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Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra Concert
November 28, 1998

Adams: The Chairman Dances | Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 | Beethoven: Eroica Symphony

A new millennium–a time for looking back, but also a time to go  forward.  Each of tonight's composers faced, in his own way, a major milestone in time. With his feet planted firmly in the past at the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven was driven to change the course of orchestral music forever through the creation of his nine symphonies.  In our day, John Adams continues to explore new possibilities for music in the next millennium without leaving older musical traditions behind.  At the dawn of the 20th century, Rachmaninoff, oblivious to innovation, celebrated the finest of 19th century romanticism.

John Adams (1947- )
The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra
In 1921 Arnold Schoenberg boasted, "I have made a discovery which will insure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years."  He was referring to his twelve-tone method of composition (Serialism) that would systematize the breakdown of traditional tonal music as had been known in the 18th and 19th centuries.  As serial music became more complex, and incomprehensible for most audiences, a group of young Americans began working with the concept of simplicity and developed the system known as minimalism.  Their goal was to structure the music in a straightforward and simple manner, harmonically and melodically, so that it could be immediately understood by untrained listeners.  A piece would begin with the simplest of musical materials, and then would be put through various processes, combining constant repetition with gradual transformation.  Rather than the clear cut, developed  themes standard in the 18th and 19th  centuries, minimalist music moves through phase shifting (shifting repetitive patterns).  The result can be rather hypnotic and austere, but  is quite popular with the pop/rock crowd.  John Adams belongs to the second generation of minimalists.  He studied at Harvard with composers  Kirchner, Del Tredici and Sessions, but after a period of interest in electronic music and work with a group of California-based minimalist composers, he has developed his own style which incorporates elements of minimalism–pulsating rhythms, harmonic phasing–but also boasts warm orchestral colors (including new electronically produced sounds), and rich harmonies.  Amid the repetition, one even finds melody.  In a word, he has become one of the most interesting and popular of contemporary American composers.

The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra (1985)

While working on a large, serious piece, John Adams often finds diversion in working simultaneously with a companion piece that he calls a "trickster."   The Chairman Dances is the "trickster" for the opera Nixon in China–a work of weighty themes.  The Nixon scenario was firmly in the composer's mind at the time he was obligated to complete a commission for the Milwaukee Symphony before he could begin serious work on the opera.  While the smaller work was not actually used in the opera, it does follow one of the scenarios suggested by Peter Sellars's and Alice Goodman's synopsis for Act III:

Chiang Chi'ing, a.k.a. Madame Mao, has gatecrashed the Presidential Banquet.  She is first seen standing where she is most in the way of the waiters.  After a few minutes, she brings out a box of paper lanterns and hangs them around the hall, then strips down to a cheongsam, skin-tight from neck to ankle and slit up to the hip.  She signals the orchestra to play and begins dancing by herself.  Mao is becoming excited.  He steps down from his portrait on the wall and they begin to foxtrot together.  They are back in Yenan, dancing to the gramophone...
Surrealistic impressions of three main characters of the opera appear in The Chairman Dances.  The opening chugs along as the portly Mao tries to foxtrot, ascending passages picture Madame Mao in her slinky outfit, Nixon appears playing cocktail piano.  The composer tells us, "I was reminded of the movies, and I tried to imagine what kind of skewed impression the Shanghai movie industry of the 1930's might have of Hollywood.  I did not have any idea what a foxtrot sounded like.  But then, I figured, neither did the Maos."  Watch for a lot of activity in the percussion section as the piece requires the use of 18 different percussion instruments.  Listen for  driving pulsating rhythms, phasing of harmonies and orchestral colors, sudden shifts to jazzy cocktail music--a truly fun piece full of surprises.  After all, in the composer's own words, "There's nothing wrong with entertaining your audience."

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op.18

Rachmaninoff may not have thought in terms of entertaining his audience, but he was driven to create beautiful, yet architecturally impressive works that continue to delight and enthrall.  The composer was a man burning with music, compelled to write, study, perform.  He wrote in a number of genres, but much of his creative output is centered around the piano.  In addition to his vocal and orchestral works, he produced  five concerted works for piano and orchestra, chamber music including the piano, eleven sets of solo piano music, four large works for piano duet, and numerous songs with piano.  Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954 edition) predicted: "The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor;"  nothing could be farther from the truth today.  Rachmaninoff's music is greatly loved by pianists and audiences alike.  We of the late twentieth century love our piano concertos–that great dialoging/dueling of piano and orchestra--and there's rarely a lack of enthusiasm for another hearing of "Rach II."

Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901)

Composed ten years after his first piano concerto, the second nearly was not written.  In 1897, the twenty-four year old Rachmaninoff suffered a severe blow to his creative confidence.  The premiere of his first symphony was a total fiasco.  The orchestra was badly prepared and the critics were merciless.  Fellow composer and critic César Cui wrote, "If there were a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his Symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us."  These events caused the composer to fall into such a black depression that he was unable to compose for two years.  He even went so far as to destroy the score of the symphony (fortunately the piece survived through the preservation of manuscript parts).  Rachmaninoff had promised to write a second concerto for the people of London who had so appreciated his first, but his melancholia prevented it.  Fortunately, friends put him in touch with a Dr. Dahl, a psychologist who sought to restore the composer's self-confidence through hypnosis.  The treatment was no doubt enhanced by the fact the doctor was also an amateur musician.  In a darkened room he would repeat over and over such phrases as "You will begin your will work with great facility...the concerto will be of excellent quality."  The treatment was a success and by the fall of 1900 the composer's creativity had again flourished. The second and third movements were completed and he performed them to great acclaim at a Moscow concert.  This gave him the confidence to complete the first movement by the next spring.  In gratitude to Dr. Dahl, the work was dedicated to him.

After an unusual introduction of a series of increasingly intense chords from the piano, the work unfolds in a most gratifying way, full of wonderful dialog between piano and orchestra (no dueling here), soaring melodies, and refined turns of harmonies.  After the reflective second movement, the finale brings us to the triumphant last statement in C major.  Although the concerto is essentially melancholy, it ends on a note of affirmation.

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55  "Eroica"

After a rather dismal youth in Bonn, the twenty-two year old Beethoven moved to Vienna where he was to spend the rest of his life.  He quickly gained acclaim as a virtuoso pianist, winning the friendship of princes as well as common people.  As one the first of free-lance composers largely independent of church or royal patronage, Beethoven established the status of the artist in society making much of his living from publishing and performing his own compositions.  As the turn of the century approached, the composer  turned seriously to the genre of the symphony. The form had been well-developed in the 18th century by C.P.E. Bach, Stamitz, Mozart, and Haydn, but Beethoven had other ideas that burned within him.  His first symphony, largely in 18th century style, was completed at the dawn of the new century, and was received with considerable interest.  Just when it seemed that his life and career were going so well, tragedy struck. He began to realize that he was losing the faculty most precious to a musician: his hearing. In the autumn of 1802, he poured out his despair in what has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  He realized that others heard things that he could no longer hear, and wrote that "such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life–only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence."  Endure he did, and during this dark time Beethoven composed his sunny second symphony. However, the real watershed for the history of music was to come with Symphony No. 3.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (Eroica)  (1804)

A friend of princes, but totally dedicated to the ideals of the French revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Beethoven originally intended that this symphony, so full of his own revolutionary ideas and aspirations, would be dedicated to the egalitarian accomplishments of Napoleon.  However, upon learning that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, and had thus given up the ideals of democracy, Beethoven wrathfully tore up the title page bearing the name "Bonaparte," threw it on the ground and stamped on it.  The title page was later inscribed, "Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man" and was rededicated to his friend and patron Prince Lobkowitz.  Reactions to the work's first performances were mixed.  Beethoven's friends viewed it as a masterpiece, but the poorly educated audiences couldn't handle what they saw as the composer's perversity.  Others found many fine things in the work, but were bewildered by his challenges to convention.  Certainly the length of the piece shocked people.  One patron was said to have shouted from the balcony, "I'll give another Kreuzer [about a penny] if only the thing will stop." Audiences at the turn of the 19th century were accustomed to hearing elegantly turned music that pleased and delighted them, and didn't last too long.  In Eroica, Beethoven established the status of a work of art–it must be considered on its own terms and had the right to challenge the status quo.

The opening two hammer-like chords set the stage for complexity growing from the simplest of material, a melody consisting simply of the outline of a triad.  The breaking of convention and elements of heroism continue in the second movement, a funeral march.  Beginning softly with the strings, the theme is picked up by the entire orchestra, then appears as a fugue where each in turn the different instruments play the melody.  The typical 18th century third movement, an elegant minuet, is replaced with a dashing scherzo.  The trio section, in this case, truly features a trio–a trio of horns.  The figure of the hero returns in the final movement with a set of variations on a theme from Beethoven's popular ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.  It's almost as if the composer is rewarding his patient listeners with a tune that they have already come to enjoy.  The final variation in the style of a country dance concludes with what we recognize as Beethoven's signature, a long series of closing chords–twenty-four of them in all.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 1998.
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Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts