October 1 - 2, 2016



Mozart, Divertimento, K. 131

Stravinsky, Danses Concertantes

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58


John O'Conor, Piano

“A pianist of unbounding sensitivity” (Gramophone), “He represents a vanishing tradition that favors inner expression and atmosphere over showmanship and bravura” (Chicago Tribune); “impeccable technique and musicality & it would be hard to imagine better performances”(Sunday Times London); “this artist has the kind of flawless touch that makes an audience gasp” (The Washington Post); exquisite playing” (The New York Times).
    Irish pianist Jon O’Conor has been gathering wonderful reviews for his masterly playing for over forty years. Having studied in his native Dublin, in Vienna with Dieter Weber and been tutored by the legendary Wilhelm Kempff, his unanimous First Prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973 opened the door to a career that has taken him all around the world.

He has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, l’Orchestra National de France, the NHK Orchestra in Japan and the Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, Dallas, Montreal and Detroit Symphonies in North America.  He has given concerts in many of the world’s most famous halls including Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington, the Wigmore Hall and South Bank Centre in London, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Dvorak Hall in Prague and the Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo.

O’Conor first gained widespread attention in the USA in 1986 with the release of his first volume of Beethoven Sonatas on the Telarc label.  He went on to record the complete Sonatas and these were issued as a box set in 1994.  CD Review  described O’Conor’s performances as “recordings of the highest caliber and Beethoven playing at its best.” O’Conor is Distinguished Artist in Residence, Professor of Music, and Chair of the Piano Division at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia.

Program Notes

Divertimento in D Major, K. 131
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
The Divertimento is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Music as “Amusement.  An 18th-century suite of movements of light, recreational music, sometimes for open-air performance, for a small number of players. Mozart wrote 25, calling them Divertimenti or sometimes serenades or cassations.” 

The prolific and gifted young composer completed the Divertimento in D Major when he was age 16, scoring the piece for flute, oboe, bassoon, four horns and strings. The piece consists of six rather brief movements, all characterized with charm, beauty and wit. 

The brisk first movement Allegro features the orchestra with brilliant virtuosic passages for solo flute, an important feature of the this work. In the second movement Adagio, strings perform with warmth, in a touching melodic section. The third movement, Menuetto, begins with strings that are soon followed with the horns, offering contrasting richness and sonority. Allegretto, the fourth movement, includes strings and flutes alternating in leading roles, punctuated with brief flute cadenzas. Horns are heard once again in the fifth movement, Menuetto, alternating with orchestra. Adagio, the sixth movement, again presents the horns in a flowing melodic passage. The virtuosic flute appears again in a fast section, which leads to the brilliant conclusion.  
Danses Concertantes
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Russian expatriate Igor Stravinsky lived a nomadic life. He left Russia in 1914, living in Switzerland (1914-1920), France (1920-1939), and finally the United States. In Russia, he studied for six years with Rimsky-Korsakov, met Diaghilev, impresario of the renowned Ballet Russe, and produced music noted for its Russian nationalism. The earliest works, heavily influenced by the romanticism of Rimsky and Glazunov, were not especially noteworthy. Soon to follow, however, were three blockbuster scores for Diaghilev’s ballet company: The Firebird (1909), Petrushka (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1911). These pieces changed the course of music in the twentieth century, eclipsing the roles Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy had established as leaders in the move from nineteenth-century Romanticism. Stravinsky’s astonishing and controversial music marked the beginning of his reign as one of the greatest composers of much of the twentieth century.   

In 1920, once again prompted by a commission from Diaghilev, Stravinsky wrote the score for Pulcinella, embarking on a major change of style. Leaving behind the exotic richness of expanded orchestration and nationalistic influence, he began a long, thirty-year period from 1920 to 1950 of neo-classicism, derived from earlier European classical traditions. Major pieces during this period include the Octet for Wind Instruments, Capriccio for piano and orchestra, the opera Oedipus Rex, the Symphony in C, and the Symphony in Three Movements. The important characteristics were now clarity in texture, line and form, with smaller instrumental groupings. 

Needless to say, this was all cloaked in a natty, twentieth-century approach, far removed from emotionalism and the well defined harmonic and melodic characteristics of Romantic-era precedents. These works were not easily accepted by the public, and in many cases, it took a number of years before they were recognized as masterpieces, much the same as what had happened with his earlier ballet score, The Rite of Spring (which had actually caused riots in the audience in the 1913 premiere performance). Stravinsky was well aware of this, and said, “ . . . being accustomed to the language of those (earlier) works, they are astonished to hear me speaking in another idiom. They cannot and will not follow me in the progress of my musical thought.”

