Kindred Spirits Program Notes
Concert info: https://philharmonianw.org/concert-2-kindred-spirits/
The great jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler released a record in 1969 entitled Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. Ayler’s music, inspired by the improvisatory traditions of jazz, blues, spirituals, and African chanting, brought forth a kind of sonic prayer that, when the listener gives themselves over to it, transcends day-to-day experiences. The times in which we are living need healing, and today’s concert, the second in Philharmonia Northwest’s 23/24 season, brings us music that evokes great emotional depth. The title of “Kindred Spirits” was coined by today’s guest conductor, Michael Wheatley, who finds similarities between Beethoven and Shostakovich as they struggled through life circumstances to create the powerful works we will hear today. Maestro Wheatley’s apt comparison can be extended even further to include all composers, musicians, and even listeners, as we kindle our minds and hearts to experience the power of music together.
Jennifer Jolley: The Ferry Crossing
Those of us who reside in the Pacific Northwest are no strangers to ferries. For some of us this is a daily commute, no different than a bus or a commuter train. And yet there still remains something otherworldly about ferry transport, perhaps because of the sheer size of the vessel or the fact that it involves multiple modes of transport: we drive a car onto a boat, traverse across a body of water, then drive off the boat to continue our journey. Thought of in this way, it really is quite surreal.
Composer Jennifer Jolley finds a way in her 2015 piece, The Ferry Crossing, to convey something of the magic of a ferry ride. Minimalist in its approach, the piece undulates, like the rocking of waves, with horn and wind punctuations that relay a sense of the passing of both time and space. The slow evolution of the work is ingeniously controlled by Jolley, giving us the sense that the journey is in equal measure to the destination. Imagining most in attendance at today’s concert have been on a ferry, I encourage you to give yourself over to the experience of The Ferry Crossing, perhaps remembering your last trip to Whidbey or Lopez Islands, gazing from the top deck at the fast-moving water, wondering if an orca might surface.
Dimitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
Composed as a birthday present for his 19-year-old son, Maxim, an aspiring concert pianist, Shostakovitch’s well known Piano Concerto No. 2 was premiered in 1957 in Moscow, with Maxim as soloist. Because of the energetic rhythms of the fist and third movements, it is considered one of Shostakovich’s more lighthearted works, though the melancholic themes of the second movement certainly challenge this sentiment. Somewhat humorously, Shostakovich wrote to a friend shortly after the concerto premiered saying that the work had “no artistic value,” which may have reflected his actual sentiments or, more likely, an opportunity for him to poke fun at Soviet cultural overseers who often spoke like this when they tried to reign in Shostakovich’s sonic wanderings.
The first movement begins march-like in the winds, followed soon after by the entrance of the piano with the opening theme. As this theme dances and morphs, it is swallowed up at times by percussion and brass punctuations, then stated and restated in myriad orchestrations, at one point in unison by the full orchestra that leaves the listener breathless with its massive impact. Enjoy this movement’s play between dark and light, action and reaction. One cannot help but listen and read into the sonic ups and downs and wonder if these exemplify life as an artist in the 1950s in the Soviet Union.
As mentioned above, the second movement brings us to quite a different place, one of tranquility and beauty, but also, to my ears, a restless wonderment. The themes in the piano seem to flow effortlessly, working themselves into the textures of the orchestra in ways that feel like hushed conversations between two lovers. The lingering notes of the movement teeter for a moment before several Morse-code-like piano strikes bring us into the third movement. Here we are back to intense energy and constantly shifting rhythms and textures, with scale passages that remind us this work was created to showcase a young piano student’s virtuosity.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
Beethoven himself named his third symphony, “Eroica,” that is, heroic. It is mysterious as to his intentions in calling it this. Some believe he was referring to Napoleon, a personal hero of Beethoven’s until the former crowned himself “Emperor of France,” to which Beethoven expressed that Napoleon was “a rascal like all the others.” Or was Beethoven referring to the music being heroic? Perhaps himself as the hero as he dealt with impending deafness? Or that all humans were heroic for living through such volatile times? From a purely musical vantage point, the adjective fits as this symphony was bigger, longer, more confrontational, even confessional, than any symphony that had come before. As we listen today to what may be familiar themes, recognize that we are hearing a sonic revolution: the very rupturing of musical expectations up to 1805 when the work had its first public performance.
Rather than a movement-by-movement analysis of this massive symphony, which has been written about extensively, I would like to offer three musical elements to listen for across all four movements, which provide some of the “wow” factor of this work and warrant the term masterpiece:
By the time Beethoven wrote his third symphony, the idea of melodic development was expected, even commonplace. The standard practice was to take a theme, run it through a few closely related keys using tried and tested compositional practices, and, presto, the goal of development was accomplished. Beethoven brings this practice to a whole new level where themes are broken into atomic elements that move through distant key centers, the equivalent of a verbal non sequitur. Key relationships in such contrast had not been explored up to that point and, even today, they sound surprising. The first movement is a prime example of this, where one melody shapeshifts constantly, as if the composer will not leave it alone for even a moment, yet drops us back where we feel whole, as if the journey had been purposeful, even inevitable. It may be hard to feel the power of these moments so far removed from the 19th Century, but we are hearing nothing short of a revolt.
While much symphonic music of the Classical era had beautifully composed instrumental passages, Beethoven’s “Eroica” brings forth an era where individual instruments, especially in the winds and brass, are called upon to play with a high level of virtuosity, akin to what they might do in a solo concerto or for chamber music. What is fascinating here is that it is not always perceptible that individual instruments are playing at a virtuosic level because the writing is so idiomatic and well crafted. Listen to the solo moments from the reeds or the extended passages in the brass to get a sense of this, but also to the complex writing for strings, which, though rarely soloistic, call upon the musicians to play very intricate passages, often in unison. It may intrigue the reader to know that passages from this symphony, known as “excerpts,” are frequently used in the training of orchestral musicians and are part of the audition process as players attempt to win seats in orchestras around the world. Beethoven’s instrumental writing in the Eroica symphony is that respected, renowned, and challenging.
Since much of our present-day intake of music is through film and other forms of media, we tend to hear music in a cinematic way, drawing common associations between music and emotion. If the music turns loud and thick, we tend to associate this with great depth of feeling, perhaps anger or passion. If the music quiets, slows, gets a bit tender, even moves to a minor key, we’ll start thinking about love or reminiscing. Though Beethoven was not composing a film score, he was exploring the conveyance of emotion that is akin to the cinematic experience. I would encourage this sort of listening, if only as an experiment, allowing yourself to enact a film in your imagination that corresponds to the way the music shifts. Factor in what you might know about Beethoven—a man living in tumultuous political times, struggling with health issues, not sure of his future—and you’ll have a highly engaging listening experience.
Today’s concert has brought us on quite a journey, from ferry rides to thwarting oppressive regimes to emotional upheaval. And yet, if Albert Ayler’s sentiment of music being a healing force is correct, and I’d agree that it is, we are in no better place than this hall, on this day, with this music.
Dean and Professor of Music
Cornish College of the Arts