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Program Notes - March 8, 1998 Concert

Max Derrickson

Piano Concerto #1 in E-minor, Op. 11

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Frederic Chopin composed his Piano Concerto in E-minor, Op. 11 in Warsaw in 1830 at the age of 20. Though it was published as his first concerto, it is really his second, as the F-minor concerto was composed slightly earlier (1829-1830). The romantic concerti and a set of variations for piano and orchestra were written chiefly to gain notoriety as a composer; seldom, in Chopin's day, were composers championed outside the orchestral realm.

The E-minor concerto is structured basically in classical sonata form, but musicologist Donald Tovey more accurately described it as a "departure and return". Chopin's compositional gifts lie mainly in his highly expressive, harmonically romantic writing. Both concerti reflect Romantic era trends with a high degree of ornamentation and virtuosity, and their third movement finales draw on themes from Polish folk music. Chopin's concerti have delighted audiences with their dynamic flourishes as well as their grace and charm.

Frederyk Franciszek Chopin (he soon abandoned this original Polish spelling for the French) was born near Warsaw in 1810. By the age of six, he was mastering the piano on his own. His talents were so instinctive and remarkable, that even through four years of private study, Chopin was considered to have taught himself, and was quickly expected to become ``Mozart's successor''. By his twentieth year, and after several successful concert debuts home and abroad, Chopin was searching to further the financial return on his career. And although Poland was divining him as its national composer, financial support was scant. Thus, Chopin set out for `` England by way of Paris'' to seek his fortune.

By way of Paris became Paris and no farther. Chopin's reputation preceded him, especially garnished by Robert Schumann's unequivocal endorsement of him as a genius. Parisian Romantic culture and its elite circles appealed to Chopin, as did the female author George Sand. He quickly found fame, fortune, romance, and a comfortable place for himself in Paris.

Though not particularly prolific, Chopin added many greatly cherished masterpieces to the solo piano repertoire. His adventurous harmonic innovations held great influence over subsequent composers such as Debussy and Wagner.

An extraordinary pianist and improviser, Chopin chose to abandon his concertizing early in his life,even shying away from private social playing. Tragically, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 39 in 1849.


Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991)

Harmony: A Poem for Chamber Orchestra by Andrzej Panufnik was commissioned by the 92nd Street Y Performing Arts Division in New York in celebration of Panufnik's 75th birthday. It was premiered in 1989 under the composer's baton.

Panufnik said of Harmony that the basic motifs were based on 2 three note cells (groups of notes and phrase). The piece consists of dialogues between strings and woodwinds until they are eventually merged into one voice. The title Harmony refers to ``vertical sound (harmony based on 8 and 9 note scales); horizontal sound (melodic harmonious use of meters 3/4 and 4/4); and the balance of orchestral color''. Panufnik also believed that in Harmony, he had compositionally achieved something completely original.

Born in Warsaw to a respected violin maker and theorist (father) ane a violinist (mother), Panufnik grew into a lifelong passion for music. Having completed study at the Warsaw Conservatory and briefly in Vienna for conducting, he rather quickly established wide recognition as a composer and conductor throughout Europe, especially in Poland. But by 1953, Panufnik was at last so confounded by Stalinism's artistic stiflement, he made a daring escape to England. He vowed never to return and became a naturalized British citizen. As an expatriate, his travels led him to the United States to briefly conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Alabama from 1957-1959.

Panufnik's method of composition grew out of his dissatisfaction with Arnold Schoenberg's serialism (dodecaphonics). Panufnik believed that ultimate beauty and unity in music grew out of restriction and simplicity, which led him to experiment with Schoenberg's methods. The result for Panufnik, though, led to entire compositions built on 2, 3, or 4 note cells. This technique, however, can produce a very static harmonic and linear progression. To Panufnik, the technique simply presented a challenge, not a sacrifice of elements. The self-imposed restriction of such a limited amount of material offers a cleansing and rarefication for compositions, leading to more harmonious unity and closely magnified, intensified beauty. Panufnik's masterfulness at this method is very evident in Harmony, which moves forward with dense beauty.

The musicologist Boguslaw Schaffer said of Panufnik, `` His work is proof that expressive power and richness of sonority are not inconsistent with an admiring approval of the (Pope's) principle, `` 'Order is Heav'n's first law.' ''

An American in Paris

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin intended his tone poem, or rhapsodic ballet, An American in Paris, to be only impressionistic glimpses of Paris. He did offer though a few hints of a program:

``An American is strolling through (Paris) (the introductory Allegretto grazioso, the ``promenade theme'' which accompanies him from sight to sight). He hurls himself into the traffic chaos of the city (taxi horns); he hears a popular old favorite (``La Sorella'' -- played by trombones) in an ``establishment''; he has nostalgic thoughts of home in a cafe and gets the `blues' (blues tune in trumpets -- Andante ma con ritmo deciso); then, he is cheered up by a Charleston (Allegro) and once again finds pleasure in the hustle and bustle of Parisian life''

Russian immigrants to Brooklyn, the Gershwins gave birth to George in 1898. At age 11, George Gershwin learned to play the piano and before long was studying music with a host of important teachers, including Henry Cowell. At age 16, however, Gershwin quit his studies and school and went to work as a song-plugger (writer) for Remick's, a Tin-Pan-Alley publisher. His first great success was ``Swanee (1919)'' which sold thousands of records as performed by Al Jolson, and Gershwin's fame as a composer began to grow.

The famous jazz band director Paul Whiteman persuaded Gershwin to write a jazz piece for orchestra as a publicity stunt. Whiteman believed that the stiff concert hall/classical music crowd would accept jazz if it were dressed up in symphonic clothes. The result was Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and was hailed as epic making and the introduction of ``jazz into the concert hall'', to which import Gershwin has since been attributed. The success led to further commissions and ``serious'' compositions, such as An American in Paris.

As a tone poem, An American in Paris (1928) was an ambitious 20 minute work for Gershwin, as well as his first major attempt at orchestrating (Whiteman's staff arranger, Ferde Grofe, orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue).

Structurally, the work finds its form in its vague program of a wandering through Paris. Musically, An American in Paris is hallmark Gershwin, with its irresistably danceable tunes, energy, and infectious rhthyms, and its beautiful and rich harmonies. To say the least, it is an American classic.

In 1935, Gershwin fulfilled a long standing dream to compose and premiere ``Porgy and Bess''. It is generally considered his masterpiece. Two years later, at the height of his career, Gershwin suffered from dizzy spells. He died one month later during an operation to remove a brain tumor at the age of 38.