Performance Monday, February 3, 2014 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
The Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin performs two Czech masterpieces and an electrifying piano concerto with Radu Lupu as soloist. Smetana’s ardent nationalism sings out in “The Moldau,” a vivid portrait of the flowing Czech river. While not nationalist in tone, Dvořák’s genial Symphony No. 6 does reference a Czech dance in its boisterous scherzo. One of his final works, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 features a serene opening movement, a deeply moving adagio, and a virtuoso finale. Hear why The New York Times has proclaimed that “on any given night this storied institution will probably prove anew that it remains one of the country’s premier ensembles."
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The Program

"The Moldau" from Má vlast


At the peak of his career, Smetana poured the better part of his energies into eight first-rate operas, which were produced in Prague between 1866 and 1882 and still form an important part of the local repertory. It was the subject matter of one of these dramas, Libuše, that sparked the inspiration for Má vlast (My Homeland), the cycle of six symphonic poems that became his most lasting orchestral work. In that opera, completed in 1872, the legendary Bohemian Princess Libuše proclaims—from her castle high atop the Vyšehrad cliffs that overlook the Vltava River (near central Prague)—her dream of a grand and glorious Czech nation, which would "vanquish the terrors of hell." Smetana considered Libuše his "most perfect work in the field of high drama" and was still under its nationalistic spell when he sketched "Vyšehrad," the first piece of Má vlast, in 1872 or 1873.

Deafness Strikes

In the middle of the composition of "Vyšehrad," tragedy struck the composer: In October 1874, Smetana became deaf virtually all at once. Unlike Beethoven, whose hearing loss developed over the course of more than a decade, Smetana hardly had an opportunity to become accustomed to the idea before total deafness set in. As a result, he had to give up his position as principal conductor of the National Theatre in Prague, a blow that initiated a series of disappointments over the next decade that eventually led to a complete mental collapse. Nevertheless, he produced some of his most durable scores during this period, including Má vlast, which occupied him until 1879.

When deafness struck, he was composing the second piece of the cycle, "Vltava" (or "Moldau," as the river is called in German), which has become Smetana's most popular piece. He completed "The Moldau" in late 1874, and it was first performed in Prague in April 1875; the entirety of Má vlast received its premiere there in November 1882 under Adolf Čech's baton. Although the main theme of "The Moldau" was derived from a Swedish folk tune, "Ack Värmeland du sköne," the treatment of themes and the brilliance of the orchestration-including the "running" flute and clarinet passages at the outset-indicate a composer of the first order.

A Closer Listen

For each of the six works of the cycle, the composer provided a programmatic description; his note for "The Moldau" reveals his passionate affection for the earthy, ancient richness of the Czech countryside:

Two springs gush forth in the shade of the Bohemian forest, the one warm and spouting, the other cool and tranquil. Their waves, joyously rushing down over their rocky beds, unite and glisten in the rays of the morning sun. The hurrying forest brook becomes the river Vltava, which grows to a mighty stream while flowing through Bohemia's valleys: It flows through thick woods where the joyous noise of the hunt and the tones of the hunter's horn are heard ever nearer and nearer; it flows through grass-grown pastures and lowlands, where a wedding feast is celebrated with song and dancing. At night, the wood and water nymphs revel in its shining waves, in which many fortresses and castles are reflected, as witnesses of the past glory of knighthood and the vanished warlike fame of bygone ages. At the St. John Rapids, the stream rushes on, weaving through the cataracts, and with its foamy waves beats a path for itself through the rocky chasm into the broad river in which it flows onward in majestic repose toward Prague, welcomed by time-honored Vyšehrad, whereupon it vanishes in the far distance from the poet's gaze.

—Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Piano Concerto No. 3

Of the major European composers of the first half of the 20th century, it is Béla Bartók whose imprint on subsequent music is the most difficult to assess. Schoenberg, who devised a potent system for atonal composition, remains the most influential intellectual figure in music of the last century, despite the fact that his music is played with relative infrequency. Stravinsky, ostensibly the most accessible of the three, has become a household name, and many of his works are as familiar as those of Bach or Brahms. Bartók, less cosmopolitan than Stravinsky and less severely systematic than Schoenberg, forged a peculiar style that was fiercely personal, built partly on pride in Hungarian ethnicity. He was, in many ways, a more conventional artist than either of his contemporaries—yet he still became one of the most original musicians and thinkers of his era.

