Piano Powerhouse Concert Notes

Scenes from Heaven’s Little Faces

by John Penny (b. 1950)

Premiere of a new work made possible through the Minnesota Sinfonia’s New Works Program with support from McKnight Foundation

I was deeply affected by reports on the growing number of children that lose their lives each year through armed conflict, starvation, and other related tragic circumstances that children should never have to endure. I was moved to compose Scenes From Heaven’s Little Faces in memory of all children who are tragically taken from us. The scenes portrayed in this piece were conceived as my reaction to what I might observe if I were able to look in on these precious young souls as they arrive and reside in the plane of existence known as heaven. I returned to this process periodically for guidance while allowing Scenes From Heaven’s Little Faces to materialize. —John Penny

Violin Concerto #5 in G Major, K 219

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) 

I declare to you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name. —Franz Joseph Haydn to Leopold Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, and died in Vienna in 1791. He is best known as the boy genius who gave us hundreds of wonderful operas, symphonies, concertos, songs, etc. Thanks to the play Amadeus, and the movie that followed, he is often remembered as a prankster, a fun loving child who never grew up, and a genius who was just able to spin out one masterpiece after another. Life of course is never that simple, nor was his life the happy fairy tale one so often wants to assume. 

The young Mozart started music lessons at age three with his father Leopold, who in his own right was a well-known and respected violinist and teacher. By age five the young Wolfgang had progressed enough to begin public performing and composing. Soon thereafter, Leopold took both Wolfgang and his sister (who also was a talented musician) to Vienna to show them off. The boy’s reputation preceded them, and he was already called the “little magician.”  The child Wolfgang performed for the royal court and was a smash hit.  After the performance, he jumped into to the lap of the empress, and kissed her.  The court went wild, and according to a quote from the time,  “all the ladies lost their hearts to the little fellow.”  The children’s early childhood was filled with many successful trips, playing concerts, and meeting important leaders and musicians.  During these travels, the young Mozart continually studied and learned under the direction of his father.

Mozart’s life and career had many ups and downs. At times he was very popular and at other times, he was all but neglected. Like his popularity, his finances also had many fluctuations – sometimes he was wealthy, and at other times he was poor. In spite of the uncertainties, he was able to create more than 600 works, many of which remain popular in today’s repertoire. Included are 41 numbered symphonies, and 27 numbered piano concerti.

Mozart composed his five violin concertos during the span of April and December of 1774, when he was only 19 years of age. There seems to be some question as to whom they were composed for, most likely a violinist named Brunetti. As it turns out, there were several violinists named Brunetti, and one theory is that these concerti may have been written for Antonio Brunetti, who later became the concertmaster of the Salzburg opera. Given Mozart’s connection to the city and its opera, this seems to be a reasonable conjecture. However, there was another violinist name Gaetano Brunetti who was largely associated with Boccherini, but who also had dealings with Mozart, and, for whom Mozart did compose some music. So the questions remain unanswered. 

The fifth and the rest of the concerti are all scored for relatively small orchestra (2 oboes, 2 horns and strings), and technically are not the virtuosic tour de forces that one might expect from the young Mozart. In fact, the last three (the most famous and popular of the concertos) all end quietly – peacefully – and not with the grand rush of loud and exciting flourishes that would attract the shouts of bravos and standing ovations. For any other composer, this would surely be a disappointment. But for Mozart, this was simply another demonstration of his genius. —Jay Fishman

Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, opus 60

by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827)

A great deal has been written about Beethoven, his concertos and symphonies. He was of course one of the most innovative of all composers, and his use of the orchestra – the way he combined the instruments to create what became new sounds for his audiences, was a marvel. What is even more fascinating about these works is their general make-up.  If one analyses them, s/he finds mostly scales and arpeggios, and often some very simple motives.  Yet, from what one would think is non-descript materials, Beethoven fashioned some of the most exciting and dramatic music in the entire repertoire. 

Beethoven’s symphonies extended the boundaries of the “classical symphonic form” that were established by Haydn and Mozart.  His mastery and creative use of harmonies, orchestration and his sense of drama and timing (sudden softs, louds, driving rhythms, and clever use of accents), allowed him to compose some of the most enduring and beloved masterpieces in the entire orchestral repertoire. In fact many of the great composers who followed him would not compose more than nine symphonies, in homage to the nine that he created.

The Fourth Symphony had the misfortune of coming between two giants – the third symphony, the Eroica –which originally was to be dedicated to Napoleon, and the Fifth symphony, which up until that time was undoubtedly the most dramatic symphony ever written. The Fourth Symphony is often portrayed as having a “sunny” disposition, and it certainly did not have the dramatic gravitas of the third and fifth, and so it has not been the “powerhouse” as the afore-mentioned.  

Like all of Beethoven’s works, it does have some unusual moments, including the very beginning, which Leonard Bernstein describes as a 

mysterious introduction which hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys and so reluctant to settle down into its final B♭ major.

Accolades came from across the spectrum, and the following are but a few that were written by other famous composers: 

French composer, Hector Berlioz suggested that the second movement had to have been composed by the archangel Michael, and that 

it seems to elude analysis. Its form is so pure and the expression of its melody so angelic and of such irresistible tenderness that the prodigious art by which this perfection is attained disappears completely. From the very first bars we are overtaken by an emotion which, towards the close, becomes so overpowering in its intensity that only amongst the giants of poetic art can we find anything to compare with this sublime page of the giant of music.

Composer Robert Schumann, wrote that this Symphony was 

a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants,

Famous Beethoven scholar Alexander Thayer called it 

placid and serene — the most perfect in form of all the symphonies.

 As a stand-alone composition, the Fourth Symphony is a great piece of music, and in my opinion, had it been composed by any other “classical” composer, it would be considered that composer’s tour de force – his/her masterpiece. For Beethoven, it was just one of many. —Jay Fishman


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