Season Finale: Beethoven’s First Symphony

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Andrew Norman

Gran Turismo

Rewind my life a bit and you might find a particular week in 2003 when I was researching the art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla for a term paper, watching my roommates play a car racing video game called Gran Turismo and thinking about the legacy of baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure for my next project. It didn’t take long before I felt the resonances between these different activities, and it was out of their unexpected convergence that this piece was born.

Gran Turismo is dedicated to the students of Robert Lipsett, who premiered the work at USC and have since performed it extensively. It is the recipient of the 2005 Leo Kaplan Prize from ASCAP.

Andrew Norman ©2005

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Johannes Brahms

Serenade No. 2

After the death of his mentor and champion Robert Schumann in 1856, Brahms did not publish any music for the next four years, and he performed only sporadically at the piano. While supporting himself by teaching and conducting, he labored over a piano concerto that he would dedicate to Clara Schumann, studied counterpoint and other musical styles of the past, and challenged himself to experiment in new forms. Each year from 1857 to 1859, he spent a few months conducting a choir and offering piano lessons in Detmold, Germany; it was there that he wrote two serenades, using as his guide the classical-era tradition of lighthearted music for evening gatherings. The Serenade No. 1 in D Major (1857-58) existed in a version for nine players, until Brahms expanded the scoring to chamber orchestra in 1860. The Serenade No. 2 in A Major (1858-59) also used less than a full orchestral complement, omitting violins.

The serenades were important laboratories for Brahms. Free of the gravitas of symphonies (a form that flummoxed him for decades) but extending beyond the small-scale comfort zone of solo piano music and songs (genres that dominated his early output), these fruitful trials in large-ensemble writing brought forward the full potential that Schumann had seen years earlier.

The Serenade No. 2 owes much of its personality to its instrumentation. Removing the violins clears more space for the transparent and breezy woodwind choir, and it also allows the violas to occupy wider sonic territory. The orchestration emphasizes the connection to the outdoor bands associated with Classical serenades, and much of the musical material has an antique patina, as in the simple chorale that begins the work.

Brahms’ reckoning with the past also fuels the three central movements. A tidy Scherzo opens into an unexpectedly broad and luminous Trio section; the somber, Baroque-tinged opening of the Adagio non troppo provides the raw material for a lush and haunting core; the Quasi menuetto balances naïve dance music (perhaps the measured steps of someone learning to dance) with a contrasting section that builds a halting melody. The Rondo finale has something of a hunting character in the style of Haydn, adding a piccolo to contribute extra brightness and shimmer.

Aaron Grad ©2017

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 1

Shortly after beginning a new job in Dusseldorf in 1850, Schumann spent two weeks drafting the score he originally titled Konzertstück, or “Concert Piece,” for cello and orchestra. He canceled a scheduled premiere in 1852, and then delayed its publication until 1854, relabeled as a Cello Concerto. This pioneering composition does contain the three typical movements of a concerto, but the original heading of Konzertstück captures Schumann’s desire to create a more integrated and continuous form, rather than a showy concerto full of virtuosity for its own sake. To that end, he dispensed with a hefty orchestral introduction, connected the three movements with linking material, and included orchestral accompaniment during a solo cadenza, among other departures from traditional concerto form.

Aaron Grad ©2019

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

Painter Giacomo Balla, Baroque string virtuosity and the video game Gran Turismo converged as seemingly disparate influences in Andrew Norman’s energetic Gran Turismo. Serenade No. 2 provided contrast to the Norman and showed Johannes Brahms in one of his first attempts at symphonic composition. Mozart and Haydn’s influence on Beethoven were put on full display with his First Symphony — a vital early work in his compositional development — to bring this program to a thrilling close.

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