Performance Thursday, October 27, 2011 | 8 PM

Minnesota Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Pre-concert talk starts at 7:00 PM in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage with Jeremy Geffen, Director of Artistic Planning, Carnegie Hall.

New Yorkers take note: Over the past three seasons, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra have drawn rave reviews and standing ovations, and a Carnegie Hall appearance by this group and their conductor is now a must-hear event. In their only New York City concert this season, they join Stephen Hough in Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto, and shed light on a rapturous symphony by the Danish composer Nielsen.
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The Program

Overture to The Voyevoda, Op. 3

Throughout his career, Tchaikovsky wanted to compose operas, but those efforts brought only mixed results. While Eugene Onegin has held the stage, most of his operas have not, and the story of his first opera suggests some of the many difficulties that would lie ahead. In 1866, while still in his mid-20s, Tchaikovsky set out to write an opera based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s melodrama Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga). Tchaikovsky convinced Ostrovsky to write the libretto for his opera, and the dramatist sketched out the text for what would be Act I. But Tchaikovsky promptly lost that libretto, and while Ostrovsky tried to reproduce it from memory, the composer’s continual suggestions drove him so crazy that Ostrovsky abandoned the project, leaving Tchaikovsky to write the libretto to the second and third acts himself.

The plot involves the doings of an evil voyevoda, a term that suggests a figure of military and civil authority. In the opera, the voyevoda Shalïgin kidnaps two women, Maria and Olyena, and holds them captive. Their lovers, Bastryukov and Dubrovin, break into the voyevoda’s garden and rescue the women, while the voyevoda himself is arrested.

Tchaikovsky composed The Voyevoda in 1867–1868, and it was first performed in Moscow on February 11, 1869. That premiere seemed to be a success—Tchaikovsky was given 15 curtain calls—yet the opera was dropped after only four performances. Tchaikovsky came to agree with the negative judgment: He used some of the music from The Voyevoda in his next opera, The Oprichnik, and destroyed the remainder of the score. Nearly a century later, The Voyevoda was reconstructed from the orchestral parts and presented in Moscow in 1949. The overture and several orchestral dances remain the only music from the opera still performed today. (The overture to The Voyevoda should not be confused with one of Tchaikovsky’s final works, his “symphonic ballad” Voyevoda, composed in 1891 and published posthumously as his Op. 78. Despite the similarity in titles, that tone poem, based on a ballad by Adam Mickiewicz, is a completely different work from the opera.)

Two Alternating Ideas

The overture opens with a long solo for French horn, an idea Tchaikovsky apparently liked: Three years later he would begin his Second Symphony with a similar horn solo. This opening call repeats again and again, growing more dramatic as it proceeds. A lyric episode marked Andante cantabile demonstrates how fine a melodist Tchaikovsky was even as a very young man. Rather than create real symphonic development in the overture, Tchaikovsky simply alternates these two ideas.

As the overture rushes into an exciting coda, the young composer experiments with metric notation. This Allegro moderato e maestoso has the unusual indication 3/4 5/4, and audiences will feel the asymmetric pull of its phrases. Tchaikovsky settles into a steady 3/4 for the powerful chords that rush the overture to its knockout conclusion.

—Eric Bromberger


Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23

Tchaikovsky began drafting this most famous of piano concertos in November and December 1874, when he was a young professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Only modestly talented as a pianist and insecure about his handling of larger forms, the composer sought the advice of Nikolai Rubinstein, who was head of the conservatory and the man to whom he intended to dedicate the concerto. Rubinstein listened in silence as Tchaikovsky played the new work through, and then, as Tchaikovsky later wrote:

There burst from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first, then he waxed hot, and finally he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It seems that my concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages were so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from somebody and that from somebody else, so that only two or three pages were good for anything and all the rest should be wiped out or radically rewritten.

The Un-Dedication

Stung (and furious), Tchaikovsky refused to change a note, erased the dedication to Rubinstein, and instead dedicated the concerto to German pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow, who had championed his music. Bülow promptly took the concerto on a tour of the United States, and it was in Boston on October 25, 1875, that Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was heard for the first time.

It was a huge success on that occasion, and Bülow played it repeatedly in this country to rhapsodic reviews. A critic in Boston, taking note of that success, described the concerto as an “extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto,” but back in Russia the composer read the press clippings and was beside himself with happiness: “Think what healthy appetites these Americans must have! Each time Bülow was obliged to repeat the whole finale of my concerto! Nothing like that happens in our country.”

It only remains to be said that Rubinstein eventually saw the error of his early condemnation and became one of the concerto’s great champions. It should also be noted that in 1889—perhaps more aware of Rubinstein’s criticisms than he cared to admit—Tchaikovsky did in fact take the concerto through a major revision, and it is in this form that we know it today.

A High-Drama Beginning

The concerto has one of the most dramatic beginnings in all the literature, ringing with horn fanfares and cannonades of huge piano chords, followed by one of Tchaikovsky’s great tunes, in which that horn fanfare is transformed into a flowing melody for strings. This introductory section has become extremely famous, but it has many quirks. It is in the “wrong” key (D-flat major), and, however striking it may be, it never returns in any form: Tchaikovsky simply abandons all this tremendous material when he gets to the main section of the movement.

