“Strauss, Dessner, and Rachmaninoff”: Modernist music often stems from collaborative work…

David Geffen Hall-Lincoln Center/ Saturday December 2nd, 2023: Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” Tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau, Op.20 (1888), Bryce Dessner’s “Concerto for 2 pianos” featuring Katia and Marielle Labèque (2017)/ and Sergei Rachmaninoff’ “Symphonic Dances, Op. 45” (1940).

Welcome back friends!

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Welcome this week, to the sublime, vibrant, and often filled with wonderfully intimate, yet rich and inspiring, emotional world of classical music, performed by the New York Philharmonic.

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Welcome this week, to a truly unique, dazzling, exciting, spectacular, beautiful, international evening, featuring three “Modernist” music pieces, performed in non chronological order: first from the late 19th century, then from the 21st, and ending with the 20th century, by illustrious European (and upcoming) American composers.

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And all, conducted with great contrasts and amazing shaping, by Russian conductor extraordinaire, Semyon Bychkov.

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What is “Modernist” music?

There are various definitions of course, but in a nutshell, the keyword in Modernist music (as in the other arts), is always innovation, in order to defy convention.

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Traditional musicologists tend to date the Modernist period in music, from about 1890 to about 1930. Classical music produced after about 1930, is typically called postmodern, and of course was still influenced by “modernism”, and at times even, influenced pop music. More on that later.

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And interestingly, of course, at the beginning of “modernism”, in the 19th century, composers have continued “feeding off” of each other, and often, the more radical ones have sometimes come up with new “genres”, sometimes inspired by other artistic sources (poetry, literature, painting etc…).

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And Franz Liszt (1811-1886), a renown Hungarian composer of the Romantic era, molded for example in the 1840’s, a new orchestral genre, short pieces often, called the the symphonic or tone poem.

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1) The first short piece we were given to hear last Saturday, is such a tone poem (1888), “Don Juan”, after Nikolaus Lenau, a pen name of Austro-Hungarian poet, Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler von Strehlenau (1802-1850), by the young at the time, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a leading German composer of the late Romantic era.

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In his mid 20’s, Strauss was introduced to Romantic music, from Liszt, as well as from German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), or French composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), by German composer, violinist, and husband of one of Wagner’s nieces, Alexander Ritter (1833-1896) who quickly became a close friend of the young Richard Strauss.

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And believe it or not but, Strauss’ early works were quite conservative, but they then began to develop and change, when Strauss met Ritter, who persuaded Strauss to abandon the musical style of his youth, and begin writing Symphonic or tone poems.

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And this “Don Juan” by Strauss, is based on Lenau’s 1844 poem, whose Don Juan, try not to laugh, is a Romantic “dreamer” vs the unrepentant “womanizer” found in the initial 16th century Spanish tale, or later in the 17th century Molière play (1665), or even in the 18th century Mozart’s own “Don Giovanni” (1787), as well as, in most of the more current adaptations of the last centuries.

Oh boy.

In Lenau and Strauss’ versions, Don Juan’s compulsion to seduce and desert an endless succession of women, derives not from boredom or cruelty, but rather from a quest to seek the “ideal woman”, and “to enjoy in one woman, all women, since he cannot possess them as individuals”.

Oh boy.

And the musical work describes his various conquests and ultimately, his life, ending violently, as the father of one of the conquered ladies, avenges the death of one of his victims.

Oh boy.

Let’s listen to a performance of Strauss’ “Don Juan” by another orchestra, and listen after 3 minutes, in particular, to the beautiful “romantic” music:

So incredibly poetic and expressive, alive and skillful.

Bravo!

2) With the second piece performed last Saturday, we are then transported to the 21st century.

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This “Concerto for two pianos” (2017) by upcoming American composer Bryce Dessner (b. 1976), also lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Grammy-winning indie rock band, “The National”.

