October 20-21, 2023
Elim Chan, conductor
Ingrid Fliter, piano
Moondog (first SLSO performance)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37
Ingrid Fliter, piano
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56, “Scottish”
Andante moto – Allegro un poco agitato –
Vivace non troppo –
Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai
The four movements are played without pause
A live orchestral concert appeals to the eyes as well as the ears. From the interactions of the ensemble you see on the platform to the images a composer can conjure in your mind, it’s as much a visual experience as an aural one, and this program is framed by two particularly imaginative works—one a classic of the repertoire, the other brand new.
Receiving its St. Louis premiere this week is Moondog, by 34-year-old American composer Elizabeth Ogonek. Inspired by a beautiful meteorological phenomenon, this work has already attracted praise for its gorgeous, radiant colors and “dreamlike rhetoric.” We’re confident you, too, will find it evocative and beguiling in an almost cinematic way.
Equally evocative and beguiling is Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony.” It finds its composer in a “misty Scotch mood,” inspired by the Romantic ruins of Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. But, ever the perfectionist, Mendelssohn took well over a decade to bring this symphony to completion. The result cuts seamlessly between “scenes”—at times stormy, mysterious, sunny, dancelike, contemplative, brilliant, and noble. No wonder our conductor Elim Chan describes Mendelssohn as one of those composers who can make her smile and leave her feeling excited.
The central work in the program continues our cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with the Third Concerto. Soloist Ingrid Fliter is best known as a leading Chopin interpreter, but it was with this Beethoven concerto that she made her debut at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires when she was just 16 years old, and it continues to showcase the passion and brilliance of her style.
Born 1989, Anoka, Minnesota
When the moon is full, and the air is chill, look up—you may just see a moondog, or two. This atmospheric effect typically appears as a symmetrical pair of bright spots on either side of the moon and is caused by the refraction or bending of light by the hexagonal ice crystals found in clouds.
Elizabeth Ogonek’s Moondog is the third of a trio of orchestral works, all concerned with “looking up at the sky.” The first, Cloudline, was written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the second, Starling Variations, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In choosing the title for this third work, written for the San Francisco Symphony, she was seeking to evoke the “mysteriousness of nighttime,” together with a vision of sitting near a lake at night, watching the moon’s reflection in the water.
Ogonek thought of Moondog as a vocalise (a wordless song) for orchestra, which initially brings to mind Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Vocalise. But Ogonek’s self-professed “orchestral gods” are Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Jean Sibelius, and of these she feels a particular affinity with the French tradition of Debussy.
In interviews she describes herself as a “very visual composer” and her work as “cinematic, not in a ‘movie music’ kind of way, but visually evocative.” The visual inspiration for Moondog—the symmetry of the meteorological effect, with a pair of moondogs framing the moon—is reflected in a symmetrical structure. It’s a fresh take on what’s called ternary form (A–B–A'), but instead of the closing section simply repeating the opening material, these opening and closing sections mirror one another.
“It’s as if the piece flips on an axis,” says Ogonek. “I would call the A section extremely ‘textural,’ and it establishes the character of light bouncing off the water. Then comes the B section—very lyrical, perhaps like a lullaby,…in which the perspective shifts from the lake to the person sitting by the lake, lost in thought, ‘reflecting.’ Then the music folds itself inside out, so that in the concluding section, the A', all the harmonies are the negative harmonies of those we heard at the beginning.”
But what is most striking—and most often praised—about Ogonek’s music is her ear for orchestral colors. This is immediately apparent in Moondog, which begins with the violins and violas playing rapid harmonics (lightly touching the strings for a shimmering, flute-like tone) and whisper-quiet flutes and clarinets plunging into low trills that suggest the ethereal effects in Stravinsky’s Firebird. Individual brass lines emerge from the textures, which are sometimes blurred and hazy, sometimes more brilliant. The piano and harp come into their own in the central section—“a distant lullaby.” Listen, too, for the impressionistic use of the percussion section, which includes the melodic vibraphone alongside bells, gongs, and cymbals. The word at the top of the Moondog score says it all: “radiant.”
