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A Jacobs Masterworks Concert

May 3, 4, 5
Copley Symphony Hall

Jahja Ling, conductor
Olga Kern, piano

Our first of three Jacobs Masterworks programs in May features Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Olga Kern performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's brash and youthful Piano Concerto No. 1. Music Director Jahja Ling opens the concert with American Charles Ives' visionary The Unanswered Question and concludes with Piotr Tchaikovsky's life-affirming Symphony No. 4.

IVES: The Unanswered Question
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# minor, Op. 1
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Note: Pre-concert "What's The Score" talk will be given this week by UCSD's Stanley Walens.


DIALOGUE WITH JAHJA! All Sunday May 5 concertgoers are invited to stay after the concert for a Q&A with music director Jahja Ling and pianist Olga Kern, moderated by Stanley Walens.


The Unanswered Question


Born October 20, 1874, Danbury, CT

Died May 19, 1954, New York City


            Ives led one of those double lives that seem quintessentially American. In his workday routine, he was a shrewd Yankee businessman (at the time of his retirement, Ives & Myrick was the largest insurance firm in the country), but the private Ives was a different person altogether: a visionary artist who created soundscapes never before imagined. And The Unanswered Question is one of his most original (and pleasing) creations.

            In the summer of 1906 the 32-year-old Ives was living in an apartment that looked out over Central Park and working for the Mutual Insurance Company. That summer he sketched two brief works that he at first regarded as companion-pieces, though he later separated them. One of these, scored for orchestra, would eventually become Central Park in the Dark, while the other, written for much smaller forces, would become The Unanswered Question. Ives sketched this music in 1906, but he was not in a hurry to finish it. He set the score aside for a quarter of a century, came back to it in the 1930s, revised it slightly and published it in 1940.

            The Unanswered Question is visionary music. Ives conceived it on three separate musical planes – this music is performed by three different groups of instruments that are separated physically, play entirely different music, and seem at first to have nothing to do with each other. The first is a body of strings, whose music is floating, serene, ethereal – their music proceeds as if unaware that anything else is happening onstage. There is next a solitary trumpet, which intones the same questioning phrase six times. And finally there is a quartet of flutes, who form the one active (or reactive) part of this music. The flutes seem to mull over the trumpet’s challenge, dispute among themselves and grow more agitated as they do. In this strange musical landscape the quartet of flutes shows us ourselves in ways that are provocative, amusing and sometimes uncomfortable.

            The Unanswered Question has become Ives’ most frequently-performed work. Somehow this gentle music – built on the intersection of three completely different musical worlds – touches a deeply responsive chord in audiences. Ives himself gave The Unanswered Question two subtitles – “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter” and “A Cosmic Landscape” – and in a note in the score he talked about his intentions in this music:

            The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silences of the Druids – Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for “The Invisible Answer,” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active, faster and louder through an animando to a con fuoco. This part need not be played in the exact time position indicated. It is played in somewhat of an impromptu way; if there be no conductor, one of the flute players may direct their playing. “The Fighting Answerers,” as the time goes on (and after a “secret conference,”) seem to realize a futility and begin to mock “The Question” – the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and “The Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”


Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1


Born April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod

Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills


            Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists who ever lived (his many recordings confirm this), and his talent was evident early; he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1891 at the age of 18 with the highest honors for his playing. But Rachmaninoff had already been seduced by the desire to compose, and he began to write music while still in his teens. During the summer of 1890, when he was 17, Rachmaninoff began work on a piano concerto at his family’s summer estate at Ivanovka. He returned the following summer to complete the concerto, and he was soloist when the conservatory orchestra performed the first movement on March 29, 1892. A few months later he composed the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, a piece whose popularity would haunt him the rest of his life. He was still only 19 years old.

            The First Piano Concerto was quickly published, but Rachmaninoff came to recognize problems in his youthful effort and resolved to revise it. That revision, however, had to wait a long time: Rachmaninoff did not get around to it until the fall of 1917. As the communist revolution tore apart the country outside the window of his Moscow apartment, Rachmaninoff – then 44 – completely restructured the final movement and revised the orchestration. To a friend he commented: “I have revised my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily...It is incredible how many stupid things I did at the age of 19. All composers do it.”

