Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Lang Lang, Piano
10th Anniversary Celebration
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Tema con variazioni
Allegro ma non troppo
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Scene in the Country
March to the Scaffold
Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath
Named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world.
LANG LANG, Piano
Ever since his sensational Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut at Ravinia 10 years ago, 26-year-old pianist Lang Lang has played sold-out recitals and concerts in every major city in the world and is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and top American orchestras. Born in Shen Yang, China, Lang Lang began his piano studies at age 3 under Zhu Ya-Fen and at age 9 entered Beijing’s Central Music Conservatory. Lang Lang’s break into stardom came at age 17, when on two days’ notice, he made his Ravinia Festival debut by replacing an ailing André Watts in a performance of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach. He has won numerous awards since the age of 5, when he took first prize in the Shen Yang Piano Competition, including first prize in the 1995 Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians Competition. In February 2008 Lang Lang and legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performed together at the 50th Grammy Awards, and in August of that year more than two billion people viewed Lang Lang’s performance in Beijing’s opening ceremony for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. He currently serves on the Weill Music Institute Advisory Committee as part of Carnegie Hall’s educational program and is a member of Carnegie Hall’s Artistic Advisory Board. He recently released a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4 with l’Orchestre de Paris under Eschenbach, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. It debuted at number-one on Billboard’s classical chart, and Lang Lang himself appeared on Billboard’s New Artist chart at the highest position for any classical artist. This year marks Lang Lang’s 10th season at Ravinia Festival. An interview with the pianist appears on page 24.
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Scored for two flutes and piccolo, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, castanets, tambourine, cymbals, strings and solo piano
Chicago staged two major world premieres by Prokofiev within the space of two weeks in 1921. First Prokofiev appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 16 and 17 as composer, conductor and pianist, introducing his new Piano Concerto No. 3 on a program that also contained his Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) and works by Richard Strauss, Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt. A fortnight later his opera The Love for Three Oranges received its oft-delayed world premiere by Chicago Opera on December 30. Both works garnered generally flattering reviews by the local press, prompting Prokofiev to remark: “The curve of my American career again took an upswing.”
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 shares a neoclassical idiom with its contemporary, the Symphony No. 1. Speaking with an American journalist, the irascible Prokofiev profiled the modern “classical” composer, one who brings new life to traditional forms: “He is a mad creature who composes work incomprehensible to people of his own generation. He has discovered a certain logic, as yet unknown to others, so that they cannot follow him. Only later do the roads he has pointed out, if they are good ones, become understandable to those around him.” Prokofiev’s neoclassical works defy this radical stance with their retrospective melodic/harmonic style and tried-and-true structural formulas.
The most remarkable achievement in the Concerto No. 3—the most famous of his five piano concertos—rests not in its approachable style, but the wondrous union of so many disparate musical ideas. Independent pieces of Prokofiev’s musical puzzle were assembled for the first time during his summer vacation at St. Brevin-les-Pins, on the coast of Brittany, which he and his family spent with the poet Boris Bashkirov (who wrote under the pseudonym Konstantin Balmont).
All but two themes were castoffs from other compositions. A parallel-triad theme in the first movement was originally written in 1911 for the Piano Concerto No. 1. Two years later Prokofiev composed a theme for variations; the first two variations came in 1916-17. These provided the backbone to the second concerto movement. A further thematic source was the “White Quartet,” which Prokofiev described as “an absolutely diatonic string quartet that would be played only on the white keys of the piano.” A pair of themes from this fragmentary work infiltrated the finale of his concerto.
The concerto opens with an unassuming clarinet solo, marked Andante. A second clarinet quietly joins, followed by strings and winds. The change in tempo to Allegro animates the strings, building to the solo statement of the first theme. Pizzicato strings accompany the oboe’s expressive second theme. The remainder brings an exploration and modified restatement of the themes. In the second movement Prokofiev assigns his andantino theme to the orchestra, while the piano demands the listener’s attention in the five variations. The piano embroiders the orchestral restatement of the theme. The finale supplies a boisterous conclusion.
After hearing Prokofiev’s private rendition of this music in St. Brevin, Konstantin Balmont captured the work’s untamed spirit in a sonnet:
An exultant flame of a crimson flower,
A verbal keyboard sparkling with flames
That suddenly leap forth in fiery tongues.
A raging stream of molten ore.
The moments dance a waltz, the ages a gavotte.
Suddenly a wild bull, startled by foes,
Bursts his chains, halts, his horns poised to strike.
But once again the tender sounds call from afar.
From tiny shells children fashion a castle.
An opaline balcony, beautiful, finely wrought.
But all is dashed by a foaming wave.
Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you the orchestra yearns for summer’s ecstasies
And the indomitable Scythe strikes the tambourine-sun.
HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-69)
Symphonie fantastique, Première partie de l’Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, oeuvre lyrique, Op. 14
Scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, pairs of cornets and trumpets, three trombones, two ophicleides (tubas substitute), timpani, bass and snare drums, cymbals, bells, two harps and strings
The theatrical works of Shakespeare seared Berlioz’s soul like a bolt of lightning. On September 11, 1827, he attended a performance of Hamlet given by a traveling English troupe at the Odéon Theater in Paris. Despite an utter ignorance of the English language, Berlioz was instinctively drawn to Shakespeare’s tragic characters. This fascination left its mark on several compositions by Berlioz, including the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette and the grand overture Le roi Lear (King Lear).
Lightning struck Berlioz a second time in the person of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress whose performance as Ophelia in Hamlet ignited the young composer’s passion. “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted,” wrote the composer of the September 11 performance. Berlioz did not meet Smithson before her return to England. Nonetheless, his idealized memory of the actress developed into obsessive infatuation.
The “tortures of an endless and unquenchable passion” that Berlioz endured sparked vague ideas for a grand symphony, which he outlined in a letter to Humbert Ferrand on February 6, 1830. When rumors of a tryst between Smithson and her manager circulated in Paris, Berlioz flew into a jealous rage. Her imagined betrayal provided the missing dramatic element to the orchestral work formulating in his mind—Episode from the Life of an Artist: Fantastic Symphony in Five Movements. Berlioz reversed the title and subtitle sometime after 1858 to account for the sequel “episode,” Lelio, or the Return to Life, Lyrical Monodrama, a large-scale piece in six movements intermingled with long monologues. The symphonic title assumed a definitive form as Fantastic Symphony, First Part of the Episode from the Life of an Artist, Lyrical Opus.
Berlioz brought a revolutionary approach to this symphony, combining the limitless expressive strength of Romantic orchestral writing with the narrative capacity of prose and drama. He expanded the standard symphonic structure to five movements, corresponding to the number of acts in classical tragedies. Each movement bears a descriptive title drawn from his published program notes, which Berlioz wanted distributed to audiences and read before the performance, especially whenever Symphonie fantastique and Lélio formed a double bill.
The story involves a young musician who falls in love with the idealized woman of his dreams. Passion awakens a frenzy of emotions ranging from melancholy to ecstasy. Images of the Beloved haunt him constantly, even amidst the tumult of a ball or in the countryside as two shepherds play a gentle duet, a ranz des vaches. Feeling his love is unrequited, the musician attempts suicide by opium. His weak dosage brings hallucinations instead of death. The artist dreams that he has murdered the Beloved and is condemned to death. He witnesses his own processional march to the scaffold and welcomes a final tender vision of his Beloved before the fatal blow. Next, the artist imagines himself at his own funeral at a witches’ sabbath. His Beloved’s “nobility and shyness” have transformed into something “mean, trivial and grotesque.” She joins the demonic scene, joining the others in a wild round dance mingled with strains of the Dies irae, a chant from the Mass for the Dead.
Berlioz devised an innovative means of recalling the Beloved throughout the Symphonie fantastique—a distinctive melody called the idée fixe that appears in each movement. The thematic character alters with the artist’s changing vision of his Beloved. Furthermore, the idée fixe contributed a cyclic unity to the symphony. This melody originally belonged to Berlioz’s cantata Herminie (1828), an unsuccessful submission for the Prix de Rome. The composer relocated music from other early compositions into the Symphonie fantastique. For instance, the opening violin melody originated as an “intensely sad song” in his Estelle et Némorin songs (now lost) based on texts from La Fontaine’s Les deux pigeons. Scholars are now reasonably certain that Berlioz transplanted the March of the Guards from his opera Les francs-juges (1826) directly into the symphony as the March to the Scaffold.
