Friday, February 20, 2009

Symphony Weekend: Rachmaninoff & Schulhoff in Harrisburg

For some reason, it seems every orchestra in the Mid-State is giving a concert this weekend:

The Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina (Sat/8pm - Sun/3pm @The Forum) performs Smetana’s well-known “The Moldau,” the little-known composer Erwin Schulhoff’s Symphony No. 5 and, joined by pianist Andrew von Oeyen, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. (See below for more about this concert.)

The Lancaster Symphony conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser (Fri/8pm - Sat/3 & 8pm - Sun/7:30pm @The Fulton Opera House) presents an all-strings program with Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade in C for Strings,” Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Ballet” based on Bizet’s music, imaginatively arranged for strings and percussion, as well as the “Simple Symphony” which Benjamin Britten based on some themes he’d written into his notebooks when he was a boy. (By the way, the brochure indicates this concert was originally scheduled for a Sunday matinee, but the current website, checked today, does not mention the Sunday 3pm time.)

The York Symphony conducted by Robert Hart Baker (Program 1 Sat/8pm; Program 2 Sun/3pm @ The Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center) is performing two separate programs this weekend instead of the usual one-night concert. Saturday evening features legendary guest artist Peter Serkin who will be playing two piano concertos - Bach’s D Minor Concerto and Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 in B-flat; also on the program will be the 1st and 3rd of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.” Sunday’s program will include the rest of the Brandenburg Concertos (Nos. 2, 4, 6 & 5, in that order) featuring members of the orchestra as soloists, joined by harpsichordist Gretchen Dekker for the 5th Concerto.

The West Shore Symphony conducted by Timothy Dixon (Sun/3pm @ Carlisle Theater) will be performing the Overture to Glinka’s “Ruslan & Ludmilla,” Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto (with soloist Michael Harcrow) and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. They’ll be performing a shortened version of this concert suitable for first-time concert-goers and children, Saturday afternoon from 11:15am to noon.

The Hershey Symphony conducted by Sandra Dackow (Sat/8pm @ The Hershey Theater) features a program of Mozart and Beethoven: the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and his Symphony No. 35 in D (the “Haffner”) and, joined by Stanley Chapaitis, the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.

It’s possible there may be others that I’m not following at the moment, so forgive me if I haven’t been entirely inclusive. But that’s certainly enough. As a private citizen, I’ve gotten out of the habit of covering all the music that’s going on in the region but it would’ve been nice to write a good post about each one of these concerts.

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As for me, I’m hoping to be well-enough-on-the-mend to attend the Harrisburg Symphony Saturday evening. For me, recuperating from surgery a little over two weeks ago to repair a couple of hernias on the verge of celebrating their 2nd anniversary (which in itself is a long story), isn’t going fast enough, though the doctor seemed to think things were moving right along. I managed to over-do it today, I think, though I can hardly imagine what I did that tired me out. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day.

In the past few weeks, then, I haven’t done a lot of blogging, among other things. What time I had that I could muster the concentration and the physical ability to sit long enough was spent trying to finish the last of the pieces for violin and piano. Sitting in a normal chair is still pretty touch-and-go: I have spent too much of my life these past weeks in a recliner, something the Forum is noticeably lacking in with their infamously leg-cramping seats. So this is not going to be the post I would normally prefer to write, an “up-close-and-personal” look at, at least, the unfamiliar work on the program, Schulhoff’s 5th Symphony, and Rachmaninoff’s well-known 3rd Piano Concerto.

I’ve known the Rachmaninoff ever since I was a child and my parents bought me the RCA recording with Van Cliburn and Kiril Kondrashin conducting something called the “Symphony of the Air,” Cliburn’s “victory concert”following his return from Russia after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1959. I’d listened to it so much, I can probably still cue the cough 50 years later. Though there may be other, better recordings, this performance still remains one of my favorites.

The concerto is a daunting challenge for any artist – Horowitz had once remarked to the composer how hard it was and Rachmaninoff, who premiered the work in New York City a century ago (the second performance was with Gustav Mahler, conducting), claimed he had written it for “elephants” to perform. Rachmaninoff had huge hands – instead of spanning just an octave, he could span an octave and a fifth, the musical equivalent of palming a basketball, I guess. Ironically, he dedicated it to one of his favorite fellow-pianists, Josef Hoffman who couldn’t play it, it turned out, because his hands were too small. This constant stretching for normal-sized hands is one factor that leads to artist fatigue.

I don’t know the pianist who’ll be playing it with the Harrisburg Symphony this weekend, Andrew von Oeyen. But you can go to his website and hear his performance of the entire concerto – all three movements of it in three separate clips – with an uncredited (and therefore presumably non-American) orchestra.

