Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto: Brilliance, Structure and Symmetry

Regarding his first two piano concertos, Béla Bartók wrote, I consider my First Piano Concerto a good composition, although its structure is a bit – indeed one might say very — difficult for both audience and orchestra. That is why a few years later…I composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasing in its thematic material…Most of the themes in the piece are more popular and …

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Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”: Paavo Järvi and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra

Maurice Ravel completed the solo piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in 1917 amid the devastation of the First World War. The 17th century word, tombeau, refers to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel dedicated each of the suite’s movements to the memory of a friend who was lost in the war. Yet, there is nothing somber or elegiac about this music. The bleak, mechanized dehumanization of the twentieth century battlefield is left …

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Franco Donatoni’s “Hot”: Imaginary Jazz

The young virtuoso saxophonist, Ryan Muncy, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week. Critics noted his talent and capacity to “show off the instrument’s malleability and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement.” (The Chicago Reader) Before joining the International Contemporary Ensemble, he served as saxophonist and artistic director of the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente. Muncy’s solo debut album, Hot, was released in 2013. The title track features a thrilling 1989 chamber …

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Walter Piston’s “Three New England Sketches”: American Vistas

The American composer, Walter Piston, wrote Three New England Sketches during the summer of 1959 at his retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The symphonic suite was commissioned by the Worcester (Massachusetts) County Musical Association for its 100th Annual Music Festival. Founded in 1858, the Festival is billed as the oldest of its kind in the United States. (Antonín Dvořák performed there in 1898). Walter Piston dedicated the score of Three New England Sketches to …

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Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”: A “Liturgical Dialogue”

In the original Greek, the word, symphony, translates as “sounding together.” Igor Stravinsky was referring to this meaning of the word (as opposed to symphonic form) when he selected the title, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Scored for an ensemble of 24 woodwind and brass players, the piece was composed in 1920, and was dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, who died two years earlier. Its 1921 premiere in London, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, …

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Hanson’s “Romantic” Second Symphony: A Cinematic, Cyclic Journey

The American composer, Howard Hanson, was born in 1896 in the small Nebraska prairie town of Wahoo. Hanson served as the director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years, beginning in 1924. In the middle of the twentieth century, his influence was so great that he was hailed as the “Dean of American Composers and spokesman for music in America.” At a time when formalism and atonality ruled, Hanson’s warmly melodic, Neo-romanticism …

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Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia”: A Prayerful Fanfare

The American composer Randall Thompson (1899–1984) composed his famous Alleluia over the course of five days at the beginning of July, 1940. The work for a cappella chorus was first performed on July 8th of that year for the formal opening of the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center). Serge Koussevitsky, the festival’s founder and the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked Thompson to write a celebratory “fanfare” for voices. …

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