Beethoven, Trifonov, and two (female) names you haven't heard

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Beethoven, Trifonov, and two (female) names you haven't heard

Post by Ricordanza » Tue Feb 04, 2020 4:00 pm

When announcing its 2019-2020 season, the Philadelphia Orchestra said that the programming would reflect two themes: Beethoven’s 250th birthday; and the underrepresented work of female composers. Both themes were well represented in the Orchestra’s program on Saturday night, January 31.
The commemoration of Beethoven has been in the works for some time, and many other orchestras and musical institutions are making their own celebrations. However, the Orchestra’s focus on women is of more recent vintage, and it stems from criticisms leveled at the Orchestra for overlooking female composers in its programming. The Orchestra could have responded defensively, citing its performances of works by Jennifer Higdon and Gabriela Lena Frank, for example. However, to its credit, the Orchestra responded by adding numerous works by female composers during the current season.

The Beethoven work on Saturday night’s program is one of his most popular—Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”)—and the soloist was the Russian-born Daniil Trifonov. Trifonov is often mentioned as a “rising star,” but that’s probably inaccurate at this point. He’s already arrived. Winner of numerous awards including the Tchaikovsky competition, recitalist, concerto soloist, and composer (I attended the premiere of his Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall in November 2017), Trifonov has already achieved wide renown in the classical music world.

This performance of the “Emperor,” with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Orchestra, was magnificent in every respect. Orchestra and soloist played the first movement at a nimble rate. Besides being more historically accurate than some other performances I’ve heard, this vigorous pace highlights the great energy of the piece. At times in the first movement, Trifonov’s rhythmic flexibility led to some passages being slightly out of sync with the orchestra. But overall, orchestra and soloist were together in delivering a memorable rendition of this timeless piece. Solo passages were particularly noteworthy, thanks to Trifonov’s sparkling runs and incredible dynamic range.

The Emperor has many great moments, but one of my favorite passages occurs during the transition to the final movement, where the pianist appears to be tentatively trying out a new theme a couple of times, then, finding it to his liking, soloist and orchestra launch into this theme at full speed and full strength.

Trifonov treated us to a delicious encore. He didn’t announce the work, and I didn’t recognize it, but it seemed to be from the Rococo era. A representative from the Orchestra later informed me that it was the first movement of Johann Christian (son of Johann Sebastian) Bach’s Sonata in A Major.

The Emperor Concerto was bracketed by the first Philadelphia Orchestra performances of works by two French female composers. The first work was “Of a Sad Evening” by Lili Boulanger. Now, some of you have undoubtedly heard the name Boulanger. But the one you’re thinking of was Lili’s older sister Nadia, a famous composition teacher for decades whose students included Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud and Philip Glass.

Lili was clearly a major talent, but her output was tragically limited since she died at the age of 24! “Of a Sad Evening,” an 11-minute work which dates from 1917 and 1918 (the year of her death) is a piece deserving to be heard. Given the title, I was expecting something quiet and somber, but it is a work of surprising power. The musical neighborhood is similar to Debussy and Ravel, but the musical language is definitely Lili Boulanger’s own.

Following intermission, Yannick spoke to the audience to introduce the final work: Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 2. Farrenc had a longer life (1804 – 1875) and achieved some recognition during her lifetime as a pianist and composer. But she’s virtually unknown to today’s audiences, including this listener. Yannick called this symphony a “neglected masterpiece,” and after my first hearing of this work, I’m inclined to agree. This 1845 work is structured like a traditional symphony in four movements, but to describe it this way minimizes the inventiveness and originality of the piece. Each of the four movements is melodically rich and orchestrated with great ingenuity and skill.

We know that Beethoven will continue to be featured on orchestral programs well past his 250th birthday. I hope that the Philadelphians and other orchestras will find a way to include Lili Boulanger and Louise Farrenc on future programs.

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