Program Notes:

Reno Chamber Orchestra

November 21-22, 2020

 

Conducted by Maestro Kelly Kuo.

With soloist Bion Tsang (cello)

Please note: performances with Kelly Kuo and Bion Tsang were originally scheduled for March, 2020, and were postponed due to COVID-19. If you purchased a ticket for the original concert date, your ticket automatically transfers to this November performance. We’re delighted to finally share this music with you!

KEVIN LAU: Artemis

Composed: 2009

Duration: 10 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Kevin Lau is one of Canada’s most active young composers. A prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, ballet, and film music, he served as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s RBC Affiliate Composer from 2012-2015. He recently composed the score for the National Ballet of Canada’s original full-length ballet Le Petit Prince (2016), and has since collaborated with choreographer Guillaume Côté on a second ballet (Dark Angels, commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra). His music has been recorded commercially on many albums, including the JUNO-nominated fusion album “Spin Cycle” (Centrediscs), featuring the Afiara String Quartet and DJ Skratch Bastid. Kevin holds a doctoral degree in music composition from the University of Toronto where he studied with renowned Canadian composer Christos Hatzis.

Kevin Lau wrote the following on Artemis, which we reproduce with his permission:

“Over the shadowy hills and wind-blown peaks of the mountains, she leads the hunt, delighting in drawing her bow, all of gold, and shooting her deadly shafts. The hilltops are shaken by terror, and the dark of the woods resounds with the terrified screaming of beasts; the earth and the fish-laden ocean tremble in fear at her coming. She roves over all, fearless-hearted, slaying all races of creatures. But when the huntress, delighter in arrows, has sated her longing, rejoicing in heart, she loosens the string of her well-curved bow, and returns to the mighty palace of Phoebus Apollo, her brother, in the fertile country of Delphi, to join with the Muses and Graces in treading the maze of the dance…”

Such is Homer’s description of Artemis, daughter of Zeus, the virgin goddess of wildlife. A deadly huntress who killed without mercy, striking down any who transgressed her law with her gold-tipped arrows, she was also a lover of animals, of music and dance, and a symbol of fertility. In Greek mythology, she was the quintessential ‘untamed’ woman: beautiful, alluring, but vengeful and unspeakably dangerous. Although men desired her, she kept her chastity, as anyone foolish enough to admire her too closely usually met with an untimely end.

Artemis is a musical portrait of the Greek goddess in the manner of Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite The Planets, whose seven movements are based on the Greek deities’ Roman counterparts. The movement “Mars, the Bringer of War” (Ares to the Greeks) was particularly influential in the conception of this piece. There are two places in Artemis which overtly reference the martial rhythms and harmonic progressions of “Mars.” At the same time, I sought to emphasize qualities which I thought would befit a more feminine warrior: speed and swiftness, lightness, agility. The ‘masculine’ lower brass contingent is here replaced by a small but fierce percussion battery.

Artemis is divided into three sections which follow one another without pause. The first, “The Hunt,” is a tempestuous depiction of the goddess as she rains destruction upon her victims. Amidst the frenzy of percussion which launches the work, the horns sound a war-call in their lowest registers, signaling the goddess’s approach. The closing fugue is an ode to the goddess’s classical qualities—beauty, sophistication, and deadly grace.

The title of the second section (“In the Pale Moonlight”) refers to Artemis’s designation as the Goddess of the Moon (her twin brother, Apollo, is sometimes referred to as the Sun God.) Their mother was persecuted by Zeus’s wife, Hera, who forbade her to give birth on any land that saw the light of day. So Apollo and Artemis were born on two floating islands, which at times rose above the surface of the sea, and at times dipped beneath it. The music is a meditation on the goddess’s place of origin and her sacred woodlands, where only the ‘pure of heart’ may enter.

Although the title of the third section, “Dance of Artemis,” is suggestive of the goddess’s lighter, more life-affirming qualities, it is in truth nearly as aggressive as the hunt itself. Only by the end do we realize that the violence has been transfigured into a kind of war dance, both celebratory and a cruel. Swirling swings give way to a majestic statement of the “Artemis Theme,” at last revealed in its fullest form.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107

Composed: 1959

Duration: 28 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), horn, timpani, celesta, strings, solo cello

Many consider Dmitri Shostakovich the greatest composer of the twentieth century. His music serves as a moving personal testament as well as a portrait of some of the century’s seminal events. Early works, such as one of the most accomplished First Symphonies ever (written at age 19 for his graduation from the Leningrad Conservatory), betray the influence of his fellow Russian composers Prokofiev and Stravinsky, as well as a brash, often sardonic sense of humor. That brashness could get Shostakovich in trouble, as with the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which outraged Stalin and led to serious criticism in the Russian press. Works like the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the latter inspired by the 1941 German invasion and known as the “Leningrad,” brought him worldwide renown. He continued to suffer from artistic repression in his homeland, however, including the famous 1948 government denunciation of Shostakovich and other prominent Russian composers. Some of his subsequent music sought to curry favor with the Soviet government, although he continued to write more personal works. His last decade was marked by ill health, and an increased level of melancholy pervades the music of those years.