Several early critics brutalized Berlioz and his new symphonic conception for its musical-poetic union, which they considered a childish and ridiculous attempt at imitation. (His enlarged and unprecedentedly diverse orchestration also prompted numerous literary jibes and caricatures.) François-Joseph Fétis dismissed the composer and his new aesthetic in an analysis of Symphonie fantastique published in the Revue musicale (February 1, 1835): “In a word, if you possessed what you basically lack, if you had true imagination, you would be allowed everything, and today’s critics would become your admirers. Until then, you may take it for granted that your restless posturing will be in vain: your present output will remain unworthy of consideration as works of art!”
Such condemnation understandably put the composer on the defensive. A florid writer and persuasive critic himself, Berlioz responded with an extended footnote in the published program that defined the relationship between the music and the accompanying narrative. “The aim of the program is by no means to copy faithfully what the composer has tried to present in orchestral terms, as some people seem to think; on the contrary, it is precisely in order to fill in the gaps that the use of musical language unavoidably leaves in the development of musical thought, that the composer has had to avail himself of written prose to explain and justify the outline of the symphony. He knows very well that music can take the place of neither word nor picture.” To bolster his case Berlioz also authored an extended essay on the goals and limitations of program music—“On Imitation in Music”—printed serially in the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris on January 1 and 8, 1837.
Symphonie fantastique received its premiere on December 5, 1830, more that three years after the lovelorn composer first set eyes on the Irish actress. Close friends understood the identity of the two protagonists: Berlioz as the artist, and Smithson as his Beloved. The subject of this passion and derision, however, remained utterly unaware of her part in the orchestral drama. That situation changed at a later performance on December 9, 1832. Berlioz, recently returned from two years in Italy as winner of the Prix de Rome (awarded for his 1830 cantata La mort de Sardanapale), had rented the apartment formerly occupied by Smithson. The housekeeper shared startling news with the composer: “She’s in Paris; she was staying here only a few days ago.” Smithson had returned as director of an English theatrical company presenting dramas of the great Bard of Avon for French audiences. The troupe experienced little success on this return tour because, as Berlioz explained, “Shakespeare was no longer a novelty to the feckless and frivolous public.” His publisher, Maurice Schlesinger, arranged box seats for the actress-impresario to attend a concert presentation of Symphonie fantastique coupled for the first time with Lélio.
As the performance progressed and Shakespearean references increased, Smithson realized the Beloved’s true identity. “God,” she exclaimed, “Juliet—Ophelia! Am I dreaming? I can no longer doubt. It is of me he speaks. He loves me still.” Their official first meeting took place the next morning. An intimate relationship quickly developed. Hector and Harriet married October 3, 1833, with Franz Liszt as a witness. Their son Louis was born the following August. In later years Berlioz softened his critical portrayal of the Beloved by redrafting the program notes. Nevertheless, the fantasy underlying their relationship could not sustain a marriage. The couple officially separated in 1844, and Harriet died a decade later.
The Symphonie fantastique might easily have faded away under the weight of criticism and shattered personal illusion. However, another fate awaited this pioneering work for, as Charles Gounod explained, the symphony’s significance “may be gauged by the fanatic adherence of some and the violent opposition of others.” A legion of Romantic visionaries—Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Hugo Wolf, among others—has countered the critics with equally copious and fervent praise.
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009
Meet pianist Lang Lang after his performance for a signing outside Ravinia Gifts, located in front of the Dining Pavilion.
Autographs are at the discretion of the artist, who may elect to end the signing at any point. Purchase of official licensed merchandise is highly recommended for artist signings, and in some cases, artists require in-park purchase. Your purchase does not guarantee autograph.
Family Space, 3-4:30 p.m. – North Lawn
(music-related crafts, storytelling, and “instrument petting zoo")