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This Dessner “Concerto for two pianos” is unquestionably modern, and of today, minimalist, dissonant and abstract, and owes its existence to a collaboration between the composer and the two illustrious French artists, performers, and friends, who Dessner intended it for: the iconic pianist sisters, and internationally acclaimed, Katia and Marielle Labèque.

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And fun fact, the latter (Marielle), is also married to Semyon Bychkov, conducting last Saturday.

Let’s now listen to a short excerpt from a past rehearsal a few years ago, of this unique and vivacious “Concerto for 2 pianos”:

Just fabulous.

3) Finally, the last piece performed last Saturday, this time, sends us back to the 20th century, and was my favorite piece of the musical evening.

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“Symphonic dances”, Op 45 (1940), by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1973-1943) is just stunning.

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It is Rachmaninoff’s final work, which he composed in the United States, where Rachmaninoff, had been largely residing since 1918. Three dances make up this orchestral suite: a first march-like movement, powerful and assertive, followed by a melancholic and gorgeous waltz, concluding with Russian orthodox and Roman catholic liturgical chants.

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And as Rachmaninoff was completing the piece, he played it for his old friend Michel Fokine, the one time choreographer of the Ballets Russes, hoping Fokine would use it for a ballet, but Fokine regrettably, died soon after, without being able to do so.

How sad.

And interestingly, Rachmaninoff (pictured below), also turned to another renown fellow artist, a musician while composing for help about “modern” instruments.

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Rachmaninoff turned to illustrious American composer-arranger, Robert Russel Bennett (1894-1981), and also well known, as an orchestrator of Broadway hits, such as iconic “Show Boat” (1927).

And “Show Boat” was a defining work in the American musical landscape: throughout the 1920’s, African Americans were also changing the scene of popular culture. With the rise in ragtime, black musicians began to form national identity, and what was originally African American developed into purely American. The harsh themes of black oppression and unequal treatment would not be present in American musical theatre until the time of “Show Boat”.

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And later, Robert Russel Bennett also orchestrated iconic Broadway shows, which still resonate with many today on other topics: “Annie Get Your Gun” (1948), “Oklahoma!”(1943), or “My Fair Lady” (1956).

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Anyhow, Rachmaninoff turned to Russel Bennett while composing his (1940) “Symphonic dances” to give him advice about writing for the alto saxophone, a decidedly modern instrument to include in a classical piece at the time, which he eventually included for a few bars, in the first movement of his “Symphonic Dances”.

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And in addition to the influence of “Ragtime” (a musical style that had its peak in America from the 1890s to 1910s with syncopated, or “ragged” rhythm), and popularized during the early 20th century by American composers such as Scott Joplin (1868-1917), I could definitely hear as well, in Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances”, overtones of American composer, Aaron Copland (1900-1990), and his music, which combines modern musical ideas to hints of jazz influence.

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Of course, the place musicians reside have a huge influence on them, as well as their country of origin.

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Let’s now listen to a short “assertive” excerpt by another orchestra, of one of the numerous beautiful moments in this work.

Just fabulous.

And of course, some of you will also remember that Rachmaninoff’s often soaring and melancholic style, later, even inspired one of the most beautiful “pop” ballads from the 1970’s, I am thinking of Eric Carmen’s “All by myself” 1975 song, which was covered by many, throughout the years, and notably by Celine Dion in 1996, whose verse, believe it or not, is based on the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s (1900-1901) Piano Concerto No,2 in C minor, Opus 18.

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How wonderful to realize that Modernist classical music, often made in collaboration with others, does even at times, cross over to different music genres.

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So, to sum up my feelings, about my NY Philharmonic “Strauss, Dessner and Rachmaninoff” program, admired last Saturday, in great company: what beautiful, wonderfully performed, and entertaining Modernist music spanning a few centuries, from an array of intense and hugely talented composers, from the old and the new world, whose influence can still be felt in today’s music, regardless of it genre.

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Just awe-inspiring.

Not to be missed, next time it is performed!

Until next time friends.

Soft…

Fluttering…

Sunny…

Joyful…

Happy…

Loving…

Eternal butterflies 😊