This “real” beginning, marked Allegro con spirito, is finally in the correct key of B-flat minor, and the piano’s skittering main subject is reportedly based on a tune Tchaikovsky heard a blind beggar whistle at a fair in the Ukraine. To his patroness, Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote: “It is curious that in [Ukraine] every blind beggar sings exactly the same tune with the same refrain. I have used part of this refrain in my pianoforte concerto.” The expected secondary material quickly appears—a chorale-like theme for winds and a surging, climbing figure for strings—though Tchaikovsky evades expectations by including multiple cadenzas for the soloist in this movement. The piano writing is of the greatest difficulty (much of it in great hammered octaves), and the movement drives to a dramatic close.

The second movement, Andantino semplice, is aptly named, for this truly is simple music in the best sense of that term. Over pizzicato chords, solo flute sings the gentle main theme, an island of calm after the searing first movement. A scherzo-like central episode marked Prestissimo leads to the return of the opening material and a quiet close.

The finale, Allegro con fuoco, is also well named, for here is music full of fire. It is a rondo based on the piano’s nervous, dancing main theme, and while calmer episodes break into this furious rush, the principal impression this music makes is of white-hot energy. The “strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto” rushes to a knock-out conclusion that is just as impressive to audiences today as it was to those first listeners in Boston in 1875.

—Eric Bromberger

Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 27, “Sinfonia espansiva”

In the summer of 1910, Carl Nielsen, then the second conductor in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, began a new symphony, one that he called “Sinfonia espansiva.” He wrote the first two movements that summer, finished the third in the fall, and had the entire symphony complete on April 30, 1911. Nielsen led the Royal Orchestra in the first performance on February 28, 1912, and it was a triumph. The Third Symphony was soon performed in Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Warsaw, and after a performance in Stuttgart, the local critic described it as “a mighty animating call from the North.” Nielsen, at 47, had finally found success as a composer.

The nickname “espansiva” may have come from the composer, but it has provoked varying explanations. From its smashing opening chords, this symphony gives the impression of violence, but it is a healthy violence, spilling over itself, slashing outward, growing, expanding. Nielsen later commented to a Norwegian newspaper: “I am—or better—I was often a bone of contention … But that was because I wanted to protest against the typical Danish soft smoothing over. I wanted stronger rhythms and more advanced harmony.” The “Sinfonia espansiva” breaks out and explores new worlds, particularly in matters of form and harmonic development.

A Closer Listen

The first movement, Allegro espansivo, rips to life on great, hammered As that ring out with a primal fury. Oddly spaced, they catch us by surprise and quickly dash the music into its main theme, a surging, driving melody in 3/4. Just when our ears have adjusted to that triple meter (rather than the duple meter more common to symphonic first movements), the opening theme becomes a cosmic waltz, spinning off ever more energy as it dances through the heavens. All this energy gradually subsides for the second theme-group introduced by solo woodwinds. The development, surprisingly brief, begins delicately with a solo flute, but the rollicking energy of the symphony’s opening is never far away, and finally it returns to drive the movement to a grand close.

After the dynamic Allegro espansivo, we find ourselves in a different world altogether, where the music seems to loll on a hot summer afternoon. Across the span of the second movement, Andante pastorale, Nielsen alternates long woodwind solos (the sound of a shepherd’s pipe?) with an impassioned hymn for strings. The closing minutes bring one of the most striking touches of all: Nielsen introduces a soprano and a baritone who sing a wordless melodic line on the letter A, their voices becoming instruments in the orchestra. Nielsen originally planned to have them sing this text, which remains relevant to the music: “All thoughts disappear. Ah! All thoughts disappear. I lie beneath the sky.”

The third movement, Allegretto un poco, is not quite the expected scherzo: It is in 2/4 (rather than the expected triple meter), and its pace is not particularly fast. Nielsen himself called this movement “the work’s heartbeat,” and its main theme came to him while he was riding the tram in Copenhagen; rather than risking losing the idea, he jotted it down on his shirt-cuff. A fizzing energy alternates with more rustic interludes, and the composer left a cryptic and provocative program: “The third movement is something that cannot really be characterized in that both good and evil make themselves felt without a real character.”

Nielsen also commented on the character of the Finale: “The Finale, on the other hand, is straightforward: a hymn to work and the healthy enjoyment of daily life. Not a pathetic celebration of life, but a sort of general joy in being able to participate in the business of everyday living and to see activity and skill unfold all around us.” The Allegro bursts to life on a grand tune that seems to exude the health Nielsen describes. There are no battles fought and won in this finale. There is no struggle at all, only a further exploration of the energy of the beginning, and the “Sinfonia espansiva” drives to a sunlit close on a vast unison A.

—Eric Bromberger

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Linda and Stuart Nelson in support of the 2011-2012 season.

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