Performance Tuesday, February 11, 2014 | 8 PM

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
“The synergy between any conductor and orchestra is always something of a mystery to outsiders, but the rapport between this pair is unmistakable,” proclaimed The Boston Globe of this esteemed orchestra and its conductor laureate, the legendary Bernard Haitink. Experience this remarkable connection for yourself when they return to Carnegie Hall for a program of works from the Romantic period by Schumann and Brahms, paired with Purcell / Steven Stucky Funeral Music for Queen Mary.
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The Program

Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell)

Born in Kansas, Steven Stucky grew up there and in Texas, where he attended Baylor University; he received his doctoral degree from Cornell University, where he has been on the faculty since 1980. Besides his advocacy for new music as an educator and conductor, Stucky hosts the New York Philharmonic's Hear & Now pre-concert programs, and is vice-chairman of the board of New Music USA. Stucky's longstanding relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which he transcribed Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary in 1991, goes back to 1988, when he was appointed composer-in-residence by then-music director André Previn; the relationship continued when Esa-Pekka Salonen took over. Stucky won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, written for and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; in the fall of 2012, the orchestra, under Gustavo Dudamel, premiered his Symphony, a co-commission with the New York Philharmonic. Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell) is in fact mostly Purcell (1659-1695), as explained in the composer's own note, printed below.

—Robert Kirzinger

It was at the suggestion of Esa-Pekka Salonen that I transcribed this music of Purcell for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I used three of the pieces heard at the funeral of Mary II of England, who died of smallpox on December 28, 1694: a solemn march, the anthem "In the Midst of Life We Are in Death," and a canzona in imitative polyphonic style. In working on the project, I did not try to achieve a pure, musicological reconstruction but, on the contrary, to regard Purcell's music, which I love deeply, through the lens of 300 intervening years. Thus, although most of this version is straightforward orchestration of the Purcell originals, there are moments when Purcell drifts out of focus. My version was first performed in Los Angeles on February 6, 1992.

—Steven Stucky

Program notes © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a celebrated keyboard artist from her youth, and was renowned through her long life (1819-1896) for her musical intelligence, taste, warm communicativeness, and uncommon ear for pianistic euphony. She was a gifted and skilled composer; Brahms, who was profoundly attached to her when he was in his early 20s and she in her middle 30s—and indeed all his life, though eventually at a less dangerous temperature—never ceased to value her musical judgment.

Robert and Clara's marriage, though in most ways extraordinarily happy, was difficult, given his psychic fragility and her demanding and conflicting roles as an artist, an artist's wife, and a mother who bore eight children in 14 years. They met when Clara was nine and Robert—then a moody, piano-playing law student at the University of Leipzig—came to her father, the celebrated piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, for lessons. It was in 1840, after various familial, legal, psychological, and financial obstacles, that they married. Most of Schumann's greatest piano works come from the difficult time preceding their marriage, 1840 becoming his great year of song.

Clara was ambitious for her 30-year-old husband, urging him to conquer the world of orchestral music as well. He had actually ventured into that territory a few times, but had not met with success. Now he produced a superb Concert Fantasy with Orchestra for Clara, as well as writing two symphonies: the first version of the D-Minor Symphony (listed as No. 4 in its revised form of 1851) and the "Spring" Symphony (No. 1). He could interest neither publishers nor orchestras in the one-movement Concert Fantasy, so in 1845 he expanded it into a three-movement concerto. In doing so, he revised the original Fantasy, making choices, as almost always he was apt to do whenever he had second thoughts, in the direction of safety and conventionality. The full-dress, three-movement concerto was introduced by Clara in Dresden in December 1845.

In 1839, Robert had written to Clara: "Concerning concertos, I've already said to you they are hybrids of symphony, concerto, and big sonata. I see that I can't write a concerto for virtuosi and have to think of something else." He did. Now, in June 1845, while the metamorphosis of the Concert Fantasy was in progress, Clara noted in her diary how delighted she was at last to be getting "a big bravura piece" out of Robert (she meant one with orchestra), and to us, even if it is not dazzling by Liszt-Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff standards, the Schumann concerto is a satisfying occasion for pianistic display, while of course being also very much more than that.

