What is a turning point? We might think about socio-political turning points like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the catch that sends your baseball team to the World Series. They can also be profoundly personal moments that change our lives. On the next broadcast by The Phoenix Symphony, Monday night at 7:00 p.m. on 89.5 Classical KBACH and DTV 8.5, we will explore musical turning points that had effects on the composer, the performer and even audiences. Our concert was recorded on March 11, 2023 and features guest conductor Xian Zhang and piano soloist Andrew von Oeyen.
Phoenix-based composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama was inspired to compose Primal Message, a work that examines our own collective evolution, when she read a 2017 New York Times Article “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us” by Steven Johnson. It questioned the messages that were sent into outer space, the figurative intergalactic “message in a bottle” from Earth to other potential lifeforms. What should we be putting in those communications? In a conversation she had with Virginia G. Piper Music Director Tito Muñoz, Ngwenyama wondered, “is there a way that we could communicate with E.T. so that we could somehow communicate not just our logical mathematical sense but somehow not just a like a math IQ but an emotional IQ so that we could extend our hands in greeting and somehow convey that this is a part of humanity too? That was really the beginning of writing Primal message.” What might a Primal Message sound like, a communication turning point to extraterrestrial beings?
The work was originally conceived for viola quintet in 2018, but arranged for string orchestra, harp, and percussion two years later. Musically it is welcoming, openhearted and exudes goodness. This version, which we’ll hear on the program, was premiered under the baton of our maestra, Xian Zhang in 2020.
Piano Concerto in A Major
From a contemporary work, we move to two classics of the canon: Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A major and Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 in B-flat minor. Grieg’s Piano Concerto is unique in that it is the only concerto he wrote for any instrument. He shied away from more formal classical forms like symphonies and tended to prefer works with more-contained forms.
The piano concerto was a professional turning point when Grieg found an advocate in Franz Liszt. The Hungarian composer sent Grieg a letter praising his Sonata for Violin and Piano. This led to a trip to Rome where the two met. Upon showing Liszt the Piano Concerto, the older composer sat down at the piano and sight read the entire work from an orchestral score. Liszt was so impressed with the finale that he repeated it. The moment ended with this advice from Liszt, “Keep steadily on; I tell you, you have the capability, or the capacity, for it, and—do not let them intimidate you”
In this concert, Andrew von Oeyen returns to The Phoenix Symphony for the first time in a decade for a spirited account of the Grieg Piano Concerto.
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major
Closing out the official part of the concert is a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major. The work premiered in 1945 and Prokofiev worked on it at the height of World War II. It’s interesting that Prokofiev is returning to the symphonic form fourteen years after he’d written his last symphony.
The political climate of the time was very much on his mind when he wrote this. He said shortly after the premiere, “I regard the Fifth Symphony as the culmination of a long period of my creative life,” he wrote shortly after its premiere. “I conceived of it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit … praising the free and happy man—his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.”
At atmosphere in the theater must have been electric at the premiere. Seating in the first few rows was the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter. He later recounted that:
“The premiere took place just as Soviet troupes were making their way toward Nazi Germany. The Great Hall was illuminated, no doubt, the same way it always was, but when Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this, something symbolic. It was as if all of us—including Prokofiev—had reached some kind of shared turning point.”
It must have been a magical moment at that premiere. Tune in on Monday night at 7:00 p.m. for a magical evening of music that might be a turning point for you as well. You can hear The Phoenix Symphony on on 89.5 Classical KBACH and DTV 8.5 with host Mike Bolton.
Featured in this episode:
Grieg - Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16 - The Phoenix Symphony; Xian Zhang, conductor; Andrew von Oeyen, piano
I. Allegro molto moderato
III. Allegro moderato molto e marcato
Gershwin - The Man I Love - Andrew von Oeyen, piano
Prokofiev - Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 - The Phoenix Symphony; Xian Zhang, conductor
II. Allegro moderato
IV. Allegro giocoso
Prokofiev - Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano & Orchestra, Op. 26 - Dmytro Choni, piano; The Phoenix Symphony; Matthew Kasper, conductor
I. Andante - Allegro
III. Allegro ma non troppo