About the composer
Elizabeth Ogonek was born on the outskirts of Minneapolis but grew up in New York City, where she was introduced to music by her mother, an organist. After studying in the U.S., she completed a doctorate at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London in 2017. Her creative influences include her Guildhall teacher Julian Anderson, and composer Oliver Knussen, as well as early music, the natural world, ritual, and literature. Residencies with the Chicago and London symphony orchestras fostered her development as a composer for orchestra, which, she says, requires more spacious musical ideas than solo or chamber music. Since then, her music has been widely performed by orchestras throughout North America and in Europe and the U.K. Elizabeth Ogonek taught composition at Oberlin Conservatory (2015–2021) and is now Associate Professor of Composition at Cornell University.
Yvonne Frindle © 2023
First Performance: January 12, 2023, Elim Chan conducting the San Francisco Symphony
First SLSO Performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1st doubling alto flute, 2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, harp, percussion, piano, strings
Approximate duration: 8 minutes
Piano Concerto No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 1770 Bonn, Germany
Died 1827 Vienna, Austria
Beethoven began his career by mastering the compositional forms and procedures of his day. His early work shows the influence of Mozart and Joseph Haydn, the leading composers of the preceding generation. But shortly after 1800, Beethoven spoke of pursuing a “new path” in his music. In time he would do just that, achieving a dynamic expansion of virtually all aspects of his musical language: weightier sonorities, bolder gestures, more thorough development of thematic ideas, and a greatly enlarged palette of harmonic relationships. He would also bring something less technical but equally significant to his work: a heightened sense of musical drama.
As in politics, few revolutions in music happen suddenly and completely, and several years elapsed between Beethoven’s first mention of the “new path” and the full realization of what we now recognize as his “heroic” middle-period style, as represented by the Eroica Symphony. This period, which spanned the first few years of the 19th century, was hardly fallow. On the contrary, despite the loss of his hearing, Beethoven was composing energetically, and clearly moving towards larger, more potent means of expression. Each major work proved larger in scale than any 18th-century model, and their harmonic excursions were daring enough to bewilder some of Beethoven’s contemporaries.
One of the most important compositions of this time is his third piano concerto, long thought to have been completed in 1800, but most likely composed during the summer and fall of 1802, before its premiere on April 5, 1803.
In its formal outline, this work resembles the Classical-period models the composer followed so closely in his first two piano concertos. The opening movement, for instance, begins with an orchestral exposition of the themes, as Mozart or Haydn would have done, without resorting to the novel introductions by the soloist we find in Beethoven’s later piano concertos. Yet there are also unmistakable signs of the bold departures that would mark those succeeding works. The scale here is larger and the sonorities fuller than in any 18th-century concerto, including Beethoven’s previous efforts, and the development of the thematic material is accomplished with a thoroughness typical of the composer’s mature style.
The opening of the first movement introduces a drum-tap idea that gains in significance until it’s actually played by the kettle drums. The music unfolds under the pervasive influence of C minor, a key Beethoven associated with pathos and a sense of dramatic, even desperate, struggle. (Consider his most famous composition in that key, the turbulent Fifth Symphony.) Meanwhile, the principal theme fuses two dramatically opposed ideas: a brusque and ominous motif introduced by the strings, and a more lyrical and impassioned phrase presented by the woodwinds. The coexistence of such diverse and powerful elements, which occurs throughout the opening movement, accounts for much of the energy and dramatic tension Beethoven achieves here. [Soloist Ingrid Fliter plays Beethoven’s own cadenza in this movement.]
The slow second movement (Largo) is in the unexpected but traditionally “serene” key of E major. After the stormy outbursts of the first movement, its almost religious tranquility is all the more effective.
With the concluding Rondo, Beethoven returns to the key (C minor), but not to the dramatic crisis of the first movement. Rather, the opening theme sounds lively and somewhat alla turca. (Its rhythmic and tonal character is not unlike that of Mozart’s famous “Turkish rondo” from the Piano Sonata in A major, K.331.) Alternating with episodes of sunnier music, this melody develops with an inventive flair characteristic of Beethoven’s best music.
