Program Notes: Beethoven, Brahms & Dinnerstein
Nina Shekhar’s Lumina:
World Premiere May 12, 2022; New York, New York (12 minutes)
- Nina Shekhar is a composer and multimedia artist who explores the themes and intersection of identity, vulnerability, love and laughter.
- She double majored in chemical engineering and composition at the University of Michigan.
- Currently, she is completing a PhD in Music Composition at Princeton University.
- Hindustani classical music has influenced many of her works.
- Shekhar is an accomplished performer on flute, piano and saxophone.
Described as “tart and compelling” (New York Times), “vivid” (Washington Post) and an “orchestral supernova” (LA Times), Shekhar’s music has been commissioned and performed by leading orchestras including the LA Philharmonic, Nashville Symphony among many others. Since 2021, she has held a two-year appointment as Composer in Residence for Young Concert Artists. She is also a 2022/23 Civitelli Ranieri Foundation Music Fellow. Lumina was written for the USC Thornton Symphony and has since been performed by both the New York Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra. The piece is all about contrast, specifically the metaphorical contrast between dark and light. Her composer’s note is succinct: “Lumina explores the spectrum of light and dark and the murkiness in between. Using swift contrasts between bright, sharp timbres and cloudy textures and dense harmonies, the piece captures sudden bursts of radiance amongst the eeriness of shadows.” She believes Lumina has taken on a different meaning in a world where we seek hope in the midst of a challenging world environment.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60:
World Premiere March 7, 1807; Vienna, Austria (34 minutes)
- Ludwig van Beethoven was a pivotal figure bridging the Classical and Romantic Eras in music.
- His hearing was seriously compromised by 1806 when he wrote this symphony.
- The period from 1802 to 1812 is referred to as Beethoven’s heroic decade.
- His Fourth Symphony has dramatic moments but is overall lighter in tone.
- Beethoven was a pioneer in form, musical language and the position of the artist in society.
Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony has little of the dramaticism that pervades some of his other large works. Instead, the B-flat symphony shows us Beethoven’s wit and artistry, a mature composer at the height of his powers but with a twinkle in his eye. Composed in 1806, it shares an overall aura of serenity with other major compositions Beethoven completed that year: the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 58 and the Violin Concerto, Op. 61. His mysterious, hypnotic slow introduction initially baffled audiences in 1807, but they surely recognized Beethoven’s signature style in the symphony’s sudden contrasts and masterful woodwind writing. Delectable details abound, such as the teasing games the violins play with the winds in the trio section of the Scherzo. Listen for a whirlwind-fast bassoon solo in Beethoven’s joyous finale. Flute, oboe and clarinet each have additional occasions to shine in the finale. Here, Beethoven celebrates his classical heritage with Haydnesque humor, plus a dash of Beethovenian practical joking thrown in for spice.
Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83:
World Premiere November 9, 1881; Budapest, Hungary (46 minutes)
- Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, but spent most of his adult career in Vienna.
- As a young man, he toured Germany as a pianist with a Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi.
- He had a lifelong friendship with Robert and Clara Schumann.
- His music synthesizes classical forms with romantic musical language.
- His symphonies, concertos and chamber music are all 19th-century masterpieces.
Brahms was no wallflower when it came to integrating piano and orchestra. In his Second Piano Concerto, the two are intertwined and even embattled in a way that seemed contrary to some listeners in the late 19th century. To be sure, the pianist has a powerful solo role, a daunting one that requires remarkable physical stamina and technique as well as musical insight. The Symphony’s part is as difficult and engaging as any of Brahms’ symphonies, serenades or overtures. If anyone needed convincing that French horn was another one of Brahms’ favorite orchestral instruments, the opening to the Second Piano Concerto would clinch the argument persuasively. Dreamy and effortlessly beautiful, the unsupported horn melody sets the stage for one of the 19th century’s greatest musical dramas with simplicity and majesty. Its melody dominates the first movement. The Scherzo is passionate, impetuous and hefty: a total change of pace. Listen for the gorgeous cello solo in the slow movement. Brahms’ sense of humor, sometimes subtle and sometimes uproarious, permeates the finale.
Detroit native Nina Shekhar is a first-generation Indian American. Although she is still completing her PhD in Composition at Princeton, Shekhar is already making her mark in the music world. Her teaching activities include her role as a faculty mentor for Luna Composition Lab and Brightwork newmusic’s Project Beacon initiative. Additionally, she has already held guest composer residencies at New York University, University of Colorado, Western Michigan University and Portland State University. Shekhar’s composer’s note for Lumina is succinct:
“Lumina explores the spectrum of light and dark and the murkiness in between. Using swift contrasts between bright, sharp timbres and cloudy textures and dense harmonies, the piece captures sudden bursts of radiance amongst the eeriness of shadows.”
In an online video, she elaborates, “I portray this [contrast] musically by creating sonic clouds that use dense harmonies and microtones, which are alternate tunings in which several instruments play different inflections of the same notes. This creates the shadow-like blur effect. I contrast these sonic shadows by using brighter timbres that pop up, like harmonics and sharp attacks that represent the light.”
She adds that composers are often focused on creating new sounds, but that silence is important to Lumina, as is her Indian heritage.
“As an Indian-American, I was really inspired by Hindustani classical music, which often involves a soloist who leads a group through improvisation. The other musicians need to listen to each other, to follow each other, they need to breathe together and hear together, in order to speak together.”
