Performance Sunday, December 2, 2012 | 3 PM

The MET Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
On this concert, the legendary Yefim Bronfman brings Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto to Carnegie Hall with the inestimable MET Orchestra and Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. Also on the program are Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and music by Sofia Gubaidulina.

The contemporary work on this program is part of My Time, My Music.
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The Program

In tempus praesens

Half-Russian, half-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina's career is a fascinating study in artistic confidence, conviction, and achievement despite working in some of music history's most confused and volatile eras and environments. She is one of the few living links in a pedagogical chain that stretches back in time through Russia and the Soviet Union to the Vienna of Anton Webern, one of her chief inspirations, and, by extension, to 17th- and 18th-century Germany, where Bach wrote the music that she reveres most of all.

If just one word could describe Gubaidulina as a composer, it would perhaps be "uncompromising." She is not afraid to be different: Over her long career, she has rebelled against governmental censure in the USSR, against the fetish of newness and impenetrability in avant-garde music, and against over-simplicity in music that aspires only to please the ear. Gubaidulina's own music, which has gained traction in the West since her move to Hamburg after the fall of the Soviet Union, is brilliant and complex, displaying a love for mathematics, philosophy, and theology through musical symbolism and the integration of set and number theory. The Fibonacci sequence, Lucas numbers, and what she calls the "Bach sequence"a numerical pattern she discovered through her own analysis of that composer's musicare frequently used as elements of her musical structures. But her work is also fascinating and profoundly moving in a purely aural sense. It crackles with tension and displays the deft touch of a master in its exploration of instrumental timbre and subtly nuanced harmonic shading. The important thing to Gubaidulina, in music and in all the arts, is the combination of the cerebral and the spontaneousthe creation of work that, like Bach's music, contains both "mathematical principles and the fiery current of intuition."

In tempus praesens (For the present time) is Gubaidulina's second violin concerto, following its predecessor, Offertoriumthe work that first brought the composer attention from beyond the Iron Curtainby 27 years. An important subtext in the work is the name "Sophia," whichin addition to being shared by the composer and its dedicatee, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutterrefers to a concept in Eastern Orthodoxy of the vocalization/ personification of God's wisdom. The violin is the bright voice of this wisdom, while the orchestra, dimmed by the absence of its own violins, represents the opposing darkness. Lengthy and serious, layered with musical and symbolic meaning, and viscerally gripping throughout, this is a powerful and undeniably major work.

In the Composer's Own Words

Just like many 20th-century creators, the problem of time concerns me to the greatest extent possible. I am concerned with how time changes in connection with the changing psychological conditions of man, how it elapses in nature, in the world, in society, in dreams, in art.


Art is always situated between sleep and reality, between wisdom and folly, between the statics and dynamics of everything that exists. In ordinary life, we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future. And only in sleep, in the religious experience, and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.


I think that musical form serves this very function: During its course it undergoes many events. A few of these turn out to be most important. (I call these architectonic nodes of form.) And they can make a kind of generalized shape, the shape of a pyramid, for example. (The episode of ritual sacrifice stands at the pinnacle of the pyramid of In tempus praesens.) The integral experiencing of this pyramidal form produces lasting present time.

Jay Goodwin



Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, "Emperor"

By the time Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1809, the great German-born composer had lived in Vienna for almost 20 years and was recognized as something of an Austrian national treasure. So when the music-loving gentry got wind early that year that Beethoven had been offered and was planning to accept a lucrative appointment as court composer for Jérôme Bonaparte in Kassela city in Westphalia, a province recently conquered by the French and made a vassal state of Napoleon's empirethree wealthy individuals took action to avoid losing their maestro. On March 1, 1809, Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Kinsky, and the young Archduke Rudolph signed an agreement guaranteeing Beethoven a stipend of 4,000 florins annually for as long as he remained in Vienna. This arrangement, in theory, would free the composer from the financial difficulties of depending on inconsistent income from commissions and concert revenue from the fickle public. Though the contract ultimately proved disappointing in its executionKinsky died shortly after signing it and Lobkowitz halted payments in 1811Beethoven's livelihood was more secure than ever before.

