The Gilmore’s 2020-21 Season Snapshot
September 25, 2020
Written by Zaide Pixley, Ph.d., professor emerita, Kalamazoo College
In a season that looks both forward and backward, the abiding influence of Bach and Beethoven is unmistakably present, affecting their successors in many different ways, sometimes hidden, sometimes more overt. The 2020-2021 season encompasses three centuries of music, beginning in September with a Bach partita from 1726 and culminating in April with the premiere of Marc-Andre Hamelin’s Suite l’ancienne (commissioned by Gilmore Young Artist Rachel Kudo). It is a glorious combination of absolute classics with pieces little known and rarely heard, demonstrating the vast dimensions of the keyboard repertory and the enormous range of what the piano can do.
Bach, whose influence extended far beyond his death in 1750, fathered scores of musical children, many more than the twenty-two who lived in his home. We’ll hear a sampling of the riches of his work: the Vivaldian Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and four of his partitas and suites, collections of stylized dances. Among the many who took him as a model was Chopin, whose graceful waltzes and polished miniatures are reminiscent of Bach’s meticulous craftsmanship. Debussy draws on the movements of Bach’s suites in his Pour Le Piano, a celebration of the instrument itself, which begins with a meticulously crafted Prélude in the style of the improvisations that made Bach famous, and includes a Sarabande (a dance that was always part of his partitas and suites). Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, which features his transcendent (and ubiquitous) Claire de Lune, includes another Bachian Prélude, a Menuet and a Passepied. And Korean composer Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) circled back to Bach, dubbing her 2003 etude “Toccata” (a “touch piece,” meaning plenty of notes). We will hear one of Bach’s this season as well.
Beethoven, who cut his teeth on Bach’s forty-eight preludes and fugues, casts an equally long shadow. This season features seven of his sonatas (only appropriate in celebrating his 250th birthday): the ingenious Op. 10, No. 3; the beloved “Moonlight” and its companion in the same set; the seldom heard but brilliant Op. 54, which precedes a giant of the repertoire, the “Appassionata,” Op. 57 (and the chance to hear the “Appassionata “not once, but twice); the “Hammerklavier,” a late work that Beethoven told his publisher would keep pianists busy for the next fifty years (a considerable under-estimation); and one of his very last sonatas, the serene Op. 109. A master musical architect, Beethoven continually explored the possibilities of the rapidly developing piano, exploiting the highs and lows of its expanding keyboard, the quick dynamic changes, its variety of attack, the new effects pedaling could provide, and especially the resonant sonorities and rumblings of the instrument.
Beethoven’s shadow was inescapable. Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy all felt it. Chopin wrote only two sonatas, as compared to Beethoven’s thirty-two. Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata, among the most important of the nineteenth century, fully demonstrates how he reacted to–and against—Beethoven’s monumental legacy. Yet Beethoven’s growing nationalism bore fruit in Chopin’s heroic Polonaise-Fantasie. “More Polish than Poland,” George Sand called him. Beethoven’s ability to respond to events around him with great emotional power is echoed in Liszt ‘s Funérailles (“October 1849”) set the bar high for virtuosity and intensity of expression written in response to Chopin’s death and the failed Hungarian revolution, at the height of Romantic ardor. Brahms, labelled a “Beethovener” at the beginning of his career, was expected to continue his legacy of compelling, architecturally masterful works. Brahms was so intimidated that he didn’t write his first symphony until he was forty. Instead he focused on less threatening genres, composing his third piano sonata, Op. 5, when he was only twenty. Finally, in Estampes (“Prints” or “Engravings”), Debussy’s loving response to the Impressionist painting flowering around him, we hear echoes of Beethoven’s resonant sonorities.
Looking Forward, Looking Back
The spirit of Debussy is not far away in the revolutionary music of organist and ornithologist Oliver Messaien. “The Woodlark” and “The Tawny Owl,” from his monumental Catalogue d’oiseaux, although based on the composer’s field transcriptions, are far from simple nature pictures, but instead ruminations on these birds’ nocturnal songs and calls. As in the music of Debussy, the sheer beauty of the sounds–what Messiaen called “rainbow colors”– disguises a radically new approach to harmony, rhythm, and formal structures. The music of his pupil, Karlheinz Stockhausen, is equally radical; his Klavierstücke IX sounds as new today as it did in 1956, written the very same year Messiaen started his Catalogue. The compositional principles of the two works could not be more contrasting–Messiaen’s based on bird song, Stockhausen’s on the Fibonnaci series–yet their emphasis on sound and timbre is the same. Stockhausen’s avantgarde music exerted a powerful influence on Györgi Ligeti, whose Musica Ricercata (1951-53), written before he fled Hungary for the West, demonstrates his own search for a new musical language. And in turn, Ligeti’s exacting compositional standards helped shape the work of his student Unsuk Chin.
Among the riches of this season are four pieces by Black composers, all embodying the power and beauty of African American classical music. From R. Nathaniel Dett, conductor, teacher, pianist, and the first African American to get a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin, “Magnolias,” an early work that reveals the influence of Dvorak, who urged American composers to use their own vernacular musical language as the basis of their music. From Dett’s near contemporary, Florence Price, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, friend of Langston Hughes, and a prolific composer, a lyrical Meditation that provides a tantalizing glimpse of her larger body of work, much of it only recently discovered. From George Walker, a superb pianist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and another Oberlin graduate, a beautifully crafted, angular yet melodic one-movement sonata. From H. Leslie Adams, the third of our Oberlin-ites, a hauntingly beautiful A-flat minor etude, from a set of twenty-six, each exploring a particular key and character and giving the romantic music of the nineteenth century a new twist.
Marc-Andre Hamelin’s Suite l’ancienne, performed by Rachel Kudo
Bach’s Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and four of his partitas and suites, performed by Angela Hewitt, Avery Gagliano, and Mackenzie Melemed
Debussy’s Pour Le Piano, performed by Chaeyoung Park
Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, performed by Yefim Bronfman
Unsuk Chin’s “Toccata”, performed by Chaeyoung Park
Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 3, performed by Yefim Bronfman
Beethoven’s Op. 27, No. 1, performed by Avery Gagliano
Beethoven’s Op. 27, No. 2, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Beethoven’s Op. 54, performed by Mackenzie Melemed
Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” Op. 57, performed by both Pierre-Laurent Aimard Yefim Bronfman
Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier,” performed by Dominic Cheli
Beethoven’s Op. 109, performed by Evren Ozel
Chopin’s B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35 and Polonaise-Fantasie, both performed by Evren Ozel
Liszt ‘s Funérailles, performed by Mackenzie Melemed
Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, performed by Chaeyoung Park
Debussy’s Estampes, performed by Mackenzie Melemed
Messaien’s “The Woodlark” and “The Tawny Owl,” from his monumental Catalogue d’oiseaux, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, performed by Chaeyoung Park
Dett’s “Magnolias”, performed by Avery Gagliano
Price’s Meditation, performed by Mackenzie Melemed
Walker’s Piano Sonata No. 5, performed by Evren Ozel
H. Leslie Adams’s A-flat Minor Etude Book II, No. 2, performed by Dominic Cheli