While he and Maestro Tsung Yeh were rehearsing the sixth movement of his “Requiem for the Innocent” for its world premiere in 2010, composer Jorge Muñiz says, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra’s music director compared its rhythms to those found in hip-hop music.
The comment inspired Muñiz when he began to write his Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, which the SBSO premieres Saturday at the Morris Performing Arts Center as part of its final masterworks concert of the season, a “piano extravaganza,” as Yeh puts it, that features Alexander Toradze and students from his Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University South Bend’s Raclin School of the Arts as the guest soloists.
Subtitled “American Nights,” the concerto depicts nocturnal images of three American cities where the Spanish-born-and-raised Muñiz feels connected.
“Although you can’t label Jorge as Romantic because he’s 21st century, his piece is highly Romantic,” Yeh says. “The language he uses is quite post-Romantic in atmosphere. … Second, it’s heavily influenced by the pop culture. It’s ‘American Nights.’ ”
It begins with Chicago and its hip-hop scene.
“The idea was more than to reflect on the night but what people are doing at night,” Muñiz says. “For Chicago, I thought I would have a jam session in the street. As more and more musicians come, you have more instruments added until you have a full ensemble.”
The jam begins with a solo piano, performed Saturday by Ilia Ulianitsky.
“The rhythms become more and more complex as the night evolves,” Muñiz says. “That all leads up to when the piano plays the cadenza. Then the musicians and the jam session just fade away.”
From there, the concerto moves on to St. Joseph, where Muñiz, a professor in the Raclin School of the Arts, and his family like to spend time at the beach and in town during the summer.
“It is truly a nocturne,” Muñiz says about the second movement, which depicts St. Joseph under a full moon that illuminates the river as it flows into town and into Lake Michigan. “I wanted to do something respectful to Chopin. Although there are no quotes, I took what I consider the hallmarks of his style: very lyrical, almost operatic, very lush melodies, but also the rubato, which in my piece is all written out.”
The action then shifts to Miami, where a celebration is in full swing.
“It’s supposed to be a party with people listening to music and dancing,” Muñiz says. “It evolves to a salsa. Imagine a room where they’re playing
salsa, and in another room, they’re playing merengue. They start to combine, so there’s a point where the soloist is playing a merengue rhythm and the orchestra is playing a salsa.”
The rest of the program features Natasha Stojanovska performing Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstuck in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, J. 282, Opus 79; Ketevan Badridze performing the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 21; and Siwon Kim performing the first movement and Toradze performing the second and third movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Completed in 1821, Weber’s concerto, whose title means “Concert Piece,” Yeh says, was the first programmatic piano concerto.
“A noble lady sits alone in her tower while her knight husband is away at the Crusades,” he says, describing its story. “The second part, she has a vision of her husband lying wounded on the battlefield and wishes she could fly to his side, and the music gets faster. The third is sunshine. There’s a loud trumpet. Here comes her husband. The fourth is a presto, very fast, and she falls into her husband’s arms.”
It was a revolutionary break with the concerto’s traditional form, Yeh says, and Toradze says, it influenced both Mendelssohn and Liszt, who were both at the work’s premiere.
But, Toradze says, he hasn’t heard the piece performed since the 1970s, either on a concert program or at a competition.
“I don’t know why, but people shy away from this piece, probably because it’s tricky,” he says. “There are a lot of changes in tempo and quite a few cadenzas. They are shorter, but there are many passages where the piano is left alone. Then, of course, the jewel of the piano repertoire is anything Chopin wrote.”
But, Yeh says, Chopin does come in for some critical knocks from those who place a high value on structure and form even though the composer’s intent was to “show off” the pianist’s virtuosity, not the orchestra.
“Artistically speaking, Chopin’s Piano Concerto was never considered a model of composition because many critics think his orchestration is too weak,” he says. “It’s basically an orchestrated piano solo. … I think his forte is to emphasize the poetic details rather than the structure.”
Tchaikovsky intended for Nicolai Rubenstein to premiere his first piano concerto, but when the composer performed it for Rubenstein soon after completing it in January 1875, the pianist issued harsh criticisms of the piece and refused to play it.
“(Rubenstein) hated the piece when Tchaikovsky played it for him,” Toradze says. “He absolutely hated it. He said it was unplayable, unnecessarily difficult and had no ideas.”
The German pianist Hans von Bülow premiered it instead, in Boston, where the audience reacted enthusiastically to it. Eventually, Tchaikovsky revised it in 1879 and 1888, Rubenstein changed his opinion of the concerto and added it to his repertoire, and it has since become one of the most performed piano concertos and one of Tchaikovsky’s most performed works.
“It has, most importantly for me, it has this trademark of Tchaikovsky’s and most Russian music,” Toradze says, “this melancholy at the verge of depressiveness. … It has this dreamy melancholy, but it also has this folkish dancing music.”
It is, the pianist says, very challenging, too.
“You have to have the ability to produce big majestic chordal sounds,” he says, “as well as very tender, dreamy Romantic melancholic playing.”
Kim will perform the first movement, which opens with a parade-like theme that, breaking with convention, is never repeated. Two more themes develop in the movement.
“After a recapitulation of the first theme, but not the entrance, it comes to a huge, multidimensional cadenza because it has the first and second themes in a lyrical form and then in an extremely dramatic form,” Toradze says. “The peak of the first movement, if not the whole concerto, is this cadenza, which comes at about 14 minutes of the first movement. It concludes with a big bravura conclusion with octaves in the piano.”
Toradze will then take the stage for the second and third movements.
“The second movement is extremely lyrical,” he says. “The flute plays the theme, very dreamy. It is not a folk tune, but it has all the earthy elements of nature and the beauty of country life. … The timpani starts the third movement. Basically, it’s a dance. The third movement is all about dance rhythms.”