A Hungarian in Self-Exile

Bartók had already achieved a full and rich career when he arrived in America in 1940. As a composer, he had amazed and shocked the European music world with scandalous theater works such as The Miraculous Mandarin and with densely wrought orchestral works—including concertos that quickly became part of many pianists' and violinists' concert repertoire. He had also carved out a substantial career for himself as both pianist and pedagogue. But when Fascism began to envelop Europe during the early 1930s, the ever-individualistic Bartók was outspoken in his criticism of its tactics. After 1933, he refused to perform in Germany. As a result, he himself began to be the object of attacks; at first he considered moving to England, but during concerts in America in the late 1930s, he contemplated the possibility of settling here—an idea that was solidified in 1940 through the offer of a temporary appointment as Visiting Research Associate at Columbia University. He accepted the position, which began in 1941.

New York bewildered him. He wrote of being lost in the subway system, he and his wife "traveling hither and thither in the earth; finally, our time waning and our mission incomplete, we shamefacedly slunk home—all entirely underground, of course." There was worse to come. The Columbia appointment was not to be renewed, and he found himself in financial straits. As he tried to make a living concertizing, he grew ill. In 1943, after becoming so sick he could no longer give concerts, he was finally diagnosed with leukemia (though his doctors told him it was polycythemia, a less serious illness affecting the white blood cells).

His final years consisted of a series of charitable gestures from friends and, ultimately, money from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), which allowed him to survive but not thrive. Nevertheless, he was able to compose several of the works for which he is best known today, including the Concerto for Orchestra, the Viola Concerto (left unfinished), and the Third Piano Concerto-which was completed except for the scoring of the final 17 measures.

Piano Concertos as Paradoxes

The three piano concertos present prime examples of the paradoxes of Bartók's art-the tension between tradition and revolution, between folk song and iconoclasm. They remain among the most important contributions to the genre of the piano concerto in the 20th century, though their entrance into the standard repertoire has been a bumpy one. Each of these works offers insight into an important aspect of Bartók the musician. The First (1926), with its "barbaric" rhythms and martellato ("hammered") effects, suggests the importance of irregular meters and percussive sonorities in Bartók's music. The Second synthesizes folk rhythm with orchestral tone painting, Baroque counterpoint, and relentless motivic development. The lyrical Third Concerto underscores the neoclassical tranquility and resignation of the composer's final years in exile in New York.

The Third Concerto is normally regarded as his last completed composition, since the orchestration of the final bars, effected by former Philadelphia Orchestra violist Tibor Serly, was a relatively mechanical exercise.

A Closer Listen

The Third Piano Concerto was conceived as a birthday present for Bartók's wife, the prominent pianist Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, who was to turn 42 on October 31, 1945. Bartók knew he was dying, and he rushed to complete the concerto-partly, some believe, so that Ditta could have a work with which to build her own career in America. Serly tells of visiting Bartók in September as he was completing the orchestration of the piece on the last evening before the composer's final hospitalization. Having interrupted his work, he felt responsible for hindering Bartók from finishing the piece, and thus took it upon himself to do so after the composer's death later that month.

The Third is a remarkably tranquil, transparent work. Gone is the brutal percussiveness of the First Piano Concerto, or the transcendent virtuosic difficulty of the Second. The first-movement Allegretto begins with a simple, charming melody in the piano, played with both hands two octaves apart; this shimmering, transparent quality is carried through the entire work. In place of virtuosity is brilliant, breathless instrumental color, the sparkling shades that transform simple motivic ideas into poetry. The tonality is unusually clear, opening and closing on E and languishing mostly in major mode but also with shades of Mixolydian and Lydian.

Likewise the twittering of the second movement (Adagio religioso) transports the listener to a sound world of artifice and high refinement. Much of this is based on bird songs that Bartók noted during a visit to Asheville, North Carolina, the year before; the central Trio section contains much of the ethereal "night music" of Bartók's early piano works like Out of Doors. The finale (Allegro vivace) recalls somewhat the texture and feel of the Concerto for Orchestra, and recapitulates many of the first movement's ideas, albeit in more strikingly contrapuntal form. The concerto concludes in a deep sense of calm and transport.

—Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60

Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák offer a wonderful example of master composers for whom mentorship turned into friendship. In 1874, the 33-year-old Czech applied for a newly created Austrian state stipend helping needy young artists. He submitted 15 compositions, including his Second and Third symphonies. The jury was chaired by the powerful music critic Eduard Hanslick and included prominent musicians in Vienna. Dvořák was awarded a grant. The next year, with Brahms joining the jury, he succeeded again (this time with the Fifth Symphony among the submitted pieces), as he did the following three years, ultimately winning all five times he applied.

The financial support freed Dvořák from having to play in an orchestra and allowed him to concentrate on composition. An additional benefit was that Brahms enthusiastically took up his cause, going so far as to write to his Berlin publisher, Fritz Simrock, urging him to publish some works: "Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it! The duets will show you what I mean." Simrock took the tip, releasing the Moravian Duets Brahms mentioned, as well as Slavonic Dances.

