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Learn more about our first concert of the season

Each week this month, we will be providing you with a chance to learn more about the pieces we will be playing at each concert of the season. First up is our fall concert!

Sat., Oct. 28, 2023, 7:00 p.m. - Franco Center, Lewiston

Sun., Oct. 29, 2023, 2:30 p.m. - Orion Performing Arts Center, Topsham

"Aspiration" (from Symphony No.1)

William Grant Still

A signature piece by the the most immediately successful African American classical composer in the first half of the twentieth century

William Grant Still wrote five symphonies, eight operas, several ballets, and many symphonic poems and suites, plus chamber music and choral works. He studied with modernist composer Edward Varèse, had a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934, won commissions from major American orchestras, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. 

His largely conservative and highly approachable concert music was less favored in the high-modernist period of the 1950s and 60s, but has been increasingly widely played since then. He was not the loudest of civil-rights activists, but all of his symphonies and much of his other music explicitly draw on and refer to African-American musical traditions and experiences. His symphonies all have titles; the First Symphony, from which this movement is drawn, is the "Afro-American Symphony," and the four movements are, in order, "Longing," "Sorrow," "Humor," and "Aspiration." 

The music, alternating as it does between darker and more joyful moods, shows the power of hope even as it acknowledges the depths from which it might arise.

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, aged nearly 22, he became known as a pianist, and particularly as an improviser, before his reputation as a composer was secured. Indeed, he was still studying, first with Haydn and then with Johann Georg Albrechstsberger, until 1795. He played almost entirely in noble households, as he had arrived in Vienna already with good connections among the local aristocrats. His first appearance for the larger public was at a charity concert in 1795, where he played a concerto, which may be either his first or his second, as they were written around the same time.

The first verified performance of today’s work was in 1800 at a concert Beethoven put on for his own benefit. He, of course, was the soloist, as he was for four of his five piano concertos; deafness prevented him from playing the fifth. The first movement shows off the pianist’s dexterity; it is very much in late-eighteenth century style, with clearly delineated phrases that often answer each other with complementary material, clear "paragraphs," and an overall sense of good cheer. The cadenza (the long passage close to the end for solo piano) is one of several that Beethoven wrote after the fact, and it gives us some sense of how he might have improvised in the concerts. The second movement is the one with the most continuity with later Beethoven: it communicates a kind of stillness and breadth through apparently simple melodies and long-breathed accompaniments. These link it with the slow movement of the last piano concerto and perhaps even with the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The last movement is a jolly romp, designed to bring the young Beethoven’s patrons to their feet in admiration.

Piano Concerto No.3

Ludwig van Beethoven

An early work by the beloved composers when he was just beginning to find his unique voice

featuring Anastasia Antonacos, Pianist

Symphony No.5

Dmitri Shostakovich

A stirring piece depicting the universal struggle to endure under invasion - particularly timely given current events in Ukraine

Written and first performed in 1937, this was a landmark work for Shostakovich. A year earlier, he had fallen from grace with Stalin, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having been condemned by the regime in the newspaper Pravda as "muddle instead of music." In response, Shostakovich entitled this symphony "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism" and it was received absolutely rapturously at its premiere. 

The work is indeed heroic in proportions (it's 45 minutes long) and manner; it moves from the austerity of the opening movement to the major-mode triumphalism of the last, thus following a similar pattern to that of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Shostakovich wrote that it embodied "all that he had thought and felt" since the devastating criticism in Pravda, a sentence that was clearly meant to be read on the surface as an acknowledgment of the rightness of the Stalinist criticism. But even during Soviet times, music critics and others read a different and more resistant "program" into the work—one in which, as Richard Taruskin writes, they wept, then "stood up and cheered, grateful for the pain."

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