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New exploration of a familiar rhythm: U.S. premiere of Jörg Widmann's Trauermarsch

June 20, 2016


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Pianist Yefim Bronfman with composer Jörg Widmann, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic following the world premiere of Trauermarsch in 2014 (© Frank Schinski)


What happens when a piano concerto meets a funeral march? Clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann explores the genre through the filter of the iconic rhythm with his Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra, which will have its United States premiere this month with the San Francisco Symphony. The work was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Hear Yefim Bronfman perform Widmann's Trauermarsch, plus MTT conducting C.P.E. Bach's Symphony No. 1 and Brahms's Symphony No. 1, June 23-25 at Davies Symphony Hall. Get tickets at sfsymphony.org

It was the instantly recognizable, solemn, dum-dum-dah-dum rhythm of a funeral march that became the object of Widmann’s obsession as he began working. He originally had a traditional four-movement concerto in mind, but things changed. 

“I was originally convinced that the opening funeral march would just be a short introduction to a large-scale allegro first movement,” he reflected during a recent conversation. “But, at some point it was obvious to me to give up the four-movement idea in favor of one large-scale, slow funeral march movement because as I continued to write I got more and more obsessed with the funeral march’s rhythm.”

It is the rhythm that has embedded its place in our popular culture and become a part of our collective  consciousness through very different venues — everything from John F. Kennedy’s funeral to Saturday morning cartoons. Depending on your age, you may have very different associations with the rhythm, or perhaps none at all.

Widmann-by-Marco-Borggreve.jpg“My piece is an exploration of whether this rhythm is still valid for us today,” explained Widmann. 

Trauermarsch had its world premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle on December 20, 2014. It runs the gamut from clashing dissonances to melancholic lyrical beauty, to alien sounds produced through extended techniques, reflecting the emotional disarray inflicted by a death.

For the pianist it requires exceptional emotional and physical stamina, because — unlike a traditional concerto — the soloist plays with and against the orchestra for all but a few bars.
 

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Written specifically for the renowned pianist Yefim Bronfman, who also premiered the work, Widmann remarked, “It was a great honor and pleasure to write the solo part for Yefim. Over the years he became a true friend and one of my favorite chamber music partners. He also premiered one of my piano cycles at Carnegie Hall. It was very special to write for his powerful and yet very subtle and at times fragile playing. You can feel that the piece is written for him from the opening bars. After its premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic it is a great honor for me that a fantastic orchestra like the San Francisco Symphony and maestro Michael Tilson Thomas will play the American premiere of Trauermarsch.”

By Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot
 

If You Go:

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony performing the North American premiere of Jörg Widmann's Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra with pianist Yefim Bronfman, C.P.E. Bach's Symphony No. 1 and Brahms's Symphony No. 1, 8 pm June 23, 24 and 25. Davies Symphony Hall, (415) 864-6000, sfsymphony.org