In the past, I’ve heard many “relatively unknown” artists coming to town to perform and rarely been disappointed. Given the budgets of most regional orchestras even in a healthy economy, there is little money available to bring in the major artists of the day. One of my favorite stories is about hearing a young Juilliard student, a recent prize-winner, play an exciting concert with the Harrisburg Symphony of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. But the woman in front of me was not impressed because she had never heard of him before: she turned to her friend and said “why are we always getting these Juilliard students? Why aren’t we listening to Isaac Stern or Zino Francescatti? I mean, who ever heard of,” she paused to look down at the program to check the soloist’s unusual name, “Pinchas Zukerman?”

If only every young artist out getting their career started in their 20s could go on to become someone of the stature of Pinchas Zukerman! But at the time, who’s to know what the future holds?

The future was not kind to composer Erwin Schulhoff (pictured at right). He was one of many in a generation of promising composers whose careers were cut short by World War II. His music was declared “degenerate” by the Nazi Regime and because he was Jewish, he was sent to a concentration camp where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 48. He managed to write 6 symphonies (two more never made it beyond piano-score sketches), an opera and a ballet, a great deal of chamber music including three string quartets and three piano sonatas.

With all there was to influence a composer at the start of the 20th Century, Schulhoff tried a variety of different styles before he found would might have become his own voice, if he had by the time he was arrested. He studied with Debussy (who died when Schulhoff was 23), was influenced by jazz and the neo-classical style of Stravinsky and the French Les Six. In his “Five Picturesques” of 1919 (written the year after Debussy died) he pre-figured John Cage’s 4'33" by about 33 years. Cage writes a piece in which the pianist sits at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds but never plays a note. The score is blank, a musical expression of Zen calm. Schulhoff’s piece is, however, a frenzy of notation – all rests, often in complex rhythms, no pitches – marked with changes in meter and tempo, the pianist directed to play the rests “with the greatest expression throughout.” And yet Cage is given all the credit.

What may have happened to Schulhoff’s musical awareness between 1919 and the year he wrote his 5th Symphony, 1938, I’m not sure since the only piece of his I remember hearing are the Five Pieces for String Quartet which the Cypress Quartet had recorded a few years ago. They’ve been performing them the past few weeks, in fact, and you can see their performance of the Tango from one of their concerts on YouTube. These pieces, written in 1923, shortly after he’d discovered jazz and returned to his hometown of Prague, are delightful dances with a slightly modernist edge that would not be quite as far afield as what Stravinsky was writing in his Post-World-War-I neo-classical style.

I also have a recording of two of his song cycles with orchestras – he described them as “symphonies for voice and orchestra” – and though I can’t find a date when they were written (the one, Menschheit, is dedicated to a political activist who was murdered in 1919), they sound very little different from the songs Gustav Mahler had composed two decades earlier, with flashes of Schoenberg’s lushly Romantic Gurrelieder and a wisp of Janacek and even Delius on various occasions. Though the two cycles are published as Op. 26 and 28, it is quite possible they are early pieces published posthumously: I could find nothing about his creative chronology or other works with opus numbers to give it any kind of placement. It would amaze me to think these songs, gorgeous and easy-to-listen-to as they are, could have been written the same year he wrote an absurdist piece that was adamantly nothing but rests! But stranger things have happened in young composers’ lives.

Though I’ve never heard his 5th Symphony, here are some things I’ve been able to find about it. The work was written following the “Munich Agreement” which threatened to destroy his native Czechoslovakia (giving the Sudetenland as an appeasement to Hitler), an emotional response you can hear especially in the violence of 1st and 3rd movements. One writer hears something similar to the war-time symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, his modernist 4th and the war-torn 6th. “There is a bitter and determined air to the finale which nevertheless strikes me as having rather over-reached its material. The whole work is alive with stirring military atmosphere, brass gestures and gritty attack but all purged of disillusion or sarcastic commentary.”

By this time, Schulhoff had become a Communist. There is something in this work apparently of the “Socialist Realism” sanctified by the Stalinist regime under which Shostakovich wrote and often chafed. Whether Schulhoff’s 5th Symphony – written the year after Shostakovich completed his 5th – had a specific program or not, no one seems to say, but then there is very little information about the man or his music that survived him. He had planned of emigrating from Czechoslovakia (after the Nazi invasion, he left Prague to live under an assumed name in Brno) and the Soviet Union had approved his passport in 1941, but he was arrested by the Nazis before he could leave. He was deported to a camp in Bavaria where he died of tuberculosis the following year.

Given all this, it might also be an extra incentive to attend the pre-concert presentation by Dickinson’s Dr. Amy Wlodarski, who has spoken in the area before on music and the Holocaust. They begin an hour before each performance and I highly recommend coming early for the chance to find out more about the man, his music and the times he lived and died in.

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