            The Piano Concerto No. 1, in classical concerto form, is unmistakably the work of Rachmaninoff: the big romantic tunes, the dramatic gestures and the extraordinarily difficult writing for piano were all there from the very beginning. The first instant of the opening Vivace sets the tone of this youthful concerto: a ringing brass fanfare introduces the solo piano, which spirals downward in a brief cadenza. The principal themes of this movement, both announced by the violins, are yearning and dark, and their progress is interrupted by brilliant passagework from the soloist. There are in fact several cadenzas in this first movement, though the long principal cadenza comes just before the Vivace coda that propels this movement to its firm close.

            Solo horn opens the Andante, and the strings’ dark entrance at first obscures the fact that this movement will be in D Major. Most of it belongs to the solo piano, with the orchestra becoming an equal partner only in the closing minutes. The concluding Allegro vivace returns to the manner of the opening movement. Another fanfare-figure opens this movement, and the pianist quickly answers: the orchestra’s passages are in 9/8 here, but the piano responds in phrases set in 12/8, and Rachmaninoff will alternate those two meters throughout. The virtuoso writing for soloist is interrupted by a calm central interlude, built on the violins’ big tune in E-flat Major. The opening material returns, and at the end – transposed into F-sharp Major – the music rushes to a knock-out close fully worthy of the eighteen-year-old virtuoso who wrote it.


Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36


Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk

Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg


            The Fourth Symphony dates from the most tumultuous period in Tchaikovsky’s difficult life, and its composition came from a moment of agony. When he began work on the symphony in May 1877, Tchaikovsky had for some years been tormented by the secret of his homosexuality, a secret he kept hidden from all but a few friends. As he worked on this score, one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory – a deranged young woman named Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova – declared her love for him. Knowing that such a prospect was hopeless, Tchaikovsky put her off as gently as he could, but she persisted, even threatening suicide at one point. As fate would have it, Tchaikovsky was also at work on his opera Eugene Onegin at this time and was composing the scene in the which the bachelor Onegin turns down the infatuated young Tatiana, to his eventual regret. Struck by the parallel with his own situation – and at some level longing for a “normal” life with a wife and children – Tchaikovsky did precisely the wrong thing for some very complex reasons: he agreed to Antonina’s proposal of marriage. His friends were horrified, but the composer pressed ahead and married Antonina on July 18, 1877. The marriage was an instant disaster. Tchaikovsky quickly abandoned his bride, tried to return, but fled again and made what we would today call a “suicide gesture.” He then retreated to St. Petersburg and collapsed into two days of unconsciousness. His doctors prescribed complete rest, a recommendation Tchaikovsky was only too happy to follow. He abandoned his teaching post in Moscow and fled to Western Europe, finding relief in the quiet of Clarens in Switzerland and San Remo in Italy. It was in San Remo – on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean and far from the chaos of his life in Moscow – that he completed the Fourth Symphony in January 1878.

            The Fourth Symphony has all of Tchaikovsky’s considerable virtues – great melodies, primary colors and soaring climaxes – and in this case they are fused with a superheated emotional content. The composer’s friends guessed, perhaps inevitably, that the symphony had a program, that it was “about” something, and Tchaikovsky offered several different explanations of the content of this dramatic music. To his friend Serge Taneyev, Tchaikovsky said that the model for his Fourth Symphony had been Beethoven’s Fifth, specifically in the way both symphonies are structured around a recurring motif, though perhaps also in the sense that the two symphonies begin in emotional turmoil and eventually win their way to release and triumph in the finale. For his patroness, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, who had supplied the money that enabled him to escape his marriage, Tchaikovsky prepared an elaborate program detailing what his symphony “meant.” One should inevitably be suspicious of such “explanations” (and Tchaikovsky himself later suppressed the program), but this account does offer some sense of what he believed had shaped the content of his music.

