03 Dec 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Alan Gilbert

Frank Peter Zimmermann

  • John Adams
    Short Ride in a Fast Machine (5 min.)

  • Béla Bartók
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2, Sz 112 (39 min.)

    Frank Peter Zimmermann Violin

  • John Adams
    Lollapalooza for orchestra (7 min.)

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36 (48 min.)

  • free

    Alan Gilbert in conversation with Andreas Ottensamer (18 min.)

Many people were taken by surprise when Alan Gilbert, then the chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Stockholm, was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the 2009/10 season. After all, the native of New York was the youngest chief conductor to head up the orchestra, and since Leonard Bernstein the first American to assume this prestigious position in the music world. Alan Gilbert first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006; at his subsequent Philharmonic concerts as well he always appeared, in the opinion of the Berliner Morgenpost, like a “radiant winner”. “I had,” the unpretentious maestro has said, “the good fortune to study with Bernstein. His enthusiasm had even more of a formative effect than his style. His love of music and of people – which was the same for him – has been a very important influence.”

At this year’s guest appearance in Berlin, Alan Gilbert takes on two works by this year’s Composer in Residence John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a work in which the music flows through the room with rhythmically pulsating force and seems to suspend the laws of gravity with light instrumentation; in addition, the orchestra plays Lollapalooza for large symphony orchestra, composed as a gift for Sir Simon Rattle’s 40th birthday: the motifs that overlap in ever different ways, the complicated rhythms, make this music a thrilling furioso until the last beat of the drum.

With Béla Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, the programme continues with a lyrical work that contains “warmly flowing, happily singing melodies” and is “elated by a youthful fervour” (György Kroó). The soloist is Frank-Peter Zimmermann, one of the most distinguished violinists today, known around the world for his brilliant playing – full of elegance, facility, intensive magnetism and tastefully proportioned vibrato: “To play Bartók’s Second Concerto with an outstanding orchestra is unbelievably gratifying.” The evening is rounded off with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, in which, in the words of the well-known music critic Hermann Laroche, the composer artfully succeeded in “combining the tragic with the insouciance of ballet-like rhythms”. Tchaikovsky himself called the threatening-sounding brass fanfare at the beginning the “seed” of the whole symphony. “This is Fate, that fateful force which prevents the impulse towards happiness from attaining its goal.”

Orchestral Works by John Adams, Béla Bartók and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Breathtaking and captivating: Two orchestral compositions by John Adams

John Adams, born in 1947 and – with Steve Reich and Philip Glass – one of the leading exponents of “minimalism”, is the orchestra’s composer-in-residence this season. In mid-September he conducted two evenings of his own music. Now Alan Gilbert and the Berliner Philharmoniker present two of his short compositions: Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) exhibits the characteristic features of minimalist music: steady pulse, repeated patterns and consonant harmony. The exuberant, brilliantly scored work begins delirando. Over the relentless rhythm of woodblocks (Adams uses the word “sadistic”!) the brass play a syncopated figure. Woodwind and strings enter in uneven rhythms, also syncopated. The middle section is lighter, more transparent, but the work ends as wildly as it began. As to its title, the composer explains: “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

Adams composed Lollapalooza in 1995 as a 40th-birthday present for Simon Rattle. The exact meaning and etymology of the word are uncertain. It probably first appeared around the turn of the 20th century and signifies something extraordinarily impressive. For Adams, it “suggests something large, outlandish, oversized, not unduly refined”. Its vagueness, he writes, may account for its popularity as an archetypical American word.

In a brief note, Adams has written how his piece is derived from the internal rhythm of the word “lollapalooza”, da-da-da-DAAH-da: “In my piece, the word is spelled out in the trombones and tubas, C-C-C-E flat-C (emphasis on the E flat) as a kind of ideé fixe. The “lollapalooza” motive is only one of a profusion of other motives, all appearing and evolving in a repetitive chain of events that moves this dancing behemoth along until it ends in a final shout by the horns and trombones and a terminal thwack on timpani and bass drum.”

Lyricism and full-blooded tone: Béla Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto

Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 had a long and complicated genesis. In autumn 1936 the composer asked his publisher for the scores of various violin concertos, whereupon Universal Edition sent him specimens by Kurt Weill, Karol Szymanowski and Alban Berg. Shortly afterwards he was asked for a concerto by the violinist Zoltán Székely. Bartók apparently began writing his work in the spring of 1937 but failed to make much progress. In June he notified his publishers that he would break off composition if they did not agree to grant Székely his concerto’s exclusive performing rights. Though the publishers did consent, the work initially still hung fire and so Bartók turned to composing the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Thereafter he was able to concentrate on the new concerto, completing it in autumn 1938. Before orchestrating it late that summer, he also wrote Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano. In November he accepted a further commission from Paul Sacher, which in summer 1939 resulted in the Divertimento for string orchestra. The Violin Concerto had its premiere on 23 March 1939 in Amsterdam, with Székely as soloist accompanied by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.

