Inna Faliks Plays Mozart
Saturday, February 8, 2020 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
BELA BARTOK (1881-1945)
CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA
PREMIERED: BOSTON, MA, 1944
Bartok’s time in the United States was not happy; from the day he arrived in 1940, he was plagued with chronic shortage of money, difficulties in his marriage (to a far younger woman), and a slow crumbling of his health. After he collapsed while giving a lecture on folk music at Harvard, the University insisted on paying for him to go to hospital. He was told he had tuberculosis; his wife Ditta was told the truth – he had leukemia. However, a surprise visit in the hospital from Serge Kousssevitzky brought what Bartok became convinced was a cure - a commission for a new orchestral work. This was actually paid for by his friends Fritz Reiner and Josef Szigeti, but no-one dared tell him; he would have dismissed it as charity. He wrote: “Through working on this, I have discovered the wonder drug I needed to bring about my own cure.” He died a year after the premiere.
The Concerto is far more approachable than much of Bartok’s music, and is easily his most popular work. Why “Concerto,” when there are no apparent soloists? Bartok again: “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner.”
The work has many features of a true symphony: the first and last movements are in straightforward sonata form, with the Concerto’s sad, dark heart lying in the slow third movement. It can also be read, with perhaps unconscious irony, as a journey from the slightly grim first movement to the joyous dance of the finale. The opening movement opens as a nocturne, the product of Bartok’s many nights spent collecting insects, before erupting into a stern allegro with occasional retreats into the night. The second movement, titled Giuco delle copie (Game of Pairs) pits pairs of instruments against a slightly weird March of the Wooden Soldiers rhythm; as close as Bartok ever gets to “humor” in the normal sense. The central Elegia speaks for its unhappy self: Bartok, perhaps, seeing through his own optimism. The Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted Intermezzo) includes the closest Bartok ever came to a “big tune,” an almost Elgarian hymn twisted only slightly by its Hungarian meter changes, but repeatedly interrupted by a savage dig at Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, then enjoying what Bartok considered entirely undeserved success in the United States. The finale is all bustle and folksong-inspired frivolity, but Bartok was not a composer who “did” frivolity; a picture postcard of Budapest that he sent to a friend had, on close inspection, tiny paratroopers drawn on it – and this movement is not all fun, either.
EDWARD K. (“DUKE”) ELLINGTON (1899-1974)
LES TROIS ROIS NOIRS (THE THREE BLACK KINGS), Ballet for Orchestra
I King of the Magi
II King Solomon
III Martin Luther King
Premiered: New York, 1976
The great (if insane) Australian composer Percy Grainger once told Duke Ellington that his music resembled that of Grainger’s friend Frederick Delius, and that he should take himself more seriously. Delius? Maybe not, but Ellington went on to take up where Gershwin had left off uniting the worlds of jazz and “serious” music (an idea he hated – he once said “I don’t believe in categories of any kind”). By the end of his long career, Ellington had written two operas, several concertos and a dazzling array of works that were neither jazz nor “classical” – they were just Ellington.
Les Trois Rois Noirs was intended as an elegy for the fallen Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1969; the work took its form and inspiration from the stained-glass window of the Three Kings in Barcelona’s Cathedral del Mar, which Ellington visited in 1970.
Ellington, like many composers, was subject to various superstitions governing how his music was written; one was that he never added the last notes of a piece until the day of the performance. Alas, the composer’s death prevented him from completing Les Trois Rois Noirs for himself; it was completed by his son Mercer, then edited and collated into its present form by Luther Henderson and Marcel Peress.
Three phases of Black history are represented. The first movement, Balthazar, evokes what Mercer Ellington calls “primitivity” with its insistent drumming; King Solomon evokes not only the power of the King but his celebrated erotic exploits, while a Gospel-tinged dirge for Dr. King points not only to the tragedy of Dr. King’s death but his all-important, quintessential “Dream”.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1759 – 1792)
PIANO CONCERTO in D Minor, K. 466
PREMIERED: Vienna, 1785
III: Allegro assai; alla breve
This curiously dark work is one of only two of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti to be written in a minor key. That the first performance could barely be heard over the background noise in the Mehlgrube Casino probably contributed to the gloom, as did the fact that Mozart had barely finished it when he took his seat at the piano. The premiere was, in fact, a scramble. As his father wrote to his daughter Nannerl:
I heard an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work when we got there, and your brother didn't even have time to play through the rondo because he had to oversee the copying operation.
Mozart conducted frantically from the keyboard, nodding occasionally to the terrified concertmaster, whose suspicion that the only full score was still in Mozart´s head was entirely justified. There would be similar scenes nearly 150 years later, as George Gershwin nodded to Paul Whiteman to tell him the (improvised!) piano solo sections were about to end during the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Mozart’s audience consisted of what his obsessively class-conscious father called “a vast concourse of people of rank,” hovering between his son’s music and the gaming tables. Only the previous evening, Joseph Haydn had told Leopold that Wolfgang was “the greatest composer known to me, either personally or be reputation,” yet here he was now, struggling for attention.
A month earlier, the Mehlgrube’s star attraction had been the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis (for whom Mozart wrote a concerto); the month before, there had been a conjurer. As always, the composer’s social standing teetered between very shaky popular adulation and the wow-but-so-what feeling that now (briefly) meets the denizens of American Idol. This hovering between the worlds of the courtly flunky and popular stardom (no problem at all for musicians only fifty years later) was an important factor in his ultimate impoverishment and early death. It’s therefore all the more surprising that Mozart chose an occasion like this to launch one of his darkest, most searching works.
The first movement opens with – no, not the first subject of the inevitable sonata form opener. Instead, we hear motifs – fragments that together add up to thematic material, an astonishing foreshadowing of the gigantic mosaics of Wagner, set over nagging, syncopated string chords. Instead of the usual setting out of the structural shop that we expect at the opening of a Classical concerto, we instead are offered what can only be called mood-setting. It is only when the piano enters that our old friends A and B become clearly audible. There would be nothing like this again until the concertos of Beethoven, who revered this work and played it in public several times. Indeed, it is Beethoven’s cadenzas that we are hearing this evening in the first and last movements.
Like Beethoven after him, Mozart often carried out his more outrageous formal experiments in his slow movements, and this concerto has a vivid example in its rondo structure - easily the least likely form to be expected here (not least because this movement is followed by another one). Even less likely is the dramatic lurch into G minor towards the end. Beethoven would often challenge himself (and us) with sudden plunges into distant keys, as though daring himself to find a way home; he may well have been inspired by Mozart’s leap into the tonal darkness here. The music is always civilized and precise, of course (it’s Mozart, after all), but there are the faintest cracks and shadows in the porcelain. Nor should we forget that Mozart reserved his darkest thoughts (think of the fortieth symphony) for the key of G minor.
The Finale is the rondo we might expect – but, once again, G minor lurks in the tonal forest. It is not hard to believe that Mozart looked at that Casino audience and saw, not the career-saving Fairy Godfather that his father saw that day, but the Wolf. The concerto’s optimistic D major ending barely dissipates the darkness. Only seven years later, Mozart would be in an unmarked grave barely ten blocks from the Casino.
About the Concert
A concerto usually features the virtuosity of a single performer, and we are thrilled to welcome back Inna Faliks for Mozart's dramatic concerto! Bartok's 20th-century masterpiece is a concerto not only for a single soloist but for the entire orchestra. It was the first of its kind since the virtuosity of the whole orchestra - including each section - is on display.
Duke Ellington's last major work is a jazzy ballet inspired by three black kings: Balthazar, King of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington's friend, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Free pre-concert lecture at 6:30pm!