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Inside the Music

Program Notes: Jon Kimura Parker Plays Beethoven

Jon Kimura Parker with the Minnesota Orchestra in July 2021.
Jon Kimura Parker performing with the Minnesota Orchestra in July 2021 | Photo by Courtney Perry

On July 15, 2022, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Jon Kimura Parker Plays Beethoven, with Nicholas Collon conducting music by Carlos Simon and Ludwig van Beethoven, including Beethovens Third Piano Concerto with pianist Jon Kimura Parker, the Orchestra’s creative partner for Summer at Orchestra Hall, as soloist.

The concert takes place at Orchestra Hall on Friday, July 15, and will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT MN Channel), with William Eddins serving as broadcast host, and will be available for online streaming and on the Orchestra’s social media channels. It will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

Program Notes

Carlos Simon
Fate Now Conquers

On July 15 the Minnesota Orchestra launches its Summer at Orchestra Hall series with music that perfectly encapsulates the festival’s theme of “The Beethoven Influence”—a piano concerto and symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven himself, preceded by a recent work of American composer Carlos Simon that was inspired by Beethoven’s music and the wrestling with fate that powers some of Beethoven’s most famous compositions.

The road to “The Beethoven Influence” festival has been a long one. Curated under the leadership of pianist and Creative Partner Jon Kimura Parker, it was originally slated for 2020 to coincide with Beethoven’s 250th birthday, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic until large audiences could once again enjoy a full slate of summer concerts and activities. Simon’s Fate Now Conquers was similarly impacted by the pandemic. It was written on a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra for premiere at the end of March 2020, but with the world in lockdown at that time, the premiere was instead given on October 8, 2020, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert filmed without audiences and shared digitally.

A literary title

The title of Simon’s composition comes from the ancient Greek poet Homer’s Iliad—specifically, a passage from Book XXII that was of such importance to Beethoven that he copied it into his personal diary in an 1815 entry: “But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share in my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit. And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.”

Across five action-packed minutes, using the same instrumentation as an early Beethoven symphony (pairs of wind and brass instruments—no trombones or tuba—plus timpani and strings), Simon fashions his own dramatic representation of the timeless struggle with fate, using some Beethoven fragments as building blocks and reference points. Simon has provided the following comments on his music and the Iliad quotation in Beethoven’s journal:

“Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate. Jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona. Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depict the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.

“We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from the Iliad, in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished [himself] to fate. Fate now conquers.”

About the composer

Carlos Simon is one of the most in-demand classical composers working in the U.S. today. Last year brought two high honors: he began serving as composer in residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and was named a recipient of the Sphinx Organization’s most prestigious accolade, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. In just the next 10 months he will have new works performed by the Boston Symphony, Detroit Symphony, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Glimmerglass Festival.

The Minnesota Orchestra, too, has commissioned a major new work from Simon; called brea(d)th, it is to be scored for orchestra, choir and vocal soloists with libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Its themes are of great importance in Minneapolis and around the world—racial equity, community healing, reflection, intention and organized hope—and it will premiere in May 2023. In addition, this October the Orchestra will perform Simon’s An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Aside from composing concert works in a variety of genres from large ensembles to chamber music and opera, Simon is an experienced and award-winning film composer, music director and keyboardist who has toured nationally and internationally. His newest album, My Ancestor’s Gift, has drawn acclaim and is available on Navona Records, and his work Let America Be America Again (text by Langston Hughes) will be featured in an upcoming PBS documentary chronicling the inaugural Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music, a class he was part of in 2017. He holds a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan, where he studied with Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers, as well as degrees from Georgia State University and Morehouse College; in addition, he was a Sundance/ Time Warner Composer Fellow.

Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 37

Ludwig van Beethoven completed the main work on the score of his Third Piano Concerto in 1800. He was the soloist in the first performance, which took place in Vienna on April 5, 1803. His Symphony No. 2 (which is also featured on the July 15 program) and oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives were introduced on the same occasion.

The concert at which Beethoven introduced this concerto is alarming to read about. That day there was a rehearsal that went non-stop from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, by which time everyone was dotty with fatigue and more than ready to stop. At this point, Beethoven’s patron Prince Carl von Lichnowsky sent out for cold cuts and wine to stoke up the exhausted musicians, then asked them to run through Christ on the Mount of Olives “just one more time.” The concert itself began as scheduled at six o’clock, but ran so long that some pieces which had been planned were not performed.

Ignaz von Seyfried, the newly appointed young conductor at the Theater an der Wien, was recruited to turn pages for Beethoven, “but heaven help me!—that was easier said than done,” he reported. “I saw almost nothing but empty leaves…for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages, and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterward.”

Lean and spare

Although not much time had elapsed since Beethoven composed his Second Piano Concerto, this one does suggest an advance, especially in the sense of a specific and vivid human and musical presence. There are voices other than Beethoven’s behind those works, of course. Mozart’s C-minor Concerto is one Beethoven particularly admired; once, on hearing it, he sighed, “Ah…we shall never be able to do anything like that.” But doing “anything like that” was not really his agenda anyway; he had business of his own to attend to, and that he did superbly.

allegro con brio. The Third Piano Concerto is and feels tight compared to its expansive predecessor. The first movement’s gestures, the stark octaves, the sharply profiled rhythms, are those of a tensely dramatic music. Even so, the orchestral exposition of the first movement is remarkably spacious. The piano enters with three explosive scales and then plays its own version, at once elegant and forceful, of the opening theme. Soloist and orchestra together discourse on this. The contrasting lyric theme reappears as well. Brilliant keyboard writing plays an increasingly prominent role, and the solo brings its part of this chapter to a flashy conclusion with a spectacular scale through four and a half octaves. For this movement we have a cadenza by Beethoven, and an assertive and pianistically brilliant affair it is. Even more remarkable is Beethoven’s way of bringing the orchestra back in after the cadenza. There always tends to be a drop in tension after the razzle-dazzle of the cadenza; Beethoven, however, takes pains to make sure this moment is arresting and not conventional: he gives us something mysterious and tension-laden.

largo. For the slow movement, Beethoven chooses the key of E major, and the sound of the first hushed chord in the piano is a shock that does not lose its magic. This Largo is a movement of immeasurable depth, beautiful melodies and wonderful sounds. The sheerly sensuous element is manifest with special magic in the quietly suspended transition passages in which the dialogue of flute and bassoon is accompanied by plucked strings and wide-ranging, delicate piano arpeggios. Just before the close, which is itself a surprise, Beethoven gives a brief, written-out cadenza to be played con gran espressione (with great expression).

rondo: allegro. Beethoven starts the finale with a pun. On the piano, G-sharp, the third note of the E-major scale and the note on which the principal melodies of the Largo begin, is the same as A-flat, the sixth note in the scale of C minor and first accented note of the finale’s main theme. Later in this vigorous Rondo he makes the pun more obvious. And with admirable surefootedness, he introduces a fugued interlude just when a change of pace and texture is needed. This movement, too, has a cadenza at its end. And like Mozart in his concerto in the same key, Beethoven has the music emerge from that cadenza with a rush to the finish in a new key (C major), a new meter (6/8) and a new tempo (presto).

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

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford, 1998), used with permission.

The Creative Partner for Summer at Orchestra Hall position is supported by Marilyn and Glen Nelson.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36

Beethoven liked to get away from Vienna during the summer, and in April 1802 he rented rooms in the village of Heiligenstadt, which had fields and forests where he could take long walks. He remained there a long time, not returning to the city until October, but his lengthy stay had nothing to do with the beauty of the setting. That summer the composer finally had to face the dark truth that his hearing was failing, that there was no hope, and that he would eventually go deaf; evidence suggests that he considered suicide that summer.

Yet from these depths, Beethoven wrote some of his most genial music, a fact that should warn us not to make easy connections between a creator’s life and his art. The Symphony No. 2, chief among the works he completed that despairing summer, is as sunny a piece of music as he ever wrote, with an atmosphere of non-stop energy that made it seem audacious to those who first heard it. Like the Piano Concerto No. 3 that precedes it on this program, it received its premiere at a performance in Vienna on April 5, 1803.

Dark despair, sunny music

adagio molto–allegro con brio. The slow introduction begins with a great explosion: the orchestra has a unison D, marked fortissimo, and then moves through an unexpected range of keys, its rhythms growing increasingly animated as it proceeds. At the Allegro con brio, Beethoven introduces as his main theme a figure for lower strings that seems almost consciously athematic: there is nothing melodic about this motif, which rushes ahead, curving around a 16th-note turn as it goes. Yet built into it is a vast amount of energy, and much of the development will grow out of the turn. The second subject, innocent and good-natured, arrives in the wind band. Beethoven develops both these ideas, but the turn-figure dominates the movement, including a muttering, ominous modulation for strings at the end of the development. The movement drives to a wonderful climax, the sound of trumpets stinging through a splendid mass of orchestral sound, and the turn-figure propels the music to a close on the same unison D that opened the movement.

larghetto. The second movement is not really a slow movement in the traditional sense, but a moderately-paced sonata-form movement built on a profusion of themes. Beethoven develops these lyric ideas at luxurious length: this is the longest movement in the symphony.

scherzo: allegro. The Scherzo erupts with another unison D, and out of this explosion leap three-note salvos. Beethoven seems unusually alert here to where these sounds are coming from: the three-note cannonades jump up from all over the orchestra. By contrast, the trio brings a gentle tune, but the remarkable thing about both scherzo and trio is that each opening statement is quite brief, while the second strains are long and take the music through unexpected harmonic excursions.

allegro molto. The finale opens with an abrupt flourish, and from this brief figure Beethoven generates most of the last movement, deriving much of the music from the flourish’s opening F-sharp/G slide and its concluding drop of a fifth. Full of boundless energy and good spirits, this rondo offers a flowing second theme for lower strings (Beethoven marks it dolce) and a genial tune for woodwinds over chirping string accompaniment. But the opening flourish always returns to whip this movement forward and to give the music its almost manic character, and the symphony drives to a conclusion that is—one last time—a ringing D for full orchestra.

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

Program note by Eric Bromberger.