Full-toned lyricism predominates from the outset in this concerto. The first movement, introduced by harp and pizzicato violins, is laid out in sonata form. Its songful theme, in 4/4 time and set in the rhythm of the Hungarian dance verbunkos, returns in the finale, but now in 3/4, dancelike and “con spirito”. In the opening movement’s solo cadenza, Bartók breaks free from restrictive tonality, experimenting with quarter-tones and, in the passage marked Calmo (bar 73ff), with what he described as a “sort of twelve-note theme, but with distinct tonality”. The slow movement is the sole large variation movement in Bartók’s oeuvre. In the first variation he uses the timpani as a melody instrument, playing in unison with plucked double basses. In Variation 2 the theme is fragmented but then experiences a sort of coalescence in the harp, woodwind and celesta parts. No. 3 is rhythmic in character; in No. 4 the theme has moved from the soloist down to the lower strings, the violin decorating it with trills and other ornaments. The fifth variation (Allegro scherzando) is brilliantly coloured by harp glissandi and interjections from the piccolo, side drum and triangle; the sixth is more dancelike. In rondo form, the finale is freer and rhapsodic in character, dominated by rhythmic vitality and momentum. This movement does not so much paraphrase the first as amplify it. Bartók composed two versions of the final bars: the first is almost exclusively for orchestra; the second – at the request of Székely – is soloistically brilliant and makes a powerful effect. It is heard in these concerts.

Homage to his dearest friend: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

In 1877, Tchaikovsky made the acquaintance of Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Baltic German railway industrialist – a remarkable relationship lasting a decade and a half in which both protagonists communicated only by letter and avoided personal contact. The correspondence between Tchaikovsky and his patron is more than just a biographical document. It also contains details of his plans and work on his compositions as well as his explanatory notes and comments on them.

In his correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky called the Fourth “our symphony”. It is, moreover, the only one of his works whose content the composer himself characterized in words. The opening bars of the first movement represent “Fate”: “This is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal... It is an invincible force that can never be overcome – merely endured, hopelessly.” The second theme leads to dreamlike bliss as “at last a sweet and tender vision appears” to the composer, “some blissful, radiant human image”. But once again menacing Fate intervenes: “Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths.” A completely different mood prevails in the following Andantino in modo di canzona, “the melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when one sits alone, tired from work, having picked up a book but let it fall from one’s hands. A whole host of memories appears.” The third movement sidesteps any specific emotion and seems to be entirely playful in character. The work ends affirmatively: “Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.” Fate may still threaten but it no longer gains the upper hand. Tchaikovsky’s remarks are contradictory. He himself admitted they were unclear, stressing the tendency of instrumental music to defy (verbal) analysis. He considered the symphony the most lyrical of musical forms and posed the question: “Ought it not to express everything for which there are no words, but which gushes forth from the soul and cries out to be expressed?”

Helge Grünewald

Translation Richard Evidon

Alan Gilbert has been music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season, the first person to hold the post born in New York. He was taught the violin by his parents from an early age, then Gilbert first studied composition at Harvard and at the New England Conservatory of Music. After completing his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School in New York, he worked for several years as a violinist and violist before taking to the conductors stand in 1995. From January 2000 until June 2008, Alan Gilbert was chief conductor and artistic advisor at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom, as conductor laureate, he still has close ties. From 2003 to 2006, he was music director of Santa Fe Opera, and in 2004 he became principal guest conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg. Alan Gilbert has conducted productions at leading opera houses and has performed with orchestras such as the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Orchestre de Paris, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as well as the most prestigious orchestras in the USA and Japan. Alan Gilbert conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in February 2006, and most recently in November 2014, with works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Nielsen. In September 2011, Alan Gilbert became Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, where he is also the first holder of Juilliard’s William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies. He was named a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 2010 he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. Elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2014, he has now also been named an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He received a 2015 Foreign Policy Association Medal for his commitment to cultural diplomacy.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was born in Duisburg in 1965 and was only five when he had his first violin lessons. By the age of ten he had made his debut performing one of Mozart’s violin concertos. After studying with Valery Gradov, Saschko Gawriloff and Herman Krebbers, he began his international career in 1983 and quickly rose to the very top of his profession. He now appears as a soloist with all the world’s leading orchestras and with all its most eminent conductors. Zimmermann has given the first performances of four new violin concertos: Matthias Pintscher’s en sourdine with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Peter Eötvös in 2003; Brett Dean’s The Lost Art of Letter Writing, premiered with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2007 under the direction of the composer; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Juggler in Paradise in January 2009 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Andrey Boreyko. In December 2015 he gave the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the London Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Among Frank Peter Zimmermann’s chamber partners are the pianists Piotr Anderszewski, Enrico Pace and Emanuel Ax; with the violist Antoine Tamestit and the cellist Christian Poltéra he founded the Trio Zimmermann in 2007, together they have appeared at the festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival and the Rheingau Musik Festival. Among the awards that the violinist has received are the Premio dellʼ Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena (1990) and the Music Prize of the City of Duisburg (2002). In 2008 he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Federal German Order of Merit. Frank Peter Zimmermann made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985 and since then has returned on numerous occasions; most recently he was heard in January 2016, when he performed the German premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2, conducted by Daniel Harding.

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