The final stylistic period in Stravinsky’s career, begun in 1950, found him experimenting with atonal, serial compositions, which the intellectual community found stimulating and audiences heard with difficulty. Nonetheless, this was a composer firmly in the front rank of the avant-garde, leading the way to new musical elements, from those early days of ballet scores to the serial compositions of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Through it all, there is always evident Stravinsky’s personal, unique sound, never secondary to those forms and techniques he chose to work with.

The Danses Concertantes are orchestral dances in the concertante style, one which features various instruments in solo roles, a reflection of Stravinsky’s love of instrumental color. It was composed in 1942 as a concert piece, even though its five movements have titles related to the dance, and is scored for a small orchestra.  The first movement, “Marche - introduction,” displays the angular, quirky melodic style in the work. The remaining movements are titled “Pas d’action,”  “Thème varié,” “Pas de Deux,” and “Marche-conclusion.”

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The Piano Concerto No. 4 of Ludwig van Beethoven was completed in 1806 during an extremely rich, creative period for him that resulted in an outpouring of significant works, establishing his prominence in music history. Some examples among them are the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” Op. 55; the Symphony No. 4, Op. 60; the three “Razumovsky” string quartets, Op. 59; the “Appassionata” Piano Sonata, No. 23, Op. 57; the Violin Concerto, Op. 61 and his only opera, Fidelio, Op. 72.

Coincidental with this time of Beethoven’s remarkably expanding creative powers was the development of a new Viennese piano with an expanded keyboard, which provided a wider pitch range. The instrument was also of heavier construction, allowing the composer to play with more dynamic contrast. Constantly experimenting with these and other new developments, Beethoven was able to respond to his powerful creative impulses.

Beethoven himself was the soloist in this concerto’s first public performance, given in Vienna on December 22, 1808. It proved to be his final concerto performance as encroaching deafness ended his brilliant performing career. This was a concert that was remarkable in many ways. A critic said, “He played with astounding cleverness . . . and sang on this instrument with a profound melancholy that thrilled me.” The program consisted totally of Beethoven’s music, almost all new to the public. It included the Fourth Piano Concerto, Symphonies No. 5 and 6, the Choral Fantasia, four movements from the Mass in C and a soprano aria. The audience sat for four hours, all in freezing cold as the building’s heating system had broken down.   

Of the five Beethoven piano concertos, No. 4 is clearly the most lyrical and poetic.  The thematic material in his music, in general, is of a quality that lends itself to development in countless ways. One thinks of how he based the entire first movement of the Fifth Symphony on the familiar “fate knocks on the door” motif, which lends such drama to the powerful opening of that work. In the case of this concerto’s first movement, he draws upon the same well-known rhythmic pattern, three short notes and a long, but presents it in a different, tranquil character. Unexpectedly, not following the usual concerto scheme of the ritornello (orchestral presentation of the first movement’s themes), the soloist, unaccompanied, begins this concerto with a five-measure statement of the main theme, in hushed dynamics. This sublime phrase, answered with soft orchestral strings, establishes a mood of quiet beauty, repose and lyricism. The strings’ reply is also unusual; Beethoven’s harmonic excursion from the opening measures in G major to the remote B major response sends a subtle message that there are many such colorful harmonic changes to follow in this movement, adding to the poetry. 

The orchestra then continues with the ritornello, and sixty-eight bars later, the soloist finally re-enters, joining in the remaining traditional interplay between soloist and orchestra. Using wonderful transformations of themes, Beethoven presents a wide variety of contrasting dynamics and pianistic virtuosity. The movement that began so quietly is given a powerful conclusion. The second movement begins with a most fascinating juxtaposition – the orchestra’s stern, forte phrases in stark unison strings, and the soloist’s soft, pleading, beautifully harmonized phrases. As the dialogue continues, the orchestral role, still in unison strings, gradually becomes subdued and compliant, losing all its assertiveness. The piano, after declaring its dominance with a triumphant cadenza, then resumes its former quietness, accompanied now with harmonized strings in a lovely pianissimo ending. The role reversal in these exchanges has been described by Liszt and others as Orpheus (the piano) taming the Furies (the orchestra) with his music.

The finale begins immediately with a playful, rhythmic main theme set in a continuation of the soft dynamics just heard. The form of the movement is a rondo, and the recurring main theme is heard with intervening, surprising episodes in various contrasting treatments. Newly added trumpets and drums add to the energy and sparkle of the movement, which is given a triumphant conclusion.      
                                                                                                                                                               – Richard Wolter


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Greenwich High School Performing Arts Center

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