But all this must have been small consolation for the composer when, barely a month after the ink had dried on his new financial agreement, Austria went to war with France for the fourth time in two decades. By May, Napoleon's artillery was shelling Vienna, and Beethoven was forced to seek shelter in his brother's basement. It was under these conditions during the summer of 1809which Beethoven described as "nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery of every sort!"that the composer wrote his Fifth Piano Concerto. Given the circumstances of its origin and Beethoven's well-chronicled feelings about Napoleon and emperors in general, imagine the composer's "profound if posthumous disgust," as critic, musicologist, and infamous wit Donald Francis Tovey once wrote, that this work has come to be called, for reasons unknown, the "Emperor" Concerto.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph and was one of the final works of the composer's so-called heroic period, the second of the three major artistic phases of his career. It displays the combination of expressive grandeur and musical ingenuity that are the hallmarks of the style, and it begins, as so often in Beethoven, with a surprise: The orchestra has barely put bow to string before the piano announces its presence with three grand, cadenza-like flourishes, each fiercely punctuated by timpani. Only after these have subsided does the orchestra get on with introducing the main themes of this massive Allegro, the longest single movement Beethoven ever wrote. Particularly interesting here is the use of wide-ranging harmony, including a second theme in B minor-about as far from the home key of E-flat major as you can get.

The slow middle movement, in B major, is based on a gentle chorale and contains some of Beethoven's most tender music. The piano here is all innocent sweetness and sighs, singing quietly above and alongside the orchestra. The transition from this lyrical serenity to the raucous Allegro that follows is a moment of pure magic, as a soft sustained B-natural in the bassoons slips to B-flat, and the piano tentatively taps out a melodic fragment. Suddenly, the soloist lurches forward, hammering out the melody in full, and all at once we have arrived in the finale proper and back in E-flat major. The rest of the third movement, a seven-part rondo, flashes onward with syncopated rhythms and whirling energy. Just when it seems like it might end with the ominous, martial sound of far-off drums, the soloist brings the work to a close with a brief, spirited coda.

Jay Goodwin

The Firebird Suite

In 1910, Stravinsky was a relatively unknown 28-year-old with only a couple of modestly successful orchestral pieces (Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique) to distinguish himself from myriad other young Russian composers. So when Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of Paris's Ballets Russes, needed music for his new ballet, The Firebird, based on a Russian folk story, he had planned to commission a much more experienced composer. However, since Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghilev's first choice and Stravinsky's teacher, had died the year before, and Lyadov, an older ex-pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, couldn't meet the timetable, Diaghilev took a chance on the promising and expeditious Stravinsky-a portentous decision that would change both music and dance forever.

The ballet tells the story of Prince Ivan, who, in pursuit of the Firebird (a magical creature, half-woman, half-bird), finds himself in the kingdom of Kashchei, an evil sorcerer who keeps 13 beautiful princesses captive and turns trespassers to stone. After Ivan catches the Firebird, he grants her freedom in exchange for one of her magic feathers and a promise of help in a time of need. Having seen the princesses and fallen in love with the most beautiful one, Ivan confronts Kashchei and asks for permission to marry her. Kashchei becomes angry and sends his magical creatures after Ivan, who in desperation calls on the Firebird. With her magical song, the Firebird causes Kashchei to dance wildly and then fall asleep. While he slumbers, she tells Ivan the secret of ending Kashchei's immortality: Ivan must find and destroy Kashchei's soul, hidden safely away in a secret chest. Having done so, Ivan sets the princesses and magical creatures free, and they all have a final, celebratory dance.

The score, completed in 1910, is remarkable in its craftsmanship and effectiveness even if not always in its content. Later in his career, Stravinsky often spoke disparagingly about The Firebird and its lack of originalityhe notably called it "that audience lollipop"but it is difficult not to see this as a revolutionary composer looking back and unfairly comparing a piece composed when he was young and following mostly in his predecessor Rimsky-Korsakov's footsteps with his more mature work. There is also a Tchaikovskyan atmosphere about the The Princesses' Khorovod and the Final Hymn, as well as in the sense of dramatic flow throughout the ballet. But The Firebird could never be confused with the work of either of these earlier composers, and the germs of groundbreaking ideas that came to fruition in Stravinsky's later work are already present here. The cascading violin and viola harmonics in the Introduction, for example, point to a proclivity toward eliciting unusual sounds from familiar instruments that would permeate Stravinsky's music throughout his long career, and the rhythmic fluctuation in the 7/4 Final Hymn foreshadows the composer's extraordinary innovation in The Rite of Spring. The entire piece is full of these unmistakable snippets of Stravinskyan ingenuity.

Over the years, Stravinsky arranged music from The Firebird into three separate concert suites, which are now commonly identified by their years of completion: 1911, 1919, and 1945. Though the 1919 version is by far the most frequently encountered, the 1945 version performed this afternoon retains the most material from the ballet. Otherwise, there are few audible changes from the 1919 suite, which shares with the present version a reduced orchestration, compared to the tremendous forces required by the original ballet.

Jay Goodwin


This performance is part of The MET Orchestra.

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