≈ 2 hours · With intermission
Central to our continuing recording cycle of the Brahms and Schumann symphonies is the extraordinary figure who exerted such influence on (and held such fascination for) both of those men: Clara Schumann. Renowned across Europe for her skill as a piano soloist and improvisor, as a passionate champion of new music, and as a composer of note, her music will glue together our recording cycle, featuring today’s concerto as a crown jewel. I can think of no more perfect a pianist for this project than Gabriela Montero – a unique artist with an equally breathtaking array of gifts, talents and passions. And tonight’s performance shines a light not just on Clara Schumann, but also on her prodigiously talented contemporary Emilie Mayer. A feast of 19th-century Romantics. Enjoy!
I’m delighted to finally have Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in my repertoire. It is thanks to this project with Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra that I’ve come to play and love this piece. As a woman, I can sense the urge of the young and precocious Clara to want to express her intimate inner thoughts and feelings in a work that is deeply romantic and sensitive – sometimes unabashedly so, but never falling prey to banality or cliché.
As a composer myself, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that both Clara Schumann and I premiered our first concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus! I only wish Clara had lived at a time when she could have fully developed her gifts and not been constrained by the times she lived in. She certainly deserves to be rightfully acknowledged as one of musical history’s great talents.
Last updated: December 30, 2019
This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Overture.
This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has performed Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor in full.
In 1975, Mario Bernardi was on the podium for the NAC Orchestra’s first interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. The Orchestra’s most recent performance of this work took place in 2016, with Alexander Shelley conducting.
II. Scherzo: Sehr mässig
III. Nicht schnell
In early September 1850, Robert and Clara Schumann moved to Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland, so Robert (1810–1856) could take up his position as the music director of the orchestra and chorus of the Allgemeiner Musikverein. Not long after they arrived, they went to Cologne where they visited the city’s monumental Cathedral, which in 1850, about 600 years after the laying of its foundation, was being completed to its original Gothic design. It made a significant impression on Robert, and, as confirmed by Josef von Waiselewski, the violinist and concertmaster of Schumann’s orchestra, became a source of inspiration for his Third Symphony (the fourth he would write). Soon after returning to Düsseldorf, Robert set to work on it. A few months later, on February 6, 1851, he led the premiere at the Musikverein there to warm reception, successful enough to merit a repeat performance within a month.
Among Schumann’s orchestral works, the Third Symphony remains a favourite with audiences for its picturesque qualities, while also admired by academics and critics for Robert’s distinctive approach to symphonic structure and formal process. Its subtitle “Rhenish”, although not the composer’s, does point to the background inspiration that evidently shaped the pictorial aspects of the piece. At the same time, Schumann uses the recall and development of motivic elements to create a sense of coherence through the Symphony’s movements in a purely structural way that was hitherto unprecedented. It would significantly influence the “developing variation” technique that characterizes the symphonies Johannes Brahms wrote three decades later.
The five movements of the “Rhenish” unfold like a series of “sonic pictures”—or as music scholar John Daverio aptly puts it, like a group of paintings in a highly curated exhibition. Each contains dynamic content that is internally unified within the bounds of their “frame” and is connected to the others in the symphonic “gallery” more through motivic allusion than conveying a narrative progression. The opening movement seems to depict the start of a grand adventure—it launches immediately (without a slow introduction) into an exuberantly swinging theme propelled by energetic cross-rhythms. Woodwinds briefly introduce a graceful winding melody, with a touch of melancholy, but the energy dominates. Later, in the middle section, the winding theme develops more of a presence amid vigorous passages. The swinging tune soon returns but it’s not yet the real reprise. Building through a four-horn proclamation of the tune in a broadened version, the music peaks at the true recapitulation. The main themes proceed as before, and the movement, never lagging in energy, reaches a glorious finish.
Robert initially called the second movement “Morning on the Rhine”; the main melody possibly evokes the river’s flow, which is more like a gently lilting dance than a quicksilver scherzo. Then, a variation in sprightly figuration, after which a mellifluous new idea in the minor mode is presented by the horns, over quiet strings. Additional returns of the lilting theme (in a bright, bold guise) and the sinuous horn tune follow, leading to a full reprise of the scherzo.
A sense of flow continues into the third movement, which features three main elements that first appear in succession: 1) a singing clarinet melody whose leaping intervals allude to the symphony’s opening theme, accompanied by violas with undulating figures; 2) a tiptoe motif with sighing phrases played by violins and horns; and 3) a descending line of devotional character in the violas and bassoons. After the latter two are further developed, the clarinet melody returns, this time combined with the tiptoeing strings. In a neat act of summation, all three elements appear in the coda, which winds down on the tiptoe motif and sighs.
Before the finale, Schumann inserts a remarkable fourth movement. In November, amidst his work on this symphony, he returned with Clara to Cologne Cathedral to witness the elevation of Archbishop Johannes von Geissel to cardinal. His experience made its way into this movement, which he had originally titled “In the style of a solemn procession”, though he later replaced this with the word “feierlich” (“solemnly”). Bassoons, trombones, and horns intone a contrapuntal chorale, to which woodwinds and strings add their voices. As musicologist Michael Musgrave has described, “The form of the main part…does not as much suggest the drama of a service as the metaphor of a building: its developing sections and overtly contrapuntal working seem to suggest the creation of the successive levels and spans of a great physical structure”—indeed, like that of Cologne Cathedral itself.
Returning to lightness, the finale is an inventive summary of what came before. Several motifs—the extroverted first theme, the horn fanfare, and a rising arpeggio in the horns—all subtly reference those that have appeared in earlier movements: the slow movement’s tiptoe figure, the leaping first movement melody, and the scherzo’s first theme, respectively. In the recapitulation, a climactic brass fanfare recalls the ones in the fourth movement, after which the music picks up speed and rushes headlong to a joyous close.
Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the Orchestra performs a full series of subscription concerts at the National Arts Centre each season, featuring world-class artists such as James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009 - 2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
National and international tours have been a hallmark of the National Arts Centre Orchestra from the very beginning. The Orchestra has toured 95 times since its inauguration in 1969, visiting 120 cities in Canada, as well as 20 countries and 138 cities internationally. In recent years, the orchestra has undertaken performance and education tours across Canada, as well as the U.K. and China. In 2019, the Orchestra marked its 50th anniversary with a seven-city European tour that included performances and education events in England, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, and that showcased the work of six Canadian composers.
The NAC Orchestra has recorded many of the more than 80 new works commissioned since its inception, for radio and on over 40 commercial recordings. These include Angela Hewitt’s 2015 JUNO Award-winning album of Mozart Piano Concertos; the groundbreaking Life Reflected, which includes My Name is Amanda Todd by Jocelyn Morlock, winner of the 2018 JUNO for Classical Composition of the Year; and from the 2019 JUNO nominated New Worlds, Ana Sokolović’s Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes, 2019 JUNO Winner for Classical Composition of the Year.
The NAC Orchestra reaches a national and international audience through touring, recordings, and extensive educational outreach. The Orchestra performed on Parliament Hill for the 2019 Canada Day noon concert in a live broadcast for CBC Television.