Programs

February 8th, 2018 at 1:30 pm

CHING-YUN HU, piano

PROGRAM

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

            Etudes-Tableaux Op. 39 (Complete)

                    –    No. 1 in C Minor  Allegro agitato

                    –    No. 2 in A Minor  Lento assai

                    –    No. 3 in F-sharp Minor  Allegro molto

                    –    No. 4 in B Minor  Allegro assai

                    –   No. 5 in E-flat Minor  Appassionato

                    –   No. 6 in A Minor  Allegro

                    –   No. 7 in C Minor  Lento lugubre

                   –    No. 8 in D Minor  Allegro moderato

                  –     No. 9 in D Major  Allegro moderato: Tempo di marcia 

INTERMISSION

Earl Wild (1915 – 2010)

            Seven Virtuosic Etudes on Gershwin Songs (Selections)

                           –  Embraceable You (East is West, 1929)

                            –  Fascinatin’ Rhythm (Lady, Be Good!, 1924)

                            –  I Got Rhythm (Girl Crazy, 1930)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)

Le Festin d’Esope Op. 39 No. 12, from Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineurs

Nicolai Kapustin (b. 1937)

Eight Concert Etudes for Piano Op. 40 (Selections)

    –   No. 6 in B-flat Major “Pastorale”

                        –   No. 7 in D-flat Major “Intermezzo”

                        –   No. 8 in F Minor “Finale”

 

PROGRAM NOTES

Rachmaninoff: Etudes Tableaux Op. 39 (complete)

Rachmaninoff’s formidable keyboard technique was facilitated by his famously gigantic hands: he could play the chord C-Eb-G-C-G—all notes at once—with his left hand.  He was possibly six feet six inches tall (reports vary) and may have suffered from Marfan syndrome, the hereditary connective tissue disorder said to have afflicted Abraham Lincoln.  This would account for the back pain, arthritis, eye strain and fingertip bruising he suffered throughout his life, though some have suggested these ailments were caused merely by playing the piano all day long.

Although he is often considered a Romantic composer, Rachmaninoff reveals himself in his works as a far more complex writer.  In his own words, “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, a Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else.  I write down on paper the music I hear within me.”  The Etudes Tableaux Op. 39 [Scenic Studies] were written in 1916-17, the composer’s last work before leaving his native Russia to immigrate to the US.  Though their title might suggest otherwise, the composer remarked, “I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of his images.  Let [the listeners] paint for themselves what [the music] most suggests.”  Much later, when Serge Koussevitzky in 1929 asked Respighi to transcribe five of the Etudes (from Op. 39 and an earlier set, Op. 33) for the Boston Symphony, Rachmaninoff did supply programmatic titles, which now seem to some critics “contrived, full of post hoc justification, and not entirely appropriate” (Robert Matthew-Walter).

Critical respect for Rachmaninoff’s compositions (his virtuoso keyboard credits were never in doubt) would be delayed until long after his death in 1943.  The 1954 edition of Grove’s venerable Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismisses his music as “monotonous in texture … consisting mainly of artificial and gushing tunes.”  To his great credit, NY Times critic Harold Schonberg denounced this appraisal at the time as “one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference.”

Wild: Seven Virtuosic Etudes on Gershwin Songs (selections)

The American pianist Earl Wild lived to age 95, his life encompassing a remarkable career filled with “firsts.”  Critic Harold Schonberg called him a “super-virtuoso in the Horowitz class,” and he was an equally gifted composer and transcriber.

At 16 he was invited to the White House to perform for Herbert Hoover, and he returned to play for five more presidents (FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson).  Still in his teens, he was hired as keyboardist by the Pittsburgh Symphony, under the batons of Otto Klemperer and Fritz Reiner.  In 1937 he became staff pianist for the fabled NBC Symphony, and two years later was the first pianist to perform a recital on US television. (He later recalled that the studio lights were so hot the ivory piano keys began to warp.)  In 1942 Arturo Toscanini invited him to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, bringing him instant widespread fame.  During World War II, while serving in the Navy, he frequently accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt on tour, performing the national anthem before her speeches.  His extraordinary lasting power as a soloist was on full display in an 85th birthday recital at Carnegie Hall, and in his final recital at age 95, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

In addition to a number of original compositions, Wild produced many highly regarded transcriptions for solo piano.  He was especially inspired by the music of George Gershwin, and his Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Popular Songs are all based on Gershwin works.  As the writer Lucy Miller Murray notes, “The virtuosic demands made in Wild’s Etudes are incredible … and address almost every piano technique known to the best players.  [But] beyond their technical demands, they are delicious pieces to savor.” 