One of the most frequently performed cello concertos of the twentieth century, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 was composed during a time in which the composer and his music were famous worldwide, and his reputation within the Soviet Union was finally on the rise. Shostakovich, of course, was one of those several composers (along with Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian) denounced by the Communist Party and the All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers in 1948 for writing decadent, modernist music that failed to appeal to the mass of music lovers. On Stalin’s death in 1953, however, things started to change, as a cultural thaw set in that allowed Shostakovich’s music to be heard again in his homeland. By the time of the Second All-Union Congress in early 1957, Shostakovich, who had been held in contempt at the first Congress, was warmly received, even being elected to the Composers’ Union’s governing body. And in 1958, the Central Committee of the Communist Party went so far as to adopt a resolution admitting that the evaluations of 1948 were unfair and mistaken.

It was in this more relaxed climate that Shostakovich started to write his long-contemplated Cello Concerto No. 1. Written and dedicated to the composer’s friend Mstislav Rostropovich, Shostakovich completed the work in July 1959. According to one account, Rostropovich received his copy of the score on August 2, and memorized it in an astounding four days, performing it privately for Shostakovich on August 6. The first public performance came on October 4, with Rostropovich and the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Most of the first movement derives from a four-note motto heard right at the beginning of the concerto. The second theme is a variant of the DSCH motive (D/E-flat [S in German]/C/B [H in German]), a play on the composer’s initials that shows up in many of the composer’s works. The movement’s tempo marking, Allegretto, usually denotes music that is laid-back and genial. But in this case the music is darkly ironic, with a propulsive energy. Shostakovich himself described the movement as “in the style of a jocular march.” The cello soloist is given many opportunities to shine, and solo horn is also featured prominently.

Strings open the second movement with a plaintive tune. After the horn takes up this idea, the cellist enters with a lyrical theme said by one commentator to derive from a Jewish folk song. A second melody brings some lightheartedness to this music, but only temporarily, as the music builds to a climax. Once again the solo horn takes over, leading into the movement’s gorgeous, mysterious coda, with the cellos high harmonics floating over muted violins and punctuations from the celesta. The third movement is an extensive cadenza for the soloist that employs themes from the first two movements. Beginning slowly and broadly, the music picks up pace towards the end. Then three chords from the strings launch the finale, the fastest music of the concerto. The rough folksy quality of the first theme gives way to a dance-like second theme as the soloist propels the music forward. Hidden within the music – so well that even Rostropovich had a hard time recognizing it – is a five-note idea derived from a Georgian folk song, “Suliko,” said to be Stalin’s favorite song. This motive is treated roughly, however, in wild repetitions – a small reference to Shostakovich’s bitterness over his treatment years before. The opening four note-motive of the concerto returns one last time as the music builds to its fiery conclusion.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Composed: 1801-1802

Duration: 36 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

A biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Those biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades, his stormy love affairs, and his famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output, one of the monuments of music history. He transformed the musical forms of his day, extending the range and depth of expression available to composers. In his teens he was already composing and playing in orchestras. By his twenties, both his compositions and piano playing had garnered considerable attention. Around the age of thirty, Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness, but soon thereafter began the second, or “middle,” of his creative periods, which included groundbreaking works like the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new depth and freedom.

The years 1801 and 1902 were two of the worst of Beethoven’s life. It was in 1801 that he noticed the onset of his deafness. Visits to several doctors were of no avail; their unanimous conclusion was that the deterioration of his hearing would likely be gradual but permanent, and within a few years his hearing would be completely gone. One of his doctors suggested that, to give his ears a rest and perhaps to alleviate some stress, Beethoven should leave noisy Vienna for a time. So he moved for six months to one of his favorite retreats, the little town of Heiligenstadt just outside Vienna. He rented a small peasant house on the outskirts of the village, isolated from his neighbors, where he did most of the work on his Symphony No. 2. Begun in 1801, but largely written during the summer and early fall of 1802, the Symphony was completed in October 1802, the very same month that he wrote the famous, despairing Heiligenstadt Testament to his brother in which he wrote of his hearing loss, the apparent hopelessness of his situation, and his desire for a quick end to his life. Oddly enough, in the midst of that depression, Beethoven was not only able to appear cheerful to those few friends and visitors he encountered, he was also able to write the exuberant Second Symphony.

 

Finally able to move on with his life and career, Beethoven conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 2 in a remarkable concert in Vienna on April 5, 1803. Beethoven had an unusual penchant for sponsoring very long programs of his work, and along with the Second Symphony, this marathon Vienna concert featured the first performances of the Piano Concerto No. 3 and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, along with the recently completed First Symphony. The three-and-a-half hour long performance was received lukewarmly by the critics, but much enjoyed by the audience and a financial success for the composer.

 

Interestingly, in the midst of the despondency reflected in the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was simultaneously experiencing a new vigor and readiness for work. He wrote in another letter of the time, “Every day I come closer to my goal, which I can sense but don’t know how to describe.” The revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s subsequent Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” has often been mentioned. But the Symphony No. 2 also marks quite a change and advance from its predecessor. One can hear this in the Symphony’s initial moments, the slow Adagio molto prologue to the first movement. In two parts, the drama, forceful attacks, and tension of these opening minutes look forward to the comparable beginning of his Symphony No. 9 of two decades later. With a swirl of energy Beethoven launches into the first theme of the vigorous Allegro con brio. The second theme introduces a note of sweetness. The stormy development section extends into the recapitulation, with its excitement and dramatic dynamic contrasts.

 

Calm descends with the second movement Larghetto. There is a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor in the continued dynamic contrasts, as well as some more passionate moments, but for the most part the music remains serene. The third movement marks a definite change for Beethoven, as he moves from the traditional Minuet of the First Symphony to the more energetic, forceful Scherzo. Ruggedly playful outer sections frame a more pastoral central section with lovely oboe coloration. The general mood of the Scherzo continues into the Finale, which moves with unflagging power. There is more than a little comedy in how Beethoven stretches the coda, which for most composers is little more than a final flourish in a movement, until it encompasses nearly a third of the finale. It is great fun, and makes the final climactic gesture that much more of a payoff.

 

Chris Morrison is Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Public Radio.

Text edited for clarity.

 

 

Kelly Kuo, Music Director finalist

Kelly Kuo

Praised by the Cincinnati Enquirer as “a leader of exceptional musical gifts, who has a clear technique on the podium and an impressive rapport with audiences,” Maestro Kelly Kuo brings a dynamic versatility and nuance to a diverse repertoire, which includes over 80 operas and an expansive symphonic repertoire as well. Recent operatic engagements have included productions with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cincinnati Opera, Kentucky Opera, Madison Opera, Tulsa Opera, Anchorage Opera, Opera Pacific, and Lyric Opera San Diego. Maestro Kuo also led performances of Porgy and Bess on New York Harlem Production’s tour of Hamburg, Munich, and Las Palmas. 

As Artistic Director of Oregon Mozart Players, Maestro Kuo recently extended his contract through 2021, having “transformed this chamber group into…a band of professional, enthusiastic and superior musicians, playing confidently as one unit” (The Register Guard). Recent symphonic engagements included concerts with Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Lexington Philharmonic, Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ballet Fantastique. Maestro Kuo also curated and conducted the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s inaugural Summermusik festival as Interim Music Director.

Maestro Kuo has collaborated with such soloists as Cho-Liang Lin, Mark Kosower, DaXun Zhang, David Shifrin, Mary Dunleavy, Bion Tsang, Anton Nel, Bella Hristova, Inbal Segev, Elizabeth Rowe, and Stephen Beus. Kuo has also conducted the world premieres of chamber orchestrations for Jake Heggie’s At the Statue of Venus, Daniel Catán’s La híja de Rappaccini, as well as the premiere of Daron Hagen’s A Woman in Morocco.  

An Oregon native and recipient of a Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistant Award for young conductors, Kuo continues to concertize as a keyboardist as the only living pianist to have studied with two pupils of the Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. Upcoming keyboard performances include the Zenith Chamber Music Festival and recitals with mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and baritone Andrew Garland. Maestro Kuo has served on the conducting staff of Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Opera Pacific. He holds a master’s degree in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music and is an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

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Bion Tsang, cello

Bion Tsang

Cellist Bion Tsang has been internationally recognized as one of the outstanding instrumentalists of his generation: among his many honors are an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Bronze Medal in the IX International Tchaikovsky Competition and a Grammy nomination for his performances on “Conspirare in Concert.” He has performed as soloist with such orchestras as the New York, Moscow and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras, the Atlanta, Pacific, Civic, American and National Symphony Orchestras, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Saint Paul and Stuttgart Chamber Orchestras, the Louisville Orchestra and the Taiwan National Orchestra.

Mr. Tsang’s chamber music career has also been a distinguished one, marked by collaborations with such artists as violinists Pamela Frank, Jaime Laredo, Cho-Liang Lin, Anne Akiko Meyers and Kyoko Takezawa and Chee Yun, violist Michael Tree, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Gary Karr and pianist Leon Fleisher. He has been a frequent guest artist of the Chamber Music Societies of Boston, Brooklyn and Fort Worth, Chamber Music International of Dallas, Da Camera of Houston, Camerata Pacifica of Los Angeles and Bargemusic in New York and performed at such festivals as Marlboro Music Festival, the Cape Cod, Tucson, Portland and Seattle Chamber Music Festivals, the Bard Festival, Bravo! Colorado, Music in the Vineyards and the Laurel Festival of the Arts, where he served as Artistic Director for ten years.

Mr. Tsang has toured the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano with pianist Anton Nel in, among other venues, Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall and Jordan Hall in Boston, with the latter performance recorded by WGBH and commercially released on the Artek label. Artek subsequently released Tsang’s performance of the Brahms Cello Sonatas and Hungarian Dances (transcribed by Tsang), also in Jordan Hall with Nel, in early 2010.

Mr. Tsang received his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.M.A. from Yale University, where he studied with Aldo Parisot. His other cello teachers included Ardyth Alton, Luis Garcia-Renart, William Pleeth, Channing Robbins and Leonard Rose.

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