Soyeon Kate Lee plays Grieg


Welcome to the opening concerts of the 70th season of the Peninsula Symphony, our Platinum year! We are thrilled to celebrate this milestone in the rich history of our musical organization.

Tonight's program brings an appropriately optimistic and uplifting sensibility to such an auspicious event, beginning with the Prelude to Richard Wagner's magnificent opera, Die Meistersinger. This is perhaps Wagner's most atypical, joyous, even humorous work, uniquely devoted to insights about what makes a harmonious song, and the people who strive to give the world the most elevating experience of music. Written in 1867, it centers around the wise master Hans Sachs, a real person (unlike the mythic heroes of most of Wagner's music-dramas) who lived in Nuremberg in the 16th Century.

This glorious prelude, rich with some of Wagner's most robust and lyrical orchestrations, incorporates the scope of the entire opera by using four of its main themes in a most ingenious manner. The first two are connected to the Guild of the Mastersingers: the first is a broad march (full orchestra), and the second is a fanfare (emphasizing the brass). The third (sung by the first violins) is the rhapsodic song which Hans' pupil and friend Walther sings to win the hand of the maiden Eva. Appearing last, the woodwinds play a funny, derisive, spiky tune that the apprentices use to make sport of the mastersingers, all in good fun.

In the concert version that we'll play today, all of these elaborate musical threads come together brilliantly in a final great march that soars with majestic grandeur.

The Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 was composed the very next year (and the year of the actual premiere of Die Meistersinger). Edvard Grieg was trained as a pianist in Leipzig, and enjoyed a highly successful career on the stage, as both a pianist and as a conductor, but his health was always fragile, and his compositional output was relatively slight. Nevertheless, his finest works are still deeply beloved by audiences and performers, and are staples of the repertoire.

The Piano Concerto is an early work (he was only 24) and it turned out to be his only concerto for any instrument (he failed to complete a second piano concerto late in life). It was composed on a holiday in Denmark, and is thought to have been influenced by a performance by Clara Schumann of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto, which he had heard some years earlier.  Although Grieg intended to premiere the work himself in Copenhagen, he was unable to do so due to conducting engagements in Oslo. The concerto gained great acclaim when it was championed by Franz Liszt, the paramount musical stage persona of the era.

The first movement draws us in with a dramatic timpani roll leading to a gigantic A minor orchestral chord, lifting the curtain on the signature piano flourish that audiences associate with this work. The movement is in a conventional sonata-allegro form: the woodwinds introduce the first theme, and the cellos sing the luxuriant second theme. Displays of virtuosic and lyrical pianism are the main focus, including a thrilling cadenza, and finishing with a concluding variant of the opening piano flourish.

The second movement (in ABA form) begins with a hushed string song, almost vocal in its timbre and shape. A contemplative middle section leads us back to the opening tune, this time played majestically by the piano, and leading directly into the powerful final section of the concerto.

This dramatic concluding movement reveals dazzling piano outbursts, matched by furious orchestral statements. A gently lilting flute melody complements the drama of the outer portions of the movement. Finally, we have a waltz-like dance coda, delicate at first, but then cascading into a last, resplendent statement of the flute melody, ending the concerto in opulent splendor.

Sergei Prokofiev's titanic Fifth Symphony is a monument to heroism and optimism, written in a rush of inspiration in celebration of impending victory in World War Two. He wrote it in just one month in the summer of 1944, an incredible feat of creativity and joy. In fact, the premiere had to be briefly postponed due to the audible echo of cannon-fire from the last battles, as the Nazis were being routed outside Moscow. The composer called his masterpiece "a hymn to free and happy Humankind, to its mighty powers, its pure and noble spirit. I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul." 

This is music on the highest plane of orchestral scale and philosophical insight. Some of its textures and colors may remind listeners of his masterful ballet music for Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935. 

While the magnitude and ambition of the Fifth is elevated and ennobling, the compositional template is fairly conventional. The first movement is a sonata-allegro form, with almost Brahmsian lyricism dominating. What makes this music so powerful is the accumulation of inspired melody on the largest scale, that builds and builds into granitic blocks of sound and passionate exhortation, culminating in a massive and buoyant ending.

The second movement is a scherzo - joking, boisterous and athletic. New elements are constantly introduced, including two wild rustic dances that impulsively propel the listener to a furious ending.

In the third movement we sense the enormity of the human toll of WWII. Russia lost about 17 million citizens in the War, nearly 15% of its entire population. The languorous and heartfelt melodies of this complex and profound movement reach deep into our consciousness, often singing with drawn-out melancholy in two or three octaves at the same time, as if generations of souls are speaking together. 

After a brief, wistful opening woodwind tune and a reprise of the opening melody from the first movement (in a ravishing cello-section refrain), the fourth movement (a sort of rondo) takes flight with flashy, light-hearted bursts of melody. It's a tour-de-force, matching brittle, comical elements with floating, lighter-than-air episodes that recall Romeo and Juliet. It steadily builds in intensity and orchestral heft, reaching heights of propulsive energy and mass rarely encountered in the orchestral canon. As the end nears, the instrumental forces are pared down to just a few solo instruments until the final lift-off into a massive, triumphal Bb major victory chord.

Mitchell Sardou Klein