The National Symphony Orchestra announced last week that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas would be withdrawing from concerts November 16 and 18 on his doctor’s recommendation. We will miss him and wish him well. Conductor Ken-David Masur will replace him, in a program of Mozart and Mendelssohn featuring pianist Orion Weiss.
As you might have guessed, Ken-David Masur is the son of longtime New York Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur. Currently, he is music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony’s Civic Orchestra for 2023-24. He is noted for innovative programs including a Water Festival, which highlighted local community partners whose work centers on conservation and education.
The concert will feature Mozart’s Overture from La Clemenza di Tito, an opera seria written in 1791, the year of his death. It was a commission to celebrate the crowning of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague. Royalty was not impressed, with the emperor’s wife Maria Luisa declaring the opera “una porcheria tedescha.” (German filth). Of course, she has been proven wrong by more discerning music lovers.
American pianist Orion Weiss, celebrated as “an effortlessly brilliant performer” by The Washington Post, will be the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23. William Congreve wrote that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” and according to the Shostakovich/Volkov memoir Testimony, this concerto proves the point with one of the most savage breasts of all time—Stalin's. According to the memoir, the concerto was a favorite of his, especially when played by a certain Maria Yudina, a vocal anti-Stalin pianist. Instead of packing her off to the camps as he would anyone else who disagreed with him publicly, Stalin sent her a monetary gift which she promptly donated to her church, so God would forgive his “great” sins.
Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, the “Scottish” will round out the program. Financed by his rich family, the 20-year-old Mendelssohn began his Grand Tour in Scotland, under the romantic influence of such writers as Sir Walter Scott. Being a multi-talented young man, he recorded his Scottish itinerary in a series of over 30 sketches. Kind of like a 19th Century Instagram page.
In 1829, he wrote home: “in the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; The chapel is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.” Although it took him 13 years to write the symphony, he dedicated it to another British Queen, Victoria. I’m not sure Mary would have approved.
November 16, 7:00 p.m. and Sat November 18, 8 p.m.
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Ken-David Masur, conductor
Orion Weiss, piano
Mozart: Overture from La Clemenza di Tito
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K.488
Mendelssohn: Symphony No.3, “Scottish”
When violinist Maxim Vengerov was 5 years old, he was taken to a prestigious teacher, who asked him: “Do you have strength in these hands?” Little Maxim proved that he did, the only way he knew how, by punching her in the stomach. He remembers: “fortunately, she was in a good mood that day, and she accepted me as a student.”
Today the eminent violinist and conductor is recognized for his breathtaking performances around the globe, award-winning recordings, wide-ranging musical curiosity, and inspiring humanitarian efforts. He performs on the renowned 1727 “ex-Kreutzer” Stradivarius.
Internationally acclaimed pianist Polina Osetinskaya (who also began her career somewhat less violently, at the age of 5) will join Vengerov in an evening of works by Clara and Robert Schumann, Brahms, and Prokofiev.
Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano opens the program. These were composed in 1853, three years before her husband’s death. Sadly, she never composed again after his passing.
1853 was the same year the angelic young Brahms showed up on the Schumann’s doorstep, causing Clara to write in her diary: “Here is one of those who comes as if sent straight from God.” The F-A-E Sonata was written as a gift for Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, F.A.E. being the initials of Joachim’s motto (Frei aber einsam—Free but alone). Brahms wrote the Scherzo movement, Schumann an intermezzo and finale and another friend, Albert Dietrich supplied the opening. Joachim loved the sonata and played the piece through with Clara Schumann.
The next day, Schumann decided to amplify his contribution to the F-A-E Sonata into a full sonata and finished the whole in just 3 days. But his illness intervened, and it took 103 years for it to be published and premiered.
Maxim Vengerov has said of Mstislav Rostropovich: “He’s like a grandfather to me. He has broadened my views of music and introduced me to composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev as if they were still alive and I was actually meeting them.”
The second half of the program will be devoted to the music of Prokofiev, starting with Five Melodies, his opus 35. While on tour in America in 1919, Prokofiev met and fell in love with Lina Ivanovna Llubera, a young Cuban singer. He initially wrote the Melodies for voice, then decided that they worked better for violin and piano and rewrote them for another American tour in 1925.
The Sonata No.2 for Flute and Piano dates from wartime in 1942, when Prokofiev was busy writing scores for 2 Eisenstein films, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. He told a friend that composing such a frivolous work seemed “perhaps inappropriate at the moment, but pleasurable.” David Oistrakh heard the piece and asked Prokofiev to transcribe it for violin and piano.
Maxim Vengerov is eloquent about the special magic of live performance: “At the age of 5 I didn’t understand why, but when I played in front of an audience, I understood. It gave it [the music] purpose. I’m the lucky one that can bring it alive—and this is the greatest joy.”
Tuesday, November 14 8 p.m.
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Clara Schumann: Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op.22
Johannes Brahms: Scherzo from “F-A-E" Sonata
Robert Schumann: Violin Sonata No.3 in A minor
Sergei Prokofiev: Five Melodies, Op.35
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No.2 in D major, Op.94
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