Unstuck 2008 | 10 mins
The composer offers these comments on Unstuck: “I have never been more stuck than I was in the winter of 2008. My writing came to a grinding halt in January and for a long time this piece languished on my desk, a mess of musical fragments that refused to cohere. It was not until the following May, when I saw a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and remembered one of its iconic sentences, that I had a breakthrough realization. The sentence was this: ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,’ and the realization was that the lack of coherence in my ideas was to be embraced and explored, not overcome. I realized that my musical materials lent themselves to a narrative arc that, like Vonnegut’s character, comes ‘unstuck’ in time. Bits and pieces of the beginning, middle, and end of the music crop up in the wrong places like the flashbacks and flashforwards that define the structure and style of Slaughterhouse-Five. I also realized that the word ‘unstuck’ had resonances with the way that a few of the piece’s musical ideas get caught in repetitive loops. The orchestra, perhaps in some way dramatizing my own frustration with composing, spends a considerable amount of time and energy trying to free itself from these moments of stuckness.”
Violin Concerto 1878 | 40 mins
This concerto's opening movement features sequences of turbulent emotion, sometimes interwoven and sometimes quick-cut with dreamy lyricism. LISTEN FOR: The Adagio is justly famous for the great oboe melody. Listen also to the winds, forming the harmonies around it that create the magically serene atmosphere. When the soloist enters with a variant of the oboe tune, violin and orchestra entwine. The effect is so enchanting that the conductor who led the Vienna premiere harrumphed that Brahms had written a concerto not for the violin but against it. The finale reveals the Gypsy in Brahms. It’s Brahms the lover of talk, Tokay, and Turkish cigarettes, the man who turned over his thoughts while arranging tin soldiers on his tabletop, the man who liked to sit on a bench in the Prater, watching the world go by.
Symphony No. 3 1928 | 35 mins
Music depicting the ravings of demonic possession, eroticized spiritualism (or spiritualized eroticism), medieval witchcraft and sorcery, and a convent of nuns whipped into mass hysteria—no, it’s not the score to a Stephen King film but Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece, The Fiery Angel. A labor of love—and great frustration—The Fiery Angel also served as the source for the composer’s Third Symphony. Prokofiev wrote that he considered this piece “to be one of my best compositions.” DID YOU KNOW? Even the tetchy composer Igor Stravinsky admired Prokofiev’s Third. By the time the work was premiered in Prokofiev’s homeland of the Soviet Union, he had come to think of it as one of his most important calling cards.”
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.