Alisa Weilerstein Plays Schumann program notes

Thursday, August 12, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Higdon: blue cathedral

Schumann: Concerto in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 129

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)

blue cathedral

Composed: 1999
Instrumentation: 2 flutes with 2nd doubling piccolo, 1 oboe and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (crotales, marimba, tam-tam, vibraphone, glockenspiel, belltree, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, chimes, bass drum, tomtom, triangle), harp, piano doubling celeste, and strings. In addition, the score calls for 8 crystal water glasses played by the brass musicians and 60 Chinese bells played by most of the orchestra. It also requires that the piano be “prepared” with 2 screws in the strings for the last 7 bars of the piece.

Tonight’s program begins with one of the best-known works by prolific American composer Jennifer Higdon. Her official publisher’s biography reads:

Jennifer Higdon is one of American’s most acclaimed figures in contemporary classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto, a 2018 Grammy for her Viola Concerto and, most recently, a 2020 Grammy for her Harp Concerto. In 2018, Higdon received the prestigious Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University, which is awarded to contemporary classical composers of exceptional achievement who have significantly influenced the field of composition. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and blue cathedral is today’s most performed contemporary orchestral work, with more than 650 performances worldwide. Her works have been recorded on more than 70 CDs. Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere and the opera recording was nominated for two Grammy Awards. She holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

The success of Cold Mountain spurred the composition of her second opera, Woman With Eyes Closed, which is slated for its COVID-delayed premiere this fall in Philadelphia. Higdon’s sound is distinctly American, though it may be difficult to say precisely how. There is an openness and a directness to its mode of communication, expressed through its well-defined rhythms and sturdy harmonic palette, that seem to harken back to Copland. There is also an exuberant, intricate optimism in much of her music that resonates with audiences: she is able to speak to listeners directly without ever talking down to them.

Higdon provides the following note on blue cathedral:

Blue…like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals…a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression…serving as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. As I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church. In my mind’s eye the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows’ figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising towards an immense ceiling which would open to the sky… As this journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward. I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music.

These were my thoughts when The Curtis Institute of Music commissioned me to write a work to commemorate its 75th anniversary. Curtis is a house of knowledge—a place to reach towards that beautiful expression of the soul which comes through music. I began writing this piece at a unique juncture in my life and found myself pondering the question of what makes a life. The recent loss of my younger brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make in our lives, crossing paths with so many individuals singularly and collectively, learning and growing each step of the way. This piece represents the expression of the individual and the group…our inner travels and the places our souls carry us, the lessons we learn, and the growth we experience. In tribute to my brother, I feature solos for the clarinet (the instrument he played) and the flute (the instrument I play). Because I am the older sibling, it is the flute that appears first in this dialogue. At the end of the work, the two instruments continue their dialogue, but it is the flute that drops out and the clarinet that continues on in the upward progressing journey. This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life. This work was commissioned and premiered in 2000 by the Curtis Institute of Music.

The piece can be divided into four sections. The first gradually builds up a warm bed of sound, especially rich in the string timbre, over which the flute and clarinet enter. After reaching a climax, the texture thins for the second section, a contemplative moment as fragments of motives are passed around individual instruments in the orchestra. Again, this music blossoms, culminating in the martial beginning of the third section, which gives way to an energetic brass chorale that is picked up by the strings. A fantastic climax envelops us in sound. The texture dies away, leaving us with the touching flute and clarinet duet of the fourth section. The clarinet rises to the heavens accompanied by Chinese reflex bells and the shimmering vibrations of water-filled wine glasses.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Concerto in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 129

Composed: 1850
Instrumentation: Solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

All of Schumann’s major works for cello come from a period late in his lifetime, just before his mental anguish began to send his life into a spiraling descent. In 1849, he wrote Five Pieces in Folk Style for cello and piano, as well as his Fantasiestücke (Op. 73) and Adagio and Allegro (Op. 70) for piano with clarinet and horn respectively, both of which he specified could use cello as an alternative. The Cello Concerto was written in a span of two weeks in October 1850 when he had other things on his mind. He and his family had relocated to Düsseldorf from Dresden in September, where he was to assume his much-coveted salaried position as municipal music director. It was a position once held by Mendelssohn, which helps explain the inclusion of his predecessor’s G minor Piano Concerto on the program of his first concert with the orchestra in Düsseldorf in October, with his wife Clara (whose arrival was anticipated as excitedly as Robert’s) as soloist. This highly praised performance took place on the very same day he completed the first draft of the concerto score. Schumann continued to revise the score for at least three years, perhaps as a form of self-medication; Clara noted that the work seemed to calm his mind and restore his lucidity. Although it had not yet been premiered (there is no record of any performance during Schumann’s lifetime), the Cello Concerto was undoubtedly still in his thoughts in 1853 when he composed the Offertorium in his Mass in C minor essentially as a duet for cello and soprano.

In November 1850, Clara wrote in her diary that Schumann “composed a concerto for violoncello that pleased me very much. It appears to be written in the true violoncello style.” By this, she probably meant that the primary characteristic of the piece—especially the first two movements—is its lush lyricism used in place of the dramatic confrontations between soloist and orchestra that are typical of Romantic concertos. When Clara returned to the concerto the following year, she was not disappointed:

I have played Robert’s Violoncello Concerto again and thus procured for myself a truly musical and happy hour. The romantic quality, the flight, the freshness and the humor, and also the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra are, indeed, wholly ravishing, and what euphony and what deep sentiment are in all the melodic passages!

The music of the concerto is quintessential 19th-century Romanticism, full of passion, angst, and fire. This concert’s soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, described how Schumann’s compositional style lends itself ideally to this expression:

In Schumann’s writing—and I think this is part of the charm of the music—it is always a bit awkward instrumentally, for every instrument he has written for. It doesn’t quite lie under the hand [comfortably], but that adds to a kind of breathlessness and tension.

In the first movement, the orchestration is sensitive to the cello’s low register, and after playing three introductory chords, the orchestra drops back and allows the broad and passionate first theme in the cello to take center stage. An orchestral tutti leads to the bright C major second theme in triplet rhythm. The development also draws upon a triplet motive and includes a horn solo that hints at the main theme. Following a false (but surprisingly convincing) return in F# minor, the true recapitulation comes in and instead of leading to a cadenza and coda, guides the music to a short transition section that serves to bridge the first movement to the F major Langsam movement without a break.

The tender lyricism of the first movement is matched in the second; indeed, the two movements together have been praised by respected musicologist Sir Donald Tovey for their continuous “flow of intimate melody.” The movement, in A-B-A form, features a particularly inventive use of the cello that at one point plays an unusual double-stop melody and at another participates in an exchange with the orchestral cello. Again, the end of the movement serves as a bridge to the third, recalling the main themes previously heard.

The vigorous rondo theme in the finale consists of a three-chord motive—somewhat reminiscent of the opening of the piece but now presented much more forcefully—interspersed with cello arpeggios. In this movement, there is much more interaction between the cello and orchestra, with phrases constantly being exchanged and answered, and the continuity of the piece is emphasized with allusions to the first movement theme in the horn and clarinet. At the end, the cello is finally given its virtuosic cadenza, particularly striking for its use of the lower register of the instrument.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi