Program Notes: Erin Keefe Plays Brahms

Program Notes: Erin Keefe Plays Brahms

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Full program notes:

Kevin Puts
Born: January 3, 1972, St. Louis, Missouri; now living in Yonkers, New York

The largest success thus far in Kevin Puts’ career came just across the river: his debut opera Silent Night, commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota Opera, won him the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Puts’ output, however, extends well beyond his opera about the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of World War I. During the past two decades he has received commissions and performances from many major ensembles and institutions; among them are the New York Philharmonic, Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Boston Pops, Mirò Quartet, Eroica Trio, Carnegie Hall and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In March 2015 the Minnesota Opera premiered a second commissioned opera, The Manchurian Candidate, like Silent Night on a libretto from Mark Campbell. Future premieres include an orchestral work featuring soprano Renée Fleming and a chamber opera for Opera Philadelphia.

The Minnesota Orchestra, too, has commissioned Puts: in 2006 it premiered his Sinfonia concertante for five soloists and orchestra. His ties here have grown even stronger since. In 2014 he was named director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, succeeding the program’s founding director Aaron Jay Kernis.

Two Mountain Scenes was co-commissioned by Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival and the New York Philharmonic in celebration of the Festival’s 20th anniversary. The Philharmonic, led by Bramwell Tovey, premiered the work at Avery Fisher Hall on July 3, 2007. Puts offers these comments on the work:

“With the impressive backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in mind, I set out to create a true showpiece for the stellar musicians of the New York Philharmonic. The first movement, marked Maestoso, begins with a quartet of virtuoso trumpets combined to create the sonic illusion of a single trumpet reverberating across the valley. The strings answer with lyrical melodies which rise and fall in long-breathed arches, suggesting the silhouettes of mountain peaks. The second movement (Furioso) begins in the swirl of a mountain storm, with torrents of arpeggios played by the strings. Distant bells ring out in the valley far below; the woodwinds adopt their rhythms and press forward insistently, gaining momentum as the music builds to a climactic finish.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, tamtam, triangle, 4 woodblocks, crotales, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, piano, harp and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.


Carl Nielsen
Born: June 9, 1865, Nørre-Lyndelse, Denmark

Died: October 3, 1931, Copenhagen, Denmark

Symphony No. 6, Sinfonia semplice

in 1952, when Homer Ulrich published Symphonic Music: Its Evolution since the Renaissance, Carl Nielsen’s name did not even appear in the index. By 1980, when The New Grove appeared, Nielsen’s star was ascendant: he was identified as “the central figure in Danish music after the Romantic period.” Yet today, a century and a half after Nielsen’s birth, his music remains comparatively rare on American orchestral programs. Osmo Vänskä has done much to alter that imbalance, programming Nielsen’s music at nearly 50 Minnesota Orchestra concerts since 2003 and bringing Symphony No. 3 to Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra in 2011. These performances of Nielsen’s Sinfonia semplice are, in part, a celebration of Nielsen’s sesquicentennial.

Nielsen’s Scandinavian predecessors tended to emulate European composers, embracing the musical language and forms prevalent in Germany, Austria and France. Nielsen and Sibelius, on the other hand, forged boldly into unfamiliar musical turf, particularly in the realm of symphonic form. In the process, they gave the Nordic countries a distinctive and unique musical voice, while endowing the world of music with a substantially richer legacy. By a curious twist of fate, both Sibelius and Nielsen were born in 1865. While their lives and careers took vastly different paths, they are bonded in music history through shared Scandinavian heritage, and because they both declared independence from the dominant musical influence of Austria and Germany.

Nielsen’s student works show the influence of the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen and of the Bohemian Antonín Dvořák. His individual style, however, was already apparent in his Suite for Strings, Opus 1, written when he was 23. Nielsen composed in many genres—opera, chorus, chamber music—but made his greatest contribution as a symphonist. Spanning the period from 1892 to 1925, his six symphonies show progressively more daring breaks with tradition. His countryman Povl Hamburger has described them as delineating Nielsen’s progress “from a predominantly Scandi- navian late classicism to a rather advanced international modernism.”

