Leonard Slatkin Conducts Grieg
Leonard Slatkin, world-renowned conductor and former music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, personally requested a stop in Buffalo on his world tour of orchestras of his career. He conducts George Li, whom the Washington Post calls “staggering,” on Grieg’s instantly recognizable Piano Concerto No. 1. Cindy McTee’s percussive Circuits and Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 are the perfect complement.
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
George Li, piano
About Leonard Slatkin
Internationally acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin is Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and Directeur Musical Honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL). He maintains a rigorous schedule of guest conducting throughout the world and is active as a composer, author, and educator.
Slatkin has received six Grammy awards and 33 nominations. His recent Naxos recordings include works by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Berlioz (with the ONL) and music by Copland, Rachmaninov, Borzova, McTee, and John Williams (with the DSO). In addition, he has recorded the complete Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky symphonies with the DSO (available online as digital downloads).
A recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, Slatkin also holds the rank of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor. He has received Austria’s Decoration of Honor in Silver, the League of American Orchestras’ Gold Baton Award, and the 2013 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award for his debut book, Conducting Business. His second book, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, was published by Amadeus Press in 2017.
Slatkin has conducted virtually all the leading orchestras in the world. As Music Director, he has held posts in New Orleans; St. Louis; Washington, DC; London (with the BBCSO); Detroit; and Lyon, France. He has also served as Principal Guest Conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.
About George Li
Since winning the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Li has rapidly established a major international reputation and performs regularly with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors such as Gergiev, Dudamel, Honeck, Petrenko, Tilson Thomas, Robertson, Slatkin, and Long Yu.
Concerto highlights include performances with the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Lyon, Sydney Symphony, and St. Petersburg Philharmonic. He frequently appears with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, including performances at the Paris Philharmonie, Luxembourg Philharmonie, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, Graffenegg Festival, and in various venues throughout Russia.
An active chamber musician, Li has performed alongside James Ehnes, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Benjamin Beilman, Kian Soltani, Pablo Ferrandez, and Daniel Lozakovich, and future plans include collaborations with Daniel Hope, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Lawrence Power. Li is an exclusive Warner Classics recording artist, with his debut recital album released in October 2017, which was recorded live from the Mariinsky.
Li gave his first public performance at Boston’s Steinway Hall at the age of ten and in 2011, performed for President Obama at the White House in an evening honoring Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was the recipient of the 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, a recipient of the 2012 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and the First Prize winner of the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. In 2018, Li graduated from the Harvard University/New England Conservatory joint program, where he studied with Wha Kyung Byun.
By Edward Yadzinski
born: 1953, Tacoma, Washington
These are the first performances of this work on the Classics series; duration 6 minutes
Cindy McTee began her life in music with piano lessons at age 6. Her musician parents encouraged her to study other instruments and to follow her muse to become a composer. Prior to attending college, Cindy spent a year at the Academy of Music in Cracow, Poland, where she studied composition with Krzysztof Penderecki. In turn, Ms. McTee enrolled at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where she completed a Bachelor of Music degree. She then received a Masters in Music from Yale University and a Doctor of Philosophy in composition from the University of Iowa.
Cindy McTee’s honors include two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and distinguished fellowships from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
McTee’s catalog of original scores is extensive with settings for widely diverse ensembles, including computer synthesis.
About the music for Circuits, the composer writes:
“Circuits is a single-movement piece, approximately six minutes in length, with three large sections defined by changes in texture. It was written in 1990 for the Denton Chamber Orchestra of Denton, Texas, and was recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for release on the Naxos label in 2013. Having received hundreds of performances over the years, it is by far my most-performed work.
“The title, Circuits, is meant to characterize several important aspects of the work’s musical language, most importantly a strong reliance upon circular structures such as ostinatos (short, repeated musical fragments) and the presence of an unrelenting, kinetic energy achieved through the use of 16th notes at a constant, brisk tempo of about 148 beats per second.
“The playful manipulation of musical materials is also characteristic of the work. Repetition provides a context for predicting the sequence of events, which in turn sets up the opportunity for surprise when expectation is denied. The musical effect is not unlike that of syncopation, or a deceptive cadence. For example, Circuits begins with a sequence of short musical ideas played by three percussionists, followed by a reordering of those same short ideas – sometimes leaving out one or two of them, other times changing their durations, and oftentimes separating them by more or less silence than occurred in the original sequence. This process also operates on a larger scale as whole bars or groups of bars are manipulated in much the same way.
“In addition to aspects of humor in the piece, I might also mention the influence of jazz. Jazz has been a part of my musical experience since early childhood, and in Circuits you will hear some familiar jazz textures, harmonies, and rhythms.
“Another known influence would be the work of composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, so-called minimalists. Actually, one critic attached the label ‘post-minimal’ to my piece. Where it differs from the music of Reich and others is in the presence of sharply articulated contrasts and relatively dissonant harmonic structures.”
In sum, McTee has scored a frolic of feisty flares on the fly. Beginning with ratchets in the percussion, every stand and section in the orchestra adds buzz to the jive, clear to the final frill. Good fun.
born: 15 June 1843, Bergen; died: 4 September 1907, Bergen
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Op.16
Allegro molto moderato
Allegro moderato; Quasi presto
First BPO Classics performance: November 30, 1943, with pianist-conductor Percy Grainger; most recent performance: October 4, 2015, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, with pianist Juho Pohjonen; duration 29 minutes
‘Romantic nationalism’ was the term Edward Grieg preferred to describe the muse behind his music. To be sure, his scores are biased with Nordic motifs, altogether picturesque, literary, and/or musical. Likewise, his revered Piano Concerto is engraved with tunes that bear a kinship to the folk heritage of Norway. Moreover, the same song-like manner is noted throughout Grieg’s catalog, including his incidental music for Henrick Ibsen’s great dramatic poem, Peer Gynt (another work that enjoys best-seller status in the symphonic repertoire). Though no less worthy, the remainder of Grieg’s output is oddly far less performed, rich as it is with picturesque symphonic works, volumes of chamber music, and more than one hundred and fifty songs.