            The symphony opens with a powerful brass fanfare, which Tchaikovsky describes as “Fate, the inexorable power that hampers our search for happiness. This power hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, leaving us no option but to submit.” The principal subject of this movement, however, is a dark, stumbling waltz in 9/8 introduced by the violins: “The main theme of the Allegro describes feelings of depression and hopelessness. Would it not be better to forsake reality and lose oneself in dreams?” This long opening movement (it is nearly half the length of the entire symphony) has an unusual structure: Tchaikovsky builds it on three separate theme-groups which evolve through some unusual harmonic relationships. Like inescapable fate, the opening motto-theme returns at key points in this dramatic music, and it finally drives the movement to a furious close: “Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness.”

            After so turbulent a beginning opening, the two middle movements bring much-needed relief. The contrast is so sharp in fact that Taneyev complained that these were essentially ballet music made to serve as symphonic movements. Taneyev may have a point, but after that scalding first movement, the gentle character of the middle movements is welcome. The Andantino, in ternary-form, opens with a plaintive oboe solo and features a more animated middle section. Tchaikovsky described it: “Here is the melancholy feeling that overcomes us when we sit weary and alone at the end of the day. The book we pick up slips from our fingers, and a procession of memories passes in review...”

            The scherzo has deservedly become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular movements. It is a tour de force for strings (which play pizzicato throughout), with crisp interjections first from the woodwinds and then from brass. Tchaikovsky makes piquant contrast between these quite different sounds, combining all his forces only in the final moments of the movement. The composer notes: “There is no specific feeling or exact expression in the third movement. Here are only the capricious arabesques and indeterminate shapes that come into one’s mind with a little wine...”

            Out of the quiet close of the third movement, the finale explodes to life. The composer described this movement as “the picture of a folk holiday” and said, “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity.” Marked Allegro con fuoco, this movement simply alternates its volcanic opening sequence with a gentle little woodwind tune that is actually the Russian folktune “In the field there stood a birch tree.” At the climax, however, the fate-motto from the first movement suddenly bursts forth: “But hardly have we had a moment to enjoy this when Fate, relentless and untiring, makes his presence known.”

            Given the catastrophic events of his life during this music’s composition, Tchaikovsky may well have come to feel that Fate was inescapable, and the reappearance of the opening motto amid the high spirits of the finale represents the climax – both musically and emotionally – of the entire symphony. This spectre duly acknowledged, Tchaikovsky rips the symphony to a close guaranteed to set every heart in the hall racing at the same incandescent pace as his music.

-          Program notes by Eric Bromberger



Jahja Ling thought hard before discussing the Ives piece, finally describing it as “puzzling and very innovative, using strings as the basis for a chorale-like movement – and then the solo trumpet has a lovely musical line. I enjoy Ives. I played his second symphony during my first or second season here. I ought to do it again…” The choice of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 was our soloist Olga Kern’s. The Maestro described it as “a very youthful and romantic piece, and if anything by Rachmaninoff could be described as youthfully romantic, this has to be it.” As a complete contrast, he described the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony as anything but youthful. “It is absolutely masterful and mature. Like the Beethoven Fifth, it is his “fate symphony,” expressing the whole spectrum from pathos to triumph. The pizzicato third movement is brilliant, making the entire string section sound like the world’s largest balalaika…”

Robert Shaw programmed Ives’ The Unanswered Question for its first hearing in San Diego during the 1956 season. Murry Sidlin then championed this work, programming it for his own concerts on three occasions, the last and most recent in the season of 1992-93. The First Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto was played here for the first time under Arthur Fiedler during the summer season of 1972. Howard Wells was the pianist. The only other San Diego Symphony performance was during the 1980-81 season, when Peter Eros conducted. Michel Block was the soloist. The Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony has received more performances here than any other of the Russian master’s symphonies. First heard at these concerts in 1941 under the direction of Nicolai Sokoloff, this 20th presentation of the Fourth is the first since Jahja Ling led it during the 2005-06 season finale.

-          Melvin G. Goldzband, Symphony Archivist


OlgaKern by Christian SteinerNow recognized as one of her generation’s great pianists, Olga Kern’s career began one decade ago with her award-winning gold-medal performance at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001. Her second catapulting triumph came in New York City on May 4, 2004, with a highly acclaimed New York City recital debut at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. In an unprecedented turn of events, Olga gave a second recital eight days later in Isaac Stern Auditorium at the invitation of Carnegie Hall.

With her vivid stage presence, passionately confident musicianship and extraordinary technique, the striking young Russian pianist continues to captivate fans and critics alike.  In the 2012-13 season Olga will perform with the symphonies of Nashville, Pittsburgh, Detroit and San Diego and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.  She will also perform recital programs in Saint Louis, Dallas, Scottsdale and Thomasville, Georgia.

In the 2011-12 season Olga debuted with the Baltimore Symphony and the Sacramento Philharmonic, and returned to the Houston, Saint Louis, Colorado and Phoenix Symphonies and National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. In winter of 2012 Olga made an extensive recital tour of North America with the world renowned violinist Vladimir Spivakov, their first chamber music collaboration outside of Europe. 

In April 2011 the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and The Van Cliburn Foundation undertook a special co-presentation of Olga Kern in celebration of her tremendous success of the last ten years. Her 2010-11 season included opening week with the Colorado Symphony and closing week with the Detroit Symphony, as well as subscription weeks with Nashville, Saint Louis and Pittsburgh Symphonies. Also, she gave recitals at Longwood Gardens, Sanibel and Winter Park Music Festivals, Drake University and her debut at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall she performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for the composer’s 200th Anniversary Celebration.

Summer 2011 appearances included her debut at Aspen Music Festival (Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1), her long awaited return to the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) and recitals with La Jolla Music Society and Bear Valley Music Festival.

Recent seasons have seen her debuts with the New Jersey Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, a special event concert with famed soprano Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall, repeat engagements with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival and several recitals and master classes with the International Keyboard Institute in New York City.

Recent European appearances and debuts have included a tour of Austria and Switzerland with the Warsaw Philharmonic and Maestro Antoni Wit, a tour of Germany with the Czech Philharmonic and Maestro Zdenek Maçal, performances with the orchestras of Copenhagen and Lyon, and recitals in Milan, Hamburg and Luxembourg. She made her London debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 followed by her Proms debut in 2008. Ms. Kern made her South American debut with the Orquestra de São Paulo in 2008, as well as her debut with the Seoul Philharmonic.

Ms. Kern has performed in many of the world's most important venues, including the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Symphony Hall in Osaka, Salzburger Festspielhaus, La Scala in Milan, Tonhalle in Zurich and the Châtelet in Paris; she has appeared as soloist with the Bolshoi Theater, the Moscow Philharmonic, St. Petersburg Symphony, Russian National, China Symphony, Belgrade Philharmonic, La Scala Philharmonic, Torino Symphony and Cape Town Symphony Orchestras. She has also performed with the Kirov Orchestra under the direction of Valery Gergiev at the Kennedy Center.

Ms. Kern was born into a family of musicians with direct links to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and began studying piano at the age of five.  Winner of the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition when she was 17, she is a laureate of 11 international competitions and has toured throughout her native Russia, Europe and the United States, as well as in Japan, South Africa and South Korea.  The recipient of an honorary scholarship from the President of Russia in 1996, she is a member of Russia’s International Academy of Arts. She began her formal training with acclaimed teacher Evgeny Timakin at the Moscow Central School and continued with Professor Sergei Dorensky at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she was also a postgraduate student.  She also studied with Boris Petrushansky at the acclaimed Accademia Pianistica Incontri col Maestro in Imola, Italy. 

Ms. Kern’s complete discography is on Harmonia Mundi and includes recordings of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Christopher Seaman (2003), a Rachmaninoff recording of Corelli Variations and other transcriptions (2004), a recital disk with works by Rachmaninoff and Balakirev (2005), Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Warsaw Philharmonic and Antoni Wit (2006), Brahms Variations (2007) and a 2010 release of Chopin Piano Sonatas No. 2 and 3 (2010). She was also featured in the award-winning documentary about the 2001 Cliburn Competition, Playing on the Edge.

May 3 - May 5, 2013

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