Program Notes: Climbing Tomorrow

April 19, 2020

April 19, 2020
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts

Three outsiders, representing three different centuries and cultures, affirm the limitless possibilities of music: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, composed amid a period of personal anguish, traces a journey from despair to hope; In Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, a young Jewish-American songwriter tests his mettle on the home turf of Mozart and Beethoven; With her recent orchestral score, Climbing Tomorrow, the Korean-born composer HyeKyung Lee engages with the aspirations of the future-you, seeking something higher…

Climbing Tomorrow

Born 1959 in Seoul, Korea

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (temple blocks, cowbells, triangle, glass wind chime, xylophone, conga drums, vibraphone, wood blocks, snare drum, tom-toms, marimba, brake drum), piano, harp and strings.

Duration: Approximately 17 minutes

Composed: 2018

First Performance: July 21, 2018 in Greensboro, North Carolina

Origins: An accomplished composer and pianist, HyeKyung Lee began her musical studies in her native Korea, and she went on to earn her doctorate in composition from the University of Texas at Austin. She now teaches composition at Denison University in Ohio. Climbing Tomorrow was commissioned by Ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter for the Eastern Music Festival, where Maestro Gerard Schwarz conducted the world premiere in 2018.

Note from the Composer:

The piece is an abstract evocation of the contrasts between you-in-the-present (comfortable) and you-in-the-future (seeking something higher). The struggle between these is sometimes direct, with more tension, and sometimes indirect, without tension. Beginning with a calm melody over a shimmer of strings and harp, the aspiration of driving, agitated, repeated sixteenth-notes and the tension between quarter-notes continually grows and changes shape. The striving between these sections is sometimes connected by long held notes, and sometimes is abrupt. The perpetual motion between harp, piano, and percussion keeps the piece constantly moving forward until it reaches an outburst of unison rhythm, only to conclude with more yearning. –HyeKyung Lee

Piano Concerto in F

Born September 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York
Died July 11, 1937 in Hollywood, California

Instrumentation: solo piano with 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, xylophone, snare drum, wood block, whip, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle and gong) and strings

Duration: Approximately 31 minutes

Composed: 1925

First Performance: December 3, 1925 in New York

Origins: George Gershwin, already a top songwriter at the age of 25, made his first real splash in the world of “serious” music with Rhapsody in Blue. Among the spectators at that work’s debut was Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, who was so impressed that he immediately invited Gershwin to compose a true concerto. Gershwin himself understood that Rhapsody in Blue was insufficient to establish his classical credentials; he wrote, “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I wanted to show that there was plenty more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of ‘absolute’ music.” The concerto’s gestation was much more arduous than that of Rhapsody in Blue (which took less than a month to draft), not least because Gershwin endeavored to teach himself the art of orchestration, rather than bringing in an arranger as he had for the previous score.

Notes to Notice:

I. Allegro. The Concerto in F successfully masks any discomfort Gershwin may have had with venturing so deep into territory staked out by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. The opening tutti section, with its juxtaposition of bombastic timpani and syncopated dance rhythms reminiscent of “The Charleston,” establishes the duality that runs throughout the score. Offsetting that first orchestral flurry, the piano arrives with a cadenza that teases out a slow and sultry response.

II. Adagio — Andante con moto. The middle movement calls out a trumpet to present the lazy melody, colored with characteristic “blue” notes and backed up by a chorus of clarinets. (The instruction for the trumpet to play into a “hat with felt crown” when it returns takes a page from the jazz trumpeter King Oliver, who popularized the sound of a derby hat used as a mute.) The piano responds with a sassy theme propelled forward by strummed chords from the strings, mimicking a jazz guitar or banjo.

III. Allegro agitato. The brisk Rondo finale plays up the virtuosic gesture of repeated notes on the piano. Echoes of earlier music bring the work full circle until a final barrage from the timpani sets up the swelling cadence.

Symphony №4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Born May 7, 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum) and strings

Duration: Approximately 44 minutes

Composed: 1878

First Performance: February 22, 1878 in Moscow

Origins: Tchaikovsky began his Symphony №4 in 1877, during the build-up to his disastrous marriage to a former student. A sensitive soul who was racked with insecurity at the best of times, Tchaikovsky had an especially hard time as a closeted gay man in an intolerant society, and he only lasted three months in his sham marriage, during which time he made the suicidal gesture of wading into the frigid Moscow River, followed by a nervous breakdown and two weeks spent unconscious in Saint Petersburg. This tumultuous period provided the backdrop for a massive symphony obsessed with “Fate, the inexorable power that hampers our search for happiness,” as Tchaikovsky described it in a letter to his patron.

Notes to Notice:

I. Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima. Following the model of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “fate” motto announces itself at the beginning. Whereas Beethoven subjected his initial kernel to continual variation, Tchaikovsky reserved his motto for carefully timed reprisals, snapping listeners back to awareness of fate’s inescapable force. After the slow introduction, the substantial first movement takes up a searing new melody full of tense descents.

II. Andantino in modo di canzona. Tchaikovsky’s Italian tempo heading indicates that this music, moving at a gentle walking pace, is constructed in the manner of a song. A solo oboe delivers the first statement of the innocent, folk-like theme.

III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato (Allegro). This fast and kinetic Scherzo is a study on the string technique of plucking, or pizzicato.

IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco. Again observing the model of Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s minor-key “fate” symphony closes with a finale in the affirmative major key. The movement quotes a Russian folk song, “In the Meadow there Stood a Birch Tree,” building increasing urgency until a return of the dramatic “fate” theme. A return of the fiery music from the start of the movement burns away any lingering uncertainty, and the symphony ends triumphantly.

© 2019 Aaron Grad.

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