Myung-Whun Chung conducts Brahms, Chin and Weber

10 May 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Myung-Whun Chung

Alban Gerhardt

  • Carl Maria von Weber
    Der Freischütz, op. 77: Overture (11 min.)

  • Unsuk Chin
    Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (30 min.)

    Alban Gerhardt Cello

  • Johannes Brahms
    Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (45 min.)

  • free

    Unsuk Chin in conversation with Helge Grünewald (14 min.)

Myung-Whun Chung was born into a highly musical family as the youngest of seven children. At the age of only seven, he gave concerts with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra – the orchestra which he was to take over as musical director 53 years later. Chung has been musical director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France since 2000, and in the 2012/2013 season, he took on the position of principal guest conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Chung opens his current programme with the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, a work which more than almost any other, succinctly brings together the moods and themes of Romanticism: idyllic nature, the supernatural, love and inner conflict. Johannes Brahms’s Second Symphony is also considered a famous piece of Romantic landscape painting, which a contemporary described as all “blue sky, bubbling brooks, sunshine and cool green shade”. Brahms himself, however, saw his work differently – as “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it”.

Although the cello concert by the Berlin-based Korean composer Unsuk Chin is a contemporary work, it also suggests the music of the Romantic period, both in the sensitivity of its expression and in the almost impossible virtuosity of the solo part. The cellist here is Alban Gerhardt, who also performed the world premiere of the concerto in London in 2009. At the time, the British Guardian, which described the work as a “major contribution to the concert repertoire,” praised in particular Gerhardt’s ability to make “the score’s difficulties and teeming luminous details seem the most naturally expressive things in the world”.

Lovely Monsters

Music of Carl Maria von Weber, Unsuk Chin and Johannes Brahms

Carl Maria von Weber: Freischütz Overture

The tone makes the music – and sometimes a single note even makes musical history. The C with which Carl Maria von Weber began his overture to the Romantic opera Der Freischütz The Marksman profoundly influenced the 19th-century music world. From a simple note, evil appears in a powerful crescendo; Weber not only depicts the abyss at the edge of which the opera’s protagonists load their hunting rifles but also anticipates the possibilities of the music drama which Richard Wagner later developed, referring specifically to Weber.

Theodor W. Adorno once described Der Freischütz as an “extraterritorial work” beyond tradition – “the first large-scale musical work that no longer follows a pre-established style”. Or, in the words of the composer Dieter Schnebel, in Freischütz Weber composed music “in which things could proceed differently at any time”. Nothing illustrates this better than the overture: darkening at the very beginning, the clouding over of idyllic horn music, ominously syncopated C minor tones, a solitary clarinet, soaring and singing “con molta passione” with great passion over tremolo strings, finally a foreboding plucked G in the cellos and basses, followed by a long general pause and then a loud C major chord in the entire orchestra.

This – despite its folksiness – radical music captivated the audience at its premiere in the Schauspielhaus on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt in 1821. One melody even became so popular that Heinrich Heine would probably have been happy if the overture had been performed separately: “Haven’t you heard Maria von Weber’s Freischütz yet? No? You poor man! But haven’t you at least heard the Bridesmaids’ Chorus or the Bridal Wreath from this opera? No? Lucky man!”

Unsuk Chin: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

After a period of cultural flourishing, Korea was a vassal of China until the end of the 19th century, cut off from the outside world. The renaissance of Korean culture and South Korea’s rapid economic development as a “tiger economy” did not take place until the 20th century. During this time, three Korean composers achieved international prominence, although all three settled in Germany: the pioneer Isang Yun (1917–1995) and his two colleagues, who were both born in years with far-reaching consequences for Korea – Younghi Pagh-Paan in 1945, the year the country was divided, and Unsuk Chin in 1961, the year of the military coup in South Korea.

Chin, who grew up in a Christian minister’s household in Seoul, far removed from traditional Korean music, taught herself the fundamentals of music and played at church services and weddings as a child, thus supplementing the family’s limited budget with food and a little money. The autodidact failed the entrance exam to study music twice. Chin did not give up her musical ambitions, however, but was finally discovered and went to Hamburg with a DAAD scholarship in 1985 to complete her studies with György Ligeti. Extremely strong-willed himself, Ligeti apparently encouraged his student to defy all expectations. For a long time, Chin refused to be associated with Korean music. Only in the last few years did she cautiously approach Asia again, after her music had long since been performed in all the world’s musical centres.

Chin’s cello concerto, written five years ago, is the continuation of a series of solo concertos which were composed during her confrontation with classical works of this genre. “The unique artistry and musical mastery of cellist Alban Gerhardt inspired me immensely. Not only his solo part but also the orchestral parts are often characterized by extreme virtuosity, by the idea of the instrumentalists being pushed to the edge.”