The Page Turner
Ignaz von Seyfried, a conductor and good friend of Beethoven’s, recounts the unnerving experience of turning pages for the composer in the premiere of the Third Piano Concerto:
Heaven help me! – it was easier said than done. I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs, wholly unintelligible to me, scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages and my scarcely concealable anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly…
Adapted from notes by Paul Schiavo © 2005 and Yvonne Frindle © 2023
First Performance: April 5, 1803, with the composer as soloist
First SLSO Performance: December 3, 1915, Max Zach conducting with Carl Friedberg as soloist
Most Recent SLSO performance: September 25, 2016, David Robertson conducting with Yefim Bronfman as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 38 minutes
Symphony No. 3, “Scottish”
For more than a decade, Felix Mendelssohn was haunted: by a castle, a ruined chapel, a melody. In 1829, the 20-year-old was touring Europe. After busy months in London, he took a walking tour in Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. He heard folksongs, painted the highland scenery, visited the famous Fingal’s Cave, and admired the Scottish national dress, with “long red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers and naked knees, and bagpipes in their hands.”
But one location fascinated him, haunted him, more than any other. Holyrood Palace had been the home of Mary Queen of Scots during her tumultuous reign in the 16th century. It was at Holyrood that a pregnant Mary watched as David Rizzio, her attendant and lover, was stabbed 56 times.
Mendelssohn also visited the ruins of the neighboring Holyrood Chapel (where, he believed, Mary had been crowned Queen of Scotland). “Everything there is ruined, decayed, and open to the clear sky.” A passionate and talented landscape painter, he found “the most music in pictures, ruins, and natural surroundings.” Visiting the chapel, he jotted down ten bars of music, writing, “I believe I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.” But then something odd happened: Mendelssohn set the work aside. At the time he breezily dismissed the decision, writing that he needed to turn away from his “misty Scotch mood.”
But Mendelssohn didn’t complete his symphony the following year. Or the year after that. In fact, it took him more than a decade to return to the work.
Mendelssohn was notoriously reluctant to assign explicit programs or narratives to his music, and when the symphony was finally completed and published, 14 years later, it appeared simply as his “Symphony No. 3”—“Scotch” was only ever a private reference.
Even so, it’s easy to imagine his inner landscape painter at play, especially in the gloomy introduction with its remarkable, darkened colors (horns, woodwinds without flutes and divided violas) conveying the original misty mood. This isn’t tourist-Scottish, though. The symphony is filled with an atmosphere of nostalgia and poetry, and it’s significant that Mendelssohn’s reaction to Holyrood was as much about historical events as it was about the picturesque bleakness of the scene.
The dusky tones of the opening become a feature. At times Mendelssohn seems to rub the orchestral sound with his thumb, as if smudging charcoal to capture the smear of grey clouds, the haze of distant hills. And yet, even when the sonorities are at their darkest, Mendelssohn’s trademark delicacy prevails.
Mendelssohn, restrained in life and art, often pushes at musical extremes. The first agitated music is played as quietly as possible. (He chides players to play softly not once but twice.) But with stabbing accents the music suddenly overwhelms, surging and cresting with the orchestra’s full force.
Musically, an almost cinematic sense of the epic is established via the seamless linking of the four movements—dissolving one into the other “without the usual long interruptions” that “murder the mood.” Mendelssohn also takes care to unify the music through the the presence of common themes. The rising interval of the very first notes, in particular, shows up in different guises throughout the symphony, establishing an innovative tightly knit structure.
The closest Mendelssohn comes to overtly “Scottish” music is the second movement, which is irresistibly dancelike with snapped rhythms and melodies based on five-note scales that suggest bagpipes and highland reels. This is an earthbound folk-scherzo rather than the fairy-scherzo style of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music or his Octet for strings. “The instruments speak here like real people,” wrote composer Robert Schumann in his review of the symphony.
The somber Adagio movement returns to the world of epic poetry with a dramatic recitation for the first violins that unfolds as a solemn romance-without-words.
