The entertaining, energetic and innovative Concerto for Jazz Piano, commissioned and premiered for SMSO in 2011, enjoys a welcome reprise with Larry Schanker again at the keyboard. An experience not to be missed!
Der Freischütz Overture, Weber
Carl Maria Von Weber was a transformative figure in the history of European music. Though he shared Beethoven’s era and was much admired by the Classical master, he possessed a quite different sensibility, one much taken with legend, folk song, superstition and the dark German forests. From these ingredients he forged an opera that electrified his countrymen from the moment of its 1921 première in Berlin, and inspired a nationalist musical movement that reached its apogee in the works of Richard Wagner.
In the composer’s words, the present work contrasts two ideas: “The life of the hunter,” (symbolized in the quartet for French horns with which the overture begins) and “The rule of the demonic powers,” (symbolized by the bassoons, low-register of clarinets, and low strings at the beginning of the allegro section). Though these and many other themes are taken directly from the opera that follows, the overture forms a completely coherent and self-sufficient work of art in its own right.
Concerto for Jazz Piano, Schanker
Program Notes by the composer:
I have always wanted to write this piece. It includes styles that are a result of a lifetime of musical influences, ranging from Oscar Peterson, to Rachmaninoff, to TV music of the 1970s, to European film music, to Ragtime and Gospel. My goal was to bring these styles into a coherent whole that would be enjoyable for the musicians to play and entertaining for the audience to listen to.
Structurally, the concerto follows a form that has been around for centuries. It is a four-movement work, with the first movement and fourth movements bookending the work in a fast tempo, the second much slower, and the third in waltz time, like the scherzo movement of countless symphonies and concertos.
The first movement begins with what is best described as cartoon music over a blues progression. The piano’s opening statement announces that this is indeed a jazz piece. The middle part of the movement is an extended section for the solo piano that capitalizes on the syncopated rhythms introduced at the beginning. In the final section the opening theme reappears with a bit of rock ‘n roll for the piano.
The second movement, after an extended improvisational introduction on the piano, moves to a traditional Brazilian bossa nova, with a winding melody on top. Each time the bridge of the tune emerges it is orchestrated differently, with the piano moving from soloist to accompanist. Finally the main theme returns in a lush register of the string section.
There are three themes that repeat in succession in the third movement. The first is a classic jazz waltz, the second is a bridge section in a minor key, and the third has a Caribbean flair and features the marimba. In the middle section of the movement, the waltz becomes ironic and is accompanied by the strings playing pizzicato. Eventually, the waltz returns and leads to an upbeat ending.
The fourth movement is written in a Gospel style, with some stride piano thrown into the mix. The low brass plays a large role in the second theme, playing in unison with the low register of the piano. The middle part of the movement is a slow, dirty shuffle, with various instruments improvising in a New Orleans style. Eventually, the main theme returns and the work concludes with a classic blues ending.
Symphony No. 7, Beethoven
Program Notes by the composer:
The Seventh Symphony, surely one of the most celebrated works of musical art every created, was premiered in 1813 at the University of Vienna as part of a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the struggle against Napoleon at the battle of Hanau. The whole concert, which also included Wellington’s Victory, or the Battle of Vitoria, was a rousing success, and was repeated three times, the Allegretto of the Symphony receiving encores at every performance. The music is notable throughout for its technique of expanding a few repeated rhythmic ideas into large-scale structures of immense power.
The first movement begins by outlining in ascending scales a series of key centers (the home key of A major, C major and F major) that will later form the tonal underpinning of the development section. At the end of this introduction, through a series of repetitions of the pitch E, the music seems somehow to ‘discover’ within itself the dance rhythm that will launch the Vivace and dominate the remainder of the movement. An analogous passage occurs in the coda, where again the pitch E (this time a pedal point in the basses) is obsessively repeated until it gives way to unleash the movement’s climactic conclusion.
The Allegretto is cast in the form of a double variation, (two themes, elaborated in alternation) with a fugato and coda. A single rhythm (this time dactylic) again pervades the whole. The composer’s absolute mastery of structural harmony is evident even in the movement’s first chord: The A minor triad with which the movement is bookended is built above the fifth scale degree (E) instead of the root pitch A. This unusual feature turns out to have dual purpose, lending a mood of uncertainly to the start of the movement, and then, conversely, a sense of inexorable logic to its end, as suddenly we find that E is the leading tone for the surprise F major exuberance with which the scherzo opens.
The presto (fast) scherzo and its contrasting (slightly slower) trio explore the opportunities for wit that are offered through expansion of the traditional ABA form into ABABA. The extra repeats allow for dynamic surprises that unfailingly delight the listener.
The finale is a whirlwind, again dominated by a single motif, and again featuring a coda built on an obsessively grinding bass E. It is difficult to imagine a more exhilarating conclusion to a symphony, an impression reinforced (literally) through Beethoven’s first use of the expression mark FFF, fortississimo!