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Program Notes: Beatrice Rana

 

Robert Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Schumann’s Abegg Variations first appeared in November of 1831, but Schumann had completed it more than a year earlier, shortly after his twentieth birthday and before he had made the commitment to a life of music (he was still studying law in Heidelberg at the time).  It is no fumbling attempt, but rather an assured, individual work from a composer who already knows piano technique intimately.

“Abegg” was the surname of a young lady, Meta Abegg, Schumann had met at a ball in Mannheim. He dedicated his Op. 1 to “Pauline, Countess of Abegg,” though both “Pauline” and “Countess” were fictitious. Nor did Schumann have any amorous intent, as Meta was already in love with someone else. The French appellation was in deference to Paris as the center of pianistic virtuosity at the time, and the theme-and-variations form was the most popular formula for demonstrating this virtuosity. Themes were usually drawn from popular operatic numbers of the day (Rossini, Bellini, Auber, etc.), but Schumann broke with convention and invented his own. Actually, it is more of a fragment than a theme, which, in fact, spell the name ABEGG.

The work consists of an introduction, in which the five-note motif is spun out both forwards and backwards over four variations, including a quiet, reflective Cantabile, and a Finale alla fantasia. Biographer Eric Jensen notes that “it is clear that Schumann intended the work to be comparatively conventional, entertaining, and pleasing – goals that, as time passed, increasingly he abandoned.” However, the music is anything but easy to play, and cannot have been intended for amateurs to fool around with at home.

 

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

To Schumann, the piano was the instrument through which he confided his most intimate thoughts, and was his most personal medium of artistic expression, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the Symphonic Etudes are intimately connected to the composer’s personal life.

Out of his romantically fertile imagination, Schumann created a gallery of fictional characters known as the Davidsbund (band of David), two of whom are opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego: Florestan, representing his extroverted, exuberant side; Eusebius his quiet, meditative side. Davidsbund were the proud musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. Florestan and Eusebius are deeply bound up in the world of the Symphonic Etudes. Among the titles Schumann tried out before settling on the present one are Etuden im Orchestercharakter von Florestan und Eusebius and Davidsbündler Etudes.

The opening gesture, a full-fledged theme, forms an integral part of the composition and serves as the basis of a series of variations. The number of variations, the title of the set and their ordering went through numerous changes in the course of the nineteenth century, extending to well after the composer’s death. In the form most commonly encountered today, the Études symphoniques (Schumann used the French title for the first published edition of 1837), there are twelve numbers following presentation of the dirge-like theme in C sharp minor. Originally Schumann wrote six more as well, but withdrew them, mostly due to difficulties in arranging a proper sequence of so many variations in the same key and for the most part of similar character. Five of these “extra” variations were salvaged by Brahms and published as a supplement in 1873.

Most of the Etudes (or studies) are also variations, although very freely fashioned out of the original theme. The “symphonic” aspect of this music refers to the organic growth and extensive working out of the theme as well as to the orchestral textures, colors, sonorities and effects suggested or realized.

 

Frédéric Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28

Aside from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, Chopin’s Preludes (1838) are surely the most famous group of pieces conceived as an orderly traversal of the 24 major and minor keys. (There also exists a solitary additional Prelude, Op. 45.) Other composers have also essayed the procedure, including Alkan, Bentzon, Busoni, Hummel, Kabalevsky, Kalkbrenner, Scriabin and Shostakovich. But those of Bach and Chopin remain by far the best known.

The Bach connection is borne out in biographer James Huneker’s remark that Chopin was “one of the most daring harmonists since Bach.” Franz Liszt, always one to recognize the bold innovations of genius, praised the Preludes: “This composition is of a kind by itself … poetic preludes, analogous to those of a contemporary poet [Lamartine], which soothe the soul with golden dreams and raise it to ideal regions. Admirable in their diversity, they reveal a labor and knowledge that can be appreciated only by careful study. Everything is full of spontaneity, élan, bounce. They have the free and great features that characterize the works of genius.”

