July 20 & 21 2023: Michael Christie Conducts Tchaikovsky 4

May 25, 2023

Piano Concerto in G Major

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Maurice Ravel was a master of artful contradictions — in conversation and in music. In a 1931 interview with London’s Daily Telegraph, he declared that the music of a concerto should be “lighthearted and brilliant, and not aimed at profundity or dramatic affects.” He went on to state that he had toyed with calling his Piano Concerto in G Major a “divertissement” but later concluded that a “concerto” means essentially the same thing. The eyebrow-raising comments have been interpreted as an effort to distance himself from the weighty, Germanic and agenda-setting concertos of Beethoven or Brahms. However, in practice, Ravel didn’t exactly write a frothy display vehicle. Pianist Marguerite Long, who premiered the work in Paris in 1933, complained of how the pensive second movement was incredibly difficult, giving the pianist “no respite” with its “long, slow, flowing” melody. Hardly a divertissement, in other words.

Ravel’s themes were shaped by a host of influences, from his combined French, Basque, and Spanish heritage to his contacts with American jazz. During a 1928 tour of the United States, Ravel spent several nights alongside George Gershwin, prowling New York City jazz clubs including the Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club. He saw dancers do the Lindy Hop, heard Duke Ellington perform, and attended a recording session by the Paul Whiteman orchestra with jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. The G-Major Concerto would come to reside at the intersection of a Parisian boulevard and a Harlem avenue.

The first movement opens with gossamer textures that the musicologist Stephan Parkany once compared to a whimsical contraption in a toy shop (Ravel adored mechanical toys). A perky tune for piccolo is taken up by a solo trumpet before the pianist enters and serves up bluesy, rippling melodies and touches of Spanish color. The languorous second movement begins with the unaccompanied piano solo that Marguerite Long (and others) found challenging. Ravel once said that it was inspired by Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major. Jazz rhythms and bluesy touches return in the frenetic finale, at times echoing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with a witty orchestral accompaniment.

Piano Concerto in One Movement

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement is among her most performed and celebrated works, which says a lot for composer whose star has been quickly — and deservedly — rising in recent years.

Price’s journey began in Little Rock, Ark., where she studied music with her mother, a piano teacher. In 1902, at age 16, she left for the prestigious New England Conservatory, where she studied piano and organ. After returning to Little Rock, she was denied admittance to the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association because of her race. Price in 1927 moved her family to Chicago, where she made connections with leading Black intellectuals, including the writer Langston Hughes. She won multiple accolades, including first prize in the 1932 Wanamaker Foundation contest, which led to the premiere of her Symphony No. 1 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the first time a major American orchestra performed a major work by a Black woman composer.

But for reasons that parallel much of U.S. history, Price’s music did not enter the mainstream of concert life. “I have two handicaps, those of sex and race,” she wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who never conducted her music, despite his championing of living composers. On top of such disappointments, Price divorced an abusive husband and became a single mother to her two daughters. Still, she produced a steady flow of orchestral works, solo piano music and songs; her spiritual arrangements were sung by contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Leontyne Price.

By the time of her death in 1953, Price and her nearly 300 compositions had largely faded into obscurity. But scholarly interest began to grow and an astounding discovery in 2009 finally catapulted Price’s music into leading concert halls: A trove of her scores and papers — some 19 boxes in all — was found in her abandoned former summer house near Chicago, yielding new published editions and recordings. The present edition of the Piano Concerto in One Movement, based on the original manuscript copy, was first introduced in 2021 by pianist Michelle Cann and the Philadelphia Orchestra (the piece had previously been performed in a reconstructed version).

Completed in 1934, Price’s concerto combines the gestures of late 19th-century practice (including shades of Dvořák) with African-American folk idioms. It unfolds in a three-part form, with a brief, splashy orchestral introduction before the piano introduces a brooding, spiritual-like theme. The second section features the call-and-response exchanges of African-American “sorrow songs,” such as “Deep River” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The third section, a modified rondo, is based on the rhythms of a juba, the syncopated plantation dance that later anticipated ragtime. Price deploys its rhythms with joyous abandon and finesse.

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

The theme of fate plays a crucial role in Tchaikovsky’s feelings about himself, his Fourth Symphony, and two women who had important roles in his life.

The Fourth is the product of 1877, a year in which Tchaikovsky decided to marry Antonina Milyukova, a former student at the Moscow Conservatory who had written him several frantic, adoring letters. Although Tchaikovsky was not attracted to women, he had agreed to meet Milyukova with the intent of gently spurning her advances. But this only escalated the situation, and she became so persistent that she threatened suicide if he would not see her again. He hastily agreed to marriage, perhaps out of pity or guilt, but more likely as a means of hiding his homosexuality, which was illegal in Russia.

The marriage, not surprisingly, was a disaster: After some nine weeks, Tchaikovsky fled their home in Moscow for St. Petersburg, where he experienced a nervous breakdown and was ordered by doctors to recuperate in Switzerland. It was during this convalescence that he composed the final three movements of the Fourth Symphony (he also worked on Eugene Onegin, his opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel). As for the marriage, Tchaikovsky and Milyukova separated after nine weeks, but never divorced.

The other woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and admirer, who offered him an annual allowance on the condition that they never meet in person. The composer poured his soul out to von Meck in hundreds of long letters mixing confession with musical analysis. In several of these, the Fourth is described as “our symphony,” and while he initially declines to reveal a program for the work, he eventually allows that the opening brass fanfare is identified with “fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized…”

Tchaikovsky provided von Meck with more programmatic commentary, describing the first movement — with its dogged fate motif — as a portrait of loneliness, depression, and escape (“Would it not be better to turn away from reality and lull oneself in dreams?”). The second movement is said to be an expression of nostalgic melancholy (“It’s both sad yet somehow sweet to immerse yourself in the past…”), while the Scherzo third movement is a jumble of “strange, exotic, incoherent” images conjured in a state of semi-inebriation. The fourth movement presents two themes, the first feverish, the second a Russian folk tune. The fate motif bursts in briefly, but a cheerful mood reasserts itself as Tchaikovsky’s program implores one to “take happiness in the joys of others. To live is still possible!”


Program notes by Brian Wise