When the final version of the symphony was published in 1843, Mendelssohn suggested “for the listener” that the finale be identified as “Allegro guerriero and Finale maestoso”: a warlike beginning, in other words, followed by a long, noble coda in the manner of a “men’s chorus.” In this last movement Mendelssohn recalls the poetry of the symphony’s beginning with, in Schumann’s words, “an evening mood corresponding to a beautiful morning.”
We’ll never know what kept Mendelssohn away from his “Scottish” symphony for so long. Was it the perfectionist’s self-imposed pressure of living up to the inspiration of such a fascinating landscape? Was it a simple lack of time for a composer who’d become one of Europe’s busiest and most influential music directors? Or was it simply a desire for distance, a need to let the qualities of this amazing place grow and shape in his head?
Adapted from notes by Tim Munro © 2019 and Yvonne Frindle © 2023
First Performance: March 3, 1842, in Leipzig, Mendelssohn conducting
First SLSO Performance: December 6, 1912, Max Zach conducting
Most Recent SLSO performance: February 2, 2019, Matthias Pintscher conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 42 minutes
Elim Chan conducts an unusually wide-ranging repertoire, extending from the Classical period to the present day. At the same time, her conducting style has been described as embodying the principle that less is more. “Like Fritz Reiner or Bernard Haitink,” wrote the Boston Classical Review, “she’s not overly demonstrative on the podium. But her beat is clear, gestures economical, and cues precise. Also, she has an exceptionally sensitive ear.”
Elim Chan was guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (2018–2023), and has been chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra since 2019. Highlights of 2023–24, her final season as chief conductor, will include Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and concerts with soloists Sol Gabetta and Midori. Earlier this year, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León announced a three-year Associate Conductor collaboration, focusing on Stravinsky’s ballets.
This season she will make debuts with the Salzburg Festival, Orchestre de Paris, Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatskapelle Dresden, and in North America with the New York Philharmonic, Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, Minnesota Orchestra, and Seattle Symphony. In Europe, she will also collaborate with the Danish National Orchestra and several German radio orchestras. Re-invitations this season will take her to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oslo Philharmonic, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, as well as returning to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In January she made her San Francisco Symphony debut in concerts that included the premiere of Ogonek’s Moondog.
A native of Hong Kong, Elim Chan studied at Smith College, Northampton (MA), and at the University of Michigan. In 2014 she was the first woman to win the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, enabling her to spend the 2015–16 season as assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. The following season she joined the Dudamel Fellowship program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also owes much to the support and encouragement of Bernard Haitink, whose masterclasses she attended in Lucerne in 2015.
Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter has won the admiration and hearts of audiences around the world for her passionate yet thoughtful and sensitive music-making, and for her effortless technique. In 2006 she won the Gilmore Artist Award—one of only a handful of pianists and the only woman to have received this honor—and made her American orchestral debut just days later with the Atlanta Symphony.
Since then she has appeared with most of the major North American orchestras, including the SLSO, to which she is making a welcome return following recent performances of the Schumann piano concerto. She has also appeared in many of the leading summer festivals, and is equally busy as a recitalist, performing in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Detroit, as well as for the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth.
Internationally, she has given recitals in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Barcelona, Milan, Prague, Salzburg, Cologne, Stockholm, Sydney, and Tokyo, and recent orchestral engagements have included the Israel, Hong Kong, Monte Carlo, Osaka, Helsinki, and Royal Stockholm philharmonic orchestras; the Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in London; and the Danish Radio Symphony and Swedish Chamber orchestras.
She is known as a pre-eminent interpreter of Chopin’s music, and her recordings include both Chopin concertos, as well as the complete preludes and nocturnes. More recently she recorded an all-Beethoven album featuring the Appassionata and Pathétique sonatas, and her next project is an all-Schumann album.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1973, Ingrid Fliter began her piano studies in Argentina, making recital and concerto debuts as a teenager, before moving to Europe in 1992. There she studied in Freiburg (Vitaly Margulis), Rome (Carlos Bruno), and the Imola International Academy “Incontri col Maestro” in Italy (Franco Scala and Boris Petrushansky). Her accolades also include the Ferruccio Busoni Competition in Italy and the silver medal at the 2000 Frederic Chopin Competition in Warsaw. She has been teaching at the Imola Academy since 2015.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.