Schumann's "something else" was noticed. Most of the chroniclers of the first public performances, besides noticing how effective an advocate Clara was for the concerto, were also attuned to the idea that something new—and very pleasing—was happening in this work. One thing that strikes us about the first movement is how mercurial it is, how frequent and sometimes radical its mood-swings are-or, put another way, how Schumannesque it is. Clara noted in her diary the delicacy of the way the piano and orchestra are interwoven. Among the pianist's tasks is sometimes being an accompanist—the lyric clarinet solo in the first movement is the most prominent example. The pianist gets a grand, wonderfully sonorous cadenza at the end of the first movement, but above all this is a work of conversation both intimate and playful—whether in the almost whimsically varied first movement, the confidences exchanged in the brief middle movement, or in the splendidly energized finale.

—Michael Steinberg

Program notes © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

When Brahms was finishing a big piece, he would usually notify friends that something was forthcoming, and was apt to be flip and ironic concerning the works he most cared about, such as the Fourth Symphony. In August 1885, from mountainous Mürzzuschlag, Brahms sent his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg the first movement of a symphony: "Would you … tell me what you think of it? … Cherries never get ripe for eating in these parts, so don't be afraid to say if you don't like the taste. I'm not at all eager to write a bad No. 4." In Vienna, when a friend asked if he'd done a string quartet or the like over the summer, Brahms replied, "Nothing so grand as that! Once again I've just thrown together a bunch of polkas and waltzes."

Like any composer, Brahms worried about the reception of a new work. He was more anxious than usual about the Fourth: His previous two symphonies had scored immediate successes, which upped the ante for this one. And in its tone and import, the Fourth was the darkest and most densely crafted symphonic work he had put before the public. His relief was manifest when its early performances, starting in Meiningen on October 25, 1885, found tremendous acclaim.

The symphony's inception went back several years. In 1880, Brahms played friends a bass line from a Bach cantata on which Bach had built a chaconne, a work consisting of variations over a repeated bass pattern. Brahms queried, "What would you think of a symphonic movement written on this theme someday?" Thus the finale of the Fourth. For that movement, he was thinking of other models, including Bach's Chaconne in D Minor for solo violin, of which Brahms once said, "If I had written this piece ... the emotions excited would have driven me mad."

All of these are clues to how Brahms conceived the Fourth. How do these hints play out? Three of the movements are in the minor mode, or a haunting, minor-tinted major. As he often did, Brahms concealed truth behind irony when he called the symphony "a bunch of polkas and waltzes." Most of the music reflects, however distantly, the rhythms and gestures of dance. These dances, however, are not blithe but grave.

The piece begins with a lilting, E-minor theme, its melodic profile a chain of thirds that will permeate the melodic material of the symphony, as will elaborate contrapuntal variation. The overall tone of the first movement might be called somber nobility, with subtle shades of emotion washing through the texture.

The second movement, with its incantatory leading melody, has a tone that is primeval and ceremonial, like a procession for a fallen hero. In their mournful beauty, the orchestral colors are unique in Brahms, revealing his long study of Wagner and looking forward to Mahler and even Ravel. Then comes an almost shocking contrast-a leaping, pounding, two-beat C-major movement that has been called "bacchanalian" and "tiger-like."

All of that is to set up the last movement: mostly minor, at times hair-raisingly intense. It is the chaconne about which Brahms had once speculated for a finale: an introduction and 30 variations over the steadily repeating Bach theme (which Brahms adapted, adding a chromatic note). In its treatment of a ruthlessly disciplined form, the finale is a triumphant tour de force. Brahms used the idea of the chaconne to evoke—as in its model, the Bach D-Minor Chaconne—a sense of relentless, mounting tragedy. The end, where tradition says the darkness of minor should be lightened by a final turn to major, is a searing minor chord.

—Jan Swafford

Program notes © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. All rights reserved.

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