Some people are perplexed by the title “prelude” in view of the fact that nothing follows. Reinhard Schulz’s cogent explanation should clarify the point: “The purpose of a prelude has always been to establish the mood of something which is to follow, anticipating its basic characteristics. Each of Chopin’s Preludes may be understood as containing the essence of an entire world of feelings – it is left to the receptive listener to fill in the detailed picture in his mind.”

The Preludes are arranged in pairs of major and minor keys and ascend in intervals of the fifth. Hence: C major, A minor (no sharps or flats); G major, E minor (1 sharp); D major, B minor (2 sharps), etc., through six sharps, then 6 flats, 5 flats, and so on down to 1 flat. Each of these 24 cameos, these “moods in miniature,” inhabits a private world of its own, from the feverish energy of the first to the noble pathos of the final piece. As Robert Schumann said of them, “may each person search for what suits him; may only Philistines stay away!”

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.

Cavorting at the Cliburn

A letter from Leila Getz

I returned last Monday from a trip to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas with a prize winner and a cold!

It has been twenty years since I’ve been to a Cliburn Competition and have decided that I’m not waiting another twenty years. The next competition is in four years and I am planning on staying young and vigorous so that I can return….possibly with a group of interested music lovers from Vancouver (but more about that later).

I knew right from my arrival at YVR that I was going to have a great time; simply because the woman two ahead of me in the lineup to go through US Immigration had a companion bulldog. The dog was dressed in a wetsuit (which was a little tight) and she had obviously given the dog some calming medication for the flight (as it was accompanying her in the cabin).  As you know, in these lineups you stand, you move a few steps, you stand, you move. Well, each time she stood still the dog collapsed in a heap and fell asleep and each time she moved she had to drag the poor thing up, so that it could take three steps forward and collapse again.

This dog put a smile on everyone’s faces, including US Immigration officers. Everyone was in such a good mood, that I am thinking seriously about taking my dog with me when I travel in future.

Checking in to the hotel in Fort Worth was my next little adventure. There was a woman standing ahead of me, and upon closer examination I decided that she was very interesting and worth getting to know. I loved the way she was dressed (short grey hair like mine) and really kinky glasses and earrings.  When she turned around I said “I want your glasses” and she said “oh, I’ll give you the name of the store in Seattle”.  It turned out that my new friend, Widbey, was from Portland, where she is on the Board of the Portland International Piano Series, and she had brought a group of 18 subscribers to the competition.

She had arranged all the travel, tickets, museum outings and everything. Before we parted company she promised to send me all her notes on how to go about planning a trip like this for a group, and she did so just as soon as she got home.  On the free day between the semi- finals and the finals I was lucky enough to join her group on a special curated tour of the 10- year -old Museum of Modern Art, designed by Tadeo Ando, which houses the most incredible collection. All the art is post 1945. The building is magnificent and the collection is a dream. The most impressive thing about the experience was that because the museum has the luxury of space the art is not crowded and it’s a very easy gallery to go through without feeling overwhelmed. Fort Worth is renowned for its wonderful art museums. There is also the fabulous Kimbell Museum which is just across the road from the Modern Art Museum. There are other museums in the neighbourhood as well.  Oh, would that we could do this in Vancouver.

My other lucky perk was that my hotel room at the Worthington was just two doors away from the Cliburn Hospitality Suite. So, apart from having fun with other Cliburn guests in the hospitality suite, I could carry as much food and drink as I could back to my room when I left!

Now to the important stuff!  First of all, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to hear the twelve semifinalists play two full recitals, a piano quintet of their choice with the Brentano Quartet, and two concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, who was an amazingly sympathetic and fabulous conductor.  The level of piano playing was extraordinarily high. And at that level it’s simply a matter of which ones have the magic and which don’t.  Ultimately, it’s that indescribable quality that separates the true artists from the gifted.