Alkan: Le Festin d’Esope Op. 39 No. 12

Like his good friends and fellow Parisians Chopin and Liszt, Charles-Valentin Alkan was known during his lifetime both as composer and virtuoso pianist. Alkan was descended from a long-established Jewish Ashkenazic community near Metz, in northeastern France.  His father was a musician who established a private music school in the Marais district of Paris. Many of his students successfully matriculated to the prestigious Paris Conservatory.   

A child prodigy, Alkan was enrolled at the Conservatory at 5 years of age, and just two years later was awarded a Premier Prix in piano.  He produced his first composition at 14. By age 25 he had taken the French capital by storm, giving frequent recitals and successfully publishing his own music, almost exclusively for the piano. At a concert in March 1838, appearing with Chopin and two other pianists, he performed his transcription for two pianos, EIGHT hands, of two movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Little is known of Alkan’s personal life, lived mostly in self-imposed obscurity.  He may have suffered from Asperger’s.  But what is certain is that he spent a great deal of time studying the Bible and the Talmud.  He completed a full translation into French of both the Old and New Testaments, and he was fluent in both Hebrew and Greek.  According to persistent but unverified rumor, his death at 74 was caused by a large toppled bookcase, purportedly as Alkan reached to a high shelf for a volume of the Talmud.  His music was largely neglected following his demise, but since the mid-20th century Alkan has enjoyed considerable renewed popularity.

Le Festin d’Esope [Aesop’s Feast] is the last of Alkan’s Op. 39 Twelve Studies in all the Minor Keys.  The title concerns the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Xanthus, who invited the leading philosophers of Greece to a feast.  He asked his clever slave (and fable creator) Aesop to design the meal.  When Xanthus saw that every dish was some form of tongue, he angrily demanded an explanation.  Aesop replied, “As the tongue is the key that leads to all knowledge, what could be more suitable than a feast of tongues for philosophers?”

Kapustin: Eight Concert Etudes for Piano Op. 40 (selections)

Born in eastern Ukraine, Nicolai Kapustin is a Russian composer and pianist.  He is a 1961 graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, where his teacher was the legendary Alexander Goldenweiser, a student of Arensky and Ippolitov-Ivanov, and a contemporary of Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Medtner.  Kapustin became an accomplished piano virtuoso, and seemed destined for a career as a solo performer.  But he began to struggle appearing before an audience, and eventually turned his full attention to composing.

Previously, during the 1950s, Kapustin had become interested in western jazz, prohibited in Russia before the death of Stalin in 1953.  For several years, Kapustin lived in the home of a Russian-American film director in Moscow, where he was introduced to the radio station “Voice of America.” He was excited to discover the likes of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Nat “King” Cole.  Kapustin organized his own jazz quintet, joined Yuri Saulsky’s Big Band and, later, the Oleg Lundstrem Big Band.

Kapustin has said, “I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing.  I’m not interested in improvisation—and what is a jazz musician without improvisation?  All my improvisation is written, of course, and it became much better.”  Fusing jazz idioms with classical forms, Kapustin has produced an impressive body of work.  Besides multiple pieces for keyboard, he has written several concertos, piano trios, string quartets, a piano quintet, as well as compositions for orchestra and big band.  In recent years he has lived in his Moscow flat with his wife Alla, who reports that his time is spent in constant composition.  He never leaves the flat except to go to his summer house 100 kilometers to the south, where he continues to write non-stop.  He believes he will never stop composing.

—  Rosemary Waller

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