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Howland Chamber Music Circle - Piano Festival

  • Howland Chamber Music Circle 477 Main Street Beacon, NY, 12508 United States (map)

Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310                                                          MOZART
      Allegro maestoso                                                                        (1756-1791) 
      Andante cantabile con expressione

Phrygian Gates                                                                              JOHN ADAMS
                                                                                                                   (1947- )


Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”                      BEETHOVEN
      Largo: Allegro                                                                               (1770-1827)

Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)                                             SCHUBERT

Program subject to change.


Program Notes

Michael Lebovitch

MOZART                                                         Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310

The A minor sonata was written in Paris in the summer of 1778, just a few months after Mozart had made a delightful discovery of the latest pianos, an instrument of greater dynamic range, musical expressiveness, and technical capabilities.  He specifically took advantages of it in emphasizing the left hand to which, in key moments, he occasionally assigned the carrying of the melody to an impressive effect.  It is possible that having access to these new pianos that gave him confidence to mark the central Andantemovement to be played espressione, with great feeling.

In the First movement, Mozart combines the colorful harmonic palette and tautness of rhythm, with many distinctive touches, such as a dissonance at the second bar, or the running semiquavers.   Lyricism is very evident in the Second movement, Andante contabile – a full, luxuriously decorated sonata-form movement of extraordinary beauty.  Those expecting the Finale movement to be exuberant or more relaxed will be wrong:  the mood overall is tense, the insistent rhythm of the main theme of the rondo keep a tight control of the movement.  The only relaxation comes in second section of the movement with a more warming sound.   The A minor sonata reflects his deep grief over the loss of his mother while in Paris.


JOHN ADAMS                                                               Phrygian Gates

The 1970s was a time of enormous ideological conflict in new music when the assumptions of post-Schoenbergian aesthetics finally began to be challenged by composers who saw little future in the principles of serialism.  Musicologists felt that Minimalism in art music was a reaction to the rational methods of composition and the lack of emotion in serial music and other modern forms. Often minimalist composers strive to create a simple melodic line and harmonic progression; they stress repetition, often with minute variations, and rhythmic patterns. Minimalists often add electronic instruments and accentuate their works with musical ideas from Asia and Africa.  

Minimalist music is then a reductive style or school of modern music, utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, with, often, a pulsing, hypnotic effect.  Among prominent minimalist composers are Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and John Adams.

The Phrygian Gates composition dates from 1977-78.  He considered it, along with China Gates of the same period, as his “opus one”.  Although John Adams is best known for his orchestral and operatic works, his first two piano works had a profound effect on the composer’s stylistic development, the first coherent statement of a new musical language.  The title word “Gates” is a metaphor for moments of an abrupt change used in electronic music, a term for rapidly shifting modes. 

Adams wanted to write something grand, with subtle technique, and for powerful hands.  The result is a broad scheme of textural variety, pitch cell development, and dynamic contrast.  Adams considered this work to be most strictly structured and ordered.  The composition is set in the Phrygian mode (a musical scale dating to ancient Greeks), and cycles through half the keys throughout its roughly 20-minute duration.  Repetitive segments grow in dynamics or retreat to quieter moments, eliciting a mesmerizing effect on a listener.


BEETHOVEN                                   Piano Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”

The three piano sonatas the comprise Op. 31 were written during 1801-02 in the composer’s 31st year.  This is about the time when Beethoven declared dissatisfaction with his prior works and set out to what he called “the new path”.   Unquestionably, sonata Op. 31, No. 2, his 17th piano sonata, is a product of the new direction:  it is a tense, extremely dramatic work that stands in great contrast to prior sonatas.  This work is traditionally known as the “Tempest” sonata due to Beethoven’s reported answer to a question about the meaning of “Sturm und Drang” to read Shakespeare’s Tempest.

The intensely theatrical First movement opens with contrasts of a slow Largo and a brisk Allegro.  Much of the movement features a rising bass under passages of sequences.  The Second movement recalls the sonata’s opening, the tranquilly songful slow Adagio.  The Finale movement is often referred to as “haunted”: it’s a minor-mood sonata form with an extensive development section.  An oddly restive, lengthy code brings the sonata to a quiet end.


SCHUBERT                                                      Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)

Schubert, unlike his contemporaries Beethoven and Weber, was not known to be a piano virtuoso, nor did he believe in writing music to show off technical brilliance.  The challenges in performing his music are the expressiveness of musical lines and extraordinarily complex, large musical structures of his compositions.  The Wanderer Fantasy stands out as a particularly technically difficult work:  when Schubert attempted to play this piece to his friends, midway through the finale, he broke down, exclaiming that “the Devil should play this piece”.

The Fantasy, composed in 1822, anticipates the most dazzling pianistic achievements of Liszt.  It was a truly pioneering work:  never before had a composer taken the elements of symphonic structure and worked them into linked movements of a single expressive idea.  The theme takes its name from a motif from Schubert’s song “Der Wanderer” where it is associated with a traveler pacing alone through a cold and empty world.  From this motif, Schubert develops the first section with a skill that rivals Beethoven’s.  The Adagio middle section is somber that dissolves in a cascade of notes, again reminiscent of Beethoven.  In the final section, Schubert builds a massive fugue, with powerful octaves starting in the bass line, which brings the work to a powerful conclusion.

Earlier Event: January 4
Chicago Symphony Center - Recital