Wagner, Liszt, Shostakovich

SATURDAY, SEPT. 15, 2018 AT 8 P.M.

Darko Butorac, conductor

George Li, piano

The season opens in the spirit of the new, with an exploration of three visionary and revolutionary composers. Wagner’s passionate musical rendition of Tristan and Isolde and Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 5 demonstrate the depths of emotion the orchestra can achieve. International Tchaikovsky Competition medalist George Li, joins the orchestra for a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.


Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and “Liebestod”

Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5


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George Li


Praised by the Washington Post for combining “staggering technical prowess, a sense of command, and depth of expression,” pianist George Li possesses brilliant virtuosity and effortless grace far beyond his years. He captured the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition and was the recipient of the 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Recital highlights include Carnegie Hall, Davies Hall in San Francisco, the Mariinsky Theatre, Munich’s Gasteig, the Louvre, Seoul Arts Center, Tokyo’s Asahi Hall and Musashino Hall, NCPA Beijing, Ravinia Festival, Lanaudiere Festival, Edinburgh Festival, and Montreux Festival.

George gave his first public performance at Boston’s Steinert Hall at the age of ten and in 2011, performed for President Obama at the White House in an evening honoring Chancellor Angela Merkel. Among George’s many prizes, he was the First Prize winner of the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and a recipient of the 2012 Gilmore Young Artist Award. George is currently in the Harvard University / New England Conservatory joint program, studying with Wha Kyung Byun.

George Li is an exclusive Warner Classics recording artist. His debut album, which was recorded live from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, was released in October 2017.


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Richard Wagner

Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner, 1813-1883

Few musical works had such a profound effect on the development of Western music in the late-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries as did Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Completed in 1859, it had to wait six years to find a sponsor for the production of this nearly five-hour extravaganza. It was not the length of the opera, however, that was groundbreaking, but rather the composer’s stretching the limits of the tonal language that had characterized Western music since the mid seventeenth century. The opening measures of the Prelude introduce a chord progression that was literally meant to be a musical representation of unfulfilled sexual tension and does not resolve until the final cadence, four hours later, when Tristan and Isolde are finally united in death.

With 20/20 hindsight, we know that by the late nineteenth century, composers were approaching the limits of traditional tonal harmony and were well on their way to discarding it altogether. But Wagner’s audience and colleagues lacked that perspective.

The legend that served as the basis for Wagner’s libretto dates from the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseult, but Wagner changed it significantly in his libretto. While in the original story the ingesting of a love potion brings about the forbidden and fatal attraction between Tristan and Iseult, in Wagner’s version the two are already smitten with each other before the action begins and the love potion might just as well have been water. Only their belief that it is a death potion allows them to indulge in their passion. The unresolved chord sets up the grand symbolic message of the opera that it is not in the satisfaction of carnal passion that provides release but only a “marriage” in death.

The Prelude plus Liebestod (love-death) is actually an instrumental mini-version of the opera, opening with the unresolved harmony,

which is resolved four hours later at the end of Isolde’s musical monologue as she sinks lifeless over the body of her lover.


Franz Liszt

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

Franz Liszt, 1811-1886

Franz Liszt was a man of paradoxes and extremes who could only have flourished in the Romantic period. He was both superficial showman and a contemplative artist, mystic and hedonist, genius and poseur, saint and sinner. He broke many a commandment and many a heart, exhibiting incredible flamboyance in his virtuoso piano performances before adoring audiences, yet longing for a life of religious asceticism. He fathered numerous illegitimate offspring but ended up taking minor orders in the Catholic Church with the right to the title Abbé Liszt. He witnessed first-hand the cultural and musical transformation of Europe but unfortunately never wrote his life’s memoirs, being “too busy living it.”

Like most of Liszt’s compositions, the Piano Concerto No.1 had a long gestation with the earliest sketches dating from 1830. Liszt completed it in 1849, only to revise it twice more before the publication in 1856. Liszt had a lifelong penchant for either creating innovative musical forms or breathing new life into classic ones. In listening to this well-known work, consider how different it is in form and musical development from the more classic mid-century concerti of Mendelssohn, Schumann or Brahms.

The concerto is played without a pause but still comprises four distinct movement, which are also linked thematically. It opens Allegro maestoso with a majestic theme, or motto, on the strings, from which Liszt derived all the other themes in the work. 

When once asked about the meaning of this theme, Liszt sat down at the piano and sang to it: “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht” (None of you understands that), without any further elaboration. The piano enters almost at once with a series of bravura passages in octaves followed by a spectacular solo display. A second melody, a little waltz tune à la Chopin follows, 

but that is only a brief diversion. In many concertos, the soloist develops a special relationship with one of the orchestral instruments; here, it is the clarinet, which introduces another secondary theme. 

Piano and clarinet now reverse roles to complete it. 

After a return to the stormy motto and a bombastic cadence motive, 

the opening section fades into silence.

The second movement, marked Quasi adagio, opens with a dreamy melody on muted strings, which is taken up by the piano in a cantilena that has been compared to a Bellini aria. 