About the distinctive vocal quality of his music overall Grieg provided a clue in a letter to a close friend:
“How does it happen that my songs play such an important part in my music? Quite simply owing to the circumstances that even I, like other mortals, was ‘for once in my life endowed with genius’ – to quote Goethe. And for me the flash of genius was love: I fell in love with a young girl, who became my wife and to this day my lifelong companion.”
Without question these are the words of an exalted romantic – and there was no shortage of those in the 19th century. But the composer was no less carried away by the love scenes in Wagnerian opera (Grieg attended the première of the complete Ring at Bayreuth) than he was with the intimate nuance of Chopin or the virtuosic abandon of Liszt. For its time, that was a rare mix. In any case, Grieg became engaged to the accomplished soprano Nina Hagerup in 1864 and within months set to work on the current work, which he completed in 1868 (revised in 1906).
About the piece, an aside is worthy. Through the 20th century various historians have cited the Piano Concerto in A Minor as an example of reserved formal construction (i.e. no big development of the main tunes as in the piano concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, for example). Hardly. By any measure Opus 16 is a full-scale work. The issue is rather about style – simple as that.
As in the heritage of all fine concertos, Grieg structured the work to suit his own preferences. He was surely not duty-bound to emulate some cast-iron rule about requisite first and second themes, exposition, recapitulation, cadenza, coda, etc. Another rather well-known composer came to Grieg’s defense, i.e. a composer who at first saw his own piano concerto rejected by those who were ostensibly ‘in the know’:
“What charm, what inimitable and rich musical imagery! What warmth and passion in his melodic phrases, what teeming vitality in his harmony, what originality and beauty in the turn of his piquant and ingenious modulations and rhythms, and in all the rest what interest, novelty and independence.” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
A rolling tonic in the timpani sets the concerto on its way before big chords from the piano break like lightning onto the stage. Then follows that beguiling first melody in cool-white A minor, glacial and searching. The second tune is in disarming C major, warm and tender. Listeners often note the development sounds as deeply Romantic as Serge Rachmaninoff, except Grieg’s concerto was scored almost ten years before the great Russian master was born! A brilliant cadenza emerges not long before the movement closes with a high-energy coda.
Those who are especially fond of the placid second movements throughout the concerto repertoire will find lingering allure in the Adagio, set with tonal radiance in C-sharp major. The expression is soulful, limpid as the waters of Norwegian fjords. And is that a mountaineer’s plaintive horn we hear at the close?
We are buffeted back into A minor at the first light of the third movement Allegro moderato. The rhythmic base has a dance-like swagger, light and sporty. But yet another poetic treat waits just around the bend – a gorgeous and gentle digression in F major. Just as we begin to expect a veiled and quiescent close, the lusty momentum returns – with the soloist in a gallant dash. In a brief wink from the baton, a final cadenza recitation transforms into gleaming A major at the close.
Sir Edward Elgar
born: 2 June 1857, Broadheath; died: 23 February 1934, Worcester
Symphony No.1 in A-flat major, Op.55
Andante; Nobilmente e semplice
First Classics performance: November 1, 1980, conducted by Christopher Keene; most recent performance: November 2, 2003, conducted by James Judd; duration 51 minutes
Sir Edward might also be known as Sir Merlin of English music. To Elgar goes the credit of rekindling the musical luster of the British Isles in that the flame had been all but extinguished by the great Continental winds of German, French and Russian Romanticism, not to mention Italian opera. On that rests the only explanation as to why, during the whole of the 19th century, not a single English composer emerged with major prominence.
What Elgar did to get English music all fired up happened in 1899 at the premiere of his Enigma Variations, an exquisite masterpiece. In turn, Enigma was encored by two exciting symphonies, overtures (including In the South), concertos, tone poems, and even a few salon pieces. After all this the international concert scene was primed for the safe passage of British composers like Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten, among others. But clearly, Elgar was the lead bird, and his oeuvre will continue to bear the torch for English music well into the 21st century, at the very least.
Given the prerogatives of Romantic composers, we are often on the lookout for literal clues to their evocative scores. Although Elgar never provided much detail about the inspirations behind his music, we know that just after the success of his Enigma Variations he began to sketch Symphony No.1 (completed in 1908), based on episodes in the life of a popular English military figure, General Charles George Gordon. Apart from this we have nothing specific except the summary Elgar supplied to his publisher:
“A composer’s outlook on life: the innumerable phases of joy and sorrow, struggle and conquest, and especially between the ideal and actual life; a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.”
Marked Nobilmente e semplice (noble and simple) the first movement presents a tune with regal bearing, a motif which recurs throughout the work. Although not designated as such, the second movement is really a scherzo which Elgar instructed “…should be played like something you hear down by the river.” In turns, the musical energy slows very gradually to the point where, without a break, the dreamy expanse of the Adagio provides its tender retreat. At the premiere, conductor Hans Richter remarked: “Ah, this is a real Adagio such as Beethoven himself might have written.”
The opening of the last movement begins slowly with darkly-tuned colors. But things soon get underway, as the deep undertow rises in measured swells, breaking onto the orchestral shoreline in waves of brazen color. Stand by for the closing coda – like the power of a rip tide – as florid chords unleash a joyful final fury.