Sinfonia semplice was Nielsen’s final essay as a symphonist, but not his final work with orchestra. The next year he wrote a Flute Concerto, the first of a projected series of five wind concertos, one for each instrument of a woodwind quintet. Unfortunately Nielsen died before completing that ambitious project. But its dual impetus—an increasing interest in the specific timbres of individual instruments and a striving for orchestral transparency—are evident in the Sixth Symphony.

An Enigmatic Subtitle

Don’t be misled by the subtitle Sinfonia semplice. This is not simple music. We might think of it as Nielsen’s Enigma Variations, not because of its last movement variations, but because it is a work that baffles as it entertains, arousing our curiosity more than it answers our questions. We don’t really know what Nielsen “meant,” any more than we know what was Elgar’s “enigma.”

Plenty of musical debate swirls around the Sixth Symphony’s legacy. Initially, Robert Simpson thought the Sixth tragic, particularly its first movement, writing of “loss of and fruitless search for a state of childlike joy.” Essentially he was disappointed and unreceptive. Twelve years later, Simpson did a complete about-face in his assessment. Backpedaling furiously, he wrote that the Sixth “became increasingly convincing and impressive... completely persuasive as a masterpiece, though I could not explain why this is so.”

That is perhaps Nielsen’s enigma: we cannot explain why this music eats itself into our subconscious. In The New Grove II, David Fanning summarizes the paradox: “This Sinfonia semplice turned out to be the most complex and puzzling of his large-scale works. It may still be said to be about the aspiration toward simplicity, but it is held together by a recurring pattern of violated innocence. Such positive resolution as it enjoys has to do with acceptance, resignation and defiance.”

What does this rhetoric mean for what we actually hear? Structurally the symphony appears fairly conventional: a brisk first movement; a second movement Humoreske that functions as a scherzo; a slow movement; and a concluding set of variations. The outer movements are relatively long; the inner two significantly shorter. Each movement has a distinct personality.

tempo giusto. Nielsen told his daughter in 1924 that his new symphony would have a “completely idyllic character.” His Allegro giusto opens in that benign mode, with glockenspiel, a gentle string theme and lovely woodwind duets. The musical message you are likely to retain, however, is a spiky, meandering fugue that asserts itself a few minutes in. Its dotted rhythms, wide leaps and triplets dominate the fabric thereafter. Eventually Nielsen superimposes music of both segments, driving toward a passionate outburst that all but erases memory of the tranquil opening. What began simply has become very complex indeed, and while the movement defuses the tension, ending quietly, Nielsen has left much unresolved.

humoreske: allegretto. Anyone familiar with the biting sarcasm of Shostakovich and Prokofiev will recognize an analogous spirit in Nielsen’s Humoreske. The composer wrote: “I have in my symphony a piece for small percussion instruments—triangle, glockenspiel, and side-drum—that quarrel, each sticking to its own tastes and likings. Times change. Where is music going? What is permanent? We don’t know! This idea is found in my little Humoreske.” Here we have the modernist satire of Poulenc as well as the Russians, with the strains of circus music filtered through the lens of a Danish composer.

proposta seria: adagio. In Proposta seria, Nielsen shifts gears again with a poignant elegy. “In the first and third movements there are more serious, problematical things,” he wrote. His use of another fugue links the slow movement to the opening Tempo giusto. Proposta ends quietly, on a note of solace, hinting at the brighter finale.