To reinforce the operatic association, Liszt marks certain passage for the piano as “Recitativo.”

This movement is almost completely turned over to a single musical idea, but near the conclusion Liszt introduces a new melody on the flute.

The witty third movement, Allegretto vivace, is the equivalent of a classical scherzo and introduces a delicate rhythm played on the triangle that raised the ire of the staid Viennese of the nineteenth century, especially that of the dean of music critics, the acerbic Eduard Hanslick, who called it derisively the “Triangle Concerto.”

A piano cadenza on the opening theme 

serves as a bridge to the fourth movement, Allegro marziale animato, in which the themes from the Adagio and Allegretto are combined ingeniously for a grand recapitulation. It begins with an energized transformation of the theme from the second movement,

 along with the little flute melody that had at the time seemed like an afterthought.

After a reprise of the “triangle” theme,

the movement concludes with cadence passage from the first movement. 


Dmitry Shostakovich

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1906-1975

Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often difficult to verify. What is clear is that the composer was a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare.

Shostakovich’s roller coaster ride from Soviet adulation to denunciation began in January 1936 when an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda severely criticizing his successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he would sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family.

Shostakovich’s response was to go in two directions. Because of his fame both at home and abroad, the government was willing to give him the chance to earn a living composing music for propaganda films and politically correct spectacles. To satisfy his own creative energy, he composed works “for the drawer.” Some of his greatest and most personal works did not see the light of day until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s attempt to rehabilitate himself as a serious artist in the eyes of the authorities after the Lady Macbeth debacle. How it did so is an example of how politicized art operates. The chromatic, dissonant Symphony was certainly not in line with the cultural commissars’ requirement for cheerful, uplifting music, and the wild audience enthusiasm at the 1937 premieres – both in Moscow and in Leningrad – made the Soviet bureaucracy suspicious. They were convinced that the enthusiastic reception had been organized by Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues; they grilled the conductors and musicians looking for evidence for a conspiracy. It took a special performance for the apparatchiks alone to finally convince them to give the Symphony the official seal of approval.

The Symphony opens with a broad theme,

a constant presence underlying a melancholy counter-theme in the upper strings. 

These two themes, already brooding at the outset, pass through a violent transformation during the course of the movement. They ultimately do battle with a new haunting melody also in the upper strings, a response to the harsh opening statement.

The composer slowly ratchets up the hushed tension, gradually adding other instruments, a calm before the storm. More than halfway through the movement, clouds appear on the horizon with the trombones blaring out the first string theme with an increase in tempo and dynamics until the shrieking violins introduce it as a violent march with full brass and snare drums.

The opening theme also reappears, transformed in ever more threatening terms. 

And then the storm suddenly passes. Solos based on the lyrical string theme, first in a duet for solo flute and horn, then the rest of the upper winds establish a tentative tranquility.

The movement concludes with a gentle glockenspiel solo.

The short Scherzo is a rhythmically lopsided waltz evoking everything from Viennese ballrooms to music boxes. The scherzo proper gradually evolves from a spiky unsingable introduction

into a more cohesive melody 

answered by outbursts from the brass.

The Trio includes gentle solos for violin, flute, clarinet and bassoon.

Each repeat features a different orchestration. The erratic shifts in dynamics suggest a kind of musical satire that emerged more overtly and with greater bitterness in the composer’s later works. According to Solomon Volkov in his controversial biography Testimony, the composer told him that the movement depicts the brutality of the regime. Given the Viennese overtones and the many lightly orchestrated pianissimo passages, it is one of those statements that raise more questions than answers.

The Largo is a somber outpouring that probably best reflects the composer’s mood during those terrible years – a gentle melody reminiscent of Bach. 

Melancholy solos for flute

and especially the oboe

punctuate the long lament. As in the first movement, the tension slowly builds, until it reaches a climax beginning with a xylophone and violin theme accompanied by a loud tremolo in the rest of the strings.

The remainder of the movement is a varied reprise of the opening, a gradual emotional cooling down, but ever somber. The solo harp closes the movement with a repeat of the oboe solo melody – but resolves its inherent tension.

The Finale is a military quick march, blaring in the approved “Socialist Realism” style. There are two principal themes, which both undergo significant transformations in mood, from strident militarism to pensive melancholy.

The moments of shrieking ostinato passages in the violins and rising chromaticism, as well as the somber middle section belie the triumphal themes.

It is as if Shostakovich is surveying his environment (symbolized by the two themes) at the beginning of the movement, grimly pondering it in the slow middle section

and, in the final measures, fatalistically accepting it.

Later, he put an unflattering interpretation on this movement, equating it with a forced march, the coerced and highly organized Soviet “spontaneous outpouring” in mass demonstrations.

For the following ten years Shostakovich was able to compose relatively undisturbed. But in 1948 the official axe fell again; it was only with Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent temporary cultural thaw that his music was heard again and his “good name” restored in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s periodic bending to the official Soviet will did not sit well with the academic serialist composers of the West, who denigrated his work until a parallel “cultural thaw” in the West relaxed the stranglehold of rigid atonal music.

Copyright ©Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018