July 27 & 28, 2023: Brahms 2 + Shostakovich

May 26, 2023

The Rhapsody of Steve Jobs (2021)

Mason Bates (b. 1977)

In the six years since Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Mason Bates’s debut opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (2017), the piece has steadily gained a foothold in the modern repertory. A debut recording from Santa Fe won a Grammy Award in 2019, and a second production is now making the rounds, with dates this year at San Francisco Opera, Calgary Opera and Utah Opera, among other companies. Bates has also woven its prismatic themes into a freewheeling orchestral opener, The Rhapsody of Steve Jobs.

A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay area, Bates was a natural fit for an opera based on the life of Steve Jobs, the hippie-turned-inventor and iconoclastic Apple CEO. In imaginative works such as Liquid Interface, Alternative Energy, and Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, Bates has melded electronica and dance beats with modern orchestral textures, bringing a certain cool factor to the concert hall. Among his current touring projects is Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra, a 25-minute concerto joined with a short film that takes audiences “inside” the instruments of an orchestra (available to watch on AppleTV and Apple Music). With a gift for stagecraft, Bates has also worked as a DJ and curator for performance series like San Francisco’s Mercury Soul and KC Jukebox at the Kennedy Center.

For The Rhapsody of Steve Jobs, Bates says he wanted to avoid a formulaic “opera suite,” and instead take a “rhapsodic approach” that interweaves the melodies with new material. The piece also mirrors the opera’s storyline, which toggles back and forth throughout the life of Jobs, including his teenage collaborations with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, his pioneering product launches, and ultimately, his premature passing. The Rhapsody begins with the opera’s opening number “One Device,” in which Jobs mesmerizes an audience at the presentation of the first iPhone. “This short motif is presented obsessively,” writes Bates, “while a bustle of instruments accumulate around it, propelling us into the Overture of the opera.”

Bates continues: “Between rondo-like reprises of the opening motif, we hear cameos of ‘Ma Bell’ (a swinging duet between Jobs and Steve Wozniak) and ‘Look Up, Look Out’ (Lauren Powell Jobs’ closing aria, which implores the audience to connect beyond devices). The coda brings us back to the opening product launch with a pulsing build of material that, like the cult-like following of Jobs himself, is both exuberant and frenetic.”

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1959 for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who memorized it in four days and gave the premiere with Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra at the Leningrad Conservatory that October.

The ties between Shostakovich and “Slava” date to the early 1940s, when the cellist was a student in Shostakovich’s orchestration class at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1948, when Stalin issued a crackdown on the Union of Soviet Composers for writing anti-proletarian, “formalist” music, Shostakovich was caught in the crosshairs and dismissed from his professorship. The 21-year-old Rostropovich quit the conservatory in protest. Then, after Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev began to relax official Soviet policy on music and art, and by 1959, Shostakovich was free from public harassment. That year he surprised Rostropovich (and most everyone else) by announcing plans for his first cello concerto.

The four-movement concerto taps the cello’s somber, introspective character while maintaining a rhythmic vitality. The orchestration is often spare, with a solo horn being the only brass part. The score is also dotted with quotations, including D-S-C-H, Shostakovich’s initials transferred to the musical notation of D, E-flat, C, B. This signature motto gives the opening motive its general shape and gradually takes flight, with the cello soaring into its high register, before gradually backing down. A robust second theme builds on the movement’s anxious, questioning tone.

The second movement is pervaded by an elegiac mood, and is notable for a spooky duet between cello and celeste, while the third movement is an extended cadenza for cello alone. The finale is a mercurial rondo featuring reminiscences of the first movement, and at one point, a snippet of the Georgian folk melody “Suliko.” This was rumored to be Stalin’s favorite tune, though here it is so fragmented that Rostropovich did not recognize it until the composer carefully pointed it out. Stalin was gone, but hardly forgotten.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

After taking some 20 years to complete his First Symphony, Brahms may have felt that he had agonized enough. In the summer of 1877, he settled in at Pörtschach, on Lake Wörth in southern Austria, and finished his Symphony No. 2 in a matter of weeks. The Second was as warmly lyrical as the First had been stormy and heroic.

Unlike Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, to which it is sometimes compared, the D Major Symphony is not a programmatic work, although it does bear the sunlit charm of its origins. Brahms had found comfortable lodgings at Schloss Leonstain (albeit in the housekeeper’s quarters), and drew inspiration from the mountain vistas, farm-to-table cuisine, and daily swims at dawn. “Pörtschach is an exquisite spot,” the 54-year-old bachelor wrote to a Viennese friend, “and I have found a lovely, and apparently pleasant abode in the castle.” That autumn, he sent the first movement to Clara Schumann, who correctly predicted that the new symphony would be more popular than his First. At its Vienna premiere in December, the third movement was immediately encored, and within a year there were performances throughout Germany.

The Second Symphony is a concentrated work beginning with a three-note motive, presented softly in the low strings, and joined by an equally simple horn melody. It is the seed from which later themes grow, both stately and tender. The Adagio movement is dominated by a mellow beauty, while the third movement combines a rustic lilt with rhythmic sophistication — a departure from the driven scherzos of the day. The finale has the high spirits of a Haydn symphony; earlier themes are recalled in the inexorable drive to the blazing coda. If Brahms let his hair down in Pörtschach, he remained a structural-minded composer, tightly integrating the four movements of this radiant symphony.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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