tema con variazioni: allegro. Nielsen concludes with a theme and nine variations, plus a concluding fanfare and peroration. An opening flourish from the upper woodwinds sets the stage. Unaccompanied bassoon introduces Nielsen’s theme, in a solo comparable to the unforgettable opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The variations unfold without pause, preserving the transparency that characterizes much of Sinfonia semplice. Several of them are like chamber music: a fugato for strings; an ensemble of bassoon, tuba, xylophone and percussion. The dance hall lilt of a waltz is countered by an elegiac Adagio variation. The brass fanfare toward the end ushers in a rollicking coda. The music evokes the carnival atmosphere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, a work Nielsen is known to have admired. Like that ballet score, this symphony has layered messages of irony, sadness, beauty and humor, fear and hope.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, side drum, triangle, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel and strings

Program note © 2016 by Laurie Shulman.


Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 77

Like his Haydn Variations, Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto during a summer spent in a lovely location: the resort town of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee, a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was 1878, and in a letter to a friend he noted how much he felt like writing music there: “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to tread on them.” The composer set out to write something for his friend and colleague of 25 years, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who was both soloist and conductor at the work’s premiere in Leipzig on January 1, 1879.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto is extraordinarily difficult for the soloist, and in a famous jibe it has been called “a concerto against the violin rather than for it.” It requires a tremendous violinist, one with the ability to make huge leaps and land with dead-center accuracy, to project the violin’s sound over a large orchestra, and to have hands big enough to play the tenths that Brahms frequently calls for. Yet the work is not showy or flashy. Violin and orchestra are beautifully integrated, with the melodic line flowing seamlessly between them, and the soloist’s skills always at the service of the music, rather than the reverse.

allegro non troppo. Brahms stays close to classical tradition in the first movement of the concerto, where a long orchestral exposition introduces the themes before the entrance of the violinist. The very beginning, with its arching and falling main subjects, is dis- tinctive for the way the composer manages to disguise the meter: it is in 3/4, yet the stresses of the opening phrases obscure the downbeats. Solo oboe introduces the second theme, and the full string section stamps out the third. Only when these themes have been fully presented does the solo violin enter, with a dazzling two-octave run up the scale, followed by a series of blistering string-crossings.

This big, dramatic movement can make a huge sound, with all the thrust and fire a concerto should have. But Brahms’ performance instructions make clear that he believed the true character of this music to be dolce, espressivo, tranquillo, lusingando (coaxing, charming). Much of the writing for violin is graceful and lyric, and in particular Brahms’ transformation of the second subject into a slow waltz is a moment of pure magic.

Perhaps as a nod to Joachim, Brahms did not write out a cadenza for the first movement; Joachim produced one that is splendid, and others since have been drawn to write their own. The return of the orchestra at the end of the cadenza is another magical moment: over quiet accompaniment, the violinist lays out once again the movement’s opening theme and then takes it very high on long sustained notes as the orchestra sings far below. Gradually the music descends from these Olympian heights, gathers momentum and strength, and hurtles to the resounding D-major chord that closes the movement.

adagio. The entire opening statement of the second movement, in F major, is given to the wind choir, and the solo oboe announces the movement’s main idea. When the solo violin enters, it is with music that is already a variation of the oboe’s noble song. The center section, moving to F-sharp minor, grows much more impassioned, with the violin burning its way high above the orchestra before the return of the poised opening material and a graceful close.

allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace. The final movement is the expected rondo, which Brahms marks allegro giocoso (fast and happy), but he also specifies ma non troppo vivace (not too fast). Brahms loved Hungarian music (which means, more exactly, gypsy music), and many have remarked on the Hungarian flavor of this movement. It is difficult for the soloist, full of extended passages in octaves and great leaps across the range of the violin, yet with wonderfully lyric interludes along the way. A great cascade of runs from the violinist introduces the coda, where Brahms subtly recasts the 2/4 rondo tune so that it seems to be in 6/8. This gathers strength, and all appears set for the expected closing fireworks. But in the last measures Brahms springs one final surprise, winding the music down so that it seems almost to have lost its way before three great chords ring out to proclaim the true close.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

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