Beatrice Rana, right, 20, of Italy, reacts with her mother, Maria Solazzo, left, after winning the silver medal, 2nd place, in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, USA on Sunday, June 9 2013. (Photo by Carolyn Cruz/ The Cliburn)

Beatrice Rana, right, 20, of Italy, reacts with her mother, Maria Solazzo, left, after winning the silver medal in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, USA on Sunday, June 9 2013. (Photo by Carolyn Cruz/ The Cliburn)

It was clear to me right from the semifinals that Beatrice Rana was going to be at the top. She may only be 20 years old, but she plays with such maturity and innate musicianship, and her sound at the piano can only be described as ravishing.  Her Chopin Preludes were heart-stopping.  So was her performance of the Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto.  Her power and her intensity come from somewhere deep within. And her smile lights up the room.  Then, there was a contestant who didn’t make it from the semi-finals to the finals ( many of us were most disappointed by that)…a young Australian, Jayson Gillham who I think will have a career in spite of not reaching the finals.  His performance of the Schumann Quintet with the Brentano Quartet was my favourite chamber music performance of all.  Aside from his talent, he has a wonderful stage manner. He bounds on to the stage with such joy and radiance. He sits beautifully at the keyboard and delivers.

Towards the end of the finals I am proud to say that I predicted the outcome correctly.  The Gold Medal Winner, Ukrainian pianist, Vadym Kholodenko, also possessed the magic I was looking for. In the final round he played an electrifying Prokofiev 3rd concerto, and in his final recital he played  Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes…. a performance which was breathtaking.   As many of you may know, I am not a Liszt fan and by the time it was over I felt like a battered woman….nonetheless, the audience (including me) was transfixed.

I had the privilege of meeting a number of the jury members. My particular thrill was meeting Arie Vardi, a legendary teacher who teaches in both Tel Aviv and Hanover. He is the Chairman of the Jury of the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel.  He was the teacher of Yefim Bronfman and a host of other marvelous young pianists who have appeared (and will appear in the future) on the VRS’ Next Generation Series. Mr. Vardi was very excited because Boris Giltburg, an ex – student of his, and a pianist who graced our stage in Vancouver a couple of years ago, had just won First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels.  Arie Vardi is currently Beatrice Rana’s teacher (her previous teacher was Benedetto Lupo whom you will also hear on our series next season).  I attended a Master Class given by Mr. Vardi and it was one of the great experiences of my life. What a knowledge and imagination he has. He must be an extraordinarily inspiring teacher.  He was extremely complimentary about the VRS, saying that we have one of the best series he’s seen anywhere and how extraordinary it is that we find these young artists before anyone else does.  I felt 10 feet tall.

At the helm of the Cliburn is Jacques Marquis who recently came from Montreal to take over in Texas. A French-Canadian accent really stands out in Texas!  The competition is extremely well run, with seminars, master-classes, free lunch-hour concerts, receptions. I believe there are 1,200 volunteers!

I had the privilege of participating in a panel on the development of young artists’ careers.  I met presenters whom I know from other parts of America and Canada, and some I didn’t know previously.

As I sat in the same seat right throughout the competition I made friends with audience members around me.  The gentleman sitting behind me in the hall criticized me one evening when I came in wearing the same earrings as the night before!  Needless to say, he didn’t get away with it.

Audiences connect people in wonderful ways.  It’s just not the same as sitting at home in your living room.  People from all backgrounds come together to share a common passion and the vibrations are palpable. Even if the parking is a hassle!  Go for live…it’s the best way!

And, wouldn’t it be nice to take a group of subscribers to the next Van Cliburn in 2017?

Shall we make a plan?

Leila

P.S.  Don’t miss BEATRICE RANA. She opens our Paul and Edwina Heller Next Generation Series at the Playhouse on Sunday, September 29 at 3pm.

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