In Chin’s four-movement work, two symphonic outer movements frame a brief, kinetic scherzo and a lyrical slow movement. As soon as the two harps have presented the note G sharp (or A flat) as a centre of gravity of sorts, the solo instrument appears as “narrator” with broad melodic lines. The movement’s title Aniri refers to traditional Korean epic pansori theatre, which is performed by a singer and a drummer. The mechanical whirring of the second movement is followed by a kind of song without words in which the plaintive cello is accompanied by, among other things, delicate double bass chords – as is often the case in Chin’s works, it sounds both familiar and strange. The finale clearly emphasizes the conflicts between the soloist and orchestra – “psychological warfare”, the composer calls it, in which the music fades away again at the end as it began – in complete silence.

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73

Johannes Brahms always attempted to conceal the traces of his works, his inspiration. Almost reluctantly, he acknowledged the thunderous applause that broke out after every movement of his new symphony – the Second – at the Vienna Musikverein in late 1877. Nevertheless, at least in the case of this work, Brahms wanted to inform friends and colleagues about what he had written in such an astonishingly short time in Pörtschach on Lake Wörth during the summer of 1877 – whereas the First Symphony had been composed over many years, the Second had essentially taken only four months. In numerous, mostly sarcastic remarks in his letters, Brahms reduced his new opus to a minor work dashed off in haste, amusing himself by leading the recipients astray. For example, he wrote his publisher, Fritz Simrock: “I have never written anything so sad, so minor: the score should be published with a black border” – an image which Brahms used several times.

Brahms’s Second Symphony is generally considered one of his most light-hearted works, so these comments were regarded primarily as evidence of his characteristic sense of humour. The musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann took Brahms at his word, however, seeking compositional analogies to these comments, which he found after only 32 bars of the first movement. After a peaceful, bucolic, even idyllic opening by the low strings and horns, Brahms suddenly has the timpani, trombones and bass tuba enter with a subdued, eerie tone. Subliminal threats like these occur throughout the symphony.

At least one of Brahms’s contemporaries noticed these undercurrents. In a letter from 1879, the conductor Vincenz Lachner asked Brahms why “the rumbling kettledrum, the gloomy, lugubrious tones of the trombones and tuba” were heard in this idyll. Obviously moved by such an insight into his music, Brahms answered “that I had very much wanted and attempted to manage without trombones in the first movement ... But their first entrance, that belongs to me, and I cannot do without it and thus the trombones. If I were to defend that passage, I would have to be long-winded. I would have to confess that I am incidentally a deeply melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping above us ...”. It is one of the fascinating characteristics of this masterpiece that such comments are in fact scarcely compatible with a listener’s impressions on first hearing – but the more one immerses oneself in the cosmos of Brahms’s Second Symphony, the more one understands why its composer referred to it as his “lovely monster”.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Myung-Whun Chung began his musical career as a pianist and made his debut at the age of seven in his native Korea with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1974, he won the second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. After studies at Mannes College and at the Juilliard School in New York, he became assistant to Carlo Maria Giulini with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Further stages of his career include chief positions with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Saarbrücken (1984 – 1990) and at the Opéra Bastille in Paris (1989 – 1994). In 2000, Myung-Whun Chung returned to Paris as musical director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. From 1997 to 2005 he was at the head of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and in 2006, he took over the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. At the beginning of the 2012/2013 season, Myung-Whun Chung also became principal guest conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. He appears worldwide with leading orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston and Chicago symphony orchestras. Myung-Whun Chung made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in late May 1984, and he last conducted the orchestra in December 2001, with works by Hans Werner Henze and Gustav Mahler. Among the awards the artist has received are the Premio Abbiati, the Arturo Toscanini prize in Italy and the appointment as “Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Government (2011). For his dedication to human rights, environmental issues and projects for youth in the battle against drugs, he has won several prizes in Korea and from UNESCO. His homeland has appointed him the First Cultural Ambassador of Korea in recognition of his services, and he has also been working as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2008.

Alban Gerhardt, born in Berlin in 1969, was a student of Boris Pergamenschikow, Markus Nyikos and Frans Helmerson. After early competition successes and first appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker (1990 in a chamber concert, and in symphony concerts under the direction of Semyon Bychkov in 1991), an international solo career began which has since taken him to perform with more than 250 different orchestras all over the world. Partners on the podium have included Christoph Eschenbach, Marek Janowski, Neeme and Paavo Järvi, Sir Neville Marriner, Andris Nelsons, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christian Thielemann and David Zinman. Alban Gerhardt’s extensive concert repertoire totals more than 70 cello concertos, including a number of rarities. His collaboration with contemporary composers such as Peteris Vasks, Brett Dean, Jörg Widmann, Osvaldo Golijov, Matthias Pintscher, Thomas Larcher, Mathias Hinke and Unsuk Chin documents his interest in extending the cello repertoire. Chamber music also plays an important role in Alban Gerhardt’s artistic activity, which takes him to international festivals such as the London Proms, the Edinburgh Festival, and major concert halls such as Suntory Hall (Tokyo) and the Châtelet in Paris. The artist performs regularly in various line-ups with Steven Osborne, Lars Vogt, Christian Tetzlaff, Lisa Batiashvili, Baiba Skride and Emmanuel Pahud. This year, 2014, he is Artist in Residence at the prestigious Wigmore Hall. Alban Gerhardt’s most recent guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in mid-April 2007 as the soloist in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

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