July 18 & 19 : Olga Kern & Grieg’s Peer Gynt

May 8, 2024

FO3A July 18 and 19
Rune Bergmann, conductor HOLD
Olga Kern, piano HOLD
Kabin Thomas, narrator

Vivian Fung, Prayer 6’
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 33’

Grieg, Suites from Peer Gynt 45’ (with narrator)

Vivian Fung, Prayer

The Edmonton-born, Juilliard-trained composer Vivian Fung has often followed her musical curiosity to far corners of the globe, whether traveling to Indonesia to study and absorb Balinese gamelan sounds or to southwest China to explore folk songs from its minority regions. Orchestras have responded, including those of Philadelphia, St. Paul, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Detroit.  

But it was the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted Fung’s Prayer. The piece was commissioned in the spring of 2020 by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which brought together 36 leading musicians from 28 orchestras from across Canada. Members of the CBC Virtual Orchestra, as it was called, remotely recorded their parts, which were then digitally stitched together to make a “mosaic” video. Leading the performance (also remotely) was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestre Metropolitain. Fung writes the following about the inspiration for Prayer:

Prayer is, in essence, an aberration, for under no other circumstance in the past (or probably in the future) have I worn my heart on my sleeve as transparently as I have with this piece. In times of crisis and peril, we have but the reliance of faith – from the profound faith in humanity, faith in love, and faith that we will persevere and get through this with dignity, to the mundane faith that I would complete the piece within the extraordinary conditions that faced me, with a young child at home 24/7, a bronchial infection, and a very tight timeline (ultimately, a matter of days) to complete the piece in a manner feasible for COVID remote performance requirements. In the end, I chose a chant from my composer heroine Hildegard von Bingen as inspiration for my prayer. It goes:

O Shepherd of our souls, O primal voice, whose call created all of us; Now hear our plea to thee, to thee, and deign to free us from our miseries and feebleness.

I wish to thank my family — my husband, parents, and son — as well as my neighbors, the Lees, who have all made composing this piece possible.”

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto stands as one of the great comeback works of classical repertoire. It was preceded by the notorious premiere of his First Symphony, in 1897. Alexander Glazunov, who conducted the symphony, was reportedly drunk, and one critic said the piece “would have delighted the inhabitants of hell.” It was so badly played that Rachmaninoff stormed out of the auditorium and hid in a stairwell, his hands covering his ears. Traumatized, the 24-year-old lost the ability to compose, sleep, or stay sober.  

Still, Rachmaninoff continued performing and undertook a concert tour to London in 1898. When the London Philharmonic invited him to return and perform his First Piano Concerto, he boldly promised to bring a newer and better one. First, he had to overcome writer’s block. His family suggested he consult Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a Paris physician known for curing alcoholism through hypnosis. In January 1900, Dahl began a treatment program that combined supportive therapy and rudimentary hypnotherapy (“You will begin your concerto … it will be excellent,” was one of the mantras). After four months, Dahl succeeded. “Although it may seem incredible,” Rachmaninoff claimed, years later, “this cure helped me. New musical ideas began to stir within me—far more than I needed for my concerto.”  

Rachmaninoff unveiled his C-minor concerto over two concerts in Moscow in 1900-01, the first featuring just the final two movements, and the second comprising the entire score. Both were a triumph, and Rachmaninoff gratefully dedicated his score to Dr. Dahl. 

Beyond the intricate piano writing and often lavish orchestration, the concerto is remarkable for its mercurial and effortless flow of ideas. The first movement begins with the solo piano tolling nine chords (recalling the Russian love of enormous bells), which grows into the first theme. It swells to ravishing heights. The nocturne-like slow movement is richly spun, with a midpoint burst of pianistic fireworks. The finale opens with a surging theme in the orchestra, before landing on the most alluring melody of the concerto, delivered in deep viola tones and soon expanded by the soloist (and years later pillaged for the pop hits “All by Myself” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms”). The melody rises to a glittering climax as the key shifts from C minor to C Major and both soloist and orchestra race to an exultant finish. 

Edvard Grieg
Suites from Peer Gynt

Plenty of celebrated works in the symphonic canon were created not for the concert stage but for the theater. Think of Mendelssohn’s inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beethoven’s Coriolan and Egmont overtures, Schumann’s Manfred, and Sibelius’s music for The Tempest. For Edvard Grieg, only his A minor Piano Concerto may rival the popularity of his incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.

Ibsen approached Grieg in 1874, as he sought music to accompany his five-act verse drama. His story follows a young adventurer and scoundrel as he wanders several continents, encountering trolls, witches, gnomes, a mountain king, and Anitra, the daughter of a Bedouin chief. He returns four decades later to find his wife Solveig patiently and devotedly waiting. Peer’s grand adventure, according to Ibsen, was “a process of spiritual liberation and catharsis.” 

Grieg accepted the commission but found the composing process slow and “terribly unmanageable.” Eventually, however, he completed 26 numbers for the 1876 production—more than an hour of music. He later assembled eight excerpts as the two orchestral suites on this program. 

The Suite No. 1 begins with the shimmering Morning Mood (the prelude to Act Four), depicting dawn over the North African desert. The death of Peer’s mother, Åse, is a doleful dirge scored for strings alone. In Anitra’s Dance, the Arab girl dances a “mazurka,” while In the Hall of the Mountain King finds the troll’s leader plotting revenge on Peer for seducing one of their maidens. 

Grieg’s Second Suite opens with The Abduction of the Bride, violent music from the start of Act Two. This is followed by the Arabian Dance, set in the Bedouin camp, and Peer Gynt’s Homecoming (Stormy Evening on the Sea), in which the now aged antihero is shipwrecked on his return to Norway. Closing with the radiant Solveig’s Song, Grieg pays tribute to the devotion of the woman whom Peer had left behind. 

— Brian Wise

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