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2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, a composer who casts a long shadow over music—challenging, inspiring, haunting, and setting the bar for generations to come. Presented here by the renowned Beethoven virtuoso Emanuel Ax, we hear some of the earliest-known music by the composer, the Piano Concerto No. 2. Fronting a heightened sense of drama, Beethoven would become a beacon to Richard Wagner, who then pushed music’s harmonic language into a new realm—one which paved the way for Alban Berg. A signature piece for Michael Tilson Thomas, Berg’s spellbinding Three Pieces for Orchestra is a revival of recent performances issued on the Orchestra’s in-house label, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning SFS Media. Opening the program is the West Coast premiere of Fountain of Youth, an SFS Co-commission by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Julia Wolfe, famed for her melding of folk, rock, and classical idioms.
Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra
At a Glance
Fountain of Youth 2019 | 12 mins
Julia Wolfe has become known for serious works on weighty topics but for this new work, she and Michael Tilson Thomas decided instead to focus on “serious fun.” Wolfe writes: “People have searched for the fountain of youth for thousands of years. The thought was that if you bathed in or drank from the fountain of youth you would be transformed, rejuvenated. My fountain of youth is music, and in this case I offer the orchestra a sassy, rhythmic, high energy swim.” —Read More
Piano Concerto No. 2 1795 | 29 mins | after notes by James M. Keller
Anyone writing a piano concerto in Vienna in the 1790s did so in the shadow of Mozart. The twenty-something Beethoven, just starting to make his mark in Vienna, knew Mozart’s concertos intimately, and we hear that in this early work: the orchestra is of mid-Classical dimensions; the structure adheres to the Mozartian norm of three movements in a fast–slow–fast plan; and, following Mozart’s example, the piano and orchestra are treated as equals. Nevertheless, even in this early work—the first full-length orchestral piece Beethoven ever wrote—we find the fingerprints of a distinct talent.—Read More
Siegfried Idyll 1870 | 17 mins | J.M.K.
Richard Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll in 1870 specifically as a birthday present for his new wife, Cosima, and secondarily to celebrate the birth of their son Siegfried and the near-completion of his opera Siegfried. He positioned fifteen musicians on the staircase of their home in Switzerland, and the strains of this piece served as a birthday wake-up for Cosima, who was ecstatic. She wrote in her diary: “‘Now let me die,’ I exclaimed to [Richard]. ‘It would be easier to die for me than to live for me,’ he replied.” The notoriously difficult composer’s remark was probably on target, but at least his musical birthday greeting was a lovely gesture.—Read More
Three Pieces for Orchestra 1929 | 19 mins | J.M.K.
In his correspondence with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg expressed frustration at the difficulty he encountered while creating his Three Pieces for Orchestra. He composed them over the course of two years, just as World War I was breaking out, but he didn’t manage to have the three movements premiered as a set until 1930. Berg here incorporates what he had learned during his seven years as Schoenberg’s pupil, but Gustav Mahler looms as no less an influence. It is as if Berg took Mahler’s symphonies as a jumping-off point and pressed daringly into an increasingly atonal future, packing an immense emotional punch into the set.—Read More