Mainstream vs. Nationalistic

And here is where certain paradoxes begin to emerge: The pieces for which Dvořák proved so successful winning the stipend were principally written in the mainstream German style, rarely marked by specifically Czech musical elements. Yet Brahms was initially most attracted to Dvořák's more nationalist fare, as he sensed his publisher would be as well. Simrock had already made a substantial profit from Brahms's hugely popular Hungarian Dances, and Dvořák now offered a new revenue stream. Brahms had an abiding attraction to the so-called Hungarian style, which he employed in many of his own compositions. As he was himself north-German, however, no one thought to view him as being provincial or nationalist.

Dvořák, on the other hand, found himself caught in a wave of growing anti-Czech sentiment in Vienna that had serious consequences for the Sixth Symphony we hear today. The eminent Hans Richter conducted his Third Slavonic Rhapsody with the Vienna Philharmonic in November 1879. Dvořák attended the concert with Brahms and was thrilled: "It was a splendid day that I shall not easily forget for the rest of my life." Plans were soon hatched for a new symphony for Richter and the orchestra. Yet dissenting voices within the ensemble led to the cancellation later that season of a scheduled performance of Dvořák's Serenade for Winds. A comment from critic Ludwig Speidel, second in power only to Hanslick, is telling: "The Slavic folk school is not loved in Vienna; when faced with it, the Viennese feels himself to be decidedly German."

Dvořák nonetheless pressed forward with the Sixth Symphony, which he completed in the fall of 1880. He informed Simrock that he wished to place the work "first of all before Meister Brahms for his inspection." The political situation in Vienna and the reluctance of some members of the Vienna Philharmonic to perform the work meant that the premiere kept getting postponed, much to the composer's frustration. In the end, Dvořák got back the score and parts from Richter (to whom the symphony remained dedicated), and arranged the first performance in Prague conducted by Adolf Čech. David Brodbeck, who has studied this complicated genesis, believes that "Dvořák must have taken this rejection especially hard, since he seems to have designed the symphony in accordance with the cultural biases of its intended German audience." While the third movement, a furiant dance, is notably Czech, the Sixth Symphony otherwise "not only reflects a primarily German tradition, but indeed a specifically Viennese one, and through its many allusions to Brahms and Beethoven, it goes out of its way to suggest an orientation toward what the Viennese elite would have understood as the 'center,' not the 'periphery.'"

The genre of the symphony was one in which Dvořák could aspire to the highest in instrumental music at an international level. Confusion concerning the numbering of the nine he composed is more than a mere cataloging issue-it points to the fitful progress of his professional career. Dvořák himself misnumbered them because his first, written at age 24, was submitted to a competition in Germany (which he did not win) and it was never returned. (The work was only discovered in 1923.) Simrock published what we now know as the Sixth Symphony in 1881 as Dvořák's First, and four years later released the Seventh Symphony in D Minor as the Second. The popularity these and other works enjoyed led him to request more music from Dvořák, who provided unpublished works written years earlier. Simrock readily took these "new old" pieces, but hid their origins by giving them high opus numbers, much to the composer's dismay and leading to even further confusion about the order and numbering of Dvořák's symphonies.

A Closer Listen

Dvořák's immediate model for the Sixth Symphony was Brahms's Second Symphony, which is in the same key and scored for the same forces; even the tempo and meter of the first and last movements are the same. Beethoven's "Eroica" has a somewhat similar opening theme as the Allegro non tanto, but Dvořák's spacious beginning, projecting wonderful freshness, is ultimately more lyrically pastoral than heroic. In any case, various themes in the symphony have a simple triadic cast that relate to the Czech folk tradition.

The woodwind introduction to the second-movement Adagio harkens back to the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, leading to a lovely violin melody in delicate dialogue with oboe and then horn. The movement is a rondo in A-B-A-C-A-B-A form with coda. The distinctively Czech third movement (repeated at the premiere performance in Prague) is a Scherzo making use of a furiant, a fast Bohemian triple-meter dance that here often sounds as if it were a duple meter. A calmer middle section provides contrast.

The last movement (Allegro con spirito) opens with a quiet tune for the strings again similar to Brahms's Second Symphony. Dvořák recalls and reworks earlier themes in this finale that lend the entire symphony a larger unity. The movement builds to a fast and thrilling conclusion, a virtuoso display for the orchestra. As one Prague critic remarked: "The overall mood of this work is happy and buoyant; if we were to name the work, we would call it the 'Czech Spring Symphony.'"

—Christopher H. Gibbs

Program notes © 2014. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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