besançon Competition. He began his career as a clarinetist, occupying, amongst others, the co-principal chair of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In recent years he has enjoyed a return to the instrument, including regular chamber music performances and a 2012 recording of Kalevi Aho’s chamber works.
Mr. Vänskä is the recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society Award, the Finlandia Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award and the 2010 Ditson Award from Columbia University. He holds honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow and Minnesota and was named Musical America’s 2005 Conductor of the Year. In 2013 he received the Annual Award from the German Record Critics' Award Association for his involvement in BIS’s recordings of the complete works by Sibelius.
"One of the most admired pianists of his generation" (The New York Times), Inon Barnatan is celebrated for his poetic sensibility, musical intelligence and consummate artistry. He is the recipient of both a prestigious 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant and Lincoln Center's 2015 Martin E. Segal Award, which recognizes "young artists of exceptional accomplishment." He was recently named the new Music Director of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, beginning in 2019.
Mr. Barnatan's 2018-19 season features a number of key performances of the Classical repertoire. He performs Beethoven's Fourth Concerto in Hamburg with Alan Gilbert and his NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Beethoven's Third with the Colorado Symphony and the "Emperor" Concerto with the Des Moines Symphony and at New York's Skaneateles Festival. He also joins New Jersey's Princeton Symphony to play a marathon two-concert performance of all five Beethoven concertos. With the Houston Symphony and David Danzmayr, Mr. Barnatan plays Mozart's Concerto No. 22, and with the Australian Chamber Orchestra the same composer's Concerto No. 12 in New York's Alice Tully Hall. Other orchestral performances include Rachmaninov concertos with both the Pittsburgh Symphony under Long Yu and the Israel Philharmonic led by Mr. Gilbert, and Copland's jazz-inflected Piano Concerto with the Oregon Symphony. Chamber performances include two concerts of Shostakovich with the St. Lawrence Quartet, one in Carnegie Hall; Brahms with the Dover Quartet and an all-Bach program on a U.S. tour with the Calidore Quartet. He also tours the U.S. with his long-standing collaborator, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, joined by violinist Sergey Khachatryan and percussionist Colin Currie for a program of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Schoenberg. Finally, Mr. Barnatan makes his International Piano Series debut with a recital of Ravel and Mussorgsky at London's Southbank Centre, and performs solo at the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall, in Boston's Celebrity Series, at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music and in Alabama, Virginia and Portland, Maine.
A regular performer with many of the world's foremost orchestras and conductors, Mr. Barnatan recently completed his third and final season as the inaugural Artist-in-Association of the New York Philharmonic. Recent orchestral debuts include the Chicago, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Nashville, San Diego and Seattle symphonies, as well as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Other recent highlights include a complete Beethoven concerto cycle in Marseilles; a performance of Copland's Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, and at Carnegie Hall and a U.S. tour with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, playing and conducting Mozart and Shostakovich from the keyboard and premiering a newly commissioned concerto by Alasdair Nicolson.
Mr. Barnatan's most recent album release is a live recording of Messiaen's 90-minute masterpiece Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), in which he played the exceptionally challenging solo piano part at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. In 2015 he released Rachmaninov & Chopin: Cello Sonatas on Decca Classics with Alisa Weilerstein, earning rave reviews. His most recent solo recording, of Schubert's late piano sonatas, was released by Avie in 2013, winning praise from such publications as Gramophone and BBC Music, while his account of the great A-major Sonata (D. 959) was chosen by BBC Radio 3 as one of the all-time best recordings of the piece. His 2012 album, Darknesse Visible, debuted in the Top 25 on the Billboard Traditional Classical chart and received universal critical acclaim, being named BBC Music's "Instrumentalist CD of the Month" and winning a coveted place on the The New York Times' "Best of 2012" list. He made his solo recording debut with a Schubert album, released by Bridge Records in 2006, that prompted Gramophone to hail him as "a born Schubertian" and London's Evening Standard to call him "a true poet of the keyboard: refined, searching, unfailingly communicative." Next Barnatan looks forward to the release of Beethoven's five piano concertos, which he recorded with Alan Gilbert and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, marking the orchestra's first complete recording of the cycle.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1979, Mr. Barnatan started playing the piano at the age of three, when his parents discovered his perfect pitch, and made his orchestral debut at 11. His musical education connects him to some of the 20th century's most illustrious pianists and teachers: he studied first with Professor Victor Derevianko, a student of the Russian master Heinrich Neuhaus, before moving to London in 1997 to study at the Royal Academy of Music with Christopher Elton and Maria Curcio, a student of the legendary Artur Schnabel. Leon Fleisher has also been an influential teacher and mentor. Mr. Barnatan currently resides in New York City. For more information, visit inonbarnatan.com.
Dean Whiteside was born in New York City and trained in Vienna at the University of Music and Performing Arts. He is in his third season as the New World Symphony’s Conducting Fellow, where he leads a variety of performances and serves as assistant to Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Whiteside is founder and director of the Nashville Sinfonietta, hailed by The Tennessean as “a virtuoso band.” He opened the Blair School of Music’s 2013-14 season directing a multimedia realization of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross called “innovative” by The Tennessean and “deeply meditative and satisfyingly original” by ArtsNash.
Mr. Whiteside’s European debut came in 2011 after winning the Jorma Panula Blue Danube Masterclass and Competition. He has conducted orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, Danish National Symphony, Jacksonville Symphony, Juilliard Orchestra, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, Orlando Philharmonic, Polish Baltic Philharmonic, Sibiu Philharmonic, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Tokyo Philharmonic, Wiener Kammerorchester and Zagreb Philharmonic, as well as the Vanderbilt Orchestra on a five-city tour of China. He has served as Cover Conductor to the Dallas Symphony and San Francisco Symphony.
Mr. Whiteside is the winner of the American Prize in Conducting and received second prize and the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra Award at the Sixth International Competition of Young Conductors Lovro von Matačić. Other awards include the 2017 Mahler Conducting Fellowship, Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Conducting Scholarship, Croatian Composers' Society Award, David Effron Conducting Fellowship, Bayreuth Festival Scholarship and David Rabin Performance Prize. He has received fellowships from the Aspen Music Festival, Atlantic Music Festival, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and Castleton Festival.
Mr. Whiteside has worked closely with such conductors as Bertrand de Billy, Fabio Luisi, Lorin Maazel, Jun Märkl, Kurt Masur, Jorma Panula, Leonard Slatkin and Robert Spano. He began his conducting studies with Robin Fountain at Vanderbilt University.