On Saturday, September 28, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO) will inaugurate its new season with two masterpieces, set apart by 113 years. Mozart's exquisitely dark Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, will feature soloist Jon Kimura Parker, while Richard Strauss' expansive tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40 will be given what promises to be a special reading by Maestro Christopher Wilkins, spotlighting along the way solo violin, horns, trumpet and English horn, among others.
Mozart's beloved Piano Concerto No. 20, written in 1785, is especially memorable for its darkly brooding opening movement, cast in a somber minor key -- a first for a Mozart piano concerto. A foreboding theme for strings in the low register opens the piece, and it recurs throughout the movement, dwelling on the melancholy that characterizes it. Dynamics shift suddenly and are accentuated by timpani, giving way to the soloist, who comes in rather mysteriously, as if sitting back in introspection before joining in.
"One clue to the special quality of this concerto is that it was really loved by Beethoven," explains Parker in an introductory YouTube video . "He performed it and wrote cadenzas for both the first and last movements, which are often performed."
The concerto's dark tone is dramatically offset by the second movement, Romance. It opens with a lighthearted, almost childlike B-flat melody for the soloist. The serenity doesn't last long, though, when an obtrusively loud minor chord shoves the tonality aside to G minor (its relative key). Such dramatic gestures give character to the piece, anticipating the unrestrained subjectivity of the Romantic period that was to come.
The agitated d-minor finale rounds off the concerto. Its main theme works as a hinge throughout the movement, which is launched by a distinctive eight-note rising motif -- a Mannheim Rocket, or "arpeggiated figure that shoots up into the air," Parker explains. A flowery cadenza is included toward the end, followed by a final return of the ascending main theme and a coda that hints at some of the composer's opera buffa arias.
While Mozart's concerto derives its dramatic power and effect from clearly-defined structure, symmetry, and finely controlled soloist-orchestra interaction, Strauss' tone poem of 1898 indulges in splashy orchestration and a more loose sense of structure, although there are six continuous movements that tell the 'story.' A Hero's Life is the paragon of the 'tone poem' genre; the panoptic 45-minute opus for large orchestra is a semi autobiographical account of the composer. Or at least we know that now; Strauss was initially more modest about it, back in his day, and described the titular hero as a more general representation of heroism.
The inspiration for A Hero's Life, which Strauss depicts throughout the piece, covers much of what was occupying the composer's mind at the time: a self-referential grand theme for horns; Strauss' critics and detractors; his wife Pauline de Ahna; his own music of the past, which is quoted to or alluded to toward the end; and the composer's eventual peace, after his struggles.
The tone poem is led heavily by brass, which should keep Principal Horn Mark Fischer and the other talented brass players of the OPO on their toes, after their more subtle appearances in the Mozart concerto. The bold and ebullient theme that opens the piece returns after a long time, as if to announce the hero's return. A solo violin part throughout the score also defines the tone poem, providing a more intimate contrast to the large orchestral parts. The beautiful melodies represent Strauss' wife, among other things, and OPO Concertmaster Rimma Bergeron-Langlois will be a great fit for the part.
For the 'Battlefield' scene, Strauss sets a raucous percussion battery in triple time against a solo trumpet, painting the scene with raw orchestral forces, verging on dissonance. This section and the clamor that follows will be a particularly exciting moment to witness, one that is going to demand much of Wilkins. This will be one of the charismatic conductor's last appearances with the OPO, incidentally, as his contract with the OPO will not be renewed after the spring of 2014 -- all the more reason to mark this special performance on your calendar and be part of this artistic event in the heart of Orlando.
Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra - OPENING NIGHT
Saturday, September 28, 2013 | 8:30 pm
Christopher Wilkins, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano
- NELSON Savannah River Holiday
- MOZART Piano Concerto No. 20
- STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life)
Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre