"A Journey Through the Senses" Program Guide
"A Journey Through the Senses" is a program designed to explore the expressive range of the piano. Created around a theme of romantic images and atmospheres, all of the pieces selected are from Romantic Era composers or beyond, which means that they are rich in harmony, melody and dynamic expression. Each piece ranges from three to ten minutes in duration, so there is a sense of ever-changing mood and character, as we (performer and audience member alike), move from one musical scene, or song, to the next.
Mussorgsky’s "Great Gate of Kiev" opens the first half of the program, which is an eclectic collection of short pieces by Russian composers. This dramatic and majestic piece is an excerpt from the epic work Pictures at an Exhibition, a series of short musical tableaux inspired by paintings from an art exhibition. While in its original context, the "Great Gate of Kiev" serves as the concluding scene, here we experience it as an opening – poetic symbolism of how a perceived ending is often actually a beginning. The tolling bells of Kiev in this concert mark the commencement of a journey as we pass through the grand gate to discover a world of varied and intriguing Russian scenes.
In Rachmaninov’s B-flat major prelude, Op. 23, no. 2, the sweeping left hand gestures and accompanying proclamatory, rhythmic melodic gestures invite us to imagine a vibrant and vigorous landscape of fearless exploration and unbridled optimism.
Our exhilarating foray into the domain of the passionate and extroverted B-flat prelude subsides into the mysterious and intriguing realm of Rachmaninov's g-sharp minor prelude, a work whose key is a rarely explored tonal color. Few pieces in the literature of the piano have been written in g-sharp minor, perhaps because it evokes such an unusual atmosphere. Against a backdrop of rapidly undulating right-hand accompaniment, a beguiling left-hand melody emerges while the tempo fluctuates between intense unrest and a slow, mystical rubato. One’s imagination can wander as it traverses the fascinating aural experience of this prelude and the subsequent colors and emotions that it evokes.
A whimsical flourish in the final measures of the g-sharp minor prelude leaves a thin veil of mystery that is ripped to shreds by the accentuated world of the Khatchaturian Toccata. A piece written in a manner that explores the technique of different touches on the piano, this is a work of relentless rhythmic motion, repetitive patterns, at times aggressive attack and chromaticism. What emotions rise to the surface when listening to the pulsating persistence of this toccata? Is there still beauty in the raw physicality of sound that is extrapolated from the instrument?
Not surprisingly, the Toccata ends in a mash-up of chordal dissonance. The lack of resolution is uncomfortable and unresolved. From this perturbing conclusion, we find tranquility in the ethereal Prelude in G-major, Op. 32, no. 5, and a more introspective side to Rachmaninov, a composer often equated with the bold and dramatic. A mirror image prelude to the g-sharp minor cousin heard shortly before, the G-major prelude's sustaining accompaniment figure is this time in the left hand, and the melody emanates from the upper register, clear and resounding. A lengthy, light trill brings the prelude to a satisfying close.
If the G-major prelude painted the image of an airy atmosphere inviting our thoughts and emotions to swirl through the sky, then the next piece brings us firmly back to the ground - an excerpt from Stravinsky’s famous Petruschka Ballet. Originally composed for orchestra and ballet, Chez Petrouchka is a movement from the Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, arranged for piano; this musical excerpt is designed for dramatic staging, its musical gestures directly correlating to physical choreography.
The opening commotion of sound represents a puppet, Petruchka, falling into his room after having been kicked out of the previous scene by the magician who created him. Each musical phrase represents a specific emotion or movement. First, the anger and frustration that Petruchka feels toward his master magician. Then the love he feels for the ballerina who has her eyes set on the Moor. And finally, the impressive, acrobatic dance he performs in an attempt to win her affection. All of these arise from the harmonies, rhythms, and pacing in the music. The chordal dissonance (resulting from the juxtaposition of two contrasting chords, known as the Petruchka chord) represents the clashing emotions felt by the puppet in his emotionally fraught world and are heard throughout the scene. Envision a puppet at times forlorn and clumsy, at other times impassioned and adeptly facile, whirling about onstage as he tells his story through music.
The concluding piece of the first half is the 13th and last of Rachmaninov’s second set of preludes, Op. 32. A regal, yet introspective opening theme of full and resonant chords linked by a recurring dotted rhythm subsides into a distant rumbling. A slow, steady bass pattern emerges, accented by ringing single notes in the upper register. The still atmosphere of the transitory middle section gradually accelerates into a continuously building chromatic matrix of sound. This prelude, which feels like a long-distance exercise in controlled passion, drives inevitably toward a climactic finish of tolling Russian bells that clamor triumphantly as the opening theme returns, amplified and magnified in an expansive, virtuosic finale that spans the full range of the keyboard.
The second half of the program is built around the concept of language (broadly speaking) and music. The first set of pieces is a selection from Mendelssohn’s eight volumes of Songs Without Words written for the piano. Composed in the early 1800s, each song is a brief lyrical poem, if you will, expressively designed to encapsulate a mood or image. In this varied smattering of five songs for piano, we begin with a vibrant and passionate opening announcement that is triumphant and rhythmic in character. This is followed by a Venetian boat song whose melody, accompanied by lulling waves, leads us to a poignant melancholic state. The third of the set is a slightly anxious and fluttery expression of unrest that gives way to intense outbursts and an accelerated ending, a contrast to the more contemplative fourth song of melodic beauty and simplicity. A lilting and upbeat ditty closes the set on a happy note as the piano rings arpeggios, giving voice to unspoken words of lightheartedness.
From Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, we transition into the profound world of Chopin, a composer often referred to as the poet of the piano whose works embody an unmistakable harmonic language of their own.
Chopin’s first ballade in g-minor, Op. 23, is a classic in the piano repertoire and an epic journey of beautiful tonal imagery and mystery. With no title or words, our minds are free to allow the music to paint for us an emotional landscape and adventure of our own narration. The repeating theme heard in the opening section recurs throughout the piece with dynamically contrasting sections catapulting us forward. The dance-like finale leads into a powerful swirl of cascading scales before closing decisively in the minor key with a sense of inexorable finality.
After such drama there is nowhere to go but to the calm and tranquil world of a Chopin Nocturne where long, melodic lines speak in singing tones. The extended trills and cascading scales of the c-sharp minor Nocturne, no. 20, published posthumously, serenade us into a wistful mood of nostalgia.
The heartfelt world of the Nocturne opens into rippling swirls of sound with the famous "Aeolian" Harp Etude in A-flat major, the first of his Op. 25 set of etudes. The persistent arpeggios and voiced upper notes mimic the language of the harp.
While we began with Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, we conclude with a Polonaise by Chopin that in its own right is another song without words. Later nicknamed the Polonaise “Heroic,” and eventually turned into a popular song with words by the title of Til the End of Time, this polonaise is representative of Chopin’s Polish heritage and based on the characteristic dotted polonaise rhythm. Its unforgettable melodic theme embodies heroism, strength of character and a poetic spirit of courage that takes us through a journey of lyricism, bravado and galloping horses.
~ Bridget Hough, D.M.A., pianist