Shekhar is an accomplished performer on flute, piano and saxophone. On her website, she describes herself as a composer and multimedia artist who explores the intersection of identity, vulnerability, love and laughter to create bold and intensely personal works. Her musical gifts are especially impressive given that, as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she earned dual degrees in music composition and chemical engineering. Shekhar earned a Master’s in Composition at the University of Southern California prior to her Princeton program. In February 2021, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Foundation gave Shekhar its Nissim Award for Lumina.
Instrumentation: the score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, a large percussion complement (Player I: crotales with bow and crash cymbals; Player II: vibraphone with bow, marimba; Player III: triangle, bass drum and small muted gong), harp, piano and strings.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany | Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
About the Music
Beethoven prepares us for a serious, weighty experience with his expectant slow introduction to the first movement. We anticipate minor mode, but he fools us, launching into a lighthearted Allegro full of delicacy and verve. Syncopation and canon play a major role in this exuberant opener. In the slow movement, an Adagio in E-flat major, Beethoven spins a gloriously long theme out of primarily stepwise motion, adding rhythmic and textural interest through the underlying accompaniment and in the bridge passages. He adds drama with unexpected use of the timpani, so often silent in slow movements.
Cat-and-mouse chases between woodwinds and strings characterize the Scherzo, in which a mischievous, unlikely melodic figure derives from an arpeggiated diminished seventh chord. The intervening trio provides some delightful solo woodwind opportunities. Flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon each have additional occasions to shine in the finale.
Beethoven worked on the Fourth Symphony during the summer of 1806, completing it in the autumn. In early February of 1807, he sold it to Count Franz von Oppersdorf for six months of private use. Beethoven gave two concerts in the home of either Prince Lichnowsky or Prince Lobkowitz in March, and scholars believe that the symphony received its first performance at one of those concerts.
Instrumentation: the score calls for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83
Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany | Died April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
A Paean to French Horn and Cello
Much of this first movement is a paean to the horn, which returns with its transcendent theme at key points in this monumental first act of the drama. Its poetic interaction with the piano floats into our consciousness, providing us with faith that clear skies will ultimately prevail over the tempests that follow. Brahms’ writing for the horn is both loving and knowledgeable. As Bernard Jacobson has written:
“Brahms’ use of a single instrument [horn] places all the emphasis on the intensely personal poetry of [the] unsupported horn tone, and this is borne out by the continued association of the theme with the instrument later on at two of the most magical moments in the movement.”
No less remarkable is the obbligato role that Brahms provided for principal cello in the third movement, Andante. Again, the idea of poetry in sound leaps to mind. For this intimate, private music, Brahms features the most human-sounding and the warmest of the string instruments, endowing it with a part that is prized as one of the choicest cello solos in the entire orchestral literature.
Pianist as the Dominant Stripe in an Orchestral Fabric
Where does the piano fit into this? Isn’t this supposed to be a piano concerto, after all? What was Brahms up to? For one thing, he treasured his orchestra. By 1881, he was in his late 40s, an experienced orchestral composer who fully understood his players and their potential. Second, he conceived of the piano as an integral and closely woven component of the orchestral fabric. Third, he had a gift for capturing an unexpected chamber-like moment, a brief subplot, amid the complex larger drama of this very large, decidedly symphonic composition. Horn and cello are merely the most outstanding examples of his orchestral favoritism and glorious attention to detail in the Second Concerto. There is also, for example, a delicious chamber-like role for the two clarinets in the slow movement.
Majesty, Struggle and Olympian Drama
Brahms began sketches for the Concerto in 1878 after his first Italian journey. It grew to such enormous proportions that he did not complete it for another three years, until the summer of 1881 in Pressbaum, not far from Vienna. Although perhaps less dramatic and passionate than the earlier Piano Concerto in D minor (1854-58), and less transcendently tranquil than the Violin Concerto of 1878, the B-flat Concerto has a majesty that places it in a category all its own. Serenity reigns in this work, despite Olympian drama that rages fiercely through the first two movements.
The piece requires a major piano virtuoso with stamina, physical strength and mature metaphysical insight. Its technical challenges are formidable with huge chords, a variety of demanding passage work in octaves, thirds and sixths, a complex musical texture and highly sophisticated rhythmic patterns, especially in the finale. Brahms draws upon all the formidable technical arsenal of his George Frideric “Handel” Variations for solo piano and then some. He combines the musical sophistication of his mature chamber music with the orchestral mastery of the symphonies and the virtuosic power display of the youthful piano compositions.
“A tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”
The day he completed the manuscript on July 7, 1881, Brahms wrote to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg of his most recent accomplishment: “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a Scherzo.” The massive first movement, so peaceably introduced by solo horn, is followed by a tempestuous Scherzo that breaks from tradition and emphasizes the symphonic character of this concerto. Where the opening movement expands sonata form to its very limits, the Scherzo compresses it. Explosive fury propels this movement whose tempo marking, Allegro appassionato, recalls the romantic passion of Brahms’ youthful compositions. The central Trio, in D major, bursts through the thunderous storm clouds like a joyous ray of sunlight. Ultimately, the storm returns.
Graciousness Amid Rhythmic Games
A lilting rondo tinged with Hungarian flavor closes the concerto. Brahms’ witty and graceful finale is a maze of rhythmic games. He toys with cross-rhythms and phrases that regularly travel across bar-lines, resulting in an ongoing ambivalence between duple and triple meter. Trumpets and drums have no place in this gracious movement. As Peter Latham has observed, “for the sustained lightness and brilliance of this music there is only one model—[Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart.”
Instrumentation: Brahms’ score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano and strings.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023