John Storgårds, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 64, "Tempora mutantur" (1778)
Allegro con spirito
Menuet: Allegretto Presto
Piano Concerto (2018)
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Midnight Sun Variations (2019)
Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable" (1914)
Allegro— Poco allegretto— Poco adagio quasi andante— Allegro
By Tim Munro
Every era has its must-reads. For educated eighteenth century-ites, it was John Owen’s Epigrammata, a collection of short, clever sayings in Latin.
Here’s a sample quip, translated into English: “All things I thought I knew, but now confess: the more I know, I know, I know the less.”
Franz Joseph Haydn must have kept a copy on hand, because the title of his Symphony No. 64 likely references a John Owen–crafted epigram: “Times change, and we change with them. How so? Mankind gets worse with time.”
In this program, time changes, time ripples, time collapses. Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphony stretches our sense of passing time to breaking point, while Thomas Adès’ Piano Concerto gives musical time a good, rough shake. Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations is deeply, richly aware of changes in time: the turning of seasons, the turnings in our lives.
Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony does battle with his own times. In this symphony, humans scarred by trauma and trial emerge defiant. For Nielsen, times may change, but we can adapt and change with them.
Symphony No. 64, "Tempora mutantur"
Franz Joseph Haydn
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria
For most of his professional life, Franz Joseph Haydn had a steady job. He worked as music director for a powerful family in rural Austria. Such isolation might frustrate many artists, but he believed it enabled his unique, original voice.
Every nook of the Symphony No. 64 is filled with personality. The first movement hums, eager and wide-eyed: sometimes murmuring, sometimes bursting with joy. After a third movement with dirt on its country boots, the finale has a fiendish glint in its eye, cajoling and tickling listeners.
But what of the odd second movement? Take note of the symphony’s title, “times change.” Normally, Haydn’s musical sentences were short, with predictable full stops. Like these sentences. But in this slow movement, time blurs as we wait in vain for the end of musical sentences, surprised by silence…[pause for emphasis]…by unexpected turns, finding ourselves rootless, set adrift.
Haydn may have recycled parts of this symphony as incidental music for a production of Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, feeling his world out of balance, says, “The time is out of joint.” Did Haydn find his symphony well- matched for a story set in a period of political turbulence? Does “time out of joint” feel familiar to us today?
First performance: Unknown
First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, strings Approximate duration: 21 minutes
Born March 1, 1971, London, England
The kernel was a friendship. Composer Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein have been confidants and collaborators for almost a decade. “It’s a very dear, multi-threaded friendship,” Gerstein has said in an interview.
Having written several unconventional works for solo piano, Adès wanted to write “a traditional piano concerto.” He gave his concerto the hallmarks: three contrasted movements, each with jaw-dropping virtuosity required from the soloist.
Adès’ and Gerstein’s friendship is baked into the concerto. Gerstein is a musical omnivore, with a vast repertoire. Adès’ concerto plunges us in Gerstein’s brain, full of Gershwin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven. There are no direct quotations, but the music gives playful winks.
Adès’ music is volatile, capricious. One moment it threatens violence, another sings like a church choir. But its heart lies in the second movement’s lament. Chords rotate with gentle sorrow, build to hoarse fury, then ebb, and ebb, until they’re snuffed out.
The Piano Concerto makes massive demands on soloist and orchestra. Thick, ten-note chords, knotty canons, rhythmic complexity, odd bar- lengths, extreme highs and lows. “I can’t resist things being astonishing,” Adès has said, perhaps with a mischievous sparkle in his eye.
First performance: March 7, 2019, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Boston, Massachusetts, the composer conducting, with Kirill Gerstein as soloist
First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts
Instrumentation: solo piano, 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo and alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum with mounted cymbal, bass marimba, castanets, choke cymbal, cowbell, crash cymbal, glockenspiel, guiro, roto toms, sizzle cymbal, tam tam, tambourine, 4 tuned gongs, whip, wood block, xylophone), strings
Approximate duration: 22 minutes
Midnight Sun Variations
Born February 7, 1985, Rovaniemi, Finland
As long as she could remember, Outi Tarkiainen has expressed thoughts and feelings through music. Growing up in northern Finland, Tarkiainen learned to write music before she could write words. “Composing feels like building bridges between people,” she has said. “Music touches something deep inside us.”
Midnight Sun Variations unites two themes: nature and parenthood. The work captures the light of the arctic summer night in northern Finland, “when the sky reflects a spectrum of infinitely nuanced hues,” writes Tarkiainen, “when the tundra and dense forests are bathed in countless shades of light.”
Tarkiainen wrote the work as a new mother. “My first child was born as the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist, in a flash wiping away a whole season. Midnight Sun Variations is about the opening of a woman’s body to accommodate a new life, when the woman and the child within her part company.”
The music of Midnight Sun Variations feels primal, ancient. Notes drip like melted ice, chords redden the midnight sun, birds call across the tundra.
The earth moves under our feet, pulling us away from what we know. A radiance glows, warm but uncertain.
At one point in the score, Tarkiainen includes a quote from Robert Crottet’s collection of northern Finnish stories, Forests of the Moon: “In your country, dream and reality are so closely bound together that one cannot distinguish one from the other.”
First performance: August 4, 2019, by the BBC Philharmonic, in London, John Storgårds conducting
First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crotales with bow, cymbals, glass and shell wind chimes, glockenspiel, 2 gongs, marimba, suspended cymbal, tam tam, thunder sheet, tubular bells, vibraphone with bow, waterphone), harp, piano, celesta, strings
Approximate duration: 11 minutes
Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable"
Born June 9, 1865, Nørre Lyndelse, Denmark Died October 3, 1931, Copenhagen, Denmark
Carl Nielsen’s music is full of contradictions. It is life-affirming, defiant, playful, eccentric, songful. It is the work of a man of city and village, public and private, nationalist and cosmopolitan. Simple and complex.
Born in rural Denmark, Nielsen grew up poor. His young musical life was divided between playing in dance orchestras and military bands, reading string quartets, and studying J.S. Bach’s keyboard works. He moved to urban Copenhagen, but never gave up his deep roots.
Nielsen wrote his Fourth Symphony with his life in tatters. A collapsing marriage shook him to the core, World War I challenged his faith in humanity, and the end of a major conducting post left him anxious for his future.
Nielsen responded in music, with defiance. “Life is indomitable,” he wrote. “The struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns.”
For Nielsen, only music could express this struggle. Where other arts “only represent and write about life, music is life.” His Fourth Symphony would capture the energy of this life-force, or as he called it, “the inextinguishable.”
The Fourth Symphony has a traditional four-movement structure. The movements are played without a break. The first is tugged between violent attack and folk-life reprieve. The middle movements spotlight orchestral sections: in the second, winds play a sweet country dance; in the third, strings and timpani fly, Nielsen wrote, “like the eagle riding on the wind.”
Following a hurricane of strings, the finale bursts forth. Here, the orchestra seeks resolution, rest. Time and time again, it is rebuffed. Finally, two sets of timpani confront one another in an explicit evocation of a wartime battlefield. After such violence, is resolution possible?
First performance: February 1, 1916, in Copenhagen, the composer conducting
First SLSO performance: February 28, 1974, Jerzy Semkow conducting Most recent SLSO performance: September 14, 2014, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 36 minutes
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.