Performance Saturday, November 5, 2011 | 7:30 PM

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Since becoming the first and only American to win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in 1970, Grammy-winning Garrick Ohlsson has gained worldwide recognition as one of the finest pianists of his generation. He’s got a touch that mixes physical power and emotional delicacy—perfect for Rachmaninoff’s moving Piano Concerto No. 3, which he performs here with Robert Spano and his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Also on the program is the New York premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, a Carnegie Hall co-commission.
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is my first composition in the genre of pure orchestral music since Helix (2005). It employs a large orchestra, and has exposed concertante parts for solo clarinet and the horn section. Rather than utilizing the principle of continuous variation of material, as has been the case in most of my recent music, Nyx behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their properties throughout the piece, while the environment that surrounds them changes constantly. Mere whispers grow into roars; an intimate line in the solo clarinet becomes a broad, slowly breathing melody of tutti strings at the end of the work.

I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process, something I hadn’t done earlier: to write complex counterpoint for almost 100 musicians playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity in the various layers and lines—something that Strauss and Mahler mastered so perfectly. Not an easy task, but a fascinating one. I leave it to the listener to judge how well I succeeded.

Nyx is a shadowy figure in Greek mythology. At the very beginning of everything, there’s a big mass of dark stuff called Chaos, out of which comes Gaia or Ge (the Earth), who gives birth (spontaneously!) to Uranus, the starry heaven, and Pontus (the sea). Nyx—also known sometimes as Nox—is supposed to have been another child of Gaia, along with Erebus. The union of Nyx and Erebus produces Day.

Another version says that Cronos (as Time) was there from the beginning. Chaos came from Time. Nyx was present as a sort of membrane surrounding Chaos, which had Phanes (Light) at its center. The union of Nyx with Phanes produced Heaven and Earth. Nyx is an extremely nebulous figure altogether; we have no sense of her character or personality. It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and that made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her.

I am not trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way musically. However, the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods, as well as a certain elusive character of many of the musical gestures, may well be related to the subject.

I have always enjoyed the unrivalled dynamic range of a large symphony orchestra, but Nyx seems to take a somewhat new direction than my earlier orchestral music: There are many very delicate and light textures, chiaroscuro instead of details bathing in clear direct sunlight. I guess this is a symptom of growing older, as we realize there are no simple truths—no pure blacks and whites—but an endless variety of half-shades.

—Esa-Pekka Salonen 

Le poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy, Symphony No. 4), Op. 54

In June 1905, Alexander Scriabin began work on an intended multi-movement symphony entitled Poème orgiaque. However, Scriabin encountered great difficulty with his original concept. In spring 1907, Scriabin announced he had completed his “finest composition,” the single-movement Poème de l’extase (Poem of Ecstasy). In summer 1907, conductor Modest Altschuler, a champion of contemporary Russian music, assisted Scriabin with revisions to the orchestration. Altschuler observed:

Scriabin is neither an atheist nor a theosophist, yet his creed includes ideas somewhat related to each of these schools of thought. There are three divisions in his poem: (1) His soul in the orgy of love; (2) The realization of a fantastical dream; (3) The glory of his own art.

Scriabin himself authored an accompanying and lengthy explanatory poem, the opening lines of which read as follows:

The spirit,
Pinioned on its thirst for life,
Soars in flight
To heights of negation.
There in the rays of its fantasy
Is born a magic world
Of wondrous images and feelings
The playing spirit,
The suffering spirit,
The spirit that creates sorrow in doubt,
Gives itself to the torment of love.

The premiere, originally scheduled for February 16, 1908, in St. Petersburg, was delayed due to lack of sufficient rehearsal time; the first performance of The Poem of Ecstasy finally took place in New York at Carnegie Hall in December 1908.

The Poem of Ecstasy is set in a single uninterrupted movement that comprises numerous diverse episodes. During the slow opening section (Andante. Languido), the flute introduces a wide-ranging motif based upon triplets. A solo clarinet plays a melody over undulating string accompaniment. During a more agitated passage (Allegro non troppo), trumpets play the work’s central theme, a rising fanfare juxtaposed with a chromatic descending passage. The themes appear in various forms, couched in a wide variety of orchestral textures and colors. The presentation of conflicting moods throughout The Poem of Ecstasy finally resolves to a glorious C-major apotheosis.

—Ken Meltzer

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30

In summer 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff received an invitation to make his first concert tour of the United States. The Russian pianist, composer, and conductor had grave misgivings about leaving his family and homeland for such an extended period of time. But Rachmaninoff—who had developed a passion for motorcars—was swayed by the generous fees offered. As he confessed to a friend: “I don’t want to go. But then perhaps after America, I’ll be able to buy myself that automobile … It may not be so bad after all!”

The American concert tour featured Rachmaninoff as both pianist and conductor in performances of his compositions. During summer 1909, he authored a new work for that tour, his Third Piano Concerto, and in October, he began his voyage to the US, during which he practiced on a silent keyboard.

On November 28, 1909, at the New Theater in New York City, Rachmaninoff appeared as soloist in the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto, with Walter Damrosch conducting the Symphony Society of New York. On January 16, 1910, a historic collaboration took place at Carnegie Hall, when Rachmaninoff again performed the concerto—this time with the New York Philharmonic. The conductor was the orchestra’s music director, the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

After that performance, the critic for TheNew York Herald offered this prophetic commentary about the Rachmaninoff Third:

The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.

We are fortunate that there have been many superb artists willing to tackle the phenomenal demands imposed by Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists. When the hurdles are overcome, the Rachmaninoff Third emerges as a summit of the Romantic piano concerto—a masterful fusion of virtuoso pyrotechnics, unforgettable melody, and lush orchestration.

Allegro ma non tanto. After two bars of orchestral introduction, the soloist enters with the undulating principal melody, scored in octaves, with each hand playing a single note. The soloist’s lightning-quick passagework serves to accompany the orchestra’s restatement of the theme. A brief unaccompanied episode for the soloist leads to a broader presentation of the opening theme. Fanfares herald the second theme, soon played in its complete form by the soloist. The development section begins in much the same manner as the opening of the movement, but soon ventures into flights of stunning display for the soloist. An extended, fully composed cadenza for the pianist also briefly incorporates the solo flute, oboe, clarinet, and two horns. Instead of the traditional full recapitulation, the movement closes with a restatement of the opening melody and a brief reminiscence of the second theme.

Intermezzo: Adagio. The second movement begins with an extended, somber orchestral introduction whose central theme—initially played by a solo oboe—bears a kinship to a portion of the principal melody of the opening Allegro. The soloist enters with rhapsodic variants of the theme. A contrasting, vivacious scherzando passage features yet another transformation of the opening movement’s principal melody, now played by a solo clarinet and bassoon. After a brief reprise of the opening portion of the Intermezzo, the soloist launches a dramatic passage. This serves as the bridge to the Finale, which follows without pause.

Finale: Alla breve. The soloist presents the fanfare-like opening theme, derived from the introductory measures of the first movement. A series of syncopated chords by the soloist develops into the flowing second theme. Two subsequent episodes—a breezy scherzando and more reflective lento—present echoes of the opening Allegro. A varied reprise of the Finale’s first section leads to the grand resolution of the concerto—a glorious declaration of the second theme, capped by a dazzling cascade by the soloist.

—Ken Meltzer

This concert is made possible, in part, through the generous support of The Frederick S. and Dorothy S. Coleman Foundation.

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